Getting Your Bike Ready for Randonneuring

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A number of readers have asked about randonneuring, and more specifically, about which bike is best to get started with randonneuring.

I recommend that you gradually ease into long-distance riding, and also incrementally change your equipment as you gain more experience. You don’t need to buy brand-new equipment before riding your first brevet, nor do you want to!

With each brevet distance discussed below, I suggest making one relatively simple modification to your bike. Focus on training and on your enjoyment of the ride!

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100 km Populaire: Cue Sheet Holder

For a 100 km Populaire, any bike will do. You don’t even need to be a member of Randonneurs USA or a local club. Just show up (with a bike and a helmet), and ride. One thing that will come in handy and doesn’t cost a lot is a cue sheet holder.

Having your cue sheet in front of you and easy to read at all times is the best way to avoid getting lost. It also will improve your finishing time more than any other component, because you won’t need to slow down or stop while you fumble with a sweat-soaked cue sheet (or a ziploc bag) that you retrieve from your jersey pocket.

The cue sheet holder in the photo above is part of a handlebar bag, but you can get them separately. They clip on to your handlebars and brake or shifter cables.

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200 km: Luggage

Most brevets start very early, and you’ll wear layers of clothes during the morning chill. As the day warms up (hopefully!), you will want to take off layers and put them somewhere. In most cases, you’ll also need a rain jacket. I also suggest you carry the food you’ll eat during the ride, so you’ll save valuable time that you’d otherwise spend shopping.

A backpack is a poor solution for carrying weight for long distances, as it puts the load on your back. Much better to have your bike carry the weight. The easiest solution is an under-seat bag, like a Carradice. It straps onto (almost) any bike without much ado, and it’s impact on the bike’s handling is felt only when you ride out of the saddle. The main drawback is that you have to stop to access your luggage.

A handlebar bag (above) is tempting, because it combines cue sheet holder and luggage. It also keeps your luggage accessible while riding. And it does not affect your bike’s handling like a saddlebag – provided your bike’s geometry is suitable for carrying a front load. Unfortunately, most production bikes sold today have geometries that are not ideal for handlebar bags.

Extra_leger

300 km: Tires

While most riders can “wing it” for 200 km (125 miles), a 300 km brevet represents more of a challenge. Due to the time limits, you have to maintain the same average speed as for the “200”, but for 50% longer!

This is a good time to invest in your bike’s performance (and comfort) by getting some supple, fast-rolling tires. Compared to all other changes you can make to improve your bike’s speed, reducing rolling resistance makes the biggest difference. The differences between tires are huge. A puncture-resistant “touring” tire can have more than twice the rolling resistance of a supple high-performance tire. (By contrast, a set of aero wheels reduces your wind resistance by only 2-3%.)

Tires represent a trade-off: You gain a lot in speed and comfort, but you give up a little in puncture protection. However, you can improve your puncture resistance by running wider tires (if they fit your bike). Run at lower pressures, wider tires don’t puncture as easily…

Unless you have multiple punctures during each brevet, you will save significant time with supple, fast tires. Bicycle Quarterly’s tests of tire resistance found that the slowest tires rolled a full 15-20% slower at average randonneuring speeds than the fastest ones. Where you’d go 25 km/h on the slowest tires, you’d roll at 29 km/h on the fastest, with the same power output. During a 300 km brevet, this would take more than 2 hours off your time – time you can spent resting and taking it easy if you feel like it, without worrying whether you will make the next control before the cutoff.

For the 300 km brevet, you’ll also need lights. You’ll probably only use them for a short period of time. If you don’t already have lights, I suggest borrowing a friend’s clip-on headlight and taillight. Just make sure they are fully charged! A reflective vest and ankleband should be in every cyclist’s wardrobe anyhow.

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400 km: Lights

Unless you are a very speedy rider, you will spend considerable time in the dark during the 400 km brevet. By now, you’ll know whether randonneuring is something you want to pursue, and so getting a good lighting system is a sound investment. While some randonneurs still use battery-powered lights, the majority prefer generator hubs. Not only is it nice to have lights at any time, without worrying about battery run time, but the beam patterns of the best generator-powered headlights are much better than those of battery-powered lights.

You’ll need a new front wheel built up for the generator hub, which increases the cost a bit. On the plus side, the wheel can be moved to a new bike if you get a purpose-built bike for randonneuring later on. Generator hubs also retain their value if you ever decide to sell it, unlike battery-powered systems that have a limited lifetime until the batteries no longer hold a charge.

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600 km: Wheels

For the 600 km brevet, reliability is key. You’ll be riding at night, and the last thing you need is a break-down miles from nowhere. As you ride more, it’s likely that your wheels are nearing the end of their service life. A good set of hand-built wheels features more even spoke tension and proper stress relieving. This keeps them true much longer, and avoids breaking spokes – something that is almost inevitable on machine-built wheels.

