The post-pandemic popularity of randonneuring

By Cody Siler

Randonneuring — Early on a cold Saturday morning in February, more than 150 cyclists streamed into the parking lot of the Pleasanton BART station. They arrived by train and by car, dressed in spandex and reflective gear, their bikes adorned with lights and their bags straining at the seams with snacks. They snacked, chatted and stretched, and as they rolled away to start their ride, they made sure their cars were locked and double-checked their rear lights. They were setting off to ride 200 kilometers, or about 126 miles, and most wouldn’t be back for 10 hours or more.

It was February 19, 2022, and they were beginning the Del Puerto Canyon 200k, hosted by the San Francisco Randonneurs (SFR). The cyclists that filled the parking lot were randonneurs, participants in a long-distance, non-competitive cycling sport with origins that predate the Tour de France. Randonneur rides, called “brevets,” are usually long-distance affairs of 200 or more kilometers, and this one had a special distinction: with 171 riders on the official roster, it was the best-attended brevet in the nearly 25-year history of American randonneuring.

It might be surprising that so many people got up so early for such a long ride, especially with no support, prize money or free t-shirts at the end—especially considering that, one year ago, the club was completely shut down.

“There were a lot of people that had been doing long distance riding until the pandemic,” said Rob Hawks, the Regional Brevet Administrator of SFR. But when everything shut down—including brevets—some riders fell off the saddle and didn’t get back on. “A lot of people, once things started up again, had a tough time coming back from the weight that they gained from baking bread.”

On the other hand, over the last two years, many new riders have found themselves with the motivation, free time and fitness to start riding brevets. “There’s a huge amount of interest in randonneuring right now,” said Hawks. Since brevets started back up in the spring of 2021, SFR has grown quickly. In March, SFR broke another record with their Healdsburg 300k, which drew more than 100 riders, the largest turnout for a 300km brevet ever in the US. Membership is the highest it’s ever been—today, over 400 members of Randonneurs USA (RUSA), the national organization, list SFR as their home club—and many of those riders are brand-new to the sport. The growth of SFR suggests that, post-pandemic, riders are feeling drawn to the natural beauty, personal challenge and camaraderie that come with long-distance riding—without the atmosphere of competition that distinguishes randonneuring from racing.

Quiet roads on a brevet near Tracy

Quiet roads on a brevet near Tracy. Photo courtesy of SF Randonneurs

The history of randonneuring goes back to the oldest still-running cycling event in the world: Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, a brevet of 1,200 kilometers or about 745 miles. The concept is beguilingly simple: riders begin in Paris, ride to Brest, and ride back to Paris. PBP started as a race in 1891, twelve years before the Tour de France. Eventually, the stage race format of the Tour de France won out with the professionals, and since 1951, PBP has been a non-competitive event run exclusively for randonneurs.

PBP comes around every four years, and in order to earn an invitation, a rider must complete a “super randonneur series”—a 200, 300, 400 and 600km brevet in a single year—leading up to the event. Typically SFR membership spikes in the year of PBP as riders try to qualify for the big ride. The next PBP is in 2023, and interest is high among brand-new randonneurs. Jasmine Wu Yap, a Bay Area cyclist who rode her first century in 2021 and her first brevet in 2022, said she wants to see how long she can stretch her long-distance riding with the club. “If I can make it to six hundred [kilometers] and qualify for PBP, that would be incredible,” she said. “But we’ll see how that goes.”

Compared to bike racers, randonneurs are less competitive and more focused on having fun. There’s no first, second or third place at brevets, and no incentive to complete the ride quickly beyond a fixed time limit that serves as a cutoff for an officially recognized effort. Riders’ finishing times are listed on the RUSA website, but they’re organized alphabetically by name, not by speed. Wu Yap said that after getting into long-distance riding, she’s seen more of California in the past year than in her first 15 years of living here. “My whole life I’ve exercised for exercise’s sake,” she said, “because, you know, it’s good for you, you do it. But this is the first sport where I’m just having fun. I enjoy all the moments of it. I enjoy the beauty of California.”

