Every four years, thousands of amateur cyclists log countless miles to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris, the highlight of the long-distance cycling calendar. The event is a 1200-kilometer ride, not a race, that takes participants from the French capital to the westernmost tip of the country and back. That’s nearly 750 miles. Riders have 90 hours to finish this circuit, and few sleep more than 20 minutes here and there. It’s like biking from Burlington to Kalamazoo, Mich., in three days. Talk about saddle sores.
To qualify for PBP, riders have to complete what is known as a brevet series, consisting of 200-, 300-, 400- and 600-kilometer rides in ascending order. This year, for the first time, people who belong to this gritty, rare breed of cyclist — known as randonneurs — can complete part of their brevet series in Vermont.
The Vermont Brevet Series, organized by Burlington cyclist Mike Beganyi, will pit riders against the state’s beautiful — but often unforgiving — hilly terrain in four rides of different distances. The first brevet (pronounced “breh-vay”) was a 100-kilometer “Café Cruise” on June 13 that attracted cyclists from all over the region, including a couple from New Hampshire on a tandem bike and two riders from New York City. Some were on a quest to qualify for PBP, while others just came for the pleasure of finishing a long ride. In randonneuring, all are welcome, and ability is relative. The sport is not about speed or skill; it’s about the joy that comes from riding a bike.
A brevet works like this: Riders follow a cue sheet with directions to various checkpoints. At each, they get a card stamped. The checkpoints are only open for specific intervals, which means riders can’t arrive too early or too late.
This timed system ensures riders don’t cheat, and helps maintain the sport’s amateur bent. A brevet is supposed to be a friendly ride where riders are competing more against themselves than each other.
The sport has roots in the particularly French style of riding in which cyclists go out on their bikes for hours, touring the countryside and challenging themselves with steep mountain passes and long flat stretches. In the early 1900s, randonneuring took off as an alternative to racing for many cycling enthusiasts.
These were people who wanted a mental challenge as well as a physical one. For most road cyclists, a 50-mile ride is plenty. You burn calories, sweat off pounds and get stronger with each ride. But randonneurs strive to reach a goal that involves sitting in the saddle and turning the pedals for 24 hours at a stretch.
Beganyi says he appreciates that the sport is about human determination and camaraderie. He’s one of a growing number of cyclists who wanted to ride long distances but wasn’t interested in road racing’s shiny Spandex and sharp elbows. So he turned his sights to randonneuring. “I’m hooked on rides longer than 50 miles,” he says.
A timber framer by trade, Beganyi, 36, began cycling in his youth and was always in reasonably good shape, he says. But by the time he reached graduate school, he weighed 250 pounds and felt miserable. When he finally got back on the bike, he recalls, the pounds melted off. Gradually, he increased his distances until 70 miles was a breeze.
When he moved to Vermont in 2005, Beganyi discovered the state’s long- distance bike scene still in its infancy, with no organized rides. So he participated in brevets organized by New England Randonneurs in Massachusetts, where the culture is much more developed. Beganyi’s first “real challenge” was a 300-kilometer ride from Boston through Western Massachusetts and Connecticut to Rhode Island and back. Then he completed a 400-kilometer loop across Massachusetts. Beganyi tried to qualify for the last running of the Boston-Montréal-Boston 1200-kilometer brevet in 2006, but an injury prevented him from finishing a series.
The Vermont Brevet Series, which Beganyi runs with the help of New England Randonneurs, is fully sanctioned by Randonneurs USA, the sport’s national governing body. Still upcoming are two 200-kilometer rides and one 300-kilometer ride, all leaving from the Old Spokes Home in Burlington. The Champlain 200k/300k takes riders on a trip around Lake Champlain through the eastern edge of the Adirondacks; participants choose between the two courses. The Fall Classic 200k course covers the northern Champlain Valley in the shadows of Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, with riders tackling six major climbs and crossing five covered bridges.
Like many randonneurs, Beganyi says he was drawn to the sport’s intensity. To ride a brevet successfully, even at the shortest distances, cyclists need to be self-sufficient. Unlike a road race or even a charity ride, brevets don’t offer support vehicles full of spare wheels and mechanics. In randonneuring, you are your own mechanic, coach, cheerleader, cook and doctor.
“There’s no one to get your sorry ass if you break down,” Beganyi says.
Being self-sufficient means knowing how to wrench your own bike and bringing all the essential tools in your saddlebag. Randonneurs also have to bring rain gear in case the weather turns, and lights if they’re riding at night. Though many riders stop to eat en route, most carry snacks and energy bars.
Patrick Shank, a 31-year-old who works in small-business organization, officially entered brevets two years ago, but he’d been doing that kind of riding much longer.
“I always spent long days on a bike,” he says. “I just didn’t know it was a sport.”
The opportunity to see other parts of the country is part of the attraction of brevets for Shank, who lives in Burlington. He views the rides as “mini-vacations,” he says, and tries to site his long workouts on roads where he can hit some bakeries. “Food motivates me,” he semi-jokes.
But it’s not just the pretty scenery or the promise of baked goods that draws Shank to the sport. Randonneuring’s psychological pull is equally strong. The mental gymnastics riders have to accomplish to finish these epic rides are often the hardest part of the sport. Since Shank spends every bit of his free time on his bike, being fit enough isn’t what concerns him; it’s his head he has to worry about.
“I still struggle with the mental side of it,” Shank says. “The longer distances are much more a mental challenge than a physical challenge.” When you’re sitting on a slender bike saddle for 10, 12, 14 hours, there’s not much to do but turn the pedals and think. The only thing preventing you from stopping is your will to press on.
Beganyi uses the time in the saddle to solve work problems or mull over political positions in his mind. And he tries to get into a zone.
“It’s sort of like a meditation for me,” he says. “The meditative aspects are similar to Zen.”
The mental side of the sport was one of the hardest for Anthony Mennona to master. The 33-year-old Montpelier resident is a year-round bike commuter and had completed many century, or 100-mile, rides before he tried randonneuring. But adapting to days on the saddle was tough. “It’s mostly mental,” he says.
Mennona, who works at the Biomass Energy Resource Center, rode his first brevet series in 2006 and qualified for Boston-Montréal-Boston. Since then, he’s ridden in brevets all over the Northeast. He says he’s looking forward to the Vermont brevets, not only because they’ll put him one step closer to his goal of qualifying for PBP but because they’re different. “I’m always up for new challenges,” he says.
At the heart of randonneuring is a love of the bicycle. All three men rhapsodize about the adventure of cycling great distances, and marvel at the ground they can cover in a day on a bike. Brevet riding leads to an appreciation of the countryside, they reason, as well as the act of cycling itself.
“It’s like traditional country biking,” Shank says. “It’s a real return to just having fun on your bike.”