Friday, June 13, 2014

Rand-O'Clock

Plumbridge
A brevet is not a race. This is a thing that randonneurs are ever eager to remind us of, a fact that they repeat with conviction - particularly when enticing newcomers. And technically it is true. We are given a time limit to complete a brevet, and on the surface the time allotted seems plentiful: If we pace ourselves and make a reasonable effort, we can enjoy the scenery and the camaraderie, even grab a meal or two. But no matter how we spin it, a brevet is not a leisure ride and it's not a tour; it is not a free-form meander or a spontaneous frolic. It is a timed event that requires strict adherence to a route. The map is our indispensable guide. And the clock is our constant companion. 

Doing a ride on the clock is an altogether different experience from cycling that is not timed. On the clock, things have a way of coming into sharper focus. The present attains a simplicity and clarity; it becomes more concentrated. What's in front of us and inside us reveals itself in the finest of detail, the periphery fading away. We discover things about our bicycles and bodies that surprise us, even if we're far from novice cyclists. We gain new insights into our speed, strength, style of cycling, energy fluctuations, nutritional needs, even our moods and our character. 

Why does the presence of a timer, a self-imposed stressor, do these things to us on a bicycle ride? Because we're human. It is really no more complicated than that. And it's what makes randonneuring challenging, exciting, frustrating, fulfilling and addictive. 

I began this summer with a 300K brevet and will probably do a couple others, same distance or shorter, in the near future. But inherent to randonneuring is the pressure to "advance" to longer distances, making such a plan seem rather unambitious. What about a 400K? If I did a 300K out of the gate, surely I am ready to try the next distance.

Giving this some consideration, I thought again of my companion the clock. Based on the 300K and on self-timed rides I've done before it and after, I know that my overall average (not to be confused with rolling average) over long distances with significant climbs is around 10.5mph. That's above the roughly 9.5mph minimum required to complete a brevet. But it's not enough to relax and enjoy myself on these events. It also means that I spend way more time on the bike over a given distance than a speedier cyclist - creating more opportunities to develop fatigue, aches and pains, and various other problems - physical, mechanical, and logistical. 

Consider, for instance, cycling in the dark. A rider fit enough to complete a summertime 300K in sufficiently few hours to finish before dusk will not have to deal with the issue at all. A rider who is not, will face this extra challenge. Same goes for sleep deprivation on the longer distance brevets.

According to some seasoned randonneurs I've talked to lately, the 400K is a pivotal distance precisely for that reason. Compared to the shorter brevets, it is new territory. A make you or break you distance. A wild card. And much will depend on the rider's fitness, on how many hours those 250-odd miles will translate to.

Mary of Chasing Mailboxes describes a 400K she recently completed on tandem, in 20 hours. It's a number that made me want to cry and laugh simultaneously, reminding me of just how great the discrepancy between myself and most randonneurs I encounter truly is. Mary's performance means that, purely time-wise, her 400K experience was more like my 300K, which I completed in 18 hours 45 minutes. Can I handle a brevet where I'm on the bike 1 hour and 15 minutes longer than the longest time I've spent on the bike so far? Yes, I think I can. But realistically, a 400K is likely to take me 25 hours and I'm not sure my body and mind can handle all that time on the bike quite yet. I'd like to try a 400K some day, but I'd rather do it when I'm fit enough to complete it within a shorter timespan. 

When cyclists discuss their readiness to handle a particular brevet, I notice they tend to speak solely in terms of distance. But as I dip my toe deeper into the murky waters of randonneuring, I come to feel that thinking of it in terms of time makes at least as much sense. The clock is my constant companion,  and it does not let me forget.

34 comments:

  1. The solution is simple - forget that "rando" stuff and leave the stupid clock at home. Just ride and enjoy!

    Wait. Take a tiny tent with you and a lightweight sleeping bag so you don't have to rush to make it home on time. Ah, now we're talking...

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    1. For some reason I find touring, especially if camping is involved, a far more daunting prospect than brevets. Still haven't managed to try it, though I'm hoping to this summer.

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    2. Oh c'mon, leave the stupid clock at home? You don't mean that. The clock is what turns the mundane experience, worn smooth over endless repetition, into an adventure.

