Ride Report: Paris-Brest-Paris
One of the most famous rides in the world, I've often dreamt of riding
PBP over the years. When I first heard about it, over 5 years ago before
the 2015 edition, it sounded pretty crazy. Since then, I've done a number
of other long rides and the idea that I might be able to complete PBP
became more and more realistic. So, I set my sights on the 2019 edition
and managed to make it happen.
Unlike a lot of other rides I've done, PBP has a strict qualification
process. To qualify, riders must complete a brevet series consisting
of (at least) a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km ride. I say "at least"
because it is acceptable to substitute longer rides for any of these
if you want. For example, you could ride a 1000km to "count" for your
600km if you like.
Crucially, however, all these rides must be completed in the same
calendar year as PBP, before July 1, and they must all be official ACP
(Audax Club Parisien) rides, meaning they are officiated by a randonneuring
club that will send results to the ACP. You can't just go ride X00km
and upload it to Strava as proof :)
Beyond that, though, there's also a process called pre-registration,
whereby you can sign up for PBP earlier if you complete an official
ACP ride of at least 200km before October 31 of the year prior
to PBP (in my case, 2018).
All of this means that preparations for PBP start almost a year before
the ride for most people. This is definitely not a last-minute
thing. If you want to ride PBP, be prepared to spend a decent amount
of time figuring out the details of the qualification and registration
process and doing all the qualifying rides.
I was able to find some good resources to help de-mystify everything,
including the PBP_prep
mailing list and Eric Norris' excellent PBP tips videos.
I would have been lost without these, so huge thanks to everyone who
contributed to them!
I learned about the pre-registration process kind of late, but early
enough to at least ride a 400km (SFRandonneur's King Ridge 400km)
before the October 31, 2018 deadline. That was good enough to get me
into the third pre-registration group, opening on February 10, 2019.
I was elated to pre-register on February 10, and my qualification
rides all went pretty smoothly. I had a conflict for the SFR Healdsburg
300km, so I ended up doing a Santa Cruz 300km instead. The Healdsburg
300km was drenched in numerous downpours, so I dodged a bullet
with that one. The other qualifying rides were pretty uneventful,
though ironically I think the 200km was the hardest, because I rode
my heavy city bike (I can't remember why) and forgot my wallet, so I
was unable to buy any food or drink along the way. I ate what I had
with me and then kinda bonked heading back into the city.
Doing the qualification rides, I got a bit more familiar with the
"culture" of randonneuring, for lack of a better term. Over the
years I've learned that the cycling world has numerous sub-groups,
cults, cliques, or whatever you want to call them. Randonneurs are no
exception, and are a pretty interesting bunch. Unlike other cycling
cliques, I found the randonneurs a lot less uniform. You have younger
folks & older folks, faster folks & more relaxed folks, modern
& retro folks all doing the same rides, often with very different
goals. I find the retro aesthetic (someone in another PBP ride report
referred to it as "randonneur cosplaying") both cool and puzzling at
the same time. Personally, I wouldn't sign up to ride a heavy steel
bike with down-tube shifters 600km (or longer!), but to each their own.
I have the luxury of having a decent number of bikes (I think I'm
up to 7, but 3 of them live in Canada), so selecting the bike for
PBP was actually non-trivial. By far my favourite is my new Ti
road/gravel/whatever-you-want-to-call-it bike, since I find the Ti
comfy and it's really just a delight to ride. However, the wheels
I have for that bike are pretty much tubeless only. You can
use clinchers & tubes on them, but it's so difficult to mount
tires on them that you really don't want to be doing it at the side
of the road (as I learned, very painfully, on my last trip to PHX).
So, I had them setup tubeless, with Maxxis Refuse 32mm tires, and
hadn't had many problems with that setup. But I was still nervous
because if I do have a serious flat with the tubeless setup,
I know it's going to be a total disaster. It's so difficult to get
tubeless tire beads to "un-seat" on these wheels, I can barely do it
in my garage and can't imagine doing it on the side of the road with
Nevertheless, my experience so far with the tubeless setup was positive
enough that I decided to risk it. I would install brand new tires
before leaving SF, and made sure to have a tubeless repair kit (the
"slug" thingies) with me, hoping I wouldn't get flats so bad that
the slugs wouldn't work.
