gasp. . .cough. . .splutter. . .
OK, that attempt to imitate a Disney tween singing voice might have been ill-advised. But it is certainly an apt description of my experience thus far with randonneuring.
It is perhaps even more true to say that randonneuring represents a parallel world. When I was first talking about getting into randonneuring, transitioning from the world of triathlon with a little road cycling thrown in, my friend Damon, jokingly said, “Well, it is safe to say that when it comes to equipment those two groups will have absolutely nothing in common!” In terms of ethos, there are in fact more than a few similarities (self-reliance, the emphasis upon getting it done regardless of the obstacles thrown in your way). But in terms of equipment? Yes, he was pretty much spot on. Compared with the much larger world of road cycling, randonneuring generally involves riding different kinds of bikes, with different components, wearing different kinds of clothing, carrying different kinds of accessories, shopping at different kinds of bike stores (both online and brick and mortar), and even reading different types of publications.
I don’t count myself an expert by any means. However, I thought it might be useful to pull together a list of the resources that I as an experienced cyclist but noob randonneur have found useful. That tends to be the background of most randonneurs (unless you are a complete lunatic you don’t contemplate doing rides where distances start at 200k/124mi if you can’t figure out how to change your gears or grab a water bottle), so I’m hoping that this list will prove useful to others. (I will probably add a permanent set of links to the top menu on this page).
Randonneurs USA (RUSA)
One of the many charmingly quirky aspects of randonneuring is that it is all still centralized in France, according to rules laid down by the Audax Club Parisien. The club administers a network of national clubs through the Randonneurs Mondiaux, one of which is the RUSA.
RUSA’s chief function is to certify ride routes (brevets) created by local randonneuring clubs or individual Regional Brevet Administrators (RBAs), collect the ride certifications (paper control cards carried by every rider on every brevet), tally them for its own purposes before sending them on to the ACP, and administering awards.
Awards, I hear you say excitedly? Simmer down, not those kind of awards. Nothing about the world of randonneuring involves direct competition with others. There are no awards handed out for being first on the day, or having ridden more miles than other person, or having broken the most spokes and still survived. Instead, RUSA operates what any seasoned videogame player will recognize as a highly effective game achievement system. There are awards for completing individual distances, for cumulative distances, for completing rides in different combinations, in different states of the US, in different countries. . . And like all effective videogame achievement systems it successfully encourages people to undertake ridiculous efforts for little more than individual satisfaction and bragging rights. Assuming you can find people who actually care about bragging. My experience with randonneurs is that they tend to be a reasonably self-effacing lot. Most people are undertaking rides that when compared with what even the rest of the cycling population does are pretty extreme, so everyone is aware that even your basic brevet is a pretty significant achievement.
Case in point, I was riding with a guy over the weekend, and in the course of swapping stories about what we’d done in the previous year he mentioned he’d ridden 10,000 kilometers in brevets, an impressive number (riding a full series to qualify for the Super Randonneur award (a 200, 300, 400, and 600) nets you “only” 1500 kilometers). But he quickly added, “Of course, that and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”
RUSA also typifies another aspect of randonneuring: you get a lot for your money. The annual membership fee is nominal ($20), and for that you get all the services described above, a quarterly magazine, an incredibly informative book of practical advice about riding brevets, and what by all accounts seems to be a very efficiently run organization.
The ACA is one of the largest US cycling organizations with more than 46,000 members. It isn’t explicitly focused on randonneuring but many of its concerns–riding long distances in comfort, exploration, self-reliance–do intersect with those of people tackling brevets of various distances. The organization offers its own packaged bike tours that range from guided but completely self-supported trips, to the full-on “stay at inns while someone else turns your pedals for you” kind of deal. The tours seem to be extremely well-reviewed, very reasonably priced, and the organization has been operating them for many years. Perhaps more significantly, the ACA invests considerable resources in developing new on-road (predominantly) and off-road routes; they then create extensive route-map and resource packages that are available to the public. Routes range from those that cross the country (east to west, west to east, north to south, south to north) and many local routes. The ACA places a premium on scenery, history, and social significance (they have recently developed an Underground Railroad route).
Membership is again ridiculously cheap and it gets you a subscription to their magazine, a catalog of their bike tours, and discounted purchases of route maps and gear from Cyclosource (see below).
