I awoke with a pounding headache to the sound of a stranger's voice saying my name. A dim motel room. Unmade beds. Early morning light streaming through half-open blinds. A hazy view of unfamiliar mountains. Commotion in the parking lot outside. For a moment I panicked, unable to recall what events could have led up to this. And then it came back to me: I had volunteered for the support crew of the 600K Brevet. I was in Vermont with the New England Randonneurs, and we had just spent the night at the overnight control - which equaled about three hours of sleep. And compared to the riders we had it easy. After a grueling 237 mile day, a few had already abandoned. Those who remained had 136 more miles to go. The sun was coming up, promising another 97 degree day. The air felt heavy and sticky. The clock was ticking.
The 600K brevet is a 373.4 mile ride, which the cyclist has 40 hours to complete. In the sport of randonneuring it is the final and longest of a series of 100K, 200K, 300K, 400K and 600K brevets - designed to prepare the rider for the true challenge of the 1,200K grande randonnée, such as the famous Paris-Brest-Paris. PBP is staged every four years, the latest one having just taken place last summer. The next one will be in 2015.
Steve is that type of randonneur who thinks of himself as a casual rider, not by any means an athlete. I listened in awe as he described completing his first brevet series followed by Paris-Brest-Paris in the course of a single summer. "Oh, but I barely made the cutoff!" he explained, as if this served as proof of his "just a regular guy" status. Those sneaky randonneurs. Someone who can pedal 1,200 kilometers in the course of a single ride is not a regular guy in my book.
This control would be open from 6:07 until 8:48am. We discussed the weather forecast for the day and the types of needs and problems riders were likely to have along the way.
The first arrival was rather unexpected. Having lived in New Hampshire and Maine, I have seen moose a couple of times before - but not this close. This fellow (or lady?) appeared out of the blue and just stood there, then casually meandered into the woods.
Shortly after that, they came. At the first control it seemed like nearly everyone got there at the same time.
At mile 45 everything was going well and no one was having difficulty.
We were also given a clipboard with a list of names of all the riders, where we would enter their in/out times at controls. This allowed us to keep track of where everyone was and how they were doing.
We reached our second control in early afternoon - a rural convenience store with late opening hours. Next to it there was also a pizza place, a sandwich shop and another, 24 hour convenience store. We had permission to set up outside of the non-24 hour store, but not any of the other businesses. Problem was, there was nowhere to set up. The parking lot was crowded and rowdy, with constant motor vehicle movement. There was no safe spot. We would be at this control point for a while - from 2:08pm until 2:24 in the morning, and riders stopping here would likely be exhausted and in need of as many supplies as we could lay out, as well as a quiet, shaded spot to rest.
With a long evening ahead of us, Steve and I took turns napping. As I sat awake drinking coffee, I received the first phone call from Bruce, letting us know a rider had abandoned the course. I crossed his name off the roster and we would not expect him at the control. An hour later came a call about a second rider abandoning. The 4 mile 7-8% grade ascent along Petersburg Pass in what was now nearly 100 degree heat and humidity was proving too much even for the experienced randonneurs. It was going to be a tough stretch for them all.
Shortly before midnight the convenience store shut off their outside lights. In the dark we waited for the others. With two of the 11 riders having abandoned and 5 having just come and gone, we were still expecting 4 more to come through. Just after midnight I received another phone call that reduced that number to two. And then nothing. After 1am I began to worry. The riders had a contact number to call in case of emergency, but what if their phones had run out of batteries or they could not get reception? With the control only open for another hour, I hoped they weren't in trouble. Steve and I stood in the middle of the dark country road watching for headlights in the distance. "I think I can see them! ...No, false alarm." Shortly before 2am we finally did see a real headlight - just one. The lanky gentleman dismounted his double-top tube bike with trembling limbs as sweat poured off him in streams. He was fine, but his friend had stayed behind - sick and unable to continue after having crossed the mountain pass. Was there any chance we could pick him up in the car? Arranging for his own ride would mean a 3 hour wait in the dark.
Bikes Not Bombs and refurbished the vintage machine himself. This was his first attempt at a 600K brevet. It was clear to me then that he would finish. He had to.
The rider whom we'd picked up overnight had hitched a ride in one of the larger support vehicles and was feeling much better.
Melinda Lyons was also there. An experienced and distinguished randonneur, she was among the riders who'd abandoned the previous day. As Melinda put it, her status was NHF: not having fun. Somewhere along the Petersburg Pass, she determined the heat was too much for her in a year when she was really doing the brevet just for the heck of it. Having found a motel room on her own, she got some sleep and cycled back in the morning.
My small role in the brevet helped me understand how these events work, and, moreover, how much time and effort go into organising them. Mapping out the routes, recruiting and coordinating the support crew, arranging for car-pools, establishing control points, sourcing food and supplies, keeping the lines of communication open, keeping track of the riders - these things are crucial in ensuring a safe and positive experience for brevet participants. Perhaps some day I will take part in a sanctioned randonneuring event, perhaps not. I don't know whether I have what it takes - not only to make it physically, but to maintain composure and a positive disposition throughout, the way these lovely people did. Either way, I'd like to help out again when my schedule allows. These events need support volunteers, and anyone interested can contact their local randonneuring organisation for information.