CTN TransAm 09
40 days on the road
3750 miles by bicycle
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Chris Nadovich's 2009 Transamerica Bike Tour.

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    Sat, 11 Apr 2009

    Randonneuring

    [Brevet] is a French word for which we have no direct translation for its cycling usage. In general, it means a "patent", "certificate", or "diploma". [...] This is typically a challenging 200, 300, 400, 600, 1000 or 1200 kilometer ride, each with a specific time limit. The [rider] carries a brevet card, which is signed and stamped at each checkpoint along the way to prove they have covered the distance successfully.

    Last Saturday I rode the 200 kilometer brevet out of Quakertown. A month before I rode one out of Ephrata. Previous to these two, I'd never ridden this type of event before. I had no idea what to expect. Now, after the experience, I think I really like them. They're quite different than anything else I've ever done on the bike. They combine a low-stress camaraderie with a cycling excellence that approaches what previously I've only seen in racing.

    A brevet is not a race, yet the quality of riders that show up seems almost equal to what you find at races, certainly better than what you find at a club ride, which, in turn, is immensely better than what you typically find at a bike-a-thon or MS150. When I say "quality of riders", I don't mean fitness or speed on the bike, nor do I mean refinement in the subtle details of pedalling. Rather, I mean a general basic skill combined with an obvious comfort with the business of riding a bicycle. A total lack of fred-ness, to put it in the cycling vernacular. Obviously, I have no idea if the quality is universal with all randonneurs, but of the 40-50 randonneur riders I've shared the road with, none were squirrelly or made me feel nervous to ride near.

    One of the things I always liked about racing, especially in the upper categories, was riding comfortably with groups of riders. Bike racers as a rule are very comfortable and relaxed on their bikes, especially in a bunch. I'd rather be rocketing at 30 MPH on the steep banking at T-town, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of Cat 3's, than to zig-zag at 10 MPH on a smooth, straight Iowa road through the tornado of 10,000 Freds (with a capital F!) on the first day of RAGBRAI.

    There's very little "zooming" that seems to happen in a brevet, but I've not been uncomfortable on some fast descents with other rando riders, and I've had numerous casual conversations, side by side at 15-20 mph with no concern.

    Another welcome discovery is that these quality rando riders seem to be nice people, too. This is a plus, considering how long these events are. When you are riding hundreds of miles, having some pleasant conversations along the way adds to the experience -- at least it does for me. Again, I'm sure there may be some louts amongst the rando community, but it would be a statistical miracle if my observations thus far aren't significant. I've ridden many centuries and other organized non-race bicycle rides, and although certainly I've encountered nice people on these rides, I've never found the level of camaraderie anywhere near what I found on the two brevets I've thus far ridden.

    Let me put it this way. When I finished the ACP sanctioned PA 200K this past Saturday -- a very difficult course under very difficult weather conditions -- and arrived at the final Controle, I had several people come up to me and congratulate me. This has never happened to me before in my 25 years in organized cycling. Never. Not in a century, not in a club ride, not in a bike-a-thon, and certainly never in a race.

    Maybe if I had actually won a few, I could report receiving some praise after the 100 or so bike races I've finished. That's the thing. In racing, it's all about winning, and it can't be any other way. Many a touring club has regretted their involvement in racing specifically because of this axiom. But in non-race tours, it really shouldn't be so cold blooded. In a non-race century, a non-trivial ride for the strongest in the best of conditions, wouldn't it make sense to give the returning club cyclists some feeling that their significant accomplishment was appreciated by everybody? Yet I've never seen this.

    Typically when I pull in after 100K or 100 miles in a club-run century, the only congratulations I give, or receive, exchanges between me and any bunch of riders that I happened to roll in alongside. The other finishers milling around are oblivious to new arrivals, and the tired volunteers see me as little better than one more reason they can't go home yet. Since I usually ride the longest distance, I tend to come in later than most people. That alienates me further, especially if these short-distance people already ate up all the good food. I remember an American Cancer Society sponsored Century on a scorching day in in July where Yogurt was the only fluid at the rest stops -- all the water and Gatorade having been drunk up by the volunteers and the 25 and 50 milers long before my arrival.

    On the two brevets I've experienced thus far, there seems to be a sense that all the participants are in it together. One rider will buy a gallon of water, fill his bottles, and thoughtfully leave the rest of the gallon for others. Incredible.

    It seems that whether we are riding together, or separately, we all battled through the same challenges and were, by that, unified. Some of the people that congratulated me after finishing last Saturday's brevet turned out to be among the early finishers. Since I'm pretty slow these days, that means they hung around for multiple hours after their ride was done, congratulating people as they came in, and were still there to congratulate my late arrival. Unbelievable.

    By the way, another aspect of these brevets that I like is the freedom to ride at my own pace and yet still stay with other riders when I choose to. That was never true in bike races, of course, but it is surprisingly rare in club rides as well. Club people often push up to their level of anaerobic discomfort and stay there, regardless of what other people are doing. Club people, especially in PA, often like to attack every hill. Seldom is a club group made up of people that are all keeping their effort well within their sustainable capacity.

    Not so on the brevets. Energy conservation and careful pacing seem to be the rule. These randonneur people will actually gear down and keep an easy cadence when climbing a hill. Clearly, the long-distances encourage this sort of careful respect for the hazardous boundaries of aerobic work, but the pleasant result of this necessary ultra-endurance strategy is that people tend to be able to ride together more comfortably.

    In conclusion, although I got into randonneuring this year strictly as a way to prepare for my TransAm, I think I've found something more -- something I may continue to explore in the future.

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    © 2009 C.T. Nadovich