Puff the Magic Dragon 600 km Brevet

Randonneur comes from the French and describes someone who goes on a long trip or ramble, usually on foot or by bicycle, along a fixed route. For Randonneurs USA (RUSA – the governing body for the US) the trip is specifically taken by bicycle and that group is part of a world-wide body of such organizations of which Audax Club Parisian (who hosts Paris-Brest-Paris every four years) is a member.

A brevet is not a race, but it is a very challenging long-distance ride that must be completed within a certain amount of time. It is strictly closed to professional cyclists and you cannot average above 21 mph. A randonneur must average between 9.4 and 21 mph for a 600 km event, but keep in mind that clock never stops even while you’re sleeping, eating, dealing with bike maintenance, etc. Self-sufficiency is required and you must carry with you or purchase along the route anything you need to be able to complete the ride. You are issued a brevet card listing checkpoints (called controls) and those controls open and close based on the average range you must maintain – and you must hit every one of them during their open hours.

On June 29 I lined up with eleven other randonneurs to attempt the Great Lakes Randonneurs Puff the Magic Dragon 600 km brevet. Just before the start I sent the RideWithGPS route file I had previously downloaded to my phone over to my Wahoo Bolt via bluetooth and I relied on it for the entirety of the route. The map view is particularly helpful, especially for confusing intersections and knowing where to go after leaving a control.

For the first several miles of rolling hills my roommate Kit and I traded places at the front until she decided to drop back and get a group together. Soon we had a paceline going with two men on single bikes and a tandem (Paul & Jennifer) through the flats. We rolled into the first control at the Kirkland Marathon (35 miles in) feeling pretty good and were shortly caught by two other riders. I had some chocolate milk and refilled my bottles with more Perpetuum. Soon we were on the road again.

I don’t remember all of the controls. I remember rolling into the second control at the BP in Oregon, IL (mile 64), reapplying sunscreen, and just flying at 21 mph behind the tandem down the rumble-strip-protected shoulder of IL-2 along the Rock River to the control in Byron (mile 75). Unfortunately while I was in the restroom the main group left and I was saddened by thinking that there weren’t that many riders behind me to work with if I let them catch up, and that the riders ahead would never be reachable if they were working together.

I was wrong! It turns out that a decade of going to Spring Camp in Southern Illinois with Wild Card, combined with gears that can only go so slowly (if I don’t want to fall down), has left me pretty slow for Wild Card but pretty quick for randonneuring. The fourth control wasn’t until the Brodhead BP (mile 115) and it was very warm so I drank a lot of fluids and stopped for more water at a non-control gas station in Pecatonia (that’s allowed – you can patronize businesses along the way – you just can’t have someone you know render aid at a non-control). A few miles up the road I caught Kit doing the same thing somewhere else, and then a few miles after that I found Jennifer, Paul, & another rider doing the same thing at another station. There were more hills following that and I chugged on ahead, knowing that if I didn’t catch the front two riders, the tandem would catch me.

Paul & Jennifer on the tandem did catch me but I ended up leaving the control solo to head for the shaded dirt two-track of the Sugar River Trail, an option that would have cut 4 miles from the route’s 376 and given me a blessed break from the heat and pavement. Sadly, there was a bird’s nest in the box you had to put your trail pass registration/fee in, and a sign up saying you had to buy a pass from the Brodhead Police Department, which was several miles behind me. The tandem came through taking the pavement option while I was figuring it out and I caught up with them and ended up riding most of the day with them.

The New Glarus control (mile 143) was an open one which meant we could get a receipt from anywhere and we chose Culver’s for the tables, air conditioning, french fries, and ice cream, all needed given the heat (92 degrees F and humid as all get-out). At one point in the afternoon I started shivering and stopped under a tree for a few minutes. Jennifer and Paul waited for me at the Evansville control (mile 165) even after the lead guys (whom they had caught) left. At the Milton control (mile 190) we caught the lead guys again and one of them was hurting enough that we ended up leaving first. At the Darien control (mile 213) one of them caught up with us but he was waiting there (either for a ride or for the other one it wasn’t clear) and wouldn’t leave with us. We rode onward, in the dark, and arrived at the overnight control (Best Western, Woodstock, IL, mile 251) around 2:30 am.

