By Ken Bonner
As a kid, I grew up in a country setting and learned to cycle mostly on dirt and gravel roads on my father’s ancient CCM racing bicycle.
Once I managed to stay upright on a 2-wheeler (that's me before I graduated from 3 to 2), I discovered that cycling could be a risky activity. I hit a bump in the road on the way to start my 10-mile daily newspaper route and suddenly found myself watching my front wheel bounce down the road while I took a nose-dive onto a patch of pavement.
I also loved the freedom of running and was in junior high school when the 4-minute-mile barrier was broken. Maybe I could come close to that, I thought. I couldn't, but that's not the point. The point was, I was excited to run and compete.
I Ran My First Marathon in Hush Puppies!
In 1964 as a 21-year-old university student who was road running for fitness (before the first road running boom in North America), I discovered that a very small, local marathon was going to be run. Kind of like the original Marathon, it was a point-to-point race – starting in the middle of a 4-lane street with active commuting traffic!
I only owned spiked track shoes, so I ran the marathon in thick rubber-soled Hush Puppies with the toes cut out. I recall finishing just as it became dark – the 8th finisher out of 9 runners.
Running marathons with or without road running shoes was an achievable goal for me, and I strived to run fast. My fastest was in 03:00:01 at the Portland, Oregon, marathon. The only "ultra-marathon" running race I ever ran was by accident when several of us missed a turn on a marathon in Washington State (we ended up running 30 miles instead of 26.2).
My 'Marathon Cycling' Career Started at Age 44
Flash forward to 1987 at age 44. After running about 25 marathons, I discovered a brochure at the Vancouver International Marathon advertising "marathon cycling" organized by the British Columbia Randonneurs Cycling Club. This looks interesting, I said to myself, and embarked on cycling long distances pushed by the thought, “I wunnerif I can do that …"
[In total, up until my 73rd birthday, I ran 173 marathons, including Boston twice, San Francisco, Jungfrau, Switzerland (a week after completing the 1,200-km Paris-Brest-Paris randonneur cycling event), and many others. My running came to an abrupt end in 2016 when I developed osteoarthritis in my right hip! Fortunately, I can still cycle without pain (although mounting/dismounting my bike is painful and awkward).]
After contacting the BC Randonneurs Vancouver Island brevet organizer, I though to myself, Randonneur-cycling is a weird sport. It is not a race, but elapsed times are recorded. The rider must follow a prescribed route that will not be less than (but could be longer than) the advertised route distance. Ride the route fast, or slow, and as long as one finishes within the maximum time limit, everyone receives a finishing pin for that distance. I’ll do it for a year, I thought, then go back to running marathons.
When that first year was up, I had completed a 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, 600 km and a 1000 km brevet, all on Vancouver Island. I had never ridden longer than 320 km before that year (Seattle to Portland Mass bike ride); and I had never even driven the 250 km-long wilderness highway on Vancouver Island between Campbell River and Port Hardy (500 km both ways).
But after that year, I was hooked.
Can I Ride Long Faster? Set Course Records?
But why? That first Victoria-Port Hardy-Victoria brevet was not a pleasant ride. It was July and the weather was hot. Oh, and I had a close call with bears while cooling off in a stream. I slept for a few hours after 24 hours of cycling to Port Hardy, then rode back to Victoria, another 500-km trip, hallucinating during the last night on the road. I finished in 54h, 47m.
But I knew I could finish these brevets much faster and, over the years with more careful "project management" planning, I did so, including a 38h, 43m Victoria-Port Hardy-Victoria in June, 1995, when I was 53 years old. This became an Ultra Marathon Cycling Association cross-state cycling record that still stands.
In 1991, I signed up for the centennial Paris-Brest-Paris 1200. Unfortunately, in early Spring of that year, I also signed up to ride a brevet called a ‘"fleche," the only team event in the world of randonneur cycling.
During this event, cycling accidents of my youth were re-lived on the Interstate north of Seattle (fortunately, in the middle of the night). I hit something on the road at about 60 kph/35 mph. The next thing I knew, I was upside down doing a somersault with my bike! Just before I hit the roadway, the thought flashed through my brain, "This is going to hurt!" And it did. I was on my back, my bike lights were out and I wondered if I was lying in the middle of the freeway. I was!
Photo above by Stephen Hinde. Taken on the steps of the Vancouver, B.C., City Hall at the finish the last time I rode the Calgary-Vancouver UMCA City to City record ride in July 2007.
Result: Front and back bike wheels broken, cracked helmet, broken left clavicle (my orthopedic randonneur cycling friend jokingly offered to break the right clavicle so I could be more stream-lined); and 5 ribs broken in 7 places.
Bones heal relatively quickly, but soft tissue does not. Anxious to ride a 600-km brevet to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris, I went out for a 100-km training ride, forgetting about my broken ribs. I stood up on the bike to climb a shallow hill … and nearly fell off the bike again, the pain was so severe.
