What is Paris-Brest-Paris?
Paris-Brest-Paris is a 1,200km self-supported cycle that was first run in 1891, it is by most descriptions the oldest cycling event still in existence today. One of the early organisers, Henri Desgrange would go on to found the Tour de France
Every four years, in August, more than 7,000 cyclists from around the globe converge in the south-western outskirts of Paris with the aim of riding from there to Brest, on France’s north-western tip, and back, covering the 1,200km and 12,000+ meters of climbing in fewer than 90 hours.
To qualify for PBP, all riders must complete a Super Randonneur series of BRM/Audaxs (200, 300, 400, 600km) in the same year of the event.
Qualification & Preparation
My PBP journey began in earnest last year. In the year before a PBP event, you must complete an Audax event to pre-register. The longer the event, the earlier you can register and pick a start time that suits you best. Due to a variety of reasons I could only do a 400km but this was fine. I got to pick an evening start on the Sunday which I preferred as I wanted to cycle through the first night. One of the keys to a successful PBP is to aim for a long Monday and get as close as possible to Brest before your first sleep. This should buy you a lot of time and give you options for the return journey.
As was mentioned previously, you have to complete a Super Randoneer in order to qualify for PBP. This is a series of Audax events that must be completed between January and July of the event year. For my qualification, I went with:
- 200km. Gimme Shelter. Tough day in the wind with a bunch of local cyclists from Mayo
- 300km. 3 Rivers Audax. Rained for most of it and really cold. This was a proper mental challenge due to the conditions.
- 400km. Jimmys 3 County. Okay for the first 200km and then the rain came. More character-making stuff. I also did the Ring of Clare Audax as a bonus round.
- 600km. Coast to Coast Audax. Decent conditions although I suffered a bit with humidity. Once I got rid of some layers, all was good.
Also added into the mix was a 352km night cycle which was done a month before PBP. As with many of the qualifiers I hooked up with Padraig Marrey and Micheál Brady. Two hard men of the west. If you can survive a few spins with these guys, it will stand to you.
Another element of my training was to participate in a number of cycle sportifs. While up to 8000 cyclists end up on the PBP course, they start in waves. Each wave contains between 100-200 cyclists and so is very similar to a sportive. You also have similar dynamics with faster cyclists making their way towards the front and cyclists not comfortable in groups making their way to the rear. Cyclists will have varying levels of skills and group etiquette and you need to be able to spot the dangers. Crashes are common in the opening 50km of PBP. Participating in sportifs in the lead-up to PBP will help you get used to groups and find a level that you can maintain.
There is a huge amount of information out there about PBP, including this rambling blog post. I love data but you got to know when to put the filters up. For a day job, I am a product manager within a security software company. Product managers get inundated with data and requests, it’s part of the job. What you learn in time is when to stop gathering data and when to start making decisions. At times I felt PBP prep was like this, learn from those who have gone before but know when to back off and make decisions for yourself.
I arrived at the start location in Rambouillet a couple of days before the event. You need to do this rather than show up on the morning of the event, get there early and spend some time chilling out and having a bit of craic. I am lucky enough to have a campervan and I parked up next to Padraig Marreys camper and we created Mayo Corner. Much fun was had and we ate and drank well as you can see in the pic below. Hundreds of campervans and tents arrived from all over the world which made for quiet the sight.
My Personal Goals
PBP can be whatever you want it to be. A personal challenge, a race, beat your previous time, etc… Some folks get their mind in a knot trying to work out if it is a race or not. You can certainly go as fast as you can and work together in groups. Many will have support teams via campervans to cut down on time in controls. If this is your thing then go for it. The only negative reviews I have seen are from participants who wanted a race experience but got frustrated as it is not a level playing field with all the various ways cyclists get support. Ultra-cycling events are more suited for this type of need in my opinion, but hey, what do I know?
