The Year of the Century:
Ride 4 Ride: 200K Brevet
Place: Athens, Georgia
Date: January 19, 2013
If you’ve been following the story so far, you know that the big obstacle to my campaign has been the dearth of people in any place other than California doing long rides over the winter. Or at least that had been my perception. Finally out of desperation, I took the advice of my friend Damon Taaffe and looked into a group that I had always in the back of my mind regarded as the lunatic fringe of cycling: randonneurs. The more I read about randonneuring, however, the more I began to suspect that I might have been on the fringe of that fringe for a while now.
Going Long. No, Going REALLY Long
You can read up a bit on the history of randonneuring at the Randonneurs USA site, but in a nutshell it is one of the oldest structured mass participation cycling events in the world. Randonneuring got its start (the name may have clued you in) in France and while there are now numerous national Randonneuring organizations, the entire structure of the activity is still centralized in France (the parent body in France still certifies routes, issues completion medals, all ride results are sent to France, etc.). That may sound overly formal, but the overriding emphasis of randonneuring is on casual participation and, oddly enough, has an ethic that if anything is even more democratic than that of triathlon. Randonneuring emphasizes participation, self-sufficiency, and enjoyment, and privileges pushing through obstacles to get it done. Randonneur rides are timed events, but when the results are published and sent to the parent organization in France they are always listed alphabetically, not in order of finish.
All that said, randonneuring is an activity for a minority of cyclists because the minimum standardized distance to qualify for a “brevet” is 200K. Other standard distances are 300K, 400K, 600K. . .and then you get into the crazy territory of 1200K events, including the ultimate goal for many randonneurs, the Paris-Brest-Paris ride (1200K to be completed, as all such events are, in 90 hours or less). This is not the world of the casual cyclist. It isn’t even the world of most self-styled “hardcore” cyclists. As Damon joked with me on our Christmas Eve run, “Triathletes and Randonneurs: you can safely say there isn’t a single piece of equipment those groups will have in common.” To take just the most obvious point, the bikes are often very different. Triathletes prize speed and efficiency, randonneurs prize bikes that are tough and can be repaired easily. That said, the more I learn about randonneuring the more I felt as if traithletes could learn a lot from the commitment of randonneur riders to practicality.
Apart from the individual events randonneuring also offers a variety of certificates that members can pursue. Riding a complete series (200, 300, 400, and 600) is necessary to qualify for 1200K events; many randonneurs also pursue the R-12 which involves riding a brevet every month for a year. This means that in many states (and not just the ones where winter never really shows up) randonneurs ride all year round. Suddenly I had options. So I looked at rides scheduled in the nearest states I hadn’t already visited and picked a 200K brevet in Athens, Georgia. OK, so not exactly close, but right at the limit of drivability, so definitely doable.
Drama, drama, drama!
Well, maybe not. Last week, after riding a brisk 90 miles with team-mates, I took my bike in to my LBS to get some play removed from the back wheel and to have a faint clicking sound in the bottom bracket checked out. The wrench took one look and told me that I had a cracked bottom bracket.
I said some things. Some of which may or may not have involved the word “motherfucker.”
I said some more words when I was told that this has emerged as a generic problem with the Cervelo RS frame, a problem with the epoxy used to bond the bracket to the shell. The frame is warrantied, of course, so they will replace it, but the problem is more than likely to recur on the new frame at some stage. There is always more to learn about bikes, so this episode was useful; I know what cracks on steel and aluminum frames look like, but haven’t ever seen a minor crack in a carbon frame. This “crack” in fact, because it is a minor one at an early stage, looks like a mere shadow outlining of part of the bracket, like nothing more than a bit of schmutz on a part of the bike that tends to get schmutzy at the best of times.
The wrench reassured me that they had seen much worse RS cracking (at least that was intended to be reassuring) and told me that he would have a look at the wheel and the bracket and the bike should be fine to ride for the brevet. No guarantees, of course.
