If you’re interested in long-distance cycling, sooner or later you’ll come across brevets – a form of event that offers a very relaxed introduction to the sport, as Eva finds. In this article she shares with you what a brevet is, how it works and what she loves so much about it. And if that makes you want to give it a try, she also has some easy tips for getting started.
What is that actually, a brevet?
Brevet riding has its origins in France. This is also where the world federation “Randonneurs Mondiaux”, the worldwide umbrella organization, is based.
The world federation currently has fourteen so-called brevet locations in Germany, where people take care of organizing a brevet series every year. A series consists of routes of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km, which are ridden from March or April on at intervals of about four weeks. You register via a contact form, pay about five to fifteen euros per event, and in return you get the track as a GPX file for the navigation system, possibly a roadbook (a written description of the route) and the yellow brevet card, on which you collect stamps at specified locations and record the passage times.
In the brevet series, no food is provided by default. Only the route and a time limit within which the finish must be reached in order for it to be considered passed are specified. The rest (breaks, food, stamps) you organize yourself. Some organizers surprise you at a checkpoint with a table full of bananas, coke and cereal bars or announce a bunch of hungry cyclists at popular gastronomic establishments. On my first 600 Brevet, with my fellow rider I came across a gas station with a night counter in the middle of lonely Brandenburg at one o’clock in the morning. The nice woman let only us cyclists in, had laid out blankets so that we could stretch out on the floor, and even dimmed the lights. She had, as she said, already looked forward to some entertainment by us “brave cyclists”.
Also, tips often make the rounds among the experienced where on the route there is a good opportunity to lie down briefly – it makes sense to prick up your ears at the start and on the way.
There is often more support at the Super Brevets, e.g. Paris-Brest-Paris, where food and partly mattress camps are available at the checkpoints. For detailed information, please contact the respective organizer.
What is the time limit for these 300, 400 or 600 kilometers?
The time limit always includes the time on the road, i.e. the complete time the tour takes, including breaks. For 200 kilometers, the limit is 13.5 hours. At an average of 20 kilometers, you still have 3.5 hours for eating, getting dressed and undressed, etc. This may sound comfortable at first, but it becomes more challenging for longer distances: the required gross average remains almost the same, but the riding speed decreases, the required break time increases, and if you ride through the night, you may have to take a longer sleep break. A “real” overnight stay in a hotel is not possible for an average rider. The alternative is to take power naps in savings bank vestibules or in a bus shelter along the way.
Official time limit
Paris – Brest – Paris: 1,200 km
Super Randonnée, 600-620 km with > 10,000 vertical meters
If you stay within the time limit and can prove it with the stamps and times on your brevet card, your tour will be “homologated”. Another randonneur term – which simply means the world federation recognizes your successful participation.
This is important, among other things, if you want to participate in a brevet for which you have to qualify. The most famous reason is Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, a legendary Super Brevet that takes place every four years, next time in 2023, when thousands of people from all over the world spend four days and nights riding in cycling-mad France from the capital to the coast and back – many describe it as the crowning achievement of their brevet careers. However, there are many other so-called Super Brevets worldwide, i.e. brevets with distances of 1,000 kilometers and more.
Unlike most self-supported races, you are allowed to help each other at brevets, i.e. ride in slipstream, or pre-book an overnight stay – if the time limit allows it!
Selection from Flèche Allemagne to PBP – or DIY-Brevets!
n addition to the series and Super Brevets, there are other official brevet formats, such as the Flèche Allemagne, where you cycle in teams from any point in Germany to Wartburg Castle near Eisenach in 24 hours (and meet dozens of like-minded people from all over the country). Or the so-called Super Randonnées, which are routes of around 600 kilometers with at least 10,000 meters of altitude gain, i.e. with a significantly higher percentage of climbing. These function as “permanents”, which means that there is no common start date, each person organizes their own ride.
The term “brevet” is also not protected. There are official events that have nothing to do with the Randonneurs Mondiaux, such as the Swiss Alpine Brevet, which is actually a cycling marathon. Or privately organized rides called brevet, such as Marie’s Mill Brevet. Such events only follow the actual brevet rules as far as the initiators want them to.
And finally, everyone can plan a route and call it a brevet.
Brevet riding, is that something for you?
I like brevets because I find them relatively low-threshold and independent in the whole recreational cycling circus:
- You don’t need “fancy” gadgets and gear. We randonneurs are certainly the least style-conscious of all cyclists. Saddlebags, trekking sandals with socks – anything goes as long as it works well for you on long distances, and very rarely does anyone raise an eyebrow because of it. My secret theory is that style simply doesn’t matter once you wear a high-visibility vest on your bike.
