Category Archives: Randonneuring
My marriage finished going to hell in 2013. In 2016, I finally got back to the only sport I’ve ever loved, randonneuring, and came close to completing an SR series (a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevet in a calendar year), but when I realized there was no way to finish the 600K within the time limit, I ended it a hundred kilometers short.
This is my second try since 2014 marital separation. The 2016 election results laid me out right when I naturally start losing weight and building quads, in November, so I’m a little unmoored and flabby about this year’s endeavor, but today I decided what I want.
Between May and August, I will:
- Prepare as best I can, given the limits of my schedule and my mental and physical conditions, and then ride as though I came to have fun.
- Be the least forgiving observer of my arrival times.
- Return under my own power if I DNF, unless prevented by mechanical failure or rigid calendar.
- Continue an R-12, regardless of how I feel about my performance during the season.
- Spend less time on randonneuring than on my children and the rent; moderately more than on my novel; and way more than on household upkeep. The children can eat water chestnuts and dress themselves out of the hamper.
- Plan a midseason intermission of normal recreational cycling and picking up dropped balls, so that September doesn’t deliver as overwhelming an avalanche of deferred responsibility as it did last year.
- Print this out and put it in my map holder and above the refrigerator, because this is all the kind of stuff you conveniently can’t quite remember when you need to.
There’s been a line of empty sake bottles above the kitchen sink with 100K, 200K, 300K, and 400K written on them since last year. The 600K bottle is still in the fridge door.
So I’ll try not to have too much riding on this, and we’ll see.
I NOTICED I WAS losing my voice around mile 75 or so, which I noticed because I was saying things like:
“Anyone can T-left Millbrook.
“There’s a left. Are you a T-left?
“Are you Millbrook? I hope you’re Millbrook…
“Left Birch Ridge Road, Hardwick on right.
“Left Birch Ridge Road…”
This was a 208-mile, 21-hour ride, including twelve climbs that Strava wants to call category-4 and several platoons of regular old stabby little vindictive hills. Now, if you’re not a randonneur, you may be thinking wow, that’s a ride, THIS GUY IS INSANE! Which is a reaction we cherish, since we’re nuts–but if you are a randonneur, you’re thinking, Wasn’t this a 300-kilometer brevet? That’s 186 miles, not 208. And don’t you only get 20 hours for a 300K, not 21?
Here, finally, is incontrovertible evidence that chanting “T-left Millbrook” until you lose your voice is not a viable GPS strategy:
That’s me riding this course. (Strava geeks: the whole thing’s here.) The yellow parts are “bonus miles.” That means I strayed off the course and had to find my way back–not just to the course, but to the same point where I left it. That’s brevet rules: You must ride the entire course. You may ride as many bonus miles as you want–if you know a restaurant a block off-route, for example, you may decide to eat there–but you may not skip a millimeter of the route. So when you see this:
which does not return along the same path by which it departed, it means I stood in a gas station at 11:30pm, did simple math several times to make sure I wasn’t screwing it up, concluded that I’d have to travel at twice my maximum speed for 30 minutes, and called in and let them know I’d be rolling in well after the cutoff. And then I just effin’ well took 202 to Summer Road, because (1) my iPhone wouldn’t show me the way back onto the course, and (2) I rode back along the wrong turn and couldn’t find it. But I was about to be over the time limit anyway, and no help for it, so there wasn’t a self-serving dilemma to wrestle with. As much.
So about iPhones.
A sidebar which you should skip
if you’re not a randonneur
Google Maps often doesn’t use the same names for roads as cue sheets do. There are three ways it can vary:
- The cue sheet uses the official County Road or Route number, but Google Maps shows what that segment of it is named locally–so it won’t find “Rt 719,” and you don’t know you should be searching for “Climbsbury Switchback.”
- The opposite of that: The cue sheet says, “Pothole Way B/C Broken Spine Plummet.” B/C means becomes. The cue sheet is telling you to be alert for the name change. This is very considerate of it. Too bad, though, because Google Maps is waiting for you to type in “County Road 4857B.”
