Friday, August 28, 2009

Randonneuring is an achievable hobby

Would you like to try randonneuring but are a little overwhelmed about getting started or unsure you can do it? Well, fret no more. All it takes is a reliable bike, some impunity, and a little fitness. I know this because I was able to do it, which means that you can do it too. So here is my story and my advice, while I am still a newbie.

My story

I am not an athlete. I never was. I am a 50-something office geek. Over the years, I did the obligatory 30 minutes of cardio at the gym now and then, and an occasional 5K racewalk, but that was it.

A few years ago,
several events converged. A nice rail-trail opened along my route to work, my wife brought home an old 12-speed bike from a dumpster, and I started bike commuting. I enjoyed it. It became the best part of my work day. And then a friend and I started riding together on weekends.

Every week or so, we would search the internet for leisurely bike rides out in the countryside. I kept happening upon extremely long routes, along with dramatic ride reports from a few crazy guys who rode them. I had never heard of randonneuring. At first, I thought the routes and reports were spoofs. Then I found RUSA and thought it was a massive, organized spoof. I tried to ignore them.

As we biked, our distances kept increasing. Over a few months, we learned about food, drink, flats, chains, and chemical toe warmer pads. Eventually we rode 100 miles. And then did it again. And finally, I did the math and realized we were within reach of the RUSA 200km distance and 13+ hour time limit. Maybe randonneuring wasn't so crazy after all. My eyes sparkled and I was hooked.

So I started seriously inhaling randonneur blogs and newsgroups. All the blogs were dramatic, humorous, and eloquently written, which held my attention. But most of the advice was intense.

First, it's all about the bike. Carbon fibre or titanium, custom fit frames, clicky pedals and shoes, fat tires or skinny, air pressure debates, number of spokes, lightest weight tool kit, fenders, dynohubs, designer luggage,
a GPS with audible autorouting, and more. Who were they kidding?

And then the training. You have to do intervals, hills, long runs, night runs, rollers indoors, rain and snow outdoors, and taper before the event. And you've got to have the right clothing, smear goop on your butt, and expect occasional vomiting. Doh, is this torture or a hobby?

'Balderdash', I said. I don't need all this to get started.
I realized that most of the information in the blogs and newsgroups is written by highly accomplished randonneurs, pushing for the ultimate in performance. There isn't much written by newbies, since successful newbies naturally don't stay newbies very long.

As I studied the rules, I also realized the RUSA rule-makers were pretty smart. They set the entry level event at 200km and 13+ hours for a reason. It is short enough to be achievable by mere mortals with determination, yet long enough to be tantalizing and to provide a sense of accomplishment. It is the perfect level to entice new riders.

All of which led to my own ideas about getting started...

My advice

Start riding today. Ride whatever bike you've got. Ride whatever fitness level you've got. Wear whatever clothes you've got. You will soon learn everything you need to know. If you bonk, eat better. If your bike breaks, get better parts. If you feel unsafe in traffic, ask for help. If your joints hurt, get them checked. If your butt hurts, well, I still haven't figured that out. Your equipment, your impunity, and your fitness will steadily improve. Your distances will increase.

Start practicing on permanent routes. Get the cue sheets. Practice as much distance as you can in one day. Do the remainder on another day. Eventually you will be able to do the whole thing. And when you finally do it for credit, you will already know the route.

Choose permanents as your first official events rather than group brevets. Focus on finishing your own ride, and don't compare yourself to the uber racing set. You can join group rides after you build confidence.

Start by selecting flat permanents. The credit is the same as hilly routes, and you can learn to adapt to the unexpected (like dealing with cattle on the road) without killing yourself on hills.

Start in nice weather with lots of daylight. I like riding in the rain, and I love riding in the dark, but don't abuse yourself more than necessary.

Share the load. Find another newbie, support each other, and share the ancillary tasks. One navigates, one is the mechanic, one brings food, one worries about the checkpoints and receipts.

So take the plunge and start riding. I guarantee that you will be doing official 200km events before you know it. You will soon call yourself a randonneur. Your name will be on the RUSA website. You can buy yourself medals. You can wear a randonneur T-shirt. And then you can start writing your own blog and dispensing your own advice.

Don't wait. Don't obsess. Start riding today, and be amazed at how far you can go.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Traffic speed detector on the PBP200

We are such geeks. My cycling buddy Jayjay and I would never dream of sprinting toward a state line boundary sign during a bike ride. There is no allure. But put an electronic traffic speed detector on the side of the road, and watch us go...

We were riding the RUSA Princeton-Belmar-Princeton 200k today in New Jersey. We were hot and tired, and consciously metering our energy consumption so we would have enough to finish within the time limit. And then late in the afternoon, about mile 100, we spotted a police SUV parked with one of these thingies up ahead.

I watched it mindlessly clocking the speed of cars as they sped by, 40, 50, 60mph, in a low speed zone. Then the cars were suddenly gone, and the sign alternated between 13 and 14mph. I thought nothing of it, but Jayjay instantly recognized that the device was tracking us. "Hey, that's our speed!", came her urgent voice from behind me. "Go, go, go!" she yelled. Once again, I had one of those moments where I jumped into action before giving proper consideration to the situation, and I was sprinting like crazy. Equally afflicted, Jayjay kept yelling "Faster! Faster!", louder and ever closer behind me.

