Friday, February 7, 2014

Riding Grand Randonees The Olsen Brothers' Way - an in depth interview.

“The quality of any advice anybody has to offer has to be judged against the quality of life they actually lead.”  Douglas Adams 
While someone can properly call themselves a Randonneur by completing a 200K brevet, successfully completing a Grand Randonnee - a 1200 kilometer (750 miles) brevet - can be considered the crowning achievement of the sport. The quadrennially held 1200k Paris-Brest-Paris may be the original and ultimate Grand Randonnee but there are now Grand Randonnees across the United States and around the world. 

Of the small percentage of cyclists who are Randonneurs, an even smaller number complete a Grand Randonnee. Of that small number, even fewer complete two in a year. Of that tiny number a select few complete more than two.

Mark and Bill Olsen are two of the select few in the country who have ridden more than two Grand Randonnees in one year. In fact, between them, the Olsen brothers have successfully completed over 60 randonneuring distance rides.

In 2013 alone, they rode 12 Grand Randonnees, with Mark riding four and Bill completing all eight of the grand randonnees offered in North America.

Even more impressive (to me), the Olsen brothers complete these epic rides at a pace that allows them to eat, sleep and enjoy the ride. Bill has described his trips as vacations and bike tours.

I want to have that kind of experience on Grand Randonnee. So, having struggled to complete one 1200K, I was eager to learn how they are able to complete so many. Mark and BIll graciously agreed to answer my questions. What follows are their detailed and informative responses.  

 How do you prepare for a 1200K? Are there key steps or goals you have in the lead up?
Mark: I think just trying to get in long rides (150 to 200 miles) on the weekends and then trying to keep up with the faster riders on the Monday / Wednesday after work rides. I like to get in back-to-back 200 mile rides on a couple of Saturday/Sundays a few weeks before a 1200K. Doing a super randonneur series is good, too, if there is time. I have also found that riding a 1000K over Memorial Day Weekend was a good prelude for the Shenandoah. For me, it is as much about training the stomach and contact surfaces as it is getting the legs in shape. For this, I haven't found a good substitute for putting in the miles, and it’s fun.

Bill: My training is my daily commute, and my brevets - including 200K's - are generally ridden at my 1200K pace (I only have one speed - slow) which is why the local "speedsters" are surprised that I do so well in finishing the 600, 1000, and 1200 events. ("Heck, if Bill, who is slower than molasses can finish a 1200K under 90 hours, ANYBODY should be able to ride one.") As the season approaches I try to do a couple mornings a week where I will take the "scenic 50 mile detour" into work, with the normal 15 mile ride home in the evening, to add a few extra miles to the legs. It is amazing how a few 75 mile back-to-back commutes really gets the legs (and rear) into shape. If it works out I'll try to get in Saturday/Sunday 200Ks, either two brevets, or a brevet/permanent
Do you have a set strategy for completing a 1200K?
Mark: Basically, my plan is to have as good a time as I can, finish under 90 hours, and feel good enough to go for another bike ride the day after we finish. We try to ride efficiently enough to have 4 hours of sleep each night. I think it helps a lot to get some sleep. I also like to relax over lunches and dinner for a bit off the bike. If I happen to hit a point where I’m not feeling too great, I try to figure out what needs to be set right. The only time I came close to throwing in the towel on a 1200K was when we were almost hit by lightning, riding through hail, and way behind schedule. We made it, though.

Bill: Yes, I agree that one should train so that one is able to enjoy the 1200K. In my case, if I am planning to ride hilly events it means being able to know I can handle multiple climbs without having to over stress myself which, painful as it is in the early part of the year, means ridding myself of all of the excess "blubber " that I easily acquire during the off-season. I have also noticed that an added benefit of losing the 30 to 40 pounds is that my saddles all become much more comfortable - and this includes a broad range of saddles from Brooks and Fizik. I do have to admit that I HAVE thrown in the towel, not that I physically wouldn’t have been able to have completed the ride, but rather, I had a lot of pressures at work and things that, at the time were more of a priority than being out on my bike, and I just wasn’t having “fun”…and looking forward to the next three days, could not see my mental state improving with the enjoyment of being out on the bike.