I actually flew to France about 18 days before PBP began. I signed up
to volunteer for a bike race at their checkpoint near Alpe d'Huez, so
after landing in Paris I took the TGV to Grenoble and rode from there
to le Bourg d'Oisans. This went OK, but before leaving I was really
worried about the logistics. I wanted to be able to carry my stuff
with me on my bike, which meant packing very light. I was also a bit
worried about navigating the French train system with a bike, since
different trains have different requirements. After some research,
I discovered that the train I wanted to take would require me to put
my bike in a housse, essentially a flimsy bag containing the
frame with both wheels off the bike, so that it would fit more easily
on the luggage racks in the train. I managed to find a bag that would
fit the bill online before I left and tested to ensure I could get
my bike and its wheels inside.
So, the morning after I landed in Paris, I dropped off my bulky bike
case (the one I used to take the bike on the plane) in the Google Paris
office (I would later receive a sternly-worded email about doing this)
and headed to Gare de Lyon to catch my train. I got my bike in the
housse and on the train, and had an otherwise uneventful trip
to Grenoble and on to le Bourg d'Oisans, where I met some friends,
did some riding, and did my volunteering. It's a stunning area,
and I'm glad I went, but I always felt a bit unsettled there.
My plan after volunteering was to ride the 600km back to Paris to an
AirBnB I had booked there, and this would be kind of a new experience
for me in the sense that my volunteering ended on a Monday afternoon,
and my AirBnB was booked starting on Wednesday, so I would need to
find places to sleep along the way (or ride straight through).
I won't devote too much time to describing the ride to Paris but here
are the highlights:
It was hot (especially on Tuesday, 37-38C during the day). Very few
shops were open, because it was August in France and apparently
when people say "everything's closed in France in August", they
mean it. My route wasn't great because I didn't have a lot of time
to plan it, so I ended up on a lot of dirt/gravel roads, which I
absolutely don't mind but they do slow you down. And finally on
Wednesday, as I was rolling through the Paris suburbs, I noticed
that my Tailfin rack was cracked
quite seriously. I rode very gingerly from that point on and made
it to my AirBnB, but I didn't know what I was going to do for PBP,
since I had planned to use a pannier to hold my battery, spare lights,
rain clothes and extra food.
The following weekend, I went to many bike shops in Paris (most of
which were closed, because it was August in France, but of course
you couldn't find out they were closed online) looking for a rack
that would fit my bike. Eventually I found one! It was super ugly,
but it worked. I would need Christine to bring me a different pannier
to work with it, but otherwise I could do PBP as originally planned.
In the meantime, Tailfin customer
support came through for me and shipped me a new rack in Paris! This
was really quite amazing given that they were officially out of stock
of everything on their website at the time. Chris and Marion kindly
picked it up for me the day before PBP, so I didn't need the ugly
rack after all.
Stuff gettin' real
PBP riders need to do a bicycle inspection the day before their start
time, and for me that was Saturday, August 17. Riders sign up for
an inspection time months in advance on the PBP website, but when I
showed up the times were clearly just "advisory".
In 2019, PBP started and ended in Rambouillet (yet another oddity
about PBP — it doesn't really start or end in Paris any more,
a nearby town serves as the official start/finish) and when I showed
up there for my bike inspection "appointment", it really wasn't clear
where to go. PBP takes over a huge area, which makes sense given
the scale of the ride, but there weren't many signs pointing towards
the bike checks. Eventually after riding around for a bit, I found a
huge line of people heading towards a tent, and figured that must be
it. The line was so long that it was clear nobody was really making
their assigned time, so I relaxed a bit and just chilled out while I
waited. Unfortunately, it was raining, so we were all getting a bit
damp. But I spotted Sourav after a few minutes and he said hi and
chatted for a bit, so that was nice. The inspection itself took all
of 2 minutes. The inspector made sure my brakes and lights worked,
and that was about it.