      I may not be an experienced Randonewer but as a Cat 2 amateur glutton I can say that a time limit is what transforms 21 hotdogs and 2 liters of Red Bull from a lazy afternoon at the poolhall into a deep exploration of ones personal limits and commitment.

      Leave the clock at home...jeez. Crazy talk.

      Spindizzy

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  2. In my own experience, riding brevets is the only way I have really pushed myself, at least physically, to my limits and then tried to extend them. When I started riding brevets years ago I kept getting lost -- neither maps + odometer nor cellphone GPS worked well enough for me. But a Garmin solved that problem. And then I could do a calculation: I could complete a brevet in time if I could go about 20% faster, say 10% from better fitness and 10% from bike improvements. So now I've done that, and can do a 200K or 300K around here, which is pretty hard, no problem. And it turns out I have a strange impulse towards persistence that came to my advantage when doing Crush the Commonwealth (a 615K cross-Pennsylvania race) last year; I can just keep going and going. Not fast, but on the bike. Not everyone can do that. So, having done that, and it turns out with an acceptable audax time, I can probably do a 400K, 600K, who knows. It is strange to learn things like this about yourself, after decades of riding. It's worth figuring out.

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  3. hey, thanks for your thoughts. In about twelve hours I´ll be trying to do my very first 600k and I think it´s very true: I´m not afraid all that much of the distance itself (allthough it sounds just crazy right now) but of what it means to be out on the bike for more than a day. How will my body react when tired and constantly pushed forward nevertheless? How to get some sleep if necessary - somewhere in the darkest nowhere?
    but hey, I´m really looking for it, being "in it" is much easier than considering all this stuff and worrying about bike/bags/lights/bibs in advance ...
    have you considered riding in larger groups for a longer time? when I managed to do that on the 400, this was an almost easier and faster ride than the 300 a month before

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  4. I would never in a million years consider doing something like what you are contemplating, but it is fascinating to me to read about it. Good luck.

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  5. You can't compare a tandem time to your time on a single bike. I know that wasn't the point of your story, but just saying don't beat yourself up based on an unfair comparison!

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  6. Do not compare yourself to a tandem time, that's 2 riders going very fast. What about doing permanents at slower pace, or breaking up a longer 400+k ride? While you completed the 300k, it sounded miserable due to many factors. You were sick, the weather was horrible, you got your period...but you kept going! That alone says plenty. Do you want or need to go beyond 300k? For some reason randonneuring really appeals to me, but not sure I could do the distances anymore. Years ago I could, but a car accident really messed my back up and illness, surgery over the last few years kept me off my bike more than I wanted. I've got the bikes now at least, so would have to try some distances. So far my rides this year have been shorter road rides, some massive hill climbing, but not major distance.
    Despite my sensitive sickly self, I am pretty hard on myself, demanding, hard working, and not one to give up, so I'd like to try, but it might only be shorter events.

    But I think age and experience are a big factor in randonneuring. Mostly older experienced riders, average age of PBP is 50, something about psychologically handling the time and distance. Same goes with marathons, often people start doing them later in life!
    As for touring, I don't know. I tend to get really tired and crash. I might be up for a big ride one day, but not the next. However much I love nature and all, I hate camping. I have never been able to sleep in tents, even when I have gone bike touring and exhausted myself, so it becomes a zombie experience I never wish to repeat. I live in the country, bears wander by, racoons try get into my house, I spend a huge amount of time outside, but camping in tents....no. So I'd insist on going to hotels, B&B's, hostels etc which costs way more than is prudent for a supposedly affordable bike tour!

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  7. Ooops, one other thing...I watched that movie about Lance Armstrong the other night, and I thought, why didn't he go into randonneuring? If he really wanted to prove himself, he'd do a 600k or 1200K brevet with no team, no doctors, no warm beds. Even if it isn't a race, people do treat them like races. Not sure he would be happy with a pin, but maybe one day...The guy is an amazing athlete, I can appreciate that now, but experienced randonneurs must be in remarkable shape.

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    1. As Velouria has said in the past, they would never admit to being in great shape. I don't think anybody, even the PBP guys make a big deal about having done this or that randonnée. It's partly the culture and partly a recognition that perhaps it's not the brightest way to be spending your time.

