Ride against Time: The Agony and Triumph of Randonneur Cycling

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An unusual sport is gaining popularity in the Victoria area. It’s called randonneuring, a form of non-competitive, long-distance cycling. Originating in France and Italy in the early 20th century, randonneuring initially involved pedalling between cities in the European country side. Rather than racing against other riders, randonneurs attempt to complete 200, 300, 400, and even 600 kilometre routes within narrow windows of time — sometimes for thirty hour stretches — and make it back before the clock stops.

Maps are provided, and these days many people use GPS devices. Riders must also be more or less self-sufficient, carrying their own clothes, tools, etc. They may stop for food, water, and bathroom breaks — but no support crews are allowed. As opposed to professional cycling circuits, and high-profile events like the Tour de France, this is a strictly amateur sport; individuals provide their own bicycles and gear and book time off their schedules — and best of all, anyone can do it. I recently sat down with local randonneur (and raconteur) Josh Hazelbower to get his perspective on this challenging form of cycling.

Hazelbower modestly downplays the difficulty of these rides. “If you’re already commuting 10 km a day to work and back,” he says, “then it really doesn’t physically take much more to do 200 km.” I laugh, but he continues, “Honestly! It becomes mostly about knowing when you need to eat and drink and how to pace yourself, and making sure your bike is set up properly for a long ride.”

A life-long cycling enthusiast, Hazelbower and his friend Steve Adams attended a public information session last year, and learned that southern Vancouver Island is a randonneuring hotspot in the English-speaking world. “That’s when I realized that these rides were merely insane, but certainly not insurmountable,” he says. They simply showed up early to the first event — a measly 200 km — and paid their $15 registration fee.

“The 200 km ride had a time limit of 13 hours, 20 minutes. But it started in Chemainus at 6 or 7 in the morning, which meant waking at 3am and driving up there in a borrowed car. Over all, we finished half an hour before the cut off.  Of the thirty or so riders, I came third last. Although technically,” he grins, “that was because the two behind me had chosen to drop out.”

There’s a great spirit of community and comradery among the riders, with cyclists often remaining together for encouragement and socializing. Although organizers stress that these rides are not races, Hazelbower points out that, “if you’re not very good, then it’s definitely a race against the clock.”

The pressure of time becomes more of a factor in longer distances. After enjoying the 200 km ride, Hazelbower and Adams registered for the next event: 300 km in 20 hours, on a route stretching up the Malahat from Victoria to Chemainus, then west around Lake Cowichan, and across the island to Port Renfrew.  From there, it’s a straight shot down through Sooke and back to Victoria.  Fifteen riders participated.DSC_0034_1

“We came in two minutes under the 20 hour limit,” he remembers. “The course official said it was the closest time he’d ever heard of.” He recalls taking a wrong turn somewhere in the vast distance between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew — apparently navigation becomes more difficult when you’ve already been riding for ten straight hours — and then encountered an intense hailstorm while riding through a clear cut. “The hailstones were so painful, and there was very little cover in the area. We kept riding and riding, until we found the only tree in the clear cut and hid under it while putting on our raingear.”

But hail wasn’t the only environmental factor. “As opposed to randonneuring where the sport developed, in France or in Italy,” Hazelbower points out, “around here you have to think about bears. We never saw one, but it’s always in the back of your head.”

Hazelbower had to drop out of the 400 km race — time limit: 27 hours — because knee pain reduced his pace to an impossibly slow 8 km/h at the three-quarter mark. But he’s planning on participating again next season, eventually challenging the famed Paris-Brest-Paris event, a 1,200km ride that takes place every four years. In fact, there’s an even longer ride closer to home, which covers 2,000 km as it zig-zags all over Vancouver Island. “That’s my eventual goal,” Hazelbower says. “Or maybe just around the world — that would be fun.”

Despite the obvious challenges of randonneur riding, there’s some definite advantages to it. Almost anyone can participate, regardless of age. “Most of the other riders are much older than I am, in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. At 28 and 29, Steve and I were the youngest — and also the slowest.”

It’s also not prohibitively expensive. Many riders use their normal commuters, and Josh himself rides a twenty-year-old steel-frame road bike — nice to be sure, but certainly not a high-end racing rig. “Steve, on the other hand, rode an old Miyata clunker I bought at a thrift store for $25 and fixed up. There is something more fun about it this way,” he says. “Really, the most expensive necessity is food and Ibuprofen.”

Hazelbower concludes, “After doing these rides, you start thinking to yourself that riding from Vancouver to Nelson might not be too hard — it’s just a few of these routes back-to-back. Yeah. No big deal.”

For more information on randonneur events in British Columbia, visit randonneurs.bc.ca.


Words by Scott Lansdowne

Photos by Ilijc Albanese


Published in analogue magazine’s August-September 2015 issue.