Bikes for Randonnees
What defines a good brevet bike? It's one you use on a
brevet with little or no hassle or pain. This means
it is reliable and comfortable, and has enough storage
capacity that you can carry what you need (including clothes and
tools) and/or store what you no longer need. Also since brevets
require lights and usually involve night riding, a brevet bike
should have reliable long-lasting lights. If your current bike
fits you reasonably well and you've done your local club century
on it, it's probably a good candidate.
In this article, I'll talk about some fundamental accessories
for brevets, as well as those that can enhance comfort. I'll focus
a lot on what can be done with an existing or production bike,
and conclude with features one might request in a custom bike.
Over the years, I have used a lot of different bikes, lights,
gears, bags and assorted equipment for brevets. I often think
I have settled on something, and then for some reason or another,
I will try something new. In this article, I will talk about various
bikes I have used for brevets including my current setup, how
and why I chose equipment, as well as some things that I rejected.
This is what works for me. This may not the perfect brevet bike
for everyone. (See my opening statement)
For my first PBP in 1987, I used a sport touring
bike which I bought shortly before the big event. I had been planning
to ride tandem that year, but my tandem partner (at the time)
and I decided after all the qualifiers and training that we just
couldn't be on the same bike for that long. So I ended up trying
to put together a single bike quickly and on a tight budget. In
the first 100 miles of PBP, I had some problems with a series
of punctures and learned the hard way that the folding Michelin
tires that I bought at the first bike shop on the route, to replace
my shredded tires, required that the rim have a hook or they would
simply blow off. Suffice it to say, I did not have a successful
ride that year. Today, most modern clincher rims work fine with
foldable tires, but not the ones I had in 1987. The lesson here
isn't specifically about tires and rim incompatibility, it's about
using the equipment lots before the big event. It was unfortunate
that I did not spend the brevet season riding that bike, or I
might have found problems and solutions prior to going to France.
So one bit of advice is try to avoid the need for a brand new
bike right before your big event! Use the bike you plan to ride
throughout the season and work the kinks out early. That said,
every 4 years, I hear about some poor soul whose bike doesn't
make it to Paris, who then scrambles to get a working bike hours
before the ride start. I've even heard reports of success. It
can be done, but is best to be avoided!
My next brevet bike was a Vitus that I acquired just after PBP
in 87. I loved this bike and put about 50,000 miles (including
a BMB and PBP) on it before I hit a dog and crimped the top and
down tubes and fork. The bike was comfortable and fit me well.
It sported a triple crank with a narrow block cassette to give
nice wide range of gears with small steps in between gears. With
aerobars and lights up front, I chose to carry my gear in the
back. I used a bar bag mounted off a stoker stem/bar mounted to
my seatpost. This gave me a large well supported bag in which
I could carry all my gear for a 1200 km brevet. This was a standard
off the shelf bike that happened to fit me well, that I adapted
and accessorized to make it into a good brevet bike.
I went through a few other bikes before I picked up the Independent
Fabrications Club Racer that featured in my BMB
2000 article as well as a previous version of this article.
This was a sporty road bike designed to use long-reach (57mm)
sidepull brakes, providing clearance for cushy tires with fenders.
It also had eyelets for mounting those fenders as well as racks.
I actually bought the frame used, but it fit me well and I used
it on various brevets for several years. This style of bike is
now quite common, but was pretty rare a few years ago. One could
get a touring bike with cantilevers and fat tire/fender clearance,
but this new category of bike was designed more for the club century
than a round-the-world expedition. Even touring bikes could be
hard to find at the time, and most were a bit overbuilt for my
needs on a brevet. This in-between style of bike fit my brevet
needs quite well. Possibly due to the popularity of brevets (and
riders' desires for clearance for fenders and/or plusher tires),
lots of sporty bikes are now built in this style with these so-called
long reach (57mm) brakes. I think that's good news since I believe
a bike built around those long reach brakes is a good starting
point for a brevet bike.
First and foremost a good brevet bike fits well. If your current
bike doesn't have a perfect fit, but it's not outrageous, there
are a few things you can do to improve it.
One potential source of discomfort for long rides, that may be
easily addressed, has to do with reach or height of bars. On shorter
rides, one can get away with riding a bike with too long a reach
or too much drop, but for brevet type distances it is absolutely
critical that the bike fit properly. Many newer stems, both quill
type and threadless now come with a two or four bolt front, making
it much easier to change out a stem for a longer or shorter one,
or one with a different angle. It also makes packing and reassembling
the bike easier, a likely prospect for a brevet bike.
