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18-01-2022 | Marcel van Herten

Paris-Brest-Paris, the holy grail in randonneuring

The new year has now kicked off, new goals have been set and Strava is already flooding with the first long rides of the year. Why is it that cyclists have always had the urge to go further, longer and higher? CycloWorld went on a four-part investigation to find out more about the world of ultra cycling.


What went before

In part 1 we paid attention to the background of so-called ultra cycling and for part 2 we asked ourselves the question: isn't a gran fondo tough enough? Today, in part 3, we once again listen to a specialist, this time about randonneurs. And who could we do that with better than randonneuring expert and president of Randonneurs Nederland; Ivo Miesen.

Ivo took us into his ultra cycling world through the holy grail of randonneurs; Paris-Brest-Paris. What do you have to think about to obtain such an extreme brevet? As a bonus you will find a lot of explanation, clarification and especially useful tips from Ivo for your ultratour. Also if you don't want to go for 1.200 km right away.

A mythical classic

With a first edition in 1891, Paris-Brest-Paris [PBP] is often labeled the oldest classic in the world. Although not rightly so, PBP does have a mythical name in the cycling world. It can look back on a long and heroic history with famous winners such as Mauric Garin (winner 1st Tour de France). At first, there was only the pro race (only 7 editions, last in 1951), but from 1931, the ordinary casual riders were also welcome. The mythical image of PBP was not only reinforced by the fact that even the pros found the 1,200 km too tough, but was given additional weight by the non-annual organization.

With a 4-year cycle (before 1975 once every 10 years), PBP grew over the course of the years to become a kind of holy grail within the Audax world. When Paris-Brest-Paris kicks off August 18, 2023 for its 20th randonneuring edition, some 7,000 participants from all over the world (66 countries in 2019) will be at the start. Their goal: to become an ancien (f: ancienne) and enjoy a living tradition.

A challenge with rules and ... qualification

We know some events are so popular that a draw has to be made. For PBP, for now, there is only a mandatory pre-registration, registration and qualification process of almost two years. Partly to curb the growing number of registrants, but mainly to ensure that participants are well prepared at the start. Condition for participation is that the so-called 'Super Randonneur Brevet' is obtained in the edition year. That is, an official Audax trip, called the Brevet Randonneur Mondial (BRM), of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km.


CW: That sounds complex, Ivo?

Ivo: "To a beginner that indeed seems complex, the experienced randonneur rider understands what to do. Looking at the 2023 edition, riding a Brevet Randonneur Mondial [BRM] in 2022 gives you an advantage in pre-registration in early 2023. The longer the BRM distance, the earlier you are allowed to register. If you have a pre-registration, your spot is reserved and you can officially register at the end of May. Then you're not there yet, the last step is the qualification: obtain the 'Super Randonneur Brevet' before the beginning of July! You can then do that in 2023 until the beginning of July. Quite challenging, but at the same time a good training towards the big day in August. But riding PBP is a long term goal that you work towards for almost 2 years."

Update: The organization, the Audax Club Parisien (ACP), has a maximum number of participants. That number is partly determined by the local authorities. This time there is a separate quota for French participants to ensure that all French randonneurs who qualify can participate. The expectation is that this quota is so large that spots will become available for non-French participants afterwards. As soon as we know more about this, CycloWorld will also report this.

CW: Are there any other rules besides the registration?

Ivo: "In addition to the registration and qualification process, there is an amazing list of rules that must be met; license, regulations on the bike, (reflective) clothing, lighting, the route for companions, medical test, etc. But the most important rule is the time limit. Of course there is a ranking with the fastest times, but this is not the official goal of PBP. That is to finish within the time limit. The ultimate time limit is 90 hours with two faster categories of 80 and 84 hours. Attached to the time limit is the start time, which involves starting in a wave at 15 minute intervals. The opening times of the checkpoints are also linked to this. Pacing your ride is therefore not only an important part of the race itself, but also of the preparation. What time should I be where? The time windows are realistic and, with some experience, doable. Based on this, you ultimately determine your time limit."


TIME LIMITS IN PARIS-BREST-PARIS
IVO EXPLAINS

80 hours | start Sunday 16:00-17:30

If you want to set a fast time, this is your best bet. Lots of fast men (and an occasional fast woman) around you, plenty of opportunity to race in fast groups through to Brest. The controls are still pretty empty when you come through with this group. The big risk is the time. If you don't manage to keep up with the higher speed, you end up alone. With all the consequences of that. The controls close earlier for this group. Fast riders with a lot of experience and/or confidence will be fine in this group.

90 hours | start Sunday 18:00-21:00

The big pack. The place for the enjoyers and those who still lack the experience to choose a different start time. By far the majority of riders choose this group. The disadvantage of this start is the crowds. You spend a lot of time at the controls. If you are looking for sociability and time is not important to you then this is your best group. Most rookies are also best served with this start time.

