The Appeal of Randonneuring

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Randonneuring is often described as a “big tent” with many valid approaches, and there are many reasons why people ride their bikes long distances. For me, it comes down to three elements:

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Beauty: I live in the city, but I love riding through the countryside. Randonneuring enables me to take vacations and ride in places I rarely would visit. I see views that I have not seen before, and discover wonderful roads that brevet organizers have sought out. Night-time riding is a plus – climbing mountain passes under a full moon or a starlit sky is incredibly beautiful.

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Challenge: I enjoy testing myself, and randonneuring offers plenty of opportunity for challenging, yet safe, exploits. Can I ride from Seattle to the highest roads on Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier and back in 24 hours? Can I ride 1200 km almost non-stop? Or simply: How long will it take to ride this particular 400 km course?

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Friendship: Riding with others toward a shared goal creates strong friendships. It’s not surprising to me that the cyclotouring clubs in Paris formed one of the strongest support networks during the German occupation of World War II – when you ride long distances together, you form strong bonds, and you also get to know people really well. In fact, I have met most of my best friends during randonneur brevets.

What makes randonneuring so appealing is that I can do all these things, leaving right from my doorstep, without a huge investment of time or money.

Which aspects of randonneuring appeal to you?

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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25 Responses to The Appeal of Randonneuring

  1. AndrewGills says:

    This is my first season randonneuring. I love that it’s taken me from someone who finds a 40-50km ride long to someone who will take riding that bit further the way I always wanted to as a child. I love that it’s given me the confidence to cycle 100km a day for 31 days for charity around my full-time job and part-time university studies (today is day 19). I love that it’s expanding my social circle but that there’s no requirement to meet at fixed times or places like there are with running clubs (I’m not a club person but I do like to socialise on occasion). I love that I’m discovering new and interesting places to ride. And I love the challenge. This year I did a few 100s, 200s, the Oppy (366km) and a DNF on a 400. Next year I want to try for the year round randonneur (our season starts in November) and maybe try the Perth-Albany-Perth 1200 in the southern hemisphere Spring (finances and other adventures dependent). Most of all, I love that I can be a randonneur without giving up my adventure racing, trail running, hiking or kayaking lives :)

  2. Karel Boonen says:

    Hello Jan, you mentioned almost everything, but there ‘s one more thing that I seek in randonneuring, and that is the pleasure of solitude. I ride alone most of the times, and it is this contrast that I enjoy, because we are always amongst others all the time. I ‘m always happy to see my beloved ones after a longer trip. As a solo rider, I tend to make contact easier with people along the road. And finally I must admit that I enjoy being called a bit of a freak by people “who haven ‘t seen the light”…

  3. Bob Zeidler says:

    Looking at the shots of group riders, it got me wondering about the personal philosophy and gear choices of each of those riders. Might that make an interesting story in a future BQ?
    I like the idea of the type of kinship you describe but the reality more often than not is these rides turn into races. With that said, I had already decided to do as many of the brevets (3 different series locally, and more if I really looked) in the next 18 months and to enjoy the experience of traveling and to use the full time allowed in each event, to “unrace” them as GP would say.
    It seems a shame to turn such an elegant form of travel into competing with anything other than one’s self.

    • I have been to many brevets, and never has it been a race. You advocate taking the “full time allowed” in each event, and I can see the merits of that concept. However, I also don’t see anything wrong with challenging yourself to ride as fast as you can. There is joy in speed – otherwise we could just walk and didn’t need bicycles at all.

      This origins of randonneuring can be traced back to this challenge of “doing a time”. It does not turn a brevet into a race, because it turns riders toward each other – working together makes you faster – rather than against each other. When I raced, the most wonderful experiences were long break-aways. You share a common goal, and everybody puts in all they have to meet that goal.

      The difference between racing in a long break and randonneuring occurs at the end. The randonneurs all roll across the line together and congratulate each other for the great work on the road. The racers have to put their new-found bond on hold, so that they can turn into adversaries, who sprint for the line, in order to divide themselves into winners and losers.

      Of course, even in randonneuring, there will be small-minded people who absolutely want to “beat” somebody. I’ve experienced that among the slower riders, when I had an “off” day and caught up to a rider toward the end of a brevet. That was fine, I didn’t really want to ride with them, anyhow. Like any activity, you’ll find people with whom you share an affinity, and others with whom you don’t. I found that in randonneuring, the former group predominates.

