Becoming a Randonneur.

How far is too far? With cycling, this is an open-ended question. My friend has ridden his bike around the world. That is taking it to extremes. To bring it down to a relatable context, my question was how far could I ride in a single day, during daylight hours.

I had already done Brampton to London a number of times; Brampton to St. Catharines; round trips from Brampton to Kitchener; and Brampton to Hamilton. It was time to set my sights on something more extreme. I settled on Brampton to Kingston.

Plans were made. I would need to make the attempt on a day with the longest amount of daylight hours. This would be around the 21st of June. I checked my work schedule and found I was off on two weekdays, which happened to be the 22nd and 23rd of June. The next thing I needed was a place to stay. My research indicated the perfect place for my purposes would be Queen’s University, the Victoria College residence. Not only was it conveniently located, but it was only $25 a night during the summer. The only part that was now out of my control was the weather. To my great relief, that particular week arrived with a favourable forecast, so the ride was on.

On the continent of Europe, a sport became popular in the late 19th century that involved day long challenge rides, or brevets, between two cities. The first recorded event was the challenge of riding from Rome to Naples, a distance of 230 km, during daylight hours. Riders in this type of event referred to themselves as ‘audax’ (audacious). Eventually it became organized enough to require regulations. This led to a sport referred to as audax and, commonly in this country, “randonneuring”. These amateur events, which start at 200 km, evolved into outrageously long multi-day events, stretching to 1200 km and beyond. Riders suffer through these organized events, which are time limited, for a certificate and the official title of “randonneur”. This was going to be my humble attempt at becoming an unofficial randonneur.

In the early 1990s I was riding a Japanese 1990 Miyata Ti6000. From one of the original Japanese bicycle manufacturers, founded in the last century, this bike consisted of titanium main tubes mated with 6000 series aluminum forks and rear triangle. The bike was assembled using aerospace bonding technology with cast aluminum lugs. There was no paint applied to this frame, it was polished metal with a clear coat finish. In my biased opinion, it was one of the most beautiful bikes ever produced. The components were Shimano Ultegra, with Wolber aero rims. Concessions to comfort were a saddle with a gel layer in it and the natural compliance of the frame.

My kit consisted of a set of hex keys, a map of Ontario, flip flops, some toiletries, my wallet, and a spare T-shirt. This was all jammed into a fanny pack. I actually had a failure plan. If I had to bail out, I was going to ride to the nearest train station, where my bike and I would take the rails home.

The first part of my route took me east across the city of Toronto in a step-down pattern of streets until I met up with Kingston Road in Scarborough. This route was not complicated. I would just basically follow the same road, designated Highway 2, mirroring Lake Ontario, all the way to Kingston. The Greater Toronto Area seemed to stretch on forever, as I rode for hours through Scarborough, Ajax, Whitby, and Oshawa, finally reaching some country riding. The weather was nice, and the miles ticked away. It was not until the approach to Trenton that I felt the gradual draining of energy, which I knew all to well as a precursor to the dreaded “bonk”. I was still many kilometres from my goal.

The bonk is the complete depletion of usable glycogen in the human body. There is little to no usable energy, so your body must start to convert stored fat to usable fuel. In marathon running, it is referred to as “hitting the wall”. The feeling is one of extreme fatigue where your body does not respond, and you start going slower and slower. I had tried to prevent this by eating during the ride but had obviously not succeeded in fueling correctly.

I cruised into downtown Trenton on fumes and felt defeated. Resigning myself to almost certain failure, I stopped at a variety store to ask directions to the train station. As soon as I entered the store, my eyes fell upon a two-litre bottle of “C-Plus”, in the glass front cooler. I was overwhelmed with a desire to have that bottle. I asked for the directions and bought the bottle of “C-Plus”. As soon as I was outside, I cracked open the bottle and took a long swig. The effects were almost instantaneous, I immediately felt better, and my energy seemed to be coming back. I did not know how long my energy would last, but with renewed hope, I resumed my route, holding a two-litre bottle of pop in one hand. I nursed off that bottle for several kilometres before it was drained. Fortunately, at this point, a gentle tail wind developed, and I began to ride a steady pace. It was not easy. In fact, I remember my vision would periodically blur with the effort during the remaining kilometres. Once I saw the Kingston city limit signs, my spirits were buoyed, and I relaxed as I slowly glided through the city streets, to Queen’s University.

I checked in at Victoria College and headed out for dinner for some much-needed sustenance. When I returned to my lodgings, the concierge informed me that I would be the sole occupant on the second floor of the residence. Once I learned that, I took the opportunity to ride a victory lap around the hallways of the second floor before riding into the communal shower area for a much-needed shower.

The next day I woke up with the sun, to begin the challenging return ride to Brampton. I tried to pay more attention to fueling as I did not want to be caught short again. This day ended up bringing a different challenge, as it was much warmer than the previous day. I ended up taking shade breaks under trees at various spots along the route.

In the early evening, hours before sunset, I happily road into my driveway. During a long shower I realized that I had lost the feeling in three of the fingers on each hand and in my nether regions. To my relief, feeling would return to all parts of my body within three days.

The results were: 11 ½ hour journey to Kingston and a 12 ½ hour journey back to Brampton. At the time I was not running a computer on my bike, so with modern methods I calculate my route distance to be 284 km, each way.

My efforts might seem inconsequential to the giants of the sport, but I will always remember these two days fondly, as the time I became an unofficial randonneur.

by Steve Stoller

Previous blog posts by Steve:

Cycling Chronicles Vol 12

Cycling Chronicles Vol 11

Cycling Chronicles Vol 10

Cycling Chronicles Vol 9

Cycling Chronicles Vol 8

Cycling Chronicles Vol 7

Cycling Chronicles Vol 6

Cycling Chronicles Vol 5

Cycling Chronicles Vol 4

Cycling Chronicles Vol 3

Cycling Chronicles Vol 2

Cycling Chronicles Vol 1 

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