What Is A Randonnée in Cycling – And Why Should You Start Randonneuring?

Former racer Quentin Deby turns to the friendly but hardy world of randonneuring

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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Put simply, a “randonnée” (also known as “brevet” or “Audax”, depending on where you are in the world) is a long-distance, non-competitive, self-supported bike ride.

Randonnée courses are typically 200 km (125 miles) or longer, with predetermined checkpoints through which riders must pass. Finishing order does not matter; the sole aim is to complete the course within the time limit.

Born in the cafes of France and fueled by passion and perseverance, randonneuring has evolved from a European tradition to a global phenomenon.

Having been immersed in racing culture during my cycling career, randonneuring required a real mental adjustment for me personally – but it didn’t take me long to be completely won over by the camaraderie-over-competition approach!

For those intrigued by the allure of the open road and the challenge of the long haul, welcome to the fascinating realm of randonneuring.

Riding my gravel bike on an asphalt road while randonneuring.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

What is a Randonnée?

The term “randonnée” is a French word that translates to “a long journey or walk,” particularly in nature.

Now, translate that concept to cycling, and you have got a randonnée: a long-distance, self-supported bike ride.

It is a concept that takes the essence of wandering in nature and places it on two wheels, giving the rider the freedom to explore while also challenging their endurance.

In randonneuring, cyclists are not racing one another; riders simply have to complete a set course within a prescribed time limit.

But here’s the catch: You have no support van trailing behind with snacks and tools.

Randonneurs must be self-sufficient. Every repair, every meal, and every decision is entirely up to the cyclist.

In a world where convenience is often just a click away, randonneuring celebrates the thrill of autonomy, the joy of being self-reliant. It is not just reaching the finish line; it is overcoming each flat tire, each unexpected detour, and each mental block, all by yourself.

The Historical Background of Randonneuring

An early edition of the Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée.
An early edition of the Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée.

The earliest record of a randonnée cycling adventure came in 1897, when twelve Italian cyclists challenged themselves to ride the 230 km (140 miles) from Rome to Naples, solely for the achievement of completing it.

It was amid the cobblestone streets and the sprawling vineyards of France, however, that the unique form of endurance cycling really took root across ever longer distances.

Cyclists, decked in wool jerseys and leather helmets, embarked on long rides not for the glory of a first-place finish, but for the personal satisfaction of completion within a set time frame.

By the early twentieth century, randonneuring was exploding in popularity, and various governing bodies cropped up in France with differing regulations.

In the modern era, the most famous and historic randonnée is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP).

Started in 1891 as a regular cycling race (making it the oldest cycling event still running today), the PBP added two randonnée events from 1931 and nowadays encapsulates the essence of randonneuring.

Paris-Brest-Paris poster from 1901.
Paris-Brest-Paris poster from 1901.

Imagine setting off from the bustling streets of Paris, pedaling your way through 600 km (373 miles) to the coastal town of Brest, and then making the journey back, all within a 90-hour window.

Now, while the sheer 1200 km (745-mile) distance might sound daunting (and rightfully so), the true spirit of the PBP lies not in the race against fellow cyclists, but in the camaraderie among them.

It is a shared journey, with riders helping one another, sharing stories at control points, and pushing one another to make it to the finish line.

To qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris, randonneurs must first complete a full series of events within the same calendar year, including separate rides of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, and 600 km.

Over the decades, the sport began to evolve. Technological advancements led to lighter bikes, better gear, and improved road infrastructure.

As the 20th century progressed, randonneuring began to find its feet beyond the borders of France.

Neighboring countries started organizing their own brevets. The format of these rides varied slightly, but the underpinning principle of self-supported, long-distance cycling was universal.

4 Key Characteristics of Randoneurring

Riding a randonnee on my white gravel bike.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

1. Checkpoint System

If you’ve ever participated in a treasure hunt, the checkpoint system in randonneuring might feel somewhat familiar. Instead of searching for hidden treasures, however, riders are on the lookout for control points or checkpoints.

These are strategically placed at various locations along the route.

Every cyclist’s brevet card is stamped at checkpoints as proof of their journey. It is crucial to reach these points within the specified time frame, as being late could result in disqualification.

While it might sound rigid, it is designed to keep riders on track and ensure that they are pacing themselves correctly.

2. Equipment and Gear

A typical randonneuring bike setup.
A typical randonneuring bike setup. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Any type of bike is permitted for randonneuring, provided all power comes from the rider (so no electric bikes).

That means tandems, recumbents, tricycles, and a whole host of other wacky creations can be used in a randonnée.

Randonneurs tend to have a particular affinity for vintage bikes with steel frames, but it’s not a requirement by any means. Show up to the Paris-Brest-Paris start line, and you’ll see everything from modern aero racing bikes, to vintage tourers, to recumbents with space-age fairings.

The most typical bike choice is somewhere between a racing road bike and a touring bike. Relaxed geometry, frame packs, wide-range gearing, wider tires, and even clip-on aero bars are all helpful adaptations for comfortable long-range cycling.

Given the self-supported nature of the sport, riders need to be prepared for anything and everything. This includes having a repair kit handy for unexpected breakdowns, especially when you are miles away from the nearest bike shop.

The potential for nighttime cycling means lighting is essential, not just to see the road but to be visible to others. Reflective gear ensures safety when cruising down those dimly lit country roads.

And of course, one cannot forget provisions. Unlike a race where refreshment stands might be frequent, randonneurs often have to carry their own food and water, making sure they’re fueled for the journey.

3. Self-sufficiency

I make repairs to my bike during a randonnee.
Adjustments on the road while randonneuring. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

At the heart of randonneuring lies the principle of autonomy.

That sense of accomplishment, of relying solely on yourself, is the essence of randonneuring. Riders have no team to draft behind, no mechanic waiting in the wings.

Each decision, each turn of the pedal, is up to the cyclist. It is the culture of independence and preparation that distinguishes randonneuring from other forms of cycling.

4. Endurance over Speed

While it’s easy to think of cycling in terms of racing, randonneuring shifts the focus. It is not just sprinting to the finish line or outpacing fellow cyclists. Instead, it is about endurance. The goal is not to finish first, but to finish within the allotted time.

The journey becomes as important, if not more so, than the destination.

And in the end, the true competition is not with others, but with oneself and the clock.

3 Great Reasons to Start Randonneuring

1. Physical Benefits

Like a regular gym session, only better. Randonneuring offers a full-body workout, pushing every muscle and joint into action. The constant pedaling builds leg strength, while the posture on the randonneur bike engages the core, arms, and shoulders.

And here’s a golden nugget: long-distance cycling can torch calories, making it an effective tool for weight management. But it doesn’t stop there. The cardiovascular benefits are substantial.

As you pedal away, your heart rate increases, improving circulation and strengthening the heart muscles. Over time, this can lead to lower blood pressure and a healthier heart.

2. Mental Benefits

Ever felt that sense of calm after a lengthy walk or the clarity after a meditation session?

Randonneuring can offer the same mental boost. Prolonged hours on the bike provide ample time for reflection, introspection, and even a bit of daydreaming. But more importantly, the sport cultivates mental toughness.

Pushing through fatigue, combating loneliness on solitary stretches, or navigating through challenging terrains all require a resilient mindset. Then there is the strategy planning – calculating speeds, estimating breaks, and deciding on food intakes.

Every ride becomes a mental exercise, honing your decision-making skills and boosting cognitive abilities. And when you finally reach the finish line, the sense of accomplishment is incomparable. It’s an endorphin rush.

3. The Social Side

On the surface, randonneuring might seem like a solo endeavor. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll uncover a vibrant, tight-knit community.

Remember those checkpoints we talked about? They’re not just for stamps; they’re bustling hubs of interactions.

Riders share stories, exchange tips, or simply offer a word of encouragement.

Then we have group rides or events, where cyclists come together, bonding over shared challenges and experiences. And with the rise of digital platforms, the randonneuring community is no longer confined to geographical boundaries.

Forums, social media groups, and dedicated websites have created a global network where riders from different continents connect, share, and learn.

Fatigue begins to set in during a randonnee.
Fatigue begins to set in during a randonnée. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

4 Potential Challenges To Be Aware Of On Your First Randonnée

1. Physical Demands

Imagine this. It’s mile 100, your legs are screaming, your back is aching, and there’s still a long way to go.

Randonneuring can be grueling. With rides often spanning several days and covering hundreds of miles, the physical strain is undeniable.

So, how do you prepare? Training is paramount. Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without adequate preparation, diving into randonneuring without building stamina is a recipe for discomfort.

Start with shorter rides, gradually increasing distance and intensity. Cross-training exercises, like strength training or swimming, can complement your cycling regimen, ensuring a well-rounded physical prep.

2. Navigation

Clip on aero bars and bike computer during a randonnee.
A GPS bike computer is a great navigational aid for randonneuring, but having backup plans is always a smart idea. © Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Lost in the countryside with only cows for company? Not the ideal randonneuring situation.

Despite the romance of uncharted roads, having a solid sense of direction is crucial. It isn’t just about having a GPS device, but understanding how to use it effectively.

Old-school map reading skills can be invaluable, especially when technology fails.

Before embarking on a ride, familiarize yourself with the route. Mark out key landmarks, potential rest stops, and any tricky junctions.

