It’s Sunday, August 21. About 9 p.m. in my neck of the woods. In France, it’s early Monday morning. Still dark, and the entire country’s basically on vacation. But right now, on country roads from Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (a suburb just outside Paris) to Brest (a city on the Normandy coast in northwest France), more than 5,000 people are on their bikes.
They’re participating in Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, the oldest bicycling event in the world that’s still regularly run. Their goal: ride 750 miles from the Paris suburb to Brest, and back again. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep by the side of the road. If they’re hungry, they eat what they’ve packed — or buy something along the way. If they have a flat tire, they fix it themselves. There are regular checkpoints, and they have to stop at each one. And they have to get back to Paris in 90 hours or less.
I’ve got a few friends on those French roads right now in fact. They’re wonderful madmen. They train by riding insane qualifying distances of 200–600 km (120–360 miles) or longer. They ride for days. They ride all night. They know how to suffer. They’re not bike racers; they’re randonneurs. And Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is the crème de la crème of what they do.
PBP started in 1891, an era when the modern bicycle as we know it was gaining popularity. 207 French riders rose to the challenge (though only 99 actually finished). The fastest time was just under 71.5 hours. The Paris daily, Le Petit Journal, sponsored PBP — and was rewarded with a massive circulation boost — but the logistics of the ride were so complicated that the newspaper decided to wait a decade before staging another Paris-Brest-Paris. However, details didn’t stop the invention of new pastry to commem-orate the ride (this is France after all). Made to resemble a bicycle wheel, you can still find Paris-Brest pastry in shops and on menus (more below).
In 1901 Paris-Brest-Paris was an even bigger success (and spurred the idea of the Tour de France, which started in 1903). Until 1951, both pros and amateurs mixed it up at PBP, but since then, it’s been a purely amateur event. Riders come from across the globe, riding bikes of all shapes and sizes. One of my friends is riding this year on a fixed gear bike.
These guys (men and women) are nuts for sure. But they’re amazing too. And they’re in France, riding their bikes. How bad could it be?
p.s. Dorie Greenspan has a recipe for Paris-Brest in her latest cookbook, Around My French Table. It’s quite a concoction. But she says it’s not difficult…”since, like a bicycle race, it’s done in stages.”