RUSA president Bill Bryant was recently contacted by a reporter with a cycling industry trade publication. The reporter was curious about the health and growth of randonneuring in the U.S., and he asked Bill some straightforward questions about the sport. Bill's responses, printed below, provide a snapshot of our organization and serve as a refresher course on who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
Q: I'm doing a piece on touring/randonnée/audax bikes and I'm interested in how many members you have.
A: This fluctuates a bit, but about 1500-1700. Every four years the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris event rolls around and our membership climbs then. We sent 458 Americans to the last one in 2003 and they had an excellent finishing rate. (The next P-B-P is in 2007.) Please note, however, that one need not be a member of Randonneurs USA to participate in randonneuring brevets. Entry is open to anyone, so our members are not all the riders doing the sport-there are many more. On average about 70% of brevet participants are RUSA members. Among the 25 nations of the Randonneurs Mondiaux, the USA has been the most active in recent years, with the exception of PBP years, when France always leads the standings.
Most of our members are male, and about one-third to one-fourth are female (depending on the year). Most of our members are in their 40s or 50s, so there is a fair bit of disposable income to spend on bikes, lights, cycling clothing, etc. Randonneurs spend a lot of time on their bikes and tend to put a lot of energy into getting the right type of equipment that they want.
There is no one correct way to do ride a brevet, or on a single type of bike. A lot of the fun is seeing how various people approach the same challenge. One will see racing bikes, touring bikes, tandems, recumbents, even mountain bikes with road tires, and occasionally a fixed-gear rider. The time allowances in randonneuring are generous enough that the type of bike, unlike those needed for racing, doesn't really effect the outcome too much. Being comfortable is a key part of randonneuring, more than in racing where the events are rarely longer than five or six hours. Various riders use various types of bikes they like best and one will see quite a lot of diversity among the machines used. There is a fair bit of creativity in carrying a small load of extra clothing, lights, food, etc. (A dedicated touring bike is probably too heavy, but a pure racing bike may be too light and not entirely happy with a rack or saddlebag mounting.)
Q: How many races do you authorize a year?
A: First, brevets are definitely not races. There are never any prizes or rider rankings in our sport. There are opening and closing times for each checkpoint and riders must arrive within the time in order to be a finisher, but the ethos of the sport is that everyone is accorded the same respect, and they get the same reward, an identical medal. Event results are published alphabetically too. Even though they are timed events, one cannot "win" a brevet by arriving at the finish first; they only did it quickest. Many fast randonneurs and randonneuses claim (probably rightly) that the slower folks out there longer deserve the praise for enduring a longer time in the saddle. In our sport, being in the group of finishers who made the time allowance is the goal, not any ranking within the group. Finishing is everything, not how fast you did it. There is a lot of satisfaction from finish a brevet successfully, but it comes more from the personal challenge than from beating other riders to the finish line. It is rare to see anyone attack to drop their companions, most prefer to ride with randonneurs of similar ability and cover the miles in a group.
So, perhaps randonneuring is best described as fast touring. I think the idea that they are not races is appealing to vast majority of our participants. Each ride will have several checkpoints along the way and these have opening and closing times too. One must keep a minimum pace along the route to make all the checkpoints in time. The minimum pace is 15 kph, so most fit century or double-century enthusiasts will find randonneuring events well within their grasp-but with the long distances involved, they definitely provide a sporting challenge that goes beyond the usual club event.
On aspect of randonneuring that makes it unique is the ethos of self-reliance. Unlike the Race Across America or other UMCA events, in randonneuring the rider must be entirely self-sufficient. There are no following cars with spare bikes and equipment, nor cars' headlights to illuminate the road at night. A randonneur is the hardy type of rider who rambles far and wide over hill and dale, in any weather-but without any support. This may limit its appeal for some folks accustomed to motorized support, such as riders coming from a racing background, but our group likes the idea that they did it on their own, and that no advantage is gained by riders who can afford to bring a motorized support crew. This means bicycles need to be very reliable, and lighting systems can't rely on short-lived batteries more useful for commuters or other short night rides.
