Author Topic: Introduction to Long Distance Riding.  (Read 2158 times)

Introduction to Long Distance Riding.
« on: August 20, 2010, 08:02:53 pm »
Not a ride report, but an attempt to organise some of the history of long distance riding. Partly to fit the footage I've got. Covers much of the same ground as the AUK handbook and Dave Minter's effort. Comments welcomed.

1,200 kilometres in 90 hours, on a bicycle. You’ll be lucky to snatch a few hours sleep on each of four nights. Madness, surely. The province of the young, fit and slightly unhinged. Well no, it’s Paris Brest Paris, a cycling event with a pedigree of over a century and 5,000 participants of all ages over 18.

Big rides are getting more popular all the time, there were two in Europe over the Summer, a 1,500 km ride around Germany, the Hamburg-Berlin-Cologne-Hamburg and a One Thousand mile ride in Italy called the Mille Miglia. These events draw on the tradition of Paris Brest Paris, which is the pinnacle of a certain way of riding a bike.

On 23 May 1891 the first Bordeaux-Paris cycle race was held, the organisers had expected it to last a couple of days and had laid on beds and meals for the riders, George Pilkington-Mills won the event in 26 hours, on a diet that included a lot of strawberries. Bordeaux-Paris was a pivotal event, it led to Paris-Brest-Paris and then to the Tour de France via the work of Henri Desgrange. But the path to Mills’ victory led from a world that pretty much stayed the same.

Mills was a member of the Anfield Cycling Club and later the North Road Cycling Club. As early as 1886 he rode a penny-farthing from Lands End to John O Groats in Five Days 10 hours, a record that still stands. In the same year he set a record for 24 hours at  259 miles in the North Roads Road Ride.

Mass start road racing has always been problematic in England, so competitive cycling depended on ruses that made it plausible to deny that any racing was taking place at all. There were handicap races that were designed to finish in a concerted sprint, time trials, where cyclist rode alone and place-to-place records. When I say alone, that is not strictly true, as pacers were allowed, putting the early records into a different light.

In Italy and France, this pacing aspect of cycling became formalised as ‘Audax’, groups of riders would undertake challenging rides in a formalised way, with a captain setting a constant pace, this enabled large distances to be covered, while allowing meal breaks and rest stops. A tradition was established which persists to this day as Euraudax.

In France the PBP had lost its place as the premier cycling race to the Tour de France, it was staged every 10 years and it was hard to train for such a long race while riding the other events in the calendar. From the beginning in 1891 there had been a division between racers and keen amateurs, in 1931 Audax Club Parisien, ACP for short, was given control of the randonneurs, as they were known. PBP continued as a calendared race until 1951. ACP developed a style of riding called ‘allure libre’, riders covered long distances at their own pace, but had to visit checkpoints called controles, between specified times.

In Britain, club cyclists followed a set pattern. Early in the season short time trials were ridden and increasing distances were covered as the year progressed, culminating in a 12 hour. In the off season the club dinner saw medals handed out for the winners at the distances, 10, 25, 30, 50, 100 miles and 12 hours, and for those who had reached a certain standard.

The 24 hours stood slightly apart, it had to be run in June or July, to use available daylight and preferably at the full moon. Few riders wanted to train exclusively for an event that might compromise their other aims for their season and it took a lot of effort to stage, so there were two main events, the Mersey Roads and the North Road. These were the successor events to those ridden in the 1880s by George Pilkington Mills and his rivals. Those who rode them split into serious contenders for a win and those who were doing it because it was there: a personal challenge.

There was another strand of long distance riding which came under the umbrella of the Cyclists Touring Club, like  Euraudax, distances were covered at set speeds ranging from 50 miles in three and a half hours to 240 miles in 24 hours. Whereas the 24 hour time trials took place on roads chosen for speed, the CTC events were held over minor roads and riders needed to understand a route sheet.

In the 1960s Paris Brest Paris was stagnating, numbers fell from over 500 in 1951 and only rose above that level in 1971, by which time British riders started to take an interest. The early British riders were well known individuals who could show they could finish through their 24 hour rides, or rode ACP events in France.

In 1975 qualification for PBP was via completion of a  600 km ride under ACP rules.
In 1976 Audax UK was established to organise qualifying rides for PBP. Events such as the London Marathon in the 1980s raised the profile of the challenge of distance, leading to a ten-fold increase in PBP participants between 1971 and 2007.

The structure of PBP today reflects the three cornered origins of the riders who historically did it. There is a group which does it in under 80 hours called the Vedettes, one called the Randonneurs who take less than 84 hours and the Touristes who have 90 hours to do the ride. The bulk of the organisation is done by the FFCT, the French equivalent of the Cyclists Touring Club, the qualifying rides are also organised by volunteers, Audax UK members in Britain, the  24 Hours is also a volunteer run event, which is financed by subscription. I doubt whether long distance events could be staged on a commercial basis. It’s not unknown to have more helpers than participants. So it’s more of a partnership than a transaction riding them, which is quite refreshing, but can be frustrating if you are used to consistent standards. What it does mean is that the heroes of sport are accessible, as you are quite likely to meet a National 24 Hour Champion riding an Audax. The spirit of George Pilkington Mills lives on in figures like John Warnock, Andy Wilkinson, Gethin Butler, Lynne Taylor and Marina Bloom. But don’t think that the presence of these elite athletes makes these events exclusive, they all want you to give it a go yourself and see just how far you can get.


  • Whimsy Rider
Re: Introduction to Long Distance Riding.
« Reply #1 on: August 26, 2010, 09:12:53 am »
Nicely done, just a few nitpicking points that you may want to include.  They don't actually change the thrust of your article.
- George Pilkington Mills, no hyphen History
- It might be worthwhile mentioning when paced racing on English roads was superseded by time trialling.
- 'Allure libre' randonneuring was developed by the ACP in 1921.
- The 1891 PBP only had one division, 1901, 1911 and 1921 PBP races had professional and amateur classifications.  The 1931 PBP replaced the amateur race with Randonneur and Audax brevets.  The professional race continued till 1951.

Travelling to France to qualify for early PBPs was too expensive for the majority of AUK's founders and very few did, hence the need for British qualifiers.  I understand that most of the early British PBPers weren't that well-known as racers (Harry Aspden as a racer and journalist being an exception) or as hard-riding CTCers.  Barry Parslow mainly drifted between the Willesden and Marlboro Athletic clubs and it might be worthwhile chatting to Barry for more background on the early years of AUK.

Early British Reliability Rides or Standard Rides were held on the main A roads and so didn't need too much map-reading but I agree that in the last 30-40 years, they've drifted onto minor lanes.
Wheel meet again, don't know where, don't know when...

Re: Introduction to Long Distance Riding.
« Reply #2 on: October 18, 2016, 12:52:03 am »
I remember meeting Harry Aspen at a Dover Fellowship meeting more than 20 years ago. An old friend of my father's.