What is Randonneuring?

In the beginning

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Simply put, it is marathon cycling; yet it is more than simply riding long distances.

Though randoneurring lies outside of cycle racing, and official randonneur rules discourage it, events naturally attract riders interested in challenging “course records.”

Nevertheless, the “randonneur spirit” is ideally characterized by cooperation over competition. All finishers are winners in a randonnée (ran-don-Ay), the term for an individual event. The randonneur—from the French word meaning “to ramble”—is more inclined to savour the countryside than the racer dashing for finish line, fame and fortune.

Even so, randonnées, or “brevets” (brev-Ays), are run under the clock—riders must complete the event in a prescribed time, as well as pass through interim check points within an opening- and closing-time window. The sport also incorporates an element of orienteering—riders are required to follow a cue sheet over a prepared route and a “control card” must be signed at the check points. A “control” may be a restaurant, convenience store or location staffed by volunteers. Sometimes devious organizers will spring “secret controls” on participants, designed to ensure riders keep to the course outlined on the route sheet. Failure to sign through all controls, within the prescribed time, results in a DNF (did not finish).

Charles Terront

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Brevets registered with Audax Club Parisien, by individulal clubs worldwide, are recorded (homologated) in Paris. Cyclists who complete a basic series of 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometre brevets, in a calendar year, are awarded the “Super Randonneur” medal, issued by ACP. This basic series also represents the qualification for riders wishing to enter the quadrennial, 1200 kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris—the most prestigious of all randonnées.

The inaugural PBP rolled out of the French Capital at sunrise on Sunday, September 6, 1891. Charles Terront was the first rider to arive back in Paris, with an elapsed time of 71 hours and 22 minutes, a time that would elicit due respect today. The overall 90 hour maximum time-limit for PBP is set using an established formula, as are all brevets. Basic series time-limits are as follows:

200 kilometres 13.5 hours
300 kilometres 20 hours
400 kilometres 27 hours
600 kilometres 40 hours

Qualifying brevets must be completed early in a PBP year, in order to submit entry forms before the closing date for entries, usually the end of June. In recent years (2019 will see the next edition) this epic randonneur’s pigrimage has attracted over 5,000 entrants.

Cyclists who wish to dip a toe before diving in can also experience randonneuring via shorter, “unofficial” events called “populaires.” These are typically 50, 100 and 150 kilometres in length, over a set course, with rudimentary control cards. Indeed, many cyclists—whether through competing obligations, or superior intelligence—are content to focus on shorter routes and enjoy the challenge and cameraderie they find there.

As noted, randonneur cycling has a long and illustrious—sometimes contentious—history, dating to the earliest organized velo events in Europe. Indeed, PBP can be claimed as the oldest surviving cycling challenge. The Tour de France, lauched in 1903, by newspaperman Henri Desgrange, was a direct response to the soaring fortunes of competing broadsheet Le Petit Journal, and its publisher Pierre Giffard, patron of Paris-Brest-Paris!

Giffard, an initiate himself of the finest invention of the age, saw in the successful test of man and metal (women were barred from the inaugural PBP) “the threshold of a new and wonderful world?” While PBP’s heritage is inextricably linked with bicycle racing, ironically, it was Desgrange who introduced the spirit of randonneuring to PBP, by lobbying for the inclusion of self-supporting cyclotourists. Over the years, the racing contingent dwindled, until, after 1951, the field was comprised solely of amateurs.

“Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds! ~Vélocio


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The “touriste-routier” philosophy was perhaps most famously represented in the person of Vélocio, AKA Paul de Vivie, regarded by many as the Father of Randonneuring. Vélocio (1853-1930) edited the popular Le Cycliste magazine (featuring regular technical and ethical arguments between the editor and Henry Desgrange) and is credited with promoting multi-geared bicycles at a time when racers, in a show of false bravado and without any sense of irony, resisted the evolving technology, preferring when faced with a steep hill to switch to lower-ratio bicycles. An automobile, of course, followed to supply a (fixed) gear appropriate to the climb. As we know, common sense eventually prevailed, along with derailleurs and freewheels.

But Vélocio wasn’t just a gear-freak; he also practised a strict dicipline of spartan living. The devout vegetarian traversed the Alps bare-chested, without jersey and sans steak. Whatever it was that drove this original super-randonneur, it worked. His feats of endurance were—and remain—the stuff of legend. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs or inclination, Vélocio has left a legacy that should be a source of inspiration and guidance for generations of cyclo-tourists to come.

The randonneur bicycle itself, is often a blend of club racer and sport tourer, with emphasis on comfort and appropriate gearing for long distances. No topic is likely to stir more debate among randos than what constitutes the perfect rando bike. My humble opinions can be found here.

Want to try randonneuring? Check out the list of rando clubs in the left sidebar.

Stories from the blog category: Randonneuring