84 hours | start Monday 5:00-5:30am

Perfectly suitable for those who have trouble with night riding. Especially if you have a reasonable amount of speed in your legs, you hardly ride in the dark. Many who start at 5:00 am ride the first 440km in one go and then sleep during the 1st night. The controls are pretty quiet during the 1st day, the big crowd has already passed. Only during the 2nd day the starters in this group get into the crowd. The disadvantage of this start time is that you must therefore be sure that you have the necessary speed.

Core to the choice is your own body. How fast are you and above all, what is your biorhythm? Someone who is comfortable in the evening and at night will benefit from Monday night start times. Those who function very well early in the morning and are moderately fast will benefit more from the Tuesday morning start time. Recumbent cyclists only have a choice of two start times, between the two start groups on Monday evening or at 4:45 am on Tuesday morning.

CW: Do you have to be a super trained cyclist now to be allowed/able to participate in PBP?

Ivo: "Not at all. Anyone who in recent years regularly rode a long (tour) trip or gran fondo and does not stand still in the winter can still prepare for the 2023 edition. Each brevet is also a training for the next one. Gradually, you get in shape to ride a 600 km and maybe a 1.000 or 1.200 km. But still every distance has its peculiarities."

CW: Are there any specific parts you need or can work on?

Ivo: "Every cyclist, including the randonneur, has weak points. During the series of brevets in the year prior to PBP you are often already confronted with these. For one it is climbing, for another it is riding at night. You can also lack speed. In the run-up to PBP, you can work on this in 2022 and 2023".

CW: What tips can you give the aspiring PBP candidates for this?

Ivo: "You wouldn't think so, but PBP has a very hilly course with long  climbs (over 11,000m+ in total). Gran fondos and climber's competitions are an excellent opportunity to improve your climbing skills. Not surprisingly, many randonneurs will participate in such sportives such as the Ardennentrip and the LBL Challenge. In CycloWorld's calendar you can of course find many nice alternatives, in addition there are in Belgium and Germany many nice events with enough elevation.

Then there is the item speed. The average randonneur is much less concerned about this. Those who ride the 600km well within the margin don't need to worry about their speed. But if you want to go for a very sharp time, under 72 hours, you will have to work on your speed. Within the regulations of PBP it is still possible to participate in races. Local races, such as the many summer evening trainings at a local cycling circuits are good alternatives.

And then there is night riding. Night riding is not black magic but something you can train. For PBP, it's wise to do 1 or 2 more night rides. This does not have to be combined with a distance of 400 or 600 km. Just a round trip of 200 to 250 km but starting in the evening and arriving home the next morning. That's enough to keep up the night riding and especially to test the equipment."

CW: Then I have a night ride planned. And then what?

Ivo: "It is important to see and be seen. I always give everyone the tip not to go out in their tight black outfit. Preferably wear high-vis clothing with sufficient reflective parts. A reflective shirt is also mandatory at PBP. Lighting is of course a separate story. Until a few years ago it was a struggle with limited light output, halogen bulbs and self-built battery sets. In recent years lighting has improved enormously and LED lights are really top of the line and last a long time (especially with an extra power bank). But the combination LED with Schmidt's hub dynamo is still the top alternative, even for disc brakes (see here a handy decision aid). It is wise to have 2 independent lighting systems, for example 1 on hub dynamo and 1 on battery. This way you can keep on riding if the main system breaks down. If you continue to ride without lighting, you may receive a substantial penalty from one of the inspectors. And check the tips on CycloWorld I would say.

By the way, a power bank is part of the standard equipment of the randonneur. Not only for lighting but also for your phone and bike navigation. Tip for your phone: of course only switch on the most necessary things to save battery. Make sure to test everything before the trip at home and try it once during a ride."


CW: Speaking of equipment, can I just ride a brevet with my road bike?

Ivo: "Yes, that is not a problem. Your bike doesn't have to meet any special requirements. The most important thing is that you can spend hours on it without getting pains. It goes without saying that the bike must be in good shape. And keep in mind that something can always break on the way. So make sure you have a basic tool kit and some spare parts. You do need to be able to mend a tire of course!

Often you will see that the experienced randonneurs have a special bike. It will have a slightly less sporty seat to spare your back and seat surface. Fixed mudguards and a good frame bag is also useful. Nowadays you can get very good gear for this that doesn't obstruct you while cycling. Another important tip: use wider tires (28-30 mm on a road bike). Wider tires are more durable, more resistant to punctures and most importantly, they give a more comfortable ride!"

CW: What are the last few weeks leading up to PBP looking like?

"Somewhere in the period between the last ride of your Super Randonneurs Brevet (the 600 km) or your 1,000 / 1,200 km 'training' and the start in Paris, it's good to take a week or 2 of rest. Your body needs to catch its breath, gain new energy. After all, the most important appointment of the year is coming up. At the same time, you can give a little more attention to family and friends. Especially if they're your main support during PBP.

In these weeks you can also prepare your equipment and make the last preparations for yourself, but also for your (potential) followers. Combined with some light training sessions, you are definitely ready to become an ancien / ancienne."


