Randonneuring and Ultra Distance Cycle Racing

by Ken Jessett – Race Director, Bessies Creek 24,

Randonneuring and Ultra Distance Cycle Racing – two distinct but connected activities.

Stephen Hinde photo

Randonneuring got its start in Italy in the late 19th century when the first known Audax event was staged on June 12, 1897, with a group of cyclists riding between Rome and Naples, a distance of 230 KM.

The Italians were getting into the ‘challenge’ aspects of sports at that time and group cycling was at the forefront because much longer distances – and therefore challenges – were possible. The Italians loved to do things together (probably more for the ‘love’ than anything else) and riding as a group over long – and at that time – considerably dangerous routes with poor quality roads and wild dogs about – sounds a bit like Texas today, doesn’t it? – fitted the bill.

The Italians considered this ‘challenge’ to be ‘audacious’, and hence the term ‘Audax’ – which is used in much of the world today to denote ‘randonneuring’ – was born.  The term randonneuring (generally only used in America) itself is French, and means a long trip, or randonnee. Many randonneurs (a person who rides randonnees) today facing a grueling ride in Texas weather, will consider their randonnee rides of a minimum of 200KM to be very long trips indeed. KM’s are used in randonneuring as opposed to miles mainly in the bookkeeping of it, otherwise we mostly plot and record our distances as miles.

PBP startIn 1901 Henri Desgranges – following his success in organizing the first Tour de France the year before – organized the first truly long distance cycling event, the Paris to Brest to Paris ride, a 1200 KM ride which has been held every four years since. At

The world governing body for Audax or Randonneuring is the Audax Club Parisien, or ACP to its friends.one time this event was reserved for professional riders, but now is open only to amateurs.

Randonneuring events organized under the auspices of ACP are called brevets (pronounced bravays by those not from the other side of the channel). The American body overseeing randonneuring in this country is Randonneurs USA or RUSA. Although RUSA oversees randonneuring in this country, a randonneur does not have to be a member of RUSA in order to ride brevets. The ACP says brevet riding is not to be contingent on any affiliation. The completion of a series of ACP brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600KM in a calendar year leads to the appellation of Super Randonneur. In addition to ACP brevets, RUSA also approves domestic brevets.

Local organizing clubs run by a RUSA appointed leader or RBA (Regional Brevet Administrator) are responsible for putting together a calendar of brevets – both ACP and RUSA – throughout the year. These brevets generally range from 200 KM up to 600 KM, although lately, shorter distances have been introduced in an attempt to attract more riders to the sport. Across the country, and in the rest of the world, brevets of 1200 KM and longer, are also available. As said above, a rider does not have to be a member of RUSA to ride brevets, but generally must be a member of the local organization.

In addition to brevets organized by the RBA, other long distance rides called ‘Permanents’ are also run independent of the local, organizing club. Permanents are developed by any RUSA member and made available to any other RUSA member. The member designing the route is called the ‘owner’ and may – if so desired – charge a fee for riding the route, but most don’t. A rider does not have to be a member of a local organizing club to ride permanents – but must be a member of RUSA, it’s all a little confusing.

A list of permanent routes throughout the country is available on the RUSA web site.  A RUSA member in Houston going to Maine, for example, can find a route in that state, contact the route owner, and ride it for R12 credit.

The commonality of brevets and permanents of any distance in any country, whether Audax or Randonnee, is that all are run over a prescribed course of a specific distance with proof of passage required and within a given time. Riders do not race against each other, but ride against the clock.

Since permanents are available at any time, at the convenience of both the route owner and the member, flexibility for a rider to be able to amass miles leading to RUSA’s – R12 award (a permanent a month of at least 200KM for 12 consecutive months)is a strong incentive for any of us to meet the ‘audacious challenge’ set by out Italian friends over 120 years ago.

Ultra Distance Cycle Racing

Jay Yost and Collin Johnson - Photo: UltraRacePics.com

Jay Yost and Collin Johnson – Photo: UltraRacePics.com

Unlike Randonneuring, there is no world or national body governing the sport of ultra distance cycle racing.

