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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.