Here's the Reader's Digest condensed version...
A good brevet bike is one you use on a brevet with little or no hassle or pain.
This means the bike is:
- reliable and comfortable
- has enough storage capacity that you can carry what you need for the distance and conditions (including clothes and tools) and/or store what you no longer need.
- and since the longer brevets require lights and usually involve sustained night riding, a bike used for longer brevets should have reliable long-lasting lights.
I really want to emphasize that one should not consider getting a custom randonneuring bike as a barrier to entry for doing brevets. I cringe when I see new riders doing their first event on some special custom rando bike as defined by someone else. Don't start out trying to spec and acquire the perfect machine before your first event. Save your money. Use the bike you have.
If your current bike fits you reasonably well and you've done your local club century on it, it is a fine bike for a 200km brevet. The only thing you have to do different is just ride 24 more miles!
As you do more and longer rides, you might want to change a few things, and after quite a few long rides, you may even want to change a lot of things - enough to get a different bike or even a custom bike, but this is a learning process and, over time, you will learn what you need and want. It's as much about you as it is about the bike. Many experienced randonneurs have taken this journey, evolving along with their bikes. In many ways, this post is about my own on-going journey. I've been doing this stuff for 30 years, and, over that time, my ideal bike has actually changed a few times. And of course, there is a lot of "It depends," involved.
Since I began doing brevets almost 30 years ago, I have made many changes on my bike, some related to fit and position, some because of new technology and some related to the nature of the roads I prefer to ride. Before making a big investment in something custom, it's a good idea to really figure out what works and doesn't work for YOU. This isn't to say to ignore all the advice you'll receive from all these well meaning people. It's just that we don't all fit the same mold, and this is why there are so many opinions out there.
<sarcasm> Now read on for the one and only true way! </sarcasm>
While I am a firm believer in the motto, "Better looking at it than for it," I will say that it isn't necessary to bring the kitchen sink on a 200km, nor is it necessary to attach a trailer or panniers to carry that kitchen sink! Sure it's probably more comfortable to have stuff packed away in a saddle bag than overflowing your jersey pockets, but if you've managed to do a century with your pockets and current seat bag, you can probably cope with another 24 miles. As the events get longer, you will likely want to carry more stuff and will likely need to use something other than just jersey pockets, but you don't have to go buy a fancy expensive rando-bag, or have a bike custom built that sports some fancy front rando-rack. A medium to large under seat bag can hold a lot of gear. There are also lots of great and well-designed bags that work without custom racks and don't adversely affect handling. Some people would have you believe that you need a custom bike with special geometry designed to carry all your gear in a large front bag mounted on a special custom integrated rack. I'm not one of those people.
These rides are long and cover a wide range of terrain, weather and temperatures. If you want to be comfortable, be prepared. Whether that means carrying gear or having space to store the gear you are wearing, there will be times you will need one or the other.
As I mentioned above, there are many under the saddle wedges and bags that work well for carrying tools and spare tires and cables - stuff you won't need to access on the move. I also tend to use a rear bag to store clothing that I'd need to stop to put on, like leg warmers or a rain jacket. I'm a big fan of the large Ortlieb saddle bag. It has the advantage of being completely waterproof. It attaches with a secure mount, but the bag can be removed quickly and easily. It is a single compartment wedge bag, so sometimes what you want has made its way to the bottom of the pile, as it were.
There are lots of transverse mounted saddlebags with small to enormous capacity, many modelled off the gold standard Carradice bags.
A web search will turn up lots of choices of bags. When selecting any bag, keep in mind ease of installation and removal, stability and whether you want compartments. One thing to consider with any bag is the potential adverse effect on handling. A heavily laden saddle bag can "wag the dog" when climbing out of the saddle. Eliminating sway is important in this regard. Also bear in mind that your needs and desires will likely vary from mine!
