Saturday, June 6, 2009

Which is Worse: Unceasing Rain or No Gears?

Newbie Randonneur Tip #1
Sidle Up, Latch On, Pester

This smiling randonneur is John Vincent, experienced randonneur. This grimacing randonneur is me. The Smiler is holding a chain tool. The Grimacer, pointing at the chain tool, could cry at any moment. Twelve hours earlier we never knew one another existed. Eleven hours earlier I sidled up to John, latched on, and pestered him about everything randonneuring.

John and I rode the Oregon Randonneurs Berkie 200K (3/28/09) together in the pouring rain. I had stopped in the first few kilometers to remove a layer of leg warmers I'd soon regret removing when John came by, and we rode most of the remaining rainy brevet together.

I know what you're thinking: this is where the author spins a long story of exaggerated rain and details just how hard and for how long and how no other rain could compare. Normally, you'd be right. This time though I'll refer you to a much better description than I could convey. Narayan Krishamoorthi tells the tale: Narayan's Birkie 200k Ride Report.

I had remembered Narayan's name even before I had ever ridden a brevet when I checked out his blog on randonneuring. I said to my wife, an Indian-American, "Look, honey, there's even an Indian randonneur," crudely trying to impress her with my new passion and desperate to make any oblique connection for her. She was, naturally, unimpressed that one of her over one billion fellow Indians had found his way to this obscure sport. Nonetheless, Narayan is a consummate rain tale teller so check out his version of this brevet, and I'll only add this lone fact about the rain: John and I kept rigid observations and throughout our entire 12 hour brevet, it stopped raining for no more than one minute total. Truly.

What do you do for twelve raining hours? Well, I spent the time invoking a Vulcan mind meld on John and he imparted all sorts of randonneuring lore. I won't reveal it all here, because my dear Newbie you'll have to do your own sidling and pestering. That's half the fun!

I will reveal one tidbit. John insisted as we climbed Timber Mountain on the way out that the essence of randonneuring is just staying committed to a brevet once you've begun until it is simply too late to finish. More directly, if you run into a difficulty don't quit until it is physically and absolutely impossible to finish in the allotted time.

I hear you muttering "Well, duh! That's kind of basic, isn't it?" Well, it may sound basic, but I am hereby elevating it via fontifying and boldifying to Tip status:

Newbie Randonneur Tip #2

Don't Quit--Let the Clock Crush You First!

Here's why this tip is more than what it seems. After about 150k, we became noticeably more relaxed. Despite some barking knees I felt I could finish. John had felt extraordinarily cold earlier--really chilled--and Life was getting better for him. We had just been overtaken by a small band of merry bikers and now comprised a chatty, little peleton rolling along when I suddenly screeched to a halt as my chain wrapped around that little area between my largest cog and my spokes. In the process, it destroyed my rear derailleur. Hmmm. I also found that the chain didn't want to unwrap. Tug as I would, pry as I might, it was stuck-stuck. Pretty bleak as the you-know-what-that-I-pledged-I-wouldn't-talk-about came down on John and me.
At that point, I knew I was finished. I knew it. How could I finish with a wheel that wouldn't turn, a broken derailleur, a sore knee, and that stuff pouring down? I was sizing up my hitchhiking probabilities (I have hitchhiked and freight-hopped myself across the country so I wasn't worried), and gave one more try at the chain. Somehow something was different and it came loose! I heard someone say in what sounded like my voice that if I just had a chain tool I could convert the bicycle into a singlespeed cycle and possibly continue. John heard that voice too and said that he indeed had a chain tool.
FREEZE FRAME! At that moment I am looking at John and trying to determine whether I was grateful, relieved and hopeful or whether I was pissy, impatient, and filled with dread. In that frozen moment I weighed going back over Timber Mountain on a one-speed bicycle and suffering vs. the cliched image of regaling a pickup truck driver in the cab of a warm truck about how I almost finished a 200k bicycle ride. The pickup was tempting.
RESUME ACTION! I said "Great!" or something as John gave me the chain tool and asked for leave to carry on without me so that he could finish. This was only right as the chances of my success were slimmish and asking him to wait would be clearly unfair.
As he pedaled away and no trucks or cars or cyclists came by for at least a half hour I felt a little lonely. I also worked furiously. I had been riding a fixie a good deal about a year ago, and knew I might be able to go on if I could just get the chain the right length. There was a moment when I pushed the rivet all the way through both links and it fell into the mud and I couldn't find it. That was my personal nadir.
But I did find it, and reassembled the chain! The rivet wasn't all the way into the outer link, and it was barely hanging in the bent outer link. Again, I pondered whether I really wanted the chain to hold or whether I was secretly cheering for its coming undone. I discovered I in fact had a two-speed as I could switch rear cogs by hand if I adjusted the fore-aft of the rear wheel. Great, except that I realized in my haste I had set it for the wrong two cogs (one cog smaller, therefore harder) than I intended. Oh well. Just pedal, dammit!
So I saddled up. My mental imagining of Timber Mountain was far greater than the reality, and when I crested I knew I had a chance. When I overtook John, I was elated. I knew if I kept with this experienced randonneur I could do it. Now there was no dissembling on my part. I wanted to finish--desperately so. I was kicking myself over the crooked link and dreading its coming undone.
By the time we were within 5 kilometers I was mentally calculating the time available against the kilometers to go and factoring in the slowing if my chain broke and I had to trot my bicycle in. One last pestering question to this experienced randonneur: must one ride the entire brevet or could I simply push my bicycle over the finish line if I had to? He confirmed that I could push. YES, I WILL FINISH!!!!
And we did. And when I asked Susan France and the other ride organizers, of whom I am very grateful for their brevet organizational roles, to take the picture of John and me with the chain tool I could have cried.
Later, in the privacy of my car and surrounded by wet and steaming clothes and bags and a muddy bicycle, I called my wife. When she answered I sang my new song: "I AM...a RANdonneur! I AM...a RANdonneur!" as I choked up with many mixed emotions.
Sidling up, latching on, and pestering led me to discovering for myself the truth of what not-quitting means, and I had completed my second ever brevet. Thanks, John.
What is the answer to the question: Which is Worse: Unceasing You-Know-What or No Gears?
The answer is: Neither.
Keep it and keep it and keep it curious,