Friday, August 7, 2009

Jan Heine Interview, Part 3: Future of Randonneuring and Bicycling & Advice for Newbie Randonneurs

How do you like my picture selection? Doesn't it look like Jan is gazing out into the future of randonneuring? At least I hope that is Jan. He pointed me to some photos, but it could be one of his companions gazing thoughtfully. Hmmm.

Well, that's what I've asked Jan to do in this the final part of our three-part interview. Given that he is a student of our history, what are the trends? I am also unabashedly asking for advice for us newbies. I'll be attempting my first 400k tomorrow, the Oregon Randonneurs Alsea 400k, so advice solicitation is one of my forms of stress management.

Also, since the actual interview, Jan and two others embarked on the first official Cyclos Montagnards event. You can read about that inaugural trip here.

Since this is the final of three, I want to thank Jan for taking the time. Also for his responding to where the question needs to go even if I didn't pose it so. You can find more of Jan's writing at Bicycle Quarterly. Typically, I don't send folks to for-profit endeavors, but Bicycle Quarterly is a such a unique treasure trove of really informative articles I feel compelled to do so for any of the rare few who might not know of it yet.

The only "further ado" is this: the first interview with Jan, Part 1: Personal & Social History, can be found here. Part 2: Equipment is found here.

Keep it aware of our elders,


Future of Randonneuring and Bicycling
& Advice for Newbie Randonneurs

CurioRando: So how about the future of bicycle design, the popularity of bicycles, the popularity of randonneuring type bicycles in particular, your sense of that?

Jan Heine:
Predicting marketplace behavior is difficult. If people bought products only based on what they need and what fulfills their needs best, I would say that the classic randonneur bike has a huge future. But it’s like so many things, marketing comes into it. Unfortunately, as I see it now, performance bikes are racing bikes which can be ridden only during daytime in good weather without carrying much. The alternative is bikes that don't offer much in terms of performance. We just tested a "performance commuting bike" with upright handlebars and a carbon fork. I can tell you that the carbon fork is not going to improve the performance enough to make up for the flat handlebars. I talked to the manufacturer, and he said the flat bars are easier to sell because most people know mountain bikes. But overall, I think randonneur bicycles in some form or another are bound to grow just because more and more people are exploring beyond their horizons. It’s just encouraging to see, especially the growth of randonneuring. People really want to go beyond what they know and see what is over the next hill and in the next valley, and they need the bikes to go there.

CR: Any particular equipment or design advances you foresee? You’ve written about electric shifting.

JH: I think we’ve had a tremendous revolution that might have almost gone unnoticed. And that’s the new LED lights and generator hubs. It’s amazing that now you can go downhill almost as fast at night as you can during the day. We did our fleche on the Olympic Peninsula and I suddenly thought: “Wow, here we are going 40MPH on a twisty downhill in the middle of the night with just a bunch of generator powered headlights.” I think that is a huge advance.

CR: What I like about randonneuring is uncovering limits and moving past them. What’s your vision of a world in which the bicycle is an integrated form of transportation today? Is that something you think about?

JH: You know, I’ve been thinking about that a little bit because as we all look at our environmental impact. As cyclists we are very very lucky because we can reduce our environmental impact while improving our quality of life. People who don’t ride bikes, who don’t like riding bikes…have a hard time giving up their cars. I recently dropped off a bike in West Seattle. It was a 70-minute bike ride, but a 2-hour bus ride back. And the bike ride took me across the Ballard Locks, along the water several times, I got exercise... The bus ride was boring by comparison. The more people we can get excited about cycling, the more the bicycle will become an integrated mode of transportation.

CR: Cyclos Montagnards got a little bit of—some people I talked to were reacting a little strongly to the notion. My take on it was that if folks want to introduce a new challenge for themselves that doesn’t unfairly change things for the rest of us, for those of us who are too slow to do those things just yet, so what? Why the fuss?

Challenges are how randonneuring started. You know, the challenges are not just for fast people. The Cyclos Montagnards challenges are indeed challenging, because we see it sort of as a continuation of the Charly Miller Society. The Charly Miller Society is a challenge that Bill Bryant, the former Randonneurs USA president, developed. It honors Americans who ride in PBP in the same time or faster than the last American professional racer in PBP (Charly Miller) who rode it in 1901 in 56 hours and 40 minutes. It seems awfully fast, but it is doable for many avid cyclists with training and a little luck. It’s not just for the super fast guys like Scott Dixon who came fist in PBP three or four times. This is something that is doable.