Not long ago, a rider local to me - but well known for her exploits of doing insanely long events on fixed gear - Emily O'Brien, started a company called Dill Pickle Gear, to implement designs born of experience, after being inspired by her own frustration with commercially available bags. Emily makes everything you could want for carrying gear on a bike, including transverse mounted saddlebags, wedge type seat bags, tool bags, handlebar bags, panniers, etc. I have one of her handlebar bags that I love, both for the design and for the aesthetics. Recognizing that everyone has different preferences, she makes each bag to order, with the buyer selecting whether to have compartments, map case, etc, as well as choosing from an amazing variety of colors!
Speaking of handlebar bags, I will again mention that I prefer to keep my front bag light and only packed with things I want to access on the move, like snacks or arm warmers or valuables that I want to carry with me when I am away from the bike, such as my wallet, passport, camera and phone. By keeping the front bag light and easy to remove, I both minimize any adverse effect on handling, plus I do not hesitate to take it with me into a control or coffee shop. This means I rarely have to run back out to my bike to get my route card, wallet or camera. The small Ortlieb bar bag meets my needs for a small, completely waterproof and easily to remove front bag.
BTW, because the head-tube on my bike is short and I have a light mounted at the fork crown, I moved the mounting hardware on the bag pictured below a bit so the bag clears the light. Sometimes creativity is required to make things work together!
Despite my stated preference for easy removal, I do have one of Emily's bar bags semi-permanently mounted on my dirt road adventure bike. I simply keep my valuables in a smaller, easy-to-bring-with-me bag that fits inside the main bag. It's a tradeoff that I made between having the extra weight of a separate mount and the stability and elegance of this bag.
There may be as many approaches to carrying gear as there are riders. This is likely something you'll refine over time and with experience - especially figuring out what to actually carry for a given distance or weather or terrain.
As I alluded to above, one real consideration when selecting bags is potential interference with lights. Bar bags and headlights often compete for the same space. For instance, one cannot use any of the typical American handlebar-mounted lights with a handlebar-mounted bag. I use a gadget mounted to the side of the fork to take a small battery light (with a bar mount) while my main generator powered headlight is attached to the fork crown below my bar bag. Taillights and large seat bags can also compete for the same space. Make sure that, whatever you use, the bag doesn't block the light.
Which brings us to ...
It is unlikely that you will need lights on your first 200km, so you can probably forgo fancy and expensive lights to start. If lights are required for a 200km, most any simple modern battery powered LED light should suffice - unless you have chosen a dusk to dawn event as your first brevet. As the rides get longer and have you riding into or through the night, you will likely want a bright long lasting light.
Lighting technology has improved significantly in the 30 years since I did my first brevet. The old, heavy, dim battery lights of yore have given way to the bright, non-power thirsty LEDs of today. The old, noisy, inefficient bottom bracket generators have been replaced by quiet and efficient hub dynamos, and you no longer have to sacrifice a water bottle cage to carry a heavy 6-volt lantern battery.
I desperately need to update my old lights article (it's next in line after this post), but for now I'll just summarize. A light that is self-powered or whose batteries will last through the event (or more specifically the nighttime part of the event) is fundamental brevet equipment, and the topic of many discussions among randonneurs. A backup light is a sign of wisdom or experience.
A Schmidt generator hub provides an endless source of power, for lights as well as electronic gadgets, like GPSs and phones. In the late 1990's, Schmidt re-defined the modern dynamo hub with a smooth efficient design. They have refined the design a bit over the years, making new hubs lighter and even more efficient. In my opinion, Schmidt is still the gold standard dynamo hub.
It seems that lighting technology improves at the same rapid rate as microprocessors these days. LEDs have been a game changer. Today, there are at least three companies producing high quality, dynamo-powered LED lights. Schmidt, Busch & Müller and Supernova offer fairly comparable models. I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I have used. I would be happy with any of the current offerings from these three.
German law for bike lights is very strict and dictates that lights used on roads and paths must have an asymmetric beam pattern, supposedly to avoid blinding oncoming traffic. The first few iterations of asymmetric lights that we used were less than brilliant, but current models are much better at providing illumination everywhere I want it.
Today, John and I have several lights from Supernova mounted on various bikes, including our tandem.
