WHAT IS RANDONNEURING?
Randonneuring (rahn doe ner ing) is a type of long-distance cycling, not too different from a century or double-century ride. There are time limits for each distance, so it is best described as fast touring. Checkpoints along the way ensure the rider has followed the route in the prescribed time limits. If one finishes the route successfully, a numbered certificate (or brevet in French) is awarded, so these rides are often called "brevets". Riders of all abilities participate in brevets, just as happens on centuries and double-centuries. Randonneuring brevets are non-competitive events; one rides for the personal pride of having completed the distance within the time allowance, not from beating other riders to the finish line. Friendly camaraderie is a hallmark of randonneuring. The sport began in 1897 in Italy and was imported into France in 1904. In those early days, touring cyclists stuck together to survive the distance, and they often still do today-but one can ride alone if he or she prefers. Any style is allowed, and any type of machine is allowed so long as it is solely human powered. Even though they are timed, brevets are definitely not races; they are more an individual test of one's cycling ability and determination. Unlike in a race, which is judged by arrival time, brevet results are published alphabetically. All who finish inside the time limit are considered winners and are entitled to the same reward: a handsome medal. In randonneuring, self-sufficiency is paramount. Randonneurs need to be able to follow a route sheet, read a map, fix their bike, etc. The regulations forbid any personal support on the route. (Personal support can be gotten at the checkpoints, but never in-between.) The vast majority of riders, however, don't use personal support. They "live off the land", using stores and cafés to get their food and drink. At night they carry lights to see their way; there are no following cars to illuminate the road, such as in RAAM. For randonneurs, saying "I did it on my own" is the ethos of their sport. Riders frequently bunch up in order to help each other surmount the distance, so perhaps "we did it by ourselves" is more apt.
How is doing a brevet that different from a local century ride? Along with the distance and strict time allowances, one difference is that records are kept for each rider. The American randonneuring movement has been encouraged by the Audax Club Parisien in France since the 1970s. The ACP homologates all the brevets from around the world, and records have been maintained since the first free-pace brevet on September 11, 1921. (From 1904-1921, brevets were always ridden in groups led by a road captain who maintained a fixed pace; after that riders were able to ride at the speed which suited their interests and abilities so long as they stayed inside the overall event time allowance.) In the US, all regional brevet results are forwarded by Randonneurs USA to the ACP for registration. RUSA has a very informative web site. If you are new to randonneuring you may find Riding Your First 200K to be helpful.
Do I need to belong to a club or Randonneurs USA to do a brevet? No, one can ride and enjoy brevets without any cycling club affiliation whatsoever. If you find you like the sport, joining a local club is a good thing to do. You'll be able to meet similarly minded riders to train with, share equipment ideas, carpool to events, etc. Joining RUSA is also a good idea if you want to learn more about randonneuring. RUSA members receive an informative quarterly newsletter, along with a useful Handbook filled with tips to improve one's randonneuring skills. RUSA sends all the results of every American brevet to Paris for registration, but it publishes only the ride results of its members on its web site. These published results are useful for showing one has qualified to enter a 1200 km event, and for earning various randonneuring awards each season. RUSA members are also entitled to purchase a handsome ACP brevet medal if they finish an event successfully. (Note that the ACP insists that any American rider entering PBP must have been a RUSA member on or before the date of their first qualifying event.)
How do I prepare for brevets? Train as you would for a double-century; ride your bike a lot! You should track your weekly hours of cycling instead of merely counting your miles. Systematically ramping up the duration of your weekly long ride is a smart method to build endurance. Beginning with a typical club cyclist's ability to ride for about 4 hours with minimal stops, start increasing one ride per week by about 30 minutes. Resist the urge to increase the duration by more than a half-hour or you risk injury. After about 8-10 weeks of this you will be able to ride an enjoyable 8- or 9-hour 200k. Once you get a few hilly centuries and 200k events under your belt, you should be confident in doing a 300k brevet. From there, most riders use the shorter brevets as training for the longest ones. Be sure to stretch daily for flexibility. All that cycling can make a person stiff, and this might lead to overuse injuries. Doing lots of abdominal crunches and push-ups is also advised. Randonneuring will wear out all parts of your body, not just your legs.
What kind of bicycle do I need? Despite what some purists might claim, the bike you are currently riding will probably work well for randonneuring. You'll see successful brevets earned by riders on racing bikes, touring bikes, tandems, mountain bikes (with road tires), or recumbents. Over time you might discover another bike you like better, but try a few brevets before you spend your money on something new. Be sure your bike fits you well and is comfortable; overly stiff bikes are not often popular with randonneurs. Stiffness is good for sprinting, but a stable bike that absorbs the bumps will be more useful. Most randonneurs like their handlebars higher than is the fashion for racing; remember that racers are rarely on their bikes for more than 8 hours; imagine being on your bike for twice as long at a minimum. Randonneuring events run rain or shine and fenders are a good idea, so too a rack and bag to carry some extra clothes, food and other necessities. On the longer events, a good lighting system is essential. On any long ride, it goes without saying that a comfortable saddle is vital. Since one is trying to make their energy last a long time, the lighter the bike the better for the rider. Starting each brevet with a thoroughly reliable machine is a critical part to enjoying the event too. Most of all, come to each brevet with an iron will to finish. Determination is the randonneur's most valuable "piece of equipment".