- The basic idea of brevets is to complete a certain distance within the time limit. Everyone who succeeds in doing so has done it – regardless of whether they reach the finish line ten hours or one minute before the time limit expires (although there is usually a time window when a checkpoint must be reached). Of course, many start fast here, too, and some also drive the whole distance very fast. But you’ll always run into someone who makes full use of their time, whether it’s because they can’t go any faster or because the person just enjoys being on their way. I like the spirit and accessibility it allows.
- Participating in brevets allows a lot of freedom in how you do it. The route and the points at which you collect stamps are predefined. Everything else is up to you – where and how you take a break, or even if and where you sleep. You’re not stuck with eating what the next checkpoint has to offer (although trays of homemade cake are great on RTFs), you can ride the way that suits you best.
- And finally, you can decide if you’d like to ride with others, and get the hell out as soon as that doesn’t fit. A good group until the next stop is nice, it’s fun to talk and create more speed together. When I’m alone again, it often strikes me that I’ve spent the last few miles just staring at rear wheels instead of the beautiful scenery. On a brevet, it’s very easy to make and break alliances – most are set up to do the course on their own.
- Brevets give me the opportunity to make the most of my endurance. It’s not a matter of sprinting to the next town sign, but of managing my energy over several hundred kilometers. To be able to do that, to experience nature up close, to cover a lot of ground at the perfect pace, is and will always be a special experience!
That appeals to you and makes you want to give it a try?
Start cycling easy and find the right pace for the long distance
here are probably more clever sayings in brevet riding than in soccer. But there’s an important lesson in this one: any person with a certain basic endurance is capable of cycling farther than they think possible. You “simply” have to do it – with some desire to try and some stubbornness not to give up at the first fatigue. The first thing to do is to find out at what pace it will work, because you can’t necessarily “heat through” several hundred kilometers. And make sure you eat well along the way, because even a moderate pace costs calories.
For a bit of courage to set off, I’d like to recommend Sandra’s blog post “My first time 200 kilometers on a road bike“. Once you’ve experienced that it’s not that hard to ride 300 kilometers, you might find the idea of riding 400 or 600 kilometers without much of a break more exciting than daunting!
And when it comes to preparing for your first night ride, check out the blogpost “Your first night on the bike” for some tips.
Do I need special equipment?
You don’t need to buy a lot of equipment to see if you enjoy brevet riding. For my first brevet I used the same bike and gear I had for shorter distances. What I would consider first:
- Navigational device: there are no signs for brevets like there are for RTFs (let alone closed roads). You get a track that you can load onto your navigation device. If the organizers send out a roadbook, you can of course use this. I’ve actually seen people pull a wad of paper out of their handle bar pocket while driving and look for directions! Now I find that less advisable in terms of your own safety on the road. I myself drove my first long distances with voice navigation. That worked too, although the occasional wrong turn adds up on longer routes which might get annoying.
- Chamois cream: more time in the saddle means more stress on our points of contact with the bike. When sitting, I found this to be noticeable first and foremost. Using chamois cream made a big difference. This assumes that the saddle and pants already fit well – a combo that I’m already sitting poorly on at 60 kilometers won’t be any better at 200 kilometers.
- Lighting: Depending on the time of year, you can reach dusk even at 200 kilometers. Reliable lighting helps, especially if you’re not able to kick it up a notch at the end to get to the finish before dark.
- Rainwear: Being on the road longer means there can be bad weather. I carry a rain jacket and neoprene overshoes for that. It is also more important than on short tours to dress appropriately for the temperatures, because you don’t just sprint for a couple of hours and then get back home in the warm.
In the long run it makes sense to pay attention to durable material, because we expose bike and body to higher wear. This also includes reducing friction points. As already stressed with seating – what hurts or loosens on a 70-kilometer tour won’t get better on 200. But that all comes with time. Most randonneurs I know are forever tinkering with their setup because there’s always something that can be tweaked. That’s part of this beautiful hobby.
I hope this blog post was able to give a little insight into how this recreational cycling niche works, what makes it so special from my point of view and how brevet riding can easily be experienced by yourself.
Have fun trying it out and feel free to let us know how you did!
Text: Eva Ullrich
Proof reading: Johanna Jahnke
Edit & layout: Juliane Schumacher
Photos: Eva Ullrich