The bike I use for most brevets has a Lumotec Luxos U light with a USB outlet that can be used to run or charge a GPS or phone. At low speeds, the light stays on while the external charger cuts out, but at moderate speeds I get power both to the light and the device. It's pretty nice to have power for my GPS to last throughout a long event!
John also has a separate gadget made by Sinewave Cycles Revolution to allow one to power a USB device and run a light (he's using a Supernova) - handy if you already have a light or multiple lights/bikes. Similar to the Luxos, at higher speeds, both the light and device will get power.
I will add that there are a plethora of USB batteries available now for providing extended power to those other devices like a GPS or phone, and the capacity of these is rapidly approaching that needed to keep a GPS going for a long brevet.
As for battery-powered lights, there are lots of new bright and inexpensive LED lights. Many of these newer lights re-charge via USB, so may be considered slightly more environmentally friendly than using disposable AA batteries. However, AA models have the advantage that, if needed, you can easily carry extras or stop and buy more power at a convenience store! For shorter events where lights may only be needed for an hour or two, a battery light will suffice. Since I'd go broke buying and reviewing them all, I'm going to leave this as an exercise to the reader. I will offer this advice: If shopping for battery lights, consider both the optical - burn time and method of recharging, as well as brightness and beam pattern - and the mechanical - an easy to use and secure mount. Despite the advances in technology to make more efficient lights, the focus in America seems to be to use that efficiency to make brighter lights, versus longer lasting. It seems lots more American cyclists want a really bright light to go off road for an hour or so after work, than a light that will last for 3 nights!
Busch and Müller make a battery powered light that will run through the night. While not found in the typical American bike shop, thanks to the Internet, one can easily find and purchase these longer lasting lights.
As for taillights, I'll just say that most manufacturers seem obsessed with blinding, blinking taillights. I understand the desire to be seen, and more than you might realize, I appreciate not being hit from behind. But please consider the rider behind you (if you ride in a group) when setting the mode on your taillight. Many come with multiple modes for flashing as well as steady. Please, if you are riding with me, use steady mode! PDW has seemingly heard my cries and now have a new model with a group-mode option: it is non-flashing and dimmer than the other modes, while still providing ample visibility to drivers.
Taillights should be mounted so the light is aimed straight back, not up into the eyes of the rider behind you - be kind, don't blind! Also make sure your light is not obscured by bags or fenders and can be seen from a vehicle well behind you. Get a riding partner to drop back to check out visibility from behind.
Redundancy is also a really good idea. I always have two taillights, typically one battery and one dynamo powered. The same goes for headlights. Even though I have a great and reliable generator and headlight, I carry a small battery powered headlight, because it's better being able to look at it than for it!
Now we've figured out how to carry stuff and light our way, so let's get to the truly important stuff - comfort - and the number one thing that contributes to comfort is fit.
First and foremost a good brevet bike fits well. If your current bike doesn't have a perfect fit, but it's not outrageous, there are a few simple things you can do to improve it.
I recommend getting a professional fitting, with the caveat that your fitter shouldn't try to force you into an extreme racing position, or dramatically change a position you've been using for a long time, or use the fitting purely as a way to sell you a new bike.
Most professional fitters are actually pretty good at listening to the rider, but I have run into some (often young racers) who are determined that handlebars must be 5 inches below the saddle, regardless. My very best fitting experience was with Rob Vandermark of Seven Cycles and Ride Studio Café. Rob listened to me as I described the type of riding I do. He didn't assume that I wanted to race and take seconds off my 25mile time trial PR. It was so refreshing to work with someone who makes high-end bikes, who gets that people have different goals, and not everyone wants to increase their sprinting ability.
He also noted that I had been riding for more than 30 years, and at this stage my position and habits were somewhat firmly ingrained. I tend to sit rather far back on the saddle, regardless of the seat-tube angle. Rather than try to change my technique and position in ways that other fitters have tried and failed to change, he looked for ways to work with my quirks. Like many others, I also pedal a bit toe-down. This, we have tried to address, but not to the degree of radically changing my saddle height in a way that could introduce pain or injury. Fitting changes should be introduced gradually. Muscle memory is a strong force!
