The long ride over the weekend and the prospect of longer rides two days in a row in just two-and-a-half weeks has been making me think more about distance lately.

We’ll do 100 miles the first day of the MS 150, and 77 the second day. That’s a lot of riding. But for some folks, those are just walks in the park.

I’m talking about randonneurs.

Randonneuring is marathon cycling. But not only do you have to complete long distances, you have to complete them within a certain time frame. In that way, it resembles an auto rally more than a race.

Randonneurs will go 200, 300, 400, 600 or 1200 kilometers in one ride. For the metrically-challenged, 200k is 125 miles, more or less. I’ve done 100 miles once, and thought that was as far as I’d ever care to go. That’s the kind of ride randonneurs stage to introduce new riders t0 their sport.

At first blush, randonneurs don’t look much different from the typical club ride. They’ve got bikes, and helmets, and lycra jerseys, and spandex. But upon closer inspection, there are some notable differences.

Cyclists ready to leave for yet another leg on the 1400 kilometer London-Edinburgh-London ride.

Randonnees, the rides put on by randonneurs, are unsupported. So each rider has to carry food and drink, and enough in the way of tools to make roadside repairs if the bike breaks during the ride. The rides start before the sun rises, and keep going after the sun sets. So the bikes are equipped with head and tail lights. If it’s really long, arrangements might be made for rooms at motels along the route, and riders take turns flopping on the beds for only two or three hours of sleep.

As the day warms up, riders will likely shed some layers of clothing, so they often use large saddle bags or rack-mounted bags to carry their extra stuff. Many carry smaller items, such as energy bars, a cell phone, a camera, and tire repair kits, in a handle bar bag. Because they ride rain or shine, randonneuring bikes are usually equipped with fenders, and perhaps somewhat wider tires than most club riders. And because it’s important to stay comfortable after being in the saddle for 12 hours on end, many randonneurs use the old-fashioned Brooks leather saddles, sometimes even sprung versions.

A Rivendell Bleriot outfitted for randonneuring. Note the fenders with leather mud guards, the Brooks leather saddle, and the front and rear bags.

The bikes themselves are a little different, too. Speed is not the aim, although some are fairly speedy. Durability is of paramount importance, because of the lack of sag support. And to add to comfort, a certain style of frame is sought after.

The resulting bike looks like a throwback to earlier cycling times. But if form does indeed follow function, the randonneuring bike is a highly functional machine. Most often, it has a steel frame. It has drop bars, but they’re often mated to a threaded headset, and the bars are up at saddle height.

During a ride, cyclists have to check in at “controls” to have their brevet (bruh-VAY) cards stamped and signed. Sometimes, ride organizers slip in a “secret” control, to assure that riders don’t try to shorten the course. Failure to reach a control results in disqualification.

If you’re interested in randonneuring, you might start by checking out Randonneurs USA, the governing body of randonneuring in the United States. Their web site will point you to rides and to area clubs.

If you really get the bug, and want to do the big daddy, it’s the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France, run every four years. Next year, 2011, is one of those years. You have to qualify to ride PBP, and you do that by completing brevets of 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometers during 2011. A brevet is a ride for which you are certified to have finished, and the record of your finishing goes to Paris. Even that might not be enough, though. Because of the popularity of the ride, each country is assigned a quota of riders, and once it’s filled, it’s filled.

For me, the allure of randonneuring is in the thought of covering so much ground on a single ride. But thinking about it and doing it are two different things. Talk to me after the MS 150 and we’ll see if I’m up for something longer.

Four Mental Skills You Need For Cycling

I posted a brief account on my club’s bulletin board about bailing on yesterday’s ride. My friend Judy responded: “Yes, that windy hill was a killer.  I had to really dig into my mental reserves to finish that.”

I guess what’s bothering me most today as I look back on the ride was that I didn’t dig deep enough into my mental reserves. The last rest stop turned out to be about a mile past where I quit. If I had been able to get to that stop, I’m sure I would have been able to stoke myself up enough to finish the ride — which ended only eight miles farther on.

Lately, I’ve only been concerned with the physical side of training. Overcoming the layoff imposed by my knee injury, gradually regaining strength and speed — those are things that I’ve been working on.

But I also need to get to work on my mental preparation for longer rides.

A lot of the material written about the mental aspect of cycling is geared toward racers. I think recreational riders can gain a lot from it, too.