This presented me with something of a dilemma. Brevet rides are entirely self-supported. There are no aid stations, no SAG support. I would be without any team mates. While this wouldn’t be my first 200K ride, it would be my first attempt to complete it according to the rules of randonneuring. This did not seem like an auspicious time to test out well a cracked bottom bracket might hold up. For various reasons (mainly because of the necessity of carrying a lot of gear with you) the tri bike wasn’t a good option. That left my Cannondale mountain bike, converted to take road wheels. I’ve ridden that bike on centuries, and several bike tours, so it is no stranger to distance. Its big drawback is that it is heavy, almost ten pounds heavier than Ginger. The other problem is that I haven’t ridden it much in the last year.
Therefore, I spent the last week overhauling the bike and riding it as much as possible. I cleaned it, greased it, re-pressurized the front shock, attached the bike rack. . .and then cleaned it again after commuting through several days of pretty crappy weather. I checked and re-checked my packing list, tried to strike a balance between taking what I needed and what I might need without going to extremes. I was ready.
Geeawgia. . .Geeaw…awgia. . .no peace I find
It is a little over a 9 hour drive to Athens. Ordinarily. Of course, if the powers that be have decided to narrow the 85 down to one lane and convert a major north-south artery into a parking lot, then it takes ten and a half hours. So I checked into the hotel about 7:30, went out and grabbed something to eat, then spent the rest of the evening packing, laying out my kit and doing final checks on the bike.
The ride was leaving first thing the next morning from the same hotel (the reason I’d chosen it; just for simplicity’s sake) so I grabbed a light breakfast and then joined the riders assembling in the hotel parking lot. There were than I’d expected, about 30 or so. I picked up my control card, and got ready to ride.
Overnight a hard frost had come down and everything was covered in a dull grey, gradually brightening to white as the sun inched over the horizon. The temperature was in the high 20s, but was slated to rise rapidly into the 50s. The sky was completely clear, the air was crisp, you couldn’t ask for a better day’s weather for riding. The 7:30 start time arrived and we set off, an odd assemblage of traditional road bikes, tandems, recumbents. I had the feeling of starting something new, entering a different phase of my bike education. Immediately in front of me two guys biked steadily side-by-side, chatting, wearing Paris-Brest-Paris jerseys.
Then I noticed that the group seemed to be riding away from me. I shifted up. They were still moving away. The mountain bike is functionally geared a little lower, but still. . . I shifted up again, looked down, and saw the rear derailleur wasn’t moving. I pulled off to the side of the road and watched the end of the parade pass me by. The ride organizer brought up the rear, and checked in with me. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Plenty of time left.”
Working on your bike in sub-freezing temperatures has a lot to recommend it. No, seriously, it has nothing to recommend it. The first problem I found was that the rear cable seemed to be jammed in the cable housing. I’m guessing that thanks to the dismal weather in the previous weak, some water and grime had got into the housing and crudded everything solid. It had been working fine the day before, when I’d checked, but now? So I detached the rear derailleur cable and with difficulty extracted it. One thing I wasn’t carrying was extra lube, since I’d thoroughly lubed and greased the bike prior to riding. So instead, I opened one of the little packets of extra chamois butter I was carrying and used that to lube the cable until it ran freely. I reacquainted cable and derailleur but no joy. The levers seemed to have jammed solid. At that point I didn’t have too many options. I’d spent about half an hour working on the bike. The only next step was completely disassembling the shifter. However, having had a shifter break before, I was pretty sure I knew what the problem might be, and none of them were good. Either some of the pawls had stripped, or the lever spindle had broken; more than likely either of these scenarios would have shredded part of the cable. The big problem, however, lies in what makes randonneuring different from a mere meander through the country. There are various checkpoints that you arrive at and where you must get your control card signed (usually these are at store locations where you can also restock). These control points open at a certain time and then close after a certain window of time. By the time I got the shifter disassembled, and even assuming it wasn’t wrecked, I would have been unable to make the first control point.