- The road changes names along its length, sometimes in many places. Google Maps is absolutely certain this one particular name changes in this one very precise place, and you’re not there yet, but the road sign you’re looking at believes you are. So Google Maps refuses to find the intersection, and you can’t out-stubborn a road sign. This cue sheet was created by either:
- Somebody who relied on Google maps instead of riding the entire route and reading every street sign, or:
- Somebody who knows the area intimately and uses the colloquial name for the road, which is technically correct only at its other end. You know, the town end, where everybody lives. Neither Google nor the road sign knows that only the last twelve yards of Busted Rusted Mill Road is called Turkey Bladder Hwy S, way out where where it has that little curve and ends at Flung Phone Junction. Oh, right–that little bit by the abandoned lot where the nickel Coke machine used to be–yeah, funny story about that Coke machine, but anyway, nobody calls it that.
Except, you know, every GPS in the world.
Google Maps also doesn’t work well on brevets in areas without Internet access, and only today did I understand why other GPS apps would work better. Any of them will put a blue dot on the screen to show where you are, but without Internet access, Google Maps can’t draw a map behind the dot. It has to get its maps over the Internet. Other apps cache the maps in advance. After some advice from my friend Bill, I’m playing with Motion-X.
MY OFFICIAL RESULT: Did Not Finish. DNF.
I wasn’t afraid of not finishing, though. I was afraid of not being able to.
The numbers say I was able to. The 22 bonus miles would have taken me about two hours at the end. I came in one hour overlimit.
I BOUGHT MY Trek 1000SL in 2007, when I had two-year-old twins and the sleep deprivation was still bad enough that I couldn’t think about bikes or parts or tires. And I didn’t know much about them anyway. I had a hybrid bike. I did my first century on it. I thought I should probably get a road bike and see if it was better, like everyone said. BICYCLING magazine said the 1000SL was their pick for best entry-level road bike. That was all the information I could process. The bike shop didn’t have Midnight Blue in my size, so I bought Flame Duotone for, I think, $700.
This is the only road bike I’ve ever owned as an adult, and the only bike I’ve ever ridden a brevet on.
It’s not suited to brevets, but…“suited to?” It’s a bike, right? So isn’t it suited to whatever I want to do on a bike? We’re oversold on the idea–mostly I think we oversell ourselves on the idea–that we cannot do X without Bike Type X, or Y without Bike Type Y. Racing? You need carbon. Touring? You need steel. Expensive steel. Expensive carbon.
It’s a bike. Your legs make it go. If you can balance, you don’t fall down.
That being said…
It’s started falling apart. Things aren’t just at the “things break” stage. They’re entering the “things keep breaking” stage. And if you add that up…well, I’m slowly building a new one, as I can afford parts, and that one will be more suited.
But this is the one that let me start randonneuring, back when I didn’t know what randonneuring was, and let me keep randonneuring once I knew. And yes, it’s Monday, and I still have numb fingertips and toe tips from Saturday, and my butt is still too tender to place on another saddle today, and that is related to what bike it is. So the new build–parts sale by parts sale, as money trickles in–will have 44mm tires and low-trail geometry and front bag instead of saddlebag, and all that. You get obsessed with a specialized activity and you find out what’s better for you–and not even necessarily more expensive. So you end up with things more suited.
Still a bike, though. Just a bike. You push with your legs, it goes. Beautiful lugged steel and internal wire routing would not have minimized my bonus miles, and neither would Zipp wheels and aero bidons.
A generator light might have, though, since I was on low beam in pulse mode because I didn’t bring my headlight charger like I thought I had (the Garmin charger looks the same), and didn’t know how much battery time was left. And so might a front bag instead of a saddlebag, with the map case you can flip a cue sheet over in without stopping, the food you can reach without stopping, the phone you can reach without slowing in the dark so you don’t crash while fishing for it. And a frame that wider tires can fit into might mean that on longer rides, the orchestra of saddle sores doesn’t start tuning up until mile 250 instead of mile 175.
Bring on the parts sales, man.
“YOU RIDING IN or pedaling in?” The voice came from the car that slowed beside me. Five miles from the end. Seven miles an hour. Almost one AM.
