A Free-Route Permanent specifies a few fixed constraints, and each rider then constructs and rides a variant route within those constraints. Like the RUSA team events, it's a way for the rider to participate in route design, and introduce challenge and variety. Free-Route Permanents are patterned after similar routes in other countries, notably France and the UK (such as Land's End to John O'Groats).
- The route owner specifies (1) a sequence of controls through which each rider must pass, and documents (2) a minimum safe and legal distance through that sequence of controls. In this context, "safe and legal" means that the route is legal for cycling and has conditions that would generally allow for safe cycling.
- Finishers will be credited with this minimum distance.
- The total time allowed to finish is based on that distance.
- The rider may take any safe and legal route between controls, but must finish within the overall time limit. It is up to the rider to determine the safety and legality of his/her route.
- Intermediate controls are untimed, to allow for taking a particularly long or challenging stretch which would still allow finishing within the overall time limit.
Submitting a Route - The applicant owner submits:
- the sequence of start, finish and intermediate controls (if any) through which the rider must pass;
- a map and cue sheet illustrating a shortest safe and legal route;
- a few variants - in the form of cue sheet, map, or description - illustrating safe and legal alternate route segments a rider might realistically take.
Riding a Free-Route Permanent - The rider applies to the permanent owner in the normal way.
- The rider may consult the owner about his/her planned course or possible variants the owner might recommend.
- The rider may request to see the route used to certify the creditable distance.
- The rider then rides some variant which passes through the sequence of controls and will be credited if he/she finishes within the time limit.
Distance/Time Limit Grievance - A rider who feels the creditable distance is understated may appeal. This may be done before starting the ride or after the ride (either because the rider did not finish within the time limit, or felt he/she was not given enough distance credit). To appeal, the rider must submit in writing to the Permanents Coordinator, before riding or within 10 days of the ride's completion, documentation (map and cue sheet) of what the rider considers a shortest safe and legal route and reasons why the certifying route is not a valid shortest-distance route. The decision of the Permanents Coordinator regarding distance credit is final.
- Sample Variants - The applicant need only submit a sampling of variants — enough to illustrate that the route has genuine free-route potential.
- Shortest Distances - There may be multiple route variants of essentially the same minimum distance — for example, traversing road networks built on a grid. The route owner only needs to construct and submit one.
- Cue Sheet - The cue sheet submitted to document the minimum distance only needs to show the roads taken, turns, and distances, but need not indicate signage, localities, or other details. Its purpose is to document the minimum distance, rather than to be ridden by. This means the owner must (only) research the roads and locales well enough to assess legality and safety, and time impediments.
- Intermediate Controls - A free-route permanent may have zero or more intermediate controls. Intermediate controls may serve to usefully "shape" the route possibilities, e.g., to avoid large built-up areas, or to traverse iconic areas important to the route concept such as natural terrain features or national parks. Intermediate controls also provide places where the rider can receive personal support. The disadvantage of having more than a few intermediate controls is that they may overly constrain the "freedom" of the free route.
- Riding Route Variants - The rider may plan out a route variant in advance, or "wing it" as he/she goes along, or vary from a pre-planned route at will. The rider may choose to ride the certifying route, or parts of it (or none of it, of course).
- Consultation - The owner is encouraged to be available for consultation prior to the ride as to possible variants and their characteristics (more scenic, more/less climbing, more/less traffic, easier to navigate, etc.). The route used to certify the permanent must be available to the rider, both as a guide in case the rider would like to vary only part of the route, and in case the rider thinks the creditable distance is too low. The owner may also choose to publish the certifying route, as some owners do with fixed routes.
There are many scenarios, depending on terrain and road network, for ideal free-route permanents — but all rely on the concept that variants exist that riders might actually take. Some examples:
- A variant segment is more scenic and memorable, but has more climbing. The rider who is feeling strong can afford the extra time, and would like to enjoy the challenge.
- A variant segment is essentially similar in character - e.g., one side of river vs. the other, or different grid-system roads such as we see on the Great Plains and Midwest — and taking these variants adds variety, without appreciably affecting the distance.
- A variant is better suited to a group of riders (e.g., big shoulders), should a group be riding the permanent.
- There is a nice store off the shortest route where the riders would like to stop, without retracing their steps afterwards.
- The shortest-distance route is quite hilly, but there is a faster, easier one that's a bit longer.
- The shortest-distance route may be less desirable at night, or more vulnerable to wintry and other weather threats.