Up, up, up, went the sign, 15, 16, 17. It finally got up to 19mph before we passed. "Aw rats", Jayjay said. Her delerious mind wanted to get to 20. Luckily we were only a short distance in front of the sign before we started sprinting, else who knows how fast we might have gotten. As a result, we only had to spend a few minutes stopped beyond the sign, hunched over handlebars, gasping for air, and guzzling water, before we continued on our way. Such geeks.

As for the rest of the day, the weather was beautiful, but traffic was horrendous. Most roads were filled with cars, they were all in a hurry, and most left little space alongside us. (The side of a towed boat came within inches of both our heads.) I suspect it was the gorgeous weather on one of the last weekends of summer which had everyone out and about, especially near the shore. The first checkpoint at a Dunkin Donuts at the beach in Belmar was filled to capacity with people glistening in sunblock. We waited forever on the long line, the clerk didn't want to waste time signing our cards, and then we had to wait on line to get into the bathrooms. Temperatures got really hot in the afternoon. We coped by filling socks with ice and draping them around our necks; this worked well again. We also drank cans of V8 juice, trying to address the needs of the 'Hydration Triangle', carbs, salt, and liquid. But the route itself and the scenery was delightful, and the dozens of other cyclists we passed were all super friendly. We finished the ride with 15 minutes to spare, woo hoo. All in all, a great day.

Many thanks to the owner of this RUSA route. I look forward to riding it again some day when I am back in New Jersey.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Randonneur bike candidate

It's got fenders.

And plenty of storage space.

I would have to practice making sound effects.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Oh, nice."

"Oh, nice." That's what I said to three bicyclists this morning after they told me they were riding 100km. My tone of voice must have been patronizing, because they all gave me a highly indignant look.

The threesome was parked outside the Wawa at Pemberton, NJ, as I pulled in. They were all lean and attractive, had fine bicycles, and were dressed to the hilt. I had my overloaded dumpster bike and was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, sneakers, and reflectivewear. I had just locked my bike (a joke in itself), and was walking past them to go in the store. I made a small-talk comment about the glorious weather for riding, and everyone agreed.

Then one of the guys said they were riding 100km today. My first impulse was to say "Oh, nice, I am riding 200km". Knowing it would be rude as well as completely unbelievable, I truncated it at "Oh, nice". But there must have been something in my tone or the look on my face which delivered the complete message anyway, because they sure gave me the indignant look back. I didn't mean to minimize their accomplishment, and I am sorry it came out that way, but I knew instantly I had just experienced the 'defining moment' of today's ride. I kept thinking about advice from blogstress MG Thursday about socially acceptable bragging, and how I had just blown it. Oh well...

I rode most of the RUSA PBP Permanent today, a 200km loop connecting Princeton and Belmar NJ. I rode it in reverse, and not for credit. My bicycling partner Jayjay is passing through NJ next weekend, and we plan to ride it for credit toward our R-12. I have this thing about memorizing routes before we ride, but this one has so many twists and turns that I needed to actually ride it again to refresh my memory before Jayjay gets here. It also provided some much-needed saddle time.

The weather was absolutely glorious. It started in the mid 70s (F) and could not have risen more than the mid 80s. There were spotty clouds and mild variable winds all day, and not one drop of rain. It was a wonderful ride.

I also took a ton of random photos with my cellphone camera, since I was not on the clock. Hope you enjoy them...

There were two annoying sections of bad pavement which rattled my teeth. Just past Roosevelt (around MP16), the road was scratched and torn up in preparation for paving. This is a temporary nuisance and should be beautiful soon. The other is on West Farm Road (MP33) just past Georgia Tavern Road, where you will find a stretch of potholes, loose chunks of asphalt, and failed patches. It must be less than 100 yards long, but it seems to be a permanent condition. Be careful.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I have been trying to come up with a catchy phrase to describe our style of slow randonneuring. Jayjay and I average about 10mph. We don't train, we don't race, and we seek flat permanents. It's an accomplishment when we finish a 200Km ride within the time limit.

We have made a conscious tradeoff between investment of time and money for training and equipment and are comfortable where we are, right at the entry-level of randonneuring. We can buy our medals after a 13 hour ride, just like the fast guys do in seven hours. I considered the phrase '80-20 Randy', to convey that we get 80 percent of the benefit from only 20 percent of investment, but nobody would understand without a long explanation.

I considered 'Flat Randy', since we can't finish hilly permanents in the time limits yet, but that seemed too negative. I want something positive.

I thought up 'Ten Mipper', a play on '10mph rider', but that was dismissed quickly. It made me think of the RCA Victor dog.

Then I happened to be looking at the Tweed Cycling clubs. They ride classic bikes, dress in period clothing, and emphasize style over speed. They host events where people ride slowly, with a positive spin. I remembered that Jayjay has already worn a red plaid skirt on one of our rides. Then I thought of the phrase 'Tweedonneur', contracting Tweed and Randonneur. Hmm, it does have a nice ring to it.

Perhaps I need to hit the thrift stores. Watch this space...