One of the first things a fitter will check is saddle height and fore/aft position. Knee pain is often a sign of a saddle that is too low or too high. Hopefully if you are already doing 100 mile rides, you've got this part sorted. But if you are having knee pain or others comment that your hips rock when you pedal, it may be worthwhile making an appointment with a fitter.
Another potential source of discomfort on long rides can be easily addressed without buying a whole new bike. Traditionally bikes have been sized and sold based on height or leg length alone, often ignoring reach to the bars. But reach isn't necessarily uniformly correlated with height or leg length. Some people have longer or shorter legs while some have longer or shorter torso and arm lengths for a given height. Flexibility and where one bends also contribute significantly to reach to the bars. A bike whose reach is too long or short (or low or high) may result in too much pressure and pain on a variety of places (bottom, hands, neck, shoulders, back). On shorter rides, one can get away with riding a bike with too long a reach or too much drop, but for brevet type distances it is absolutely critical that one not be overly stretched or too cramped. Many newer stems, both quill type and threadless now come with a removable front plate, making it much easier to change out a stem for a longer or shorter one, or one with a different angle - without removing and reinstalling brakes and shifters and bar tape.
This type of stem also makes packing and reassembling the bike easier, a likely occurrence for a brevet bike. It also makes changing handlebars (a little!) easier. One of the best discoveries for me was narrow, shallow drop, short reach handlebars. Handlebars come in all shapes and dimensions, varying in width, reach and drop. Only you can decide what you like.
Some folks recommend higher bar placement for randonneuring bikes than what you see on typical racing bikes. In a short time trial or road race, where aerodynamics trumps comfort, one can put up with bars which are significantly lower than the saddle. But for longer distances, bars closer to the height of the saddle might afford more comfort. That said, if you are comfortable with the setup you have, don't change it! I can't emphasize enough that you shouldn't change things that work, just because you read something on the Internet!
Finally changing the length of a stem drastically may have an adverse affect on handling, so if you have to make a big change, it could be a sign that you may need a different frame down the road. I'd still recommend taking time to figure out what else you might want to change before making any big investment in a new bike.
There's lot more involved in fitting a bike, and it's well beyond the scope of this article. Getting the right saddle height, fore/aft position and reach is really best done in person (with a professional), who will measure you and your bike and can offer advice based on both standard practices and taking into account your measurements, flexibility, posture and experience, and most importantly watching you ride. You can only go so far with tables and formulas. One cannot do a fitting on the Internet!
So let's assume that you now have taken the steps to get your bike to fit you well, so we can look at other sources of comfort.
Some marketing folks and bike reviewers will have you believe the different grades of materials and butting have a big influence in bike comfort, but IMNSHO, any difference in materials is absolutely dwarfed by different width tires and tire pressure. In a blind test with the same frame geometry and tires, but different materials (steel, aluminum, carbon, titanium), I believe most riders will struggle to tell much, if any difference. But change the tires from 18 to 23 to 28 to 35mm, and I believe most riders will instantly notice a significant a difference in comfort.
This experiment can be tricky in practice though, when many production bikes are not designed for tires fatter than 25mm.
This isn't to say that one cannot fine-tune the ride of a bike with different materials, or butting or geometry, but tire volume differences don't (necessarily) require a new bike, and will likely give a bigger bang for the buck!
New England roads take a beating in the winter. Snowplows and the freeze-thaw cycle do their best to rip up our roads. Anyone who has ever ridden BMB can confirm that the roads can be brutally rough (and sometimes the pavement is missing completely). Skinny tires, 750 miles and rough pavement on the BMB course will beat up any rider. A 25mm or bigger tires can make a tremendous difference. My recommendation is to mount the widest tire you can get in your frame!
Add rain or wet roads, and you may want fenders too. This is where things get even trickier, because many bikes just don't have clearance for both. For PBP in 1991, I had to use a super skinny (18mm) tire on the front of my Vitus to work with fenders. I recall telling folks after PBP in '91 that French roads were rough, but after using a much wider tire in '99, I have come to realize they are amazingly smooth, especially in comparison to the BMB roads. The good news is that many modern forks actually have more clearance than my old Vitus, and there are several models of fenders specifically designed to cope with the tight space between brakes and tires.