An organization called UMCA or Ultra Marathon Racing Association was founded in 1980 to document cross state and national records, maintain a calendar of racing events and promote the sport. Members of UMCA are able to record their rides throughout the year on an ‘ad hoc basis’ and ‘claim’ a Year-Rounder Mileage Challenge. However, unlike RUSA or ACP, there exists no body which either controls the activities of the sport, or the regulation of it.

Most racing cyclists experience ultra distance racing mainly through participation in regional independently operated events which stage 24 hour races – and sometimes 12 and six hour races. In this concept, a race or event director decides to organize a racing series to include these distances. The director contacts the UMCA and requests to be added to its calendar. Upon approval to ensure there is no over-lap with another similar event in the same region, the director organizes and puts on the races.

The result of these races are listed on the UMCA web site among other places and lead to placement in the Ultra Cycling Cup Championship. At times, the UMCA will decide that a particular 24 hour event on the calendar will be run as the World Cup of UltraCycling. It is hoped by some that eventually a world championship will emerge from the organization and come under the auspices of the UCI.

The UMCA is considered by many riders to be in a state of some disarray at this time, and those of us closely associated with it are hopeful this will change in the very near future. The sport of ultra distance cycle racing needs a properly developed organized regulatory body if the sport is to improve and meet its full potential in the years to come. A racer coming to any one event, should know that the rules under which it is run, meets the standards under which all other 24 hour races are operated.

Unlike randonneuring, 24 hour ultra distance races are usually one-off affairs. A race director puts on the event, the racer signs up, all racers in that specific time distance (24, 12 and 6 hour) start at the same time, there is no drafting and the format is that the racer riding the most miles over a given course in the given time wins that race. Often the course is a closed one, meaning the racer rides continuously a loop of 20 – and upward miles – until the clock runs out.

The attraction of this format is that the racer is able to return to the staging point at the end of each loop allowing for self-support. Keeping costs to a minimum for both the racer and the event is essential if the sport is to grow. It also means that SAG vehicles are generally unnecessary. As in randonneuring, the racer and the rider are considered to be self-sufficient in both activities.

A racer does not have to be a member of the UMCA to ride in any of the calendar events, but membership is required to attain placement in the UltraCycling Cup. There is some discussion that eventually a requirement to race will be dependent on UMCA membership.

IMG_8047_edited-1If the Paris Brest Paris ride can be considered is the granddaddy of randonneuring, then the Race Across America (RAAM) is the same for ultra distance cycle racing. This annual and grueling 3,000 mile race from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic is the ultimate ultra distance race. It is expensive, tough, exhausting and only the very fittest survive. Bessies Creek 24 is the local qualifying race for the RAAM, in which exceeding 400 miles in the 24 hours will be the minimum required to do so. It is not unusual for racers to ride close to 500 miles in the same time in similar events around the country.

Two activities then which have a common purpose but with different means to obtain them.

Randonneuring recognizes the value of camaraderie in its rides, it encourages group riding over long distances of cycling. The entire purpose of RUSA is to encourage ordinary every day riders to go out and test themselves on a given course within a very reasonable time allowance.

A 200K – 125 mile – randonneee for example has an upper time limit of 13 hours – less than 10MPH average – a rider does not have to be super fit to achieve that, just a desire and the fortitude to keep plugging away.

Ultra Distance Cycle Racing on the other hand is riding on a winner takes all basis. It is all about racing with independent effort, and no support from any other rider. Ultra Distance still covers long distances, but the goal is to cover the miles as fast as possible. A rider should be fit, experienced and able to maintain good speeds over a long time. Placing well in an Ultra Distance Cycle race is an achievement well worth aiming for. With 6 as well as 12 hour races, the ordinary rider is given the opportunity to ‘work their way up’ to the big boys 24 hour league. Many do and successfully.

The purpose of this article is to encourage all cyclists of every level of fitness and experience to take a look at these two aspects of the one sport many of us enjoy, and see if you wouldn’t like to give either, or both, a try in the coming year.


Kenneth Jessett

Race Director, Bessies Creek 24


Filed Under: Race Director Viewpoint

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  1. Slo Joe says:

    I see other sources that say the first PBP race was 1891. Going to check other sources.

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