A Local Randonneuring Club
The bulk of organized brevets are run by regional randonneuring clubs (with a few offered by individuals). Randonneuring is a self-supported riding activity but that doesn’t mean there aren’t organizational costs associated with staging the rides and processing the results. Therefore many clubs ask you to join the club if you are going to do any of their rides. But here again (see a theme?) the cost is minimal. The annual membership for my local club is $10 a year. For a 200k ride the club charges a $5 fee; when I rode with another group over the weekend the ride cost a bank account busting $20 (with no club membership required). Coming from the world of triathlon where even sprint races can cost four times that amount, this is essentially coffee money.
Obviously I’m in no position to offer reviews of all the major randonneuring clubs throughout the country. But here are a few things that you should probably look for in assessing the effectiveness of a club:
- it offers the full spread of all the basic category distances (200 through 600); ideally many distances will be offered a couple of times each year;
- larger clubs may also offer longer distance events (1000 or 1200k) but because these are often labor-intensive to develop and stage they may not be offered every year;
- scheduled rides that are actually ridden (if a ride is canceled for other than weather-related reasons it may be a sign of organizational difficulties);
- Efficient organization of longer events (600 and longer events tend to offer a location for riders to catch some sleep, refuel adequately, etc.);
- all routes are carefully ridden in advance of the day (even if the route is well-established) and, ideally, members are provided with a pre-ride report. Cue sheets and gpx files are updated as needed;
- Advance copies of cue sheets, maps, and, in this day and age, gpx files should be provided to enable conscientious riders to familiarize themselves with the route beforehand;
- Efficient processing of results and submission to RUSA.
These seem to be the minimal requirements that you should look for. Clubs may also offer social events, shorter rides, and will try to vary the terrain and routes for their rides. Regardless, you can see that a club meeting even the basic requirements offers you a lot in return for a minimal investment.
Choosing a Bike
If you’ve been reading this blog you know that the demands of randonneuring tends to result in people riding bikes that are quite a bit different than those associated with recreational or racing road cycling. Some people do ride conventional road frames but they tend to be sporting wider tires, and a range of accessories that would give your average weight-weenie roadie heart palpitations. In general, randonneurs sacrifice speed and maneuverability for reliability, durability, and ease-of-repair. That said, there are many options for achieving a serviceable randonneuring bike. I opted for a touring bike adapted to the more specific needs of randonneuring. But there are also manufacturers making dedicated randonneuring bikes; they are, however, not likely to be the names that most road cyclists are familiar with, where the conversation tends to revolve around a few familiar names. Then, if you have the money and time, there is always the custom option.
If you are looking to buy a dedicated randonneuring bike or convert an existing bike into a brevet-worthy steed, where do you start? Well, the book that comes with your RUSA membership contains some invaluable information.
But here are a couple of other useful starting points.
Bicycle Quarterly‘s “What Makes a Good Randonneur Bike?” is an older article (2003) but still offers some sound advice. This is hardly surprising since the basics of what makes for a solid brevet bike haven’t changed much over the years. There are a few more component options in terms of bags, lights, etc., but many components are being manufactured by companies who have been making randonneuring and touring gear for decades (Brooks, Carradice, Berthoud, etc.).
“Bikes for Randonnees” by Pamela Blaylock, from a blog maintained by her and her husband John, covers some of the same ground as the Bicycling Quarterly article but offers some additional solutions. One particularly useful aspect of this article is that it focuses on equipping a randonneuring bike that you will be traveling with a lot.
Choosing a Bike Shop
I am lucky enough to live in an area where there are lot of great local bike shops. But for randonneuring you will probably need to shop around to find an LBS that meets your needs. Randonneuring is not an everyday biking activity. It isn’t even a more unusual biking activity. It is the nerdy niche of the cycling world (how niche? Well, let’s just say that my membership number in RUSA, an organization that has been in operation for over 10 years, is in the 8000s). If you live in an area with an active cycling culture generally there is a good chance that at least some of the employees in any given LBS will at least be familiar with the term randonneuring. It may be that they have even ridden a brevet, which usually means a 200k. Now that is not an insignificant achievement, obviously, but if you are a fit cyclist who has ridden centuries, as many roadies and triathletes have, it is not a significant step up. It is also entirely possible to tackle a 200k on an utterly conventional road bike.
If you are interested in longer brevets, however, that is an entirely different kind of activity. Most standard LBSs don’t really get that type of cycling and more importantly aren’t equipped to support it with bikes, components and accessories. To cite just one example, Brooks makes a range of saddles that has been favored by many brevet riders for decades. Out of all the numerous bike shops in the DC area, the number that stock Brooks saddles is. . .one. Most LBSs are thoroughly dedicated to a culture of bike racing (and the enthusiast culture that follows the racing lead). Even getting a bike fit at one of these places is likely to be a little dodgy since they will typically try and fit you more aggressively to a bike when most randonneurs favor a more upright, relaxed position.
So don’t just bowl on down to the LBS that has served you so well for your other cycling needs and automatically expect them to be able to kit you out for randonneuring. Look for a bike shop that has good support for both touring and dedicated (i.e. year-round) commuting as a starting point. This means that they will typically offer high quality commuting gear (racks, bags, lights, etc.), much of it from countries where bike commuting especially is widespread (England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada).
A useful acid test is to ask someone at your local LBS about putting fenders on your bike and see how they react. If they can’t suppress that quick facial twitch of contempt then go elsewhere.
But you will still find that you need to order a lot of gear online; the needs of touring and long-distance cyclists overlap with dedicated commuters but are not exactly the same.
No more shopping at Nashbar for you! If you are equipping a randonneuring/touring bike, you will encounter the same issues as selecting an LBS. Many online stores don’t stock the kinds of gear you need, or they don’t stock gear of the quality (reliability) that you need. Plus, there’s the question of aesthetics. Once you step away from the “must have carbon everything” world you enter a world where it just feels wrong to have some things on your bike. . .or not to have them. I could have gone for lighter plastic fenders on my bike, but I couldn’t find anything that looked really good and were long enough. And my bike continues to mewl plaintively whenever I approach to due the lack of leather bar tape to match the seat.
Cyclosource is an online store run by the Adventure Cycling Association. As such it caters primarily to the needs of touring cyclists with lots of high quality panniers, racks, tents, etc. Many of the manufacturer names will be familiar to veteran randonneurs (Arkel, Ortlieb, etc.). They also have a truly astonishing array of small gadgets to address touring and camping needs that you probably never realized you had (pouches for waterproofing just about anything, for example, or different brands of reflective tape).
VeloOrange is a site I’ve used for a lot of the components on my current bike. They specialize in “retro-inspired” designs for handlebars, fenders, racks, and a variety of components. They also offer full-built bikes and frames (the extremely well-reviewed Campeur, for example). They tend to favor a minimalist styling, with classic lines, and to my eye at least a lot of their gear looks extremely attractive in its simplicity.
Compass Bicycles is affiliated with Bicycle Magazine (see below) and tends to follow a similar aesthetic to that of VeloOrange (or the other way around): classic components whose designs have stood the test of time. Out of the three websites this is the one most explicitly geared to the needs of randonneurs. They sell an array of wide, supple tires, for example, and dynamo lighting equipment. They place a premium on durability but above all else they emphasize comfort. (They also have the coolest navigation menu).
American Randonneur is the quarterly newsletter of RUSA. It includes ride reports from the US and abroad, notices about new events, interviews with RBAs around the country, and in a charming gesture prints the names of all new members and all those who have qualified for various awards. The ride reports often contain a lot of practical wisdom for riding in different conditions.
Adventure Cyclist is the magazine of the–you’ll never guess–Adventure Cycling Organization. It incorporates extensive reviews of rides but also very thoughtful and extensive reviews of bikes and gear. Arguably its most notable feature is the excellent photography which can induce severe fits of FOMO.
Bicycle Quarterly is mainly the pet project of bike oracle Jan Heine and is devoted to what Heine loves to refer to as “practical cycling.” BQ’s bike and gear tests are second-to-none (although Adventure Cyclist often runs a close second in terms of bike testing). They put bikes through the wringer. If they get a new randonneur bike to test, they take it on a 600K ride. Or maybe two. Or maybe longer. They do regular follow-ups on earlier reviews to talk about the long-term durability of gear. If you are a technical bike geek you will love the articles about how to re-build a friction shifter. If you are an everyday cyclist, you will appreciate the thoroughness of the reviews and the clear, practical explanations of things like tire widths and differences in tire construction. (The magazine shares occasional content with Heine’s personal blog, Off the Beaten Path which is always idiosyncratic and features some great photography).
So there you have it. The essential resources to get you started on the road to randonneuring greatness.