Randonneuring: not really racing

by Raymond Parker on February 13, 2012

in Cycling, History, Racing, Randonneuring

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Companions: Jerome Lavigne, Anthony Gilbert, Nicole Honda

I’ve been away from the sport of randonneuring—marathon cycling—for three years now; time enough to contemplate its attractions and its peccadillos.

The uninitiated often assume randonneés (individual events, also known as brevets) are races.

Randonneurs, or “cyclotourists” as they are often called, like to think of themselves as non-competitive, quick to assure “It’s not racing.”

Meanwhile, bicycle tourists, who typically ride with no record of their passing or time of arrival, are unsure what this cycle “rambling” is all about.

While it’s true ranonneuring allows a certain amount of leeway, it still wants you to get somewhere—a specific somewhere—on time.

In fact, randonneuring has official rules on how you should get there. Some randonneurs bridle against these rules, yet seem unable to desert them for the open road, unencumbered by rules and rewards.

They eschew riding for the sake of riding. A bicycle foray is meaningless unless it has official imprimatur, is recorded in a record book, holds out a laurel.

Despite the pretence of non-competition, randonneurs are almost universally obsessed with measurements of one sort or another, entering them into spreadsheets, graphs and record books over which initiates pore for meaning.

In this sense, randonneuring is a corrupted form of touring … or slow racing.

Racing puts its cards on the table; it wants accolades and advertising. Or, at least, it’s sponsors do.

Originally, Paris-Brest-Paris, the great event from which randonneuring sprang, was held as a race. Winner of the inaugural 1891 event Charles Terront covered the 1200-kilometre test of endurance in under 72 hours, insulated from rough roads by revolutionary pneumatic tires provided by his sponsor, Michelin.

“Aren’t we on the threshold of a new and wonderful world?” enthused organizer Pierre Giffard.

Freed from affectation, randonneuring is a great sport. It is inclusive in the sense that mere mortals can hope to participate without the sponsorship of megabanks and agricultural behemoths.

Though the big events require a dedicated training regimen, any cyclist in reasonable shape can enjoy the challenges of the sport. The average age of a PBP participant is fifty-years.

PBP’s “non-racing” leaders cross the finish line in less than 45 hours; the leisurely and the lame are content to squeeze under the 90-hour limit. Every finisher earns a medal.

A randonnée is made up of individuals, each with their own motivation. In its highest moments, randonneuring attains grace, when, perhaps, a multi-national group coalesces, its only purpose to ride in unison towards the next village.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Keith February 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm

It’s not a race—I’m not even sure it’s a sport—but it’s definitely a game.

Without the time limits, I wouldn’t be interested. If it were an out-and-out race, I also wouldn’t be interested. I think there aren’t enough things in the world that have baselines, beyond which lies success, but which don’t require that you perform within the top few hundredths of a percent of the species in order to avoid failure.

I’m glad it’s as it is. I can go for a long ride whenever I want–and sometimes do–but I love facing a challenge that requires me to step up my game.


Raymond Parker February 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm

A great game it is. I also enjoy the challenge of the time limits.

Outside of randonneuring, I cherish the kind of riding that has no specific purpose; the route can change at whim or the ride turn into a prolonged café visit.

Indeed, my most memorable brevet–a 600–featured a 2-hour control stop, including a Mexican feast and a folk concert.


Kevin Bruce February 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm

This part intrigues me in particular: “…randonneurs are almost universally obsessed with measurements of one sort or another, entering them into spreadsheets, graphs and record books over which initiates pore for meaning.”

Does this not sound like baseball enthusiasts? Combing through stats upon arcane stats? This difference between the sports is that the right combination of stats in randonneuring means one can likely finish the brevet a bit faster; the baseball player, on the other hand, with the right stats can negotiate a multi-million, long-term, no-trade deal.


Raymond Parker February 16, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I know next to nothing about baseball. I went to a Blue Jays game in Toronto once (won tickets in lottery @ studio where I worked) but left after watching a bunch of guys spitting tabacco juice for two hours.

I’m not sure randonneurs needs stats, other than those stored in their own memory, to better a personal best.

Then again, if the object is to set a new course “record,” then we’re into randonneuring’s uneasy relationship with its racing origins.

Fun and games.


Phil April 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm


I believe that the statement that brevets are not races is made with regard to rider conduct, i.e. not riding to defeat another rider, and not speed. The control opening times are based on an average speed of over 21.5mph – about 23mph (37kmph) on the bike when you include stops. That’s the same average LeMond rode to win the ’86 tour – and our stages are a lot longer. 🙂


Raymond Parker April 25, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Indeed, rider conduct is the most important factor.

I include a link to Jan Hine and Melinda Lyon’s essay on conduct in my essay on rando rules.

If riders arrive before an opening time, they have to wait.

There are, of course, endless subtleties within a ride that can only be defined between riders, e.g. a wheel suck is a wheel suck, unless participants decide to help someone in distress.

Some riders may get a reputation for going out too fast and then relying on those who they “dropped” early on to drag them home.

Not too different than racing etiquette.


Phil April 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm

My experience has been that there are substantial differences between racing and randonneuring etiquette, especially with regard to wheelsuckers. While they may be frowned upon in randonnering, they are often harassed in road races. This can take the form of repeated attacks, being ridden into the gutter, verbal and physical assaults and gapping – none of which are acceptable in randonneuring.

About the only time I’ll consider getting someone off my wheel in a brevet is if they’ve been rude or are riding unpredictably. Usually I’ll try to resolve the problem by establishing a dialog. If that’s unsuccessful then there are a number of non-aggressive techniques that can be be used to create a separation. They include: slowing, weaving, surging, and stopping.

Most of the time I’m happy to pull, whether it’s for 20 meters or 200 km. I’ve learned that the rider behind me in the morning may be the person that pulls me out of a ditch in the afternoon.


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