Paris ...et Normandie ...et Bretagne:
Every four years in late August, cyclists from around the world gear up for Paris - Brest - Paris, randonneur cycling's ultimate challenge. Riders are permitted 90 hours (of continuous riding, if they choose) to complete the undulating 1200 km route which runs from the Parisian suburb of Guyancourt, through scenic Normandy and Brittany, to the turnaround point in Brest at France's most westerly tip.
But it is not really the setting that makes PBP such a magnet - it is the history and now the extraordinary scale of the ride that accounts for its cachet. First run in 1891, PBP is older than the Tour de France, and continues to be regarded with a unique reverence by the French people.
In the early years PBP was open to professional racers, amateurs and cycling tourists alike, but by the mid 1950s it had become exclusively a randonneur event. For a small group of the elite (but now strictly amateur) randonneurs, PBP still feels like a race, and much prestige is accorded its first finisher. Three-time 'winner' American Scott Dickson has earned what passes for celebrity status in distance cycling circles.
Still, for the vast majority of participants, it is the experience of riding in, and hopefully finishing, PBP that is its allure. And a remarkable experience it is too. It would be hard to match the exhilaration of that first night - the whirr from the sea of bikes that surrounds you, and the sight of an endless string of red taillights stretching before you to the horizon as the world's longest peloton snakes its way through the French countryside. At 3:00 in the morning, in towns along the route, villagers are still out in front of their houses cheering you on: "Allez, Allez."
As the field stretches out over the next four days the complexion of the ride changes dramatically, but the French villagers are still there now offering water, coffee, cookies and sugar cubes. As your pain and the effects of sleep deprivation become more acute, the French at the roadside, who recognize the face of suffering on a bicycle, offer more somber encouragement: "Bon courage, bon courage."
Anyone can enter PBP provided a few qualifying criteria are met. PBP is open to the first 3500 riders who apply having completed (in the PBP year) the four rides which make up the basic randonneur series: 200, 300, 400, and 600 kms. Be warned though, that overcoming the difficulties in the qualifying rides is no guarantee of success at PBP. In recent years the attrition rate for riders has been between 16 and 21%.
This year  the entry number was stretched to 3600 starters, which included 25 riders from here in BC. Of the 25, there were 19 successful finishers, one injury abandon, and five riders who were eclipsed by the time limit. "It was those hills that got me, those incessant hills," remarked one of the other riders from Vancouver whom I ran into on my way back from Brest. As I loaned him a few francs for the train back to Paris, I didn't have the heart to tell him that the real hills don't start until Loudeac (444 Km), where he abandoned. [Update - BC finishers: 2003 = 31, 2007 = 31, 2011 = 35, 2015 = 34]
Paris - Brest - Paris is undoubtedly randonneur cycling's premiere event, but it is not the only event attracting international attention. Other rides include London - Edinburgh - London, and more locally the Cascade 1200 and the Rocky Mt. 1200.
© Copyright 1999, Eric Fergusson