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Ultra marathon cycling
CALGARY, ALTA. -- When the Rocky Mountain Randonneurs go for a ride, they go for a RIDE. For most cyclists, winter is a gestation period. Anticipating the spring rebirth of the cycling season, many set themselves new challenges -- the ultimate backroads tour, the first 100-kilometre ride. Consider then the unusual passion of Dan Paarsmarkt and his buddies. When Dan and company -- aka The Rocky Mountain Randonneurs -- go for a ride, they go for a RIDE. Like the one that starts and ends in Cochrane -- with a magnificent loop through Lake Louise, Saskatchewan River Crossing and Rocky Mountain House in between. Distance: about 600 kilometres. Elapsed time: 40 hours or less -- compared with six days or 144 hours most bike "tourists" would take. Then there`s the biennial jaunt from Vancouver to Calgary -- roughly 1,300 kilometres for which they give themselves 97 hours. "I do not consider myself an elite athlete," says Paarsmarkt, trying to put his sport of ultra marathon cycling -- called randonneuring -- into perspective. "It`s more your will to finish." Once the snow is off the roads each spring, the club starts the long rides that are the hallmark of the game. But club vice-president Paarsmarkt says members don`t have to be supermen to start with "short" rides like 200 kilometres. "A lot of people out there can do 100K," he says. "A lot would be surprised they can do 200K." Besides, randonneurs are a friendly lot who are happy to take neophytes under their wing as they build up their miles. "Our motto is `We help you finish,` he promises.
The challenge of randonneuring (from French randonnee, which means a drive or a ride) is to balance speed against endurance. The rider must not only be fit from long hours in the saddle, but must know when to rest, when to eat and when to pedal hard to finish rides in allotted times without collapsing or falling over from lack of sleep. Rides of 200 kilometres must be completed in 13.5 hours; 300 kilometres in 20 hours; 400 kilometres in 27 hours; 600 km in 40 hours. Time limits are based on a 15 km-h average speed. That sounds slow until you realize that assumes you`re on the bike for the full time. To earn time for such incidentals as rest, food, sleep and "convenience" stops, you have to cycle consistently well above that speed. For every km-h you do above the average, you bank a little time for these concessions to human frailty. But go too fast, and you "blow-up," unable to finish. Paarsmarkt, 28, admits that the longer rides can be punishing. "You push your body to the limit," he says. "After a 1,000-K ride, your ankles may be swollen up." But he says he started because he loves to ride and he persists because it is a challenge. "You just don`t quit. It`s a survival test to get through this thing."
Last year, Dan and 10 other Albertans rode the "Olympics" of randonneuring, the famous French ride known as "Paris-Brest-Paris," with 4,000 other cyclists. Dan completed the 1,218 kilometres from the French capital to Brest on the Channel coast and back to Paris in 79 hours and 58 minutes -- well within the 90-hour limit. The winner went the distance in an incredible 43 hours and 44 minutes. With Paarsmarkt on that ride was fellow Calgarian Ian Olthof. For Olthof, the motivation to keep the pedals turning comes from the sense of peace and renewal he gets from forsaking crowded city life for a weekend on the road. "You can put your mind in neutral, peddle a long way and generally float," the 27-year-old computer programmer says. Olthof also downplays the physical challenge, saying that with time the body adapts. It`s the mind and spirit that get the real workout. "I call myself one of the laziest randonneurs you can find," he says, explaining he does long rides only on the weekend and relies on a daily commute of just 16 kilometres to stay fit during the week. Like Olthof, Paarsmarkt emphasizes the decisive challenge is mental. "You go through your highs and lows," he says. "Negative thoughts can go through your mind. Should I sleep? Should I quit? "And you might hurt. Your butt hurts, your arm hurts, your neck hurts. It`s a mental thing just getting back on your bike and keeping yourself going." To make starting easier, the club offers its "populaire" series of rides -- 50, 100 and 150 kilometres to give people a taste of the game. Paarsmarkt notes a lot of people are attracted to the sport but will never do the long rides because they won`t ride through the night. "But for me those are some of the most rewarding times -- all you hear is the wind, your rear-sprocket clicking away and you see the moon and the stars."