Randonneur Q&A for Beginners

Over the past few months, people interested in dabbling in the randonneur lifestyle have asked me various questions about getting into randonneuring. After answering them, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

Since I started doing brevets in 2005, I’ve realized that randonneurs vary widely in their approach to training and riding brevets. Over time, I’ve figured out some of the methods that work for me, and those are the foundation for the answers to these topics.

My experience is based primarily on brevets with the D.C. Randonneurs. Other clubs may operate slightly differently, though the general approach is the same.

2010 PA Endless Mountains 1000K

What are Brevet Check-In/Registration and Controls Like?

These are pretty easy. The most important parts are: allow yourself sufficient time to get ready before the ride, get your brevet card, and get your gear organized. Make sure to keep track of that brevet card at all times.

If you pre-register for a ride you will save some time, but usually there are 5-10 minute waits to sign in at the beginning of a ride.

You check in or register, the ride organizer or volunteer has you sign a waiver and provide an emergency contact, they hand you your card and a cue sheet, and off you go. You will want to make sure you have a way to affix the cue sheet to your handlebars.

Keep your control card in a plastic baggie, safe from the elements and put it somewhere it will not fall off the bike or you.

DC Randonneurs 300K

Controls themselves are easy, especially on brevets. You just stop, get your card signed (try and buy something as a thank you for their helping) and off you go. Some brevets have information controls, but you will know that in advance, and the ride organizer will have pencils available for people.

The other thing about controls is that you have a certain window within which to reach each control. That means you need to keep a little bit of an eye on the clock and be somewhat efficient about your stops, depending on your pace, of course.

DC Randonneurs 300K

How Do I Prepare for Hillier Rides?

If you have not done much riding in hills, I suggest doing less-than-century distance rides (populaire distances) to gain comfort and confidence on hillier terrain. The next step is to get in practice with longer miles (ideally, one or two centuries a month) to accustom yourself to the time in the saddle as well as strengthen up your legs.

Being from Iowa, the hills out east were a shock! I think it’s just the practice of riding challenging courses that has allowed me to get a little bit better at/more tolerant of climbing, as well as more used to encountering them and how they affect my pace.

Also, I find there are variations on hilly, which sometimes makes discerning profiles difficult. For example, the Old Rag 200K out of Warrenton is fairly hilly, but it only has two mountain climbs (that I remember) and they are both short. However, the terrain keeps coming at you via constant rollers. Other rides may have more concentrated or extended climbing.

I think D.C. Randonneurs offer good hilly rides that (for the most part) won’t leave your cartilage all over the pavement you traverse.

That said, there are a few rides that have a reputation for being extra tough. You should be able to figure those out by reading the D.C. Randonneurs blog or people’s ride reports.

I think when you look at a course profile, perhaps look at the overall elevation. Of course, the ride description should also do a great job of clueing you in to its difficulty, AND look to see where the major climbs are, and how they stack up over the course of the ride. For example, I LOVE the Frederick 300K, because the climbing is in the first part of the ride when the legs are freshest and the last 50 miles are pretty much flat. I think that’s awesome!

Rides that go into orchard country are hilly. Rides that go into the Catoctins will have gnarly sections. West Virginia? Generally pretty hilly!

DC Randonneurs Cacapon 200K

How Do I Build Up to Brevet (200K+) Distances?

There are multiple ways to approach a brevet. I like my rides to be comfortable and to not feel at the mercy of the clock/control closings. That requires some training. That said, getting in weekday miles is important. I think if you commit to randonneuring, you will find space to get weekday miles in, either pre- or post-work.

Also, you could do one or two centuries a month, and try to do back to back 50-mile+ rides on hillier roads on other weekends. We have some incredibly beautiful areas to ride near D.C. which are fun and challenging to explore, provided you are up for a remote start.

I also love going to the gym (most days!), but other people (including my tandem partner) hate it. It’s ride or bust. However, I have found that I am more comfortable on the bike with a stronger core and a stronger upper body and lower back. Maintaining that forward-leaning position on the bike and sitting at a desk during the day was doing a number on my shoulders and neck. Lifting weights really helped me.

I also found that spinning was an excellent cardio workout, provided that I adjusted it to meet my training needs, e.g., not grinding big gears in class, not going all out if I have a brevet the next day OR if I just did a big ride. Spin also helped me with my seated climbing, which surprised me.

Does it get any better than this? (c) Bill Beck

What about Finishing within the Time Limits?

Of course, individual pace will vary, but all riders have to maintain a minimum speed in order to officially finish a ride.

