Paris-Brest-Paris: Old Brevet, New Brevettes
We follow two riders from Brevette CC as they take on a season-long journey tackling one of cycling’s greatest challenges: Paris-Brest-Paris
Held since 1891 (every four years since 1971), the Paris-Brest-Paris randonneur is by many descriptions the oldest cycling event in the world. At 1,200 km in length, and with riders given just 90 hours to complete it, it is also one of the toughest.
This year, we’re following two riders on their PBP journey, from the first training rides of the spring to the event itself, starting August 18th. One is a PBP veteran, the other a relative beginner in the world of long-distance riding, and both are part of Brevette CC; a cycling club aiming to get more women riding long-distance events and bikepacking.
Join us over the coming months as we follow them on their journey.
Kelly Hillyer has only been riding audaxes for just over a year, but she’s not letting that deter her from making PBP one of her big goals of 2019.
“I’d enjoyed commuting by bike, so I decided to look for a club,” says Kelly. “I was always intrigued by riding longer distances and the people I met were so inspiring, suddenly I found myself sucked into this world where 200-300km rides were the norm.”
Soon she’d decided to complete the Randonnée-Round-the-Year, aiming to ride an event of at least 200km in twelve consecutive calendar months. “Last year was one of the coldest winters I’ve ever ridden through,” says Kelly. “Several rides ended up being in sub-zero temperatures”. However, having dodged frostbite, and just a year into her journey, she had achieved her goal and was after a new challenge. Cue PBP.
Experienced riders will know that it’s not possible to enter Paris-Brest-Paris on a whim. Everyone is subject to an exacting qualification process, and entrants who have racked up long, consistent qualifying rides in the preceding year get first dibs. Despite having only been cycling for a few months, Kelly’s year of pedalling had left her front of the queue.
Meeting riders who have come together, each having this similar interest in wanting to travel long distances by bike, is a big part of the attraction.
One Thing Leads to Another
“There was so much talk within Brevette CC about the history and atmosphere of Paris-Brest-Paris,” says Kelly. “But the distance seemed wildly out of my reach.” However, a first 600km super randonnée later and it no longer appeared so crazy. “In January I found myself signing up.
“From a young age, I’ve always had this desire to push myself,” she continues. “After the 600km ride I was tired, but I knew I could do more.”
With riders travelling across the world to take part in Paris-Brest-Paris, its unique status was also a pull. “Meeting riders who’ve come together, each having this similar interest in wanting to travel long distances by bike, is a big part of the attraction.
“It’s twice as long as I’ve ever ridden though,” Kelly says with a mixture of both excitement and trepidation. “I do find my thoughts returning to the 600km ride, and remembering how tired I was at the end of it.”
Indeed, there is always this spectre for PBP riders; that it might prove unachievable. But it is this venture into the unknown that provides the extra frisson they so crave.
Also signed up for a return this year is experienced ultra-distance rider and PBP veteran Peta McSharry, who knows Kelly through Brevette CC. “Crunching the numbers after the 2015 event, I spotted around 400 women listed as finishers,” she explains. A cycling author and expert adventure racer, she was struck by the growing number of women both entering and winning ultra-distance races. “Paris-Brest-Paris is such an iconic event, with an incredible atmosphere. Yet relative to an unsupported bikepacking race, it’s also fairly easy to ride. With a nudge and a support structure, I could see more women participating.”
The vehicle on which she aimed to make this happen would be organised through Facebook. Now with around 20 groups globally, each Brevette chapter is championed by someone keen to increase the number of women involved in endurance cycling. With the aim of helping riders to meet up and pool knowledge, it provides a forum to find friends, gain informal mentorship, and dial-down logistics.
When I finally rode Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015, it was everything I imagined.
“Bikepacking events are mini expeditions,” explains Peta. “While Paris-Brest-Paris requires less kit, it does require a good level of planning. Not only do you need to ride the distance, but you’re faced with a multitude of equipment choices. Sharing knowledge and experience brings value to newcomers, while organising night rides or demo events allows them to see what kit fits or what lights work best when leaving the city behind.”
Growing up in the South African wilderness, as a child Peta inadvertently invented adventure cycling for herself, often riding hours to visit friends on nearby farms. “Nowadays adventure for me still involves riding far and sleeping wild,” she says. Since then she’s completed innumerable organised audaxes, adventure races, and expeditions, including one ride tracing the 3,496km route of the Giro d’Italia.
However, Paris-Brest-Paris had long captured her imagination. “On first reading about it, my reaction was ‘I’ve got to do this!’ And when I finally rode it in 2015, it was everything I imagined.” In the end, it was partly her love of the event that spurred the creation of Brevette CC.
The Long Road Ahead
With both riders racing towards the departure date in Paris, the coming months will be occupied with qualification rides. Giving an opportunity to build form and refine technique, for both Kelly and Peta, the fearsome 600 km Byan Chapman audax will form their toughest test.
Returning to Paris-Brest-Paris, Peta might have fewer apprehensions, but a desire to improve upon her 79 hour time from 2015 provides its own challenges.
“Last time was everything I imagined: incredible atmosphere, great organisation, good food and wonderful roads. But there was too much faffing and eating on my part. If I can get the time taken by that down 10 percent, I’ll be happy”.
As a first-timer, Kelly’s challenge is less mapped out. “I’m unbelievably excited, but also terrified,” she explains. “Your body is incredible in how long it can go on, as long as you’re eating correctly. I think it’s going to be the mental aspect that is going to be the hardest.”
As Paris-Brest-Paris approaches, we’ll be following Kelly’s and Peta’s journeys to gain insight into their preparations for this momentous event. Once it’s all over, we’ll also be dissecting what it’s like to actually ride it too. See you in a few weeks…