By Jenny Neyman
Don’t call it a race.
It is a serious athletic endeavor — cycling a set course of 200, 300, 400, 600 or even 1,200 kilometers in a certain time limit, no matter how hilly the terrain or how nasty the weather.
Participants can qualify for longer, more prestigious rides, and the accolades that come with completing them, by finishing each leg and the overall course in the allotted time.
But it is not about competition as much as camaraderie. And it is not a race — it’s randonneuring, and it will happen on the Kenai Peninsula this weekend and next.
“There a huge camaraderie component to it. A lot of people are still very worthy athletes, but the gouge-your-eyes-out type of road racing just doesn’t have much of an appeal anymore,” said Kevin Turinsky, of Anchorage, who heads up Alaska Randonneurs. Turinsky is planning the first-ever central and lower Kenai Peninsula randonneur rides in Homer on Saturday and the central peninsula May 9.
Turinsky said randonneuring’s popularity has exploded since about 1997, but the activity is no new kid on the block. The oldest organized cycling event in the world, predating even the Tour de France, is the granddaddy ride of the randonneuring realm —the Paris-Brest-Paris. Held in France every four years, with the first one in 1891, it’s a 1,200 kilometer ride in France between Paris and Brest and back, with a time limit of about four days. To qualify to ride it, cyclists must successfully complete a series of shorter randonneur events — 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers — called brevets, the French word for certificate.
The activity itself dates back to the 1800s. It’s an outgrowth of European culture and countryside, where cycling was a way to travel through communities. The point was to get there, which meant dealing with whatever came up — road conditions, inclement weather, bike repairs, and finding food and shelter.
“European geography is a lot different than here in America. Cyclists could live off the land going from village to village, just going, going, going,” Turinsky said. “The self-supportive aspect is really important. Here in North America, where all the fundraising events, charity rides, triathlons — most of those have support. The thing about randonneuring is you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Randonneuring today retains that sense of self-sufficiency. There are checkpoints, called contrôles, with some services available, but they’re usually spaced about 50 kilometers apart. Riders carry their own food, water, clothing and bike repair, safety and emergency gear, and they aren’t allowed any outside assistance on the road. As if riding 200, 400, 600 or 1,200 kilometers wasn’t challenging enough, in randonneuring, if something breaks, the rider has to fix it — and still finish each leg of the ride in the time allotted.
“There are several of these big rides out there that capture people’s sense of adventure and sense of challenge,” Turinsky said.
Cyclists must be self-sufficient, but the rides take on the feel of a group effort, with riders often traveling together or at least sharing the feeling that they’re all in for the same challenge for the same reasons. Anyone who finishes a brevet in the allotted time is considered a winner, and all winners are listed alphabetically, rather than recording individual times.
The sport is sometimes called the big tent of cycling, Turinsky said, because it appeals to a wide variety of riders with a variety of bike types — young and old, men and women, hard-core endurance athletes and those looking for a more fun, communal activity.
“The camaraderie component is huge, but so is the challenge part,” he said. “Just because they’re not races doesn’t really detract from the fact that they’re incredibly challenging rides. Just about anybody can ride 200 k if they’re reasonably fit and been on a bike, but the longer rides are really about determination.”
Turinsky said he sees randonneuring’s popularity growth in part as a backlash against how racing-centric cycling has become. Nothing against racing, he said, but it isn’t for everyone.
“If you look at the marketing of anything, between bicycles to cycling shoes, it’s all, ‘Who used it in the Tour de France?’” he said. “There is an enormous groundswell of practical, utilitarian cycling here in this country.”
Turinsky was born and raised in Anchorage, and grew up racing with the Arctic Bicycle Club. He went off to college and when he got back to Anchorage and cycling, he found the industry had become focused much more on fast than fun.
“I went to try to fix one of my old bikes, but the components they were using kept changing so much. I had a perfectly good bike and I’d take it to a shop and they’d say, ‘Oh, you should really just throw that away and get a new one,’ and it didn’t make sense to me.”
He found out about randonneuring while poking around the Internet looking for parts.
“I found these people that are drawn to the more practical side of racing,” he said. “I rode brevets and I just had a marvelous time. I rode on roads I’d never been on before and it blew my mind how much fun wearing yourself out on beautiful roads with great people can be.”
He took over organizing the Alaska Randonneurs last year and became the regional brevet administrator for Alaska. Since then he’s been on a mission to ride. Well, not for himself, per se. Having just finished a graduate degree, he hasn’t been able to train enough to ride brevets himself this year, but he’s been getting the word out about randonneuring in Alaska and creating more opportunities for it.
It used to be there were just four sanctioned brevets in Alaska, or qualifiers for the Paris-Brest-Paris and other 1,200-kilometer events. The 200 has been a tour of Anchorage, the 300 a tour of the Matanuska Valley, the 400 is from Anchorage to Seward and back, and the 600 is from Gakona to Delta Junction to Tok and back to Gakona.
This year Turinsky’s adding two populaires — 100-kilometer rides that don’t qualify riders for anything, but give people an introduction to what randonneuring’s about. One is in Anchorage and the other probably from Potter Marsh to Birchwood and back in the Anchorage area.
He’s looking at adding a brevet in the Fairbanks area, and since hard-core randonneurs travel the world to participate in rides, he thinks Alaska would be a perfect destination for a 1,200-kilometer brevet.
