For a number of years, I’ve been obsessed with a very specific kind of French bicycle: the randonneur or, more correctly the randonneuse. In American usage, this is most often reduced to “rando.” It is a type of bicycle designed for distance riding—and rando bicycles usually are kitted out with a handlebar bag, fenders, and integrated lighting. Done right, a good rando bicycle is relatively light, comfortable, and capable of taking its rider long distances in any weather or light conditions. It’s a style of bike that has made resurgence in America over the last dozen years. A handful of American frame builders, Peter Weigle chief among them, have taken the best aspects of these French machines and further refined them, creating some stunning machines. Builders in the US who specialize in the rando-craft include the aforementioned Peter Weigle, Brian Chapman, Mitch Pryor (MAP Bicycle), John Fitzgerald, Jeff Lyon, Hahn Rossman, Corey Thompson, and Jamie Swann.
Top frame builders in the genre charge a premium price to construct a custom made steel rando bike—typically from $2500-5000 just for the frame and fork. The price is justified by the painstaking work it takes to complete the fully integrated look. With my Coho, I got a taste of how fun and fast rando bikes could be—half racer, half-light touring bike. For me, rando bikes greatly reduce one frustrating aspect of bicycling—gathering your shit together before a ride. On a rando bike, almost everything you need is more-or-less always on the bike. Your front bag holds your food, tools, tubes, spare clothes, phone and wallet. Half the time, my front bag holds my coffee press and stove; on occasion, I stuff my down sleeping bag in there for impromptu camping. I’ve become accustomed to carrying exactly nothing in my jersey pockets, and I can’t imagine going back to filling them.
Rando bikes are stealthy. Kitted out with traditional elements such as fenders, lights, canvas luggage, and bells, they might look a little like the schoolteacher’s commuter. Other riders don’t know what to make of you, “Is that an old bike?”, “What’s in your lunchbox”, “Do you have beer in that cooler,” are all questions I’ve been asked more than once. I suspect that most of them consider me a tourist, but they are confused when I can keep pace with them on their carbon fiber racers. But good rando bikes are performance bikes. Hahn Rossman describes his randonneur bikes as “all day, all night speed!” Nobody on a new carbon fiber race bike expects someone with fenders and a bell to keep pace, let alone pass them, but that is indeed what can happen when you are in shape and riding a fine-tuned rando.
For most of 2017, I was riding my yellow Coho rando bike daily, everywhere, and very much enjoying its speed, good manners, and the ability to haul a few of pounds of basmati rice and veggies home from the store at the end of a ride. But of course, another bike always comes along. In this case, the bike was an aubergine colored L’avecaise (French for ‘with ease’) made by Jeff Lyon in Grants Pass Oregon. It was listed for sale used on the iBob google group. I sold a couple of bikes to finance it, purchasing it from Nigel Press, a British Columbian distance rider who had the bike custom made for him. He happened to be my exact height, leg length, and weight. I could hardly believe my luck. Nigel told me he had only ridden it on “rides 600km and longer”! Chatting with Nigel on the phone, I liked him right away. And, in one of the photos he included in the for sale posting, Nigel was pictured standing next to the bike, with the long locks of a speed metal guitarist. He looked cool. I decided to name the L’avecaise “Nigel” just because it seemed right.
I liked Nigel even more when I saw the care with which he packed the L’avecaise, including going so far as to customize the outside of the Surly box he shipped it in. Other Nigelesque touches included 3M sparkletape down the centerline of the honjo fenders. As Nigel told me, “you could take it off, but why would you!”
From the first time I threw a leg over it, I knew the L’avecaise was special, and within the first 100 yards of riding it, I was hooked. My L’avecaise rode like a metallic eggplant colored racecar– fast, willing, comfortable, right. It felt like a slightly more refined and faster version of my Coho. Within a week, I put the Coho up for sale.
I’ve since ridden Nigel around 1200 miles, including two brevets, two ascents of Mt. Lemmon, and a few of my regular loops through Saguaro National Park and out to Colossal Cave. Whenever I’m riding Nigel, the XTC song “Making plans for Nigel” plays on a continuous loop in my head at some point during the ride. This is not an unhappy development, as the song has a gritty little guitar riff that seems to sync up with my pedaling cadence.
Nigel shares bike slot number one with my 650b MAP S&P, another rando that I use when the roads are dirt, poorly maintained, or both. Look for an upcoming review of that bike as soon I work out the final build details and get some more miles on it.
For the curious, here is a list of the build details for my L’avecaise—part the way Nigel had it built, and partly with some of my own additions and modifications:
Frame size: 62cm x 58.5cm, 700c 35mm tires max
Fork: Grand Bois crown, Kaisei Blades & connector-less dropouts
Headset: Campagnolo Record
Stem: Grand Bois 10cm with Decaleur
Bars: Compass Randonneur 46cm
Seat Post: American Classic 27.2
Seat: Berthoud Galibier, Titanium
Brake Levers: Vintage Mafac custom drilled
Brakes: Vintage Mafac Cantilever (Tandem front, Criterium rear)
Shifters: Campagnolo Record bar end 10s modified for down tube
Derailleurs: Record 10s rear, Centaur front
Crankset: Compass Rene Herse Crankset 171mm (50×34)
Cassette: Campagnolo 13-29
BB: White Industries BB
Front Hub: SONdelux SL 32H
Rear Hub: White Industries 32H
Rims: Velocity A23 polished
Lights: SON Edelux II, B&M Secula Plus Tail light)
Pumps: Zefal Solibloc
Tires: 32mm Panaracer Gravel Kings
Front Bag: Small Inujirushi from Jitensha Studio