The randonneurs like to make their sport sound casual, and for some of them, it is: it’s not uncommon to see a group of riders sitting around a plastic table at a café or deli someplace far off the main road, sipping beers in the middle of a multi-hundred-mile ride. For many, brevets have offered an opportunity for organized challenge—and socialization—that was lacking during lockdowns. “People are stuck in their homes and it could get depressing,” said Naveen Kommareddi, a randonneur who rode his first brevet in 2021. Biking during the pandemic, according to Kommareddi, has been “therapeutic.”

Brenda Nguyen was training for triathlons when the pandemic hit and all the events on her calendar were canceled. She bought a new bike and, with her partners from Xe Dap Viet (XDV), a predominantly Vietnamese cycling club based in San Jose, started riding centuries and double centuries. “I like to challenge myself,” she said, and find out, “where is my limit?” With triathlons and marathons, she said, “Usually I set a different goal every time, and my goal is to beat my time every time.” But brevets are “more casual … I can enjoy the scenery, I can carry a conversation.”

To outsiders, randonneurs’ laid-back attitudes might seem baffling. How can riding for 10, 15 or 20 hours at once be relaxing? But for many of them, it is. “Everybody can finish a hundred-miler,” said Kommareddi. “You’ll just be slower, but you can finish it.” Cameron Pitts, an Oakland-based cyclist who rode their first brevet in 2021, said they appreciate the “specific niche” that randonneuring occupies: “endurance rides that aren’t a race.”

The casual atmosphere on SFR’s brevets attracts a unique mix. Hawks estimates that the youngest active riders are in their early 20s, and the oldest are in their mid-70s. SFR’s new randonneurs are somewhat more diverse, thanks in part to strong showings from clubs like XDV and predominantly South Asian Team Asha, who Kommareddi rides with. Pitts, who is transgender, said that other organized cycling events in the Bay Area can be “hyper-masculine and competitive.” Compared to that, they said, SFR is “refreshingly warm and welcoming.”

And despite the reputation of cycling as a sport for middle-aged men in spandex, SFR’s riders are increasingly youthful. In some other RUSA regions, said Hawks, “they’re kind of envious of the fact that we are getting younger people.” The average age of riders at PBP, he said, hovers at around 50 years old—but within SFR, it’s “definitely below” that.

For some people, the casual, social nature of brevet-riding is exactly what makes it so appealing. Randonneurs, according to Hawks, “don’t necessarily say, what’s the toughest thing I can go do? They’re coming to this because their friends have done it, or heard about it and said, let’s try this.” The randonneurs are “just a bunch of people” who are “all just nice to each other. They’re always helpful,” said Kommareddi. Riders take their time at the grocery stores and gas stations along the way, sipping sodas and chatting. Unlike other rides, according to Kommareddi, no one on the brevets is “measuring themselves” against their fellow riders.

Biker Starting a long climb to Mines Road.

Starting a long climb to Mines Road. Photo by Cody Siler

But if a brevet is so casual and social, why isn’t it a day at the beach—or a shorter bike ride, for that matter? The long distance, said Kommareddi, is “meditative.” On a brevet, “there are stretches of forty, fifty miles that you’re riding by yourself. You aren’t always riding with somebody. And I’ve noticed that during those times, I don’t think about anything else in this world. Like work, or COVID, or people dying, or people getting sick … somehow your mind goes into a state where time becomes irrelevant. You don’t realize how minutes turn into hours, and then suddenly you’re forty miles in.”

Riders are drawn to these extra-long rides for their own reasons. The “camaraderie” of “suffering together,” as Wu Yap said, is one appealing factor. So are the beautiful landscapes, from Gilmore to Fort Bragg, that randonneurs pass through on brevets. And for some, the draw is the challenge of seeing how far you can go. But for many, the feeling of randonneuring is hard to explain. It’s more than the sum of its parts: something that, as Kommareddi put it, “feels like a religious experience.”

In short, it’s something that has to be experienced firsthand. Hawks urges new riders, “don’t be intimidated by the distances.” And if you’re learning the ropes on your first few brevets, you’ll find plenty of helpful randonneurs to ride alongside. In the end, the distinction between randonneurs and other riders is less about physical fitness and more about “whether you want to try it,” said Hawks. “It’s just a mindset.”

Main Image: Riders on the Del Puerto Canyon 200k brevet. Photo courtesy of SF Randonneurs