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Going the Distance with Randonneurs 

Long hours and in the saddle is Par for the Course for long-distance cyclists

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE GRAVES

Pat Horchoff snapped his femur on July 17, 2009. While riding his bike on the Mississippi River levee near the Army Corps of Engineers building along River Road, Horchoff collided with a car pulling out of the lot. Within a few weeks, Horchoff was back on his wheels. A few weeks after that, he completed a 134-mile ride. A couple months later, he completed a 900-mile, eight-day ride.

  "If a guy with a broken leg can do it," he says, "anyone can."

  Horchoff, 54, is the founder of Crescent City Randonneurs (CCR), a group of dedicated bicyclists who practice the art of two-wheeled, long-distance riding, or randonneuring — from the French randonee, a long-form countryside hike or tour. The group takes off on brevets, or courses of at least 200 kilometers, and populaires, smaller events of less than 200 km. The rules, as outlined by Randonneurs USA (RUSA), the national supervisory group for randonneuring clubs throughout the country: Register, get insurance, obey traffic rules, use night-lights, do it yourself and no cheating.

  Of course there are other rules: Finish within a certain amount of time, know what you're getting into (randonneurs must pack and carry everything they'll need for the ride, including tools, extra inner tubes, clothing, water) and, most important, finish the ride. Notice the word "race" is absent.

  "Camaraderie and helping each other out along the way are a lot more important than who comes across first, second or third," Horchoff says. "That's what really appeals to me about the sport."

  In 2004, Horchoff applied to be a RUSA regional brevet administrator (RBA) and founded CCR, the only RUSA group in Louisiana. His first brevet was in Austin, Texas, in January 2001, just two years after he started riding on an old Schwinn bicycle. Before his trip to Austin, Horchoff finished his first long-distance ride, a 250-mile event. "When I came back from that thing I thought, 'Man, this is great,'" he says. "Mortal man shouldn't be allowed to ride that far."

  When he reached Austin, the weather was 29 degrees. The riders geared up before sunrise. As the group pushed along the course, Horchoff fell behind the others. But they slowed down, helping him catch up and keep up. As the group headed back toward the arrivee (the finish line), Horchoff's seat fell off his bike. His fellow riders stopped to help. A bolt had broken loose. Horchoff would have to complete the ride — which randonneurs determine to finish, no matter what — without his seat. "We made it the rest of the way in, about another 16 or 18 miles, having to stand up on the pedals without sitting down," he says. At the arrivee, the other riders waited for Horchoff and cheered and applauded as he rode across the finish line.

click to enlarge Alan Schwartz of Memphis rides over the Tennessee River on the Natchez Trace. - PHOTO BY STEVE GRAVES

  "I'm a new guy, and they're all encouraging me to finish," he remembers. "I like this kind of bicycle ride. Nobody was out to see who could make the new guy feel bad for not being able to finish something."

American randonneuring traces back to 1968's Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a 1,200 km ride in France from Paris to Brest and back to Paris. It's the oldest living bicycle racing event: The first was in 1891, and the last official event was in 1951, but unofficial PBPs have taken place since. Three Americans participated in the 1968 ride. A few years later, eight Americans joined, then 21 Americans several years after that. Word about the event spread among cyclists and led to the foundation of International Randonneurs (IR), which published newsletters to its members outlining rules of the sport. Clubs were organized across the United States, and so were races. Missouri riders held the Bicycle Across Missouri event, and in 1988, randonneurs created the 1,200 km Boston-Montreal-Boston brevet. With Internet access and email communication available in the mid-1990s, participation and interest in the sport grew, and in 1998, club organizers founded RUSA, now the official voting member of international randonneuring organization Randonneurs Mondiaux and the largest represented organization for randonneurs in the United States. As of April 2010, RUSA counts 2,286 members.

Horchoff doesn't recruit members, he encourages them. He organizes populaires to give potential randonneurs a taste of the sport. For the slowest riders, he hangs back during a ride and helps them finish what they started. "A good number of people have come out for their first brevet, and anyone who's been wanting to finish the ride has completed it," he says.

  But there's at least one person he has had to convince to join. "He twisted my arm until I did it," says Dennis Horchoff, Pat's brother. "I cycled years ago, when I was in high school and college. Then you get out, put the bike in the garage, all of a sudden it's 10 years later and you can't remember the last time you've been on a bike."