British cycling coach Christine Jacklin says a cyclist must learn these mental skills:

Concentration. The ability to focus and stay focused. We lose concentration when we allow ourselves to become distracted. Sometimes the distractions are within ourselves. In my case, I rode with a minor saddle sore, and the long time in the saddle made it hurt more. It was easy to quit the ride, because I knew that would end the pain. Other times, the distractions come from without. A guy in a recumbent bike caught and passed me on a hill. I was stunned. Recumbents aren’t supposed to climb hills well, I thought. He pulled away and soon disappeared. It was demoralizing.

Motivation. The ability to focus on a goal and work toward that goal. My goal is to finish the MS 150 next month. I forgot to give equal weight to finishing the 65-miler yesterday.

Getting up for the ride. A little stress and pressure can be a good thing, and force us to perform at a high level. I’m afraid I went into the ride looking at it as a fun thing, but not appreciating the challenge of riding 65 miles when the longest ride I’d done this year was only 36.

Self-confidence. This may be the most important mental skill of all. It’s your belief that you can do it. A rider with self-confidence will give 100 percent, focus on the task, and keep going. It’s good to remind yourself that you’ve done long rides before. During the ride, I turned that around. I remembered my first metric century, and how I kept going despite the discomfort of a poor-quality saddle and a clunky old bike. But instead of using that experience as a spur to keep going, I asked myself why the discomfort I was feeling today was so much worse. Apparently, a lot of riders have similar feelings — especially where hills are involved. “Oh no, not another hill!” was a common refrain throughout the day. In one case, I was able to pass two college-age girls who otherwise should have blown my socks off, simply because they let themselves be overcome by the prospect of having to climb yet again. I should have used that experience to bolster my confidence, and not give in to other distractions.

Okay, so I’m going to start riding with a nod to the mental side of things. Today was a good start — the wind was as brutal as yesterday’s, but I didn’t let it get me down. Whenever I caught myself easing off, shifting to an easier gear, I immediately shifted up and pumped harder. It was a good ride.

Oh, and one more tip: Smile when it gets tough. Some coaches say that can trick your brain into thinking you’re having fun.

Don’t Rush Your Comeback

As readers know, I’m going to ride the MS 150 from Houston to Austin in April. It will involve 100 miles the first day and 77 miles the second. But my recent knee problems put a crimp in my training plans for the ride.

I hoped to get back on track with today’s LBJ 100, a ride at the ranch of former President Lyndon B. Johnson out in the Texas Hill Country. I opted for the 65-mile ride.

Conditions at the start were darn near perfect. Temp of 51°F (10.5°C) and a sunny morning. I forgot my camera, so had to make do with my crummy cell phone camera, but this is what it looked like at the start, as Luci Baines Johnson welcomed the riders.

Luci, the former president's daughter, is up there somewhere under the flags.

Several of my usual club suspects were there, and I looked forward to riding with them.

Joe and Donald (looking down), Joe's wife Judy and Donald's wife Pippa.

But it was apparent that my layoff and gradual resumption of biking after my knee trouble was going to keep me at the back of the pack. Joe and Donald passed me and disappeared at about three miles in. Pippa and Judy caught up to me, and I stayed with them for a little bit, but they pulled away at about six miles. So from then on out, it was just me — and all the other riders on the road.

Rest stop at the Willow City school, no longer in use. (See, I do stop at rest stops!) Local civic groups keep it going as a community center. I have no idea who the guy in the shot is.

After about 35 miles, I was getting tired. But there was no problem keeping on, because we had a nice tailwind and lots of downhills. I refueled at the rest stop in Sandy, Texas, and made the turn back to the west.

This leg was right into the wind, which had picked up throughout the day. In addition, the road was a gradual uphill most of the way. In Sandy, they said I had 12 miles until the next rest stop. I stopped on my own about seven miles down the road, and rested under a nice shade tree. By now, the temp had climbed to around 80 (26C). At 12 miles, there was no sign of a rest stop. But I saw another biker pulled off to the side of the road, and I joined him to finish off my water bottles.

It turned out he was calling his wife to come get him. He had planned on doing the 44-mile route, but missed a turn and wound up on the 65. She was there in minutes with a large pickup truck. He invited me to put my bike on the back, too. I took about two seconds to decide. I hopped in the truck with him.

So, my longest ride of the year so far, but something of a disappointment, nevertheless. Because the MS 150 is coming up in about three weeks, I rushed my training for longer distances. Increasing distance each week and the long ride each week by 10 percent is something I don’t have time to do, so I have to push it. But today, I pushed a bit too far. Tomorrow, a shorter ride, but I’ll ride hard.