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The very long road to Paris — just getting to the start line of the legendary Paris–Brest–Paris bike ride is a journey in itself

Held every four years, Paris–Brest–Paris is a seriously prestigious feather in your cycling cap. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a faff just to enter and sort the logistics of taking on this 1,200km ride, as Matt Page has been finding out

The world of Audax riding and randonneuring is one of the most open and popular styles of riding in the country, with roots back to when cycling first started. It also conjures a certain image for some, of a stereotypical rider and style of bike, that isn’t true in my experience. Or at least, it doesn’t tell the full story. 

Audax and randonneuring events are a test of endurance, tenacity and reliability, usually held over distances from 100km to 600km. There are also a few longer challenges with some commanding worldwide fame and notoriety, including Paris–Brest–Paris and London–Edinburgh–London.

Bristol riders PBP

These events are not races, not sportives, and not tours. Solo riders are expected to be self-sufficient, and there is usually little or no support provided. A route is provided often with a GPX file (an upgrade to a simple route card as it was in the past) and there are set points that riders need to visit. Each checkpoint needs to be recorded on the Brevet card provided to prove you have visited. Checkpoints can be manned, or often it might be somewhere you can get a receipt from a shop, or even a question to answer.

Paris-Brest-Paris (often shortened to PBP) is the largest and most famous audax event in the world. It’s held every 4 years, and attracts around 8,000 cyclists. Riders aim to complete the 1,200km (745 mile) route that starts in the town of Rambouillet on the outskirts of southwest Paris, heading to the coastal port city of Brest in Brittany, and back again. First held in 1891 as a race (the last ‘race’ edition of PBP was back in 1951) the event pre-dates the Tour de France, and it was once the longest stage race.

pbp bike

My first experience of audax riding is a memorable one, as a relatively new 16-year-old cyclist taking part in a 100 kilometre event on local roads. Starting with a little too much enthusiasm, hitting the wall before halfway and not taking anywhere near enough clothes, I vividly remember finishing with an uncontrollable shiver and heading home to a hot bath.

Fast forward just over 20 years and that was clearly not enough to put me off. In just a few days, at 4pm on Sunday August 20th, I will be riding out and aiming to complete the 1,200km PBP route.

For most who enter, the aim is simply to finish within the time limits, based upon average speed. Tackling the event is of course a challenge, but for PBP just getting to the start line has been long and complicated for me as a first-time attendee.

Matt Page LEL bike set-up

Matt's bike for LEL '22

For those unfamiliar with PBP, you can’t just enter and turn up on the start line in Ramboulliet. There’s a qualification process required where you complete minimum distance events within a set period, but even these qualification rides are not the starting point of the journey. Step 1 is to pre-register, and the date in which you can pre-enter online will depend on the longest distance event certified by the BRM (Brevet de Randonneurs Mondiaux) you have completed in the previous year and a bit. For me, completing the 1500km  London–Edinburgh–London event in 2022 meant I was able to pre-register at the earliest point in January 2023. The shorter the event completed, the longer you must wait to pre-enter, and it means the event may sell out before having the chance, or less choice on which start group you will be in.  

After jumping over the pre-registration hurdle, PBP hopefuls must then complete certified BRM distance events within set calendar dates. We are fortunate in the UK that with such a demand from riders wishing to take part, many clubs and individual organisers arrange BRM-certified qualification events. The distance and dates for 2023 were as follows:

200 kilometre – to be completed between January 7 - April 30
300 kilometre – to be completed between March 11 - May 21
400 kilometre – to be completed between April 9 - June 10
600 kilometre – to be completed between May 6 - June 24

This process of qualification rides is to ensure that those wishing to take part have demonstrated a level of capability that shows they can complete the event. For me it has meant a significant time commitment, and this was made worse after my first 600km ended early with injury problems.

While I am sure some people will disagree, I believe riders who have completed any 1000km+ event in the previous year should have automatic qualification. Personal niggles aside, with the qualifications completed in May, I was then able to enter and take my place in the very first start group.

Hurdles completed, and time to start planning!

PBP brevet card (Michal Young, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr Creative Commons)
(Michal Young, CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr Creative Commons)

During Paris–Brest–Paris, I will need to follow the specified route and ensure my brevet card is stamped at 14 checkpoints, plus another ‘secret’ checkpoint put in place to ensure riders are following the exact route. Each checkpoint needs to be completed within a set time, so there is no option to start easy and push on later. I have put myself in the 80-hour group, and this will mean maintaining a minimum of 18.7kph (11.6 mph) for the full distance. There are other group options, with 84-hour and 90-hour maximum time limits.

Audax and randonneuring events may not be races, but there is still an element of competition, even if it’s just with yourself to get inside the time limit. I am sure every rider will have a goal to achieve, and this can often be used as a big motivator to keep yourself going. With no previous experience of the route, areas to be ridden or what to expect at the checkpoints, I need to be realistic but also set a goal time that will keep me motivated to push on. For now, I’ll keep that time to myself. As the final days tick by, the road to Paris is very nearly here. Then it’s just the case of making a quick visit to Brest, and riding all the way back.

PBP Pastry CREDIT Jason Burns

Tracking is available during the event here, which should show when riders have passed through each checkpoint rather than a GPS ‘dot-watcher’ tracking page.

Matt is an endurance nut who loves big rides and big events. He's a former full-time racer and 24hr event specialist, but now is also happy riding off-road on gravel bikes or XC mountain bikes and exploring the mountains and hills of Mid Wales.

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