Thursday, December 29, 2016

Learning to Say No

Some lessons are harder to learn than others. With randonneuring, this is especially true. Giving up on a ride seems to conjure a special feeling of failure. It’s an endurance activity after all. “This too will pass,” we tell ourselves to make it through the especially dark times. With age and experience, though, I've learned that there are two pretty good reasons to quit: safety and family. The trouble is that both require making decisions that are seldom black and white; there is always considerable grey involved.

Since randonneurs throw care to the wind simply to participate in this crazy sport, we are generally a group of people with our priorities a bit out of whack. Suffering is a necessary feature of the activity as is a certain amount of risk and personal sacrifice. Cycling at night, cycling in all sorts of weather, cycling with precious little sleep, the list goes on and on. Seasoned (and wise) riders learn to separate the safety risks worth taking from those that are not. Since endurance cycling also generally involves countless hours away from family, randonneurs also risk alienating those closest to them while pursuing their passion. 

This week I learned this lesson again as I decided to end my sixth attempt at the Festive 500 Challenge. The challenge, sponsored annually since 2010 by the British cycling apparel company Rapha, draws thousands of riders from around the world with a premise that is really quite simple: log a minimum of 500 kilometers between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve ~ no matter what. Riders who complete the challenge successfully get a patch as well as a feeling of satisfaction and perhaps even some bragging rights.

I first completed the Festive 500 in 2011 as I was recovering from a serious crash and logging monthly 200K rides in search of my first R-12 award. The timing seemed perfect. With school on break and a new year on the horizon, what better way to launch the training season ahead? Armed with this goal, I completed the Challenge five times in as many years and even found myself one of ten finalists in a grand prize competition that awarded a Trek Madone to the rider with the best story of the endeavor that first year. Despite not winning the bike, I was hooked and the Festive 500 has become a part of my annual riding plan ever since.

This year I mapped out a path to success that carefully considered the long-range weather forecast as well as a complex schedule of holiday gatherings, but despite my careful planning, I simply could not see sacrificing the 20+ hours with family needed to complete the 310 miles. With my daughter home for just a few weeks as she prepares for a semester in Southern Africa and my son recently accepted into his dream college in Minnesota, I'm starting to realize (with an empty nest on the horizon) how important it is to savor the nest while it's full. A challenge that once served as a chance to reconnect with the self amidst a swirl of work and family demands, now seemed like a terribly selfish activity at a time of increasingly rare family proximity.

There is still plenty of time to jump-start my training for 2017. But the clock is ticking on this all-too-short time we have together as a family. While I’m disappointed that I’ll not be adding a sixth patch to my collection, I’ve already built some memories that I would have missed out on if I had chosen to spend the day pedaling through the cold winds of winter. So while I could certainly have shoehorned the training hours into the week, the risk was too great that I would miss out on something more meaningful and fleeting. I don’t regret my decision one bit.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Into the Darkness: The Nocturne Podcast

There's nothing quite like riding a bicycle at night. Night riding is one of the defining features of randonneuring, something that separates our sport from other forms of cycling. Other than the 200K or 300K (if you're quick), riding in a brevet is going to involve riding in the darkness. For this reason, organizers of all rides over 200K require front and rear lighting as well as various forms of reflective gear. Not only is night riding a necessary component of randonneuring, it is also one of the most enjoyable. I was reminded of this aspect of randonneuring as I listened this week to a fine podcast that capture the spirit of night riding with great subtlety and precision.

Much of what I find to be appealing about riding a bicycle in general is magnified in the darkness. The feeling of connection with the natural world, for instance, is enhanced at night when visual input is muted and sounds become amplified. The call of an owl, the babble of a stream, the swaying of the trees in the wind make me feel a part of rather than an observer to the natural world around me. I've also seen things of great beauty and mystery (like the bridge in the photograph above) that I never would have seen without riding at night. Some of my most pleasant and enduring randonneuring memories have been created in the darkness.

Night riding seems to me to fall into two categories; the type that happens in the early morning hours and the type that happens deep in the middle of the night. Pre-dawn riding at the start of a long ride has a special magic as riders are typically packed into large, quiet groups sharing something special as they plan the long ride ahead either silently or in muted whispers. The smooth buzz of bicycle tires and chains in quiet rotation is accented by the glow of red lights ahead. Similarly, when taking off in the early morning hours from an overnight sleep stop, it's not uncommon to feel a sense of fresh optimism in the air as dawn steadily approaches.

I don't typically sleep for long periods of time during brevets, but even several hours of shut-eye brings new life to my legs and hope to my spirit that enhances my enjoyment of these early morning hours. After awakening from several hours of sleep on the second night of the Lap of the Lake 1000K in 2014, for instance, I rode through the pre-dawn hours with several friends climbing and descending gentle rollers along the banks of the Niagara River with the sounds of the might Falls growing louder and more majestic with each turn of the cranks.

Riding deep in the night after a long day in the saddle can be a time of camaraderie and contemplation, but it can also be a time of great suffering and misery. Riding together with other randonneurs at night brings a sense of added comfort and security just in case anything fails to go according to plan and I've found it to be a great opportunity for quiet reflection either alone or in conversation with a friend riding by your side. It can also be a time of great suffering, however, when you're forced to ride for longer than you had hoped before resting or when hallucinations or other signs of acute sleep deprivation rear their ugly heads. After riding for eight hours into the dark, driving rains on the London-Edinburgh-London 1400K in 2009 for instance, I found myself mentally composing a Craig's List posting for the sale of my bicycle to keep myself from crying.

As we enter this darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, I stumbled across two episodes of the wonderful Nocturne podcast, in which the joys and mysteries of night riding were eloquently discussed with several veteran randonneurs. Never have I heard the essence of randonneuring captured so accurately. There is something for everyone in Nocturne episodes 23 and 24. If you've never ridden at night, you'll understand more about the attractions as well as the dangers. If you're an experienced randonneur, you'll be reminded of your own nighttime adventures. Either way, it will make you eager for the warm days ahead when riding through the night is a more readily available option.

Learn more about the Nocturne podcast and listen to individual episodes here at this link.