Virtually randonneuring: SFR Virtual Rando

Coronavirus has changed so much of the way we live now. Riding bikes has emerged as a relatively safe way to maintain one’s health and sanity, but massed start group rides like brevets are not a good idea now. I do miss brevets, and after almost 10 years of riding them, the things I love about rando are not even possible to quantify. So I’m glad that the San Francisco Randonneurs came up with the concept of Virtual Rando this year to provide a substitute for our usual Point Reyes Populaire. But something I’ve discovered over the past year is the beauty and richness of life after rando. After it, surrounding it, over it and under it. My bicycling personality is so defined by my adventurous randonneur heart that I will never be able to separate myself from the Spirit of Randonneuring. Even if I have to stop riding bikes for whatever reason, I will always be a randonneur. But there have definitely been some upsides to this year without brevets.

One interesting development has been to go on some long distance bike camping trips. When I started rando, I assumed that the longer rides such as 600k, 1000k, and 1200k would all be just as self supported as the shorter ones. Hotels and drop bags, not to mention support vehicles, never occurred to me. Maybe it was done this way in France in the old days, or maybe not, but I always wanted to do it that way. I’ve been inspired by Darryl Skrabak’s Milly for many years, and now I can finally envision how I might make that happen. I’m pretty stoked on doing more remote riding combining overnight stops with a light camping load.

I have not missed routes like the SFR 300k that include white-knuckle sections like highway 116 with no shoulder, nor have I missed the constant stream of Safeway controls on that route… Maybe when brevets come back the 300k will finally get a long-deserved reboot.

Another benefit of the lack of brevets is spending more time with my sweetheart who quit rando! Although rando will always figure into John’s riding personality, he quit rando a few years ago to ride mostly offroad.

But because neither of us drives a car, we both ride to any trailhead we would visit. This, I have discovered, is a big difference between us and a lot of mountain bikers! It is a more holistic way to be a mountain biker. We ride to trails on multi-use paths that have small children, dogs, and the elderly. We have to coexist with them in a harmonious way. And we enjoy it. I feel so grateful, in fact, to live in a place where so many people enjoy the benefits of being outdoors. Way before covid, people here have known the value of investing public resources in trail and wilderness area upkeep. These local trails are so valuable now during covid, providing a safe space for us to visit as an alternative to the restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and arts venues that are closed.

One small side benefit to no brevets is that I now have the energy for film photography on rides. Most of the time I just use a little sport camera like the Fuji DL Minizoom or Canon Sureshot or the cool old Olympus rangefinder I just got. This started before covid, but now that the control close clock is no longer ticking in my ears, I’ve been shooting film a lot more and really enjoying the results.

Me taking a picture of Mike Gao taking a picture of Metin descending Morgan Territory in the beforetimes

more fun with film at point pinole

Point Pinole’s hardest working ranger

San Francisco Bay from the bike path in Albany

Now we come to the final benefit of no brevets: virtual rando! I knew that this would be a good thing for me when I read in the announcement, “Rules: Nope”. It just so happened that Dan and I were both free and eager to ride the weekend of virtual rando, so we made a plan to visit some of our favorite spots: Briones, Black Diamonds, Sherman Island, and the Montezuma Hills. Returning from Fairfield via the old standby Lopes Road, Carquinez Bridge and Briones or something from Martinez would keep things simple.

Riding with Dan was great, it felt just like old randotimes. We both wore our Carlos-designed SFR jerseys to show the Spirit of Randonneuring flowing through us. Unlike a normal January SFR Pop, the weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. It had rained a few times in the previous weeks, but the trails in Briones and Black Diamonds had drained well. In fact, this was one of the best rides I’ve had in Black Diamonds in terms of trail conditions!

Riding on the delta was delta-lightful as usual and Dan and I tried a new lunch spot that had tons of fresh fruit, a big bonus for me on any bike ride.

Levee road on Sherman Island used serpentine gravel, judging by the color

It was sad to see that the little market in Rio Vista had brown kraft paper covering its big glass windows, but the bait shop was open and had drinking water for us to buy.

The really sweet spot of this ride was the Montezuma Hills. I think we had a gentle tailwind, and the giant wind turbines were moving in ultra slo mo, like a turntable on 16 rpm. Some of them moved so slowly that it took a moment to tell if they were indeed moving. Others moved at varying speeds. There were no cars, or even any other cyclists, for what felt like a small slice of eternity. The whole landscape, and us within it, was utterly at peace. No distractions other than the populations of sheep and lambs going about their business in the endless rolling pastures. I exhaled steadily in the bright sunlight, appreciating all the moments leading up to this deeply cherished one right here and now.

Getting back to civilization is always jarring after an experience like that, but Friend Dan made it much easier by discussing the potential Amtrak departures from Suisun, the nearest town. We had talked about the possibility of bailing mid-ride earlier in the day. Not having done a proper 200k in at least a year, we weren’t sure how the day would go. We both felt fine actually, but there was a Filipino restaurant right there that looked open, and the rest of the route is just junk miles anyway right? Yum! We had the perfect amount of time to eat our Filipino take-away at a bench facing the beautiful marsh of Grizzly Island as the sun sank slowly below the horizon. Dan got us beers for the train and thus we wrapped up another perfect pseudo-rando.

In April 2019, most of Dan’s and my fleche team bailed within the 12 hours prior to the ride, and we rode anyway. We knew we wouldn’t get credit because it was just two randos left standing… or pedaling, as the case happened to be. But we had an amazingly good time. We definitely had the best route of any team, of that I am certain, and the fact that there were only two of us and yet we rode anyway gave us a sense of prevailing over undeniable obstacles. I think that ride was also the capper on a set of three rides Dan and I rode together which totaled almost 2000k for the month! Yes, Dan and I have ridden a lot together, and I think I’ve crashed my bike more while riding with him than anyone too.

On either of these rides, did we rando? No receipts were collected, no brevet cards or waivers were signed. Did we transcend rando? Play hooky from rando? I’d like to think we enjoyed all the best things about rando: spending the day focusing on riding in a remote place, using bike-friendly roads, paths, and dirt trails; and riding with good friends. Virtual rando felt a lot like the fleche Dan and I rode, knowing there were insurmountable obstacles to getting credit, yet riding in a randonneur tradition anyway.

Covid has forced so many of us into difficult positions this year. The number of people who have already died is tragic. It is up to us to do whatever we can to prevent the spread of this virus which has taken lives and livelihoods. I’m grateful that we can find ways of adapting and at the same time feel that sense of camraderie that is so important to maintaining the sport we love.

How have your randonneuring habits changed? Feel free to leave me a comment.


7 thoughts on “Virtually randonneuring: SFR Virtual Rando

  1. Thank you! What a great meditation on randonneuring and the covid-times we are enduring; the pictures were fine too. I did a solo 100k loop Vacaville-Winters-Davis-Dixon-Vacaville for the SFR virtual rando-day and enjoyed it. It was a good day on the bike, and hopefully a warm-up to real brevets later in the year.

  2. Great write up and photos. I do my 200K and below rides 100% self supported and no contact. Just started this last month when COVID got really bad.

  3. Beautiful write-up, I feel like I was there! Especially love the part about the Montezuma Hills. I’m going to make an effort to go for a ride out there.

  4. Pingback: 2021 SFR Virtual Rando | Church of Rotating Mass

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