The important thing on brevets is to make sure to keep moving. One of the best ways I’ve found to save time on a ride is to bring your own food. It takes preparation the night before, but I’ve found it pays off during the ride. That way, you don’t have to worry about waiting for a meal or wandering around a convenience store looking for something that you could potentially eat. You can just get a drink at the control and move on. Also, preparing your food allows you to eat in a way that matches your own schedule, versus being at the schedule of the route.

2011 D.C. Randonneurs 400K finish. Yay! (c) Bill Beck

Overall

The first year I rode brevets, I decided to consider tackling each of the distances as they came up on the calendar. I developed a base where a century finally became “just another ride,” and then started doing back to back rides, including some back to back century rides.

After completing the 200K brevet, I examined how I felt afterward and considered how I would do on the 300K. I repeated the pattern for deciding whether to complete a 400K. This helped me not get overwhelmed by the time, distances and general commitment of randonneuring.

It is an ongoing balancing act to manage randonneuring pursuits amid the other commitments and activities that compete for our time. Sometimes my randonneur training goes off according to plan, and other times, I have to make adjustments.

In the end, while I have found randonneuring to be one of the most enjoyable physical challenges in which I’ve ever engaged, the brevets will always be there. Whenever I can do them I will, but if life intervenes then I’ll just deal and know that the next ride is just around the corner.

Hope you’ve found these comments helpful, and if you have anything to add or if there is something you’d like to know, please email me or share it in a comment.

16 thoughts on “Randonneur Q&A for Beginners”

  1. so how do you deal with the odd looks and whispering when you tell friends and family you’re thinking about randonneuring? :)

    seriously, good post

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  2. Great advice. Thanks for sharing this. I do find, so far, that the biggest challenge is scheduling in time to bike amidst other obligations. We’ll see how I do this year!

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  3. Nice to see some commentary on the basics. I’ve been reading about rando stuff for a couple years now, finally jumping into it this year. Unfortunately, I haven’t done the winter miles like I should have been doing.

    I have a 100k populaire this weekend, then there’s a 200k scheduled two weeks after that. I know that I can manage the 100k. Then, as you mention, I’ll examine how I feel after that, and hopefully be ready to tackle the 200k. Four weeks later is our 300k. Not sure if I’ll be ready for that. If so, great; if not, no big deal, there’s a beautiful club ride the day after for an alternative.

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  4. Excellent advice for beginners (like me). Like Lisa, I also am finding it tough to get time in the saddle. Instead I’ve taken to hitting the gym 3 days a week, riding when possible, and setting aside 1 full day and 1 half day per month for longer rides. We’ll see how that plan holds up, It has only been 1 month in.

    I can vouch for the benefit of the gym, especially core and upper body work making a huge improvement. At the Glen Echo Populaire I was really feeling miserable with 10-15 miles left, my back and shoulders ached. Since then I’ve started going to the gym and my century from 2 weeks ago was totally different. My back felt a little stiff around miles 80-90, but a quick stretch and I was fine. I do wonder if the magnitude of the hills plays more of a role as well, since you seem to engage your core more when climbing.

    Other tips I have learned / adapted from various resources as I try for longer distances:

    – Eat 150-300 calories per hour, and drink enough fluid. Drink before you are thirsty and eat before you are hungry. The longer into the ride you are, start increasing the relative amount of protein you eat (from maybe 10% of carbs up to 20-25% carbs).
    – You have a lot of gears… use them! Don’t push too hard in the beginning and blow yourself out, spin easy every once in a while to recharge, and don’t mash up the hills too much.
    – Keep pedaling, even if you pedal softly to refresh yourself. But do take a few short breaks (and sit and focus on a relaxing breathing pattern during them), I find it really makes a difference.
    – Talk to your partner about your goals and set a reasonable amount of training time that works for the both of you (especially if they don’t want to train with you).
    – Bring friends!
    – Take Photos!
    – Reward yourself for a job well done once you finish!

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    1. Christian, my main exercises for addressing the shoulder and neck are reverse flies, seated rows, and lat pull downs. I love doing the reverse flies on a machine. Basically, I tried to incorporate exercises that would counter the leaning on the bars.

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  5. Any comments using just the cue sheet, a GPS, or both? Any recommendations for a GPS, or what to look for?

    (Oh, and ended up DNF on the 100k, twisted my knee at the start, 35 miles in it was time to call it. I expect to be doing the 200k in two weeks.)

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    1. Oh no! Sorry to hear about the knee. When we ride brevets (since I ride them w/ my husband) he uses the GPS and we both use a cue sheet. The GPS sometimes will unexpectedly divert to something that is not the official route, and the cue sheet should be the final reference/guide.

      Don’t have any recommendations for a GPS at this time; we’re using one that isn’t made anymore. Good luck on the upcoming brevet!

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