I gingerly peeled my butt off the saddle and stopped so I could answer.
“Okay, see you at the end,” he said, and left. His brake lights flared after the next light. I didn’t turn. Not turning was correct navigation. He drove on.
THIS IS the deep part, which I thought would be the longest part, but is the shortest part.
I sold the first novel I wrote, and then sold every other novel I finished and tried to sell. I wrote all my term papers the night before, and got good grades. I never played team sports.
Brevets taught me how to fail.
I love randonneuring.
Like most of us who are not dead yet, I have weaknesses and strengths. I’m bad at paperwork, for example, and dumbstruck by the jargons of medical insurance and school bureaucracy—which are their purposes, I’m pretty sure—but there are things I’m good at. Sloth and gluttony are particular talents.
Saturday, May 17, at 4:00am, the Princeton 300K began.
I made that to print and take along with me. You can click and make it bigger. The rows of numbers across the top are hours. At top is a 20-hour ride, and if you trace your finger down from any number, that’s where I need to be at each hour to finish in 20 hours. Because the route is so hilly, the even spacing of the numbers isn’t really accurate—during some periods, I’ll be crawling up a hill at 3mph; during some much briefer periods, I’ll be descending at 40—but that’s the general overlay of a successful finish that uses every minute of the allotted 20 hours.
It also gives me a “reverse lookup” of the same information: Whenever I get to a certain place, I can look above it and see which finishing time I’m on pace for: 20 hours, 19 hours, 18 hours, 17 hours.
20 will be just fine with me.
With sloth and gluttony as my main strengths, and catching every single flippin’ school illness running a close third, conservation of talent dictates that edujargon and hill-climbing must remain weaknesses. We can’t all be good at everything.
I DNF’d on this ride in 2010.
This blog entry will go live at 9:08am on Saturday. That’s when controle 3 closes. (The red squares are controles.) At that point, if nothing’s gone wrong, I’ll have been hauling five pounds of rice cakes around New Jersey for five hours.
I’ll try to tweet my arrival time at each controle here. Hopefully when you click that, it’ll say something like CTRL 3 1307. Because if it says CTRL 3 1309, I’m already out of the game.
I hope the new chain catcher works.
“DON’T WORRY about it. I can be the controle goy.”
Hopefully I didn’t sound flippant. It actually tickled me to do. Because it wasn’t kosher, he couldn’t buy anything to get the receipt.
“IT’S NICE TO see you finish with some comfortable time.”
I finished in 10:39. This is only three minutes longer than the fastest 200K I’ve ever done, which was in Malibu and didn’t have headwinds, but did have a folding bike with concrete commuting tires and a wacky rear hub.
“What do you think made the difference?”
I said, “I’ve been doing a lot of commuting,” but on reflection, I think it’s more that this year, I know I can probably afford to take another shot if I DNF, so I can push harder and risk wearing myself out early.
“YOU DID THIS one your first year.”
That was the most shocking thing all day: Someone knew that? And:
“I saw a rider going past _______ Road and I thought, that looks like Keith.”
It was! But I realized it half a block later and turned around. I think I went off-course three or four times, but my total bonus miles were less than one.
People pay attention when you don’t know they’re doing it. Weird. I always think I’m fated to fly solo.
“NICHOLAS AND ZACHARY SAY MOOOOOOOO!”
The cows do not respond.
A 30° TEMPERATURE range: 49° in the morning, 79° in the afternoon. I own two pairs of bike shoes: Clipless winter boots and clipless sandals. No normal ones, just those.
I dithered for a week. Then I brought sandals and Sealskinz socks. They were perfect. And I remembered to spray my feet with sunblock in the parking lot where the Sealskinz finally got peeled off. They were the last winterizing layer to go. Jacket, skullcap, glove liners, neck gaiter—a spring brevet is a six-hour striptease and then sunburn.
I WASN’T lanterne rouge.
I wasn’t lanterne rouge.
Don’t get cocky, kid. Princeton’s coming up. You DNF’d at Schooley Mountain last time. It’s 300K of hills.
(Wasn’t lanterne rouge.)
