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Bikes for Randonnees

by Pamela Blalock

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 this later.

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, Velo 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 recommend them.

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 the other.

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 more info.

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.