In any case, we sanction about 200-230 brevets each year in the United States. These are held at about 38 sites around the country. Most events are 200 km or 300 km, but other distances are 400 km and 600 km. (If one rides the four events 200-600 km) in a single season, one is considered a "Super Randonneur" and gets a special medal.) There are also 1000 km brevets, as well as a few 1200 km "grand randonnées". This year we'll have four 1200 km events in the USA, which is really something. Participation at any one event can range from a dozen to 200 riders. Lots more info at: www.rusa.org
Here are the time allowances for the distances-you'll see that with a 33 kph maximum and a 15 kph minimum speeds for events up to 600k, these are not races. (The longer events allow an even slower pace after the first 600 kilometers have been covered.)
l 200k-13.5 hours for 125 miles. l 300k-20 hours for 187 miles. l 400k-27 hours for 250 miles. l 600k-40 hours for 375 miles. l 1000k-75 hours for 625 miles. l 1200k-90 hours for 750 miles.
The opening and closing times for the various distances are "carved in stone" so on a hilly route the time allowance is still the same; some rides or regions have reputations for being tougher than others because of the climbing involved.
There are also popular 24-hour group events at Easter for teams of 3-5 riders called "Flèches-USA" held in various regions around the country. (Regions with long winters, such as the Rockies or New England can hold their events a little later.) Each team starts from their own departure point, but all converge on a common finishing location. ("Flèche" in French means "arrow", and these rides tend to be point-to-point, like an archer's arrow flying into a bulls eye-which is the finish line.) In order to be successful, a team must cover at least 360 kms in the 24 hours and finish with at least 3 members together.
We also have events shorter than 200 km called "populaires". Usually 100 or 150 kilometers, these are often early-season events that have all the rules, checkpoints, and pacing of a normal brevet, but being shorter, they allow riders to build up their endurance for the long rides. They are also fun end-of-season gatherings in autumn where riders will have a rolling party on wheels that closes out the randonneuring season.
Q: How would you evaluate the state of health of your organization, is it growing strongly?
A: With the shortest event being 200 kilometers, randonneuring takes quite a lot of time to train and participate. Many cyclists are drawn to the challenge, but keeping up the commitment to ride one's bike for many hours each week year after year means we have a fair bit of member turnover. Still, Randonneurs USA is growing steadily. Our numbers are generally up year after year. Five to six years ago we typically had less than a thousand active members, but now it is more like 1500-1700. The number of event organizers keeps growing as well as the number of brevets they put on. So, yes, I think the randonneuring formula is catching on here in the USA, but we recognize it will always be a very small part of the larger cycling scene. The distances are just too long for most folks, especially those with big family commitments.
Q: Is there a lot of participation by bike dealers in the races you authorize?
A: No, very little-but again, many regular bicycles, parts and clothing work pretty well for randonneuring, especially the shorter events under 400 kilometers that most folks ride. Along with fenders to stay dry, lighting systems and comfortable saddles are two items frequently sought out by many randonneurs. In the very busy Seattle scene, Mark Thomas's Sammamish Valley Cycle in Redmond is supporting local randonneurs with good equipment and service. On a national basis, Peter White Cycles, Gravy Wheels, and Wallingford Bicycles are supporting randonneuring via mail-order with some of the randonneuring equipment that can't be found in the vast majority of local bike shops.
In terms of bicycles themselves, many of our riders use racing bikes, but often with a triple crankset and a rack. There are some very good bikes for randonneuring, such as the Co-Motion Nor'Wester, the Independent Fabrications Club Racer, as well as models from Heron and Rivendell. These are light bikes, but with a little longer wheelbase for long-distance comfort and stability, as well as long-reach brakes for fender clearance, and rack mounts.