For many of us, a single cycling event — the Tour de France — defines athleticism on two wheels. The epic race was first organized by a French newspaper editor named Henri Desgrange in 1903. But Desgrange also had a hand in the creation of a very different style of cycling: the randonnée, a long distance-ride that prizes camaraderie and self-sufficiency over flat-out speed.
There's no direct translation for randonnée (pronounced ran-don-NAY) — it can mean a long outing or trip, or a ramble in the countryside. For its practitioners, called randonneurs, it's easier to define the event by what it isn't: a race. There are time limits, which means riders can't go too slowly — but they also can't go too quickly.
I speak to cyclist Michael Wolfe during a 400-kilometer randonnée that loops from a town south of Portland, Ore., out to the coast and back. He's in the lead, but he slows down so I can ride beside him. He's on a recumbent — sitting low to the ground, pedaling with his legs out in front of him — so he even offers to hold my recorder. Definitely not a race.
Today's ride started, without fanfare, at 4 a.m. At this point it's 7:30, and Wolfe has already covered his first 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. He's fast — but he says racing turns him into a nervous wreck. And that's why he likes randonneuring.
"I think at its heart it is very cooperative," Wolfe says. "Although, when it comes down to it, you are alone on the course. It's like life in that way. It's a sort of shared struggle. And somebody else doing well does not diminish your own accomplishment, you know?"
Jan Heine, editor of Bicycle Quarterly, a Seattle-based magazine about the history, technology and culture of biking, says a German friend once defined randonneuring as "the search for the complete cyclist."
Heine says that in randonneuring, you have to be prepared for anything. "It's not like in racing, where it starts raining and somebody hands you a jacket out of a car window," he says.
Riders carry everything themselves: tools, food, lights — and if they get support anywhere but the official checkpoints, they're disqualified. This may sound like hell on two wheels, but the challenge was what tantalized the first randonneurs.
At the turn of the 20th century there were riders from two camps in cycling culture. The French camp was led by a healthy-living guru nicknamed Vélocio who touted the benefits of long-distance rides, fresh air and vegetarianism. In Italy, a style of group riding called Audax — Latin for audacious — became popular and was later imported to France by Henri Desgrange. Both styles attracted amateur cyclists, cyclo-tourists, as they were called, who did not get along with professional racers.
"There was a lot of animosity in France, actually, between the tourists and the racers," Heine explains. "Because the tourists said, 'We are going in the mountains, and we are a participatory sport.' " Participatory meaning that women could ride alongside men — and people could ride basically whatever they wanted. This drove innovations in bicycle technology that today are widespread: If you've ever ridden a bike with a derailleur, thank the randonneurs.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the racers and the randonneurs was socioeconomic. Racing was a working-class sport — prize money was a way out of the coal mines or factories. "You don't have the liberty to say, 'Well, the other guy deserves to win' if your living depends on it," Heine says.
Randonneuring was more of a refined hobby. "If you're doing this for fun, suddenly the distinction between winner and second becomes meaningless," says Heine.
The pinnacle of randonneuring today is a ride called Paris-Brest-Paris. (You can probably guess the route.) It's held every four years: 1,200 kilometers in 90 hours, nonstop.
Americans can participate by completing a series of qualifying rides here, called brevets, organized by Randonneurs USA. "It's maybe the best time you'll ever have on a bike, but a lot of people don't want to make that trip to France," says Randonneurs USA President Michael Dayton.
Hence the 1,200Ks now held here in the U.S. — there are seven scheduled for this season. Randonneurs USA has 3,200 members this year, up 260 percent from a decade ago. Dayton says there are clubs popping up in almost every state, and manufacturers have started to sell bikes and equipment specific to the sport.
"You know, when the industry sits up and takes notice, you can tell something's happening," Dayton says.
At mile 168 of the Oregon ride, Lesli Larson and Michal Young, both from Eugene, cruise on an empty road in Kings Valley. Mount Hood, glowing white, anchors the far horizon. The ride has been nothing but sun, and Larson is pleased.
"Usually we sort of do this under rainy conditions, hovering in Safeways and getting hypothermia at mile 100," Larson says.
Then again, it seems like these two would be having a good time no matter what.
"Who could carry stress with them for 200-plus miles?" Young asks. "You just have to leave it behind."
And with that, they ride around the next bend.