Rediscovering Randonneuring

by Mark Hallinger, Cycling Editor

Randoneurring

In part one of a series, Mark Hallinger reacquaints himself with long-distance, unsupported, organized non-competitive endurance cycling.

Randonneuring. Perhaps you’ve heard the word.

As someone who’s been flitting about bicycles in a serious way for more than 30 years, I’ve been a bit neglectful of this aspect of our sport. First, what is it?

Randonneuring is long distance, unsupported, organized, long and ultra-long distance cycling. Male cyclists who have completed a 200 kilometer event are called randonneurs, females are called randonneuses.

Randonneuring is one of those things perhaps more quickly defined by what it is not. It is not bicycle touring, although it shares some attributes. It is not licensed bicycle racing, although many former or occasional racers gravitate to it at some point as a raison d’etre for all that training they continue with even if their actual racing days are in the rear view mirror.

And randonneuring events are not Gran Fondo style events, although many randonneurs and randonneuses do Gran Fondo and other single day organized rides.

Back to what randonneuring is. For the purposes of this article, it is suffice to say that the sport goes back more than 100 years with roots in France and Italy. Wikipedia goes in to a bit of interesting detail about the early days of randonneuring and some of the different styles of riding and rides that developed, for those who’d like to know the backstory.

bit of gravel

There remains a global sanctioning body in France, along with many country-specific organizations. In the US our national body is Randonneurs USA (RUSA) , which promotes randonneuring in the US. It doesn’t organize rides, but coordinates with individuals and clubs who do. It also acts as an interface between the French body and American riders. RUSA also has a great web page filled with more advanced and specific information.

What about the rides? Although 100 kilometer (62 mile) populaire events exist and are great for training and bringing new riders in to randonneuring, most events are 200-1200 kilometers (124-750 miles more or less) in length.
These brevets, as the 200+ kilometer events are called, are often organized by regional clubs, such as the Mid-Atlantic’s Pennsylvania Randonneurs (www.parando.org), DC Randonneurs (www.dcrand.org), and the New Jersey Randonneurs (www.njrando.com). Each of these sites offers good information, and links to a few more regional clubs. RUSA and local club memberships are inexpensive, as are ride entry fees.

One reason fees are low is due to the nature of the rides. Randonneuring values self-sufficiency. There are no rest stops with food and drink. There are no signs or spray painted arrows to indicate the course. There is no sag wagon. A rider is in charge of his own needs, for everything from navigation to food and water to dealing with the elements.

It is similar to the really old days of bike racing when racers would arrive at a town and hit the cafes and markets for food and drink. And if your frame broke, find a blacksmith!

You do get a cue sheet and/or a GPS file when you sign up for an event, and although everyone starts together the field typically breaks in to several groups of various sizes, and even those who want to ride solo or with just a friend
or two.

Everyone rides their own pace, but there is a maximum time limit for the total ride that correlates to an average of about 9 mph including breaks. For most riders this means you can take a nice lunch break at the 100K mark of a 200K event, just don’t dawdle as the clock is ticking. This is not a race, but don’t dawdle if you want to safely finish within the time limit.

Conversely, there is also a minimum time limit. Honestly I have never heard this discussed or mentioned much, and for most of us finishing a really long ride averaging 20 MPH or above including rest stops is probably not a concern.

Riders also get a brevet card, which is something unique to randonneuring. At the start and end of the ride a rider gets a stamp or official’s initials on the card, and throughout the ride there are controle checkpoints at stores and such. Each controle has an opening and closing time stipulated by the ride organizer that correlates to the range of finishing times allowed. A rider must reach each controle before its closing time to get ‘credit’ for completing the ride. Requirements at a controle might be a time stamped receipt or a clerk’s initials on the brevet card. I get both!

Some events have trivia questions as controles: What color are the eagles wings on the logo of the Congressional Polo Club sign at mile 21.3? Write ‘blue,’ on your brevet card and you’re done. Electronic proof-of-passage with time stamped pictures or GPS files also exists, but I have no experience with this yet.

Upon arrival back at the ride start, the time is noted and indicated on the card which is handed in so the organizers can alert national and international organizations of your ride. Festivities ensue as riders trickle in for hours. In the two rides I did last year, one had a BBQ at the ride start/finish — a youth hostel in the middle of a big park – and the other concluded with informal pizza and beer at a restaurant at the ride start. It’s not a rest stop if it’s after the ride.

What I am talking about in this story are the basics of doing a 100 or 150K populaire ride, or a 200K brevet ride. These rides can be done on standard road bikes geared for the course, and with a minimal investment in reflective material and lights required.

