Photo: Elly Blue“I think the rain is really good for us as cyclists,” said my friend Maria Schur. We were in her car, headed to the Verboort Populaire, an annual 100-kilometer (about 62-mile) bicycle ride west of Portland, Ore. “It’s good for character development. It’s okay to do stuff that’s hard.”
As someone who’s used to seeing bicycling in the rain as a necessary evil, I was less philosophical about my choice to spend this November Saturday out in the elements. I didn’t know what to expect from the ride — or, more accurately, the randonée — except that it was not a race, that we would each be on our own, and that I was not in any kind of physical condition to pedal for six and a half hours straight. In the rain. My secret plan was to skip half the route.
Randonneuring is a good-natured, old-world tradition from the early days of cycling. Its deep roots are proudly evident in participants’ allegiance to French terminology and the metric system and an intensely detailed structure of rules and organization. Randonées are about camaraderie, not competition. They are strictly timed, though, with various checkpoints, called controls, along the route. Riders must complete each section of the course by the cutoff time, or their cards are not stamped and their results are not entered into the randonneuring recordbooks that have been kept in Paris since the 1920s.
Saturday’s outing was just for fun, a “populaire,” intended to introduce the sport to new suckers like me. The shortest rides that earn you a place in the Parisian books are twice as long, 200-kilometer (124-mile) “brevets” that take from eight to 12 hours to complete. Once you complete a brevet, you’re officially a randonneur, and are free to enjoy the 300-, 400-, 600-, and ultimately the big 1200-kilometer (746-mile), 90-hour rides such as the famous Paris-Brest-Paris.
On this day, 59 hopefuls started out, over twice the number of people expected turned out to give the art of randonneuring a try. It was a chatty, ragtag bunch, sporting every degree of cycling apparel from old and rugged to slick and new. The event was organized by volunteers, and the total cost to participate was $2.
Photo: Elly BlueAt 9 a.m., we were let loose into the chilly drizzle. For the first 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), a steady stream of yellow-rainjacketed riders passed me with friendly chimes and hellos. With each, I felt the edges of my ego fray a little. Race or not, I was acutely aware of my need to prove myself. I contemplated my slow bike, my slow body, the years it had been since I rode more than 20 or 30 miles in a day. I decided that I would finish the ride no matter what. I decided what to call this column.
At the end of those first 10 kilometers was a checkpoint at a coffee shop. Its keeper was Theo Roffe, one of the ride organizers, who rubberstamped my ride card to prove I’d been there. I confided my working title to him. “I’d like to interview that person,” I said, “but it will probably be me.”
“In France they say la lanterne rouge,” he said. “The caboose.” (The literal translation is “the red lantern,” and it was, for years, an honor bestowed upon the last-place finisher in the Tour de France.)
“That’s me!” I pointed to my bright red saddlebag.
“Naw.” He shook his head. “There are a ton of people behind you. You won’t be last.”
Thus reassured, I was free to accept that being last would be okay. Mostly. And I finally noticed the world outside my head: the giant Vs of migrating birds, the farms and mountains receding into the fog, the occasional truck zooming past, the clean smell of the air.
For the next 84 kilometers (52 miles), I just rode. Mostly, I was alone. The rain intensified. My left foot went numb and then my right. People passed me, but not as many as early on. A few slowed down to chat for a kilometer before disappearing around a bend. My legs were turning to Jell-O, albeit frozen Jell-O, and I felt increasingly obliged to stop and take photos of every sheep and horse.
Photo: Elly BlueI hit the final checkpoint, an empty crossroads that had once been the town of Snoozeville, just at the cutoff time, to be met by a friendly high five from Ed Groth, another of the day’s organizers. He poured me a cup of hot chocolate, initialed my card, and started packing up. (The next day I learned that he had ridden all the way there from Portland with a canopy, table, propane stove, coffee pots, vegan sausage fixings, and plentiful snacks in his cargo bike. It took him five hours each way.)
My friend April Wiza rolled up around the same time. As she gulped down coffee, we decided to continue together. We chatted and joked on the flat stretches, soaring down the hills silently and cursing our way up the next ones. Soon I forgot to feel tired and uncomfortable.
I might just finish this, I thought, as we ground up a particularly long and steep hill 10 kilometers from the finish. April was dropping behind — was I getting my second wind? No, she had a puncture and a slow leak. She pumped up her tire, we rode for another kilometer, and she stopped again. “Go on, you don’t have to wait for me,” she said.
The cutoff was creeping up on us. I thought about jumping back on my bike and making a go of the final stretch. But all those frayed bits of my competitive soul had been lathed away somewhere on the road behind us. I leaned my bike against a mailbox and stood there feeling appreciative that the rain had stopped and enjoying the way the grey mist around us brought out the yellows in the fields.
The small crew still waiting for us at the finish ran out with hugs and congratulations. I felt elatedly victorious, thrilled just to be done. Then came the unexpected news that we were just under the wire — “You made it by three minutes!” said Theo Roffe, who had told me about la lanterne rouge at the first check point.
The red lantern was ours, as were red, white, and blue lapel pins celebrating our timely finish.