Turinsky may also designate some permanent courses, possibly in Kodiak or Cordova, that riders can complete when they want to, rather than Turinsky having to schedule a certain date and administer the brevet. For that matter, he’s not the only one who can hold a brevet. He said he’s always looking for new routes, and volunteers to help administer established brevets or to set up new ones in new areas of the state.
“Get some people out that normally wouldn’t get out. Show them what rambling around is all about and living off the land and seeing how far you can go on a bike,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula has been Turinsky’s focus of expansion this year, with two new 200-kilometer brevets planned for Homer and the central peninsula. Not knowing any riders himself on the peninsula when he designated the courses, the brevets are sort of an experimental long shot — 128-mile long shots, to be exact. Sort of a, ‘If you build it, they will ride,” mentality.
“My idea about the Kenai Peninsula is there are a lot of riders that just aren’t being serviced,” he said. “I got some inkling of Kenai riders and Homer riders but never really had a good sense of them. But I thought, ‘Not only do they have good roads, and it would be good for Anchorage and Valley people to go down there,’ I just thought, ‘What a great opportunity and resource for riders down on the peninsula.’”
In scheduling and promoting the brevets, he found that there is indeed a contingent of long-distance cyclists on the peninsula. A group of Homer riders, including members of the Cosmic Hams cycling club (a play on Homer’s “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea” moniker) have been invaluable in giving Turinsky road, weather and volcanic ash reports, he said. Mount Redoubt’s eruptions forced the Homer ride to be rescheduled to Saturday, but Turinsky said that’s probably a good thing, since the snow is gone, the weather’s warmer and riders are even more excited about it.
“There’s a contingent down in Homer. They’re doing backflips. Those guys have been so helpful,” Turinsky said.
The Homer End-of-the-Road 200-kilometer Brevet starts at Two Sisters Bakery on East Bunnell Avenue at 8 a.m. and takes a winding trek through dang near every street in Homer, up onto Diamond Ridge, out East End Road, down the Homer Spit and out to Anchor Point and back. Riders have 13.5 hours to complete the route.
“Here’s a ride that hits the end of the road and also hits the westernmost point on road system, plus Kachemak Bay. I’m just so excited about this ride,” Turinsky said.
Pat Irwin and his wife, Kathy, who designs Alaska cycling jerseys and jackets, moved to Homer last year. He said he got involved in randonneuring when he lived in Anchorage.
“It’s just a popular way to get in a good, challenging ride without it being an all-out race. And in Alaska, it just ends up being just a big fun ride, and that’s what I like about them,” Irwin said. “My racing days are kind of over, so I find these to be more fun. And it’s self-supported, so there’s still a good challenge there.”
Irwin was jazzed to hear Homer was going to have its own brevet, especially early in the year before the touring community gets going.
“Oh, I was all for it. We were trying to do it in March, which they’ve never been able to put a brevet on in March in Alaska. Some years you could probably do it, but the volcano didn’t help, so it didn’t happen,” he said. “But it’s right here, it starts right next door. … Because we’re in town now, which we weren’t in Anchorage, we were pretty far out, we don’t drive, so it’s kind of been nice. My training has been going to the post office and back several times a day. No-brainer workouts.”
He’s familiar with biking the local terrain, but cautions anyone coming down for the brevet to be prepared to pedal.
“This is going to be a challenging route. We’re going up and down hills, and the hills here are short and steep. It’s going to surprise some folks coming down from Anchorage, but it’ll be good. And, you know, there’s always the Salty Dawg if you get tired,” Irwin said.
The central peninsula ride starts at 7:30 a.m. May 9 at Kenai Safeway, goes out the Kenai Spur Highway to Captain Cook State Park, back through Kenai, out Kalifornsky Beach Road to Kasilof, then back up the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways to Kenai. That one also allows 13.5 hours.
The rides are open to anyone. There is no preregistration, so just show up at the start locations an hour before the ride. The fee is $10 for Randonneurs USA members and $15 for nonmembers. Turinsky said any kind of bike is allowed, from racing bikes to mountain bikes, recumbents, tandems or even kick bikes.
But there are some recommendations — like the necessity of fenders, mud flaps and working front and rear lights, and the all-important comfy saddle. Bikes should be suited for long distances, so fatter tires, higher handlebars and good shocks are preferred to ultrathin racing frames. At the same time, superheavy bikes aren’t best either. And remember, riders have to fix their own flats, spokes, chains or anything else that breaks.
For the ins and outs of what to bring, what to ride, how to train, how the brevets work — basically, everything anyone wants to know about randonneuring (and probably a whole lot more) — go to the Alaska Randonneurs Web site and its associated links, http://alaskarandonneurs.blogspot.com. Or contact Turinsky by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, home phone at 907-276-6299 or cell phone at 907-317-6030.
Turinsky said he’s looking for riders and volunteers for the peninsula races, so if anyone is interested in helping at a checkpoint for a few hours, it’s a great way to learn more about the sport. For everyone else, he asks that drivers be courteous of the riders.
They’ll do the same, since one of the rules of randonneuring is riders must follow all applicable traffic laws and rules of the road.
“It’s a beautiful state and it’s before the fish are running. We’re not intending to get in anybody’s way,” Turinsky said. “We’re cyclists on the road, but more than just cyclists who dress up in Lycra and wool jerseys. We drive trucks and work for oil companies and we fish, we’re the guy who works at the hardware store. We’re normal people, too. So when you see us on the road, think about that. I know there’s some animosity to cyclists. We’re not trying make a political statement, we’re just going somewhere. We’re just out having a nice day on a bike.”