Many folks recommend higher bar placement for randonneurring
bikes than what you see on typical racing bikes. In a short time
trial or road race, one can put up with bars which are significantly
lower than the saddle. But for longer distances, bars closer to
the height of the saddle might afford more comfort.
Since we are discussing modifying an existing bike, I will talk
about antiquities like quill stems, since some folks may still
have these! Adjusting the height of the bars with a quill stem
is relatively easy, but still limited by the max extension on
the stem and the frame size. You might have difficulty getting
the bars high enough if the frame is small and you have lots of
seatpost showing. Nitto makes a tall stem, the Technomic, which
unfortunately does not have that bolt off front, but is
handy if your bike is too small to get the desired bar height.
With threadless stem/headset/fork design it is possible to get
a good range by leaving the steerer long (on a new fork), and
using spacers above and below the stem while you settle on ideal
placement by riding and changing the position over a period of
time. If the steerer has already been cut and is too short to
get the bars to an appropriate height, some threadless stems are
available in various angles as well, enabling a higher placement.
BTW, a threadless stem has two different possible angles, since
it can be flipped, allowing one to potentially change the the
height for different types of riding, simply by flipping the stem.
There's lot more involved in fitting a bike, and it's well beyond
the scope of this article. It's also best done in person with
a professional, who will measure you and your bike and can offer
advice based on some standard practices while taking into account
your experience. It is certainly possible to get a good fit with
a production bike. But I can't deny how great it is to have a
custom bike built and tuned to me and my riding style. More on
So assuming that you have a bike that fits you well, let's look
at other sources of comfort.
Marketing folks and bike reviewers will have you believe the
different grades of materials and butting have a big influence
in comfort, but IMNSHO, any difference in materials is absolutely
dwarfed by different width tires and tire pressure. In a blind
test with the same frame geometry and tires, but different materials
for tubes, I believe riders will struggle to tell the difference.
But change the tires from 18 to 23 to 28 to 35, and I believe
riders will instantly notice the difference in comfort.
New England roads take a beating in the winter. Snowplows and
the freeze-thaw cycle do their best to rip up our roads. Anyone
who has ever ridden BMB can confirm that the roads may be brutally
rough (and sometimes the pavement is missing completely). Skinny
tires, 750 miles and rough pavement on the BMB course will beat
up a rider. A 25mm or bigger tires can make a tremendous difference.
Add rain, and you'll want fenders too. This is where things get
tough, because many new and popular racing bikes just don't
have clearance for both. I had to go with a super skinny tire
on my Vitus to get the fenders on. I recall telling folks after
PBP in 91 that French roads were rough, but after using a much
wider tire in 99, I have come to realize they aren't so bad. Especially
in comparison to the BMB roads.
In 1991 my Vitus sported French-sourced narrow Salmon aluminum
fenders with ridiculously narrow tires (18 mm Michelin on front,
20 on the back). I first saw these fenders on French bikes at
PBP in 1987, and one of the local randonneurring shops in the
US imported and sold a bunch prior to the 1991 PBP. However, they
were actually more fashionable than functional. The fender was
essentially a flat strip of aluminum. With no sides, they
weren't as effective at keeping spray under control. And while
narrow in width, they were actually thicker than most other fenders,
so further limited tire size. Over the years, John and I have
used many varieties of fenders, including SKS
(formerly Esge), Honjo,
Orange, Berthoud and others. Aluminum fenders (like those
made by Honjo) are quite popular with many American randonneurs
these days and are actually quite functional, providing good coverage.
But they can be an absolute nightmare to mount and our experience
is they crack and break under minor abuse. They do look very nice,
especially when painted to match, but aren't so attractive when
they break partway through a big ride!
Given that, I would not use them on a travel bike
where the act of packing and transporting would simply stress
them and me too much! For our S&S travel bikes, we are currently
using Road Racer model fenders from a UK company called Crud.
These are superlight and are designed to work with tight clearances.
They offer surprising good coverage and do an admirable job of
keeping spray off me and my riding companions. They come with
pads allowing the fender to align/float on the rim. The minimal
design and the floating feature means you will see movement, but
it's by design. I made mudflaps for mine from packing tape to
enhance the coverage. These fenders mount easily with no hardware,
using reusable cable ties, thumbscrews and rubber bands. They
come apart into three pieces so pack quite easily. And the extended
section on the front guard comes off easily with a thumb screw,
enabling quick removal when using a roof rack where an extended
fender might interfere.