On rides that are longer than 200K/120 miles, a new level of complexity begins. A ride of 180, 300, 500 or 750 miles will be over several days so will feature a preordained place to get some sleep along the way. Night riding will be required, so reflectivity and lighting standards are enforced. Here, true randonneuring bikes become more common. The addition of fenders, high quality dynamo lights that don’t rely on batteries, specialty bags and racks, and often 650B wheels with comfier wider tires makes a lot of sense. I’ll write about this later this year if and when I do an event beyond 200K.

My own personal journey with the concept of randonneuring began back in the early 1980s, when I saw some classic ‘randonneur’ style handlebars advertised in a Bike Nashbar catalog and read a story or two in a magazine. Then I started track and criterium racing, and, well, that’s pretty much the opposite of randonneuring.

Ten years later an older friend named Mitch got the randonneuring urge and rode the famous multi-day Boston-Montreal-Boston event, and he was the second finisher. I wrote a story for a magazine profiling his accomplishment. The headline was cheeky and reflected my 22 year old mind: “If you want to ride long distances, don’t get married.”

Indeed, as noted in the article, it would take a lot of patience for a spouse to put up with somebody who spends that much time on the bike. Still, a bad joke.

My racing became intermittent a decade or so ago, and I filled the void with a mix of ultra-enduro charity rides, some at randonneuring distances, one day classic rides, esoterica such as Brompton folding bike racing and such.

Late last year, I started randonneuring again, and discovered my body could handle an 800 mile month.

The cool thing about rando riding is that you set your own goals – just as you can pretty much set your own pace on a ride, you can set and schedule your own goals for a year. While I may be interested and may well pursue 300K or 500K rides or longer this year, I’m happy to do a mix of 100 and 200K rides if that is all my busy life allows.

‘Permanent’ rando rides should be noted here, as they make the whole thing that much easier for those of us with busy schedules. A Permanent is like a brevet but can be ridden at most any time through a quick e-mail or phone call to the permanent ‘owner.’

At the RUSA website, many ‘permanent’ rides are listed complete with GPS links. These rides can essentially be done on your schedule and then you mail the completed brevet card to the owner to get ‘credit’ for the ride. I’ve done several 100K permanents on my own, and my brother and I met I Arizona to do a fantastic 100K permanent ride up and down Mt Lemmon.

I like goals and accomplishment. I am aiming at something quite reasonable called a P-12, one 100K populaire each month for 12 months. For this I’ll win a patch! I’m not quite ready with time and energy to try to do a 200K ride each month for a year, which would win me a medal for what is called the R-12 Award. Longer rides and yearly mileage totals also yield such tokens of accomplishment. These are not participation trophies.

Why do I like randonneuring? It is independent and tough and rewards those who prepare well. If you’re like me you are chasing your own goals but schedules and fitness vary month to month. Pursuing a P-12 this year while dabbling in a 200K ride each quarter will be a basic goal. If I can get one or two longer rides perhaps up to 600K done, I’d be thrilled.

Last year I did one of the harder 150K populaires out there, and an easier 200K.

The 150K populaire was organized by the PA Randonneurs, and was one of the hillier rides I have ever done. There is a 200K version as well, that involves a few extra Pocono Mountain climbs. That’s on my radar, and could be on yours as well. It’s a good challenge at the 150K distance I did, and we’ll see if I can manage those mountains in a 39×28 for the 200K version in October.

The other event I did last year was a 200K brevet called the ‘Flatbread,’ organized by the DC Randonneurs every November. Held on the Eastern Shore, it involved virtually no climbing and lived up to its name. If you’re looking for a great ‘first 200K,’ this might be a great season concluding ride.

If you can do a half century, you can do a metric century populaire. Heck, a P-12 is great incentive to maintain year long fitness. If you can do a 100 mile century ride, why not make a 200K/120 mile brevet your next accomplishment?


Mark HallingerMark Hallinger, While technically a randonneur, Movement Sports Mid-Atlantic cycling editor Mark Hallinger won’t consider himself a true randonneur until he’s done a proper 200 kilometer hilly brevet. He is currently a member of both the Pennsylvania and DC Randonneurs, and may well join more clubs moving forward.

Mark is a 35+ year cyclist who has raced road, track, crits, cross, a bit of mountain bike, and even his Brompton. He’s also a commuter, randonneur, mechanic, cycling advocate, and vintage collector. . He blogs at redbrickbikes.com