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  8. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but the 400k doesn't scare me. I might not succeed, but it doesn't seem that much worse to do a few more hours in the dark, and I felt surprisingly OK at the end of the 300k. The 600k, though, I am going to put off until I'm faster, because 3 hours of sleep would be OK, but 0 hours would not. And I don't think it's possible I'll sub-24hrs the 400k.)

    I could fly far away to do a flat one later this summer, but I think I'll save the "go elsewhere" option for next year if I'm not continuing to gain speed.

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  9. In my experience, the key to riding brevets faster for most randonneurs has relatively little to do with fitness. It's really about all the time spent riding 0 mph.

    Getting in and out of controls quickly, eating and drinking while underway, keeping stops to a bare minimum, and even learning to "rest" while underway are all skills that the faster randonneurs tend to excel at.

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  10. Go do a couple more 200s, maybe another 300. Before long you'll be surprised how the 400 becomes less daunting. You'll be looking forward to it. There's no right or wrong approach (one of the lovely things about randonneuring) and there's nobody judging (another one). You'll get the 400 soon enough. You just don't want it yet, and that's fine.

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  11. What about recumbent bike for this kind of rides? They say they should be more efficient and more comfortable, so rider can ride faster with same effort than on regular bike. Actually I have seen maybe just two of them in my whole life, but I thinking about them offen.

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    1. As a recumbent rider and a randonneur there are pluses and minuses to a recumbent. My mantra is "the only thing that hurts after a long ride are my smile muscles". That's a plus. If the ride is very hilly the weight of a bent and the different hip angle position makes "most" of us slower on hills.

      Veloria, in just about every brevet I've done I am the "rouge lantern", but I do finish in time, even on a 600km brevet. I save some time by eating on the bike (liquid food) because if I eat a meal I'm toast for a couple of hours. Just my bod.

      And about that clock thing: It adds to the challenge. Can I or can't I? Love it.

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  12. Having completed several 200K brevetts well within the time limits with energy to spare, I figured I should step up to a 300K event this spring. I organized one that ran down the coast line of my home state and then onto ferries at the 168 and 268K points (one to get me onto Long Island and the other to get me off along with 2 little ones to island hop across the "forks"). The kicker was; for the ferry crossings to work was that I had to be at the first one just before noon; 7 hours from my start time. If I missed it, it would set off a string of delays that would jeopardize the next ferry crossing at the 268K mark. Two flat tires later and several near misses from drivers trying to merge my handlebars into their back doors, I missed the noon ferry... I caught the next one at 12:30 but it wreaked havoc on my planned schedule. In the end I pulled the plug the 268K mark as I watched the ferry I had to be on, depart without me (missed it by 5 minutes). The next ferry was over an hour away from sailing and the 2.5 hours I sat around doing nothing led me to stiffen right up to the point where pedaling the remaining 30K was out of the question when I got back on solid ground.

    The clock is a brutal beast. I can honestly say I didn't enjoy the ride as much as I like to think I would've had there been no ferries to catch. But on the flip side, having to catch ferries at certain times drove me at a pace that i would've completed the 300K well within the time limits set for those style of events. Already planning another 300K ride for mid-summer but this time, no ferries.

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  13. Thank you for reading and linking to my 400K story, an experience that I really enjoyed writing about. As I think back on this brevet, I was extremely concerned about the clock for much of the ride. Randonneuring is a mishmash of ingredients. For me, two of those are mental and physical conditioning-- both always works in progress-- to a level that allows me to see the clock as a companion (as you note) and not an ongoing worry on long brevets. Also, thinking of rides in terms of time is a completely reasonable approach, and my husband and I often talk about brevets with each other in this manner.

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  14. As an old cyclist I kinda like the clock. It keeps me honest. These days when my kids join me on a ride for morning coffee, which is usually a few miles, I huff and puff trying to keep up with them. Damn it! I'm the cyclist and they're just twenty somethings who only occasionally bike. So, I bike various distances with my timer on to push my strength and endurance and compare my times. I cannot relate to your distances and really have not the time to work towards those goals but am also joyed when I meet a stranger who will share that they see me everywhere on my bike and admire that I'm always pedaling, and seemingly fast, no matter the conditions. Bicycling is empowering on so many levels.