I'll also admit to having used SKS Race
Blades on a few occasions. These will work on pretty much
any bike. Eyelets are not required and clearance is not
an issue since they don't go through the brakes, but they offer
much less protection to both you and your riding companions than
any of the other full-coverage fenders, but they are infinitely
better than nothing!
While fenders are no longer required for PBP, I use them and
highly recommend them. BMB rarely saw dry weather for four days,
and more often than not had sustained or heavy rain. In recent
outings, PBP riders have also experienced some serious rain. In
Boston, our qualifiers have almost become famous for the heavy
rain. Fenders can make a tremendous difference in one's comfort
on a long rainy ride. They also make riding in a group much more
pleasant. So in my opinion, a good brevet bike has fenders.
BMB is known for it's long steep climbs. PBP has a similar amount
of climbing, but it is spread out more. The brevets in our area
also have many of the long steep climbs. I use and recommend a
triple crank. John uses a wide range double (so-called compact
crank) on his single bikes. Triple front derailleurs are getting
better and better every year, but they can be finicky and one
can get the same spread of gears with a compact crank and wide
range cassette. I feel the ability to spin up those tough little
climbs on day 3 can make all the difference in the world.
Now I'll admit that it is entirely possible to do brevets on
fixed gear, and I have done quite a few that way myself, so I'd
be a hypocrite to say you MUST have lots of gears, but I still
There are seemingly infinite choices of shifters available these
days. I may be accused of being a retro-grouch for still having
barend shifters, but that's where my hands expect to find the
shifters, so that's where I have them. I'm also still using 9
speed! John leapt into the modern age of shifting technology and
uses SRAM 10 speed. My recommendation is to use what you are used
to, provided of course, that it works reliably.
Lights, Bags, etc.
You will need a way to carry some amount of stuff. Some people
are comfortable with everything in their pockets. I am not! John
long ago taught me a saying, "Better looking at it than for
it." It's a motto to live by. These rides are long, cover
a wide range of terrain, weather and temperatures. Be prepared.
Whether that means carrying gear or having space to store the
gear you are wearing, there will be times you will need one or
There are other articles on the site that discuss lights
and bags in depth. And I won't
clutter this article with much detail on either. What I will say
here is they must play nicely together. Bar bags and headlights
may compete for the same space. For instance, I cannot use the
typical American bar mounted battery lights with my bar bag. My
headlight is mounted on the fork below my bar bag. Taillights
and large seat bags can also be an issue. Make sure that whatever
you use that the bag doesn't block the light.
A light that is self-powered or whose batteries will last through
the event is fundamental brevet equipment. A backup light is a
sign of wisdom or experience.
A final and IMO, big consideration is travel. You are likely
to want to pack your randonneurring bike up and take if somewhere
far away to do an event. S&S couplers make this much easier
(especially on a tandem). If you are considering buying a new
bike, I'd definitely keep this in mind. Even without couplers
there are several things you can do to make travel easier. I mentioned
the bolt off front stems above. Cable couplers are another great
travel aid. DaVinci
Designs make an inline cable separator that makes it easy
to remove the handlebars for packing without fear of kinking cables,
or the hassle of having to readjust brake and derailleur cables.
We use them on our tandem now (to eliminate the need for tandem
length cables) as well as any bike we travel with.
Wires on a travel bike can be a big hassle. I use wireless computers
(actually a GPS these days) and try to keep lighting wires as
simple as possible. I use a hub generator for headlights, but
battery operated taillights. Many years ago, I did a great job
routing wires from the generator to a taillight on my fender,
only to have to undo it all when I packed the bike. Wired taillights
are nice for the same reason all generator lights are nice - no
fear of dead batteries, but do keep in mind the travel issue.
My Current Bike
Today the bike I use on brevets is a custom Seven.
A couple of years ago, Rob Vandermark, of Seven Cycles, opened
a cafe/bike shop in Lexington called Ride
Studio Cafe. Those who know me well, know that this was an
irresistible draw - a bike shop where I can hang out with other
cyclists while drinking a proper espresso. John and I became regulars
and over time and lots of conversations with Rob, we came to understand
what others have known for a while. Seven is all about custom
bikes! Prior to this, we mistakenly just thought they built high-end
racing bikes. But what they really build is a bike for you
- whether it's a superlight high-end racing bike, or a great cross
bike or a brevet bike. The bike is tailor made for you - both
size and style.
Rob and I had a few meetings where we talked about my desired
ride qualities and special features, as well as doing some measurements
of me and my current bike. We talked about what works well now
and where I might wants changes. We also went through the detailed
specs of desired tires size, where to have braze-ons, and very
importantly, what color to make the decals. The funny thing is
I wasn't trying to design a brevet bike! I was designing a bike
to take to Europe for Gran Fondos and supported or very light
touring. But it seems to be in my DNA since the features I sought
make this bike ideal for brevets.
