Thursday, February 3, 2011
One of the things that makes the Paris-Brest-Paris event so special is its rich history. PBP is the oldest bicycling event still regularly run. It was first run in 1891 primarily as an attempt to sell newspapers. Apparently it sold some newspapers since it's still going strong 120 years later.
In the second PBP in 1901 when it was still a professional bike race (though amateurs were always allowed as well), the first American professional cyclist, a 26 year-old from Chicago named Charles Miller, joined the competition. I suspect some of Miller's story has been romanticised a bit over the years, but here's how it generally gets told in randonneuring circles these days:
Miller, under-funded and unsupported, was riding alone amongst 112 European professional racers. Many of the Europeans rode with pacers and had support crews providing food and helping to maintain their bikes along the way. Miller rode alone, finding food and water where he could and fixing his bike himself when it broke down. His bike completely gave out 350 kilometers from the finish, but he was able to quickly borrow another bike and ride on to the finish. Despite the odds,* Miller finished in a very respectable fifth place with an elapsed time of 56 hours and 40 minutes. Miller apparently was still going strong up to the finish as he set the fastest time over the final kilometer of the course (1 minute 26 seconds or about 26 mph!).
The course has changed (it's a bit longer and much hillier now), the roads have improved (one word: asphalt!), bikes have changed (they're REALLY expensive and look way more uncomfortable now), and physical training and nutritional science has improved considerably (yet I still eat PopTarts on rides). All of these changes make it difficult to compare Miller's achievement with what I'll be attempting in August. Still, American randonneurs almost universally recognize Miller's PBP performance in 1901 as nothing less than heroic. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until 1979 that another American (Scott Dickson) was able to better Miller's time!
To honor Charly's achievement, Randonneurs USA (RUSA) recognizes any American who finishes PBP in less 56:40, as a member of La Société Charly Miller. In the century since Charly's PBP ride only 26 solo riders and four tandem teams have made the list.
* After the first day of racing the August 17, 1901 New York Times reported, "The betting to-night is 3 to 1 against Lesna and 6 to 1 against Miller"