If you live in a rainy climate, fenders also are a good idea. Riding with a wet behind all day is bad enough. Add to that the cold temperatures you are likely to encounter at night, and it takes most of the fun out of randonneuring.

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1200 km: Handlebars

Having completed a 600 km brevet, you are becoming a seasoned randonneur. Now is the time to focus on preventing overuse injuries and improving your comfort on the bike. One key part are your handlebars. Many riders experience numb hands during long rides. Don’t ignore this – it’s a sign of nerve damage that may become irreversible.

Your hands don’t need to suffer on the bike. In a previous post, I talked about how to prevent numb hands. Handlebar shapes are crucial. Your bars should support your hands well and not put pressure on your nerves. Getting new handlebars is most likely the biggest change you can make to improve your long-distance comfort.

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Year 2 or 3: New Bike?

Once you have been riding long distances for a season or two, you’ll know the limitations of your existing bike, and you’ll have a good idea what you really want in a randonneur bike.

Step back and assess the situation. Is it worth spending money trying to improve your existing bike by, for example, adding a front rack and handlebar bag? Maybe re-rake the fork to make the front-end geometry optimized for a front load? Convert the bike to 650B so you can run wider tires? It all can be done, but it also might make sense to start over, and get a purpose-built randonneur bike that is optimized in every way, including frame geometry, tubing choices, tire size, racks, etc.

If you chose to get a new bike, by now you’ll know what you want in a bike. You’ll have optimized the fit of your current bike and thus have a good starting point so that the new bike fits you well. In any case, you’ll have enjoyed a few seasons of wonderful riding without breaking the bank!

For more information on randonneur brevets near you, check out the Randonneurs USA web site.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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31 Responses to Getting Your Bike Ready for Randonneuring

  1. Ed Person says:

    Jan,
    Excellent article. Lots of food for thought as one moves through the randonneuring progression.
    I may have to go back and repeat a couple steps!
    Thanks, Ed

  2. TimJ says:

    What a fantastic post! I really like how you don’t start with “buy a fully equipped custom made randonneur bike”. Although I race and do long distance touring, I am inspired to (finally) try randonneuring… Thanks very much!

  3. Andy says:

    I hear similar things about machine-built wheels and I’m not sure what the issue is. I’ve only broken one spoke in about 20,000 miles, and it was from polo abuse. Some wheels I’ve bought needed occasional adjustments until I just loosened every spoke and started the process from the beginning. Is that now a hand-built wheel? I do carry a fiberfix spoke kit on long rides just in case, since it is such a tiny and low weight repair item to bring.

    • I think a major issue is stress-relieving of the spokes in addition to the even spoke tension. The faster you go, the more you stress your wheels. I build my own wheels, but the few times where I’ve used wheels of unknown origin, I suffered from spoke breakages relatively soon, until I replaced all the spokes.

      I once bought a set of machine-built wheels on sale. I loosened all the spokes until they were slack, and rebuilt the wheels. They performed fine and are still in use.

  4. bgobie says:

    I find good eye protection very important. Dry air, dust, pollen — they all take a toll. Over the years my eyes have become more and more sensitive. I wear glasses, but ordinary glasses do not provide as much protection as sports or cycling glasses. For long-term eye health it is a good idea to wear glasses that block UV light. There are any number of expensive options; I own one. But I recommend a very inexpensive option a friend showed me, safety glasses from Uvex: http://www.safetyglassesusa.com/genesis.html. A prescription insert is an option. At these prices one could easily afford a clear lens for night riding, some type of dark lens for daytime, and in the northwest an amber or vermillion lens for dreary daylight.

    • Hal Bielstein says:

      I just replaced my old brazing glasses. The new ones have UV protection and are probably a shade 3. They cost all of $7.00 and wrap nicely to completely protect the eyes. I think they would make fine riding glasses especially on bright sunny days.

  5. Steve Palincsar says:

    My first brevet was a 200K in November. At the speed I ride, that meant at least an hour of riding in the dark. I was well set with lights and reflective clothing, and with 30 years of year-round commuting under my belt I thought I was set: no preview needed, everything was tested. And then came the moment of truth.

    Sundown, over 100 miles on the computer and I’m now further on than I’ve ever been before, and I can’t read the cue sheet or the computer. I have a small Cateye front light with me which I rig to shine on the cue sheet, but the glare off the white paper is dazzling and I still can’t see the computer. Now what’s that next turn, and where am I??

    Next time, I got a headlamp that I mounted on my helmet. At low power, it wasn’t so bright as to dazzle, and the field of coverage included the computer. Just one thing: at the time I needed bifocals to actually read the cue sheet, and when I tipped my head back far enough to look through the bifocal lenses, the light shifted and was pointed down the road and not on the cue sheet.

