By Dave Leonard
I dedicated this cycling year to earning the Audax Club Parisien, Randonneur 5000 award for completing over 5,000 kilometers in sanctioned Randonneur events. One must complete a full Brevet series of rides (a 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k) plus a 1,000k brevet, plus a ParisBrestParis 1200k ride, and a Fleche, which is a 24hr team ride. One has four years to compile 5,000k of rides.
Only four Americans have won the Randonneur 5000 award since it was established in 1961. I figured I could be "The Fifth American." Imagine that. Actually, I thought I'd be among a group of eligible candidates this year. I know of several Davis Bike Club-mates who are chasing the award too. Having completed PBP, with all its qualifiers last year, I planned on doing the brevet series again with the 1000k being the last event between me and cycling history. In April I organized a team and successfully completed the Fleche, one of the most amusing domestic randonneuring expeditions I have experienced-but that's another story. All that stood in the way of the Randonneur 5000 medal was the daunting 1000k.
My brevet wingman Denny Burnham completed PBP last year, and also dedicated this year to earning the Randonneur 5000 Award. We talked on the phone several times, discussing gears, final logistics and sharing pent up anxiety about the ride that was starting at 4pm the next day. I was counting on 20-30 people from Northern California attempting the ride, and was surprised to find that only 11 committed souls showed up Friday afternoon. My other brevet partner, Carrie Sundahl, sensibly opted for a cycling tour of Oregon rather than the 1000k.
Anxious to start, I paced the parking lot and talked to riders or friends who volunteered to work the checkpoints. We figured the scorching summer heat would be our worst problem. The forecast called for temperatures in the high nineties. Bill Bryant was there to encourage us, and later worked the Williams contrôle with his wife, Lois Springsteen. He said, "Loneliness will be your worst enemy out there." Initially I thought Bill was wrong. I enjoy quiet solitude, but less than forty hours later I would be desperately longing for my usual brevet partners. Nonetheless, seeing the encouraging faces of volunteers at the contrôles meant everything to me. There were dozens of selfless DBC volunteers working the seven contrôles around the clock for the next 75 hours.
Alas, there were no throngs of spectators clapping and yelling "Bonne Route!" along the beautiful rural course. No French farmers handing out water, coffee, and cookies throughout long nights. No "Courage" signs painted on the road. Nope, getting through this long, lonely ride was going to be rough. We got some last minute instructions from the brevet organizers Daryn Dodge and Dan Shadoan, who encouraged us to ride with someone at night, and then we were off. We promenaded out of Davis into the surrounding farmland. While leaving town a big group of university employees cheered and bowed to us while doing "the wave." God, I love that stuff.
Five of the strong riders set a fast pace, but Denny and I hung tough for the first 20 miles. Feeling out of my league and knowing I had over 600 miles to go, I said I was dropping off the back. One of the leaders, Craig Robertson, wouldn't hear of it. He encouraged me to tuck in between him and another rider for help into the wind. I struggled back into the pack and hung on for another five miles until a rider flatted. To my amazement, the entire group of 11 stopped. This set the tone for the ride. By heavens we were going to get through this together. After 30 miles, four of us fell off the pace. Denny was slightly back, but we had ridden so many miles together, and I knew he was strong and we'd regroup soon. The rest of the gang were buying cold water and scarfing down potato chips outside the mini-mart.
Within minutes Denny arrived and said that he'd had enough. He was completely exhausted, drained of energy, and was going to quit. "No way man," I said. "We've got plenty of time. Get a hamburger and Coke. We'll chase them down or ride through the night together." Denny would not budge. With a decade of ultra-distance experience under his belt, he knew his limits. He insisted I go catch the pack before they got out of sight so I wouldn't be faced with riding alone through the night. I quickly assessed the possibility of being left alone for the next three days and nights without anyone to laugh at my stupid jokes. I told him to give me something of his so I could carry his cycling spirit with me across the mountains. After an awkward hug, I sped off feeling profound guilt for leaving my pal behind.
I caught two riders and happily yelled, "Let's go get 'em, guys." Meaning I would try to pull them up to the main group, up the road. The guy in the back rudely replied "F- you" in no uncertain terms. He sounded disgusted that I would even suggest such a thing. The other rider, Amy Rafferty, knew this person and started talking to him. He was a strong rider and had completed the infamous "Terrible Two" double century the previous week. He led much of the charge out of Davis a few hours ago, but was now feeling ill. We tried to help him through his illness and did not leave him with darkness coming on. He continued to get progressively worse as we worked our way towards the Coast Range and the first set of climbs. Unlike my foul-mouthed riding companion, I was starting to feel stronger. The first 150 miles of most long rides are the hardest for me, since it seems to take that long to get all the juices flowing in the right direction. The cool night air energized me, and I pounded up Grapevine pass. This was the first real climbs of the course. Amy and I waited on top of the pass for over 20 minutes in the dark for our ill cyclist to crest the summit.