      • Bob Zeidler says:

        Your point is well taken. I think “living in the moment” is a good philosophy. And I often do enjoy catching up to, or, more likely, being being caught up to, and riding with others for whatever distance we share. Those experiences far outweigh the number of riders with crazed look that says, “I’m trying to make my friends throw up :-)”
        Thank for your reply.

    • Looking at the shots of group riders, it got me wondering about the personal philosophy and gear choices of each of those riders.

      Most of the riders in the photos have classic randonneur bikes. I selected the photos based on their aesthetic merit, so it just turned out that way. It appears that on the more challenging, scenic rides, randonneurs with traditional bikes are overrepresented, for whatever reason.

      Might that make an interesting story in a future BQ?

      Bicycle Quarterly features one rider and their favorite bike every issue. I find the different approaches and philosophies of these riders fascinating.

  4. Gert says:

    Some of the above. Going places in all kinds of weather and telling the stories to each other again. Do You remember the wind on the 200km in April 2003. When the cycling shoes were in the tumbledryer and so on.
    For me it is also the feeling of sitting at a control against a wall out of the wind and in the warming sun on a cold early spring day with a cup of coffee. That for me is the allways what I think of during the winter looking forward to the next season.

  5. Seattle says:

    The paperwork.

  6. Erik says:

    While I don’t ride brevets or other organised tours, I often go touring by bicycle. What I like the most is that it has the ideal speed to get to know the region you are visiting. Walking is great, but very slow and you only get to see a very small part of a region. By car you can cover great distances but the contact with local inhabitants is quite superficial and there is allways a barrier between you and the locals. On a bicycle you are very approachable for people who will often will come and have a little chat, yet the distances you can cover are quite long.
    So I would say: beauty – social interaction with “locals” – challenge

    • Peter says:

      To me this is the essence of cycling – the journey is the destination! And this is where cycling alone – or maybe with one partner – creates those opportunities to meet and connect with all kinds of people that you rarely get when travelling by car, or with a large group.

    • Bob Zeidler says:

      I’ve had the same experience while traveling by motorcycle until a few years ago. But now, the scourge of texting drivers-far worse than drunk driving ever imagined being-makes the simple, elegant, quiet way of bicycle travel far preferable

  7. Tobin Henderson says:

    I like randonneuring because it presents as a grand adventure…I like racing too, it’s an entirely different experience. When I take off on a long rando ride it’s a tale right out of an epic novel! Across plains, over mountains and rivers, through the night! Pints at pubs, bars at convenience stores. I’ve encountered mean motorists and all manner of deer and cows and threatening dogs and even coyotes. Flat tires, broken chains and cables, bonks; nothing keeps me from my pin! If those little hairy guys in the Lord of the Rings books had bikes they would have randoed that ring to the volcano.

  8. Michael says:

    I have been cycling on road bikes since the late 1960’s. My best friend and I used to cycle to school and then go for rides in our spare time in high school. For me the best part of cycling rambles is the connectedness; you set off from your home and feel connected to any place you might choose to ride to. You don’t need to drive or take public transport. You just get on your bike and go; sometimes on a known route and other times tacking a left or a right turn down a road you may have overlooked on previous rides. Stopping along the way to chat with other cyclists or home owners or shop keepers or dog walkers and asking for directions and sharing observations about the weather or surroundings is another great way of creating a sense of shared community on a small and personal scale. Longer rides offer an additional sense of adventure in discovering new destinations and places along the way. Your posts on the history of cycling create a sense of tradition and add a wider perspective than that offered by the current cycling craze we are experiencing here in the UK off the back of the Olympics and recent Tour de France victories. Keep up the good work.

  9. I am new to randonneuring but the things that attracted me to this sport are many of the things already mentioned. I love getting out in the country side seeing parts of this country I never would have seen if I wasn’t on a bike even if I had ridden the route in a car it’s much different (and enjoyable) on a bike. I love the sounds. Like sailing, it’s quiet and peaceful. I enjoy riding solo and with like minded people. When I do group rides with bike shops the group has a much different feel than a randonneuring group. The latter being a lot more fun. Last, is the challenge. Whether it be the distance, the weather, riding at night or trying to beat a previous time. In short, it brings out the reason why I like to ride a bike.

  10. Ted Durant says:

    I like the idea that the only person with whom I am competing is my former self. Randonneuring exemplifies that. It also can be done with people or by myself – I like both!

