A long road to Paris-Brest-Paris

by Raymond Parker on August 3, 2011

in Autobiography, Cycling, Randonneuring

L-R: Wayne Phillips, John Hathaway, Gerry Pareja and Dan McGuire

Photo: Harold Bridge (click to enlarge)
With less than a month until up to 6,000 cyclists embark on the 17th Paris-Brest-Paris marathon ride (August 21-25, 2011), I figured it might be time to map out the long and winding road that took me to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, in 2007.The route I followed is probably not the best way to get there. However, the studious randonneur may discern in these pages some potholes and cul-de-sacs to avoid.Over the coming days I’ll take you in tandem on my ride to PBP. Here’s the first chapter, describing my early introduction to the sport.

“Are you crazy?” That was the question I had for Vancouver cyclist Gerry Pareja, as he told me about his habit of riding very long distances, day and night, and his ambition to enter the 1200-kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris, grande dame of randonnées.

This test of cycling grit, as the name infers, threads the back roads between the outskirts of the French capital (not far from Versailles) and the coastal city of Brest—there and back—every four years. First run in 1891, its success inspired the Tour de France.

Pareja would attempt this feat in under 90 hours. After that, the organizers evidently closed up shop and went off to drink Bordeaux.

It all sounded, well, French to me.

I met Gerry in 1978, the year before the 9th edition of PBP, while working at The Great Escape/Nippon Cycle, in Vancouver. Besides helping to prepare his bike for PBP, I bought some of the parts he was trading off. They became components on a bike I rode for many years—my Nishiki Landau.

I already knew one of his riding mates John Hathaway (1925-1997), whose fame preceded him. He set the trans-Canada cycling record (24 days 13 hours) in 1957, which stood for 20 years. I once presumed to challenge that record. On a test ride across B.C., in 1972, I realized my ambitions exceeded my talents.

Two more Vancouver bike fiends joined Pareja and Hathaway on their two-wheeled invasion of France: Dan McGuire and Wayne Phillips. So I guess that made it eight wheels in all.

That was pretty much the start and finish of my introduction to randonneuring: four crazy men who became the first cyclists from Canada to enter, and complete, the oldest and most prestigious cycling event in France.

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Fast-forward to 1992. I’d moved to Vancouver Island the year before and took up with local Yellow Point cyclists Stephen & Carol Hinde, and Nigel Philcox.

I soon learned that they were veterans—or anciens as successful PBP riders are dubbed, en français—of the 100th anniversary edition of PBP, in 1991. They showed me the medals they had earned—weighty objects, cast in bronze.

After a frigid New Year’s Day ride, Stephen and Carol Hinde served chile and showed an inspirational video of PBP riders slogging up steep Bretagne hills, wearing smiles … or were they grimaces?

Why didn’t I join them on the next poplulaire?—more francophone lingo, meaning a non-official gateway drug intended to hook initiates on hard-core ultra-distance cycling, under the imprimatur of the Audax Club Parisien.

Evidently, I was immune. Over the next couple of years, I did a few 100 km populaires (mostly in spring, drenched by freezing rain, eating mud from the back wheel of the rider pulling me to the finish). I did a 200-kilometre brevet. Then, I went back to my first love: bicycle touring.

In the summer of 1994, I returned from a two-month tour through Alaska, Yukon and B.C.

Two-thirds of the way through a 160-kilometre day-ride on southern Vancuover Island, I bumped into Hinde and Philcox, who were nearing the end of a 600-kilometre brevet. I tagged onto their paceline for a while. After thirty hours in the saddle, they were still setting a blistering pace.

I was awestruck by the endurance of these men. Even with my expeditionary mountaineering experience, long days touring with loaded panniers, and dogged racing demeanour, I couldn’t comprehend how it was possible to ride in under 40 hours—the outside time limit for a 600—distances I was happy to cover on a loaded bike in a week.

But, boy, that sure was a cool looking medal!

And so ends chapter one. You can navigate these stories via the tags below, or the chapter numbers. In particular, the “paris-brest-paris” tag and the “road to pbp” tag (specific to this series) will help you along. 

Chapters: |1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8

{ 12 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Randobarf August 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Wow, that photo with Hathaway brings back vivid memories of Hathaway. He was quite a character and always a source of entertainment! The life stories of Phillips, Hathaway, Pareja and McGuire are worthy of some kind of special place in the history of sports in British Columbia.