As far as "strategies" for 1200s go I was going through my e-mails from the first year we rode a 1200 which was BMB in 2005. This was the first year we had ever ridden a brevet and Mark wrote this after we had both completed our 600Ks, meeting the qualification requirements to ride BMB together in August and were trying to figure out how to ride a 1200. My 600 time that year wasn't much to write home about. I made some mistakes that did not allow me to get in a sleep stop and I finished with VERY LITTLE time to spare, but I learned a lot from that one and was sure that if I applied what I had learned I would have finished with enough time not to have to worry on future events. It was definitely a learning experience. It is interesting that we pretty much follow the same plan even after both of us have "several" 1200Ks under our belt. We still carry more spares than we, fortunately, ever have need to use, although we very quickly figured out we didn't need to carry bike lock on most 1200Ks. The e-mail is as follows:
Dear Bill,

I'm glad you emailed me. I didn't know how I was going to contact you and I had some questions. I managed to qualify for the BMB by finishing the 600K with 3 hours to spare. We had perfect riding conditions. We arrived at the 229 mile overnight checkpoint at 10 pm so I had nearly 8 hours to sleep. We left at about 6:00 am and finished up around 7:00 pm. I rode with some experienced riders who assured me we would finish on time and we did. It really seemed like a tour.

I figure we should leave with the 4:00 am group to give ourselves maximum time. I was thinking about trying to get to Middlebury (228) the first night. The next night, I was hoping to make it to Rouses Point, NY (428 miles). Then maybe get to Brattleboro, VT (633 miles) the next night and, finally, back to Newton by 10 pm. There are a lot of hills in the first and last sections, but I would very much like to get 4 hours or more of sleep in each 24 hour period. I understand that they will send us a list of motels along the way once we get registered. I hope we have options.

I think things are still on track for BMB. I found good bike shorts and my bike set up was just fine for the 600k. There are some things we won't need to double up on like spare tires, head mounted lights, and maybe bike locks. It sounds like there will be mechanical support and food provided.... Foreign concepts around here, but maybe I need to worry less about carrying lots of spare parts. We can talk more as we get closer to departure.

What is your pacing? What about food? Sleep?
Mark: The pace, of course, depends on the amount of climbing and headwinds. The goal is to put enough time in the bank to sleep 4 hours each night. I think Bill has more fun if I get enough sleep. By the time we eat, shower and visit awhile, sleep, and then eat again, it's not uncommon to spend 6 hours at an overnight control. We always try to leave before the control closes. I should add that I prefer to sleep in a bed rather than in a ditch.
When it comes to eating, I look forward to the sidewalk picnics in front of convenience stores. I prefer to get off the bike and have a regular meal every 4 to 5 hours. I tend to eat very little while pedaling. I don't think this is the norm. I enjoy eating "real food" as opposed to syrup and candy bars, but I think I could learn from more experienced Randonneurs who seem to get in and out of controls much quicker than I.

Bill: Regarding pacing - These days I am not as fast of a rider as Mark, especially on the hillier terrain so my goal is to pretty much lock into his draft on the flats and hope that he is kind enough to wait for me at the top of the climbs without getting too frustrated. If we know that there is a controle or food stop ahead I'll sometimes offer that he go ahead so that he can savor his meal. I don't do so well at eating on the rest stops, and also don't do too well eating and drinking while riding so on the longer rides I'll attempt to use the time Mark allows, to attempt to get down a few more calories.
I can do well eating at the overnight controls where I can "pork out" knowing that I can sleep it off, but when waking up, I never feel like eating until I get out on the road for an hour or two, so to avoid "bonking" first thing out, I'll try to pound down a couple of packs of "Hammer Gels" to get me going until I feel good enough to eat something.
Over the last couple of years I've attempted to supplement my food requirements with Perpetuum. I'll make up a water bottle with six scoops and after the gels, will try down the Perpetuum, so I'll at least have some energy to get me through for the couple of hours it takes for Mark to work off his breakfast and we stop again. After several bad experiences with bonking a couple of years ago I began experimenting with riding 1200s solely on Perpetuum. Considering the consequences, it really isn't all that bad, and having gotten a couple under my belt, I know that I have a fall-back if, during the event, I find that I can not keep anything down, such as what happened on one event when everyone else was bailing due to "stomach issues" most likely related to the continuing rain the first two days of the event.
One benefit of the liquid diet, be it Perpetuum or anything else that works for a rider, is that one can mix the concentration to ensure that one remains hydrated. I try to mix the Perpetuum according to my water requirements with my hunger pains "forcing" me to drink the required replacement fluids. I'll vary the concentrations from 1 to 4 scoops of Perpetuum per liter water bottle. Now that I've gotten a better handle of that I can eat and drink without upsetting my stomach, I've gone back to eating solid food with the supplemental Perpetuum. While Mark can, and pretty much DOES consume anything in sight at the controles and restaurants, I've found that my system responds best when limiting the amount of sweets I consume and although nothing is off limits to me, I'm much happier consuming carbs and protein and as much as it looks soooo good, limiting the amount of deep fried food I consume.

