Long-Distance Riders

I’ve meant to note for the last couple of days that this is the week of the Gold Rush Randonee. My explanation of a randonee usually prompts a reaction combining puzzlement (why would someone do such a thing?) with horror (you mean people really do that without being forced?). Here’s your basic randonee: 750 miles in 90 hours, with a series of checkpoints on the way to make sure you’re moving along smartly and not taking shortcuts.

So far, you’re just quizzical: “Yes? Hmmm. That’s a long way.”

You are correct. In ballpark numbers, 750 miles is a distance akin to San Francisco to Seattle. If you’re very motivated, you can probably do that drive in 13 hours up Interstate 5. On a bike, you want to build up to the adventure. Nice 50-mile increments would be pleasant. Take a couple of weeks to enjoy the scenery. Or maybe you’re a cycling animal and you do a 100 miles per diem, a century a day for eight days.

Here’s where curiosity encounters fear. “Ninety hours? How many days is that?”

Three and three-quarters. So to do your 750 miles in that time means pedaling a cool double-century a day. Yes, people actually do it. I can bear witness. But I won’t detour into some of the odder realities of the randonee–the night-time starts, the all-night rides, the naps in the ditches, the slow descent into an often less than coherent or rational frame of mind.

Still, you can’t help but ask: “How do you sit on a bike seat after all those miles?”

I just wanted to note the Gold Rush riders are out there, toiling from Davis, at the southwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley, across mountains and high desert to Davis Creek, just below the Oregon border on U.S. 395. They left Monday at 6 p.m., and the first rider of the 117 who started will be back in Davis in two hours or so — only 54 or 55 hours on the road. I’d like to know how much that guy slept. I know several folks on the ride, and it’s been fun to follow their progress in the Davis Bike Club’s updates. My friend Bruce, who will turn 63 this August, seems to be several hours ahead of his pace four years ago. Amazing, really.

Anyway, check out the proceedings:

Gold Rush Randonee ride updates

Gold Rush Randonee rider times

Pre-Ride Ride


Four years ago, the Davis Bike Club’s huge contingent at Paris-Brest-Paris went out for a Saturday morning ride on the first 40 kilometers of the course. The Northern California contingent is a little splintered this year, with people having a chance to qualify in four different brevet series in the greater San Francisco Bay Area (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes Davis). A couple of the DBC veterans, Craig Robertson and Jennie Phillips, led a similar ride today. Beautiful, cool, breezy weather prevailed. It was nice to get on the road, even just for the morning. I’ve posted more photos here.

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View from the Back of the Pack

It’s late, and I’m being lazy. Specifically, I’m “repurposing” (now there is a great word) a little piece I wrote for a local bike club newsletter, the Grizzly Peak Cyclists. It may be too cute by half; if so, I plead guilty and promise to get back to my usual hard-bitten prose right after I copy and paste this little gem:

An Early-Season Brevet

It’s brevet season. “Brevet” is a French word meaning “ride till you hurt.” Brevet-season participants start the year with a 200-kilometer ride (125 miles or so), then graduate to distances of 300, 400, and 600 kilometers (roughly 187.5, 250 and 375 miles, respectively), all ridden in a time limit that ranges from 13.5 hours for the 200 to 40 hours for the 600 . The grand prize for completing the four brevets is qualifying to ride an even longer one: a 1,200-kilometer event, which comes with a slightly more generous time limit of 90 hours. Since all that sounds like a worthy undertaking to some of your fellow Grizzlies, several of whom have declared their intent to ride the 1,200-kilometer Gold Rush Randonee this July, you can spot them headed out of town before dawn on certain Saturday mornings. One of the favorite destinations for these “brevet-heads,” as they style themselves, is Davis.

The flatland town has a thing about riding until it hurts; gas stations there have been replaced by roadside dispensaries for Chamois Butt’r, bag balm, and other cycling salves and unguents. The local bicycle cult, organized under the name “Davis Bike Club,” has fashioned the town the Brevet Capital of Everywhere That’s Not France. To establish and maintain that claim, the club has for years sponsored a series of spring brevets (they’re not the only ones, though: locally, series are also offered through similarly inclined groups in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa). Among non-French clubs, the DBC has in recent years boasted the largest number of affiliated riders in the Mother of All Brevets, the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris.

This year’s DBC brevet season opened March 5 with a 200-kilometer jaunt (with 5,500 feet or so of climbing) from Davis, naturally, to the Grange Hall in beautiful Pope Valley and back. Weather’s always a factor on long rides, and the day was beautiful — so clear that the high peaks of the Sierra were outlined against the dawn sky, with a light to moderate westerly breeze that would swing to the north and east just in time to make sure the slower riders could have a headwind both out and back.