Personally, I like to take a self-supported approach and have some fun along the way. I think it is more aligned with the history of the event. We did not have campervans chasing us around 100 years ago.
Going into the event I had one main goal, complete the course in less than 90 hours. A personal achievement but also a team contribution to Audax Ireland. As a target, I aimed to be at the finish line at some point on Wednesday which would give me loads of spare time. If you are thinking about PBP, remember the challenge is to complete it, ideally in less than 90 hours. Don’t get too caught up with all the mind games about whether it is a race or not. Qualify, prepare, and do your own thing!
Bike & Equipment
My bike of choice for the long stuff is a VanNicholas Zephyr. Factory built and I added on aero bars plus a dynamo hub in the front wheel. The saddle is a Brooks C17 and for pedals, I use CrankBrothers Mallet E mountain bike variants. I prefer mountain bike cleats as they are easier on the feet when walking around. At one point I felt an unusual hot spot on my left foot and left knee was sore. I stopped and found the cleat had moved, quick fix but took knee a long time to settle. At one stage I was on the lookout for a pharmacy to see if I could get some magic pills to get rid of the pain. Never did find them but I pulled in at one point and rested plus did some stretches, this was enough to get me going again
Saddle was fine, but I had a lot of discomfort around the 500km mark. The temperature at times went over 30C which does not help when your rear end is hurting, not nice to sit down on a scalding hot saddle. This is a common long-distance issue, you just have to deal with it and the pain will reduce in time and eventually, you will find another sweat spot on the saddle that feels comfortable again.
What to carry is a topic in itself. Some like to go super light while others have full pannier setups. I went with a Tailfin rear bag plus their carbon fiber rack system. While there is a small weight penalty over saddle bags, I prefer the overall stability of the system. For a top tube bag, I went with a narrow Restrap bag which was fine for charging wires plus snacks. My knees come close to top tube when peddling so narrow bags are a must for me. Up front, I had my aero bars on 50mm risers and a Busch and Müller USB charger between the bars which I used to charge devices during the day.
I went through many versions of the pack list. Glad to say I used everything excluding the repair stuff. Thankfully I had no punctures or mechanicals. In addition to the stuff in the pic below, I made a last-minute decision to pack a small inflatable mattress. This was fantastic and I was so glad I had it. More on sleeping arrangements later.
I used a Garmin 1040 bike computer, a nice big screen. This can be important when your eyes get tired, you need big fonts with basic navigation information. For effort measurement, I used an HR chest strap. My Apple watch would never last the distance and I wanted HR as one of my metrics on the bike computer. I went with a super-conservative target of 120 -125 bpm, if I was in a group and working harder I backed off and waited for the next group. My aim was to finish and I did not want to overcook things.
My P2P did not get off to the best of starts. In the hours leading up to the start, I had checked the bike over and double-checked my pack list. About an hour before my start time, I made my way to the bike check and passed without any issues. That then led to the start line where I lined up with about 150 others. With about 30 minutes to go, I looked down and spotted that I did not have any water bottles, a big omission. I had an Audax Ireland buddy mind my bike while I dashed back to the campervan to get bottles. When I got there I realized that the keys were back with the bike. Thankfully Padraig Marreys better half, Mary Mulchrone was there and she sorted me out with bottles and energy tabs. Thank you, Mary, calm and organised during my mini-crisis. It would have been a big distraction heading off without bottles, I would have figured something out but not ideal. Lesson: Make a list of the essentials and double-check before you start.
After about 50km it got dark and I got to see the thousands of little red lights up the road. Everyone has to wear the official hi-vis top which adds to the light show. I use a dynamo for night cycling, you never have range issues and the road is always well-lit up. I stopped at the food stop approx 100km in and had a quick baguette and fizzy drink. One thing I was not going to do was to run out of food so took the opportunities as they came. Cycling through the night and into the morning got me past 300km, night was ideal for cycling as it was cool and dry. It did get a tad chilly between 4AM and 6AM and I had to pull on some arm warmers as temperatures dropped below 10C. Another interesting aspect of night cycling is that you only can see the bit of road that you are illuminating. This has its benefits in that you cannot see any upcoming hills and so you just keep peddling and moving forward. At night you cannot see your legs or pedals turning. For hours and hours, your legs do their thing and keep the chain wheels turning.
