In 1891, Pierre Giffard sensed that something had to be done to boost the sagging French moral. Unlike some more conservative journalists of the day who thought the bicycle was an oddity quickly to be disposed of, Giffard was a dyed-in-the-wool cyclist. This was easy in Giffard's day since Lycra hadn't been invented yet. What had been invented in 1885 was the "safety bicycle," the basic form of the bicycle we know today.
Although there were only a few thousand cyclists in all of France and only a handful of those were racing fanatics, Giffard realized the potential of the fledgling bicycle. He wanted a dramatic demonstration of its power, range, and versatility. He wanted to sell more newspapers and increase his circulation. Giffard hit upon the idea of a cycling event of enormous proportions. This was not going to be any mere race; this was going to be a test.
Giffard fanned the flames of interest with a series of hot-breathed articles. He had conceived of a test "not primarily of speed but brains, skill and endurance." He had hit upon the idea of a 750 mile (1200 km.) event going from Paris to Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and returning to Paris. Could a man with the aid of nothing more than his muscles accomplish such a feat? The medical establishment of the time didn't think so. Doctors universally condemned the idea as sheer lunacy. "The bicycle in such overdoses will kill the rider just as surely as an overdose of arsenic" one medical expert of the time wrote. So much for medical science.
Despite these dire predictions, people started lining up to enter. Giffard was taken aback at the tumultuous response he received. He changed the entry rules in mid-stream and charged the unheard of sum of 5 francs to enter. Nonetheless, 300 riders including 7 women signed up. Among the new rules Giffard came up with was the time limit of 10 days. Another rule said each rider had to use the same bicycle throughout. To avoid cheating, each bicycle was provided with a special seal. The sealing ceremony was an affair of great pomp and circumstance held in front of the Petit Journal building. Properly huffy officials affixed seals of worthiness to entrants' machines. Presaging the length of the race, the sealing ceremony lasted for two days! When the officials had finished, 280 machines had been "signed, sealed, and secured." Among the 280 were 10 tricycles, 2 tandems and 1 high wheeler. At the last moment, Giffard decided not to accept women. So much for equality.
At daybreak on Sunday, September 6, 1891, 206 riders left a cheering crowd in front of the Le Petit Journal. After three flats within the first mile, the French professional, Jules Dubois realized his pate de frois gras was cooked. The race was now between Charles Terront and Jacques Jiel-Laval.
There could not have been two more different riders than Terront and Jiel-Laval. Terront was hot-blooded and impetuous. Jiel-Laval, on the other hand, was coldly calculating, sticking methodically to an hour-by-hour schedule from which he would not deviate. In the end, the mad, impetuous Terront won the first PBP in 71 hours 22 minutes, even by today's standards a very respectable time. His closest finisher, the ice-water veined Jiel-Laval, finished 8 hours behind Terront.
Terront had battled fatigue with nothing more than strong French coffee. On route, he had crashed into a barrier. At one point, he broke a crank and had to pedal one-legged to the next checkpoint. Even with so severe a handicap, most of his teammates could not keep up with his frantic pace.
Terront's finish was as much a victory for the power of the human spirit as it was for technology. One of the hotly debated items prior to the race was which tires were better? Just two years earlier in 1889, the Michelin brothers had introduced their clincher tire and rims. The connoisseurs of the time gravitated to solid rubber tires. Terront was backed by the Michelin company. Jiel-Laval, being a connoisseur, rode solid rubber tires. Terront's airfilled victory sounded the death knell of solid rubber tires and put us on the road to pneumatic riding.
Giffard was beside himself with success. He filled the newspapers with exploits of this seminal event for months. He made the most he could of the 99 finishers of this first PBP. He wrote: "For the first time we saw a new mode of travel, a new road to adventure, a new vista of pleasure. These cyclists averaged 80 miles a day for 10 days, yet they arrived fresh and healthy. Even a skillful and gallant horseman could not do better. Aren't we on the threshold of a new and wonderful world?"
Part of that "new and wonderful world" was in part culinary. A baker on seeing the gallant lads cycling by his window on the first PBP was so inspired by what he saw, he created a pastry called the "Paris-Brest" in honor of the staunch riders attempting this most unique of rides. The calorie-laden confection is available today at any good French bakery, especially in Paris or Brest.
It was also to be a "wonderful world" of sporting events. Encouraged by the success and notoriety of PBP, another Frenchman started the modern Olympics. The Tour de France was started in 1903, again inspired by Paris-Brest-Paris. No other bicycle race held today is as old as PBP. Only Liege-Bastogne-Liege comes close and it is 13 years the younger.
Because of the arduous nature of PBP, it was initially held every 10 years. Racers would rather do 10 races of 75 miles a year than 1 race of 750 miles. As time went on, the number of entrants declined. Only a special kind of racer could afford the training and the risk. To stem the decline, officials instituted something new for the 1931 running of Paris-Brest-Paris. It was to be a PBP of firsts and lasts. The 1931 PBP was to be last PBP before the Second World War. It was to be the first PBP to be won by a non-European, Sir Hubert "Oppie" Opperman of Australia.
It was the last time PBP would be run as a professional bicycle road race. And it was the first time another class of rider would appear at PBP, the randonneur (literally, super-tourist). With the inclusion of the randonneur class came the time limit of 90 hours to complete PBP. Jules Tranchant won the randonneur class with a very impressive time of 68 hours 30 minutes.
There was no PBP in 1941 due to WWII, but in 1948 it was revived. To get it back on schedule, it was held every five years, then, every four. PBP was now an amateur event put on by the Audax Club Parisian (Don't bother trying to find "audax" in a French dictionary; you won't find it! "Audax" comes directly from the Latin word meaning "bold" or "daring."). Some things were held over from previous days: the machine you start on is the machine you must finish on, the 90 hour time limit, and the distance, 750 miles. Qualifying rides known as brevets (literally "diplomas") were instituted to bring in only the best. Riders were also required to have fenders on their machines. The number of eager riders continued to grow with each running of PBP as well as the reputation of the ride internationally. With time, Paris-Brest-Paris had truly become what Pierre Giffard intended - not just a race, but a test.