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Rapha’s new collection for autumn/ winter includes some seriously stylish hi-vis outerwear, a selection of which features in The Tunnel, a new short film by Ben Ingham. And to mark the launch of the new Long Sleeve Brevet Jersey, James Fairbank looks back on the event for which its short-sleeve predecessor was originally created and where it first earned its reflective stripes, the 1,200 kilometres of Paris-Brest-Paris.
Everything and Nothing
Originally published in The Ride Journal
WORDS: James Fairbank
PBP remains a blizzard of experiences that stubbornly refuse to settle, I remain unable to apply a chronology even though four months has passed since I rolled into a sports hall having covered 1200km in just less than 62 hours. I can remember talking to Chris Ragsdale at the finish unable to comprehend how someone could ride that far that fast, I remember seeing Ultan’s tongue completely studded with ulcers, I remember the howl of fury from the victim of a pile-up in the first 15 minutes when he realized his rear mech hanger had been torn off but most of all I remember losing my mind in the outskirts of Paris; forgetting who I was, why I was there, even how to ride a bike. As a whole PBP steadfastly refuses to be pinned down and categorised in a pure cycling sense, it’s still squirming and twisting under inspection.
PBP was originally conceived as the mother of all reliability trials, 1200km from Paris to the city of Brest on the Brittany coast. In the late 19th century, French bicycle manufacturers were trying to outdo each other by concocting longer and longer rides to prove their new contraptions. In 1891, 206 cyclists set off for Brest in early-September with the winner completing the distance in just over 70 hours. The organizer Pierre Giffard came to the conclusion that the event was so over-the-top that it should only be run every ten years. When 1901 came around the field had been separated into Professionals and Touristes-Routiers, a situation that persisted until 1951 when the number of professionals dropped so low that it was no longer viable to separate the fields. By this stage the star of the six-day, Maurice Diot, had set the record that stands to this day (though the route has been changed over the years) of 38 hours and 36 minutes. All competitors, whatever bike they choose, have a limit of 90 hours to complete the 1200km. The Vedettes of 24 hour racing will complete the 1200km in well under 50 hours, though in the spirit of Audax few are the prizes for quick times (kudos for completing the challenge is awarded to all).
The qualification process is well structured. For someone who hadn’t ridden further than 120 miles in one hit before 2011, I found myself in the burning heat of a late August afternoon well prepared physically having completed the qualifying Super Randonnee series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides along with a 24 hour time trial. The one thing that qualification doesn’t prepare you for is dealing with more than one night without sleep that was to have profound implications both physically and mentally. A low point was riding into the sodium glare of the control at Carhaix with seven hundred kilometers in my legs thinking I’d be able to get some sleep. Having started with the riders hoping to finish in 80 hours or under –ahead of the main field- I’d inadvertently ridden straight into the bulk of the 90-hour filed who were visiting this control on their way to Brest. People were asleep everywhere; corridors, toilet floors, flowerbeds & I saw the seething, strung-out mass of humanity as an unwelcome mirror reflecting on my own state of mind. After an hour under a table I pressed on.
Looking back I could have made it easier on myself. I had no real schedule or plan regarding where I was going to sleep but shortly after starting on Sunday afternoon I decided that I wanted to complete it as quickly as I was physically able, trading greater discomfort over a shorter period of time for a comparatively easier time over the full 90 hours. In 62 hours I slept for somewhere between two and three hours.
To have experienced something so profound which is beyond my powers to properly deconstruct or explain is a wonderful thing. It matters not that the specific memories I have all seem to be negative as PBP has become part of my very being & I can imagine evoking the experience long after the physical attributes that made its completion possible have faded away. This is a sanitised world we inhabit and we’re not encouraged to stick our necks out and really test ourselves mentally and physically. All the more reason to do so.
Every ride, whether a pootle to the shops or a 1200km trek from Paris to the Brittany coast and back, has the capacity to be many things and affect us profoundly. PBP was everything and nothing…