The Davis 200, following the same route year after year, has a certain rhythm: A fast tempo for the first 25 or 30 miles with lots of pacelines as you roar across the western edge of the Central Valley and begin the gentle and lovely climb up Highway 128 along Putah Creek as it flows down from Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa; then 35 miles or so of small climbs and rollers through ranches and vineyards all the way to Pope Valley. The return is, well, similar, but in reverse, with a final swooping descent from the dam to dump you back into the lowlands. On the final stretch back to Davis, the packs of riders, thinned out by the hills, are much smaller.

The handful of Grizzlies spotted on their machines this day included Peter Morrissey, who was seen chasing the lead pack about 10 miles after the turnaround; Bruce Berg, who started out fast and stayed that way (finishing the 125.6 miles in 7 hours and 27 minutes, including stops); Rob Hawks, who finished in about 7:55; Jim Bradbury, smiling as usual; and your correspondent, who clocked in at 8:39 and was glad to be done. This is by no means an authoritative list; my apologies to any Grizzlies I’ve omitted.

(If this kind of event is for you, or you want to get someone out of the house for days at a time, brevet schedules and details are available at the Randonneurs USA site: http://rusa.org.)

The Madness

I’m a distant member of the Davis Bike Club. Although I live in Berkeley, I’ve joined this club 60 miles away because it sponsors all sorts of long-distance cycling events, like the qualifying brevets (that’s French for “long-ass bike ride) for Paris-Brest-Paris and other butt-numbing feats of cycling endurance. One of the things the club is known for is its annual “March Madness” frenzy. Members are encouraged to ride lots of miles. For every member mile recorded, the club donates a penny to buy bike helmets for kids.

It sounds like a mild-mannered, fun, civic-minded undertaking. But beneath bizarre, extreme behavior lurks just beneath that veneer of innocence and public-spiritedness. Every year, a handful of club members — people with lives it’s hard for me to imagine — put in 100 miles or more on the bike every day for the whole month. Here we are on the 12th of March, and there’s a real horse race among four riders: One, listed as “Howard Hughes,” has ridden 1,442.38 miles this month — an average of 120.2 a day. Howard’s followed by three guys bunched between 1,237 and 1,247 miles. (Fpr comparison’s sake, and for an idea of what saner people are doing — and this is one of the few times I’d ever advertise myself as “sane” — I’ve ridden 312 miles since the 1st; that happens to be about two miles below the overall average for the 142 people signed up.)

From what I remember, the record March Madness total is something like 4,130 miles. That’s more than 130 miles a day. There was controversy on the club email list that March over allegations that some riders were getting rides way up north in the Sacramento Valley so that they could take advantage of strong tailwinds to enhance their mileage totals. Wind or no wind, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to eat enough to ride all those miles, and I don’t want to contemplate what some of the physical wear and tear must be like.

[Addendum: Checking the mileage totals for last year, the top total was a shocking 4,486 miles, 144.7 miles a day. Still can’t imagine. Also, 11 riders topped 2,000 miles and 50 others topped 1,000.]

On the Bike


Yesterday (Saturday) was a no-post day because of excessive bicycle-related preoccupations. I did the Davis Bike Club’s 200-kilometer brevet. For those uninitiated or uninterested in the argot of randonneuring — and I imagine that’s about 100 percent of non-randonneurs — what that means is I got on my bike at 7 a.m. in Davis to ride 62.5 miles or so out to a little Grange Hall out in the middle of what passes for nowhere in California, then turned around and rode 62.5 miles or so back. Beyond all the great scenery and Spandex you get to see, one of the reasons people go out and do this is to qualify for one of the 1,200-kilometer (750-mile), 90-hour rides (randonnee) held around the world as a test of cycling toughness, fatigue tolerance, and overall ability to outlast your sore ass. (Plus, you get nifty medals, like the one here, for a reasonable price after you climb off your bike at the end).

The ride went tolerably well for someone who had not ridden 100 miles in a day since last August. I went out a little too hard the first few miles — mostly because I just get swept along in the excitement of riding in a big group. I felt slightly queasy and found it hard to eat for a good part of the ride. There was something of a headwind coming back into Davis — not a killer, just a good consistent breeze from the north and east that made us work a little. And I lost my brevet card, the little passport you carry to check in at various spots along the way to prove you did the ride; I’m hoping I won’t be disqualified for that. But otherwise, the day was perfect — we went from gray, rainy, cool winter to spectacularly clear and warm spring overnight.

After the ride was over, I got a burger, drove back to Berkeley to pick up Kate, then went up to Napa to stay with our friend Pete. We were there to stay with his son Niko while he got up well before dawn to run the Napa Valley Marathon. He did well — running it in about 3 hours and 41 minutes and finishing in the 80th percentile of all runners. Then — the most impressive feat of all — he came back home and grilled up a midday repast for his visitors.