But it’s probably not doable for a beginning randonneur, so I just encourage people to challenge themselves. Just pick some destination. Maybe you can try and ride from Seattle to Windy Ridge and back in 24 hours. Or if you’re a new rider, see if you can get from here to Stevens Pass and back in the daylight before the sun sets—of course, you should bring lights anyway in case you don't make it. Explore your limits! Without a challenge, cycling can get boring. I’ve done many brevets, I know I can finish them. Just getting another medal is not that exciting. So for me, it’s a way of exploring my limits, just like you were saying.

CR: Advice to beginners like myself for randonneuring or a long brevet like PBP or generally just starting out? (Or for me on the eve of my first 400k, about which I am slightly terrified?!)

There are probably a lot people being successful for a lot of reasons—but I see people being successful who really enjoy riding their bike. And yes, it’s not always easy, but in the end, you are just excited to be out there. Successful randonneurs often are people who just have a real interest to explore, who always want to see the next thing. The brevet allows them to get away from their normal routes, to see something new. And that’s why I would pick routes that, even if they are challenging, are scenic, are interesting. So that you come around the mountain and you see something new, so that you say, oh wow, I’ve never been here, it’s really exciting to do that. Because if you are just riding your bike for 20-odd hours, it can get pretty monotonous. During the brevet, pace yourself and try to ride with other people. It’s really fun that way. And don't be intimidated. Most people can complete a brevet. It’s not as hard as it might seem. At first, it’s daunting, but it’s like anything, it’s only daunting because you are not used to it.

CR: Another question occurred to me watching the Tour de France this am. If I'm recalling correctly you've ridden with about 10 - 12 gear combinations total, arguing that more cogs create overlap, etc. I ride with a similar set-up, mainly because my bicycle is over 30 years old and won't accommodate more than 5 cogs. But watching the Tour riders, it reminds me that they might find the "perfect" ratio while I must adjust my pedaling to the ratios available. Isn’t there some value to greater ratio availability?

I find that 2-teeth differences between gears work well for me in the mid-range. I used to ride a straight block (1-tooth differences), but it just led to lots of unnecessary shifting, breaking my rhythm. Then it just becomes a question of what gear range you need. When I started racing, I was amazed at how fast we went uphill and how slow we went downhill. As a racer, you don't really need that many gears... As a randonneur, there are no sprints, and on steep downhills, you are faster tucking than you are pedaling, so you can make do with even fewer gears. However, more cogs do allow some riders to get all the gears they might ever need, and that might be a good thing. For me, 10 gears are sufficient most of the time, and when I encounter really steep hills, I find that no matter how small the gear, it is hard work.

CR: Anything you’d like to add?

JH: It is sometimes hard to appreciate for the experienced riders how challenging these rides can be for a new rider. I remember when living in Texas, I visited a friend in Dallas from Austin, and a ride of 204 miles in a single day. I started at 3:30 in the morning, and when I arrived, I thought it must be the furthest anyone has ever ridden. Well, as a randonneur, 204 miles is 325 km, and you still have 75 to go during a 400 km brevet. And even the 400, it’s a challenge, but it’s quite doable. So I’m really encouraged by people who do seek out these challenges and see what they can do. And I want to encourage them. I think they deserve as much applause as anybody else.

CR: Thanks for your insights, for sharing them so deeply, with charm. I particularly appreciate your attention to the elders, pulling out our elders and elevating them to the status they deserve. We’re all here on the shoulders of other folks and I appreciate your bringing them forward.

JH: You know, that has been the most pleasant part of it all. I was in France in January and we had this lunch with Alex Csuka of the Alex Singer Club. I was sitting at the table with these old guys, one guy who had come first in the PBP in 1956; one guy who had ridden the fastest tandem that year; another guy who had been one of the newspaper carriers and a racer. And we weren’t even talking about bikes that much, but they were such a fun crowd and it is just so nice to be part of that. So often people who have achieved a mastery of something, they’re just really interesting, nice people to be around.