I LIKE MY tires. Schwalbe Durano Plus don’t have quite the buttery road feel of Schwalbe’s pure racing tires, but they’re more puncture-resistant, and, say…85% butterfat.
I learned in 2012, on this very brevet, that when the voice asks politely if you think you ought to change your tires yet, “Nah, still some life in them” is the wrong answer. The voice is itself the answer. If it’s saying anything at all, they’re already time bombs.
SELF-RESPECT TIPS its hat. Nod back but don’t stop pedaling. You’re not done. Eat on the bike, drink on the bike, bask on the bike.
I SPENT CONSIDERABLE time on this brevet trying out different ways of saying, “Breezy!”
(There were 30mph headwinds all the way down the Jersey shore.)
The delivery that works best is the one that sounds like I’m very pleased. But nobody understood it. Doesn’t matter, that was the one.
MILE 105 OF 126, I’m sitting on grass, waiting for a bonk and caffeine headache to stabilize. I have three hours in the bank and a spring-lever tea ball in three inches of water in a bidon. I don’t actually call them bidons. I call them water bottles. I make a point of enjoying the scenery. I respect the moment and pay attention. I really see. Now I don’t remember anything. I think there was a fence.
Three hours in the bank minus ten minutes sitting on grass equals this was not my best 200K finishing time ever, but was instead 3 minutes over.
I bought a bike food cookbook after I got back.
“YOUR SHORTS ARE ripped all up the back,” said a guy in the paceline that came up behind me at a stop. His voice was raised. The headwinds were punching us all right in the kisser.
“They are? Here?”
“The funny thing is, I wore these because my other ones had a hole in them. THERE IS NO ESCAPING DESTINY!”
I got a laugh.
“Breezy!” didn’t play, though. Everyone is wrong about this. It is the proper delivery.
“THERE’S A 6:40 train.”
“You know how to get there?”
I put my helmet back on. “Let’s go.”
So we sprinted for the station. Well, I sprinted. From the outside, it probably looked like I was drafting.
“HAVE YOU recovered?” (Two days later.)
“Besides the achy quads and intermittently firing brain cells? TOTALLY.”
AND NUMB PINKY finger and toes, and bruised hands. I’m going to miss this bike for all the best reasons, but the new one’s going to fit.
Lately I’ve gotten interested in my Strava heatmap. The randonneuring doesn’t show up on it much–I can see Patrick’s Queens-Montauk route, and little pieces of George’s up in the Hudson Valley, and the entirety of the Shore By Night, and I’m proud of those–but I didn’t get the Garmin until recently, and I didn’t use the iPhone much on brevets because it always died halfway through.
What I like is my tracks all over the grid of Manhattan, and the vectors radiating from it in all directions–East into Brooklyn and Queens, Northeast into Westchester, Northwest and Southwest into New Jersey. I’m a New Yorker, and I know these streets the way only a cyclist knows them. My legs drove every revolution of every wheel. I dodged all the cabs and potholes. It was me and the street and the bike in downpours, blizzards, blasting heat and perfect breeze. I did the uphills, I did the downhills, I dodged the trucks and stole interference from buses and deked around jaywalkers, and I fixed it or walked when it broke, or I broke it, or a mechanic broke it in a way that took 30 minutes or 3 days to show up. I leaned it against delis, I hit bad joints on bridges, I dropped roadies, I got dropped by guys with butts fatter than I accept that mine could possibly be.
“This is my city” is a nonsensical, gritty line written by writers who need another edit, but fuck yeah, this is my city. I laid the streets, I built the bridges, I mapped it. I rode it. This is my city. Whatever yours is, is yours. This one’s mine.
A BREVET STARTS when you wake up. Ride preparation is backstory. It ended last night. This morning, in medias res, you do what randos have always done:
- Stop singing and find your hoody
IT WAS EIGHT in the morning, but the gray chill wasn’t easing off. “You’ll warm up as we go,” I assured my companions, who were wearing their new real bike shorts, and we went R OUT OF CONTROLE ONTO BROADWAY.
THE SEVEN GATES 50K is a three-controle out-and-back. It starts and ends in Inwood, at the top of Manhattan, so the first thing we do is leave New York City.
