An expo and a populaire

This has been a cycling-obsessed weekend: I went to the Bike Expo Friday as a tourist, rode Seattle Randonneurs’ “Populaire” on Saturday, then went back to the Expo for a volunteer shift Sunday afternoon.

The Seattle Bike Expo is a trade show for the cycling community. I volunteered last year in CBC’s rides booth answering questions mostly about STP, frequently on another club’s ride (RAMROD), and once in a while the other six rides CBC sponsors. During a lull in activity, extended my bathroom break five minutes to take a quick cruise of the floor. This year, I scheduled a separate trip so I could register for my two longish rides (and get the vanity, low-digit Tyvek bib numbers) and talk to clubs sponsoring rides. Consequently, the events calendar has been updated a lot.

When I worked in the software industry, I was suckered by the free travel on the company dime, also known as “the trade show circuit.” It didn’t take that long to figure out that every convention center looks like every other convention center, which is to say, a depressing and impersonal open space filled by cubicles, noise, stale air, and bad food. I was ready to change venues when I had an epiphany: I could stay over the weekend, actually see the city I was visiting and the company would pay for it … provided I could finagle the airfares. This usually had me staying over Saturday night, but sometimes it involved manipulation of itineraries. The net of this is I got to see most of the U.S. I’ve lost count, but I think I’ve worked close to 70 shows. (Least favorite: Las Vegas’ Comdex.)

I’m beyond that phase of my career. Still, going to a trade show feels weird, and it’s not specific to any industry. For example, I’ve been to a couple of biotech conferences, a NAB show, an AAAS meeting, and … the Bike Expo.

To decompress, on Saturday, I did my first populaire, a 100 kilometer warmup for an officially sanctioned brevet. I have to say that the randonneuring concept really appeals to me: the people are nicer, you get the same credit for completing the ride as anyone else, and there’s still the inner competitiveness of beating one’s own personal record.

A quick explanation: the rides are a specified distance and course. They’re also timed. For example, the 100km has a time limit of 7 hours (the 200km is 13.5 hours, 300km is 20 hours, etc.) This works out to about 10 mph average speed, which doesn’t sound that bad until you actually do it. For example, on Saturday’s ride, when I was moving, I averaged 12.5 mph, less on hills, more on the flat portions. My total time for this particular event was 6 hours and 15 minutes, and this included a couple of wrong turns that tacked on another three miles (one missing a cutoff and going 1 1/4 miles downhill; another unable to find a turn and improvising on a parallel road). Adding the time it took to go through food stops, the controls (more on that shortly) and adjusting the bike, my average speed was closer to 10.4 mph.

To ensure people actually do the route, there are “controls” along the way. These are used to record that you actually did that portion of the ride. They’re also the only official place that you can get external support. (You’re expected to be self-contained tourists. Thus you see sturdier bikes with fenders, extra packs, and spares. Randonneurs can help each other, though.)

We had all three kinds: specific, self-certified and secret. A specific checkpoint was “go to Sandy’s Espresso in Carnation and get your card stamped between 10:00 and 11:19 a.m.” This was about two miles from the “corner” of the triangle of the course. A self-certified checkpoint would involve going to a particular landmark and observing something. For example, there is a large plaque outside of the Lewis Street park in Monroe. We were asked to note the title of the plaque. (Being anal-retentive, I also wrote down the sculptor and dedication date.) Finally, there are secret checkpoints. These can appear anywhere, but as a practicality, exist where you’d be very tempted to take a shortcut. For example, there were two checkpoints at the top of hilly sections that, if you were just going from point A to point B, are obviously side trips.

Overall, I rode just over 67 miles. The middle portion, after the Espresso stand, was the fastest, but at mile 50, I started tiring out, almost bonking. I slogged through the remaining 17 miles of rolling hills, hitting rain about five miles to the finish. I had fun, but there’s a lot of riding to be done before I’m ready for the 200 mile STP.

I was back at the Bike Expo on Sunday working as a cashier for ride registration. Almost all of the people were signing up for STP, and the bibs were now in the 1100 range. (For comparison, I got #131 on Friday.) Many folks use STP as their year-long goal. Assuming you have some experience with long rides, which is a nice way of saying you can endure a sore ass and know to eat and drink constantly, four months is a doable time to get ready.

There’s a point to this. Of the 100+ registrants I processed yesterday, two stood out. One was a family who planned to bring their preschool-aged children along on all or most of the route. They registered with the guy next to me and spoke with him for nearly an hour. The booth was very busy, but I could overhear them asking him just about everything one could about cycling. I kept wondering if I should have suggested they try something less ambitious because they weren’t in the best of shape and there are plenty of great rides going on.

The other memorable person was a 73 year old woman who jokingly told me that I wasn’t permitted to register anyone older than her. I hope to be in as good shape and frame of mind when I’m her age.