First and foremost, it fits.
And it flies. It has couplers, so I can travel with very little
hassle. Yes, I have to disassemble and assemble it, but I can
get the case in a taxi or on a train, and I can fly without paying
an enormous ransom! The bike is titanium and I opted for no-paint,
based on previous experience with fancy paint jobs on coupled
bikes. No matter how carefully one packs, one inevitably will
get scratches. Scratches on this frame can be buffed out with
a scotchbrite pad!
Even with couplers and pretty standard, non-stupid-light components,
this bike comes in at under 20 pounds with the fenders and bar
bag mount! One of my stated goals was to keep the bike light for
climbing mountain passes, but stable for confident descending,
while still fitting in the 26X26X10 suitcase for travel!
One of my other goals was to reduce toe overlap that is common
on bikes for smaller riders, without having to go to a less common
wheel/tire size. Seven has a unique approach to their fork
design. They use offset dropouts to achieve different rake choices
using the same blades. Rob was able to design the bike so I got
the most toe clearance, while still getting a stable, yet spritely
ride. I'll admit the fork looked a little different at first,
but I love having proper toe clearance.
I planned to use the Crud fenders (mentioned above), but got
fender eyelets anyway, since who knows what I'll be using in a
few years time. I specified clearance for 26mm Grand Bois tires
with the fenders. I have used a 30mm Grand Bois on the front and
28mm on the back without fenders.
I moved most of the parts from my old brevet bike. I have it
set up with Shimano 9 speed barend shifters and triple crank and
derailleurs. I like the barend shifters, since I can tell by feel
what gear I am in at night and they are very reliable. And this
drivetrain has worked quite well for me for many kilometers. I've
tried various other types of shifters, but my hands seem to expect
the shifters to be at the ends of the bars, so that's where I
put them! Someday I may go with a more modern drivetrain, like
10 speed, but I'll probably never abandon barend shifters.
For color, I went crazy and got pink Chris King headset, bottom
bracket and hubs which are laced to 32 hole Velocity Aerohead
rims. These rims are well protected by cushy tires. I'm using
26mm Cerf blue label Grand Bois tires. I'll admit I was surprised
how much I like these tires. Initial reports had suggested they
might be more probe to puncture, but we have had very good luck
with them, both of single bikes and our tandem.
When in brevet mode, I use Schmidt
dynohub with a Lumotec Cyo
light mounted at the fork crown. I also have classy, stealth reflective
tape from Lightweights
on the spokes and stays and such. The bike lights up in headlights.
The photo below was taken with a flash.
I use a large Ortlieb wedge type seatbag and an Ortlieb mini
handlebar bag. See the article on bags
for more options or recommendations. I like this setup because
it is waterproof. If it's worth carrying, it is likely worth keeping
dry. The large seat wedge can be rolled up to be compact, but
can also expand to hold tools, tubes, tires, jacket, warmers and
other stuff. The small bar bag holds my valuables like wallet,
passport, brevet card, camera, phone, some food and anything I
need for quick access. I pop it off and take it with me into controls
and cafes. I keep things in the rear that involve stopping to
use and/or don't need to be carried into every cafe. If I'm actively
taking arm warmers and jackets on and off lots - they are most
likely in a pocket. But for more long term storage, they go in
the back. Because my frame is small, I did move the mount for
the bar bag, so it sits slightly higher to clear the light. (See
comments above about light/bag conflicts)
I use Crank Brothers Eggbeater pedals. I believe pedal/cleats
for walkable shoes are ideal for brevets, since you do some amount
of walking at controls. The hole-in-the-ground toilets at the
Carhaix control on PBP are also a reason to avoid cleat covers
and unstable footwear! Spiral marble staircases found in many
Italian cafes also offer good incentive for walkable shoes. See
the article on shoes/pedals for
John also got a custom Seven at the same time. They are quite
similar, although he opted for clearance for 28s with fenders.
He also got a take-apart rack, which is mainly intended for light
tours. John decided to prove how versatile his Seven was by using
it a brevet series and the Green Mountain Double 200 mile dirt
road race. He then reconfigured it slightly and did a few hill
climb races with it, including coming in 7th at Newton's Revenge,
a race up Mt Washington . Then he packed it up, along with the
aforementioned take apart rack, for a two week tour in Italy.
All this to say, a brevet bike need not be some very specialized
machine to be used exclusively on brevets.