RANDONNEURING DISTANCES
IVO EXPLAINS

200
For the vast majority of participants, this is familiar territory. A distance that has been done many times before under much tougher conditions. Most Dutch organizers offer a fairly flat 200 km, with the exception of the 200 in Maastricht and Heerlen. But even that does not reach the profile of, for example, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The 200 km is an excellent distance to see if you like the brevet riding.

300
For the majority of newcomers to ultra cycling, 300 km is a distance at the upper limit of their experience. But most will find to their surprise that a 300 is relatively easy to complete. Especially if the profile of the ride is reasonably flat. In fact, the 300 is no more than a 200 that you start a little earlier and cross the finish line a little later. It might also be the first time you need lights, especially early/late in the season.

400
The start of the real thing; 400 km. Almost always a start in the evening. So you're on the bike all night. For many, the 400 is their first taste of night racing. But there are plenty of experienced riders during a brevet to join. Lighting and reflective vest are mandatory from the 400. After you have ridden through the night, you will be pleased to find that there are only a few kilometers left to complete the certification. Those who complete it successfully have nothing else to worry about.

600
A distance where you can think and practice making tactical decisions. The fast riders who are not so keen on riding at night can schedule a sleep stop halfway through. This is 100% allowed, just planning well to make it to the subsequent control within the time limit. The slower riders often ride through the night. Something you've already gotten used to at the 400. With a 40-hour time limit, you can devote a whole weekend to the 600.

1,000
The 1,000 km is a story of its own. For some, it's part of the ultimate challenge or last major preparation for PBP. For others, it is a distance they fear so much that they skip it in a PBP year. In any case, the 1000 should be handled with care whether it is 'just' training for PBP or the challenge you have been looking forward to for a long time. In preparation for PBP it is of course unwise to ride a 1000 completely empty. The choice for an easier course is the right one.

CW: The ultra cycling world has many inhabitants. What distinguishes the randonneurs?

Ivo: "The big difference with the traditional gran fondo rider is that randonneurs ride very socially. I don't mean that in the bad sense of the word. It's not about being the fastest, but about covering the distance. Especially at night people look out for each other and try to pull each other through. Groups of riders of equal strength quickly form. Picking the right group is therefore an essential part of the tactics and strategy of successfully completing especially the long randonnées. My tip here is to make sure you find a group with a local rider or someone from the organization. This is a big advantage, especially on routes that are unfamiliar to you. The motto is then often: even if you can only faster, stay with it it's much easier to ride".


CW: What is your motivation for going so far on the bike?

Ivo: "For me it's mainly the combination of the challenge and seeing a lot of the surroundings. I like to travel and it's a big advantage that BRMs are organized all over the world. So you can easily combine a BRM with your vacation."

CW: Which tours can you recommend if you want to achieve a BRM once?

Ivo: "Unfortunately almost another year of waiting, but a classic is the winter BRM200 of Boekelo in the Christmas period. Also ideal as a base for your #Festive500. The BRMs from Heerlen in April, June and July are really recommended and super nice. For once something else than always the hills of South Limburg. And are you in for a challenge throughout the year, blown over from Audax UK: Randonneur around the Year. The goal of this challenge is to have ridden a ride of 200km or more once every month for 12 months. Sounds easy but turns out to be quite a job in practice. You can of course do this for yourself, but the official version comes with a nice commemorative medal. But then only official diplomas are valid!

If you're looking for nice routes between the brevets or gran fondos, I can recommend mybrevet.cc. Checkpoints and time limit are often listed as well. Not only ideal for training for mileage, but also for pacing and "where do I need to be what time?". Both the randonneurs associations of the Netherlands and Belgium actively share their routes."

CW: Do you have any exciting cycling plans for the coming time?

Ivo: "Besides PBP there is another very nice classic and "Britain's Greatest Cycling Challenge": London-Edinburgh-London. Unfortunately it could not take place in 2021 because of the corona pandemic, but in early August 2022 it is on my schedule. In terms of organization and participants a little smaller than PBP but with a more varied landscape. Very cool to cycle in 1,500 km from the main state of England to that of Scotland and back! With no flat kilometers and a time limit of up to 125 hours, it's a lot of hard work."

Can't it get tough enough for you?

If you are someone who is looking for a different or new challenge and a randonnée or ultra seems like something for you? Then check out the calender of CycloWorld. For the ultra fondos use the CWiX-index to determine whether the gran fondo is tough enough for you. For the image: La Marmotte has a CWiX of 100, the Tour du Mont Blanc leads the list with a CWiX of 153.

Would you like to do some randonneuring and get your license? Check the calendar on our site (search category: Ultra / distance: 250 +) or check the website of the randonneurs associations in The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany for events in the neighborhood. When choosing a randonnée, you'll mainly make your choice on distance, trail and elevation.

More ultra bikes?

Part 1 and Part 2 we published earlier. In part 4 we conclude this short series and discuss self-sufficient bikepacking events. Especially for the adventurers (in the making) among us.

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