As far as sleep goes, I can pretty much go with Mark's program, and although we strive for a minimum of 4 hours, we can get by with 3 hours and I end up waiting for the alarm to ring at the 4 hour set-point. I have also found that "in a pinch" I can recover enough to keep going on the second and third day with 1 1/2 hours but if the following day gets to be too long, I'll need to take a couple of 10 to 15 minute cat naps.

I don't tolerate coffee too well when out riding and when I first started randonneuring I thought I could get through ANYTHING with enough "Vitamin V" (a.k.a., Vivarin). With extensive experience and experimentation, I know that one tablet will keep me awake for 3 hours so when there were times when was pretty much consuming on tablet every three hours, starting from the initial km. As a result, around 2-3 am, I'd be so exhausted that the caffeine no longer worked so I now try to limit it's use to only those wee hours of the night when I really need something to help keep me awake, and if I do use the Vivarin, I'll plan to have at least 3-4 hours to metabolize it prior to arriving at the sleep stop controle. Additionally, when I arrive at the sleep controle, even without Vivarin, I'm often time too "pumped" to really relax and find that a beer (or two) will help me relax. I will only do this when I know that we'll be sleeping 4 hours or more.
A real luxury is when we arrive at an overnight controle with 12 or more hours "in the bank", which when it is on the 3rd day, will also mean that we probably have less than a 200K to ride to be finished with the rides. We'll generally eat, shower, watch TV for a couple of hours, and then sleep 6 hours, and then take a couple hours in the morning to eat at a local diner or Mickey D's. We have many fond memories of stopping off at the local diner/cafe in the morning and meeting with the locals. We found that it is generally sufficient to only tell them where we've come that morning and where we are looking to go to reach the next controle, which is more than enough to impress them...most are sufficiently impressed believing that you're riding a century and any more may make them believe you are not quite "normal."
How are you able to recover enough to do multiple 1200's in one season?
Mark: I've heard it said that finishing a 1200K is as much mental as physical. It seems that if you're having fun, getting enough food and sleep, and know how to stay comfortable on the bike, going for long bike rides isn't that big a deal. Though I can't speak from experience, it may be that if a person goes all out, neglects sleep and hygiene, and ends up with numb or aching parts, there may not be much enthusiasm for repeating the experience right away. There is something to be said to making full use of the 90 hours allotted. I'm not sure if this is the place to get into these details or not, but there are a number of little things that we've learned though experience that add to the pleasure of the ride. 
 It's really important to have all of the interfaces between body and machine sorted out. This seems to be a highly personalized process. I don't know how anyone could ride further than 100 miles without comfortable accommodations for hands, feet and seat. Bike shorts that don't chafe and a saddle that works are essential. More padding is not necessarily better in shorts or saddles. It seems like you see a Brooks saddle under quite a few Randonneurs. I like the one with spring suspension. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to enjoy 1200K's if I didn't wear sandals. I also go clip free so I can move around. Higher volume tires and proper handlebar height (raised) also enhance comfort.
It helps to move the hands around often. It is interesting how many variations to grasping the bars you can come up with on a long ride. I also try keep looking around while I'm riding. There is often quite a bit to see, even at night, and it gives your neck something to do besides cramp up. There are lots of other things that contribute to feeling comfortable; like what to drink on the bike, how to manage electrolytes, group dynamics, personal hygiene, how to manage the elements (heat, cold, sun, rain, etc). I’ve had fun learning about these things from others and from trial and error. I may have even learned something useful from Bill along the way.