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  15. 400k is an awkward distance: if you're fast enough you won't need sleep, if you're too slow you won't have time for it. To be confident of finishing you really need to be doing 200k see comfortably within 12 hours, and preferably within ten.

    I entered the REK400 after doing the Carlingford 300 at around your pace, thinking that if all went well I might get round in 24 hours. Well, all did not go well, with the result that I abandoned out of time for the second control at Carrick-on-Suir, with about 200k back to Dublin by the easiest route. I took an hour or two in the pub to recover with tea and soup, and then decided to see how far I could cycle back before I phoned for help. I started at 7.30 pm and got in after ten the next morning, and I walked up a lot of hills in between. After midnight I spent a lot of time looking out for cosy of places to lie down, and I did take a couple of short naps, one by the roadside and one in a bus shelter.

    Will I do the distance again? Not this year anyway, but I'm very keen to try a few more dusk-to-dawn rides before the nights get longer. At this time of year it would be an easy 100k.

    It’s a whole different world out there: Gorey at two in the morning, still partying hard, the Vale of Avoca at daybreak.

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  16. You captured the allure of randonneuring so well! The clock adds a challenge and brings your life into focus. I wouldn't want to do brevets all the time, but a few times a year, I greatly enjoy them.

    You are also correct that the time on the bike, more than the distance, determines your fatigue. When you see the finish of PBP, you notice that the fastest riders are the least worn at the finish, while the last riders, who took plenty of time off during the ride, are often pretty haggard. The cumulative fatigue of the event really shows. Whether you spend 50 hours or 90 hours in an event with the clock ticking makes a huge difference.

    The good news is that with experience, your speed will go up. Not just your on-the-bike speed, but most of all your off-the-bike speed, which makes the biggest difference.

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  17. My husband is out riding a 300K right now, he's finished them with relative ease several times. Earlier this spring, I joined him on a Populaire. It was raining and colder than we anticipated (38F) and my feet were numb by mile 22. At the first control we took the time that we needed for me to warm up. I was completely surprised when we missed the second control by 15 minutes. It was at that moment that I realized that there is not much room for error on one of these rides!

    The other lesson for me that day was that you need to be prepared. Not a good idea to leave one's rain guards at home on the kitchen table! I got my period for which I was also unprepared -- leading to another stop! I later read about your 300K Veloria, and could relate, though I was able to purchase supplies easily!

    We loved the ride and having blown the controls, continued w/o the clock... and fell further behind the scheduled times. I'd like to give it a go again and have the clock as a factor -- I think I'd make it, but it would certainly be at a sustained pace that is unfamiliar.

    I'd like to put in a plug for an overnight bike camp as a way to get started with touring. We do a very casual overnight bike camp w/ family and friends each spring and everyone -- young kids in trailers to adults -- LOVE it. This year I was using a new thermarest, and I have never been so comfortable; the new models are lightweight and much improved!

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  18. To ride your bike faster you have to ride your bike faster. That's tautological. Also unavoidable. How about an intermediate step like riding 100 miles in five hours? Or just going out on a flat route and clocking 100km in three hours? With no stops at all unless you flat. Neither of these rides should be all that difficult for someone who has been living on a bike for years now. You could accomplish either goal very easily first time out if you would just ride in a group.

    Probably someone has done P-B-P all solo but most don't. Whoever has done it solo wasn't doing the same event the rest of the entrants did. Beats me why anyone would think of riding 400km or 600km without firm plans for being on pace most of the ride.

    Here's a short film clip (yes, film!) of a group of riders doing a 570km event: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/briton-wins-cycle-race
    I know that's film because the first time I saw it in the back room of the Popinjay Lounge it was projected from a 16mm reel. Please notice how very relaxed everyone is taking pace. Notice that the gap to the next wheel is variable and rather large. This is how you do it when you're aiming at 570km in twelve to fourteen hours. It's just not possible to ride twelve hours in white-knuckled anticipation of crashing. Also not possible to do that speed without taking pace.

    The current notion of paceline as some rite of passage or trial by fire is meshuggannah. It's just riding a bike.