But I went on to ride many more brevets, for the wunnerif thought became further imbedded in my distance cycling brain.
I wunnerif I can set brevet course records; I wunnerif I can ride long … fast. I wunnerif I have limits related to participating in long cycling events.
For 30 Years, I've Been the 'Relatively Fast, Old Guy'
Unlike running, I discovered that one can keep moving until one falls over, the bicycle is such an efficient machine. So, the question I asked myself, How long, how fast, or how long can I ride fast, became my focus.
As randonneur cycling brevets become longer, the number of participants tends to become smaller, except for classic randonnees such as the 1,200 km Paris-Brest-Paris and the 1,400-km London-Edinburgh-London events. The attraction for the participants is often that the event distance is mind-boggling to non-distance riders, which makes the distance alone a significant challenge.
Over the almost 30 years I have been a randonneur cyclist, I have been the "relatively fast, old guy." As a reasonably strong and seasoned distance cyclist I have been a 1st finisher at a number of 1,200-km events.
I can get by with a couple of hours of sleep each day, so I usually move into the front group of riders sometime after 400 kilometers, when other riders are sleeping, eating and socializing at overnight controls/check-points.
The fact that there are time check-points to accomplish provides motivation to meet the maximum time limits, but more importantly, my own personal time limits. Sometimes, bad weather is a motivating factor to reach the shelter of a control point as soon as possible! (Sometimes it could be ice cream! Photo at left by Jennifer Wise.)
The phrase and rejoinder, "Curiosity killed the cat; satisfaction brought it back," seems to be a significant aspect of my need to continue cycling long distances.
The challenges of following a proscribed route within a specific time limit – often through geography and weather in which I am not familiar – are also motivating factors for me.
I have ridden many 1,200-km or longer brevets. I also meet many interesting folks along the way, (other riders and local residents).
A Few of My Cycling Accomplishments
- Life-time French-approved brevet distance
- 230,612 km over 422 randonneur cycling events approved by French randonneur cycling authorities
- Course record holder for the Vancouver Island Ultimate Island Explorer 2,000-km randonnee
- Life-time British Columbia Randonneurs-approved ‘Permanent’ brevet distance
- 62,572 km over 274 events
- Course record holder and only person to ride the British Columbia Ultimate Island Explorer 2,000 km Permanent event
- Ultra Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) Year-Rounder ultra cycling incentive-challenge (2006) most miles ridden in that year 31,444 miles (each ride must be at least 100 miles long)
- Canadian Kilometer Achievers Program (CKAP) current total mileage since 2002 is 417,285 km/259,295 miles or an average of 27,819 km/17,286 miles per year (any cycling mileage, even 1 km per ride is included)
- My fastest 1,000-km event was completed in a little over 38h, 38m; and my fastest 1,200-km event was the 2008 B.C. Rocky Mountain 1,200, which I completed in 50h 34m and broke the course record – in my 65th year of life. Course record was previously set by a 42-year-old Austrian cyclist (age trumps youth?)
- One year, a running marathon was organized that happened to occur at the 300-km point in a 600-km brevet. The 600-km brevet has a 40-hour time limit. I cycled the first 300 km, ran the official marathon, and completed the final 300 km, all well-within the 40 hour time limit
- A final variation was cycling a 1,000 km event into Boise, Idaho, from British Columbia; then 1-1/2 days later with little sleep, finished the Colorado Last Chance 1,200-km event in a course record.
I also organized and rode several extreme randonneur distance events on Vancouver Island:
Eau de Hell Week - A 200, 300, 400, 600 km brevet series in 7 days on Vancouver Island.
Ultimate Island Explorer 2000 - A 2000 km brevet on Vancouver Island.
Here is a link to the story I wrote about riding the Ultimate Island Explorer 2000 km as an unsupported permanent brevet - http://www.randonneurs.bc.ca/newsletter/submissions_2008/066_ultimate-permanent_ken-bonner.html
Diablo's Triple 1000 Mini-Series - Three back-to-back to back 1000s on Vancouver Island.
In addition to the UltraMarthon Cycling Association’s Year Rounder cycling incentive program, the international cycling incentive program (Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program – www.CKAP.ca) has been another motivator to cycle as much as possible. Many American riders are members, including Frank "Woody" Graham III, who has accumulated the most life-time cycling mileage in this program, 900,000 km.
If nothing else, hopefully my longevity in the sport and my ability to still be cranking out the miles as a "relatively fast old guy" can serve as inspiration for roadies of any age!
Ken Bonner is a former marathon runner and renowned ultracyclist who holds the course record for the British Columbia Rocky Mountain 1200k and several UltraMarathon Cycling Association point-to-point records. Retired and living in Victoria, British Columbia, he rides about 18,000 miles a year.