On June 24, about 80 cyclists will roll up to a starting line in Davis. Their destination: Goose Lake, at the northeastern border of the state. Their mission: pedal day and night to get there, then turn around and ride back, completing the 750-mile journey in less than 90 hours, or just under four days.
The event, called the Gold Rush Randonnée, is sponsored by the Davis Bike Club. Held every four years, it will take place for the fourth time in 2013.
Despite the ticking clock, the Gold Rush isn’t a race. The riders are randonneurs, devotees of a form of long-distance, time-limited bicycle touring that has its roots in France over a hundred years ago.
For many recreational cyclists, a “century,” or a hundred-mile ride in one day, is the height of ambition. For randonneurs, that distance is just a beginning. Organized randonneuring events, or brevets, start at 200 kilometers (125 miles). Dedicated riders complete training series of 200-, 300-, 400- and 600-kilometer rides to qualify for the sport’s ultimate event, a 1,200-kilometer brevet like the Gold Rush Randonnée.
The oldest and best known brevet, called Paris-Brest-Paris, is a 1,200-kilometer ride that sends thousands of cyclists from France’s capital city to the coastal city of Brest, and back again, with only minimal stops for food and a few hours’ sleep. Originating in 1891 and now held every four years, it will occur next in 2015.
Dan Shadoan, the Davis Bike Club’s ultra-distance cycling director and the founder of the Gold Rush Randonnée, rode Paris-Brest-Paris in 1991. Chatting with friends on the plane ride home, he conceived of organizing something similar in California.
The route of the Gold Rush Randonnée has changed little since the event’s beginning in 2001. Riders leave Davis at 6 p.m., completing the first 100 miles to Oroville at night, to avoid the scorching daytime heat of the Central Valley. They then climb, summiting the steep Jarbo Gap, and ascending gradually through the Sierra Nevada by way of the Feather River Canyon. A second steep climb pushes them out onto the remote, high desert of the Modoc Plateau, which they follow nearly to the Oregon border.
The total amount of climbing is 26,000 feet, or about 10 times up Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. As in all brevets, support vehicles are prohibited. Riders must carry what they need with them and be self-reliant out on the course.
Along the way, they receive support at a handful of checkpoints, or “controls,” stocked with food and water, and staffed by encouraging volunteers. Set up in grange halls, community centers, Elks Lodges, and mobile homes in far-flung towns like Taylorsville, Susanville and Adin, the controls are a place for riders to scarf calorie-rich foods like bacon and eggs, and have their passport-like ride booklets stamped.
Some will linger for a shower or a couple hours’ rest; the fastest will ride straight through, finishing in a bit over two sleepless days. Though, as Shadoan reminds, equal accolades go to all who finish inside the 90-hour limit:
“Nobody wins anything by being fast.”
This year, Shadoan has riders coming from as far away as Russia, Australia, Sweden and Japan. He will also host many Bay Area randonneurs, including half a dozen or so who have participated in every Gold Rush since the beginning, a span of 12 years.
They return for the challenge, the sense of freedom, and what every experienced randonneur extols — the relationships that form during a long, intense ordeal on the bike.
“These rides generate war stories like you can’t believe,” says Shadoan, whose own roots in the ultra-cycling community run deep; he and his wife own a tandem bike with 70,000 miles on it. “There are always things you remember happening to you, and how you overcame them. How somebody helped you change a flat in the middle of the night on Route 395, almost in Oregon. It’s incredible how the camaraderie affects you.”