Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Riding Brevets: Part 1, Texas

This year I decided to dip my toes in the brevet pool.

Back now further in time than seems real, in the late 1990's I began a Hill Country Randonneurs brevet series hosted by Russell Hahn and John Fusselman out of Austin Texas. I didn't ride these bacause of embracing any sort of randonneuring culture. It was more an interest in the ultra culture, a culture I'd experienced with Nick Gerlach's excellent Texas Hell Week, which I first attended in 1997 when I was at Stanford, then later on a more limited basis when I lived in Austin from late 1997 to 2000.

In California, we had our double centuries: fully supported 200 mile events where all you had to do was carry two water bottles and enough food for at most 40 miles. Davis Double, for example, had 11 rest stops, more than one every 20 miles. That could easily be ridden skipping every other rest stop with just two bottles and a bar or two in the pocket. They're about the riding, little else. It's an intoxicating feeling.

Brevets are nominally similar: self-sufficiency is valued, and finishing within the hr / 15 km time limit valued far more than speed. Given two riders, one blasting away at 30 kph but suffering a mechanical and sagging in, the other plugging away at just within the time cuts but finishing, there's absolutely no question who had the most successful ride. In a brevet, you don't quit. If your bike breaks, you find a way to fix it. If you get tired, you rest and start again. If the weather turns unrideable, you wait it out. Only if you can't make the deadline, which allows for considerable margin on flattish courses, do you contemplate accepting a non-finish.

I didn't particularly have any attraction to this approach. I liked riding faster rather than slower. Not so fast that I tried to skip too many rest stops in a double. It's nice riding unencumbered. But there comes a point when I was willing to pull the plug.

But there weren't any supported doubles in Texas in those days. Russell and John's brevets were the main game in town. So I did those.

A 200 km was first. That is a short ride by brevet standards. Blast away. But I've never been one to "blast away" for 200 km. It went far slower than I'd expected -- close to 8 hours. But I finished without issue. Honestly I don't recall the details.

The 300 km was next. We started at oh-dark-30 in front of a Walmart. Everything went well, except we started so freakishly early that my body just wasn't ready to do its morning business.

So on to the Walmart lot. I was a bit shocked to see one of the riders, whom I won't name, pee behind a car parked in the lot. It was stupid-early. Maybe it would dissipate by the time the store opened.

It was immediately clear this was different than the doubles I had done in California. I found myself off the front with another rider very quickly. We had our route sheets, no GPS back then, which seemed clear enough.

Not far into the ride we reached an intersection which didn't appear to be marked on the route sheet. After some indecision I recommended we turn left. The other rider followed me. Not the best decision he made that day.

Mile after mile passed. Finally we reached T intersection with a major highway. We'd obviously gone the wrong way, and had been riding for a considerable time that way. Ah, well. I'd wanted 200 miles, and it now appeared I'd get it. So we turned back.

With probably close to 20 miles extra, we were obviously no in last place. But the rest of the ride we managed to pass again all of the other riders. As I noted, there was a philosophy difference here. They were all about ride-all-day endurance. I was about pushing the limits, emptying the tank for the stated distance.

My partner managed to drop me along the way. But approaching the turnaround, I saw him returning. I hit the turnaround not far after, giving me confidence that I could catch him if I rode well. It was game on.

Along the return route I indeed managed to catch him. A happy wave, and I was past. Then it was give everything to get back to that Walmart.

Of course, so many years later, the details are lost to memory. Maybe I have a ride report hidden away somewhere. But what I do remember is how much, how very dearly much, I regretting my failure to, err, "get moving" before the ride start.

Those last kilometers were hell. I was running away from 2nd place, counting every kilometer in my head, suppressing not only the pain in my legs but the desire to seek out the nearest men's room and put my priority of speed behind. But as the kilometers ticked off to the finish, I knew I couldn't stop. I had to make it to Walmart. And then I was there: at the giant parking lot. It was late afternoon, and the store had been open for hours. I sprinted to the entrance, taking my bike inside.

"Excuse me; do you have a rest room?" I gasped to the first person I saw who looked official.

"It's in the back", I was cheerfully told.

In Walmart, that's not so close. I contemplated riding it, but decided that probably wouldn't work out. Instead I sprinted in my Speedplay cleats. There's something Pavlovian about being in close proximity to ones goal at times like this. Had the brevet been 10 km longer, I would have gone 10 km further. But being within striking distance caused biological processes to initiate.

I made it. Barely.

On my way back, I passed a display of duct tape, incredibly cheap by my standards to that time. I picked up a roll, puchasing it on my out the door. It's to this day the only thing I've ever purchased from a Walmart. It lasted me many years, as well. I'm pretty sure the Faustian bargain we've paid for cheap duct tape in the form of Walmart big box development isn't worth it. But now I was among the unpure.

After the ride I chatted with Russell about the route sheet. Why was that intersection where we took a wrong turn not marked? "Everyone knows the way there" he responded.

Next up was the 400k. This was going to be a big bite for me to chew because I'd never before ridden that far. And still as I write this I've never ridden that far.

I don't recall any details until around 320 km in. I'd been slower than I'd hoped and darkness had fallen. Suddenly the skies started to dump while lightning strikes illuminating the strong rain. And by "rain" I mean Texas rain, not he California imitation that sends cyclists fleeing for shelter (actually all it takes is a bit of green on the Doppler radar map to send Californians running for shelter).. Bike lights weren't nearly what they are today and my Vistalite barely illuminated the road. What chance I had of seeing was destroyed by the glaring headlights of oncoming vehicle traffic. I was terrified.

I got off the bike, walked to the nearest house, and knocked. A woman answered, frightened by the sight of me. I asked for a chance to use her phone and, instead, she offered to drive me back to the S/F, a considerable distance. This is the Texas I like to remember, not the Texas of beer can throwing pick-up drivers. I gratefully accepted and she drove me back to Russell's place, where I had stayed.

The next morning Russell and John had returned. I was amazingly impressed that they had finished, despite the storm. They'd waited it out in a restaurant, they said, then ridden the rest of the way. I felt ashamed by this. I had the race mentality: ride hard and finish fast or don't finish at all. The 400 km brevet has a 26.7 hour cut-off. The goal is to finish, using every hour of that time limit if necessary. I was still intimidated by riding at night, but it was the rain and lightning which made conditions so dangerous. Actually I was surprised they used such a busy road for the nighttime portion of the route. But perhaps that couldn't be helped.

But this goes back to the randonneuring culture. You simply do not drop out unless finishing is essentially impossible. I absolutely should not have dropped out that night. I'd hoped to finish during daylight. But when that didn't happen I should have found a way to keep going.

But the rain had just provided an excuse to do what I really wanted to do anyway -- avoid riding in the dark. I've never liked riding in the dark, blinded by the headlights of oncoming cars, at the mercy of the headlights of approaching cars. The statistical evidence was there it could be done: people rode at night all the time. Indeed I rode at night all the time, but as part of a bike commute to and from work, on urban streets generally well lit (or if not, only for short stretches). It felt more exposed out here on the urban fringe: roads designed for serving farms instead serving massive housing developments, monuments to the caccooning culture of the 1990's.

That experience was sufficiently nonreinforcing that it marked the end of my Texas randonneuring experience. In late 2000 I moved back to California, where I focused more on racing, then double centuries, then running, more doubles... the brevet culture just didn't catch me since their rides tend to be so early in the year here and I actually enjoy the additional support of the doubles. But this year I decided to give it a shot.

No comments: