Friday, March 7, 2014

Super Brevet Summer

            When I described my cycling plans for the summer of 2013 to my friends, they said, politely, that they sounded “fun” and “challenging.”  They probably also thought that I was crazy, but they did not say so to my face.
            After completing my Super Randonneur series in Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia, my plan was to do two overseas grandes randonnées.  The first was London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), a 1400-kilometer ride that would take place from July 28 to August 2, 2013.  Then, two weeks later, I planned to do the Super Brevet Scandinavia (SBS), a 1200-kilometer ride that was to begin in Frederikshavn, Denmark on August 16, and was to end at midnight on August 19 in Kristiansand, Norway.
            But my plan was not simply to complete these two rides.  I would also ride my bicycle from the end of LEL to the beginning of SBS.  Thus, after riding 880 miles from London to Edinburgh and back, I would load my camping gear onto my bike and travel about 850 miles to Skagen, the resort city at the most northerly tip of Demark.  After a few days of rest in Skagen, I would ride about 25 miles south to Frederikshavn, and then about 745 miles over the next four days to Kristiansand, Norway.  After completing the Super Brevet, I would rest for a day, and then ride about 220 miles to Oslo, where I would board a plane back to Indianapolis.
            In total, then, my plan was to ride about 2800 miles over the course of one month, from late July to late August.
            I had several reasons for wanting to pull off this elaborate plan.  I completed Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011 (see my account in the Winter, 2011 issue of American Randonneur), but I had never undertaken two grandes randonnées in a year.  I looked forward to the challenge.
            Secondly, even as I have taken up randonneuring, I have continued to enjoy touring, and I go on several loaded trips each year.  I looked forward to the two-week tour that would take me from London to the tip of Denmark, and I liked the idea of combining randonneuring with touring in this way.
            Thirdly, I enjoy the self-sufficiency of bicycle travel.  I commute and do most of my daily travel by bicycle, and I wanted to see how far I could go on my own.  I relished the idea of covering a good swath of northern Europe by bicycle, unaided by the internal combustion engine or other machinery.
            So, at the end of July, I uncoupled my couplers, packed my bike, and boarded a plane from Indianapolis to London.  Once I arrived, I took the underground from Heathrow Airport to a hotel in a northern suburb of London, where I reassembled my bicycle.  I shipped my bike bag, via Royal Mail, to a hotel in Oslo, where I would end my four-week ride.
            The organizers of LEL had made arrangements for participants to stay at a campground near the start, so I rode there, and pitched my tent for the week.  This would give me a place to rest before and after the ride, as well as a place to store my belongings.  I registered, and then I rode back into London, where I spent the night in a cheap hotel so that I could take part in the Prologue, which went from Buckingham Palace to the start in Loughton.
            The ride itself was brilliant.  Like Paris-Brest-Paris, food and sleeping facilities were available at each of the controls, which were spaced 50 to 90 kilometers apart.  Unlike PBP, the registration fee—which was a very modest 219 pounds, or about $360—covered all of the food and services on the ride.  This meant that I and the other 1000 riders on LEL were well fed and sheltered for five days.
            The scenery on the ride was also varied and wonderful.  Once we crossed the massive bridge over the Humber River, the land turned lumpy, first in modest doses through Yorkshire, and then in more dramatic fashion as we climbed Yad Moss and entered Scotland.  The Devil’s Beeftub, just outside of Moffat, Scotland was one of the more memorable and memorably named climbs on the ride.
            And while there were not crowds cheering us along the route, as there are on PBP, there was an army of cheerful and ever-attentive volunteers at the controls, who saw to our every need.  At one point, I needed to replace a brake pad, and I was helped by a volunteer mechanic, who turned out to be Dave Yates, a well known frame builder in England. The spirit of the ride was incredible, and while it was quite different from PBP, it was equally memorable. 
            I finished LEL just after midnight on Friday morning, a little more than six hours ahead of the cut-off time.  I returned to my tent, had a nice long sleep, and spent the rest of the day, and much of the next morning trading stories with fellow finishers (one of whom broke his downtube in Scotland, had it welded by a local craftsman, and then finished the ride in good time). 
            At noon on Saturday, I loaded my bike again, and rode 70 miles north to Harwich, arriving just in time to board the ferry to Holland.  This was one of my few luxuries on the trip—I booked a sleeping berth, and purchased a three-course dinner and a big breakfast for the morning of our arrival.  Thus, I arrived at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam, feeling well rested and well fed, ready to begin the continental portion of my journey.
            One of the pleasures of touring in Europe is that many areas have municipal campgrounds, allowing you to enjoy the pleasures of the city while camping outdoors.  I stayed two nights at a very nice campground within the city limits of Amsterdam, paying about $15 per night.  I visited the Van Gogh House and other sites, and enjoyed two very pleasant summer days in Amsterdam, watching all the world pass by on a bicycle.
            On most days, I aimed to ride only about 100 miles, and so I had a fairly leisurely trip across the Netherlands and into Germany.  I stopped for two nights at what must be most immaculate and meticulously maintained campground in the world, in the city of Bremen, and enjoyed several walks in that delightful city. 