As I rolled through 400km and the control at Loudéac, I had plenty of pains and aches. The key thing on long-distance stuff is to address these issues before they get to a point where they could stop you. Taking a rest or moving hands and saddle position until new sweet spots were found. The aero bars were great for resting the hands and the 50mm risers meant that I was not putting my neck under too much strain and thus avoiding the dreaded Shermers Neck. Around 500km in I got really tired and started weaving a small bit. I remembered from the tips we were given that a 10-minute rest can turn you around. Just put your head down and set an alarm. It really is amazing the way your system can reboot itself, I only regret not having done this earlier.
The controls got really busy near Brest and I wasted a load of time faffing around, a regret in hindsight but you live and learn. If you can at all you should eat outside of the controls and only use them for the essentials, water refill, and Brevet card stamp. PBP is famous for exhausted cyclists and the mad places they pick to sleep. I tried three options for 2-hour rests.
- Found a shaded spot outdoors and lay on my inflatable camping mattress. Had a fantastic 2 hours of sleep and felt great after
- Picked a spot on the floor at a control. Again used my mattress and had a decent rest. A good option if weather conditions are poor.
- Queued up and got a cot bed thing. This was a disaster, wasted time queuing, and could not sleep with the noise and heat.
One thing I did not try which was recommended was to ask the locals along the way for suggestions. They are always willing to help. And that brings me to the locals, the thousands of them that line the route. Many will have little stalls where you can top up with water and sample tasty treats. Almost all are free, people just want to be part of Paris-Brest-Paris. This is what makes the event really special, the locals and the history. It may not be the most scenic as in coastlines and mountain ranges but it makes up for it with history and the warmth of the people. Something you just cannot manufacture or buy.
So far much of my content has been on the physical challenges. Determination and sheer willpower are almost as important, you need to be looking at the positives and forget about the negatives and doubts. A small example from my own experience was the halfway point. Some dreaded the return journey but I could not wait to start as the color of the direction signs changed. For the outbound leg, the arrows were an orange color and they changed to blue for the 600km back to Paris. I could not wait to turn around and see these and be past the halfway point. A small thing but a positive and the right mindset. I changed into my best cycling shorts in Brest and got the Audax Ireland jersey on for the push to Paris. Another positive, getting into clean new gear.
I had various aches and pains 400km from the finish but as I got closer to Paris I felt better as each km ticked by. For the last 100km, I had great legs and got involved with some ‘racing’ of sorts. Go hard up hills, lose people, up and overs. Good fun and something different near the end. Still needed to be careful, small villages in France are full of traffic control features and one wrong move could have been a disaster, whatever brainpower I had left kicked in and I made it through them without incident. As with most epic adventures, I could not but help feel a bit emotional as I crossed the finish line. Hugged my bike as it never missed a beat, not one single issue. Another great story to tell. Strava data here.
So is it a race or not? Not a road race in its true definition, it is a personal race against time and you do what you need to do. Stopping to talk to the locals and sampling their wares goes a long way to keeping the event as is. No point in speeding past everyone while you chase the wheel in front, you can do that any day of the week. PSP is more special as it only comes about every four years, you get the same kudos no matter what time you do it in. The full-value cyclists are respected more than the really fast guys. Stopping to talk to families and their children can sow the seeds for the next generation, they love hearing where cyclists are from.
Would I do it again? Well, I am not saying no but I have a couple of other challenges in mind before PBP 2027. The unique nature of this event and the great team spirit of Audax Ireland is addictive. Stay tuned…….