I recently posted a Motobecane randonneur on French vintage bike forum Tonton Velo to see if anyone could help me identify the model. I was expecting some debate as to whether in fact it was a ‘Becane, or whether it was really Reynolds 531, but I wasn’t expecting someone to question whether or not it was actually a randonneur or not. It seems that in being imported into English, the meaning of the word has been slightly skewed. In English, the term is generally taken to mean a vintage or retro lightweight touring bike with 650B wheels. It’s a style that’s going through something of a resurgence, as was the case with fixed gear bikes did a decade ago. The French meaning of Randonneur is slightly different, randonneur literally translates as ‘trekker’, and can apply to walking, horse riding or biking. The bikes are sometimes referred to as Randonneuse (the feminine form applies to the feminine noun Bicyclette, rather than the masculine Velo). In bike terms, it refers to a bike that is comfortable and practical to ride all day over long distances and varied terrain. Some say a true randonneur must have a custom frame and hand picked components and should be built by someone the customer has met personally. The fact that the bike is tailored to the user is what sets it apart as a true randonneur.
Here’s a quick run down of other types of bike in French.
Velo de Course A road or racing bike; 700C wheels (preferably tubular), no mudguards, racks or accessories (save for perhaps a frame pump and a spare tire under the saddle)
Cyclotouriste A general term for touring bike.
Velo de Cyclocamping A true long distance, loaded tourer.
Velo de Ville Town bike. Traditionally had 650b wheels, now more likely to be 700 or 26″.
Demi-Course A road bike fitted with mudguards and a rack. This is something of a poor relation to the Randonneur, the term Demi-Course being reserved for low end gas pipe bikes.
Dame A ladies step-through frame. Ladies’ Cole de signe (swan neck) frames have curved top and down tubes.
Mixte In English, mixte has come to mean a ladies bike with no top tube, but two small diameter tubes running fom the head tube to the rear ends. In French the term is a bit less prescriptive, and can mean any ladies-specific frame designed for ‘real riding’.