Touring Cyclist Tries Randonneuring

By Judy Colwell and Rufus, the touring (and randonneuring) teddy

Last winter, over a glass of wine with cycling friends, one of whom has ridden Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), and idea hatched. Let's do PBP next year. I am a touring cyclist, not a racer, with good endurance if not speed; this seemed like an absolutely insane idea. Then, a challenge. I began by completing the 200k and 300k brevets organized by the Davis (CA) Bike Club, experienced at bringing novices into randonneuring. The first hint of "an interesting 400k ride" was one rider's observation, Sure is breezy.

At 5am, 102 riders set their cyclometers and turned on assorted helmet lights, small battery lights, large rechargeable lights, generator lights and tail lights. Reflective vests, triangles, ankle strips and bike strips glowed on the route as we wound out of town. Our first 100 miles were flat, up the Sacramento Valley. Packs of riders formed pacelines to cope with the 20-25mph wind. Near the back of the pack where I ride, pacelines broke down and single riders strung out. I tried to ignore my cyclometer as it pegged 8mph. I willed it higher, to no avail. I watched my average speed sink below 13, to 12, down towards 10mph. Verdant grasses waved, the sky was bright blue, the temp around 70F. A high pressure weather system roared in bringing sun, clear air, warmth, and WIND. After the first 100 miles, I was discouraged and lonely. For hours not another cyclist in sight. I pedaled through profusions of orange poppies and blue lupine, by a milky creek angrily racing over rocks, low spray sparkling in the sun. Two turkey vultures barely moved as I passed within 20 ft. of their fence-post perch. Sorry guys, I'm not road kill - yet!

I love long touring rides. But with too much time in forlorn contemplation, I pondered why I was on a very long timed ride. A day/night ride. At 6:30pm and the turnaround point, tired, I wanted to pitch a tent, explore, sleep, and finish the ride the next morning. I didn't want to ride the remaining 117 miles over hill and dale in the dark, arriving "home" at 4:30 a.m. Riding all night, alone, really didn't appeal. I like to sleep when it's dark and ride when it's light. My checkpoint times were good, but I was so lonely. I decided to quit the ride... DNF. I felt fine with my decision, and as I was still signed up for the 600k, I could test myself again. The DNF relieved the stresses of PBP qualification, but in retrospect, quitting wasn't my style. If I tried again, and couldn't finish for physical reasons, I'd have no regrets and know better where the mental gremlins were. So I decided to try the 600k.

Having done major rides of 100- 250 miles each of the five weekends prior to the 600k, the most recent of which was a successful 400k, I mounted my bike contemplating my sanity - or lack thereof. The group was smaller. Faces and bikes were familiar. Within twenty minutes red tail lights strung out in front of me like a broken ruby necklace. I was far off the back. Deja vu. After two interminable hours, I found my cycling rhythm. A small late-starting group passed me and I only briefly stayed with them - I didn't have energy reserves for short sprints. I rode through the flatlands for another 40 miles. Red-winged blackbirds played tag along the power lines. Snowy egrets worked the irrigation ditches, while ducks coasted about on the rice paddies. An enormous bullfrog hopped out of my way. With calm winds, it was a fast ride, although each course monitor turned around after locating me. Last. Still. We entered the hills at mile 93, and it was here, our major hill of the ride, that I gave up my position of sweep rider.

At mile 131, I reached Elk Creek, two hours ahead of my time compared to the 400k, and was pleased. I checked in at the turnaround at 8:25pm and took a half-hour before heading back to sleep at Elk Creek. I passed up rest-stop-food for a restaurant. To ensure enough calories, I grazed constantly. It was good to sit down to a prepared meal. Faster riders could do this at each meal. Not so if you are bringing up the rear.

The five and a half hours and 55 miles to Elk Creek were horrific. I disliked riding alone at night, on rough, country roads without edge stripes or centerlines. My light system worked well (NiteRider with a VistaLight 420 headlamp, 6W bulb; backup AXA-HR generator; plus Petzl helmet light), but I wanted something brighter. The clear night sky was magnificent! A star blanket covered me while a shooting star blazed down the sky, a rainbow of color. I stood astride my bike and mused at the expansiveness of it all. It was beyond comprehension.

After forever, I arrived at Elk Creek (mile 240) and fell asleep instantly on the hard gym floor. After two and a half hours of sleep, I tackled the rolling hills out of Elk Creek. I balked at using my granny gear, while my legs balked at pedaling at all. We compromised. The granny gear was there for a purpose. The skies were dark towards the valley, the temperature a bit warmer, the air more humid. A south wind blew in. It would be a head wind for 70 miles down the valley. In the late afternoon, on the homeward stretch with only flat miles, all manner of physical infirmities became apparent. A knee twinge here. A sore hand there. At mile 325 my wonderful Brooks saddle was uncomfortable. I noticed every bump in the road. Deep fatigue set in and my mental state dropped from cycling joy to whimpering self-pity. What's the point of all of this? I'm lonesome. I can't stop to socialize, can't take time to eat in restaurants, and can't sleep much.

With fifteen miles to go, a cyclist out for a training ride paced me, chatting the whole way. It was a tremendous morale boost. At 7pm, exactly 38 hours from the start, I completed the 600k. On towards PBP!

© Copyright 1999, Judy Colwell