What Is Randonneuring?

Randonneuring is long-distance, self-supported, noncompetitive cycling within prescribed time limits.  The events — called brevets or randonnées — are 200km (13.5 hour time cut-off), 300km (20 hours), 400km (27 hours), 600km (40 hours), and 1000km (75 hours).  Grand Randonnées are 1200km and riders must finish in 90 hours or less.  The original Grand Randonnée, Paris-Brest-Paris, known as PBP, was first held in 1891 and inspired the modern Olympic Games and the Tour de France.  There are also populaires, rides longer than 100km but less than 200km, and the flèche, a 24-hour team event.

Brevets are sometimes called randonnées, a word that has no precise English translation, but which is evocative of touring, adventuring, and wandering or rambling.  One may also see the word audax in reference to randonneuring.  Technically, audax rides are common-pace events where cyclists ride, rest, and finish together at a pace established by a route captain.  More generally, “audax” is roughly translated as “audacious,” which certainly describes riding a bicycle 750 miles!

Randonneuring began in Italy and flourished in France at the end of the 19th Century.  Professional road racing, cycle touring, and equipment trials trace their early roots to randonneuring.

Randonneurs (women, who participate on equal footing with men, are called randonneusses) are hardy, resourceful cyclists.  Once a brevet begins, the clock runs until the rider crosses the finish line.  There are no allowances for inclimate weather or mechanical or bodily breakdowns.  Eating, resting, navigation, bike repairs, and of course, cycling, must be done efficiently enough that the rider finishes within the time limit.

Self-reliance is critical to a randonneur’s success.  Non-neutral support may only be taken at a contrôles, or checkpoints, which are typically about 60km apart and are designed to keep riders on the prescribed route, which must be followed exactly.  At a contrôle, some of which may be secret, the rider has his or her brevet card stamped to show passage though the contrôle within the prescribed time limit.  In addition to a cut-off time for the event, each contrôle has an “opening” and “closing” time and a rider must pass through the contrôle between those times.  In keeping with the noncompetitive nature of randonneuring, official finishers are listed alphabetically, without reference to or recognition of finishing time or order.

Brevets typically use tertiary roads through rural areas.  Routes are hillier than most club rides or centuries.  For example, PBP has about 30,000 feet of climbing on it and is considered to be of average difficulty for a 1200K.  The ominously named Endless Mountains 1240K in Eastern Pennsylvania has twice as much climbing.

There are as many approaches to training for brevets as there are randonneurs.  Most randonneurs do not ride huge volume, nor do they do great numbers of long rides.  Rather, each brevet helps build the fitness and experience necessary to undertake the next one: i.e., the “training” for a 300K is completing a 200K.

Although the time limits are generous (a rider must maintain about 9mph to finish within time), training to improve rolling speed will enable a randonneur to obtain more rest, deal with the unexpected, or just finish a brevet more quickly.  That said, randonneuring favors the efficient, determined, steady rider more than the “fast” one.  Using time off the bicycle wisely, figuring out and riding an appropriate pace, and maximizing comfort, both on the bike and off it, are at least as critical to success as fitness.

Cyclists considering a brevet should not be deterred from participating by thinking that they need specialized equipment or a “randonneuring bicycle.”  For a 200K, most riders travel pretty light.  Supplies necessary to fix basic problems (a flat repair kit and good multi-tool), a variety of clothing items if the temperature might vary widely or rain is expected, and a couple of bottles are the basics.  I don’t carry much more for a 200K than I would for a club ride and I can fit it all in jersey pockets and a small seat-post bag.

For rides longer than 200km, lights are required.  Riders also must wear reflective ankle bands and a vest when riding at night.  Some of my most memorable randonneuring memories are from night riding, especially climbing the Feather River Canyon in the Sierra Nevada by the light of a full moon on the Gold Rush 1200K.  Whether to use a hub-generator lighting system or a battery powered light is as personal as the wool/synthetics clothing debate.  Both have zealous advocates, but no one approach offers any substantial performance benefit over the other.  I use a battery-powered system to enable easy transfer between bicycles, but many prefer generator systems for their aesthetics and to avoid charging or replacing batteries en route.

A “good randonneuring bicycle” is any bicycle that fits and on which the rider is comfortable. On Paris-Brest-Paris, one will find every conceivable human-powered machine on the road.  I have completed brevets on bicycles as diverse as a full-carbon racing bike, a cyclocross bike with 32C knobby tires, a tandem, a fixed-gear pursuit bike, and a fixed-gear bicycle designed for urban riding.  The carbon bike and the urban fixed-gear have done three 1200Ks apiece.  While many randonneurs gravitate to classic bicycles in the tradition of René Herse or other constructeurs with steel frames, relaxed geometry, and ample clearances for racks, fenders, and wide tires, such a bicycle is by no means a requirement nor is there any evidence that riders on “randonneuring” bicycles achieve any better results or somehow have more fun.  Randonneurs describe their sport as a “big tent,” and one will find riders of every age and ability — and bicycles of every age and design — under the roof.

The 600K and longer events present randonneurs with the issue of how to manage sleep and rest.  Some ride without sleep.  Some take cat naps where and when the need arises.  Park benches, churches, post offices, and 24-hour convenience stores are havens for the tired randonneur.  I even saw a rider on PBP ’07 stuffed into a phone booth, fast asleep.  On the other comfort extreme, some will check into a hotel and shower up, change clothing, and get a full night’s sleep before setting off the next day.  If you tend toward roughing it, carry a bivy sack or foil emergency blanket.  If you like your beauty sleep, remember your credit card.

Randonneurs also need to address nutrition and hydration.  Some riders carry all their own food, but most will provision themselves along the route.  Many brevets provide food at some of the contrôles, included in the entry fee.  Riders who require particular sport drinks or gels, or have dietary needs that might not be addressed in the countryside, will carry those items with them.

Try to enjoy the trial-and-error process of figuring out what you like to eat and drink on long rides.  I’ve fueled brevets with homemade GORP and surf-and-turf and just about everything edible in between.  What tastes good in your kitchen may be unappealing after you’ve been riding all day.  Many find sport drinks to be too sweet later in rides.  Ibuprofen and acidic foods can upset even the most iron stomachs on Day 2 of a 1200K.

Intrigued by PBP?  You’ve got some time to plan for it: the 18th Paris-Brest-Paris will not occur until August 2015.  Originally, PBP was held only once a decade because the thinking at the time was that to ride it more frequently would be too harmful to one’s health.  Today, some randonneurs do several 1200Ks in a season, but PBP remains a quadrennial offering to permit planning a quality event (moving 5,000 riders and organizing volunteers across rural Northern France is no simple task) and, perhaps, to add to its allure and mystique.

To ride PBP (and most other 1200Ks), one must first qualify by completing a full brevet series (200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K) in the same calendar year as PBP.  Qualifying helps to ensure that randonneurs are prepared to meet the challenge and that their experience will be not only successful, but enjoyable.  Historically, between 70% and 90% of those who start PBP finish within time.  RBAs — regional brevet administrators — design their brevets to ensure that their riders have the greatest preparation and chance for success on PBP.  Complete PBP, and you’ll forever be known as an ancien (ancienne, for the ladies), a distinction bestowed by the French with pride, gravity, and honor.

A version of this article, authored by Paul Rozelle, appeared in the April/May 2012 issue of Bicycle Times at pp. 40-41.