Today I would like to put a plug in for one of my favorite bicycle-related organizations. This is a band of sisters and brothers, many of whom I have known for about twenty years. The organization is called “The DC Randonneurs” and can be found out there “in the ether” at http://www.dcrand.org. “Randonneur” is a French term. The DC Randonneurs web site defines it as this:
Randonneuring is going on bicycle rides that are long-distance, unsupported, non-competitive, and time limited.
Long distance: While there are some events that are shorter, the typical randonneuring events are 200Km (125 miles), 300Km (188 miles), 400Km (250 miles), 600Km (375 miles), 1000Km (650 miles), and 1200Km (775 miles).
Unsupported: While there might be some food at the ride start, you should think of what you are doing as going on your own bike ride. You should be prepared to handle any bike repairs that are needed. You should carry clothes to handle any weather conditions that might arise. And you should be prepared to have a friend or spouse come and pick you up if necessary.
Non-competitive: Generally, the only award is your gratification at finishing the event within the rules. You are only "racing" yourself, and likely-as-not you'll finish faster if you cooperate to help fellow randonneurs finish. That's not to say that no one ever tries to finish faster than their friends, and finishing fast may yield some bragging rights. But the randonneuring etiquette is to help your fellow cyclists out when possible so that you can all finish within the rules.
Time Limited: There is a fairly generous time limit of Randonneuring rides. For rides under 375 miles, it is about 9.3 miles per hour. That might sound relatively easy, but that counts not just time on the bike, but any stops to eat, sleep, control, rest, etc. Learning to manage time is a key part of Randonneuring.
This type of bicycle adventure is difficult but rewarding, as the routes we use in the DC area are almost always hilly - even mountainous. The longer rides (300 km and farther) require lights and reflective gear use for all but the fastest of cyclists. These rides are also known as “brevets” and go in almost all weather – bad weather does not cancel the event. Some use these events as qualification for the “Mother of All Brevets” – Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200 km event in France that must be completed within 90 hours.
As an example, recently (Saturday, March 23) I rode a 200k that began in Urbana, across the hills and valleys to Union Bridge (our first control point), then westward into a cold, biting wind to Thurmont, over South Mountain to State Line, PA (the second control point). The climbing was intense, especially this early in the year when most of us are not firing on all cylinders and are carrying a few pounds of extra winter weight. I was very slow – when I reached State Line at mile 64 I had a moving average of only twelve miles per hour (less if you include stopping time). Had I access to a vehicle at that control, I would have been very tempted to quit and take a ride home. However, I fueled up there (cookies, fig newtons, Gatorade) and pushed on anyway. I made the pleasant discovery that I was now in the benefit of a strong tailwind, and rode the wave to Williamsport (the next control), then Antietam and back over the mountain to Adamstown and the finish in Urbana. I arrived with 129 miles, feeling better than I had at mile 64 and with a 12.6 mph overall average pace. A large reason for this was the tailwind, but I also ate more on the return trip and the temperatures had risen from the low 30s to low 50s. Awaiting the riders at the finish were large quantities of pizza – I like that.
The whole point of these rides is to savor the experience of the adventure. I have seen more of this area (and the country) on my bicycle than I have from my car. I’ve met locals, spoken to Amish and Mennonite farmers, gained new friends on the rides, experienced the joys of conquering mountains, fast descents, breathtaking scenery and the rewards to a person’s soul that a bike ride of hundreds of miles can provide. One of my most memorable events was a couple of years ago when I finished a 400 km jaunt (in about 22 hours) with a group of eight riders in a heavy downpour that lasted all the way from Gettysburg to Frederick from midnight on through sunrise. Our entire group rode as a unit, headlights and taillights blazing, each person watching out for the others, pointing out any road hazards and puddles (lakes would be a better term), and generally laughing our way through an experience that, alone, would have been hellacious. Our finish was a group effort, where we were each part of something bigger than ourselves – we were a unit. Before I scare you away, this type of weather is not typical – but it happens sometimes. Usually I wait out the rainstorms, and never voluntarily ride in lightning storms.
If you are a bicyclist who can ride 50 or 100 miles, you can adapt to doing these kinds of rides. The long miles pass by quickly when accompanied by friendly, helpful bicyclist companions, which is always the case. The feeling of accomplishment is difficult to describe – it just feels extraordinarily good.
There is not a lot of difference between 100, 200 miles or more. Once a person reaches the level of fitness required in order to complete a 100-miler, it is mostly mental attitude and on-the-ride nutrition. Often I have under-eaten on a ride (such as this last one), only to “stoke the furnace” at a control point, rest a little bit, and then find myself firing on all cylinders once more and feeling great.
Sometimes the DC Randonneurs will offer a shorter version of the longer ride (say, 65 miles) in order to introduce new riders to the sport of randonneuring. This is a perfect way to enjoy the experience, but in the context of a ride that is less difficult.
I invite you to give randonneuring a try. Maybe it is for you, and maybe it is not. It has provided me with adventures, experiences, and friends that will last my lifetime.