The day PBP started, I was able to sleep in until about 1130 or noon,
which was great because my start time (group C) was 1630. I was nervous
and still had some things to do, like putting my number plates on
my bike and helmet and packing my pannier. Christine cooked up some
gnocchi we bought a few nights before for lunch, so I could roll out
on a full (but not too full) stomach, and we made our way to
the start village in Rambouillet.
Again, it was kind of tricky to figure out exactly where I was supposed
to be. Riding around in the start village area, I came across somebody
who was talking about the different groups, and got his attention:
me: "pardon, monsieur — les Cs sont où?"
him (pointing): "donc, vous allez là-bas et ils seraient
à votre gauche"
Cool cool. Followed the guy's directions and found a group of folks
with C tags on their bikes, and got in line. The folks next to me
were some brits talking wistfully about how they didn't have time for
TCR this year so they were
"only" doing PBP, which was a bit intimidating.
Anyway, Christine, Chris and Marion eventually found me and were
able to wish me bonne route, and I saw Bryan Kilgore (aka BK)
briefly as well! He had made a last minute change from the C group
to the E group departure, so I didn't seem him again for a while
Eventually after waiting around for a while we started slowly
walking to the actual start gate, where we would get the first
stamp in our brevet cards before actually starting to roll. When
we finally started rolling it was pretty incredible to be in such
a large group on this kind of ride. Normally, when I do rides of
1000km or more, I'm on my own, since I don't know anybody else
stupid enough to do them. But here I was, my stupid self, with
6600 other stupid^Waccomplished cyclists, ready to tackle this
Somebody lost a bottle on the very first (cobbled) corner, but
thankfully it didn't take anyone down and the departure was
The first 10km or so were on beautiful streets surrounded by a
lovely forest. The rain from the previous day had stopped and
it was perfect riding weather. I felt good and really was just
revelling in the fact that there were so many people to ride
with, and holy shit, here we all were at PBP, in France, riding
like a freaking peloton!
Eventually the group strung out a bit. My plan on the outbound
was to stick with groups and try to save energy as much as possible,
knowing that the weather forecast was indicating a (mild) headwind
on the way out and a (mild) tailwind on the way back. I wanted to
make sure I didn't kill myself in the headwind on the way out, and
sticking with groups would be the best way to accomplish that.
On the way to the first checkpoint, which was not an official
contrôle (meaning there was no stamp), things got a bit hectic
at points. There was a group of Russian riders (at least all their
jerseys had Russian flags and cyrillic text on them, so assuming
they were Russian seems reasonable) who were riding pretty
aggressively, nudging elbows and so on. If they wanted to be all
aggro about it, I figured I would just let them go sit in the wind
and chill out behind them. Eventually the group I was in (including
the Russians and various other folks) bridged up to another group,
and things seemed to calm down a bit. Then we rolled in to the
first checkpoint, which was a total madhouse. I quickly bought
and chugged a Coke, ate some food and then waved my brevet card
at a volunteer who quickly said "pas de contrôle". Filled a
bottle and then hopped back on the road.
Next stop was at Villaine-la-Juhel, 217km from the start. I had
found a more relaxed group to ride with, and we were working
nicely together. We rolled in to the contrôle just 7h16m
after I had left the start, which for me was excellent. I rarely
ride a 200km in under 8 hours, and here we were at 217km in under
7.5 hours! The magic of teamwork. Grabbed some food, filled
bottles, bio break and back on the road.
Fougères was the next contrôle, at 306km. Rolled
in there around 0305 and don't remember staying long. It was a
nice milestone though, being a tad over 1/4 of the whole ride.