    When taking pace do not look down at the wheel in front of you. If you need to look you are too close. Watch the road ahead. Then you can respond to the road ahead the same as your leader. If you can't see the road ahead watch the third rider ahead and cue off him. You only need to be generally aware of the rider immediately in front of you. If that rider is getting closer, blocking more of your field of vision, you can be aware of that without maniacal fixation on maintaining some set distance. And then you are free to ride your bike. It's just a bike ride.

    No one knows how fast Velouria might be able to ride a bike. We know what she can do in meteorological extremity and what she can do in medical distress. We know what she can do in an all-at-night ride and in a ride with extreme climbing. My guess is she can do 300km in fifteen hours right now in favorable conditions. If only she would accept pacing 20 hours for 400km seems completely reasonable.

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    1. There aren't many riders who can do 100 miles in 5 hours because of one big limitation: Our genetic make up.

      I'm lucky to do 100 miles in 8 hours no matter how hard I've trained. I spent a whole summer with a coach and my average for our 40 mile club ride went from about 14 mph to 14.2.

      I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam. (grin)

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    2. Hi Sloe Joe
      Twenty mph requires about 0.2hp or 150 watts. Varies somewhat with rider weight and how aero you are but close enough. That is entirely possible without any additional training for any healthy adult and it should be possible to maintain that level of exertion an hour or two. Of course before two hours is up you meet a hill or a headwind and speed falls or you need much more power. But in principle any healthy adult can do your 40 mile club ride in two hours. No special genes required.

      The difference in your 40-mile speed and your 100-mile speed amounts to a rounding error. Which tells me you have masses of potential you haven't accessed. This is a technical sport. Any healthy adult can generate 0.2hp but getting it to the rear wheel can be problematic.

      All of us, myself included, push down on both pedals. We push down on the falling pedal and we push down on the rising pedal. This is inefficient to say the least. No one pedals perfectly but we can all pedal more efficiently. First step is to be aware of how you pedal. Getting improvements in pedal efficiency is one of a coaches easiest tasks. Before writing a volume here I'll just say on any large ride it's easy to see the slow riders are thrashing away at their bikes and the fast riders are sitting calmly and pedalling smoothly.

      If your coach goes all season and gets no results your coach should've DQ'ed himself a while ago and recommended someone else. Any coach can take a guy who can finish century rides in a reasonable time and get him through 40 miles in 2 hours. The best coaches can do that in a few minutes of their time. And the best coaches in this sport always always work for free.

      Holding 20mph for five hours is not for everyone. Most people don't want to play golf for five hours. Most people cannot easily schedule all the saddle hours necessary to get used to doing such a thing. For someone living in the saddle it's no big deal. The power output is not that large, power is not the problem.

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  19. Very good essay, Velouria. I feel I could have almost written that piece myself. Like you, I'm not a fast rider, finishing a 200k this spring in 11h13min (took two wrong turns and lost some time due to errors on the cue sheet).
    My average riding speed on mixed flat/rolling/hilly terrain is about 11.8mph, and I finish 200k feeling tired but ok. Considering longer events has been daunting, as I'm not sure I've the mental toughness to dog out long distances at a sufficient pace. Maybe being 68 years old has something to do with it.
    The clock is certainly a taskmaster and something one needs to be constantly aware of, and like you said, when you're not too fast, you haven't the time to really savor the scenery or much enjoy the company of others; finishing within the time limit becomes everything.

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    1. Being 68 has a lot to do with it. I'm 62 and I can best your time by several hours. I shall be very pleased if I can meet your standard six years hence. I shall be very pleased if I have the desire to ride all day six years hence. And yes, we get tired already in ways we didn't when young.

      I ride often with a gentleman who reached 80 years last month. He can hold my wheel easily for 40 or 50 miles, never pulls, only comes forward to slow me down with conversation. His real training secret is two rides out of three he turns around early, goes home for a nap. Dig yourself in a hole at an advanced age and it takes way too long to crawl back out of that hole. Know your limits.

      One way I get through 200km in quick time is I do not look at maps. I memorize the map before I start. If you have a good map in your head you can't get lost. Cue sheets are rarely well-edited. Too many of them are only clear to the person that wrote them. GPS files are nice but my God, I have had to rescue so many who do digits adroitly but have no idea where they are. I also would never consider stopping for those pesky controls. Two stops gets me through 200km, in cool weather (less water needed) I've done it in one. With a group in cool weather non-stop. Stopping to admire the view or smell the flowers is for the short rides.