  Dennis joined Pat on long-distance rides in 2002 and kept pushing longer distances each ride. Last year he completed 4,500 miles on his bike, and he hopes to do the same or more this year. "The more you ride, the better you ride, and the better you feel at the end of the ride," Dennis says. "There's always something to work for."

click to enlarge Michelle Williams, an RBA for Mississippi, often rides with the CCR. - PHOTO BY STEVE GRAVES

  Before randonneurs take off, the routes must be approved by RUSA. Pat says he looks for low-traffic highways with roads in "pretty good condition" and with convenience stores or similar stopping points at least every 30 miles. CCR organizes at least one brevet a month. The rides provide a tour of south Louisiana (as well as north, west and everywhere in between). One route, a short, four-hour 101 km, goes from River Ridge along the levee to River Road and on to the Bonnet Carre Spillway into LaPlace. It then heads north and turns around at Fernier, where the riders stop for a bite to eat at the Crab Trap before they retrace their steps and head home. Here, riders get a RUSA-certified card signed, and a receipt — proof they made it to the checkpoint.

  Another route, starting in Franklinton, visits Wilmer, Amite, Montpelier, Gillsburg, Miss., and Kentwood — all in a day's work, covering approximately 4,000 feet of elevation. In the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, CCR hosts a 200 km brevet on the Northshore on Saturday, another ride on Sunday, and a Mardi Gras ride with the Krewe of Bike-us. Joining the group are riders from Kentucky, Virginia, Texas and the Gulf South. Last year, CCR ventured to the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile path winding through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. The group rode both ways, totaling about 900 miles over the four-day trip.

  "Randonneurs," Dennis says. "Even though they like riding their bikes, they don't mind getting in their cars and going someplace for a good bike ride."

Of the active CCR members belonging to RUSA, three — Pat, Dennis and Steve Graves — are in the New Orleans area, and another three live elsewhere in state. Riders don't have to be RUSA members to participate in events, but they should be accustomed to long-distance riding. "It's recommended you don't ride in an event that's more than 30 percent longer than the longest bike ride you've ever done," Pat says. He recommends increasing ride distances incrementally, adding mileage with each ride until you feel comfortable tackling a brevet.

click to enlarge Louisiana RBA Pat Horchoff put almost 12,000 miles on his bike last year. - PHOTO BY STEVE GRAVES

  "I thought I was going to die," Pat remembers after his first 5-mile trip in 1999. Six months later, he rode from his house in River Ridge to Audubon Park — a 10-mile ride. "That was great. But I turned around and realized I had the tailwind all the way (to the park). Coming back I had the headwind. By the time I hit the Huey P. Long Bridge, I was almost in tears." Pat increased his mileage with each trip — from 20 to 30 to 40 miles.

  "You don't have to be much of an athlete, otherwise I wouldn't be able to do it," he says. "Let's face it: I'm 54; I weigh 250 pounds. When someone looks at me they don't think I'm an athlete. But last year I put almost 12,000 miles on a bicycle."

  Once a cyclist has experienced long-distance rides, potential randonneurs need to focus on hydration and nutrition. "You have to really be aware of what (riding) is doing to your body," Dennis says. "There's a thing that happens that cyclists call 'bonking.' If you're a marathon runner, you call it 'hitting the wall.' You get woozy, your speed will just crater. All of a sudden, you'll be riding at 8 or 10 mph. You start to hallucinate, daydream about things you're going to eat when you get to the end."

  Randonneurs take advantage of convenience stores and controles, pit stops along a route, to hydrate and restore much-needed calories for energy. Those stops are also an opportunity to make adjustments on the bike. Pat recommends riders have some understanding of bike mechanics. The RUSA handbook suggests bringing along spare inner tubes, a tube patch kit, chain links, a pump, a spoke wrench and other gadgets.

click to enlarge cover_story-6.jpg

  The Horchoffs realize their hobby takes a different kind of personality.

  "My (coworkers) are aware I cycle," says Pat, a manufacturing engineer. "When I tell them about the kind of cycling I do, they're like, 'You got to be crazy. I don't drive my car that far on a weekend.'

  "It really takes a bit of an OCD mentality. It's a long time to be doing the exact same thing over and over. But I love it. You're out in the fresh air. I really enjoy heading out in the morning, watching the sun come up, and riding the bike all day long, turning around and having the sun set on you."

  Pat relied on a walker to help him walk after his accident. His leg still gives him trouble if he's putting pressure on it. "But not on a bike," he says.

For more information about the group, visit its Web site: http://groups.google.com/group/crescent-city-randonneurs.

click to enlarge cover_story-1.jpg
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