There were also some info controls at miles 201 and 235. At an info control you have to report on what you see at that location – in this case “How many zip ties are on the back of the stop sign at such and such an intersection?” and “What was the lottery number on the sign at the gas station in Hebron, IL?” Rural Wisconsin does not have a lot of 24 hour options for controls so the route included these questions, the answers to which we had to record on our brevet card. We (the tandem and I) were the first to arrive at the overnight but even we wouldn’t have made it to the Hebron, IL gas station before it closed at 9 pm.

Before heading off for a few hours of sleep I made a plan with Jennifer & Paul to start again at 7 am. I also ate all the chili mac Michele Brougher (the Great Lakes Randonneurs RBA running the event) handed me and took a shower. Kit came in sometime after I was already in bed and also showered and tried to get some sleep.

My alarm wasn’t supposed to go off until around 6:15 but around 5:45 I think the GPS signal on Kit’s bike computer was lost and it started periodically beeping. I was worried that this was my GPS making noise so I got up to go check on its charging on the counter in the bathroom and took my thyroid meds before laying back down. Kit got up a little later with the kind of fierce determination on her face that makes a randonneur a good one. The two guys she’d been riding with made it back to the overnight control with her but announced they were quitting. She got up, got dressed, and hit the road to finish the brevet before she could talk herself into quitting too. I never saw her again but she finished in 35:32 and left a nice note on the hotel dresser.

Jennifer and I had a little breakfast before hitting the road with Paul at 7 and we zipped through the second day’s controls pretty uneventfully. Lydia & Todd (who got in pretty late and never slept) hit the road shortly after us and we saw them a few times at the first two controls. Around mile 301 a crazy storm showed up and I got nailed in the side of the head by a falling branch. I saw it coming and turned my head so my helmet and glasses took the brunt of it. I’ve never been so grateful for paying for the good sports lenses.

At that point I was passing the parking lot for the Lulu Lake Natural Area and there were hikers running off the trail to their cars. I turned in and asked some guys if I could hang out in their car while the brunt of the storm passed. My bike was out in the elements leaned up against a tree but I was dry in the back seat of a tiny two-door car contacting the RBA and the Eagle in BP which was to be the next control, both so that when Jennifer & Paul looked back and realized they’d lost me they’d not worry. A little later the storm abated enough for me to thank the hikers and hustle up to the control (mile 305). I talked to Michele again and she said the six of us who were still doing the brevet were safely holed up at various locations within 20 miles of each other. We waited a while but eventually set off into the no-longer-stormy rain.

By the time we hit the control in Whitewater (mile 320) it had stopped raining. I had a sandwich which didn’t sit that well for me. I also contemplated taking some ibuprofen to make my hip feel better but decided against it given that ibuprofen is contraindicated if there’s a possibility of dehydration. A few miles after that I lost Jennifer and Paul on some hills and waited for them for a bit and then circled back to find them fixing a flat. They adamantly sent me on to get my 600 done and I was ready to leave the control in Delavan just after they got there. I set out alone and did end up taking that ibuprofen when the flash of hip pain with every concrete seam got bad enough to nearly make me cry. I did some mostly-standing-riding until it kicked in.

Around mile 350 I realized that the sky over my right shoulder had darkened enough to indicate that there was another storm on the horizon. A few minutes after that it was obvious enough I started riding as hard as I could. There were several sections of broken pavement and gravel through there and I rode them in my drops as if I were in a gravel race, with very little care for my (puncturable) road tires, just so I could beat the storm. I got lucky. At the last control (Hebron again, mile 362) I drank an espresso shot and left without refiling my bottles. I raced that storm back to Woodstock, IL and won, finishing the 376 miles in 37:45.

Paul and Jennifer finished shortly after me in 38:00, and Lydia & Todd also made it in with an hour in hand before the 40 hour cut-off. All four of the women who started the brevet finished, as did the RBA and another rider when they did a pre-ride a week earlier (37:59). This was my last required qualifier for the 1200 km brevet Paris-Brest-Paris, which means that I will be heading to France in August. Je suis une randonneuse.