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  20. Sometimes a goal can become a gaol.

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  21. My suggestion to deal with longer brevets is to start early in the season by riding a couple or a few 200k brevets, then attempt a 300k, 400k and if you still feel good then 600k. From April to June I do not like to go more then 2 weeks between events, I might let one go for 3 weeks but that's it. This way your body gets used to the time on the saddle, plus you will develop a rhythm to how to ride on the flats, rollers and how to deal with longer climbs. Shorten you time at the controles and don't lose too much sleep on the overall time. Being consistent will allow your body and mind to handle the demands easier and quietly it will also make you an overall faster rider.

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  22. You've nailed it Velouria: it's the clock. Somehow it creates a structure that makes unimaginable things happen.

    For me the mysterious and compelling thing about riding brevets is that it ISN'T that big a deal once you get into it. I felt like a hero the first time I rode a 200k; now I think of that as kind of easy, or not remarkable. At the same time I somehow don't think of myself as particularly skilled or fit. I know it's a little contradictory but it feels true nonetheless. That's what's so compelling. I have this feeling that although the distances are impressive to non-randonneurs, this kind of riding is a lot more accessible then it seems. Not that I don't take brevets seriously, but they are not the super human challenges they might appear from a distance, and that's what I love about them: I can do so much more then I ever imagined on a bike.

    The challenges of my mental fortitude and fatigue are much greater then the actual effort of riding. I swear "never again!" on most rides, but within hours of finishing randonnesia takes hold and it all starts to seem so fun again...

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  23. Brevets do take such a long time.

    When are you going to do a cyclocross race? It's only 45 minutes! ; )

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  24. I agree that what really matters for your experience of the ride is the time, not the distance. But that being said, the increments still hold up in that generally if you can finish a 300k without feeling like you had to push yourself to the very brink the entire time, you can probably finish a 400k if you keep doing what you're doing. That's still true if you put it differently and say that if you can ride for 20 hours, you can ride for 25 hours.
    It's a funny thing how one's mind perceives the length of the ride and the time it will take - my mind rides the ride I'm on and anticipates how much of it is left. In my head, the 290k point of a 300k ride is not the same at all as the 290 point of a 400k ride, irrespective of terrain or how hard I've been riding.

    I also generally think you should feel perfectly justified in ignoring anyone who tries to tell you that you "should" be going faster. If you're happy and comfortable and within the time limits, who cares? Granted I may have a slightly perverse perspective on this, since I've been riding brevets for years pretty much exclusively on a fixed gear, which puts me at the back of the pack on hilly rides even though I know I could be substantially faster with a geared bike; so I'm used to just ignoring conventional advice and riding my own ride. But even still, I've known quite a few back-of--the-pack riders who aren't fast, and take most of the time limit on every brevet, but also ride very consistently, know what they need to do to get the job done, and always finish. That consistency is still an accomplishment, perhaps the more so when there is less room for error.

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  25. Are you a fast person? Do you want to be a fast person? Many cyclists don't want to be fast. They come to this sport following bad experiences with other sports and with unsporting sportsmen. I find it very telling that the post and especially the comments manage to speak a lot about time and about distance and the logical completion of the equation - Speed - is not there.

    The brevet formula is set up so that you don't need to be fast. It stresses organizational abilities. With enough organization and enough determination most anyone with basic health can be successful. Fitness is not required. Power output to do 15kph is nominal. Yes, there are hills and other challenges. Twenty hours of life has challenges.

    Distance over time equals speed. You can't argue with mathematics.

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    1. "The brevet formula is set up so that you don't need to be fast. It stresses organizational abilities. With enough organization and enough determination most anyone with basic health can be successful. Fitness is not required."

      I agree with the first 2 sentences, but not with the conclusion. Some degree of fitness (fairly high, by non-athletes' standards) is certainly required, as is gradual distance-specific training. As ptb writes below, I think that many randonneurs take their level of fitness for granted.

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  26. Fantastic post. Time, distance, mind. The fundamentals.

    I used to tell people, "cycling long distance is more about the mind than about fitness", but I now realize that I took a pretty high level of fitness for granted in those days. Nowadays, it seems, weak in both mind and body.

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