Arriving at the second contrôle after midnight we were greeted by PBP anciens Tom Kuhn and Donn King with pizza and soft drinks. One of the strongest and most accomplished long-riders was still there, weak and possibly coming down with the flu. It was awful to hear the next day that he was unable to continue. Word traveled fast via cell-phone from contrôle to contrôle. He had also completed the Terrible Two the previous weekend. The "T-2" was still extracting a huge toll on strong riders a week after it was over-that ride sure has an appropriate name.
While still a long way from the next unmanned contrôle, our ill friend began making sounds like a frat party's aftermath. He continually vomited while riding, but gamely pedaled into the night. Reaching the contrôle about 4am, he was out of fuel and wisely threw in the towel. We had not seen the first of three sunrises, and three strong, accomplished nightriders had already DNF'd. I mentally prepared myself for the long haul, and repeatedly vowed that, quitting was not an option. I would ride until my bike broke, my legs stopped turning, or more of my stomach contents were on the outside than on the inside. I repeated the Randonneur credo; "One must permanently believe that the worst possible thing is to quit."
Sunrise came early and the eastern sky turned a spectacular blue around 4:30am. Enjoying the sunrise through the valley, Amy and I drank coffee and ate turkey sandwiches in the tiny hamlet of Durham at a French bakery. It felt a little bit like PBP. For the sake of tradition, I stuffed a fresh baguette in my pack, and rode off as if we were back in France. Many uphill miles later, we met the other five riders on their way home, looking relaxed and refreshed. It was great fun to see their smiling faces and hear their encouraging words. Sadly however, we learned a fourth accomplished rider DNF'd due to mechanical problems. Four down, seven to go.
Amy and I had ridden continually for 29 hours, arriving at the turnaround at 10pm. Seven of the twelve climbs, and 312 miles were behind us. Checkpoint volunteer Todd Teachout had enough food to feed 30 people. We were the last two on the course. I told Tom we needed hot salty meat, and fast. He joined us for delicious burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. We finally caught 3 hours of much-needed sleep, and left at 2am for the steep climb out of Susanville back over Fredonyer Pass. My on-board thermometer displayed 41 degrees. While fixing a flat on the hill at 3am, I was wondering how stupid I was to forget leg warmers. Arriving in Westwood, I was disheartened to discover there was not one single store open for hot coffee or food. We searched in vain for newspapers to stuff in our jerseys for warmth. Amy found an empty 12-pack box, which she used for jersey insulation. I shivered uncontrollably for hours until we reached Lake Almanor just before sunrise. The mass of water warmed the surrounding air to almost 50 degrees.
Mike Tigges and Susan Jacobson were working the contrôle, serving Mike-made incredibly delicious, hearty warm soup. I quickly emptied the drop bag for leg warmers but they were nowhere to be found. Just when I thought I could not possibly get any stupider, I realized I had stuffed my leg warmers in the center area of my Camelbak. I had carried them with me the entire trip! Warmth had been a piece of fabric away the entire freezing morning. What a knucklehead!
Susan rode with us down the spectacularly beautiful Feather River Canyon, providing encouragement and fun cycling stories. The few vehicles we encountered were polite and gave us a wide berth. I looked forward to seeing Wayne and Mary Woodside, who were working the Tobin control. Mary cheered and slapped my hand as I rode by. Wayne filled bottles and Camelbaks with cold water, as the temperature approached the high 80's. The energy, joy and camaraderie of the contrôle volunteers enabled Amy and I to continue on with high spirits.
Little did I know that just a few hours later, the ride would get ugly. Once out of the mountains, just south of Chico, the temperature reached 104 degrees. The searing heat was relentless. Riding to Willows was extremely uncomfortable, without an inch of shade for hours. At a public park, we hosed ourselves down and lay on the grass to reduce our core temperatures. At 4:05pm I decided I no longer wished to continue this pain. Water bottles were as hot as coffee; I was overheating and about to blow a gasket. Then the concept of being "The Fifth American" came to mind and I quickly abandoned the thought and pedaled harder. Stopping under the first tree to appear in hours was no relief from the heat due to lack of air movement. It was more comfortable to be riding in the sun with the evaporative breeze than to sit still.