A wet muddy backside is another potential source of discomfort, easily remedied by fenders!
As I mentioned above, in 1991 my Vitus sported French-sourced narrow Salmon aluminum fenders with ridiculously narrow tires (18 mm Michelin on front, 20 on the back). I first saw these fenders on French bikes at PBP in 1987 and thought they looked cool. My local randonneuring shop imported and sold a bunch prior to the 1991 PBP. However, these skinny flat fenders were actually more fashionable than functional. The fender was essentially a flat strip of aluminum. With no sides, they weren't as effective at keeping spray under control. And while narrow in width, they were actually thicker than most other fenders, so further limited tire size.
Over the years, John and I have used many varieties of fenders, including models from Portland Design Works (PDW), SKS (formerly Esge), Honjo, Velo Orange, Berthoud and others.
We recently mounted the new wider full metal fenders from PDW on a couple of our bikes and so far have found them very effective in the wet, and significantly easier to setup and mount than many other lightweight metal fenders. See a detailed review of the wider model here.
Other lightweight stainless and aluminum fenders (like those made by Honjo, Velo Orange, Berthoud and other) are quite popular with many American randonneurs these days and are actually quite functional, providing good coverage. But they can be an absolute nightmare to mount and our experience is they can crack and break under minor abuse - especially any bending like one might get from packing or catching a twig while riding a trail. I believe with great care, they can least for years - just that it can require great care! Don't do like John and ride off curbs or through the woods the first day out with a brand new set!
SKS remains the gold standard for so-called plastic fenders. I say so-called plastic because these fenders actually have a thin piece of aluminum sandwiched between layers of plastic, but for simplicity sake, I'm going to categorize them with other plastic models. The new SKS Longboard provides the best coverage of all the SKS models. The Longboards are much longer than the Chromoplastic models, and come with pre-installed mudflaps. Sadly the Longboard doesn't come in the same variety of sizes/widths as the Chromoplastics, but the 700X45 Longboard works great on my Seven with 700X32 tires. I wish SKS would just make the one model of fender, in the all the sizes for 26" and 700 by all widths - like the Chromoplastics, but with the extra length and nice mudflaps of the Longboards! Keep things simple. Maybe they just like having many different models of fenders to confuse the consumer!
These plastic fenders also have the advantage for a travel bike of being easy to mount and they tolerate being pushed around when packed or forced into bike racks on trains. They also are flexible enough to cope with brake QR movement, but not so flexible as to be wobbly on the bike.
I've also got some nicely painted to match plastic fenders from Planet Bike on my Honey with 650BX42 tires. These are a nice fit - despite not being a 650B specific fender, but they are a bit more flexible than the SKS, so following riders complain about seeing some wobble! They are also a wee bit short, so I've added a long mudflap make them a bit more social!
I mentioned fenders that cope with tight clearances and work on bikes that lack of eyelets for mounting. SKS and Planet Bike, among others make several similar models. PDW also make a full metal fender designed for tight clearances.
SKS Race Blades work on pretty much any bike. They come in a couple of widths, and are relatively easy to mount, although they are also relatively easy to mount wrongly and ineffectively! Eyelets are not required and under-brake/tire clearance is not an issue since they don't go under the brakes, but they offer much less protection to both you and your riding companions than any of the other full-coverage fenders. Still they are infinitely better than nothing!
SKS Race Blade Longs go one step farther. They are ... well ... longer, and have a much more secure mounting than the Race Blades. They come with QR gadgets for folks who want to remove them on dry days. Once the initial setup is done, it's pretty easy to pop them off/on. The big down side is your tire size is limited to 700X23 - although friends tell me they've gotten them to work with 25s. They use the wheel QR skewer for mounting, so have some hassle factor when fixing a flat - you have to quick release the fender to remove the wheel. Still, I've been thrilled to see my riding companions show up with them on wet days.
