France’s countryside is home to some of the most beautiful and brutally challenging natural terrains, including the infamous French Alps, where the uphill climbs leave cyclists salivating the world over. It comes as no surprise that the Tour de France is easily one of the most iconic and well known cycling events, with a history that spans more than a century.
However, there is another category of cycling that the country has given birth to, one of the oldest disciplines if not the oldest: Randonneuring.
This version of ultra cycling is distinctly different from Italy’s great Grand Fondo tradition, which is essentially still a race. Also known as audax cycling, the randonneurs or endurance road cyclists who participate in these events are definitely in a league of their own, often persevering through the harshest conditions over great distances, much longer riding miles than non cyclists can fathom.
Equal recognition is given to a cyclist regardless of their finishing order in a randonnée or brevet event, as the goal is to safely complete the ride within the time limit.
Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the sport actually has its origins in Italy, and not France. This is because these day-long challenge sports became fairly popular in the late 19th century, and it then spread to other countries.
But don’t century rides and those that go beyond already qualify for that category? Not quite. An audax event has a minimum 200km distance, going up to 300km, 400km, 600km and 1,000km.
Those who complete all four shorter distances within a single calendar year will then earn the title of Super Randonneur. For those who are starting out, you could earn the Randonneur 1000 title by mixing and matching the different events to achieve 1,000km in mileage. But these are not merely about distance, because they often include some pretty challenging hill or mountain climbs as well. The longer rides could even have several.
If this is already starting to sound mind bogglingly extreme, consider the fact that some accomplishments in the field take more than a year to achieve. For instance, recognition is also given to randonneurs who chalk up 2,500km 5,000km, 3,500km, 4,500km and 10,000km in mileage within a given time period.
The most prestigious audax event around the world is without a doubt the Paris–Brest–Paris, which the Audax Club Parisien organises every four years. Essentially it is one of the oldest bicycling events still regularly run since the first edition in 1891, although it was originally run as a race back in 1951. Riders have a time limit of 90 hours (just shy of 4 days) to complete 1,200km.
With its roots in France, randonneuring is obviously popular in its home country, but has a following in a lot of countries around the globe. Here in Malaysia, long distance cycling has fast been gaining popularity over the last few years, thanks to the setting up of the local chapter, Audax Randonneur Malaysia. The organisation oversees the running of long-distance cycling events in the country, validating and recording each ride using a system of timed checkpoints.
Set up in 2015, the organisation was first started by Sam Tow, who first came across long distance cycling when he was studying in Perth, Australia. Upon returning to Malaysia he met some new friends who were also interested in covering great distances by bicycle without racing.
“We enjoy riding at our own pace, meeting local people, trying local food, making new friends; what we usually don’t get to do in century rides,” Sam explains. “Our first long distance ride was 200kms from Kapar to Sungai Besar- Kampung Soeharto.
When we posted the invite in Facebook, everyone said we were insane. There were 10 people in our group and almost all of us completed the ride. We then organized more long distance rides, including a 270km ride and 320km double century from KL to Penang and everyone enjoyed it.”
Naturally, the obvious focus then turned to forming an organisation for all these activities. An email query to Audax Club Parisien a year after their first long ride was answered with another question, had they been holding any such events in other countries?
Audax was not popular enough within the cyclist community at the time, but nevertheless, the folks in France were receptive. “After a few months, ACP posted some contracts for me to sign. The agreement required us to organise events which follow their rules,” says Sam.
With the help of his friends Johnny Lee and Johan Sopiee, Sam organised the first Brevets de Randonneurs Mondiaux (BRM for short) or audax event. They set a modest target of 40 friends taking part, and were surprised when the number of people who turned up was 10 times their original estimate.
Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength. “Our country has been growing very well since 2016, when we had only 2 BRMs. In 2017 we had 5, and in 2018 we have had one every month.”
In between these events, the Audax Malaysia committee holds talks designed to help participants complete their first BRM safely. These training sessions or knowledge sharing workshops are held free of charge for all the Randonneurs.
And they’re fairly effective too. “We had a group of ladies who went straight for BFM400. And they all finished it!” says Ray Lee, Audax Malaysia Route Planner and Workshop Coordinator. “These workshops will tell you everything you should expect on an audax ride, so you can prepare for anything.”
For now, Sam and his team are busy preparing for the BRM1000 in September, in what looks like the longest bike ride in Malaysia ever attempted. Would this be one for the Malaysia Book of Records? It’s still uncertain, especially since there is a bit of money involved.
Either way, there’s absolutely no doubt that Sam and his group of ultra cyclists are a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps you’ll see them on the road one day, making their way steadily but surely to remote and unknown destinations.
For more information on Audax Randonneur Malaysia, log on to https://audaxmalaysia.com