Thursday, October 31, 2013

Brevet Attempts: Two Successes, Two Failures

Once again, I am attempting to leaven a dry and picture-less blog post with irrelevant pictures. For this post, I selected some pictures of my participation in bike races in 1968, an upbeat topic to balance the downbeat topic of this post. I have been unable to reconstruct what race this picture shows, but I am the rider half-off the picture to the left in white with blue and red trim, version 2.0 of the Modesto Roadmen jersey. I am riding the Hetchins I purchased for my bike tour of Europe during the summer of 1967, repurposed for racing.

Last week, I abandoned my fourth brevet attempt. To date, attempts one and three succeeded, two and four failed. In both 2012 and 2013 I successfully prepared for a brevet in May, but then failed when I attempted to prepare for a second brevet in November. (All four attempts were for 200K brevets.) The two obvious and related questions are why did attempts two and four fail, and what do these failures suggest for the future?

For those new to this blog, a brevet is a non-competitive challenge ride conducted under the rules of randonneuring as sanctioned nationally by Randonneurs USA (RUSA) and internationally by Audax Club Parisien (APC). RUSA's FAQ on their website is an excellent first introduction to this sport. A 200K brevet is 200 kilometers or 124 miles long, must be completed in 13½ hours, and is the shortest of the sanctioned brevets. The most common lengths for brevets are 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 km. People who are good at this will do many brevets over the course of a year, typically one each month, a 200K/300K/400K/600K series each year, and may also do multiple 1200K brevets in a year, so what I am attempting is nothing exceptional to say the least.

What background to I have coming into randonneuring? From the ages of 14 through 21 I was a fairly serious cyclist, a less serious but regular cyclist from 21 to 30, and then from 30 to 60, essentially quit cycling and exercised sporadically at best. In 2008 I restarted cycling, became more serious by 2010, and since 2012 have been trying to break into the sport of randonneuring. This blog was created to document that attempt.

This is the start of a criterium held in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa in 1968. I can barely be seen just under the tree in the left ⅓ of the picture. Much more interesting is the gentleman officiating the race in a spiffy panama hat, at the far right of the picture. That would be the great Wally Gilbert, one of the top officials of the Northern California race scene and a great friend of the Modesto Roadmen. He and Bob Tetzlaff, a top level racer of the day, took us under their wing and got us signed up as an ABLA sanctioned club.

Why Did My Last Brevet Attempt Fail?

I have yet to start a brevet and fail to finish. When I say a brevet attempts failed, I mean that I was unable to complete the training regimen I designed to prepare for that brevet and so never registered for the event. Although I have varied my training for each of my four attempts, all four attempts required that I complete a series of weekly long rides of increasing length leading up to a ride of at least 90 miles before the brevet. In both failed attempts, I completed an 80 mile ride but was unable to complete a 90 mile ride. I do not know with certainty (and probably cannot know with certainty) why my last brevet attempt failed; there may, in fact, be a combination of reasons. However, I can suggest some possible reasons for this failure (hypotheses) and suggest which of these I find intuitively more likely.

In thinking about all the possible causes for this failure, the obvious first possibility to consider is that I lacked the will to succeed, that I gave up. There are many discussions on randonneuring websites of people who have or have not completed brevets provided as morality tales on how important it is not to give up too easily. Every ride will contain some moments that are easy and fun and some that are unpleasant indeed. If one abandons an attempt at the first sign of unpleasantness, one will miss out on the satisfaction of completing a ride, that satisfaction making the suffering along the way worthwhile. That said, both times I abandoned my 90 mile training ride, I did so in response to another shibboleth; "listen to your body". Both times my body was telling me it was exhausted; not that I couldn't finish the ride, but that it would cost me dearly to do so, leaving me weaker rather than stronger. If I were riding in a brevet, especially one that was important to me, I might push on with the understanding would make up for it later with a long rest before resuming training. However, feeling that way while training is a clear message to me that the time for a rest is now, not later. So for the moment at least, I will reject the hypothesis that I failed due to not trying hard enough.

That's me, front and center, in my Modesto Roadmen jersey, leading the pack in the 1968 Santa Cruz bike race. I remember this course well, it was one of the nicer courses. It did consist of multiple laps, but they were long laps which headed out into the country and then back through town. Parts of the course were along the ocean, and as you can see from the stairs in the center of the picture, the course was quite hilly.

Another hypothesis is that my failures are the result of illness, either something as benign as a mild infection or perhaps something more serious. I consider this hypothesis rather unlikely, and in any case, I'm about to have my annual physical so worrying about it would be a waste of time.

The two related hypotheses I think are most worth exploring are 1) that I am training incorrectly or 2) that more than one brevet a year is currently beyond my capabilities. These hypotheses are related because if more than one brevet a year is beyond my capabilities, then almost by definition, attempting to train for more than one brevet a year is training incorrectly. The training plans I am following are very conventional and are similar to those recommended by a number of coaches; I have not yet seen an actual coach recommend a significantly easier plan for training for a 100 mile or 200 kilometer ride than what I am doing. (The training needed to complete these two distances is generally considered to be similar.) That said, training plans need to be individualized, and not everyone can complete every training plan; the fact that I cannot complete a training plan generally recognized as necessary for a 200 kilometer ride more than once in a year suggests that as the (current) limit of my abilities.

In my next post, I will discuss recent changes I have made in my training, why I made them, what they tell me about my ability to go beyond one brevet a year, and where I might go from here.

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