Bill: I pretty much agree with what Mark has said, although I have to admit, my "secret weapons" are my Spenco Ironman Gel gloves, which unfortunately are no longer available. I enjoy riding each 1200 as a vacation and look forward to the next with the same enthusiasm, knowing that each will be a great time and I'll have a different experience - all being pleasant - each time. I've been fortunate to ride several 1200s multiple times and with the variety of conditions, none are ever the same. One might have brutal headwinds one year and glorious tailwinds the next.
As far as equipment goes, with proper clothing, I can pretty much ride any bike and be comfortable, as long as it is properly set-up, and is reliably maintained. I'm just a comfortable on my Bob Jackson Super Tourer with S&S couplers, platform pedals, sprung Brooks saddle and "vintage" Shimano 9-speed Octalink components as I am on my Serotta Ottrott with the latest Campy Super Record 11 components. I have to admit that I am prone to carry more baggage with the Bob Jackson so I may not be as fast on the climbs, but in the end I have just as good of a time. It is the company I am fortunate to be able to ride with that provides the pleasure.
Are the any other things you'd want to discuss?

Spousal/Family Support
Mark: Taking lots of long bike rides is probably a very selfish activity. I wouldn't be able to do these rides without a very tolerant family.

Bill: I manage to squeeze in most of my "training mileage" on my daily commutes to and from work, and with two teenage daughters, my wife does more than her fair share on the weekends when I’m out on my rides. I was very fortunate to be able to ride all eight North American Grand Randonnees this last year but know that it was a "once in a lifetime gift" from my wife...she mistakenly thought I'd get this "randonnering thing" out of my system when I rode PBP in 2007. Little did she know…but then I REALLY pushed the envelope to get all of the rides in, using so much of my limited vacation time to go out and ride all of the 1200s, and there will be a generous payback required on my part over the next several years.

Mark: I didn't know how specific I want to be about the delicate matter of hygiene. Some strategies definitely work better than others, though. For example, PBP 2007 taught me that the aroma of Frog Socks doesn’t necessarily improve as the days go by. Without some vigilance, shorts, gloves, and helmets can also support the growth of interesting organisms with unpleasant attributes.

Bill: Not to get too far into details but the contact points are generally warm and damp, and without proper hygiene, the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria that will make your ride quite uncomfortable. This includes the saddle, hands and feet. One needs to be particularly sensitive to this when riding in the rain or damp conditions over several days. Perhaps you might want to have a follow-on interview with an expert under the title: "Can we spend a couple of minutes to talk about hygiene?"

Other important items to carry in one's "personal hygiene package" is toilet paper and lantiseptic. I don't always need either but when required, they can both be life savers. I don't know how many rest room lines I was able to skip through at PBP only because I had my own supply of paper along with me. There'd be 3 or 4 empty toilets with the lines forming at the one or two stalls that still had toilet paper (but no guarantee that there's be any left for the poor shmuck waiting at the back of the line) ...and it take SO LITTLE effort to replenish your supplies down the road when there is an ample supply at another rest stop.

As I have gotten more experience I've also gotten used to carrying other "personal" items with me in my bag rather than having multiple sets in each drop bag. This includes razors (I shave every day even though I AM on vacation), tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, and soap. This also make planning for the randonnees that one is traveling to via airplane much easier as one has everything in one location and doesn't need to carry the duplicate supplies in ones checked baggage.
Bill: We didn’t get into it, but as far as repairs and maintenance, both Mark and I do ALL of the work on our bikes ourselves. We're both fastidious about having things work right and don’t feel comfortable having anyone else do our repairs. As I previously mentioned, we also probably carry more than enough spare parts and tools to do almost any field repair required while out on the ride.


  1. Great interview! Thanks for writing this up - very helpful for the newer riders. Do they both use front and rear bags, or just one or the other? It sounds like they may carry a lot of gear with them on these rides.

    1. Good question. While I'm pretty sure I know the answer, I think what I'll do is wait a day or few and see if others have questions. If so, I will collect the questions and see if they will do a follow up.

  2. Thanks Nigel for initiating and posting the interview. Thanks also to the Olsen brothers for sharing their knowledge and experience.

  3. The first, and then the second time ,I read this I neglected to comment and thank you. Back the third time, I have managed to remember ... so thank you, there are things to be learned here. And chapeau to them.

  4. Thanks for this. Great interview. The title basically tells you to listen and learn from somebody with experience with 1200 km rides. Actions speak for themselves, and they have been in that action quite a few times . Very helpful .