Paris-Brest-Paris: A Newcomer’s Guide to Cycling’s Oldest Event
By Zachary Morvant
If you’re friends with any randonneurs (riders of long-distance cycling events called brevets), you’ve likely been hearing a lot of chatter about PBP, or Paris-Brest-Paris. Whether you’re thinking about giving it a go yourself — it happens every 4 years, so you’ve got lots of time to train before 2027 — or just curious to know more, this guide endeavors to answer many (but certainly not all) of your questions.
Cyclists ride through the French countryside in Brittany. Photo: Zachary Morvant / @zmorvant.
What is Paris-Brest-Paris?
Paris-Brest-Paris is the granddaddy of Grand Randonnees (that is, randonneuring events 1,200km or longer). It is one of the oldest cycling events still in existence, having started in 1891 — pre-dating even the Tour de France, which wouldn’t come along until 1903. Initially a race for professionals, since the mid-1900s it has been (officially) a non-competitive timed ride, the domain of dedicated amateurs.
I say “officially” because any time you get a group of folks with bikes together, a race is bound to break out. And while there is no official winner of PBP, there is a “first finisher,” and some people come to the start line intent on “winning” this “non-race.” (I’ll confess I came with the goal of finishing much more quickly than I did — you can read all about my experience in a separate post on the Bicycle Law blog.)
Before one can even register for PBP, one must qualify. To do that, you need to complete a Super Randonneur series during the same year as PBP. A Super Randonneur series comprises a 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km brevet, each of which must be completed within a time limit on a route determined by the club offering the event.
Finishing PBP in the time allowed (you can choose to have as little as 80 hours or as many as 90 hours to finish, depending on the starting group you select) is a massive challenge that requires a high volume of training. Individual approaches vary, and we won’t go into specifics here given the complexities of the subject. Barring anything else, doing long rides with friends (or on your own) and working your way up in distance through your local randonneur club’s rides can provide a solid skeleton for a training plan.
Beyond physicality, there is a whole host of other knowledge and mental training that benefits a good randonneur. Knowing the ins and outs of your equipment so you can be as self-sufficient as possible in the event of mechanical mishaps is a boon. Having the mental fortitude to ride long distances, often at night or in inclement weather, is key. Knowing your limits, and when you need rest, is critical.
According to many PBP veterans, English speakers are more abundant than ever, but it’s a good thing to know some rudimentary French. It’s useful. It’s courteous. And it can make the experience feel that much richer.
At a minimum, I recommend knowing please and thank you, how to ask for food/water/coffee/beer(!), where to find the toilet, and where you can sleep.
Also, if you know “bonne route!” or “bon courage!” you’ll realize that people yelling at you from cars and windows aren’t cursing at you like they tend to in the US — they’re cheering for you! (You will hear this hundreds, possibly thousands of times. It’s truly incredible.)
As you probably guessed, the route starts in (or near) Paris, heads west to Brest, and then back. The route occasionally undergoes some small changes, but the controls (or checkpoints — see below) are generally the same, and the terrain profile is one of mostly flat roads and rolling hills. That said, the elevation stacks up quickly: this year’s edition saw over 39,000 feet of climbing over its 757 miles.
Expect all kinds of weather. Rain and fog are common (even in summer), especially near the coast. (San Francisco and Bay Area folks will be well prepared for this.) This year saw a shift in adverse conditions: no rain, but lots of heat and humidity in the middle of the day that caused many riders to struggle (your humble author included).
Bike parking at the control in Loudéac.
Roughly every 60 miles or so, you will have to stop at a control, where you will have your brevet card (a tiny booklet you carry with you — keep it safe!) stamped to verify your passage. Lovely volunteers will greet you and wish you bonne route.
After getting your stamp (which I advise is the first thing you do at a control, so you don’t forget, which is nonzero possibility as PBP significantly taxes your mental faculties), do what else you need to do. Fill your water bottles. Use the bathroom. Maybe find some food (see below) or a comfy place to sleep (also below).
Folks in the French countryside often set up roadside stands with free food.
There is an abundance of food at PBP. You can go to the “rapide” station for quick things like pan au chocolat, ham and cheese baguettes, juices, and coffee. If you prefer something more substantial, you can find the restaurant with plates of pasta, rice, soups, and other items.
But be warned: food is NOT included in the price of admission, which is something American bike racers may not be used to. Additionally, card readers can be slow (or not present), so bring plenty of euros to keep yourself fed. (I did not do this, and had to be very strategic with my meager cash reserves, in addition to relying on the kindness of friends.)
There is also some “sports food” lurking at some of the controls if you need more bars, gels, and the like, but I advise bringing plenty of your own when it comes to that stuff.
Riders line up for food at one of the many cafeterias.
Most people doing PBP need to sleep at some point. There are a freakish few who don’t, but odds are, you’re not one of them — so here are some options.
Most of the controls have dormitories. You could pay roughly 10 euro to sleep and (where available) an additional 4 euro to shower. If you’re feeling a bit more frugal, home is where you lay your head. I saw people sleeping in the grass, in hallways, and upright in their chairs at cafeterias. “Ditch naps” along the sides of road are somewhat popular as well.
I myself sought refuge in a ruined bus shelter and wrapped myself in a space blanket for a bit of shuteye. (Some people call this joining the “Foil Fraternity” or the “Burrito Brotherhood.”) After enough hours of pedaling your bike, you’ll be surprised at your new tolerances for comfort.
Riders can pay to sleep in a cot, or sleep for free wherever they can.
When PBP veterans reminisce about their experience, it is often the people they remember most fondly and talk about most vividly.
The kindness and hospitality of the French people along the route is legendary: from the volunteers staffing many of the controls, to the courteous drivers who — almost without fail! — give you plenty of room when passing while cheering you from open windows, to villagers who applaud you and wish you “bon courage!” from the side of the road, to the kids who hold out their hands for high fives. It’s a kind of magic you don’t see in the States.
Additionally, some kind folks set out tables with (usually free) food and beverages, which (given my poor financial planning mentioned above) I certainly took advantage of, practicing my shaky French while I was at it.
Your humble author at the start line in Rambouillet.
That’s hardly everything, but hopefully enough to give you a taste of the PBP experience, and perhaps answer some questions for the curious.
If you’d like to know more, there’s a trove of information you can search for, many of it living in previous attendees’ ride reports. By the time this article is published, my own report will be live on the Bicycle Law blog.
Au revoir for now,
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