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Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is an approximately 1200km randonnée bicycle ride held on an out-and-back course between Paris and Brest, France, every four years. Begun in 1891, it is the oldest bicycling event that is still regularly run. It was a race for professional cyclists in its early years, but is now intended to be a noncompetitive endurance challenge.

The event

As in all randonnée events, there is a strong emphasis on rider self-sufficiency during the event. Riders can stop to to buy supplies anywhere along the course, but pre-organized support is generally prohibited except at designated checkpoints. There is a ninety hour time limit for the event, and the clock runs continuously. Many riders sleep as little as possible during the event, sometimes catching a few minutes of sleep by the side of the road before continuing.

Cyclists participating in the event must first complete a series of brevets (randonneuring events) within the same calendar year as the PBP to qualify.

Whereas once PBP was contested by a few great professional athletes as a demonstration of the bicycle's potential, today the focus is on the ordinary or casual rider. However, PBP continues to attract highly competitive riders. Despite the event organizer's insistence that it isn't a race, PBP offers trophies and a certain degree of prestige to the first finishers in each division.


The first bicycle race

Bordeaux-Paris, at 572km, was first held in 1891 and was the first bicycle road race. Later that year, Pierre Giffard of Le Petit Journal staged the first edition of Paris-Brest et retour, as he called it. Despite several changes in format, PBP continues to this day as the oldest ongoing long-distance cycling road event.

In an era when the diamond safety frame and pneumatic tires were taking over from high-wheelers with solid rubber tires, Paris-Brest was conceived as an "epreuve," a test of the bicycle's reliability for long-distance transportation. Giffard promoted the event through a series of editorials, signed with the nom de plume of "Jean-sans-Terre." He wrote of self-sufficient riders carrying their own food and clothing. Riders would ride the same bicycle for the duration. Only French men were allowed to enter, and 207 participated.

The 1891 Paris-Brest saw dramatic racing action between Michelen's Charles Terront and Dunlop's Jiel-Laval. Terront ultimately prevailed, passing a Jiel-Laval as he slept during the third night to finish in 71 hours 22 minutes. Both riders had a number of flats that took as long as an hour to repair, but still enjoyed an obvious advantage over riders on solid tires. Ultimately, 99 of the 207 finished.

The race was a media coup for Le Petit Journal, bringing significant circulation increases. However, the logistics were daunting enough that organizers settled on a ten-year interval between editions.

During the years before the 1901 edition, several other road races began, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Vienne-Berlin (582km), Rennes-Brest, Spa-Bastogne-Liege, Geneve-Berne, Milano-Torino (530km), Paris-Besancon (430km), Lyon-Paris-Lyon, and Paris-Roubaix. But they were all minor league compared to Paris-Brest.

The professional race

The 1901 Paris-Brest was sponsored not only by Le Petit Journal, but also by L'Auto-Velo, edited by none other than Henri Desgrange. For the first time, professionals were segregated from the "touriste-routier" group (in which a 65-year-old would ride, finishing in just over 200 hours). The two sponsoring newspapers organized an efficient telegraph system to relay results to their Paris presses, and the public, entranced, followed the exploits of Maurice Garin, who won in just over 52 hours over 112 other professionals.

So many newspapers were sold, in fact, that Georges Lefebre at L'Auto-Velo was inspired to present the idea of an even bigger, grander race, the Tour de France, to his editor, Henri Desgrange. Under Desgrange's leadership, the first Tour happened two years later, in 1903, with stages so long that it more closely resembled PBP than the modern Tour.

The next Paris-Brest was held in 1911, and saw the emergence of pack riding techniques rather than solo breaks. Five riders stayed together until nearly the last control, with Emile Georget finally pulling away from attack instigator Ernest Paul to finish in 50 hours and 13 minutes.

The 1921 PBP, following close on World War I, was small, with only 43 professionals and 65 touriste-routiers. It was closely fought between Eugene Christophe and Lucien Mottiat, with Mottiat finally prevailing in 55 hours 7 minutes.

In 1931, the touriste-routier group was changed into two randonneur groups: the allure libre group, consisting of individuals riding by themselves, and the audax group consisting of groups of ten, riding together as a group but under the authority of a single leader who designated rest stops and gave all the orders. Both randonneur groups were limited to 90 hours for the first time. Jules Tranchant was the first randonneur to finish, in 68 hours 30 minutes. A woman recorded only as Mademoiselle Vassard became the first solo female finisher, in 93 hours 25 minutes. Four women on mixed tandems also finished in 1931.

File:Opperman Paris-Brest-Paris1931.jpg
Hubert Opperman after winning the 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris endurance race

The 1931 professional event saw victory by Australian cycling great Sir Hubert Opperman. Opperman broke nearly every record in cycling before retiring to become a prominent Australian politician. He took the race with a sprint on the finish velodrome after his long solo breakaway was neutralized just outside Paris. Opperman's finishing time was a record 49 hours 21 minutes, despite constant rain. His diet included 12 pounds of celery, which he thought to be an important energy source.

World War II postponed the 1941 PBP until 1948, when L'Equipe sponsored the event. Among the 52 pros to start, Albert Hendrickx proved strongest, winning in a sprint over fellow Belgian Francois Neuville.

Three years later, the 1951 event saw a new record time of 38 hours 55 minutes. This record is unlikely to fall. For one thing, this would be the last time PBP was raced by professionals. For another thing, "rustification" of the route, beginning around this time, brought rougher roads and many more hills to the course. Maurice Diot set this record. He won a sprint over breakaway companion Eduoard Muller after waiting for Muller to fix a puncture in Trappes, just 22 km from the finish.

Amateur event

Though listed on the professional calendar in 1956 and 1961, too few teams signed up to make the event happen. Nonetheless, the usual contingent of at least 100 randonneurs turned out for the usual ramble through Bretagne. And the randonneur division even featured the usual exciting racing, with René Herse-sponsored Roger Baumann winning over Espinasse and L'Heuillier in 52 hours 19 minutes.

PBP was held every five years between 1956 and 1975, with more and more participants riding and less and less media coverage. Former professional Hermann de Munck, an extremely short rider, got 5th in 66, first in 71, 75, 79 and 83. Actually, he was disqualified in 79, most believe unfairly. de Munck continues to place highly to this day, finishing the 1999 PBP in 109th place at the age of 60.

Simone Atie was the first woman to finish in 1971, at 79h38m. In 1975, Chantal de la Cruz and Nicole Chabriand lowered the winning women's time to just 57 hours. In 1979, Suzy de Carvalho finished in 57h02m.

American Scott Dickson began his glory years by placing third in 1979, though at just less than 49 hours he was four hours behind the winners. In 1983 he again came third, this time by only one hour. He won his first PBP in 1987 by breaking away in Brest, aided by a strong tailwind and a few strong riders from the "touring" group, which that year started many hours before the "racing" group. Dickson also won in 1991 and in 1995.

Susan Notorangelo set a women's record of 54 hours 40 minutes in 1983, but that record fell to American Melinda Lyon in 1999. Lyon accomplished her time without a support vehicle, a fact nowhere reported in the French or any other press.


  • McCray, Phil. 1989. "PBP — 1891 to 1991" Journal of the International Randonneurs
    • This source provided much of the historical background for this article.