Paris-Brest-Paris & the Twenty-Four

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A couple weeks ago I made a trip to London to visit Rapha for a few days. There were many fascinating people who I got to meet face to face for the first time. Aside from their various other competencies, one thing that intrigued me about some of my colleagues was there was their attraction to ultra endurance road racing.

I could never really comprehend these events and the people who do them. Where do they draw the line? How far can they push it? I can almost understand a 24hr solo mountain bike race, but a 24hr road race? Or even worse, the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris? My goodness….my attention span hardly gets me through a 1hr crit.

Among the seemingly normal people who do these types of events is the Head of Marketing at Rapha, James Fairbank. As I quickly found out, this type of racing is something that attracts a much larger following than lonely bearded men on recumbants. I asked James to attempt to explain his and so many others’ affliction to endurance road racing, otherwise known as a ‘brevet’ or ‘randonnée’.

Update: As JM states in his comment below, it’s worth mentioning that Australia’s own Sir Hubert Opperman won the PBP in record time in 1931.

PBP & the Twenty-Four

by James Fairbank

I first heard of Paris-Brest-Paris as a crit-racing 21 year-old, I was working in a bike shop at the time and the comparatively ancient mechanic that all the other staff used to goad about his idiosyncrasies mentioned it to me. At the time I just couldn’t see the appeal of cycling 1200km , where’s the speed , the instant gratification? I dismissed it as a ride for the odd, but the seed had been sown.

PBP was originally conceived as the mother of all reliability trials, 1200km from Paris to the city of Brest on the Brittany coast. In the late 19th century, French bicycle manufacturers were trying to outdo each other by concocting longer and longer rides to prove their new contraptions. In 1891, 206 cyclists set off for Brest in early-September with the winner completing the distance in a touch over 70 hours. The organizer Pierre Giffard came to the conclusion that the event was so over-the-top that it should only be run every ten years. When 1901 came around the field had been separated into Professionals and Touristes-Routiers, a situation that persisted until 1951 when the number of professionals dropped so low that it was no longer viable to separate the fields. By this stage the star of the six-day, Maurice Diot had set the record that stands to this day (though the route has been changed over the years) of 38 hours and 36 minutes. Fast-forward to 2007 and over 5300 cyclists found themselves in the midst of driving rain at the start line in Paris. All competitors, whatever bike they choose, have a limit of 90 hours to complete the 1200km. The Vedettes of 24 hour racing will complete the 1200km in under 50 hours, though in the spirit of Audax few are the prizes for quick times (kudos for completing the challenge is awarded to all). Just to qualify to make the start line you have to complete a Super Randoneer series of timed 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides in the calendar year before the event.

It started in 2009 with the Mersey Roads 24 hour time-trial. At the time Rapha was sharing a cramped office space with Rouleur magazine and Graeme Raeburn (Rapha’s, head clothing designer) was showing athletic talent but zero competitive instinct much to the irritation of Rouleur’s editor, Guy Andrews. Almost as a joke Guy mentioned the 24 Time Trial and Graeme accepted the challenge. Riding an un-adapted road bike he raised some eyebrows finishing with 670-odd kilometers, the fire had been lit. At the same time Rapha’s Art Director Ultan started showing a similar inclination for ultra distance and chose to enter the 2010 event with Graeme looking to improve on his 2009 figure. They finished ninth and tenth respectively, and at 31 and 32 years old they were more than a decade younger than the average participant. I’d gone along to support them which was a massive mistake. PBP was already gnawing at me and seeing two riders I looked up to going through such an incredible mental and physical challenge meant that I entered in 2011 as part of my PBP preparation.

Imagine riding 160km’s, then double that, then double that and add a bit. Time becomes elastic, emotions heightened, niggles brand the mind. In criteriums the pain is far more profound but you know it’ll be over shortly. Ultra distance is a much slower burn. Insecurities that you aren’t even aware of hour Two are all you can think of. In hour Twenty, cadence slows and the heart rate refuses to rise, the minutes drag on, the tears flow. As an event the 24-hour time trial rewards experience, the UK record was broken earlier this year by 47-year-old Andy Wilkinson who rode 541 miles. (A staggering average of 35km/hr for 24 hours).  He spent less than a minute off his bike over the day choosing to piss down the leg of his skinsuit. The footage of him being lifted off his bike at the end of the event is some of the most moving cycling footage I’ve ever seen; hardly any crowd, no instant gratification, just his wife & support team putting him in the recovery position, it’s the very anthesis of the grandstanding, chest-thumping sprint victory. Cycling fulfillment comes in many forms and in contrast to my callow crit racing 21-year-old self the hollow, disorientated anti-climax of finishing a long ride is more compelling to me these days.

Qualification for PBP has taken me all over this beautiful history-soaked Island. I’ve cycled from Chepstow to Menai in Wales and back down the principality; 635km with 9000 meters of climbing in 33 hours. I’ve seen the Cotswolds from almost every angel and the Nash-like vision of the Vale of the White Horse in the twilight. I’ve cocked up paperwork and had to repeat a 300km qualifier, I’ve screamed at a head wind that sat me up for 200km of a nightmare 400km qualifier. (On the same ride a fellow rider fell asleep on his bike and rode into a ditch.) I’ve fought a constant battle against knee problems lurching from Cyclefit to PT to Physio to long ride & back to Cyclefit. My girlfriend thinks I’m partially nuts and I feel like I’ve lost the ability to relate to a chunk of my friends, you don’t get something for nothing. I’m extremely fortunate to work for an understanding employer but even my Etaping and racing colleagues think that we’ve gone a bit native, we have and I’m quietly glad of it.

PBP starts on August 20th. Ultan, Phil Deeker (inventor of the Cent Cols Challenge and a Rapha Ambassador) Anton Blackie and myself will hope to complete PBP together arriving back in Paris at some stage on Wednesday 24th.


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