            As I approached the Danish border one night, I could not find a convenient campground.  So I rode through the night, stopping, rando-style, for a three-hour nap during a pouring rain in a German bus stop.  German bus stops, I found, were better set up for sleeping than many of the Super 8s I have stayed in during North American brevets.
            I was surprised to find southern Denmark to be very hilly—I had always thought of that country as perfectly flat, and just a few feet above sea level.  I sprained an ankle hauling my loaded bike up one of these hills, and it was swollen and a bit bothersome for the rest of my trip. 
On the other hand, though, I found camping in Denmark to be fabulous.  Every small town had a small campground, and with only 20 or 30 kilometers between towns, I did not have to decide in advance where I would stop for the night.  I knew that, whenever I was tired and wanted to settle down for the night, I would find a campsite.  And Danish campgrounds, like German ones, were clean and well equipped. Not only did they have kitchens with stoves, pots and refrigerators, but they also had baby baths.  I did not have any babies with me, but I was happy to be in campgrounds that addressed everyone’s needs so well.
The touring portion of my journey ended in Skagen, the most northerly point in Denmark. I camped near where the Baltic and North Seas come together.  Because of its peculiar northern light and its barren beaches, Skagen has long been a Mecca for tourists and artists.  It proved an ideal place to rest before my last challenge.
Like LEL, the Super Brevet Scandinavia was very well organized, but it was also very different in character.  There were about 90 of us on SBS, and we stopped each night at the same hotel, and left each morning at the same time.  This meant that the fast and slow riders came together every day, and this, in turn, created a special kind of camaraderie among the riders.
Unlike my experience on LEL, I had some mechanical problems on SBS.  At one point, my chain over-shifted and got stuck in that inconvenient gap between my spokes and my cassette; it took a very kind Dane about an hour to coax it out with a screwdriver and hammer.  He broke a spoke in the process. 
Then, on the second night of the ride, my front light quit working, and I had lost my back-up light on LEL (this was one problem with doing two rides back-to-back rides—I did not have the chance to replenish my equipment).  This meant that I was stuck in the darkest corner of Sweden without a way forward.  But fellow riders soon came along and lit the way for me during that night, and, the following night, another rider lent me his back-up light.
On the final day of the ride, my GPS stopped working (a fate that seems to befall all Garmin Edge users at some point) just when the navigation got complicated in Norway.  Luckily, though, I was able to join up with some Danish riders, and we managed to finish, with just 30 minutes to spare.
I had been an exchange student in Norway when I was 16 years old, and I had not been back in 38 years.  It was thrilling to return, and I enjoyed trying out my very rusty Norwegian each time I stopped for food or directions.
I was surprised, though, to discover that Norway had grown some massive hills in my absence.  I knew, of course, that there were mountains in the north and in the center of Norway, and I had been to some of them, but I was unprepared for the long, long climbs of 8 to 10 percent grade on the road to Kristiansand.
Because of the difficult climbs, I did not completely fulfill my plan by riding 220 miles to Oslo.  I was tired and I could not bear the thought of climbing some of the same hills I had done on SBS.  So I took a train for about 100 miles, thereby avoiding some of the most difficult hills.
Nevertheless, I managed to get to Oslo under my own steam, and was reunited with the bike bag I had sent from London.  I went to the Munch Museum, Vigeland Park, and some other places I remembered from my exchange student days.  Then I packed up my bike, and flew home to Indianapolis.
My summer adventures brought me many rewards.  I was able to complete two great randonneuring events, and I made many new friends and had many great experiences along the way.  I rode about 2700 miles on my bicycle, and enjoyed the independence and freedom that come with such a long trip.
I also enjoyed crossing boundaries on my bike, watching England become Scotland, the Netherlands become Germany, and Germany become Denmark.  In one way, borders are fixed and absolute; you can identify the exact moment when you leave Sweden and enter Norway.  As I experienced them on my bicycle, however, borders were much more fuzzy, and it was fun to track the gradual and sometimes subtle changes in language, food and street design that signaled that I was leaving one country and entering another.
My trip also allowed me to experience some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world.  I have cycled through the Netherlands several times, and have always enjoyed the completely separate set of paths for cyclist throughout that country.  Cycling in the Netherlands is rather slow, however, because you have to stop at many intersections and ask for permission to cross the street by pressing a button.  I was surprised at how well cyclists were accommodated in Germany, and at how many Germans used their bicycles for shopping and for errands.  In many places in Germany, I traveled on cycle tracks far out into the countryside.  But I found the cycling infrastructure in Denmark to be the absolute best.  While cyclists are generally separated from cars, as in the Netherlands, they are also on equal footing with cars, and you do not have to press buttons at intersections to get permission to cross.  The Danish system for cyclists is fast, efficient and safe.
I also found great pleasure in connecting randonneuring with touring on my trip.  As Jan Heine has shown in excellent four-part history of randonneuring (Bicycle Quarterly, vols. 8-10), the origins of the sport lie in bicycle touring in late nineteenth-century France.  And, of course, Paris-Brest-Paris is still operated under the auspices of the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme.  I felt that, in my trip, I combined two styles of riding that belong together.
I enjoyed every part of my trip, but I doubt that I will try to repeat it in 2017, when LEL and SBS come up again.  Instead, I will continue to look for new and different opportunities for combining randonneuring events, and for combining randonneuring with touring.