Bordeaux-Paris, at 572km, was first held in 1891 and was the first bicycle road race. Later that year, Pierre Giffard of _Le Petit Journal_ put on the first edition of "Paris-Brest et retour," as he called it. Despite several changes in format, PBP continues to this day as the oldest ongoing long-distance cycling road event.
In an era when the diamond safety frame and pneumatic tires were taking over from high-wheelers with solid rubber tires, Paris-Brest was conceived as an "epreuve," a test of the bicycle's reliability for long-distance transportation. Giffard promoted the event through a series of editorials, signed with the nom de plume of "Jean-sans-Terre." He wrote of self-sufficient riders carrying their own food and clothing. Riders would ride the same bicycle for the duration. Only French men were allowed to enter, and 207 showed.
The 1891 Paris-Brest saw dramatic racing action between Michelen's Charles Terront and Dunlop's Jiel-Laval. Terront ultimately prevailed, passing a snoozing Jiel-Laval unawares during the third night to finish in 71 hours 22 minutes. Both riders had a number of flats that took as long as an hour to repair, but still enjoyed an obvious advantage over riders on solid tires. Ultimately, 99 of the 207 finished.
The race was a media coup for _Le Petit Journal_, bringing significant circulation increases. However, the logistics were daunting enough that organizers settled on a ten-year interval between editions.
During the years before the 1901 edition, several other road races began, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Vienne-Berlin (582km), Rennes-Brest, Spa-Bastogne-Liege, Geneve-Berne, Milan-Turin (530km), Paris-Besancon (430km), Lyon-Paris-Lyon, and Paris-Roubaix. But they were all minor league compared to Paris-Brest.
The 1901 Paris-Brest was sponsored not only by Le Petit Journal, but also by _L'Auto-Velo_, edited by none other than Henri Desgrange. For the first time, professionals were segregated from the "touriste-routier" group (in which a 65-year-old would ride, finishing in just over 200 hours). The two sponsoring newspapers organized an efficient telegraph system to relay results to their Paris presses, and the public, entranced, followed the exploits of Maurice Garin, who won in just over 52 hours over 112 other professionals.
So many newspapers were sold, in fact, that Georges Lefebre at _L'Auto-Velo_ was inspired to present the idea of an even bigger, grander race, the Tour de France, to his editor, Henri Desgrange. Under Desgrange's despotic organizing, the first Tour happened two years later, in 1903, with stages so long that it more closely resembled PBP than the modern Tour.
The next Paris-Brest was held in 1911, and saw the emergence of pack riding techniques rather than solo breaks. Five riders stayed together until nearly the last control, with Emile Georget finally pulling away from attack instigator Ernest Paul to finish in 50 hours and 13 minutes.
The 1921 tour, following close on WWI, was small, with only 43 professionals and 65 touriste-routiers. It was closely fought between Eugene Christophe and Lucien Mottiat, with Mottiat finally prevailing in 55 hours 7 minutes.
In 1931, the "touriste-routier" group was changed into two "randonneur" groups: the "allure libre" group, consisting of individuals riding by themselves, and the "audax" group consisting of groups of ten, riding together as a group but under the authority of a single leader who designated rest stops and gave all the orders. In French, the word "randonneur" means something like "rapid rambler," and is applied to skiing, walking, running, cycling, or any other kind of adventure travel. Both randonneur groups were limited to 90 hours for the first time.
In 1931, the first randonneurs finished in 68 hours 30 minutes. A woman recorded only as Madamoiselle Vassard became the first solo female finisher, in 93hours 25 minutes. Four women on mixed tandems also finished in 1931.
The 1931 professional event saw victory by Australian cycling great Hubert Opperman. Opperman broke nearly every record in cycling before retiring to become an important Australian politician. Oppy took the race with an incredible sprint on the finish velodrome after his long solo breakaway was neutralized just outside of Paris. His finishing time was a record, 49 hours 23 minutes, despite constant rain. His diet included 12 pounds of celery, which he thought to be an important energy source.
Oppy, in his 90s, spoke at the start of the centennial 1991 Paris-Brest-Paris, ending his short talk at the Paris Hotel de Ville with a GARGANTUAN pause for dramatic emphasis, and the quiet words, "Out from home, into the unknown -- [another pause, even longer] -- the only things worth winning are laughter and the love of friends."
WWII postponed the 1941 PBP until 1948, when L'Equippe sponsored the event. Among the 52 pros to start, Albert Hendrickx proved strongest, winning in a sprint over fellow Belgian Francois Neuville.
Three years later, the 1951 event saw an amazing record time of 38 hours 55 minutes. This record is unlikely to fall. For one thing, this would be the last time PBP was raced by professionals. For another thing, "rustification" of the route, beginning around this time, brought rougher roads and many more hills to the course. Maurice Diot set this record. He won a sprint over breakaway companion Eduoard Muller after waiting for Muller to fix a puncture in Trappes, just 22 km from the finish.
Though listed on the professional calendar in 1956 and 1961, too few teams signed up to make the event happen. Nonetheless, the usual contingent of at least 100 randonneurs turned out for the usual ramble through Bretagne. And the randonneur division even featured the usual exciting racing, with Rene Herse-sponsored Roger Baumann winning over Espinasse and L'Heuillier in 52 hours 19 minutes.
PBP was held every five years between 1956 and 1975, with more and more participants riding and less and less media coverage. Former professional Hermann de Munck, an extremely short rider, got 5th in 66, first in 71, 75, 79 and 83. Actually, he was disqualified in 79, most believe unfairly. de Munck continues to place highly to this day, finishing the 1999 PBP in 109th place at the age of 60.
Simone Atie was the first woman to finish in 1971, at 79h38m. In 1975, Chantal de la Cruz and Nicole Chabriand lowered the winning women's time to just 57 hours. In 1979, Suzy de Carvalho finished in 57h02m.
American Scott Dickson began his glory years by placing third in 1979, though at just less than 49 hours he was four hours behind the winners. In 1983 he again came third, this time by only one hour. He won his first PBP in 1987 by breaking away in Brest, aided by a strong tailwind and a few strong riders from the "touring" group, which that year started many hours before the "racing" group. Dickson also won in 1991 and in 1995.
Susan Notorangelo set a women's record of 54 hours 40 minutes in 1983, but that record fell to American Melinda Lyon in 1999. Lyon accomplished her time without a support vehicle, a fact nowhere reported in the French or any other press, that I have seen.
While no longer a professional road race, PBP continues to attract highly competitive riders who stop at nothing to turn in the fastest times. Despite the event organizer's insistance that it isn't a race, PBP offers huge trophies and a certain degree of prestige to the first finishers in each division. The event's popularity stands at an all-time high, with a cap of 3,500 participants placed for the first time in 1999. It seems likely that the event will continue to draw large numbers of international participants in the future.
Whereas once PBP was contested by a few great professional athletes as a demonstration of the bicycle's potential, today the focus is on regular folks like you and me. Riding PBP is a chance to be a part of history, yes -- all finishers names are set down in the great record book -- but also to learn how to use the bike reliably for transportation, a skill just as useful today as it was 108 years ago when Paris-Brest et retour began.
--This article largely synopsized from Phil McCray's article "PBP -- 1891 to 1991," from the 1989 _Journal of the International Randonneurs_. Those deeply interested in the history of Paris-Brest-Paris should look for the recently published book (in French) by Bernard Deon. His address is Chemin du Larris aux Cures; 89390 RAVIERES. The ISBN number is 2-9511584-0-8.