A Light(er) Approach to Randonneuring

In Two Is One, One Is None. Finishing Is Everything, 15:1 American Randonneur 18-19 (Feb. 2012), Miles Stoneman discussed how to plan and prepare for randonnées. Executive summary: Be prepared. If something is worth bringing on a ride, then consider whether it’s worth taking a back-up, too. And if you do this sport long enough, eventually all those rare, “outlier” events will happen to you, so you’ve got to prepare for those, too.

Planning and preparing for all contingencies, though, can leave a randonneur physically and especially mentally overloaded. What is the important, necessary, or critical gear to bring on a randonnée? Have I got everything covered? What if there’s something I haven’t thought about? How do I know when I’ve packed enough? Or packed too much? Taking a light(er) approach addresses these issues by making an important distinction between not taking something along and being unprepared.

As Miles points out, randonneurs should avoid normalcy bias: just because disaster hasn’t struck yet doesn’t mean it never will. But we also need to avoid being overwhelmed by choices, indecision, and self-doubt (not to mention being physically burdened as if we were on an unsupported transcontinental tour). Eliminating gear isn’t about saving weight. Want to take weight off the bicycle? Take it off the rider! Instead, a light(er) approach is more about simplicity and efficiency, and the approach is viable for riders of any size, shape, and speed.

A light(er) approach to randonneuring means asking, How can you make the least gear do the most work? How can you eliminate choices and decisions so you can just ride the bike? Here are some tips and strategies for lightening your physical and mental load on your next randonnée.

First, most randonneuring “disasters” are entirely self-inflicted. We’re rarely the victims of happenstance. Starting the ride with appropriate equipment (a clydesdale randonneur on 1400g or low-spoke-count wheels is asking for trouble) that is in tip-top shape (new cables? wheels recently trued? bolts tightened appropriately with a torque wrench? new tires? bicycle fit comfortable and tested prior to this ride?) helps ensure that your equipment will not fail you on the day of the brevet. Starting the ride with proper training and fitness (do you have enough miles in your legs and on your butt?) and rest (have you slept well this week? eaten well? coped well with the stressors in your life?) helps ensure your body won’t fail you, either. The biggest part of being prepared on a ride is preparing beforehand, not what’s in your saddlebag.

Appropriately matching your expectations for the ride and your pace to your preride preparations will help ensure that your ride is safe and successful. For every rider who DNFs or has a poor experience on a ride due to not packing some item, I bet there are 100 who DNF or suffer needlessly because their pacing, hydration, or nutrition choices where poor.

Next, realistically assess the conditions and circumstances of your ride. For example, in Florida’s dry season, if the forecast does not call for rain, it really is not going to rain. You can leave the fenders and the rain gear behind. Think about how much is the temperature going to fluctuate during the time that you’ll actually be outside, riding. The low temperature typically occurs at dawn. Are you even going to be riding then? Understand all weather forecasts from the perspective that you are on a moving bicycle – and the weather is moving, too – and that your interaction with that weather is a changing, dynamic system. You may be elsewhere when the rain hits, the temperature drops, or the wind blows. Your exposure to challenging conditions may be brief (such as when riding through a front or storm cell) or rather prolonged (as when traveling the same direction and speed as the inclement weather). Plan accordingly.

Don’t worry about getting wet. Focus instead on not getting cold (and on not sweating; getting cold from sweat as equally harmful as getting cold from rain). Unless you’re the Wicked Witch of the West, just getting wet won’t DNF you, nor is it particularly unpleasant.

Study the “shape” of your route. On a brevet where you are using drop bags, or any ride shaped like a figure-eight or clover leaf (where you pass through the start/finish mid-ride), you can go much lighter than you could, for example, on a brevet where you have to carry everything with you for the entire ride. On a 1200K where you’ll have a drop bag at the 400K-mark, pack and carry only that which you’d normally carry on a 400K. Also remember that you can drop things in drop bags, too. If you’re likely done with the cold or wet part of the ride, leave that gear behind.

Carry clothing items that can do double- and triple-duty. Even a lightweight head covering can create as much warmth as a jacket.

Replace stuff with knowledge. Knowing where things (food, gear, shelter) can be obtained on route can eliminate or reduce the need to carry those things.

Similarly, being comfortable and confident reading a cue sheet and navigating without a computer, GPS, or smart phone will prevent on-ride mistakes and anxiety. Time spent studying the cue sheet and the route before the ride is time well-spent.

As for the proliferation of electronics on brevets, honestly assess whether you need all those toys and whether they need to be powered on all the time. Don’t be the rider whose anxiety level goes through the roof when his or her GPS, cell, phone or computer dies mid-ride. The “back up” to bring along on a ride is not more battery power, but the ability and experience to navigate the route with nothing but a cue sheet.

The decision about whether to take something on a ride should be driven not only by the likelihood of the event happening, but also the consequences of it happening, so don’t prepare for disaster you likely can’t recover from. For example, anything that fails the 1/8” chain on a fixed-gear bicycle is going to end that ride, regardless of the broken chain. How do you break a properly tensioned chain running on a straight chainline without “breaking” the rider? If the chain breaks, the ride is over not because of the broken chain, but because of the broken rider! The extra links and chain tool stay home.

Of course, you’ve got to be comfortable with your approach. Some people lose sleep if they don’t have a belt and suspenders. If this is you, recognize it and embrace the fact that a light(er)-weight approach will not work best for you. But don’t bring the whole kit and caboodle (or ride a “randonneuring” bicycle laden with bags fastened to every available surface) just because you think everyone else in this sport does. They don’t, and the randonneurs who travel lightly have just as much fun and success as those who are equipped to handle every scenario, any time, all the time. An honest, thorough self-assessment (and gear assessment) will, with some practice, leave you with just the right amount of “stuff” for your ride and your approach to maximize the fun and enjoyment you get from randonneuring.