February 5, 2014

Iron Rider

Iron Rider's blog was one of the first I found about randonneuring. That was, as I remember, in late 2011, and I have followed it since. It is full of information, excellent  ride reports, and super photos. Anyone interested in long-distance cycling should pay it a visit. If you're considering trying a brevet, and want to read an informative ride report on a specific ride (at least in the eastern US) you may find one on his site. Rides from 200K to 1200K are listed on the right hand side of his home page. Iron Rider agreed to an e-mail interview, which follows. All photos are copyright Iron Rider. As usual, I'm in italic, he is in the reddish typeface.

I like to say that there are 1000 different ways to ride a bike. Some are utilitarian (commuting, doing chores,) some for travel (I'm thinking of touring,) some for sport (racing, I imagine cyclocross,) some with a more social aspect (club rides, weekend outings with friends.) Where does randonneuring fall into that kind of spectrum?

Randonneuring combines travel and sport. Photo c. Iron Rider
Randonneuring combines travel and sport. On the travel side, a good Randonneuring course showcases its region. On the ride, you get an intimate appreciation of the terrain, a feel of the place's history, immersed in the geography. Going to the controls to get receipts and brevet cards signed (which seemed odd when I first started) forces you to interact with the locals beyond the basics of buying and selling, you hear their accents and exchange greetings - you talk to people. You get a sense of the soul of the area in a fingers in the cool earthy dirt kind of way. Randonneurs not only ride through a place, we participate in it, we live in it, if only for a moment.

On the sport side, it's not a race but you are in a timed event. The failure to complete it within time means that you don't get credit for doing the ride. That little bit of pressure to keep moving and complete the ride adds a sense of urgency and accomplishment to the ride.

Are there particular characteristics that make a successful randonneur?
Actually, the minimum requirements to be a successful randonneur are to be physically and mentally capable of riding a bike 200K (about 126 miles) in less than 13.5 hours. That means that you have to maintain an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour - all stops included.

Long distances in a determined length of time. Photo c. Iron Rider
If you can do that, then you can complete a brevet and call yourself a Randonneur.

However, there are also lots distances beyond 200K available for those who want to go farther.

What is the biggest challenge in these long rides?
The biggest challenge can change from ride to ride and course to course. It can be the distance, the terrain, the weather or any combination of these. It can be overcoming mechanical problems or physical problems - like bonking or digestive issues. In fact just when you think you've got all the challenges addressed you might discover a new one. But sometimes, in fact most times, the challenges can be met and overcome.

Challenges vary with the ride. No wind on this one. Photo c. Iron Rider
Do you have a "game plan" or follow any particular strategy?
My basic plan is to pace myself and keep adequately fueled. Sometimes I manage to follow that plan. It sounds simple but pacing and fueling have taken a long time to figure out and still can present a problem. Beyond that, I will change my ride plan depending on the event, how it fits in with the season and then of course what actually happens on the ride.

Getting some food at a controle. Photo c. Iron Rider 

Are there particular pitfalls, or mistakes, that a participant really wants to avoid making?
Avoid the bonk! As you probably know, running low on carbohydrates, or bonking, is a physical problem with a significant mental aspect, it can make you feel miserable and climbing out of that hole can be a bear. So avoid it by riding within your capabilities and keeping adequately fueled.

Your ride report posts are often certainly evocative, but more than that. For me there is a kind of lyrical quality to them. Does this lyricism somehow reflect a quality that you experience in riding brevets, long-distance cycling rides? Is there a rhythm, something akin to movements, tempos, perhaps a  melody or bass line? 
I think an excerpt from one of my posts might answer these questions:

"Every brevet is like a piece of music. Sometimes, a ride is an orchestral piece performed by a peloton in which, when done right, every instrument contributes to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes a ride is solo piece that draws inspiration from the soul to produce a melody unique to that day in its jubilance or its sparsity. Sometimes the music flows from a small ensemble engaged in a free form session that improvises on the fly, riffing and running with impromptu solos that always come back to a steady baseline pace that weaves the individualities into one. Then, on a long brevet, like a 400K, the land and the weather will define the composition, giving it its final form - its place in the universe of temporality."
That's great! I don't remember reading that, though I certainly might have. 

