Rando Bikes

Long Haul Bicycles

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“After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle.”~Vélocio

What do they look like?

There are many different opinions as to what constitutes the perfect randonneur bicycle, or randonneuse. Indeed, some randonneur bicycles aren’t strictly bicycles at all, as entries to the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris marathon-cycling event illustrate.

These run from the sublime to the ridiculous: classic, restored Rene Herse tandems, sleek racing machines—from classic steel to the latest composite featherweights—recumbents, trikes, and even push scooters have been seen. Perhaps the most-photographed machine at PBP ’07, was Drew “Onion Johnny” Buck’s 80 year-old retro-drive 2-speed, replete with onion garlands. Without any apparent detriment to her performance, for PBP 2011 Sophie Matter of France traded in her drop-bar road bike for a 20 kilo Dutch bike, festooned with flowers.

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Flower Power (Sophie Matter)
photo via Ken Bonner

What all cycles must share, at least those entered in official events, is the requirement—dictated by Audax Club Parisien rules—that they be safe and, on longer brevets, outfitted with reliable lighting systems; for this is where marathon cycling really diverges from bicycle racing: when night falls, the randonneur just keeps on going, and going.

The rest is a matter of personal inclination and idiosyncrasy. Mudguards (or fenders), for instance, are no longer de rigueur, according to ACP rules, and BC Randonneurs deem them “optional.” Riding naked in the “temperate zone,” however, is a pleasure I’ll personally leave to Paris-Roubaix racers, assorted ascetics and self-flagellates.

Depending on the degree of support (allowed only at designated controls), a randonneur will also need to carry a variety of gear, such as spare clothing, to survive cold nights and inclement weather, as well as a basic tool kit capable of solving common mechanical problems. Most riders will also pack along “fuel” to keep the tank topped up between roadside “carbohydrate stations,” otherwise known as convenience stores. Hence, the need for some sort of luggage and support/rack.

Attaching both fenders and racks will be simplified by making sure frames have both threaded eyelets on dropouts and braze-ons on seat stays.

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Variety is the spice of PBP (Velomobiel)

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My personal approach to the rando bike falls somewhere between “retro grouch” and gram-counting racer. I believe it is important to acknowledge the wisdom of pioneer cyclotourists, taking careful note of the bicycles and accouterments they chose. Some things—like appropriate geometry—simply can’t be improved on. On the other hand, I believe it is foolish to let nostalgia stand in the way of innovation.

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The minimalist randonneur

However, I must address problems some recent “improvements” in bicycle technology present, which do nothing to solve the particular issues faced by randonneurs. A distance cyclist’s first requirement is reliability—we aren’t followed by a team car full of spare parts, bikes and mechanics.

In what might be considered the closest adherence to cycle racing’s original tenets, we are required to be entirely self-sufficient. While today’s rando rules aren’t quite as stringent as those Tour de France competitor Eugene Christophe fell afoul of in 1913—he was penalized for allowing a child to work the bellows of a blacksmith’s forge he’d commandeered to repair a broken fork—we are expected to “be prepared,” and the “randonneur spirit” echoes that wise Scouting dictum.

And so we are concerned by the trend toward modifications that do nothing to add longevity to bicycle components and in some cases compromise overall strength and reliability.

Perhaps the starkest example of such unwelcome “improvements” is the trend toward “integrated” headsets (PDF). We are now beset with a new approach to bottom bracket bearings, which also bring similar questions of durability. Perhaps these are “teething troubles” and the technology will eventually prove claims of user-friendliness and greater strength with less weight. For the time-being though, long-distance riders are rightly dubious.

Another, perhaps less critical, yet no less irritating, trend among leading manufacturers is toward shorter reach brake calipers (and associated cramped frames and forks). Caliper brakes are appreciated for their light weight, superior stopping power and fine modulation. Recent introductions of dual-pivot and “differentiated” calipers are welcome innovations and 49mm brakes are fine for fenderless racing machines with 23C tyres. But why must the industry abandon the cyclist who wishes to install mudguards and still have clearance for a wider profile tyre?

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Nigel Press shines on his
traditional chromed “randonneuse”

I have addressed this last point with the latest addition to my stable, by having a “sport touring” frame built around long-reach (57mm) caliper brakes, enabling the use of wider, faster, more comfortable tyres. Bicycles incorporating cantilever or centre-pull brakes (see right) do not encounter this problem.

In conclusion, I believe most marathon riders will benefit from a bicycle that resembles the great cyclo-touring bikes of the past, but judiciously take advantage of modern advancements.

Every randonneur welcomes technological advances that deliver improved durability and easy field maintenance. Most often, this goes against the present obsession by major manufacturers with cutting weight. The primary desired characteristic of the long-distance bike remains comfort. This is best achieved with a plush, wider tyre and geometry akin to a touring bicycle.

For information on bicycle fitting, see the Bike fit page.

Lighting

The question of appropriate lighting for marathon cycling stands only second to bike style as the most contentious issue in rando circles, providing fodder for endless bike forum debates.

The decision hinges on the question: To charge, or not to charge? A high percentage of randonneurs refuse to suffer the outrageous fortunes of lithium and NiCad, preferring the generator option. Battery boosters argue that generators are heavy and their magnetic drag slows you down. OK, let’s move this argument over to the Lighting Page

Gearing

Yet another source of Internet flame wars, "correct" gear ratios are intensely personal, perhaps irrational. My Cinelli cap goes off to the steel-kneed souls who attack the hills of Brittany on a 40X17 fixed gear!

Most mortals will be trying to decide between a "compact" double and triple chainrings up front and how many teeth their biggest cassette cog should have. All these questions and more, answered on the Rando Ratios page.

Luggage

Some might say long-distance cyclists by nature are carrying enough baggage without fretting about how to transport the kit needed on 400 kilometre days. While we don’t worry about carrying the same volume as the touring cyclist, the demand for a variety of quality bags is similar. As with all randonneur choices, there are gram-counting minimalists and there are true scouts, prepared to open up a roadside repair stand, should their rando brethren need a new bottom bracket. Discussion of rando bags here