PDW also make a narrow metal fender that works well on bikes with 700X23 tires, tight clearances and no eyelets. They have special mounting hardware that goes over the rear brake, cutout sides for narrow forks and like the race-blade longs, have hardware to go on the wheels' QR skewers to make up for missing eyelets. Like the race-blade longs, if one is using the optional hardware, one has to QR the fender when removing a wheel. However, it's not as quick as the SKS model, since it requires a tiny allen key to do so. Still it's a nice approach to the problem of no eyelets.
Finally I'll mention fenders from Crud. These are superlight and are designed to work with tight clearances. They offer surprising good coverage and do an admirable job of keeping spray off me and my riding companions. They come with pads allowing the fender to align/float on the rim. The minimal design and the floating feature means you will see movement, but it's by design. I made mudflaps for mine from packing tape to enhance the coverage. These fenders mount easily with no hardware, using reusable cable ties, thumbscrews and rubber bands. They come apart into three pieces so pack quite easily. And the extended section on the front guard comes off easily with a thumb screw, enabling quick removal when using a roof rack where an extended fender might interfere.
While fenders are no longer required for PBP, I still use them and highly recommend them. BMB rarely saw dry weather for the full four days, and more often than not had sustained or heavy rain. In recent editions, PBP riders have also experienced some serious rain. In Boston, our qualifiers have almost become famous for the heavy rain. Fenders can make a tremendous difference in one's comfort on a long rainy ride. They also make riding in a group much more pleasant. So in my opinion, a good brevet bike has fenders.
OK, enough about fenders!
A final and IMO, big consideration for a brevet bike is travel. You are likely to want to pack your randonneuring bike up and take it somewhere far away to do an event, like PBP or one of the other thousand 1200kms that have popped up in recent years. S&S couplers make this much easier (especially on a tandem). If you are considering buying a new bike, I'd definitely keep this in mind (and retrofitting is also an option). Even without couplers there are several things you can do to make travel easier. I mentioned the bolt off front stems above. Cable couplers are another great travel aid. DaVinci Designs make an inline cable separator that makes it easy to remove the handlebars for packing without fear of kinking cables, or the hassle of having to readjust brake and derailleur cables. We use them on our non-coupled tandem now (to eliminate the need for tandem length cables) as well as any bike we travel with.
Wires on a travel bike can be a big hassle. I use wireless computers (actually a GPS these days) and try to keep lighting wires as simple as possible. Many years ago, I did an elegant job routing wires from the generator to a taillight on the inside of my fender, only to have to undo it all when I packed the bike. Wired taillights are nice for the same reason all generator lights are nice - no fear of dead batteries, but do keep in mind the travel issue. Today, I use a quick connector in the run to the taillight to make it easier to disconnect.
Just last weekend at NAHBS2014, I saw the most elegant and best engineered solution to the problem of wires at the Harvey Cycle Works booth. Kevin Harvey has designed a fork and light mounting system that is modular and very elegant with respect to electrical connections. I heard so much buzz from other builders eager to have him do work for them, that I suspect we are going to see a lot more of his designs in the future.
BMB was known for it's long steep climbs. PBP has a similar amount of climbing, but it is spread out more. The brevets in our area also have many of the long steep climbs. Having low gears on day 3 of a long event will contribute greatly to comfort.
Triple front derailleurs have improved, but they can be finicky and today one can get the same spread of gears with a compact crank (34-50) and long cage derailleur and wide range cassette with a large cog of 34 or 36. I feel the ability to spin up those tough little climbs on day 3 can make all the difference in the world.
Of course, I must admit that it is entirely possible to do brevets on fixed gear, and I have done quite a few that way myself, so I'd be a hypocrite to say you MUST have lots of gears, but I still recommend them.
There are seemingly infinite choices of shifters available these days. I may be accused of being a retro-grouch for still having bar-end shifters, but that's where my hands expect to find the shifters, so that's where I have them. I've heard good things (including long battery life) about the latest generation of electronic shifters, but have no real experience with them.
My recommendation here is to use what you are used to, provided of course, that it works reliably.