By Mike Dayton
If you subscribe to roadbikerider.com, a weekly electronic newsletter for road cyclists, you've seen randonneuring spotlighted in several recent editions:
- One newsletter featured a letter from RUSA president Mark Thomas.
- Another listed several spring brevets on the East Coast.
- Yet another described 200Ks in the Carolinas and praised High Point, N.C. RBA Richard Lawrence, 79, as "one of the nicest people in cycling and proof that this truly is a lifetime sport."
You can thank longtime RUSA member Ed Pavelka for that good press.
A former editor at VeloNews and Bicycling, Pavelka is now the president and self-described "chief poohbah" of roadbikerider.com.
Pavelka's e-newsletter, mailed free to subscribers every Thursday, has a broad sweep, covering all aspects of road cycling —from "how-to" pointers to bike fit, nutrition and training.
Pavelka, a dedicated long-distance cyclist with an estimated 50 brevets under his belt, including three PBPs, is not shy about using his weekly platform to promote randonneuring.
"I'll never pass up a chance to advocate for the kind of riding that we do," he says.
So in any given week as many as 50,000 riders may acquire a new vocabulary that includes brevets or BMB.
American Randonneur caught up with Pavelka at the March 25 200K in Spartanburg, S.C. for a pre-ride interview.
AmR: What got you started in randonneuring?
Pavelka: I started in 1991. At the time I was executive editor of Bicycling Magazine. In the fall of 1990, we'd been talking about bicycle commuting, but we hadn't paid much attention to that. We thought one way to do that would be to have one editor stop driving to work, forsake the car for an entire month and, come hell or high water, commute. I thought about doing it, but of course knew it wouldn't work for me. But I volunteered to do it. It turned into the story, "Me, the Bicycle Commuter." I started on Nov. 15, 1990, and by Christmas, when the month was over, you couldn't have stopped me with a 12-gauge shotgun. I continued commuting. The shortest way was about 24 miles round trip, but I always took a longer route in or out, so some days it was in the 30s or 40s.
Part 2 of the story was that after doing all those miles, the centennial of PBP was coming up in August 1991. Here it was the world's oldest cycling event, it was the 100th anniversary and I just started thinking that would be a good story.
But 750 miles? The longest I'd ever ridden was 127 miles when I got lost on a century. And I'd had three operations on one knee. I thought, "I'd love to do something like that but I don't think I can do it." I'd heard of PBP, but I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever heard of. I mean, are you kidding me—750 miles in 90 hours? You'd have to be insane to do something like that. It was the typical reaction.
But by midwinter, I was thinking, "wouldn't it be a trip to see whether I could do it and bring back a story for the magazine?" Back then, the rule through International Randonneur [the U.S. organization that preceded RUSA] was that you also had to do the series in the preceding year or, if you were qualifying in just one year, a 1000K with the rest of the series. So there I was facing 620 miles, and I decided to give it a shot to see what would happen, and I pulled it off. But for that series, every event was a new personal PR, a new adventure.
I remember finishing the 300K and I asked Dennis DeLong, out of Rochester, NY, who was a PBP veteran: "How the hell does anyone go up to the next notch, and after that to 600K?" He said, "After 200 miles, everything stays the same. So just get to that point and you're home free."
AmR: In a recent newsletter, you listed 10 of the shorter brevets on your schedule this season. How did you select those?
Pavelka: I'm doing shorter brevets this year because they are within a drive on different weekends, and my wife wants to do some 200Ks on a tandem. But this is all with an eye toward next year.
The brevets get you out of our backyard routine of riding the same roads a lot. It gives you a chance to go out and see some new courses. It's a lot of fun.
AmR: Do you think the broader cycling community knows about randonneuring?
Pavelka: I was a little astounded when I went to get my wife a RUSA membership for the rides we're doing on the tandem. I'm No. 73. She gets her card back and she's 3,400 and something. I was blown away by that. I thought it'd be down in the 1,000-2,000 range. It's still a small number, but definitely something is happening.
AmR: Are you seeing a growing interest in long distance cycling?
Pavelka: Yes. We did a survey of our subscribers about a year ago and we asked people how they would define themselves as a cyclist. One of the choices was "long distance enthusiast." Out of our subscriber base, I think the number was 14 percent. To me that's your PBP person.
AmR: Are you seeing any equipment development stemming from that growth?
Pavelka: I wouldn't say specifically you can say that. Lighting systems are all better, and if you want good bags they're out there. All the big companies are making a bike or two that would probably work for randonneuring without really being called a randonneuring bike. They have longer wheelbases and more clearance and rack bosses. If you're interested in this side of the sport, you can get good stuff mainstream without having to go crazy looking for it in some small outfit in the back of a shop in England, like the old days. Even Brooks saddles are still around.
AmR: You mentioned you've done about 50 brevets. Have you ever abandoned or gotten close to that point on a ride?
Pavelka: No. Brevets get hard at times, but if you do the right things out there mentally—shooting for the next control stop or some kind of intermediate goal is one technique. You know you'll get a chance to get off and stretch and when you get back on you'll feel so much better. You know in another 10 miles you'll be able to take a break and that's good mentally.
AmR: What tips would you offer newcomers to randonneuring?
Pavelka: The best advice I give to people who are new to the sport is to keep eating and drinking. If you put the fuel and put the hydration in and keep the pedals turning you'll make it. Even if you're not having a wonderful time because of difficulties, whether it is rain or wind or whatever else is causing difficulty out there, just keep putting fuel in and go to the next checkpoint and you'll get there. The time limits are so generous that you shouldn't give up; you can make it. If you're physically incapacitated that is something else. But if you're not, you'll make it and then you'll remember the best parts.
AmR: Your Web site often features articles about the proper bike fit. While riding on brevets, do you see any common "set-up" mistakes?
Pavelka: Yes. A lot. You see a lot of people in what is obviously not a refined position. You can look at them and tell they've probably never been through a professional set-up with the bike shop or a coach. These are the people that will have the most physical hardships because they're not in the right relationship with the bike. Some people look right on the bike. Others are too upright, they're too stretched out or they have the handlebars way too low for randonneuring. And you see people with some very odd positions on the pedals which could be corrected by someone with a fitting system. Of course this is an amazing sport because it can accommodate a lot of that. But it is worth it to invest the $50 in a fitting, given how many miles you're going to ride with the bike in that position. It can make a huge difference in your comfort and efficiency and enjoyment and also limit any physical problems, like your neck going out.
AmR: It appears road cycling has really grown in the past few years. Is that your take on it?
Pavelka: Yes. Everything is in a cycle. Mountain bikes were so big that they really suppressed road bikes throughout most of the 1990s. The genesis of RBR was that nobody was paying attention to road cyclists anymore.
The growth is partly a result of the "Lance" factor. The tour started getting all the attention on OLN with the daily coverage. All of a sudden, road cycling was very visible, and not only that—it was cool. Bikes were neat; the guys were cool, they were personalities and people knew their names now.
So a lot of the credit goes to Lance and US Postal and the publicity that the tour got—and the fact that a lot of the people who came into the sport on mountain bikes realized that they didn't have the right tool for the job. Mountain bikes were fun to ride but they were slow and had a lot of other limitations when you wanted to ride the road. So road cycling had to come back, but the amount that it has come back has surprised everybody.