    • bgobie says:

      Oh yeah — tilt head, roll eyes, shift body trying to shine the light on the cuesheet while looking through the bifocals and eliminating glare from the cue sheet holder — that’s me. Add rain on the glasses and cue sheet holder, plus everything vibrating while holding your line with peripheral vision. I got a GPS but until Apple or Google enters the business and kills Garmin dead I recommend sticking with cue sheets as long one can.

  6. Ed G. says:

    For a populaire, a great simple cue sheet holder is to zip tie 2 binder clips to your handlebar, or brake cables. If there’s a chance of rain add a ziplock bag.

    Bikepacking style main triangle and “gas tank” bags are nearly as convenient as a handlebar bag, and are compatible with any sort of bike.

    Another upgrade thought is lower gearing. Hills which are fun to sprint up after 50 miles are a bummer to slog up after 150, especially when you’re carrying a bunch of stuff. Sometimes its as easy as swapping the cassette on your rear wheel, or installing a compact crank.

    Any bike you’re comfortable on is a great randonneuring bike.

  7. Steve Smith says:

    Solid advice, thank for the post and I’m enjoying the blog! Although it may be implied, somewhere between the populaire, the 200k, and the 300k if you don’t have a saddle that gives you enough comfort you’re going to need to switch it. I suspect saddle discomfort will make itself so well known that no one will need advice on that score. Me, I could handle up to a century or maybe a 200k on my old Selle SMP Glider (fairly hard and lightweight race style saddle), by gritting my teeth on every bump the last 50 miles and standing up from time to time to relieve the pressure. It really robbed me of the pleasure of the ride though, and I couldn’t have considered a 300k. I was all set to get a Brooks but a local randonneur mentioned he had good luck with a Selle Anatomica. What a night and day difference, and I can’t tell you how much more I enjoy the rides now.

  8. toddc says:

    Great recommendations, but could you be any more specific as to fast and supple tires? Or can you recommend which volume of BQ I could order to read your recommendations? Thanks!

  9. Ted says:

    I did my first 200K in 2010, followed by a couple of 200s in 2011, and finally, a full series in 2012. I have incrementally upgraded my steel Gunnar Sport in a manner very similar to what you lay out. It now sports Grand Bois 29mm tires, fenders, a custom fork, rack and decaleur (by Tom Matchak), Berthoud front bag, Schmidt dyno hub and headlight.

    On tap this year is the Grand Bois randonneur bar and some gearing tweaks; next year, a 650b custom? I will caution that even the incremental upgrades are rather spendy, and addictive! But overall I am quite satisfied with my bike, and highly recommend the incremental approach. I have formed definite preferences for what I would want on a custom bike should I go that route in the future.

  10. yikesbikes says:

    Perfect timing for this post. I will be doing a populaire in the Spring and have been soliciting advice about training and set-up. Thank you for aiding my search for information!

  11. Great post! I feel like too many people feel the need to perfect their gear before jumping into rando, when in reality almost any bike will do with a few adjustments.

    For luggage, I think a great intro set is a small “candy bar” handlebar bag (http://www.rivbike.com/product-p/bavbt.htm) and some kind of seat bag like you mention. The candy bar bag doesn’t require a front rack or decaleur and has little impact on the bike’s handling, although it can impact possible hand positions. The upside is that you can carry food, gloves, and other small items in it for easy access. I used one for my first 300k and 400k on a high trail bike and it worked fine.

    You hit the nail on the head with handlebars for 1200k. I’m currently using Cinelli Giro D’Italia bars and get numbness in my pinky and ring finger on 400/600k’s. I definitely want to change them out before attempting a 1200k.

    • Dax says:

      This bag looks perfect for my setup. Jan are there others I should consider for use with my carbon bikes?

      • I now use a Loyal Design handlebar bag with berthoud rack/decaleur and prefer it to the candy bar bag, but the candy bar is useful if you can’t easily attach a rack or want a cheaper setup to find out if rando is for you.

  12. Bigred says:

    Hello
    Great Blog! Very timely, I’m riding a 300k this weekend with the SF Randonneurs and have everything but wide tires. You’ve all convinced me to give them a go. Ive got room I think for 700×32 on my Soma Smoothie ES. hope to get some soon. Im riding Schwalbe Duranos (700×25) now. Ive put over 3000miles on them including a double century so i should be ok.I think Im going to try the Grand Bois.

    I don’t think you’ve mentioned if you have any big rides planned this summer?
    Anything in the works?

    Brian

  13. DummyDiva says:

    Thanks for your post. I’m attempting my first populaire later this year. Great to hear from those who are experienced.