Ray, I envy you for making it to PBP in 2007. I was merrily on my way to Paris ready to enjoy 3 days of masochism in the countryside for PBP 2007 and I ended up completely failing to even get to the start (due to a laughably pathetic communication failure). I already had a couple of PBP medals (somewhere in a storage box) but there is something strangely appealing about hallucinating at 3 am in France while riding your bike with other cyclists who have similar interests.

For this year’s PBP I had no money, so I could not go but I have been doing the odd mindless cycletour instead. I wish all randonneurs at this year’s PBP the best (hallucinations), especially Arscott, who will be setting a PBP record despite being pummeled by an idiotic motorist in Vancouver! [PBP 2011 will be Deirdre Arscott’s 7th. Ed.]

Whenever I am touring, I imagine that I am the mighty John Hathaway the cycletourist, taking the hard route in South America.

My latest (ultra-dull) cycletour


Raymond Parker August 3, 2011 at 6:57 pm

You’re right David, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

But memories of John are still there to inspire.

Those sure are some “cloudscapes” you recorded on your recent tour. At the risk of tempting the already fickle weather gods, I always think they make for a better image than a boring blue sky


Harold Bridge August 3, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Prior to learning wheel sucking, I had grown up a time trialist, or “tester” for short. No matter how hard I tried, I could never exude power for very long.
In 2005, during a 3 week long tour from Land’s End to John O’Groats at age 78, I was “knackered” for a week or more!
The cardiologist explained why: I had a weak heart! That explained why, at 12 or 13, I was quite happy piling on the miles during the glorious summer of 1940, when I sometimes got home during the “Blackout” after letting the bike take me over the next hill and round the next corner. But I lacked the “punch” for short time trials.
Upon checking, it seems some of those youthful forays amounted to 200 kms or more.
My only successful PBP in 1983 got me in with about 10 minutes to spare. I wasn’t really ready, but at 56 I felt I had to do PBP that year becuse I would be too old in 4 years time!
But 1987 came with bad weather and an assumed sealed unit BB failed me. It was so well sealed the rain couldn’t get out! I was DNF!
1991, the PBP centenary, was going well until my famous foot in a rock filled ditch left me with 6 weeks of pain and 92 hours.


Raymond Parker August 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Of all developed cycling skills, wheel sucking is perhaps the most under-rated.

As you know, Harold, I was lucky to learn it at the wheel of one of the great young racers of the ’60s, Mick Stallard.

It’s funny, isn’t it, to look back at some of those unheralded UK rides, to discover how long (not to mention hilly) they were?


lee kenney August 5, 2011 at 8:39 am

still crazy, butt I trace my continued velo-affliction due to the pressure points of a Ideale-90, combined with the Rumble Strips of B.C.and my precious ishcial tuberosities. It was good to see all those old faces and to quote a bit of rastafarian ‘Don’t give up the fight!’


Raymond Parker August 5, 2011 at 10:18 am

Lee, is that you of Nippon and Carleton fame?


lee kenney August 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm

jah mon.officially a senior but I prefer vintage . I’m still above ground and find my pedals and find it very gratifying to see old bike faces[probably a secret additive in campy grease] Keep up the good work,bike bin verry very good to me!


Raymond Parker August 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Lee, you rascal! I’ve deleted other comments you left, ’cause they were so cryptic. Thought someone was messin’ with me. And you were. I shoulda known!

I’ll be damned! What a great surprise!

As you can see, I’m an archivist. I could post some real embarrassing photos of you here 🙂


lee kenney August 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

part of the age related afflictions is a memory, that combined with bicycles is trouble so we need a reminder or 2. Got to your site via cgoab [thanks Mr. Cambon] We here in the loops have Western Canada Games now so I’ve volunteered for bike events

p.s. cryptic remarks are like bread crumbs to grannies house and her antique bike. google Bicycle Zen proverb,grasshopper


Raymond Parker August 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Ah, David’s to blame! 🙂 So, you’re back in the Interior. Keep the rubber side down, dude.


Rafael Dias August 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I’m from Brazil and I’m going to my first PBP. I’m a little anxious, as it should be, I think.
Many times I went through the same situation of people ask if I’m not crazy about 1200km ride for days and nights. I believe they do not understand the power they have.


Raymond Parker August 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Hi Rafael: There were plenty of your compatriots at PBP ’07. Some of them stayed at the same motel as the BC Randonneurs contingent, Le Pavillon des Gatines.

The big rides can only be approached in the same way you’d go about eating an elephant

Bonne route!


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