Here’s a cliché of a sport cyclist: expensive gear, team clothes in matching colors, an overly competitive attitude and last but not least shaved legs. Of course it is not true for all cyclists. But go to a professional or even amateur race and you will find these people – and that’s fine. The cliché stopped me from any group events on a bicycle, though. It’s not that I don’t have respect for competitive cyclists and their achievements but I’m certainly not one of them.
However, in the beginning of 2017 I encountered something similar but different: Randonneuring. People riding 200, 300, 400, 600, 1000, even 1200km or more at once. I was fascinated. What made Randonneuring even more interesting was the atmosphere the cyclists were describing. No competition, hours and hours of riding in groups or alone, self-reliance and minimal control stations. I was hooked and read a lot about it. Unfortunately nearly all local Brevets were fully booked and only the 200km autumn Brevet was still available and I decided to sign up. After the experience during the ride was great, I registered for a full series of 200 to 600km in the following year.
A Brevet is an event where cyclists ride a given route within a time limit. This might sound boring but a few things make a Brevet special:
- Distance: the shortest Brevets are 200km and it goes up to 1500km.
- Time: the time limit is typically chosen so that cyclists can enjoy the ride but may not slack too much. Typically the gross average speed must be above 16km/h or 10mph. So a 400km Brevet could have a time limit of 27 hours.
- Self-reliance: any assistance is forbidden – that means no support vehicle or similar. It is, however, permitted to visit restaurants, super markets and hotels. Some say Brevets are eating contests!
- Control points: the controls happen mostly at ordinary bakeries, gas stations, hotels or restaurants, roughly every 50km to 100km.
- Competition: there is none. To pass the Brevet you have to beat the time limit, that’s it. There is no order, no first or last place – no competition.
For me the lack of competition is the most enjoyable, because it doesn’t attract the cliché cyclists. This leads to a really unique “we’re all in this together” atmosphere. Something broke on a bike during the ride? It’s almost guaranteed that other riders will stop to help. Need a longer break? Just ask, others will probably wait. See a cyclist riding 300m behind? Go a bit slower so you can ride together. I already met so many nice people during the rides. This is surely not unique to Randonneuring, but riding for hours and hours together is certainly a nice situation to talk and bond.
Obviously the distance is an important factor of a Brevet. Riding 400km can be scary at first so you have to have some kind of strategy. For example it might be way more approachable to think about it as eight 50km rides back to back. Or 20 hours of relaxed riding.
I find it absolutely fascinating that humans can simply sit on a bicycle and overcome such distances. Nature changes, weather changes and even people and their dialects change during the ride. When you ride 20 or more hours, you’ll ride through a whole night. Had you asked me three years ago, I would have guessed that some highly trained world record holder could do this. That’s not true. While general fitness definitely is important, strategy and discipline play an equally big role in finishing. In central Europe it is easy to find the next train station and abort the Brevet. You have to fight that thought!
You can just get out there and ride absurd distances over a weekend. Before, it never crossed my mind to get on my bike and just ride. It is certainly possible and fun. You don’t need to be a sports crack or a participant in an event/Brevet. Pack a bit of stuff, open the door and start riding! People like Niko motivated me to do longer rides on my own. For example I started a tour from Munich to my hometown. After around 480km I had to stop because the rear derailleur blocked on a saturday night and was torn into many little pieces. And still it was a fantastic experience.
The time during the rides is hard to describe. For the shorter ones it feels like a longer weekend tour with cake in-between. On the longer ones you are isolated – in a good way. When the night settles after a long day of riding the atmosphere changes. It’s just you and hopefully your light. On mild summer evenings people are sitting in their gardens, having a good time and you… are just passing through. It’s wonderful! It is hard to describe but I strongly encourage you to try a night ride once.
To ride large distances you need surprisingly little gear. For example faster riders do 300km without much luggage: two bottles of water, one or two energy bars and a repair kit. Of course this is only possible because this area is densely populated so you can just buy food on the road. For my farthest Brevet yet I additionally packed some warmer clothes for the night and the idea of a sleeping bag (basically a plastic bag) and a repair kit. You’ll have to push every additional gram up countless hills and mountains. I also printed out the route although I use the already mentioned bike computer for navigation. A benefit of organized Brevets is that these are created by ambitioned and/or seasoned local cyclists. They know the beautiful parts of the area and can give you some hints. All of the Brevets I have attended had excellent routes and avoided busy roads where possible.
Although there exist beautiful bike models just for Randonneuring, most Randonneurs use lightly modified road bikes, e.g. with added lights and some small bags attached. The seat position is not as aggressive as on a competitive road bike, but the differences are small. If you have a working road bike that is comfortable on longer rides, you are probably already equipped for your first Brevet!
Also: Dynamo hubs are amazing! They are way, way more efficient than the old dynamos you may remember from your childhood. Now they can power really bright LED spotlights at night and charge your phone/navi by day. Plus they do that with virtually no drag.
Doing Brevets (and training for them) is a good compensation for long days at the desk and the city life. It certainly helped me to enjoy nature much more than before. If you are interested in Randonneuring, have a look at the global calender of the Audax Club Parisien or the German Audax Randonneurs Allemagne.