One of the most remarkable things about cycling is how little it has changed. Bikes have got lighter, clothing tighter, wheels faster, and the athletes’ moustaches generally less big. But if, say, Maurice Garin, the first winner of the Tour de France, was transported through time to the Tour 2023, he’d be able to work out pretty quickly what was going on; give him a bike and he’d probably be pretty competitive, too.
But what has been lost, in the mainstream of the sport at least, is a certain spirit of adventure. There is a corner of northern France, however, that will forever be a reminder of the endeavour and spirit of those early days: Brest is a city on the very western tip of Brittany (the region is called Finistère, which means ‘land’s end’) and it is here that participants in a 1,200-kilometre race turn around and head back to their start point, Paris, just as they have every few years since 1891.
That was the year that Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, was founded by Pierre Giffard as a publicity stunt for the newspaper he edited. In the late 19th century, single-speed, fixed-wheel steel bicycles were at the cutting edge of technology and shared the limelight with early motorcars. It was a time of experimentation and competition, of amateurs lining up against professionals and furious, frenzied progress. With every race and every challenge bicycle riders were extending the limits of the possible.
Earlier that year Giffard had created the 600-kilometre-long Bordeaux-Paris race. Nobody was sure the distance could even be accomplished, and towns and villages along the way laid on food stops and beds for the exhausted riders… but an Englishman, George Mills, rode straight through and won in 26 hours.
Such was the success of the event that Giffard thought bigger, and PBP was born. On September 6 1891, 206 cyclists set off on an epic adventure. Over dirt and gravel roads they vied for position, passing through 16 checkpoints over the 1,200-kilometre route. Charles Terront, a Frenchman, led the pack home in a sleepless 71 hours, winning by more than eight hours on his nearest rival.
In all, 100 men finished and Giffard decreed that the event would return – but only every 10 years, because of its incredible difficulty.
The next edition, in 1901, was organised by Henri Desgrange, who would go on to found the Tour de France. Under his initiative, touristes-routiers, or what would now be called randonneurs joined the racing men. These tourists were taking part simply for fun and for the challenge. Desgrange was also one of the founders of the Audax movement in France. Audax was drawn from the Latin ‘audace’, meaning ‘audacious’ or ‘daring’, which perfectly fitted Desgrange’s obsession with physical toughness, self-sufficiency and determination. Maurice Garin won the race in 52 hours; the last amateur, the 65-year-old Pierre Rousset, took 150 hours longer!
As the years passed, sporting fashions changed. Spectators became more interested in shorter races, like the one-day Paris-Roubaix or stage races like the Tour de France, in which each day’s action is finished in time for tea. Many of the other extreme endurance races disappeared and, because it made no sense for professionals to train for a single shot at long-distance glory, they began to desert PBP. In 1951 the last race took place. Maurice Diot won, in 38 hours and 55 minutes, a time that is unlikely to be beaten.
But the randonneurs are still going strong. Paris-Brest-Paris now takes place every four years, and 2015 will be the 24th edition. On August 20 around 5,000 men and women will follow in the wheel tracks of those pioneers. All of them will have completed qualifying rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres; all of them will have to get back to Paris within 90 hours in order to complete the brevet, as it is known.
None of them will be professional cyclists, but each will approach the task with dogged determination. During the ride they will sleep in hedges, and the control points will come to resemble refugee camps, with bodies sheltering and catching a few moments’ sleep in corners, under tables, or wherever they can.
Each riders’ physical and mental toughness will be tested; they will face unknown difficulties, unpredictable weather and dark nights of the soul, and yet none of them will receive prize money or anything other than the love of cycling and a sense of achievement at having pushed back the boundaries of the impossible.