As cycling sub-genres go, randonneuring is an obscure and geeky one, probably less familiar to Americans than BMX riding and unicycling. Typical randonneuring rides, (they are not races but there are time limits) are variously categorized as “populaires, permanents, brevets, fleches, randonees, and super randonees.” They range in distance from 100-1200 kilometers. The routes are navigated with printed turn-by-turn cue sheets, and have designated stops where you have to get a “brevet card” initialed (or save a receipt) from a motel clerk or convenience store cashier to prove you were there. With French origins, randonneuring emphasizes self-reliance, endurance, pleasure and paper work. Imagine an event that is a part century ride, rolling picnic, and passport stamp fest.
I’m a new randonneur. Although I had paid attention to this wool and leather clad alcove of cycling culture for a nearly a decade, I only officially joined Randonneurs USA (RUSA) governing organization early in 2017. You don’t need a special kind of bicycle to participate in rando events. In fact, at my first event, I had expected to see more bikes with a traditional set up: steel frame, fenders, lights, and usually canvas and leather front bag with a clear map pocket. For certain, there were a few of them, but also a lot of carbon racing bikes similar to what you might find at your midweek office park criterium.
Because I mostly ride vintage bikes, I attempted my first official RUSA events on: a 1971 Raleigh International, a 1969, Lejeune, and a Jack Taylor Sports. They all worked very well, and using those reliable old steeds, I was able to get my first official 100k and 200k RUSA rides in the books. I did this with sub-optimal navigation—using a cue sheet in a zip-lock baggie shoved in a jersey pocket. In one brevet, my cue sheet and brevet card blew out of my jersey on a high-speed descent. For this reason, one of the things I really wanted in a randonneur bicycle was a front bag with a clear map pocket that you could refer to at anytime—hands free, while riding. Front bags are also best for storing food and clothing that you want to access while riding.
I participate in a Google Group of like-minded cyclists called iBob, and occasionally really special bicycles show up for sale on that list. My Coho randonneuring bicycle was one of those. It was my size, and a relative bargain. I purchased it as a frame and fork in 2015. I was the third owner. I was able to trace the entire lineage of the bike as the previous two owners were also iBob members. I contacted the builder of my Coho, Charles Lathe. Charles was a minister who started building high-quality bicycle frames in the Seattle area after he retired. When I called him, he had retired from building bicycle frames and moved with his wife to North Carolina. He had the following information in his file:
- The frame is a low trail fork design with a 73 head tube angle and a 72.5 seat tube angle.
- The brake posts are brazed on for Mafac Racer brakes.
- Integrated rack and decaleur with light and bell attachment
- Built for a Gilles Berthoud GB-25 front bag
- The frame is silver brazed Reynolds 531 tubing
- Top-tube is butted 8.5.8
- Down-tube is butted 9.6.9
- Seat-tube is butted 8.6.8
- Henry James lugs and fork crown
- Long Shin bottom bracket shell.
- Rear spacing is 132mm to accommodate either 130mm or 135mm rear hubs.
- Chainstays are a long 47cm (the bike required a 136 link chain with no links removed!)
When I received the frame, it was a powder-coated green color that I just couldn’t warm up to. I took the frame to Omar at Oasis bicycles in Phoenix for a new Imron wet-paint job in a sunny yellow color. My plan was to go with a yellow and black colorway. Omar was busy and the repaint took several months. When I received it, I was busy riding vintage bikes and didn’t manage to get it built up. It sat on a wall rack looking handsome for much too long, but in the spring of 2017, I got it built up and took it out on the road. It rapidly became my favorite rider.
That summer, my daughter Zoë returned from Spain with her bicycle, eager to ride almost everyday. On those trips, the front bag, or “lunchbox” as Zoe called it, held all our food and extra clothing, phones and locks and anything else that needed carrying. I began to wonder how I ever survived without a lunchbox? I began to dislike carrying anything on my body and I didn’t even want any small items in a jersey pocket. I found that my handlebar bag seemed ingeniously designed. These French bags, originally introduced in the 1950s, are so well thought out, that Jan Heine, the Francophile editor of Bicycle Quarterly magazine says, “Gilles Berthoud handlebar bags are among the few things in this world that are so well-designed and have proven themselves for so long that they have become unimprovable.”
From a practical point of view, my Berthoud GB-25 front bag has a place for everything: cell phone in the right outside pocket, wallet in the front pocket, jacket, arm warmers, gloves, food, backpacking stove, coffee press, and lock in the main compartment, keys in the little back pocket.
The only downside of a dedicated front bag is that I often take too much stuff for a given route—climbing Mt. Lemmon for instance, where thoughts of the heavy dill pickles in their own juice that I was carrying up front along with all manner of coffee making equipment began to wear on me. One other problem is that if you are the only one on a ride with a handlebar bag, the others in your group will want to stash their stuff in your bag. If that person is your daughter, they might do it without asking, and you may find that you are the unwitting portager of several large burritos.
Another typical feature found on randonneuring bikes are fenders. My Coho has equidistant bridges for fenders, and therefore a beautiful “fender line,” which usually refers to how the fenders echo the arc of the tires. I’m not sure if it is the fenders or front bag, but it gets compliments wherever I take it. I do have to admit that some days, in dry Arizona, I feel somewhat ridiculous (like a Coho out of water) riding around town with mudguards, but on those rare wet days, I blast through the puddles with abandon like an eight year kid on a Stingray.
I found that my Coho was eminently stable with a small front load. From the first time I descended a mountain on it, I loved the handling. It was my first low-trail drop bar bike, and it inspired confidence on the downhills. I found myself tucking, pedaling, and able to make corrections mid-corner with ease and comfort.
Although my Coho was designed for long self-supported rides, I find that it is completely practical for around town riding, light touring, and just about every kind of road riding I currently enjoy. Smart, light enough, comfortable, durable, and ready for all conditions, I’m wondering what else I need in a bike? It got me thinking about other bikes in this category. Perhaps another handmade 700c rando bike with a few more refinements or a similarly equipped hand built 650b bike are in my future? Stay tuned.