Epic rides don’t just happen. Undertaking a challenge of an unprecedented distance or difficulty level might result in an epic ride. But it might just as easily end in frustration or even misery. Randonneuring, a type of long-distance unsupported endurance cycling with late 19th century origins in Italy and France, is a great way to learn how epic rides are actually made from attending to the small details.
I’ve participated in randonneuring events for the last 12 years, primarily through the San Francisco Randonneurs, but with the exception of a 1000km (624 miles) event in 2019 I had never attempted a brevet longer than 300km (186 miles). So when the Seattle International Randonneurs opened registration for the 2022 Cascade 1400, an 870 mile event that would circumnavigate Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and cross the Cascade range twice over five days of riding, I began contemplating the challenge. But when the registration cap was reached within a week and I found myself deep on the waiting list I figured I had missed the opportunity.
Epic Rides Require Commitment
I completed the 200km and 300km distances right away then looked at the calendar to see how I would fit the 400km and 600km events around training and other commitments. On the 600km brevet I made the mistake of skipping an opportunity for a solid meal 10 hours into the ride in order to stick with a small group of riders that was riding efficiently. By the time the group stopped for a meal several hours later, I was so depleted I had lost my appetite and felt a foreboding malaise. The next leg required a major commitment as it entailed covering 200kms to a turnaround at which point much of the remainder of the ride would be into a stiff headwind.
Unsure whether I’d even get into the Cascade 1400 I started questioning whether to go on. I told the other two riders left in the group that I was contemplating abandoning the ride while I had the opportunity for a relatively short spin back to the start. I’ve been on plenty of all-day rides and multi-day tours to know that there are ups and downs. But it was the experience of one of my group mates, Jeff, that made the difference. “You can turn this around,” he told me. “We’re on pace to finish well before the time limit. I’ll ride with you, as slow as you want to go, and if you eat and drink slowly over the next several hours I think you’ll start feeling better.”
My next two lessons were “Stick to your plan” and “Learn from more experienced riders.” I should have stopped to eat earlier as I had planned. But trusting Jeff given his extensive experience on longer brevets gave me the confidence to carry on when it would have been so easy to quit. Sure enough, my ride turned around and we breezed to the finish with hours to spare.
There was still the 400km brevet to complete, plus the matter of the wait list, before I would know whether I’d even be able to start the Cascade 1400. Then, a month before the June 24 start date, a lot of movement started happening on the wait list. I moved from 32nd to 27th, then to 23rd a week later. Then all of a sudden I was 8th on the list and told to expect that I’d get in!
Preparation and Planning Are Not Small Details
Adventure is defined by how we handle “encounters with the unexpected” (see How to Make Your Next Ride a Cycling Adventure), and riding 870 miles over five days has the potential to introduce a lot of unexpecteds. How would I even begin to plan and prepare for something so unprecedented?
Perhaps most intimidating was the fact that as a Grand Randonnée (an event in the randonneuring style of riding that is 1200km or longer) riders would be largely self-supported. My greatest concern was having to abandon mid-ride in the middle of Washington and have to find a way back to Seattle. Other unexpecteds I began to try to anticipate included the unknown effects of consecutive 200-mile days.
How would I handle muscular fatigue, recovery, soreness at contact points (saddle, hands and feet), sleep, and more? Fortunately, qualifying rides are a great way to work through many of these small details. What has worked (or hasn’t worked) in terms of nutrition, clothing and other gear? What are the pain points or other changes happening in your body that you need to be aware of as you go deeper into a ride than you’ve ever been?
With the knowledge gained from mistakes (and successes) on my qualifying rides I was ready to head to Seattle.
Small Pleasures on Epic Rides
Epic Rides and Small Mid-ride Details
All of the pieces and moving parts of a cycling adventure can be overwhelming. At Comova Cycling one of our aims is to handle the small details so you can focus on the challenge and joy of the ride. And for those looking to undertake a self-supported cycling adventure or epic ride, we’re here to walk you through the steps, to point out the small details, and to remind you of the importance of the small pleasures.