And, if possible, do a test ride of parts of the route, or connect with fellow riders who might have insights.

3. Equipment malfunctions

You’re in the middle of a serene countryside, miles away from civilization, and you hear that dreaded hiss from your tire. Instead of panicking, you calmly retrieve your repair kit, fix the puncture, and are back on your way in no time.

Sounds empowering, doesn’t it?

Learning basic repair skills is not just about fixing things; it is about self-sufficiency, confidence, and peace of mind. Whether it is tightening a loose bolt, adjusting your brakes, or fixing a chain slip, mastering these skills means you are never truly stranded.

Workshops, online tutorials, or seeking help from seasoned riders can get you started on this journey.

4. Weather

The sun, the rain, the wind – randonneuring often feels like a dance with the elements.

One moment you might be cruising under sunny skies, and the next, battling a torrential downpour. The unpredictability of the weather adds to the challenge.

The key is to stay adaptable. Invest in layered clothing that can be easily added or removed. Waterproof jackets, breathable jerseys, and wind-resistant gear can be game-changers.

Always check weather forecasts before setting off, and if possible, adjust your start time or route to avoid the worst of the elements. Remember, it is not battling nature, but harmonizing with it.

The rain might dampen your clothes, but with the right mindset, it won’t dampen your spirits!

How To Get Started with Randonneuring

Join Local Cycling Clubs

Just as you wouldn’t dive into deep waters without some swimming lessons, jumping into randonneuring without guidance can be daunting.

Local cycling clubs or dedicated randonneuring groups are your lifelines here. Not only do they offer structured rides and events for beginners, but they’re also a treasure trove of experience.

Seasoned riders can provide tips, share stories, and offer insights that books or online forums might miss. Plus, there’s the added benefit of finding riding buddies. As the saying goes, “Shared joy is double joy.”

Participate in Brevets or Populaires

Before you attempt that epic 1200 km ride, why not dip your toes in with something shorter? Brevets and populaires are randonneuring events that range from 200 km to 600 km.

These events give you a taste of the randonneuring culture, complete with checkpoints, route maps, and the thrill of the finish line.

Training Recommendations

Remember the tale of the tortoise and the hare? In randonneuring, it is all about pacing, much like the steady tortoise. Training isn’t just clocking miles, but understanding your body’s rhythm.

Intervals, where you alternate between high-intensity riding and relaxed pedaling, can be effective. Long, steady rides help build endurance, while short sprints can boost your cardiovascular strength.

Keep a training journal, noting down distances, speeds, and how you felt during each ride. Over time, you’ll start noticing patterns, helping you find that perfect pace to keep you going for miles and miles.

Invest in Proper Gear

Lynskey road bike setup with randonneuring gear.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

A bike designed for extended distances, with comfortable saddles and efficient gears, is crucial. But so are the smaller things.

Padded shorts to prevent chafing, clipless pedals for efficient energy transfer, a hydration pack to keep thirst at bay, and ergonomic handlebars for those long hours on the road.

Randonneuring in the United States

While randonneuring has its roots deep in European soil, the United States has embraced the discipline with open arms.

Over the past few decades, the sport has seen a palpable growth in its popularity. What started as a niche activity has grown into a well-recognized and respected sport.

City streets, mountain trails, or the iconic coastal highways – randonneurs in the US have charted them all.

The growth can be attributed to an increasing awareness of fitness, a love for adventure, and the unparalleled beauty of the American landscapes that make these rides almost poetic.

Randonneurs USA (RUSA)

Randonneurs USA, or RUSA, is the heart and soul of the American randonneuring community.

Established in 1998, it’s the central hub that organizes rides, validates results, and acts as a bridge between the US and the global randonneuring community.

RUSA also maintains a calendar of all the randonneuring events across the country, making it easier for riders to plan their adventures.

Additionally, they offer resources for both newbies and veterans, ensuring that every randonneur is well-equipped and well-informed.

Notable US-based Events and Rides

The United States, with its vast landscapes and diverse terrains, offers a plethora of rides that cater to every whim and fancy of a randonneur.

A few standouts include: 

These events, along with countless others, not only challenge the riders with their unique terrains but also offer visual spectacles, making the sweat and soreness absolutely worth it.

Whether you’re a seasoned randonneur with miles of memories or a curious newbie with stars in your eyes, each ride adds a chapter to your personal story.

We’d love to hear from you!

Have you ventured into a randonnée? Which one holds a special place in your heart? If you’re yet to embark on this incredible journey, which ride tempts you the most?

And for our seasoned riders, do you have any pearls of wisdom or a must-try randonnée to recommend? 

Drop a comment below and share your story!

Photo of author
Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

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