“Paris-Brest.” An odd name for a pastry, observes reader Joseph, and indeed it is. In fact I’m not aware of any pastry with a name quite like it. For Paris and Brest are the names of two cities, one the largest in France, located in the north-central Île-de-France region. The other is a medium-sized port town in Brittany, located in the extreme northwestern corner of France, some 325 miles away from Paris. Pretty far apart from one another — so what are those two cities doing together in the name of a pastry? It’d be like naming a dessert New York-Chicago. What could the reason possibly be?
If your first thought was that it sounds like the name of a train or a bus line, then you’re part way to the answer. For “Paris-Brest” is the name of a route. Specifically, the route over which the world’s oldest endurance bicycle race is run.
“Paris-Brest”, also known as “Paris-Brest-Paris”, “BPB” or “Paris-Brest et retour” (and return) was created in 1891 by a newspaper magnate by the name of Pierre Giffard. A bicycle enthusiast and publicity hound, Giffard conceived of the idea as a way not only to promote the bicycle, but also his paper, Le Petit Journal. For back then the bicycle was a relatively new thing. Most of the models in France at the time were of the old-school high-wheel variety. They were big, they were slow and they rode on solid rubber tires. However there was exciting new technology in the offing: the so-called “safety frame”, which was lower to the ground, had two wheels of identical size and featured pneumatic (air-filled) tires. It was the basic design that we know and love to this day, and Giffard was eager to prove its potential for long-range travel.
And indeed 750 miles is a pretty darn long way. So long, in fact, that many physicians of the day considered it beyond the reach of human endurance. That of course only made it more exciting for the more than 200 French men and women who signed up. Only the men were allowed to compete that year, and the fastest among them, a young fellow by the name of Charles Terront, completed it in a total of 71 hours and 22 minutes. The race turned out to be a smash hit among the French public, and a media coup for Giffard and Le Petit Journal.
But it was an extremely difficult race to plan and execute. For that reason it was decided that Paris-Brest-Paris would only be run every ten years after that. Still, 1901 saw an even bigger turnout of professional and amateur cyclists alike, and was such a success that several copycat events were created around France and Europe, including one 3,600 mille race in 1903 called the Tour de France or something.
But the 20th Century wasn’t all smooth sailing for the PBP. Other, bigger races steadily drew attention away and wars interrupted the schedule. By 1951 only about fifty pros were turning out. In response, BPB organizers decided to increase the frequency of the event to every five years. It didn’t help. In 1956 just a handful of professional racers came, too few to even keep the BPB on the pro calendar. It’s been an amateur race ever since. However it should be noted that since the lean years in the 50’s the popularity of the BPB has continued to increase. So much so that these days attendance has to be capped at 3,500 entrants. For whatever technical reason it can’t be called a “race” anymore, they call it a “randonneur” which I’ll loosely translate as “ramble.” It’s held every four years and in fact will be held this September if you’re inclined to attend.
Oh, and what was the best time ever recorded for Paris-Brest-Paris? 38 hours, 55 minutes set in 1951 by Maurice Diot.