By Bill Bryant
For most recreational cyclists, doing a hundred-mile "century" in one day is rightly seen as quite a sporting accomplishment. Depending on the hills along the course, not to mention the weather, six to nine hours is a respectable time to cover the distance. All in all, it is usually a pleasurable day on the bike, and for most riders it is enough. But there are some over-achievers who wonder what it would be like to ride farther. If you're this type of person, welcome to randonneuring!
Randonneuring in strictly controlled "audax" groups began in France in 1904 and our current format of "allure libre" events, wherein each rider chooses his or her pace, were first run in 1921. What is a "brevet?" The French word "brevet" has several meanings including certificate, diploma, or patent. Back in the sport's infancy, one's "brevet" was earned by riding 200 kilometers along a prescribed course between dawn and dusk. The award proved that the cyclist had completed the course successfully within the allotted time---no small thing considering the poor roads and the primitive machines of the era. As you probably know, there are brevets of various distances; 200k, 300k, 400k, 600k, 1000k, and 1200k. But for now, we'll look at just the 200k, which for many randonneurs, is the most enjoyable brevet.
A 200k doesn't involve much night riding and training for it doesn't require as much commitment as the longer rides. Take note that a brevet is not a race: a randonneur undertakes a long-distance "randonnée" to earn his brevet and medal, not to defeat his fellow riders. If some of the participants ride particularly fast that is their affair; if others choose to complete the course at a more sedate pace then that is theirs. The rules of the Randonneurs Mondiaux clearly state that brevets are not competitive events and that during the event each rider is considered to be on a personal ride. Furthermore, they must follow all highway laws and obey all traffic signals. All the riders who arrive in the official finishing time period earn exactly the same reward, a handsome com- memorative medal (which can be purchased from the brevet organizer.)
Doing a brevet involves some paperwork, such as signing in at the various checkpoints, or "controls", along the way. Your brevet card is signed and stamped, which proves you have covered the distance so far. Take note of the all-important opening and closing times: You cannot sign in before the opening time, nor can you arrive after the closing time. If this occurs, your ride is over. At the end of a successful ride, your brevet card is turned in to the organizer. In time, a brevet number is issued by the Audax Club Parisien in France and this individually numbered sticker is stuck onto your card and returned by mail some weeks later. (Your brevet results are also officially recorded at RUSA HQ and posted on the RUSA web site, as well as in the year-end results in American Randonneur.) Above all, don't lose your card during the event; this means disqualification!
Okay, enough rules and background info, what about doing the ride itself? First, you'll want to choose an event that interests you. This will probably be in the region closest to home, but perhaps not. Ride organizers try to select the best cycling routes through rural areas and doing a 200k brevet is a wonderful way to explore someplace new to you. (The national brevet calendar on the RUSA web site will be a good place to look for an event to enter.) Phone, write, or e-mail the brevet organizer at least a month in advance to get a sense of the route, and details about the start time, location, etc. If the region the route passes through is new to you, do some advance map-work and try to get a sense of the "big picture" before the ride. (Some thoughtful brevet organizers will send the route sheet to participants a week or so before the ride and this will be particularly helpful.)
A week prior to the event, be sure your bike is in tip-top shape. You don't want to lose valuable time during an event taking care of repairs that could have been done beforehand. Randonneuring is about self-reliance, so be sure to carry a map of the region, some repair tools, extra clothes in case the weather turns, and cycling food and drink to keep moving. Even if you're 100% sure you can do the distance in daylight, install a small headlight and LED taillight in case some unexpected adventure slows you down. Don't let the lack of emergency lighting keep you from riding an hour in the dark. You should pack some reflective ankle bands too.
The time limit for a 200-kilometer brevet is 13.5 hours and you may unexpectedly need to use every minute to finish. Depending on how far you drive or ride to the start, getting your clothes and other things arranged the night before is essential to a good night's rest. Don't leave anything to be done early the next morning except dress, eat, and travel to the event. Arriving with plenty of time to spare will an important ingredient for a successful day on the bike.
Once at the brevet, sign in and pick up your all-important brevet card and route sheet. Grab a map if one is offered. While doing some stretching exercises, spend some time looking over the route sheet and map to familiarize yourself with the day's journey. Take special note of each control point's mileage. Stopping there is obligatory if you want to earn your brevet. The event organizer, no doubt a fine and patient person, will show no mercy later on to anyone who got lost and didn't make the subsequent controls in the specified times. And don't deviate from the specified route! Avoid any temptation to take a short-cut no matter how tired you are. Not only is this cheating, but there may be unannounced secret controls set up to prevent exactly that sort of thing.
When the course "opens," ride sensibly and warm up in the first miles. Some brevets will have just a handful of entrants, while others could have well over a hundred. Hopefully you can find some riders of similar pace and ability to cover the miles with. If not, just get on with it and enjoy the scenery. Some brevets will have route arrows, while others do not and you must rely on the route sheet and your odometer. In any case, stay alert and don't get lost! The clock is ticking whether you are on course or not. Better still, if you have companions, don't rely on just one person's efforts, get everyone involved in the navigation so that the entire group doesn't get lost.
More importantly, don't spend too much energy trying to keep up with riders faster than yourself; 200 kilometers is too long to keep that up all day. Hopefully there are some riders close behind you to ride with. Slow down a bit, eat, and let them catch up. But overall, ride your own pace, even if that means a lot of time is spent alone. If you're on the slower side, be careful that you don't go so slowly that you run out of time. Look at your control times and try to arrive with at least an hour before the closing time. This will allow some extra time for puncture repairs, getting back on track if you become lost, etc. You may need some extra time late in the ride when you're in need of a longer rest.
In general, it is always a very good idea to keep your stops quite short in order to build up some extra time for late in the event when you may need it. Don't dawdle! The clock is ticking! Many an otherwise successful century rider is surprised by how swiftly experienced randonneurs get in and out of controls---a lot can be accomplished in five or ten minutes! They simply sign in, eat fast, fill their pockets and bottles for the next section of the route, make a quick review of the route sheet; then they're away! If you want to ride the longer brevets, this practice should become a habit so that you can build up the maximum sleep time during the multi-day events.
When you reach a control point, it may be a manned stop put on by the organizer or it may be in a store. In the first case, you'll present your brevet card to be signed and stamped by the control worker. Your arrival time will also be noted. If your stop is in a store, the clerk may perform the above procedure, or you may be instructed to simply buy something there and get a receipt that has a time and date stamp. This receipt is then turned in with your brevet card at ride's end so don't lose any of this valuable paperwork. In any case, whenever you go to a store control point, be sure to buy something there. Randonneuring needs these good-natured businesses, and in turn, they need a little income from you. Be sure to thank any control workers who have helped you earn your brevet. Be especially appreciative of the event organizer who has unselfishly volunteered to put on the ride.
Hopefully your long day in the saddle will be enjoyable, the scenery nice, and your companions and weather pleasant. But if not, take pride in the fact that you never gave up despite the various pains, adversities, and adventures that tried to defeat you. In true randonneuring fashion, you were determined and never gave up! You arrived at the final control point in time, turned in your brevet card, and with a weary smile, signed in one last time. Now that your first successful 200k brevet is under your belt, you can now be rightfully called a randonneur (male) or a randonneuse (female), a well-earned honor indeed.