Paris-Brest-Paris 2023: Saddlebags and Saddle Sores
First held in 1891, Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is a celebrated 1,200-kilometer randonneuring event that now takes place every four years and attracts more than 7,000 riders. Last month, a sleep-deprived Matthew Harding completed the 20th edition of PBP within the 90-hour limit, his second time across the finish line. Find his story paired with an immersive gallery of 35mm film frames from photographer Stefan Haehnel here…
Words by Matthew Harding, photos by Stefan Haehnel
I’ve been awake for 32 hours when I convince myself that it’s probably okay to close my eyes for just a couple of seconds. A voice in my head is warning me that this is a bad idea, but the road is fairly flat and straight, so I shut my eyes for a split second and instantly nod off. A moment later, I wake up with a jerk. My legs are still pedaling, and the bike hasn’t moved off its line. I haven’t veered into a hedge row or swerved into oncoming traffic, but I need to get off the bike now.
Across the road, there’s a driveway to a farm that’s shaded by a plum tree. It’s the perfect place for a rest. Except it’s not. The ground is covered in fallen fruit, and I lie down on a bed of plums in various stages of decomposition. As I’m losing consciousness, I hear a group of riders approach. A guy with a thick Texan accent exclaims, “Look at that guy there, just lying down on the ground! He don’t give a fuck!” I had become part of the roadside scenery of the 20th edition of Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a 1,200-kilometer randonneuring event that’s been running since 1891.
Paris-Brest-Paris, like all the world’s most important sporting events, takes place every four years. The atmosphere at the start in Rambouillet (just beyond the edge of Paris) is more like a carnival or a convention than a competition. A couple of days before the start, the town is taken over by cyclists, with bikes propped up against every wall. Bars and cafes overflow with lycra and anticipation.
It’s fair to say that randonneuring is very much a niche sport. We normally start our rides in a damp car park whilst most people are still asleep. So, being surrounded by 7,000 like-minded people from all over the globe creates its own euphoria, and the happy, nervous energy is palpable. Participants ride from the suburbs of Paris through the hilly countryside of Brittany to the Atlantic coast and back again, and they must complete the 1,200-kilometer course in under 90 hours. The quickest riders will finish in less than two days, while others will need the full time limit to get round. There will be a first rider back, but there won’t be a winner. What casual observers might not notice is that PBP is not a race.
We drove down from Berlin two days before the start, which gave us plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere. Spending our time carb-loading on beer and an improbable amount of cheese had a similar feeling to being on a school trip. Parked up in a camper van at the start, we let the event roll over us—the calm before the storm.
This is my 10th year riding brevets and my second PBP. In 2019, I had a great ride, talked to loads of interesting people, had incredible hallucinations, and lost all sense of reality until I was riding in a trance, unsure where I ended and my bike began. At the finish, I couldn’t imagine a way to better it and was sure that to repeat the ride in four years would be a letdown by comparison. I spent three and a half years saying I wouldn’t ride it again and then quietly registered.
My start time was 18:15, and as we all clicked into our pedals and rode up the dusty track, I was questioning what I was doing here. It was great seeing old friends and hanging around for a few days, but I could have done that and skipped the cycling bit. The first 20 kilometers did nothing to dispel my anxiety. Not keen on large groups, I like to ride my brevets with two or three friends. Why had I signed up for a ride with 7,000 participants? In a wave with 300 riders of mixed ability, there was lots of sketchy risk-taking and unnecessary jostling for position. As the riders started to thin out along the road, I started to relax and looked forward to riding through the night.
There are ways to ride PBP with enough sleep and minimal night riding. Most people, however, will end up doing plenty of nocturnal kilometers and get a good dose of sleep deprivation. There’s something special about riding into the night. Sat in a tunnel of light formed by your front light, the world is quieter, there are fewer cars on the road, and the mind has time to reflect on the day’s events and life in general.
During PBP, the rear lamps of all the riders further up the road snake out on the horizon. It’s an awe-inspiring spectacle. This, combined with the encouragement of many people at the roadside, made the first night a lot of fun. The second night was, for me, a real slog. Spooked by my micro-sleep earlier in the day, I looked for some people to share the ride with for the stretch into Brest (thanks to Rachel and Karl for putting up with my nonsense ramblings and keeping me awake all the way to the control!).
When I arrived at Fougeres on Tuesday night, my brain was fried from a lack of sleep. Normally, I have good-time hallucinations with swirling colors and guardian animals escorting me through the night. This time, I was certain I was being bitten all over by insects; it was a bad trip. As I entered the control to get my card stamped, groups stopped talking to look at the man-zombie that had entered their presence. The volunteers told me in no uncertain terms that I should not continue riding without first having a rest. I needed no persuasion.
People kip everywhere—the roadside sparkles at night with bodies wrapped up in foil blankets, and the canteens are used for sleep as much as for eating. In Fougeres, I was guided to the dormitory, where I booked a two-hour slot on a gym mat. The room was hot as a sauna and filled with the sounds of people snoring and farting. A rider a few mats over went to the toilet and, on coming back, tried to get into the wrong bed. Watching the farce unfold, I was certain that sleeping in this room would be impossible. The next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake by a volunteer.
I doubt it is the scenery that motivates so many people to ride from Paris to Brest and back to Paris again. It’s nice enough with its rolling hills, but it’s not spectacular. Apart from the history of the event, I’m guessing what motivates people from all over the world to travel to France is the reception of the public along the route. All along the course, but especially in the rural countryside of Brittany, people stand on the roadside clapping and shouting, “Bon courage!” Motorists rolling down their windows not to abuse cyclists but to offer encouragement took at least a day to get used to.
Villages organize parties and sit with picnics, watching the show roll past. Even in the depths of the night, families line the route with tables laid down with home-baked cakes, coffee, fruit from their gardens, places to sleep, and, critically, water. This year’s PBP coincided with a heat wave, and I’m sure it was the supporters filling water bottles between the controls that stopped the dropout rate from being much higher. The relationship between the riders and the bystanders seems in some ways symbiotic. Whenever I thanked people for their help, they thanked me for having the courage to ride the event and visit their sleepy part of France. It is the public that makes PBP unique and is my motivator to return in four years’ time.
Approaching the finish, my mind was pretty much overloaded. I’d spent the last three days riding towards this moment, and the loss of that singular sense of purpose was disarming. The cheering and loud music were disorientating. I wanted to have a shower and put on clean clothes. I wanted to investigate exactly what part of me was bleeding into my shorts. I wanted the beer I’d been picturing for the last 200 kilometers, and then I wanted to sleep.
I’ll be back in four years, because why not?!
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