How Epic Rides Are Made From Small Details

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

Commit without hesitation. That was my first lesson. The organizers encouraged those of us on the wait list to proceed with the rigorous qualifying requirements–completion of a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km brevet. The chances of making it off the wait list seemed slim, but having learned my lesson I decided to fully commit to qualifying just in case.

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

With all of the small details in terms of bike, gear, fitness, navigation and nutrition tended to, a major question lingered. How would I find the motivation to keep going? To be honest, the longer the ride the more likely there will be stretches that not only aren’t epic but that are, in fact, rather boring. With weather, climbs and other factors there will be parts of any given day that feel like a slog. If those moments begin 50 miles into a 200 mile day it can be challenging to find the motivation to keep going!
My final lesson was to focus on small pleasures as a way to break down the long distances into smaller chunks and then bridge the spaces between them. On Day 1, for example, I took my time in Port Angeles to find a food option and it paid off when I stumbled on a natural food store. After devouring a pasta salad, hard boiled eggs and a pickle, I stuffed a sandwich in my handlebar bag delighted by the idea of finding a scenic spot to enjoy it 40 or 50 or 70 miles down the road.
It turned out I ate that sandwich on the shoulder of the highway in Forks, WA. Not what I had in mind, exactly, but with the late afternoon temps rising I had just stopped at a drive-thru coffee stand for a frappuccino. While enjoying the sandwich and frappuccino on the shoulder the 45 miles I had remaining for the day seemed quite manageable.
Again on Day 2, with even warmer temps, I was reminded of the power of an ice cream mid-ride. As a group of us sat down for a proper lunch in a small diner in Vader, WA, a fellow rider eyed the soft serve machine. Our server took in stride the request to bring us ice cream before our sandwiches were even ready.
On Day 3 I found myself craving alternatives to the Skratch and Clif products I was eating. It turns out a pack of red vines fits perfectly in a jersey pocket. About 130 miles later that day, down to my last five red vines, I killed time on the day’s last climb doing the math in my head to break the climb down into red vine units (750′ gained = 1 red vine) so that I’d be rewarded with my last red vine at the top of the climb.
I carried on like this through the final two days of riding, hopping from one small pleasure to another–a stop in the shade, standing in sprinklers in someone’s yard, a milkshake here and there, soaking a hat in an irrigation canal, or savoring a forgotten pop tart discovered at the bottom of my handlebar bag.

Epic Rides and Small Mid-ride Details

My description of ice cream and pop tarts might make the Cascade 1400 sound like a cakewalk. It wasn’t. Small pleasures can’t overcome lack of attention to other small details that are essential to epic rides: hydration (e.g., finding the balance between water and sports drink when consuming 10-12 bottles a day), hygiene (e.g., washing hands before a gas station meal and keeping your chamois clean to minimize the chance of saddle sores), nutrition (e.g., finding the right mix of real food and engineered food to get your calories and keep your gut happy), and bike maintenance (e.g., addressing the soft clicking sound coming from your drive train before it becomes a major problem).
What makes a ride epic, in my mind, is not so much the distance, climbing or scenery, but rather the number of variables managed and the logistical feat of tending to all the small details to prevent one of those variables from becoming the unexpected encounter that derails your ride. When we head out for our local Sunday spin there may be a lot of variables but we don’t think about them because problems that might arise can be handled relatively easily. It’s the new route or a new distance (or a new distance on a new route!) that forces us to tend to the small details if we want to maximize our chances of a successful ride.

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.

Contact us to start planning your custom adventure on the dates that work for you and your private group. Our Trip Ideas page will provide some inspiration if you’re not sure where to start.