  14. Robert says:

    Would you comment further on reraking a fork to optimize handling? I have a Japanese touring bike that I have converted to a randonneur bike (fenders, mudflap, dynohub, light, decaleur, Lafuma bag). I don’t stuff a lot into that front bag, and I have no trouble riding it hands free. The rake on the fork isn’t as low trail as a lot of the rando bikes I’ve seen. How does one know if reraking is needed?

  15. Matt Sallman says:

    Great recommendations. However from my experience I might move one item up the list – tires.

    I had a bike fitting last year which made me more efficient, but made my feet more parallel to the road. As I began to train for my first century rough roads made my feet ache. I’m not sure if it was a direct cause and effect, as I was also riding longer than I ever had before. After about 70 miles rough roads made it feel like someone was taking a hammer to the balls of my feet. I hit a rough patch on a 75 mile organized ride that left me in misery for the last 5 miles.

    After than I moved from 23mm Michelin Pro3s to 25mm Pro3s at lower pressure ( I was worried about losing efficiency, but that was before i read your tire tests!). Along with moving to slightly more cushioned sport socks than the ultra thin cycling socks I had been using, I was able to finish my century without any problems from my feet.

    My goal this year is to ride 200km. I am putting together a used steel bike with 32mm tires to replace the racing aluminum/carbon bike I was riding last year. On my first test during a “Worst Ride of the Year” 25 degree day in January, I was amazed how much more comfortable I was. I was also much more stable on a slightly soft trail than the person behind me who was using my old 25mm tires.

    The amazing thing is I am now just about exactly back where I started from with my first ‘good’ bike – a 1978 Motobecane Super Mirage. Same tire width. Same frame material – steel – although better double butted 4130 now.

    • Alex says:

      “We shall not cease from exploration
      And the end of all our exploring
      Will be to arrive where we started
      And know the place for the first time.”
      from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding
      all about Midwinter Spring, so it’s timely as well (and there’s a lot more there besides – it’s a long poem – even relevant to Randonneuring).

  16. fosterrice says:

    Jan – a quick question about tires. I have just built up a new wheel set on 700c, 22mm wide rims and would love to put some supple tires on them, but I also have a bottle generator. Will any of the Grand Bois or Hetres Leger tires withstand the occasional friction on the sidewall from a bottle generator? This is mainly a day tripper, but the lights are for those occasional times when darkness arrives before my legs return me to the place I started, which I hope to know again for the first time (without a blown tire). ;-)

    • I ridden several nights on a tour with a bottle generator on the “normal-weight” Grand Bois Cyprès tires, with no ill effects. Make sure there is a rubber cap on the roller, so it’s not the sharp metal or nylon of the roller itself that runs on the sidewall.

  17. Michael says:

    Are fit issues (saddle fore/aft;reach,etc.) different for Rando-ing vs. road racing?

    • The basic fit is the same, but every bike fit depends on your power output. Since randonneuring covers greater distances, you usually need your bars a little higher to cope with the lower power output. For starters, I’d ride the bike that you’ve been racing on. Drop bars already offer several hand positions that allow you to change your position on the move.

  18. Ty says:

    Great post Jan! Perfect timing!

    It was very reminiscent to me of correspondance we had some time ago. I had emailed you some time back, asking you how I should break into randonneuring. You had kindly emailed me back in detail very similar to this post with virtually the same advice: Try randonneuring first with your existing bike. Then if you like, jump in and gradually upgrade your equipement. I had asked you if I could do it on a mountain bike.commmuter bike and you said sure!

    So my first brevet was 9/2011 rding a 85K populaire with the SF Randonneurs, and two months later a 200K, both on my 99 Specialized mountain bike. I still had the rockshock on the front, though I had put on fenders and some 26-200 slick Fatboy tires for commuting some time before.

    http://thecrazyrandonneur.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/21/

    I had a great time, and though I was literally the lantern rouge on the 200K, I did finish on time! One of my best memories ever, and definitly gave me the bug to try more! I have since upgraded to a Salsa Casseroll, Berthoud front bag, Schmidt hub, Edelux light, fenders, etc. My goal is similar to one of the previous posters and eventually get a 650B bike. Currently still torn between a Boulder All Road, and a Box Dog Pelican.

    But to reiterate an earlier question from a previous poster: Can my existing front fork be re-raked to improve the trail? I had always thought I had to buy a new one. My bike has medium trail right now, and I have no problems with a packed handlebar bag. My goal with low trail is really to elimiate toe overlap more than anything else. I am probably not going for the new 650B bike for at least a year. Wait for that, or do the fork? Thoughts?

    Best Regards,

    Ty

    • If you are planning to get a new bike anyhow, then I wouldn’t spend more time and money on the old one.

      Forks can be re-raked, but it depends on the fork and the bender your builder has. Sometimes, braze-ons (for example, for cantilever brakes) get in the way of the bender. And some forks have very stout legs that are very difficult to rake. A high-end fork is relatively easy to rake…

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