Is there a distance above which the experience qualitatively changes in nature?
For me that distance is 600K. Riding 600K (about 372 miles) in 40 hours or less is a weekend adventure that covers a significant range of territory and is guaranteed to be memorable. The distances above that (1200K, 1500K) extend that experience.

Does the number of participants change the sensibility of the event?
Compared to charity rides brevet participation is tiny. As a result, Randonneurs can find themselves spread out over a course and often riding solo. But when you have more riders in a brevet you have a greater opportunity to interact with others and experience the camaraderie that is a real and significant part of the sport.

Will you describe the dynamic between community and competition in randonneuring?
The community is a big part of the sport. The events are staged by fellow riders and without those volunteers who contribute their time, effort and talents, the sport would not exist. On the course, the camaraderie is also a significant part of the sport. As for competition, the course is the competition. The time frame is the competition and if you choose too, you can compete against yourself. But the other riders are definitely not your competition. If anything they can help you reach your personal goals.

Riders help each other. Photo c. Iron Rider
In photos of events, I see all kinds of bikes. How much does equipment matter?
To state the obvious, equipment definitely matters because you cannot complete a brevet without it. But that being said, there are many types of bikes that can, and have, been used to complete a brevet. I have seen folding bikes, tandems, fat bikes, fixies, touring bikes, recumbent bikes, carbon fiber road bikes, classic steel bikes and yes even "randoneurring" specific bikes. All of these bikes have been used to complete brevets of all distances (except maybe fat bikes - I have only seen one of those on a 200K- but give it time and someone will likely take one on a longer ride).

Many types of bikes complete brevets. Photo c. Iron Rider
So all you really need, at minimum, is a bike in good enough condition to be ridden the distance within the time. One step beyond the minimum is a bike that is comfortable and reliable. Beyond that, it really becomes a matter of personal preference.

Are there any specific rides, or plans you have, that you are looking forward to in the 2014 season?
I signed up for the Natchez Trace 1500K, scheduled for September. It starts in Tennessee and goes through three states. That should be my big ride of the year. Before that, I generally plan to keep riding brevets. That is a plan I always look forward to.

Would you offer any advice to riders choosing a first 200K?
Check with your local randonneuring group. You can also got to RUSA.ORG for additional information and ride schedules. Randonneurs are usually very helpful and willing to answer specific questions you might have. Until then, keep pedaling!

A flat section of the route. Photo c. Iron Rider

Is there anything you would like to add?
Nothing comes to mind . . .

Thank you so much! It is a privilege to feature you here. 


  1. Very nice, and good to read about how others prepare and experience brevets!

    1. Hi MG, I know from Iron Rider's site and yours that you know each other through brevets. It would be fun to someday ride a mid-Atlantic brevet and meet both of you.

    2. Suze, thanks for the interview. And yes I have met MG at a brevet or two. It would be great if you could join us for a ride sometime. If I can do anything to help, just let me know.

    3. Thank you. I appreciate it! If I manage to get to a 200K in the mid-Atlantic, you will be the first to know.

  2. Another interesting interview. Thank you.

    1. No, no...the thanks go to you for reading and commenting ... and that is true.

  3. I've happened upon the Iron Rider blog a few times. Good stuff. I'm not a randonneur, but have a lot of good friends who are. They enjoy reminding me how much tougher their rides are than mine.

    The Natchez 1500 sounds awesome. I've wanted to ride that Parkway someday, but would probably have to do it through supported means.

    1. Funny how everyone's ride is always so much tougher than everyone else's ride, eh? But I'm sure you could ride that Parkway with whatever means you choose...

  4. I'm a huge fan and a complete stranger to IR, yet he has recently taken the time to help me through a series of (almost) unending questions on rando cycling - a really big help!


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