Tackling Paris Brest Paris. On Vintage Bikes…

Intrepid Tasmanian Trio Ride P-B-P on Machines From the 1930's

9 Jul 2012  |  Posted by GUEST  |  Categories: Bicycles, Curiosities, Events, Friends, Heritage, Stories

Paris Brest Paris is one of the toughest races, perhaps THE toughest if ridden on antique machinery.

The 1931 Paris-Brest-Paris is remembered as one of the most remarkable, from an era when the event occurred in the professional racing calendar once every ten years. After nearly 750 Miles, 49 hours of continuous racing, and numerous attempts to break away from a field that included Tour de France champions, the young Australian, Hubert Opperman ( Oppy ) won a frantic sprint from four competitors, swooping off the high bank of the Parc de Princess velodrome.



The Malvern Star of Opperman’s teammate R.W. “Fatty” Lamb.

In 2008 Australian cyclists Scott Dickson, Gavin Hinds, and Craig Hoey came upon the coincidence of dates that marked the 17th running of P-B-P as the 80th Anniversary of Sir Hubert Opperman’s remarkable win, almost to the day. What began as a simple idea turned into three years of dreaming, preparation and qualifying, in order to ride genuine 1930’s bikes through Paris-Brest-Paris in August 2011.

…A bus is ticking over just along the street, warming up to take stragglers back to Paris. We can’t find fellow Aussie, Andrew, inside the control, and it is literally collapsing around us, disappearing into the back of a Peugeot station wagon and boot of a small Renault…

“Garçon! Three Croque Monsieurs and seventeen bottles of Coke s’il vous plait.”

I looked into Craig’s eyes at the 1009Km mark of Paris-Brest-Paris (2011), the control at Villaines, and knew that the right thing to do was stop.

There is some weight in those nine kilometres. Just back along the course he had frightened me with a severe speed wobble on a steep little pitch – saving himself, I suspect, with the relaxation that comes with resignation. Minutes later I turned in the saddle again and caught him riding with his left hand holding up his chin. Craig needed to stop, didn’t want to stop, really had to stop.

When Craig agreed that he needed to stop I was relieved. I wanted to stop too, had set my mind to finish, desperately didn’t want to admit defeat.

Gavin and Scott on their eighty year old bicycles at Paris-Brest-Paris.

Just after lunch the previous day we’d left Gavin at the road side, after swapping his sound back wheel for my de-tensioning timber-rimmed masterpiece. After a key-stone cops routine that saw me butcher his cable shift, leaving him just the tallest gear of three, he had gamely set off back toward the Loudeac control, with neck muscles no longer able to hold up his head. We continued toward Fougére, the wind rising at our back, and the promise of a shower and a few hours sleep.

All his fault. Hubert Opperman riding (and winning) P-B-P in 1931.

We had somewhat underestimated the course, and capped this ignorance with the misguided romance of an idea to ride genuine 1930’s bikes at Paris-Brest-Paris. Why do this? We wanted to experience at first hand something of the challenges faced by Sir Hubert Opperman in his era on the 80th anniversary of his win in the event in 1931. And so we pieced together a motley collection of 1930’s frames, a Whatley Brothers ‘Cressy’, an Aero-Flyer, and Malvern Star, set up with a Sturmey Archer 3-speed hub geared to give direct drive approximating Oppy’s single 72 inch gear.

Sadly, none of the boys wore a John Boultbee Criterion.

To our naive surprise, it seemed that this historical footnote held only passing interest for riders competing in what is still very much a race. Even fellow Australian riders were (bemused but) only vaguely interested in following the faintest trace of Oppy along the rural back lanes of Brittany. And yet each time I looked down at the grimy machine-grey frame beneath me, I could not help but smile at the thought that I was pedaling an eighty year old Malvern Star, in France, at P-B-P, the oldest of races.

This was the calibre of machine Oppy was wont to ride. Possibly, he rode this very one.

PBP is pitched as a very personal challenge, a voyage of self-discovery. Mostly it is rolling rural back roads, shaded and leafy lanes, stone-walled villages, steep little bastard climbs, mist, fog, hours (and hours ) of darkness, amazing butter and baguettes, hill-top towns, pouring rain, volunteer school children carrying your trays of food, raw palette-scorching coffee and flickering eyelids, golden predawn chill. It was also hours spent in the company of good friends with barely a word spoken. Complete trust.

It came as a shock then, the acceptance of stopping. The relief of stopping, the anxiety of stopping. The reassurances mixed with humour and self justification. Craig and I sat cramped together on a half-empty bus trying vainly to hold onto a shred of dignity and not slump immediately into a coma as our assorted journeymen, without exception, did. Telephone contact with Gavin soothed our paired conscience. He was chipper and heading also toward Paris by TGV, swapping war stories with other bedraggled P-B-P casualties.


Gavin, Scott and Craig pictured after the dust had settled and all were back home in Australia.

Back at home, a good friend had said with understated empathy; it’s better to DNF than DNS… I know he’s right but even now it all sits uneasily, unresolved. We could probably make a decent list of our strategic mistakes, learning for another day.

Each of us agree that in making the attempt, in actually going to France, we experienced one of the greatest (and in some ways idiotic) cycling events in a unique way that was significant to us. We have come back firmer friends, knowing that there will be the next ride – and there is a bit of a plan in mind…

More about PBP , Oppy and us can be found at www.750m.com.au

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4 Comments

  1. Ben 
    Posted 4:41 am
    12 Jul 2012

    Great feat, great read, but .. why are all the forks on back to front?

  2. Arturo 
    Posted 6:15 pm
    24 Jul 2012

    Those are track motor pacing bikes. They’re used in 6 day track races for distance events behind big motorcycles. Oppy may well have ridden one of these but it’s unlikely he rode one in PBP.

  3. Jon Hill 
    Posted 11:25 am
    25 Jul 2012

    Perhaps that is the real challenge – to ride a bike with the forks facing in the wrong direction!

  4. GARETH 
    Posted 12:09 pm
    25 Jul 2012

    Hi Arthur. We may not have been as clear as we hoped to be. There was no suggestion on the author’s or editor’s part that anybody (Oppy, Fatty, Scotty, Craigy or Gavvy) rode PBP on a pacing bike. We had by coincidence (in the same week we wished to post the story) simply happened upon these pictures, the first one certainly having previously belonged to Oppy’s team mate Fatty, and the second one thought to be PERHAPS one of Oppy himself’s very own track rides. Admittedly, a fairly tenuous link to PBP, and it seems to have caused some confusion. Our apologies.