Cycling Medals and Loose Screws


I’m more than willing to concede that I might occasionally have a screw come loose. I always have an ear out for the telltale rattle.

But what does that have to do with the picture above (click for larger images)? We’ll get to that.

What is depicted there, in all its dimly lit, slightly blurred, slow-shutter-speed glory, is a Randonneur 5000 medal. My name is engraved on it, meaning I earned it.

What is it? It’s the reward one gets for completing a series of long bike rides in randonneur mode.

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That’s a French-bred style of riding that emphasizes long distance events ridden against the clock; it’s a style of riding that at the minimum requires a lot of physical and logistical preparation, a love of the road, enthusiasm for riding at all hours of the day and night, a good bike, and a predisposition for a certain amount of discomfort.

One earns the Randonneur 5000 by completing a series of rides in a four-year period: first and foremost, Paris-Brest-Paris, the oldest and grandest of all randonneur events, which now runs once every four years on a 750-mile course from the western suburbs of the French capital out to the Atlantic coast of Britanny and back (time limit: 90 hours). Beyond PBP, one must complete a full series of qualifying brevets; a series consists of four rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers (that’s 125, 188, 250 and 375 miles). Beyond those, one must complete a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) brevet. Finally, one needs to do what the French call a fleche (that’s arrow in English), a 24-hour ride that needs to cover a minimum of 225 miles. Oh, and the total distance of all the events you do must total 5,000 kilometers or more

Somehow, I managed to do all that. Naturally, Paris-Brest-Paris (I did mine in 2003) was the hardest. Not only do you have to train for the ride, you need to get yourself over to France and ride. It’s a beautiful place to visit, the route and the people are fabulous, and it’s utterly exhausting. You’d think that once you had finished PBP, which requires the four-ride qualifying series just to answer, you’d have the Randonneur 5000 award sewn up. All you need to do is ride a fleche, which is not a difficult ride if you’re training for all this long stuff anyway, and a 1,000, which is more demanding but no longer intimidating once you’ve done the longer distance of PBP. Having done all that would get you to 4,000 kilometers of your 5,000-kilometer target. You can do the rest in any combination of events sanctioned by the French club that tracks all this; for instance, five 200-kilometer brevets would work, as would two 200s and two 300s.

After August 2003, that was my situation; I had done extra brevets that year and essentially needed just two rides to get my 5,000: the fleche and the 1,000. Doing the rides turned into something of a drama, though. After a year of furious riding in ’03, I didn’t do a single brevet in 2004; I begged off doing a fleche the day before the group I was to ride with left for the event. In 2005, I wanted to do a 1,200-kilometer event called the Gold Rush Randonnee. But I never really trained hard enough and didn’t finish the 600 I needed to qualify. In 2006, I finally rode a fleche and qualified early for the Cascade 1,200, a randonee in Washington State; I could ride the 1,200 as a combined 1,000 and 200, which would complete my resume for the R5000 medal. But two days before I was going to do my final tuneup event, a 600 in Northern California, I crashed my bike while riding in the Oakland Hills; my recuperation was slow enough I withdrew from the Cascade. When I got back to riding seriously, I had one opportunity left to do a 1,000 before my R5000 eligibility window would close: the Last Chance Randonee, across the high plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Like the Cascade.

It’s a small event. In contrast to the Gold Rush or Cascade, which admitted about 250 riders each, or PBP, which had 4,100 or so starters in 2003, the Last Chance had just 35 riders. The main reason, I think, is the challenge of supporting a big group of people over a such a large sweep of lonely country. The ride starts in Louisville, Colorado, just outside Boulder, and once you get clear of the Denver area, the towns are all very small and very far between. In any case, the ride went well, despite a howling crosswind that built up during the second day of riding and never really quit. By the third morning, after about 500 miles of riding, I felt pretty done in. My plan was to ride the 1,000, which would qualify me for the R5000, then do the attached 200. But I was so tired of the wind and my sore parts that I was thinking of doing the 1,000 and throwing in the towel on the 200. But during the day, I had a scare with a trucker that got my adrenaline going again; then the wind dropped a little and at one point even swung around and became a tailwind. All of a sudden I felt like I was moving again.

I rode most of the way with a rider I know from the Bay Area, and we stopped for a breather about 40 miles from the 1,000-kilometer finish. She took a nap on a picnic table behind an old service station, and I sat in the shade eating an ice cream bar. I felt great until I got back on my bike and rode out of town. That’s when I started to feel a sharp, insistent pain just above my left heel; though I had never had a problem with my Achilles tendons before, I couldn’t think of anything else that would hurt like that. And sure enough, it got worse very rapidly until I was just limping along. We stopped at a roadside store and I spent some time icing it down and took some ibuprofen. No improvement. At that point, I still had to go 10 miles to make the 1,000 finish. I knew I could do that much, even if I had to walk. That 10 miles turned out to be the beginning of a steeply rolling stretch, and I did have to walk on some of the uphills. I made it to the finish, a crossroads called Last Chance, all by myself. I called the ride organizer’s number on a very iffy cell connection to see if I could get a ride back to the nearest town. Then I got back on my bike and limped onward. I had plenty to divert me: Last Chance is close to the point where one can first see the Rockies on the horizon; that sight was augmented by a broad line of thunderstorms moving across the landscape ahead of me. Eventually I did get my ride to town. I was disappointed not to finish the final 200 kilometers, but I’d accomplished, finally, what I set out to do. When I got back home, I pulled together my Randonneur 5000 application and mailed it.

And then this year happened. I came back from the Achilles problem. I had some great rides and some disappointing ones: I pulled out about halfway through the aptly named Terrible Two double century; and then, after going back and forth on whether I would ride PBP again, I decided to go over and try it again. But my Achilles problem reappeared fairly early in the ride and that, combined with the rainy weather, prompted me to quit just under a third of the way through. One can be determined to find a lesson or something uplifting in every experience, and I can see plenty of good in my trip to France. Nonetheless, the way the ride ended for me was discouraging, even depressing after all the time and money and emotional investment that went into it. I returned to Berkeley from France. The last thing I was thinking of, a full year after my Last Chance ride and turning in my application, was this medal.

Of course, that’s when the thing arrived. What I thought when I saw it was, “Boy, this really sums up my ambivalence about the whole randonneuring experience.” On one hand, there’s a nod to your accomplishment. On the other hand, one needs to abandon common sense and even some of the more fun aspects of riding. Look at just one requirement, the time limits: on the longer brevets, they force you to ride in conditions to which you’d never subject yourself otherwise: riding in the dark, riding in the rain, riding well past the point of exhaustion and good judgment. Stopping to take in the scene or just because you feel like it? OK — but make it snappy. In France this time, I was riding with a Berkeley friend through a forest on the border of Britanny. “I’d really like to see this place sometime,” I said. It was my third time across that particular stretch of road; all three trips were made well after midnight. If I ever ride there again, I’m going to make sure it’s during daylight.

Yes, I can enjoy having earned the medal. Lots of great riding went into it, I had lots of good experiences along the way, and I learned a lot. But this is where I might sound like I have a screw loose: The medal itself is an anti-climax, a relic of something I’ve already put behind me, and certainly no substitute for one good day on the bike — and they’re all good, once you’re out there on the road.

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