We doggedly pressed on through the scorching afternoon. I wanted a grape Popsicle! My thoughts turned to skiing Squaw Valley...in a blizzard. I was comforted knowing Denny made the right decision two days ago. I envisioned Carrie relaxing and sipping mint juleps under a pine tree in Oregon. In 1962 President John Kennedy, explained why he committed to putting a man on the moon said, "We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard." I liked that. If this ride were easy, everyone would do it. Meanwhile, I was sweating buckets, and put extra salt in my Gatorade. This ride was getting harder, and I had to dig deep to keep smiling.
I reduced the mission to simply getting to Willows. It was either that or shrivel up and die alongside the roadside. I fixated on the thermometer, waiting for it to drop a degree or two. A motorist passing stopped to ask directions. I blankly stared at him and kept moving. It was one of the lowest points, and I paid the price. A few minutes later my rear tire blew. I will never ignore another lost motorist again. I walked to the shade a building and was revitalized just knowing there was coolness somewhere in town. Finishing the tire task, Amy arrived with two one-gallon jugs of cold water. It was the best thing in the world I could have imagined. We drank one and poured the other on ourselves. At a hamburger joint I salted fries, inhaled three hamburgers, a large coke, and apple pie. I put extra salt packets in the seat pack. Buying more bottles of water, we had the unique experience of actually spending more money on water than on food. With another three hours of riding into the sun, we choose to burn another twenty minutes to get a fresh supply of Sunblock-50 at a Wal-Mart rejoicing when the temperature finally dropped to 99 degrees. I thought of breaking out the leg warmers for laughs. I think I still had them on board. Sleep deprivation does odd things to one's mind.
The last 25 miles took forever. We abandoned plans of getting all the way to Williams before the next nap. Seeing Jay Bauer grinning, standing in the light of the town hall, was wonderful. He tried to force feed us, but a quick rinsing, some Ensure and V-8 from the drop bag was all that was needed. Oh, and then sleep. The original plan of finishing the ride at 8am Monday evaporated in Sunday's heat. Noon Monday would be just fine. Jay laid out two sleeping pads on the stage, and we went down for two and a half hours. I was too tired to walk 30 feet to get my Camelbak for a pillow, so I used my jersey.
At 2:20am, Jay gave the gentle wake up call. Cold pizza and V-8 for breakfast was delicious. I was riding much stronger in the cold night air, but my saddle and butt could not make friends. I wondered if it was physically possible to ride the last 120 miles standing, since I was going to try. Only the pain of the chamois moving when I stood to climb exceeded the pain of sitting. I think I overdid the salt thing and was now sanding myself down. A new trick I learned was to use a whole handful of chamois butter, at least enough to make a pillow to give a few minutes of relief.
Seeing Tim Johnson in Williams in the cool dawn was revitalizing. We rode out refreshed, only to have Amy's seat-rail break a mile out of town. She thought she could ride the last 73 miles standing, but we were able to move the saddle forward enough for the clamp to get enough purchase to hold the broken rail.
We had 55 miles to go. Immediately after ordering our third breakfast, we fell asleep in the coffee shop. The jovial waitress jolted us back to reality with a loud offer of "More coffee?" I think she enjoyed scaring the hell out of us. The awful heat of the weekend had dissipated, and the road flattened back to Davis making for easy miles, especially after I ate a Hostess cherry pie and drank a gallon of cold water. Hostess pies are magic food. They pack an immense wallop of 470 calories of gooey delight, all for 89 cents. Who needs expensive energy gels? Riding casually through the pastoral farms of Yolo County we could see another rider coming at us extremely fast. Speeding westward he yelled out, "Is this the way to Susanville?" That line cracked me up for days. It was Daryn Dodge, who took the day off work to ride out to meet the last two stragglers. The last 20 miles went quickly with Daryn listening to our incoherent stories. Dan Shadoan drove out and offered ice-cold Cokes from his car. I declined since I didn't want to stop and risk the pain of adjusting to a new sitting position afterward.
It felt great getting into Davis at 1:32pm. We had ridden 624 miles, with 12 climbs, totaling over 21,000 feet in 69-hours 32-minutes. Amy and I made it in five and a half hours before the cut-off time. The five riders ahead of us finished in two groups before midnight. Being "The Fifth American" to earn the Randonneur 5000 medal no longer had much meaning to me, nor did I need the cheering throngs of French spectators of St. Quentin en Yvelines. I was incredibly proud just to be associated with the other DBC long-riders, and the generous volunteers that got us through this.
They were all experienced randonneurs and randonneuses, and knew exactly what to say and do.
Of all the great pursuits there are to do in this life, I think I get the most enjoyment out of doing long bicycle rides. I can't wait for the Brevet series to begin next year. I'm going to eat less salt, and carry a jumbo tub of chamois cream.
How much fun can one person have?