As it was definitely night at this point, I obviously had my
lights on, but someone complained about my rear light being too
distracting in the blinky mode. I switched it to solid, which
was less annoying for folks, but then it promptly died about
20 minutes later :( So I decided I would leave my rear light
off when riding in a group, and keep it in long-lasting blinky
mode when riding alone. That might technically be against the
rules, but it worked OK. The other thing I remember about this
first night is the group riding becoming a lot less co-operative.
A lot of folks would "coincidentally" pull off to the side to
blow their nose one or two turns before reaching the front, and
drop back. In a group of 10, only 3 or 4 people would be taking
pulls "for real". Still, it was a lot better than nothing.
Next up Tinténiac at 360km, around 0515. I remember grabbing
some food and a no-name brand cola here, and it was starting to get
light as well, which was nice. As I was getting ready to roll out,
I saw BK and Max there as well! This was pretty amazing, since they
started in group E about half an hour after me. I rolled out probably
a few minutes before them and then they caught up to me on the road
about half an hour later in a big group. I decided to try to stick
with their group for a while, though I knew that they were going
for a sub-50hr time and figured I probably wouldn't be up to that,
so at some point we would have to part ways. Still, it was nice to
have a good group for the time being.
I stuck with their group through to Carhaix at 520km, around noon. I
remember the terrain after Tinténiac getting considerably
hillier, and this obviously slowed things down a bit and made group
riding more challenging. At Carhaix, there were a few of us (maybe
5 or 6) who were ready to roll before the rest of the larger group,
so we decided to take off, and co-operated well all the way to Brest,
though that 90km stretch was challenging as it included a significant
climb and a decent headwind.
We rolled in to the Brest contrôle around 1555, and I was really
delighted to have ridden 610km in only 23h25m! When I rode my 600km
qualifying brevet, my time was 24h37m, though I did ride that almost
At Brest, Chris, Christine and Marion were waiting for me with a fresh
kit and lots of delicious food/drink, which I appreciated greatly. It's
hard to describe how happy these familiar faces and comforts made me;
it was really the highlight of the ride.
At this point, it probably makes sense to write a little bit about
Charly Miller. He
is apparently the first American to complete PBP, in 1901, with an
excellent time of 56h40m. Thinking about the heavy single-speed bikes
and rough roads of that era, it really is exceptional.
Anyway, because of this inspirational story, a lot of American
randonneurs have a goal of finishing PBP in less than Charly Miller's
time of 56h40m. Even today with modern bikes and well-paved roads,
it's not easy. Of course, I'm not American, so the story doesn't
really have a patriotic effect on me. That said, I can definitely
appreciate an underdog.
Anyway, quite a few of the folks I met during my qualifying rides had
a goal to finish PBP with a Charly Miller time, and I had given it
some consideration too. I was telling myself that I should be happy
to finish at all, then had a secondary goal of under 60 hours, which
would be faster than any ride of a similar length I'd done before,
and then finally if things were going really well, maybe I'd
aim for a Charly Miller time.
As I rolled in to Brest in a stunning (for me) 23h25m, I have to
admit I was thinking I had set myself up pretty well for a Charly
Miller ride. Even if I took a long break in Brest and left 24h40m
after I started the ride, I would still have 32 hours to ride the
final ~610km and have a Charly Miller time. Of course I was tired,
but this did seem doable.
The route out of Brest was different than the route in, and
actually went through the main "downtown" area, which was
interesting but a bit frustrating as there was quite a bit of
I was alone at this point, and on the climb out of Brest
toward Roc'h Trédudon (I think) I experienced pretty
much the only annoying interaction with a local person. There
was a cyclist on the climb, not part of PBP, who insisted on
passing me every time I passed him, and then would immediately
slow down to a pace much slower than I wanted to ride. After he
did this three times, I gave up and just rode behind him. I've
heard this happens to women all the time, so I reflected
on how I was lucky not to experience it more often.
I got back to Carhaix as daylight was starting to fade, and it
was a madhouse, with a large number of outbound riders there
as well as some inbound riders like myself. I remember waiting
a long time to use the bathroom and purchase drinks, and having
a nice chat with Nate, who was outbound (but in the 84 hour
group, so he probably started ~12 hours after me).