Marble Hill used to be part of both Manhattan, the actual island, and Manhattan, the borough, which back then were the same thing. When the Harlem River was rerouted to truncate the tip of the island, Marble Hill got amputated. In all meaningful ways, it’s now fused to the Bronx; but civically, it’s still a ghost digit of Manhattan, the dotted outline of a toe up where no toe should be. It’s populated by the tormented spirits of doomed New Yorkers, stranded forever in a twilight existence where the subways vanish. But the Broadway Bridge goes there.
ON THE OTHER SIDE, my companions offhandedly mentioned they might be feeling the slightest sensation of coolness, so I berated them. “Are you randonneurs or children?” I sneered. “Are you riding? Like hardmen? Or OHHH, should we stop for COCOA at some nice little WARM PLACE?”
MILE 1.3: ENTER VAN CORTLANDT PARK BIKE PATH. If you don’t have a cue sheet, but you know where to jink over to the left past the bones of the abandoned train platform, where it doesn’t necessarily look like you should, you’ll be on a dirt-road-looking thing that soon narrows. If you did it accidentally, the sensation of being in the wrong place may stop you. You didn’t see any NO BIKES signs, but you might decide not to go in.
But if you know…
The bottom mile and a half of what used to be the Old Putnam Railroad is now rideable hardpack, sometimes with a little mud—or more than a little—and always with stray roots and rocks and half-buried railroad ties. Then so sharp you can feel the surveyor’s line, the paving starts, and soon after this passage into Yonkers comes a passage both more profound and more nasal: Dad has promised to reveal to you the secret of the snot rocket.
THE PHRASES “NOT as steep as Henshaw, but longer” and “just downshift and you’ll be fine” trickled away almost as soon as Dad said them, weeks ago. “Two-mile climb” has remained solid in memory, and you have the nebulous sense it’s coming up. Is this it? No, this is flat. Is this it? No, this isn’t it. Is this it? Are we climbing? No. Then this isn’t it.
But now the surface has been tilted slightly up for a ways, and it’s tilting up slightly more. “Is this it?”
“This is the beginning of it…”
“STOP!” BELLOWS THE voice falling further behind. “STOP! WAIT UP! STOP! HEY! YOU GUYS! HEY! HEY!”
Like much of this route, the leg we’re on wavers more-or-less straight, with no intersecting trails or cross streets. There’s nowhere to go but forward or backwards. Instructions have been given a thrice of thrices: If we’re separated, we’ll meet up at the top of the climb, which is Gate 1.
But this rider, who on the flats enjoys passing his clubmates and wiggling his hiney at them, can be lazy on hills, a laziness that turns to indifference when he’s passed and fury when he’s dropped. His countertactic is to allow the escape group to build their lead until the gap seems too wide to bridge, and then, many heartbeats after seasoned observers will have written off his chances, to brake, plant his feet, stand in the middle of the lane, and holler.
There’s mild discussion at the front of the group, but these domestiques have been riding with him a long time. They continue to gain elevation. The occasional two-story roof shows through breaks in the treeline; the toys in those houses’ front yards look like toys. The echoing sounds of outrage become more distant.
Then an increase in volume and a decrease in echo, the words now intelligible: FINE! I’M SO MAD, I’M GONNA PASS YOU! repeated several times, and soon a red-hoodied blaze churns past on the left, past his companions, one of whom latches on and sprints. The other companion smiles silently and watches them race around the final bend—to Gate 1.
YOU DID THE two-mile climb. What do you get on the way back?
A two-mile descent!
EVERY PETITE BREVET—yearly, except I couldn’t get it together last year—I add another element. Last time it was more distance. This time it was more distance and a cue sheet.
Seven times between Manhattan and Elmsford Falls, the rail trail crosses a street or entry road. Cars could turn onto the trail if there was nothing to stop them, so there are not just bollards, but gates.
It may be conceivable that this only happens six times, and that the route designer, who’d already ordered medals with SEVEN GATES 50K engraved on the backs, had to go looking for a seventh gatelike thing on the final pre-ride, but this could not be confirmed by press time. Regardless: This cue sheet has a column called GATE, in which appear the numbers 1 through 7, for riders to whom monitoring TOTAL and LEG seems like less fun than you should have on a Saturday.