Using my one gear, with the chain skipping all over the place, I slowly retraced my route, blinded by the sun climbing steadily into a perfect day. Compulsively, I tried the shifter, hoping that miraculously it would have fixed itself. Of course that didn’t happen. It was. . .to use the technical term. . .completley fucked up. I scrawled a brief note on my control card and left it on the windscreen of the organizer’s car.
After 2.84 miles, my first experiment with randonneuring was over.
Two close brushes with history
There was nothing for it but to check out of the hotel early and head back home. Most of the clothing I had with me was bike gear, so hardly conducive to strolling around the downtown sights of Athens. I couldn’t also justify to myself the extra expense of the hotel room for no good purpose.
So, ten more hours of driving.
Not that I was completely unprepared for the long journey. For long road trips we tend to grab a book on CD, and the longer journey gives us a chance to catch up on some of the classics that we should have read but never did. Unfortunately, when I went to the library the tide was definitely out, and had left in its wake a lot of flotsam of the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey variety for the seagulls to disembowel. So I ended up with John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers which I’d always heard was a classic anti-war novel.
Not for the first time in my life (one other memorable occasion was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (ala, Most Boring Novel in the English Language), when it came to the classics, I was misinformed.
I’m trusting that Dos Passos wrote other stuff because if this novel represents his legacy he is in deep trouble. Now I should say in advance that I am a huge fan of long, digressive novels of ideas. This was too long and digressive even for me. There were certainly ideas. Which Dos Passos felt compelled to repeat. And then repeat some more. And then once more for emphasis. And then again, in case you had fallen asleep (a high probability, I admit). Moreover, it was misleadingly titled. It started out talking about the experience of three soldiers, and then mysteriously, about halfway through, the author forgot about two of them almost completely. Moreover, he picked the least interesting, most whiny and annoying of the three soldiers to obsess over.
I would have volunteered to go to war just to get away from this book.
So there I was, on an epic road trip, with a sucky novel. And unfortunately, I’m so much of a completionist, that even though I kinda knew how it was going to end, and kinda knew it was going to piss me off I had to finish it.
I’d been on the road for a few hours when I was struck with an idea for rescuing something at least from this first-class fiasco. Coming down, I noticed that we’d passed a turn-off to the Cowpens battlefield. This Revolutionary War battle is probably known to most Americans as the battle that the climax of the Mel Gibson’s The Patriot was loosely (very loosely) based upon. Way before The Patriot, I’d come across it when researching pre-Civil War melodramas and the now largely forgotten but then hugely popular novels on which these plays were based. I read John Pendleton Kennedy’s Horseshoe Robinson: A Tale of the Tory Ascendency which was, like so many of these forgotten novels, surprisingly readable and engrossing. One of the things that made it quite singular was that, writing in the wake of the then relatively recent Revolution, and years before the Civil War, it treated the Revolution in a way that was far outside the traditional narrative of the Revolution that generations of US kids have had rammed into their heads via civics classes. Not a noble struggle against British tyranny, but an out-and-out civil war that pitched colonist against colonist in a raging mix of grand ideas of nationhood and petty local grievances. That had been my first introduction to the Carolina campaigns and the battle of the Cowpens.
There was no indication how far the battlefield was, so I exited the highway with the thought that if it was too far I would come back. But after driving through some beautiful countryside I reached the park entrance. . .and was immediately confronted with a bunch of camouflaged soldiers, and a line of cars spilling into a packed parking lot. It turns out that the anniversary of the battle was on January 17 so this weekend was given over to re-enactments and living history exhibitions. Bonus! I knew nothing about the battle so this was a great chance to learn some of that history.
In an open field a group of re-enactors put on a cavalry demonstration.
The cavalry riders also went through some training drills including trying to grab tiny metal rings on the point of their sabre while at a gallop. Just as when I went to the Antietam re-enactment earlier this year, I was impressed with the skilled control of the riders.
Sadly, the long drive ahead of me weighed heavily. I would have liked to spend a lot more time but I knew that I had many miles to go. And I had a shitty book to finish. And too much time to think.