Randonneuring

The long ride over the weekend and the prospect of longer rides two days in a row in just two-and-a-half weeks has been making me think more about distance lately.

We’ll do 100 miles the first day of the MS 150, and 77 the second day. That’s a lot of riding. But for some folks, those are just walks in the park.

I’m talking about randonneurs.

Randonneuring is marathon cycling. But not only do you have to complete long distances, you have to complete them within a certain time frame. In that way, it resembles an auto rally more than a race.

Randonneurs will go 200, 300, 400, 600 or 1200 kilometers in one ride. For the metrically-challenged, 200k is 125 miles, more or less. I’ve done 100 miles once, and thought that was as far as I’d ever care to go. That’s the kind of ride randonneurs stage to introduce new riders t0 their sport.

At first blush, randonneurs don’t look much different from the typical club ride. They’ve got bikes, and helmets, and lycra jerseys, and spandex. But upon closer inspection, there are some notable differences.

Cyclists ready to leave for yet another leg on the 1400 kilometer London-Edinburgh-London ride.

Randonnees, the rides put on by randonneurs, are unsupported. So each rider has to carry food and drink, and enough in the way of tools to make roadside repairs if the bike breaks during the ride. The rides start before the sun rises, and keep going after the sun sets. So the bikes are equipped with head and tail lights. If it’s really long, arrangements might be made for rooms at motels along the route, and riders take turns flopping on the beds for only two or three hours of sleep.

As the day warms up, riders will likely shed some layers of clothing, so they often use large saddle bags or rack-mounted bags to carry their extra stuff. Many carry smaller items, such as energy bars, a cell phone, a camera, and tire repair kits, in a handle bar bag. Because they ride rain or shine, randonneuring bikes are usually equipped with fenders, and perhaps somewhat wider tires than most club riders. And because it’s important to stay comfortable after being in the saddle for 12 hours on end, many randonneurs use the old-fashioned Brooks leather saddles, sometimes even sprung versions.

A Rivendell Bleriot outfitted for randonneuring. Note the fenders with leather mud guards, the Brooks leather saddle, and the front and rear bags.

The bikes themselves are a little different, too. Speed is not the aim, although some are fairly speedy. Durability is of paramount importance, because of the lack of sag support. And to add to comfort, a certain style of frame is sought after.

The resulting bike looks like a throwback to earlier cycling times. But if form does indeed follow function, the randonneuring bike is a highly functional machine. Most often, it has a steel frame. It has drop bars, but they’re often mated to a threaded headset, and the bars are up at saddle height.

During a ride, cyclists have to check in at “controls” to have their brevet (bruh-VAY) cards stamped and signed. Sometimes, ride organizers slip in a “secret” control, to assure that riders don’t try to shorten the course. Failure to reach a control results in disqualification.

If you’re interested in randonneuring, you might start by checking out Randonneurs USA, the governing body of randonneuring in the United States. Their web site will point you to rides and to area clubs.

If you really get the bug, and want to do the big daddy, it’s the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France, run every four years. Next year, 2011, is one of those years. You have to qualify to ride PBP, and you do that by completing brevets of 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometers during 2011. A brevet is a ride for which you are certified to have finished, and the record of your finishing goes to Paris. Even that might not be enough, though. Because of the popularity of the ride, each country is assigned a quota of riders, and once it’s filled, it’s filled.

For me, the allure of randonneuring is in the thought of covering so much ground on a single ride. But thinking about it and doing it are two different things. Talk to me after the MS 150 and we’ll see if I’m up for something longer.

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11 thoughts on “Randonneuring

  1. Great post. Loved it.
    I’ve been interested in radonneuring since I started riding, mostly because the group I ride on Sat/Sun with are comprised of a lot of radonneurs. One of the guys sent me a training program to ride 360km (220mi) in a day. Haven’t got into it yet, but would love to have the time to train for something like that.

    And without being ageist, it seems like more of an older person thing – but only because the retired folk have the time to do it.

  2. I’m with you on that one…..the idea of it sounds so good, but doing it seems pretty much impossible to me.
    I really don’t know how those guys do it. I can’t imagine 600 kms in one day.
    Thanks for enlightening me on the art of Randonneuring. Awesome job.

    Darryl

  3. Nice post.

    This is one of two directions my cycling may go after this year. I’m either going to try my hand at racing or I’m going to get into longer distances. I like the idea of being self-reliant and going distances that would make most people faint.

    Probably have to make some mods to my current bike: go to 25mm tires (gators or armadillos) and bigger seat bag.

  4. After having done a 200km brevet on a mountain bike, I can assure you that it’s not nearly as impossible as you’d expect. That’s fear talking.

    Big thing is that you only need to maintain an average speed of a hair above 9mph. Most centuries and double-centuries expect you to move a little faster than that. So it’s largely a sport depending on your rear-end endurance more than your muscular endurance.

    Most brevet rides are set up such that, instead of a support station, a randonneur is able to make one or more stops at convenience stores to re-stock their supplies.

    The bike selection, the longer I’ve been hanging out with the randonneurs, is more an American retro-grouch thing than the way things need to be. A super-lightweight carbon-fiber frame and 18mm tires is still not a good idea. But, outside of slightly wider tires, you can totally bodge up a modern road bike to work just as well as a retro one. I tend to think the biggest problem is that, unless you go fully custom, all of the bike frames with enough room for 28mm or 32 tires are either retro-styled or cyclocross frames.

    There’s a natural progression to the long rides. In order to prepare well for a 300km ride, you need to be able to comfortably do a 200km ride. In order to prepare for a 400km ride, you need to be able to comfortably do a 300km ride. And if you can do a century, you can do a 200km.

    The folks are totally nice, too. Last brevet I did, one of the riders lagged behind to help another rider and then pulled into the checkpoint and suggested that the control staff make sure he ate something, because he had the mental foggyness of somebody in the midst of a bonk.

  5. Ray,

    It’s interesting that this post popped up in the midst of several friends and I preparing our gravel grinder rigs. Some of us have taken to building up what is considered a monstercross bike (think cyclocross but with disc brakes and enough clearance to run up to 29×2.1 tires).

    Violet Crown Cycles is currently building up a custom frame for me and I’ll surely bring it out to one of the CCRCC rides once it’s done. I’ve got some ultra lightweight saddle and handlebar bags made by Epic Designs as well as a custom frame bag in the works locally by F3 Designs.

    FWIW, there are several companies that are aiming at this market; Salsa being one of the better known ones with their Vaya and Fargo bikes.

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