Bike up, hold your line!
“IT FEELS A lot stronger after lunch, doesn’t it?”
“My legs feel brand new!”
Mile 15.8 is the turnaround, Elmsford Deli.
Around mile 18, a boy paying too much attention to giving his brother a very sweet pep talk and not enough to—something, we’ll never know what—went down. I heard the tone of sincere encouragement passing between them ahead, and then there was a low tangle of bike, boy, and lost shoe, and that sound of short metal tubing and forty pounds of flesh hitting pavement and sliding.
I have failed him at this moment before. When he got creamed on the flat between the two Little Red Lighthouse descents, and I carried a 16″ bike and a screaming six-year-old down to the bottom, I was angry. It was with myself, but that distinction clarifies too late to make a difference to a hurt child. And when he ate it on the playground and the first-aid pack with FAMILY BIKE on it in green marker wasn’t in my pannier, I had to borrow whatever little Band-Aid was offered from the bottom of a purse.
So first I did not run him over, and then as he shrieked so hard, still sprawled and tangled, that his voice distorted like a guitar, I leaned my head tube against a bench back and unbuckled the pannier and dug out the first-aid pack.
If this story had a different ending, my first words being Pick it up would now be slotted in behind the other things I regret in painful detail years later. But gently and firmly, opening the pack: Pick it up, you can get up, and he did. I helped him out of his frame. His brother retrieved the shoe.
The wailing had stopped. I noticed the suddenness.
His hands were okay—half-gloves—but there was road rash. Dirt was ground into abrasions up his leg and there was a good half-inch rip filled with blood, and a couple of smaller versions of it.
“It just stings,” he said. His voice was shaky. I felt my surprise change my face. “It’s fine,” he said again, still uncertain. “It just stings.”
I gave him a wipe and had him gently cleanse the wound while I got the big Band-Aid ready. How the heck had he done that? He didn’t know.
“I think you were doing a good job of encouraging your brother, and talking to him a lot, so you weren’t paying attention to the road.”
He said, “The thing about helping people is you don’t help yourself.”
“I’M VERY IMPRESSED with you right now,” I said as I bunched up the first-aid wrappers to shove into an outer pannier pocket.
“I’m acting like Johnny Hoogerland right now,” he said.
As we rode out, he murmured, “I didn’t know I was like that.” He said it again, maybe twice more, only partly to me.
MILE 20.1: X SAWMILL PKWY, R INTO CONTROLE. Controle is unstaffed, so timestamped receipts take the place of a signature.
RANDONNEURING, LIKE MOST things, is mostly about the basics.
- Eat again.
- While you are doing your shoulder check, do not run off the road.
- If your penis hurts, put Lantiseptic on it.
- The Lantiseptic will warm up.
Is this the two-mile descent?
Is this the two-mile descent?
Is this the two-mile descent?
Are we descending?
Then this isn’t it.
“THEY SMELL THE BARN,” says Laurent, the man I followed around for my first year randonneuring, to explain why bicycles speed up at the end of a brevet.
MILE 29.6: SOUTHBOUND BROADWAY SIDEWALK. CAUTION: PEDESTRIANS, DRIVEWAYS.
We’re moving in 2014, and not sure where yet, so the randonneuring element I’ll add a year from now may reveal itself when we get there. If not, time limits to the controles are the obvious addition. For what is a brevet without a faint, constant trickle of fear?
But months before the Who Knows Where We’ll Land 75K, there will be the 40-mile (64-kilometer) Five-Boro Bike Tour, a fitting goodbye lap of the city where you were born, and with it maybe a little more understanding that even compared to grownups, a little dude like you can sling some respectable skills.
Or it may just be a bunch of whining—you never know what’s coming, this far out.
Johnny Hoogerland was hit by a car and thrown through the air into a barbed-wire fence within minutes of our sitting down to watch our first Tour de France together. Parts of him were torn to ribbons. He finished the stage.
Every rider has a rider he dreams about.
I dreamed of one day being as good as Barthélemy.