From Carhaix to Fougères, I rode almost entirely solo.
The were three memorable things during this stretch. The first was
passing through a tiny town (Feins maybe?) where the locals had set
up a big stall with hot food and music, and were partying in the
middle of the night! I was very happy to get a hot chocolate there,
since it was actually quite cold at night (just above freezing).
The second was the unbelievably loud snoring I heard from people
sleeping on pretty much any horizontal surface they could find at
Tinténiac. It was like nothing I've heard before, and it was so
loud I didn't understand how anyone not snoring could possible
be asleep there! And finally, the third was being stopped by an Indian
woman somewhere between Tinténiac and Fougères, who asked
me the way to Brest. I tried to point her in the right direction as
best I could, and then reflected on the absurdity of the situation
(a Canadian being asked for directions in the middle of nowhere in
France by an Indian woman, both on bikes, in the middle of the night).
After leaving Fougères, I managed to link up with a group
including some Brits and an American. It was great to have company
again, and one of the Brits, admiring my bike, told me I could get
DT Swiss decals for my hubs that would match my spoke nipples. I've
yet to go look for them online, but I probably will :)
I rode with that group until Villaines-la-Juhel, where we only had
a little over 200km to go. Had a bit of a chat with the folks I'd
been riding with while enjoying a Coke, then while getting ready
to roll out one of the volunteers came over to me and struck up a
conversation, being quite excited to hear that I'm Canadian. His
daugher was currently living in Montréal, so we chatted about
Canada for a bit. I was honestly kind of amazed I could speak French
at all at this point, not having slept for 2 nights.
Just as I was about to roll out, Chris, Christine and Marion showed
up to deliver me some fresh pastries, which was delightful! A little
while later they'd meet me again on the road for a quick espresso
and kit change too.
After that were just two more stops before the finish: Mortagne-au-Perche
and Dreux. On the way to the first, I was riding alone for a while
but eventually found some folks on the road. However, they were riding
quite slowly, chatting and so on. I was hoping to find some folks
that wanted to actually ride co-operatively and not just slack. Eventually
a few more folks caught up with us and there were enough folks who actually
wanted to ride to split off into a new group. This was basically a good
thing although there were a few moments that reminded me to be careful
what I wished for, as these folks were definitely keeping things "spicy"
on the climbs. Fortunately, they calmed down a lot after Mortagne-au-Perche,
kept in check by a very friendly South African rider who was completing
his third or fourth PBP.
At Dreux, the contrôle was pretty much deserted. After a
bathroom break and some food, we donned our high-viz vests (as it
would likely start to get dark before we reached the finish) and
rolled out. The only thing that really bothered me in this stretch
was the smell of manure in the French countryside. French coffee is,
shall we say, a bit of an acquired taste. Nevertheless, I had been
drinking it at many of the contrôles, and at this point my
mind had firmly associated it with the manure smell, making me feel
queasy. Fortunately, I was able to suppress the feeling by drinking
my flavoured electrolyte water, but each new wave of manure brought
it on again. Other than that, these last ~40km were quite pleasant
and mostly flat, and we were all happy to be so close to the finish.
Getting to the finish was very exciting, though the final stretch
was on cobbles and I do remember taking it carefully, not wanting to
get this far only to wipe out in the last few kilometers. Crossing
the line, someone saw my SFr high-viz vest and shouted "San Francisco
Randonneurs!" Then they were baffled when they came over and realized
they didn't know me, expecting me to be BK instead I think :P
Chris, Christine and Marion were there, and had Pliny queued up and
ready to go. Truly, the best support team ever :) After getting the
last stamp in my brevet card, and getting my finisher's medal, we sat
down to grab some food before heading back into Paris proper for a
few days of relaxation. My time ended up at a very respectable 53h06m,
easily making it a "Charly Miller ride". And in the end, I was
very pleased not to have had any mechanicals, not even
a dropped chain!