  11. musekidd says:

    Cycle touring is a glorious ride on your own personal Earthship; where you leave the contemporary commercial western atmosphere and the trappings of work and responsibilities, and you enter the real world – a world where the moment is far more interesting and engaging – a world of rich texture and substance – a world that fully immerses you within yourself and expands those and everything around you. A journey where the road is not long, but wide.

    and it’s fun.

  12. John Duval says:

    The history of randonneuring, if I understand correctly, comes from cyclotouring and the desire to cover the home roads quickly, in order to spend more time in a new adventure at the end. Two things seem to have happened over the years. First, the adventure at the end was dropped. Second, the randonnee itself has become the adventure.

    I wonder if we are either rushing through our adventures, or missing the point of the randonnee. Should we not bring back the two phase aspect of these adventures? What was the historic nature of the touring leg of the journey? Was it the same as Jan’s stories, or was different equipment, different pace, and different lifestyle involved?

    • The history of randonneuring, if I understand correctly, comes from cyclotouring and the desire to cover the home roads quickly, in order to spend more time in a new adventure at the end.

      That, and also to reach destinations that were further away. In the 1890s, most people had limited vacation time, if any. Many were students or businesspeople who could liberate themselves for a weekend, but not much more. That is how night-time riding and “transport stages” were developed by Vélocio. And riders found that they enjoyed the transport stages a lot. Then came Vélocio’s “Challenges of 40 hours” – how far can you ride in 40 hours. But tourism always played a role. For example, when Vélocio’s disciple “Thorsonnax” rode 506 km from Saint-Etienne to the Côte d’Azur in just 24:30 hours in 1908, he spent the following day exploring the Côte d’Azur. And then he returned home via the Alps…

      Should we not bring back the two phase aspect of these adventures?

      I think there is a lot of merit to this. Many of my favorite adventures are not organized brevets. We ride our transport stages at “brevet pace,” but then spend more time exploring at our destination. Even during our Flèche, we ride non-stop all night to enjoy a wonderful and leisurely breakfast at the historic Lake Quinault lodge…

      Brevets, with their time limits, by definition preclude exploring, unless you are a fast rider. And even then, you are supposed to stay on course. Simply riding slower doesn’t provide you with more opportunity to explore.

  13. Willem says:

    I sympathize with this plea for slow riding. Riding great distances at a brisk pace may have served as a demonstration of the practical utility of cycling, but no longer does so. Cars and public transportation have all improved to the point that riding 500 km is now sport rather than a unique opportunity to leave your home town. That is not to say that it is not fun, of course. But for me cycling is now touring rather than traveling, and for that I prefer the slower pace of loaded touring. I just love to wake up in my tent, have a quick breakfast, pull down my tent and get on my bike for a day of riding in the country, stopping at cafes, sitting on benches to admire the landscape etc. Unlike in the past, that now includes stretches of forest trails and the like to keep me out of reach of the much more intense traffic of modern times. So my bike is now a slower bike with wider 26 inch tyres and lower gears to cope with steep climbs on small roads. By late afternoon I start thinking about a campsite to stay, and about food to buy for dinner, I will cook my own meal, and sit next to my tent until it is time for an early night.
    This is not to deny my increasing inspiration by brevet riding. When at home I ride brisk unloaded day trips, and some of that style has increasingly crept into my loaded touring. The load is getting lighter and lighter, speed is going up, and distances are getting longer. Here too, the principal inspiration is the enjoyment of nature: heavily loaded touring restricts you to the valleys, whereas a lightly loaded tourer can aim for more exciting landscapes. It is just such a nice idea that you can leave your home here in nw Europe, get on your bike, and be in the Mediterranean a few weeks later. Of course that is travel too, but unlike air travel or car travel, you actually get to see where you are traveling through.
    For those who wonder about routes, there are now many safe and quiet long distance routes all over Europe, with accompanying gps tracks. These help you stay away from the traffic, and enjoy the landscape to its best.
    Willem

  14. William M. deRosset says:

    Dear Jan,

    I enjoy the challenge of cycling the course, preferably with a few well-matched friends exploring one’s limits. I predominantly ride for the joy of the experience, but a few times a year, it is good to test oneself. Brevets, Permanents, and transport stages provide that opportunity. It has been a tough couple of years for me, but I’m finally getting back on course, and look forward to next season.

    Best Regards,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

  15. Richard says:

    Simply put; I just love to ride my bike. Around the block or around the country. Alone or with company.

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