It has been awhile since I was asked to write something defining what randoneuring is all about. I am quite certain that the person who asked that I write it thinks I have forgotten, but I have not. The moment just was not right. Always the words have escaped me dancing just outside my reach, there and alive but unfailingly elusive, giggling at my discomfort, promising but not delivering, taunting, refusing to ground so that I can take hold. How do you share something you both love and hate when those around you who have not been there already think you are surely not quite right if not downright crazy or lying. As I often tell the people manning the cash registers at stores along the route, "They say there is one born every minute. And you have a whole group of them coming here today. Lucky you;-)" Yet while it may hold common threads, randoneuring is as individual as the fools, er people, who ride them.
How do you explain to someone why they should ride a long distance on a bicycle, through the night, through the wind, through the sun, through the cold, through the rain, through whatever conditions fickle fate decides to throw at you often without any or adequate sleep because brevets are canceled only if it is deemed dangerous to ride? How do you explain to someone why they should ride a long distance on a bicycle when it makes their butt hurt and their knees ache and their legs cramp and their mind has the unusual freedom to swirl with new ideas or thoughts? How do you explain to someone what could be enjoyable about putting yourself in a situation that is potentially dangerous? How do you explain the weariness, the doubts, the struggles, both mental and physical, and how these challenges contribute to the sweetness and total exhilaration of the victory or the bitterness of the defeat? How do you tell someone that you can learn as much, or perhaps more, from your failures than from your successes? Or that both contribute to your being you, unique in all the world? And how do you describe the joy and humor and sadness that the scenery and the thoughts and the experiences stir up within your heart leaving you achingly fulfilled yet somehow yearning for more? The bonding with fellow travelers along the same route? The reliving of ancient memories. The joy of seeing the final control that also is sometimes oddly mixed with a sadness that your journey has ended?
Because there is something about brevets, any brevet but particularly longer brevets, that gives you some insight into who you are and what you are made of and of what is important to you. Even if you decide to ride a shorter brevet and never to do something so silly as to ride approximately 750 miles in less than 90 hours, the distance of a 1200 brevet, (none offered locally) you will have gained insight into who you are, what you are made of, and what is important to you because that is the nature of a challenge, the gift of a challenge, and brevets are a challenge, even for the most accomplished cyclist. The words of C. Joybell come to mind:
"I feel that we are often taken out of our comfort zones, pushed and shoved out of our nests, because if not we would never know what we could do with our wings, we would never see the horizon or the sun setting on it, we would never know that there is something far beyond where we are at this moment. It can hurt, but later you say, "Thank you."
And that is part of what a brevet does: it takes you outside of your comfort zone, even if it is a repetition of a course or distance you have traversed previously. And it may and often does hurt. Will you be able to ride the distance? Will you be able to find the correct roads or get hopelessly lost, doomed to wander the unfamiliar country side until you can go no further? Will you ride alone or with a group? Will your bicycle hold up mechanically or will your suffer a break down? If it does breakdown, will you be able to fix it? How will you get home if not by bike? Will the night or the heat or the wind or the cold or the rain overwhelm you and win or will you overcome them entering the last control with the prideful mantel of victory cloaking your shoulders? Will you make the smart choice and live to ride another day during those times when it is not wise to go further and will you have the guts to try yet again in the future learning that defeat need not be permanent and can be a springboard to success? Will you find the divorce papers on the kitchen counter when you get home after spending more time making love to your bike than you do with your spouse? And how do you thank someone who supports you in your quest? And in the answer to these questions and other questions, you will learn more about who you are, and you may gain a greater appreciation of others as well. And you will say, "Thank you."
In the end, even if you ride a brevet with others, you are alone in your acceptance of responsibility. There is no one guaranteeing to sweep you in as there is on a club ride. There is no one who is responsible for fixing your flat tire or for waiting for you on a hill or for loaning you money or equipment if you came ill prepared. Often, indeed normally, there are others who will stop and help those in need, but there is no guarantee. When it happens it is from the heart and not from obligation and thus ten thousand times more precious, like when your husband brings you flowers not because it is your birthday but just because he wants you to know that he loves you. What increases the sweetness of the offer of help is that it is not required. And perhaps there is a sense of pride that comes with accepting responsibility for yourself, a lost art in a modern society where it sometimes seems that everything is someone else's fault. I suppose what I am trying to say is that a challenging brevet, whether one rides it successfully or not, is or can be character building. "Character isn't something you are born with and can't change, like your fingerprints. It's something you weren't born with and must take responsibility for forming." - Jim Rohn - And each of us, I would hope, strives to better themselves, to become the best they can be with the talents and gifts were are given.
A challenge can be a 200K or a 1200K brevet depending on your background, equipment, and fitness level. The challenge is not the distance particularly, it is setting the goal and planning to give yourself the best chance of meeting that goal. The challenge is in dealing with yourself if you fail to meet the goal, for it is much easier to be a gracious finisher than to be a gracious non-finisher. The challenge is leaving a warm, dry control in the middle of the night to head out into a cold rain or a ferocious wind for no other reason than you want to conquer the weather and accomplish the goal that you set for yourself. The challenge is in going without sleep, but knowing when this sleep deprivation impacts you to the point where you are unsafe. The challenge is in throwing yourself once more into the jaws of the wind. The challenge is in being alone with yourself and your thoughts and in conquering your doubts and negativity. The challenge is leaving your sense of self and merging with the group you are riding with if you are sharing your journey. The challenge is in conquering the negative thoughts that tell you to just quit, mastering self doubt. And I could go on and on. Very rarely have I ridden an entirely easy brevet, whether a 200 K or a 1200 K. And remember this:
"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop those who don't want it badly enough." Randy Paush
In the end I find the words to define randoneuring still elude me, and I have not done a good job. Writing, like randoneuring, can be a challenge. In the end perhaps randoneuring for me is a love/hate quest that connects me not only with other riders, but with the endurance that has allowed human kind to not only surmount, but to triumph over obstacles, both internal and external. And I am glad I was pushed out of the nest. My wings continue to grow and I will mourn the time when age inexorably clips them, but think of the memories that I will have. Ride on, friends, ride on.