Reliable Time: An Introduction to Audax and Randonneuring
Experienced long-distance rider Jo Burt accompanies a relative newcomer at their first ever audax event, a 100km ride in the south of England. Along the way, he sheds light on the history and culture of audax, one of cycling’s most welcoming, satisfying disciplines, and grants us a peek into the experience of riding one.
It’s early on a weekend and I’m stood in the corner of a car-park, tucked away round the back of a building. I recognise a few faces in the small gathering and cheery pleasantries are exchanged. It’s not especially warm, so I make myself a coffee from a trestle-table out the rear of a car, peruse the laid out foodstuffs and sneak a pain-au-chocolat into my back pocket for later.
The vignette perfectly sums up the cycling discipline that is audax; a hidden, quiet, friendly little gem – with snacks.
For something that can claim to be one of the oldest forms of cycling, a lot of people that consider themselves keen cyclists have never heard of it. It keeps itself very much to itself and seems to enjoy its clandestine character, starting in the shadowy corners of car parks for example. It carries on with little swagger and noise and yet it’s the most welcoming, amiable and inclusive cycling you could ever want.
Audax (from the Latin for bold or daring – think “audacious”) has its origins in the late 19th century. The word originally covered a multitude of sports, with 200 kilometres the required distance for a bike ride to qualify. The first audax regulations specified that cyclists had to stay together in groups under a ride captain for the entire distance. Soon afterwards the randonnée was introduced, a word from the French loosely translating to “ramble”, as a 200km-plus ride that allowed riders to go at their individual pace. In English speaking countries audax has since become the broader term to cover any long ride done within a defined time, whereas randonnée is a more European expression.
The forecast for today is constant drizzle, yielding to mere greyness, with rain appearing mid-afternoon. I think we can get round before that hits, although speed is not the raison d’etre behind the ride because it’s not a race, it’s nothing of the sort. Success in an audax comes by completing the distance within a specified time limit, where reliability and self-sufficiency are more important than outright speed, so even if you do get to the finish first it’s not recorded as such. Thanks to its non-competitive nature, an audax is entirely lacking the boasting and ego that can infect some forms of event, and for many that’s its great charm. As a way of riding a bike it’s very matter of fact, free of fuss and chest puffing: We’ve got a long way to go, and this much time to do it, so let’s just crack on shall we? Humility seems to run through these rides like the tea that hydrates us riders.
To complete an audax, riders follow a route that has a series of predetermined controls spaced along its length, and to prove they’ve been past these each rider carries a brevet card, a pocket sized certificate, to be stamped at each of them. A control’s whereabouts is identified by correlating the organisers’ instructions with features of roadside ephemera (today ours include the weight limit on a bridge and the colour of a front door on a certain house). Some events might require a receipt from a nearby shop purchase as proof of passage, in place of a stamped brevet card. At the finish the brevet card will be checked, certified and your time recorded. That’s it. No medal or t-shirt, just a piece of paper. Achievement is its own reward.
If timing or temperament prevent you from joining an organised event, there’s the option of the permanent or “perm”, which is an audax distance ride that can be ridden any time. “Entry” is made by paying a small fee to the organiser for the route details. Validation is again by brevet card, although as there’s no one official around to check it, authentication is made by the sharing of your ride data or collection of shop receipts along the way as evidence. You could easily cheat if you wanted, but there would be no point. It’s a system that depends entirely on trust and honour, the challenge is purely personal.
At 9 o’clock on the dot we’re off. No fanfare, no start gun, no sprint for the first corner, just riders navigating round the one-way system out of town into the countryside. It has been a clichéd audax tradition to have the printed directions attached to your handlebars, but the GPS has now become ubiquitous as it saves a lot of faff, although it’s good to have the old-school version secured about your person, just in case. I peer down at mine to make sure we’re on the right track.
Today’s ride is 100km, which is an entry level audax referred to as “populaire”. We have an audax virgin with us today to try it out, riding about the furthest they’ve ever ridden before, but with twice the height gain and a certain amount of early morning anxiety. What the shorter audaxes lack in length, they tend to make up for by adding climbing. Once you’ve cracked the odd 100 or three the next rung on the ladder is the 200km, and then a steady increase up audax standards to 300, 400 and 600 kilometre rides. Poke down this rabbit-hole and you’ll discover routes proliferate all over the place, all over the world. As ultra-distance events are becoming more popular, these are the perfect introduction and progression of longer rides, with each increase in distance conditioning your legs and head to the idea of distance.
You don’t need a special bike to do any of this, either – whatever you have will do, as audax isn’t bothered by the brag of the latest, lightest, lavish, fastest bicycles – although you can turn up on one if you want. You’re likely to see a 30 year old steel touring bike rolling alongside a carbon wundermachine, and no one cares. If you’re tempted into longer distances then a bicycle that’s swift, comfortable and with courteous road manners is favoured. Mudguards can be appreciated too.
Similarly to ultra-distance races, any other gear you might need will be dictated by the length and conditions of the ride. It’s always best to take some spare layers in case of bad weather, which can be easily carried in a saddle pack when not in use, and extra food and tools can be stored in a minimalist frame pack. Events of 400km, 600km, or 1200km can take multiple days, and often require sleeping gear, which can be stored in a handlebar pack.
Our route passes twice through the same village with a manned control in a café, which we hit first at about 30km. Today that doesn’t feel like a distance worth stopping for, so we stamp brevet cards and go, grabbing food on the return at 80km for the last push home. Whilst having a strong emphasis on self-reliance, a lot of audaxes will have cafes and food stops as control points, and as distances lengthen organisers will try and make sure these appear at convenient times, especially if it’s an event that runs through the night.
On such occasions, there will usually be somewhere big enough to host some food and room for riders to have a rest – even if that is lying on the floor. Despite these planned food stops it’s normal to dip into any café, take-away, shop, petrol station, pub, diner, roadside shack, patisserie, fast food joint or supermarket for some extra fuel for the journey, and I’ve done all of these. Eating on a kerb becomes normal.
As distances stretch, the tactics of maintaining a suitable average speed to keep within the time limit becomes more considered. Do you ride a little faster to allow yourself more time for food and rest or do you pedal slower and stop less? And don’t forget to factor in the time-sucking possibilities of mechanicals and weariness. Despite audax not being a race, there might be times when you need to put your head down and get on with it.
Speaking of which, the clock is ticking on today’s ride, and we have to keep one eye on it in order to make it back within the time limit. But arrive in time we do, and miss the rain as well, but our audax neophyte is feeling the climbing and the last drag home is as much an emotional ascent as a physical one. They get a stamped brevet card and a massive sense of accomplishment for their efforts, and audax loses its status as an undiscovered secret to one less person.
The ACP works with national bodies in countries around the world through Les Randonneurs Mondiaux. For more information on audax and randonneuring where you live, including events calendars and more, find the details for your national body on the ACP website.