We have a charming weather lady here – “weatherperson,” you probably have to say these days, although her gender is not in doubt – called Evelyne Dheliat. She is German, or at any rate she was born in Cologne, but because she moved to Paris in her childhood, you would never know it.
Anyway, Evelyne came on the telly last night and brought out a map of France that didn’t have a single cloud on it. A bit of morning mist here and there but otherwise just a whacking big sun. More than that, much of the country was, she announced, subject to a heat wave alert.
In France, that means three days of at least 35 degrees with the nights not getting especially cool. That’s at least 35 degrees. Which, in Fahrenheit, means more than 95.
Why should you care?
A Sticky Situation
Well, probably you don’t. But right now an awful lot of cyclists do. Because tomorrow night – Sunday, the 21st – they will start out on Paris-Brest-Paris. At the very slowest they have to ride 1,200 km in 90 hours. The route is not especially flat. They look like they’ll be having a sticky time.
I remember writing about it for RBR last time. It rained for days on end. It rained all the way from the capital to the edge of Finistere, and it rained all the way back again. It is cooler in Paris at the moment than it is here, but misery looks assured once more. Just a different misery.
The mem’sahib and I crossed the PBP route several times while we riding to the D-Day beaches recently. We kept being asked if we were scouting out the course. We had bikes loaded with luggage and a tent but so much is PBP in the mind of people who live along the way and turn out in the small hours to support the riders that they couldn’t imagine any other reason to be there.
“Do people scout out the route, then?” we asked, rather thinking that it sufficed to ride it just the once.
“If they’re looking for a perf they do,” said the jovial, dark-haired man in a bar. He wasn’t a cyclist but he knew the slang. The French do all they can never to finish a word and perf is short for performance, which is the understated French way of talking of riding like the clappers as though it were a race.
And sure enough, that night our hotel car park had expensive bikes strapped to roof racks.
Oh Captain, My Captain
Henri Desgrange, stealing yet another good idea and calling it his own, muscled in on PBP in 1901. He put his newspaper, L’Auto, behind it and thereafter regarded it as his own. To safeguard the connection, he created the French Audax movement in 1904, a year after he promoted his first Tour de France. It took 20 years to have a good row with the stubborn old man but, when it came, it did away with the old idea of a captain of the road setting a steady pace that wasn’t to be exceeded. The Audax Club Parisien held a rival event in which riders were free to ride as they wished. They called it allure libre, or “free speed.” And that’s the way it still is.
In the qualifying events – les qualifs – there is a maximum of 30 km/h. You have to ride 200, 300, 400 and 600 km slower than that but faster than 15 km/h, all stops included.
In PBP, there is no maximum. There’s a minimum, but that varies as the ride goes on, faster at first and then falling to cope with tired legs and bewildered brains. Because there is no speed limit, the way is open to go for a “win” – there are no prizes – or a record time, although there is no official list.
The fast riders ride through the night in the headlight beams of following cars. The organizers turn ablind eye; following cars are not allowed. They turn a blind eye, too, to the way drivers run into control points with their rider’s check card. A rider is supposed to present it himself and a judge could, if he wished, demand to see the participant in person.
But perfs are few and show little tendency to increase. PBP started as a race, after all – Charles Terront won the first in 1891 despite an attempt by rivals to sabotage his tires, and it stayed a race until 1951 – and even the humblest rider scraping in a moment before his 90 minutes is judged a hero.
Not that you can get away with just anything. Eight years ago, it emerged that some riders had expanded the spirit of sportsmanship to include jumping into cars and carrying on some way up the road in luxury. So much more comfortable than riding.
I don’t think the judges caught them, although they have in the past, but they have a pretty good guess from the check-in times. It is not normal to average 23 km/h between most controls and then 65 between two others. “We hope they can look at themselves in the mirror this morning,” was the understated way they put it in a newsletter to all the starters.
Trouserless, But Still Going
The PBP we know is run by the Audax Club Parisien, which also promotes other long-distance challenges. It is the ACP which appointed brevet organizations around the world, and my first brevet cards, from the 1980s, were sent from England to Paris to be stamped and recorded, in handwriting, in a large book. Britain, like other nations, now has its own brevet association, and there are now more foreigners than Frenchmen in PBP.
But the old way continues. Overshadowed and rather sans-culottes* compared to the Audax Club Parisien are the Union des Audax Françaises. They are successors to the Desgrange ideal, and their own PBP, held every five years rather than four, still has captains of the road. As do all their brevets. The UAF is much wider than cycling, which is just one of its sports. And its website makes no mention of its bigger rival.
Will they one day shrug and acknowledge that they’ve been overtaken? Will they go home and leave the job to the ACP? No sign of it so far.
Anyway, last time – the larger PBP is every four years – nearly a third of the field dropped out. To go from ark-like rain to unreasonable heat is more than anyone ought reasonably bear. But that’s long-distance cycling.
* Sans-culottes means, literally, without trousers. The term comes from the shabby laborers who made up the peasant army in the French Revolution of 1789.
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