By Robert Fry
After leaving the vibrant, active randonneuring community of Audax UK to move to the US in 1994, I found the situation when I arrived in Wisconsin to be rather disappointing. From being able to ride an event almost every weekend if I wished, I was now restricted to just a few per year, unless I was prepared to travel vast distances. Truth be told, at the time I was burned out anyway, and I was barely active for my first few years over here.
When 1999 came along, two things happened to turn things around. First, I decided I was going to attempt PBP again. Second and far more importantly, I heard that a new organization, Randonneurs USA, had been set up by some RBAs who were tired of the shortcomings of International Randonneurs. For me this was truly a "Led Zeppelin has reformed" kind of moment, and I was literally trembling at the news. I had witnessed the rapid blossoming of Audax UK after a similar rebirth in 1987, so I knew just what the potential could be with a motivated and well-organized crew in charge.
I first met "Madame President" Jennifer Wise at the Randonneurs Mondiaux booth in Paris at that 1999 PBP, where I raised the subject of expanding the club through domestic brevets, populaires and permanents. For this fledgling organization, only so much was possible all at once, so after I volunteered my services to help set up the permanents, it was a couple more years before the board was able to give the go ahead. With a framework of rules set up, borrowed heavily from Audax UK, the program was finally announced in the fall of 2003.
When 2004 arrived, an initial 9 routes were on the books, thanks to Jenn Barber, the ever enthusiastic Dan Driscoll, Bill Bryant, and our good friend Jim Hlavka from Wisconsin. Little did I know how much activity I would soon be seeing from Dan and his Texas gang. Dan pulled together a group to ride the very first RUSA permanent, gaining the kudos for himself of the very first validation. He went on to submit a string of further routes, and they started to come in from other Lone Star riders too.
Overall, 2004 represented a modest beginning, with 37 routes on the books by year end, and 90 rides completed. I was actually worried for a time that the rides were not catching on, and I made an effort to publicize them in most of the 2004 issues of American Randonneur. During this first year Free-Route permanents were also created, again based on similar UK permanent rides like the famous Land's End to John O'Groats.
Then the growth began in earnest! Through 2005, routes continued to come in steadily from many regions, but it became apparent that two in particular were gaining a dominant level of activity — Texas of course, and also the Pacific Northwest. A total of 282 rides were completed in 2005, a tripling in just one year, and 107 routes were on the books by year end. I thought this was a tremendous achievement, but I also thought that this growth level would quickly taper off.
Not so! If anything, 2005 was when the program reached critical mass. I think the big catalyst was the introduction of the R-12 award. Suddenly, riders all over the country had a target to chase that needed RUSA-sanctioned rides year round. As a result, 210 routes were on the books by the end of 2006, and an amazing 775 rides were completed, pushing us past the significant milestone of the 1000th validation (which went to Dan again!). Now as we approach the end of 2007, I believe the program is starting to mature. The growth rate has slowed a little, but even so, over 300 routes are now on the books, and it took a mere 10 months to get to our 2000th validation.
At this point, the permanents program seems to have achieved just about everything I had hoped when I started. It has given members the opportunity to participate in brevet style rides beyond the constraints of the events put on by each local RBA, and to credit these towards mileage and other RUSA awards. It has also given rank and file RUSA members an opportunity to actively participate in the club's mission, in a way that is perhaps not always very easy under the RBA structure. Because of the regional nature of this enormous country, permanents may actually have turned out to be a more important supplement to brevets here than they are in the UK.
Were any targets missed? Perhaps one. Permanents have no distance limit, and a few enterprising individuals have submitted some very long routes, like Spencer Klaassens' Free-Route 2979km Pony Express – but nobody has actually ridden one of them yet. Spencer himself this year completed the longest permanent yet ridden, but at 611km, this is still in "mere" Super Randonneur territory. Even I rode a 1500km permanent in Britain once, and some of my compatriots have ridden considerably longer ones than that. Surely out there somewhere is a long distance superman (or woman) with lots of time and money, and no commitments…..?