For many ambitious randonneurs, the legendary 1200km (745+ miles) Paris-Brest-Paris (aka the “PBP”) is at the top of their hit lists. A group of Seattle-area “randos” are preparing to leave for Paris for the 21st edition of the event, which (coincidentially?) starts on August 21st.
First organized in 1891, the PBP began as a professional race, but as bicycle racing evolved, professional races became shorter, and the PBP became an amateur event. Interest in the event has waxed and waned over the years, but participation has steadily grown since the 1970s. The PBP is currently held every four years, and in 2007 there was a record 5,311 participants. Read an excellent historical account of the PBP here.
Our Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR) is one of the largest and most well-established randonneuring clubs in the world. Randonneuring events emphasize self-sufficient long distance cycling, range from 200-1200km, and have “generous” time limits for completion. Competition is de-emphasized, and event results are results are listed alphabetically; everyone who finishes within the time limit receives the same finishers medal.Yet, human nature being what it is, there is certainly a competitive element to rando events. Jan Heine and Melinda Lyon describe the distinction this way:
“…the organizers of PBP understand competition, and yet they don’t see PBP as a race. The difference is subtle, and it has to do with civility. While racing is more like a battle, with only one rider coming out as a winner, randonneuring is all about the civilized enjoyment of cycling. Or as a non-randonneuring friend once put it: It is the quest for the perfect cyclist, any distance, any weather, self-sufficient.”
SIR does a great job of preparing riders for big events like the PBP by hosting a series of rides that get progressively longer and culminate in the 1200km events. Riders who want to participate in the PBP must successfully complete a series of 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km qualifying events. The qualifying series helps riders to develop endurance and adequate base miles. SIRs also dedicate training to speed work, which helps them maximize their enjoyment of the event–it can help folks achieve time goals–or for folks who aren’t as time-oriented, faster speeds on the bike mean more time to sleep and enjoy the ride. The PBP is notorious for its relentless, though short climbs, so hill work helps too.
Seattle has been represented at Paris-Brest-Paris since 1991, and in 1995 and 2003 Seattle had finish rates in excess of 90%. PBP 2011 will have over 5000 riders from all over the world, including about 440 from the US. Of the US contingent, 63 are SIRs (14% of the US riders). Of the SIRs, nearly 1/3 have joined since the last PBP in 2007. 39 are seeking their first PBP finish, 10 are seeking their second, 5 are seeking their third, 7 are seeking their fourth, and two are seeking their 5th. Eight of our riders are in their 60s, thirty-two are in their 50s, fourteen are in their 40s, six are in their 30s, and three are in their 20s.
Once the SIRs arrive and get settled in Paris, they will meet for a pre-event information session and a team picture. During the event a small group of Seattle riders intends to ride together, but for most the ride will be personal, with time spent on the road with different riders from all over the world.
One group of SIRs at this year’s PBP have ambitions to become members of the “Charly Miller Society”, named after the first American to ride PBP (in 1901), by completing the ride as fast as he did (56:40–an average speed–including stops and sleep–of 13+ mph).
As you can imagine with an event that has a ~120 year history, there is much more to it than just pedaling. With a great history and traditions, it’s great fun to be part of a line of cyclists stretching back more than 120 years. PBP represents one of the biggest gatherings of long-distance cyclists in the world. Participants feel an extraordinary sense of community and enjoy making and renewing lasting friendships. For North Americans, cycling and visiting France is wonderful. Among the many great aspects of French culture is the respect for cyclists shown by the French people. As SIR president Mark Thomas says: “There is nothing like being cheered on by a old man at the end of his driveway and knowing that he’s probably been there for 30 hours since the fastest rider came through.”
The next PBP is in 2015. If this sort of adventure appeals to you, now is the time to join SIR to start planning, training, and absorbing rando culture. Although membership with SIR is not a PBP requirement, it’s the best way to learn about the sport and about PBP. SIR is a big, friendly group with a great diversity of cycling styles ranging from folks like Chris Ragsdale who has Charly Miller ambitions this year, to folks who simply want to make the time limit. Mark Thomas says: “We have such a diversity of riders that most riders will find like-minded members at SIR.”In my role as cycling blogger, I’m fortunate to be able to get glimpses of many of the cycling tribes here in the Seattle area. I genuinely enjoy reading the email exchanges amongst the SIRs. One exchange contained the word “homologation,” which was somewhat familiar because a similar word is used in genetics (I have a biology background), but I had not seen it used in a cycling context. I posed this question to Mark:
In addition to exposure to some cycling history and cycling in Europe, participation in PBP seems to be a vocabulary-building exercise. Tell us about the term “homologation” and why randos prefer it to more familiar synonyms for the same concept:
Marks’ response: “Randonneuring has French origins and to this day the sanctioning body for most official randonneuring events is the Audax Club Parisien in France. Many of the terms associated with the sport have French origins, historical roots, or both. Homologation refers to the official certification of a rider finish on a randonneur event. And every club needs a “secret handshake” – so that’s ours.”
So, add vocabulary-building and secret handshakes to the list of great things about randonneuring!
A complete list of US riders (including Seattle folks) can be found here. The last column shows the riders’ frame numbers. During the event, riders can be tracked via that frame number on the official PBP website.
Thanks to Mark Thomas for his generous contribution to this post.