Randonneurs USA Profile: Jerry Phelps

A little over one year ago, I began interviewing Randonneurs USA (RUSA) members for American Randonneur, the quarterly RUSA newsletter. I have the pleasure of talking with members from clubs across the country who not only ride brevets, but are active in their local randonneuring scene and volunteer for randonneuring events. 

In order for these interviews to reach a broader group and perhaps inspire others to dabble in the randonneuring arts, I am cross-posting them to the blog. (I already posted one – my talk with D.C. Randonneurs’ very own Bill Beck!) I’ll be rolling the interviews out over the next few days… or weeks or months, given the way I’ve been blogging lately!

This is my talk from last year with Jerry Phelps of the North Carolina Randonneurs. Jerry began riding brevets in 2006, and since that time he’s completed the Ultra R-12 while also making time for non-randonneuring events.

In this interview, we talk brevet bikes, the appeal of challenges like the R-12 and the Ultra R-12, RAGBRAI, and what it’s like to ride with the North Carolina Randonneurs.

PBP 2011 – Dingé and about 330km to go. Left to right – John Ende, Mike Dayton, JP and Jimmy Williams. Pure magic to ride with these three guys. Photo credit Kelly Chambers
Tell me a bit about your home club, the North Carolina Randonneurs? It’s been several years since I rode a brevet in North Carolina, but it always seemed like you had great camaraderie in your group.

While the North Carolina Randonneurs is not a formal club, we have great camaraderie! That was one of the things I noticed in my first brevet and what helped to sell me on our sport. We have three Regional Brevet Administrators (RBAs) in the state that cover the three geographic regions—Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountains. All three attract riders from all parts of the United States.

RBAs can always count on plenty of volunteers to help out on rides. In fact, some of my favorite events have been pre-rides with a small group where we all stayed together.

How did you become involved in randonneuring and when did you ride your first brevet?

Like many people, I found out about randonneuring almost by accident. I was teaching spin classes and leading 40-50 mile weekend rides from the club. One of the riders wanted to do his first century and asked if I would ride it with him. So I went online to find a spring century and stumbled across something that I couldn’t even pronounce and the distances looked ridiculous!

I knew right then I wanted to meet these people and signed up for Alan Johnson’s 200km brevet on April 8, 2006. During that ride I met some great folks including Mike Dayton, Wes Johnson, JD Stewart, and Danny Thomas. We pretty much rode the entire thing together and they nursed me through the final 30 miles instead of leaving me for road kill. As an aside, my friend who wanted me to ride with him moved to Ohio in the interim—a desperate move to get out of a bike ride!

Catching the train to Petersburg, VA with Cinnamon Girl for the DC Randonneurs Fleche.
How would you describe the terrain of the brevets and permanents in your area? 

In my immediate area – Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill – the terrain is rolling and there are plenty of signature hills that are just lousy with cyclists on the weekends. Ride 40 miles east and the terrain can’t be flatter. One hundred miles west and things can get very interesting.

Riders from western states are surprised at our hills which aren’t terribly long, but they can be quite steep. The road conditions are pretty nice normally; North Carolina does a good job at road maintenance.

Do you have a favorite bike for riding brevets?

My favorite bike is the one I am riding on any given day (and please don’t tell them I said that—they might get jealous). I have a custom-built coupled Coho—one of the last Chuck Lathe built. Mike Dayton named her Cinnamon Girl. She is a sweet ride but a bit on the hefty side. I have ridden lots of brevets and Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) on her.

My go-to bike these days is a new full carbon, electronic shifting lightweight wonder that I love. She’s all black and white so her name is Orca. I took her to PBP last summer and she performed flawlessly.

I also have a track bike fixed gear that I take for short rides (mostly 100 and 200km populaires and brevets). My other bike is a 1951 Raleigh 3-speed–Fiona. I’ve ridden a couple of populaires on her and RAGBRAI one year with Drew Buck. That was a treat!

Cinnamon Girl, coupled!
Jerry, congratulation on achieving the Ultra-R12! Riding at least one 200k each month for ten years running takes commitment. What motivated you to ride at least a 200K distance for ten years, month after month? 

I think I started randonneuring at the perfect time in 2006. Permanents were fairly new — Mike Dayton had the only two in the state and they were ridden a lot! I thought the R-12 would be a fine goal for my first year and would help me to stay motivated, in shape, and help me learn to deal with winter riding.

Once I’d earned that first R-12, I wanted to continue the streak. Believe me, I’ve rescued it several times on the last day of the month, but North Carolina is fairly conducive to year-round riding, especially if you have some flexibility to pick a warmish winter day to ride. When I got to R-60, I knew I had to keep going as long as I stayed healthy.

I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of my loved ones and friends to keep the streak alive, but I am so over it now. Technically, I haven’t let it lapse, but I decided to start over again at R-1 this past April. It takes the pressure off.

What does the Ultra R-12 accomplishment mean to you, and how does it compare to other randonneuring challenges you have pursued?

It is definitely on the short list of big achievements. It shows a level of commitment that I wasn’t sure I had in me. It also represents a lot of luck—any number of things might have happened to end it. Even though mine was one continuous 120 month streak, I’m glad RUSA doesn’t require that. Otherwise the Ultra R-12 Club would be a pretty lonesome group. It’s the single award that I am most proud of but some of my friends, riders and non-riders, think it’s bonkers.

Not only have you earned the Ultra R-12, but I know you are a regular attendee of RAGBRAI, which is the cross-state ride of Iowa (my home state!). Why would a randonneur be interested in RAGBRAI?

I’ve ridden RAGBRAI five times. It is so much fun!! It’s a week of just riding a bike for the sheer joy of it—like being a kid again. “Summer camp for adults” is a pretty good description of the event. And let’s face it, to a randonneur, riding 70-100 miles a day for a week is a piece of cake.

I have had some crazy coincidences on the ride like meeting a guy from Chapel Hill that bought my former boss’s house and running into a former running buddy who had moved away from the area.

RAGBRAI is nothing like randonneuring but it is just as much fun. The year Drew Buck- yes the famous Drew Buck- and I did it together was the pinnacle. He was an instant celebrity riding his 1914 retrodirect 2-speed in his Onion Johnny costume. I bought Fiona so I’d have something “appropriate” to ride with Drew. We had a blast!

Team Lynn in Spirit if not in Fleche in 2015. L to R – JP, Lynn Kristianson, Branson Kimball, Charlie Thomas, and Scott Gater. Photo credit Bill Beck
Who are some randonneurs who inspired you along the way?

There are so many people. Mike Dayton has certainly been a huge influence—not only for riding but for his full commitment to the sport as a leader and volunteer.

Lynn Kristianson was a dear friend and my flèche captain many times. In all the miles we rode together, I never heard her complain about anything except my bad jokes. And all the Regional Brevet Administrators (RBAs) and permanent owners who have organized rides that I’ve had the pleasure to ride — those folks are the heart and soul of our sport.

I also met a rider last winter who really inspired me. I won’t mention his name, because he was struggling to finish every ride within the time limits and some he didn’t. But he showed up time and time again always with a great attitude and rode most of the miles completely alone. I am stunned by that commitment and determination.

Thanks for being part of the RUSA Member Profiles series, Jerry! And readers, if you have a suggestion for someone you think I should interview, please send me a note via the Contact tab or by email.

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