RUSA Member Profile: Seattle’s Theo Roffe

This edition of RUSA Member Profiles turns to the Pacific Northwest for a conversation with Theo Roffe, active member of the Seattle International Randonneurs in Washington state (Yes, that Washington!). A randonneur since 2010, Theo talks about the appeal of the flèche, volunteering, and the ways randonneuring opens up the range of what we think possible.

How did you become involved in randonneuring?

I rode my first 200K and flèche in 2010, before traveling to India for the summer. I’d been riding and bike camping with some friends in Portland and one suggested that I should join him for a brevet. When he first explained it, I have to admit that I thought it sounded terrible! But we did some longer rides together and as I got the hang of it, 200K started to sound like a good challenge.

That spring, I headed out to the start by light rail and met a few more riders on board the train. Everyone was really nice and welcoming, which continues to be my experience with randonneurs. Since I didn’t have any experience with randonneuring, I started off way too fast and, after the first climb, dropped off the back of the group I’d joined.

The rest of the ride was pretty tough – at one point, close to bonking, I ate a pack of shot blocks that someone had dropped on the road! – and I finished in an exhausted state, but felt quite accomplished. After saying my goodbyes, I rode the wrong way out of the parking lot and got about 10 miles down the road before I noticed. It was a long day… but I enjoyed it.

The ride that convinced me that I wanted to keep randonneuring was actually my second event – the 2010 Flèche Northwest. Because of work constraints, my team started off at 8 a.m. on Saturday, the last possible time slot.

We rode out to Astoria, where we enjoyed an overly leisurely meal at the Ft. George Brewery. By the time we got back on the road and crossed the bridge into Washington, we were down on time and the weather began to turn. It ended up raining the entire night. At one point, we were on a series of rolling hills, in the rain, and the roads were covered in frogs. At the top of each hill, we came out of the rain and could see the starry skies before plunging back into the frogs and rain.

Despite the seemingly endless rain and a sleepy night, I had fun. It was great to ride with my team through the night and to share the challenges. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, we rode into the finish where we were greeted by a few volunteers and our fatigue temporarily evaporated with excitement. However, by the time we sat down for the brunch banquet, we were all falling asleep in our seats!

There was a very enthusiastic fellow seated next to me who introduced himself as Don Boothby and asked several times if we wanted to ride back to Portland. He even offered to accompany us. That friendly, ready-to-go attitude made an impression and I knew that I wanted to keep at this randonneuring thing. Maybe I could even ride back to Portland after the flèche someday. And the next year, I did.

Another scenic 300K. (Photo by Jeff Loomis)
How would you describe the terrain of the rides in your area?

We are fortunate in Washington State in that we have access to quite varied terrain. Close to Seattle we have hilly islands, a temperate rainforest, river valleys, the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens.

Thanks to Puget Sound and the ocean, we have plenty of scenic shorelines to follow. On longer rides, or with a relatively short drive, one can reach the drier eastern half of the state, which is again quite varied, but features endless golden hills with plenty of sun and wind.

If that weren’t enough, the Amtrak Cascades train allows travel to Eugene, Oregon with your bike on a hook in the baggage car. Between Seattle and Eugene, there are plenty of places to deboard and start riding without worrying about coming back to your parked car.

This brings Mount Hood, the Columbia Gorge, Mount Jefferson, McKenzie Pass, the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Coast, and more into easy reach. Or you can just ride there on a 1000K. Randonneuring really increases the range of the possible!

For me, summer rides into the Cascade Mountains, or along logging roads into Washington’s forests, are the highlight. But I really love it all.

You’ve also volunteered with and organized rando events in your area. What do you like about volunteering?

Volunteering for brevets and rando events is hugely rewarding – and entirely necessary! Without volunteers, these rides wouldn’t happen. Each region has its rockstar, repeat volunteers, but we should all chip in at least a little. Even if you’re just helping with registration and preparation at a ride start, signing cards at a secret control, or greeting and congratulating riders at the finish, that’s great!

SIR has a strong culture of volunteering and there’s always something you can do to get started. Put in some time helping in supporting roles and learning the process and you can eventually get to the point of organizing your own events from the ground up, developing your own routes, and sharing that with other riders in your club.

Volunteering is also a great way to get to know your fellow randonneurs. I find that as a rider, I only see people who ride somewhere near my pace. That might mean riding solo the entire time with everyone else ahead of or behind me! But as a volunteer, you might get to see every rider on the brevet, regardless of pace. It’s important to meet other people who also love this kind of riding and I’ve made a number of close friends in this way.

My bike, freshly painted. (Photo by Theo Roffe)
What is your preferred bike for riding brevets?

My preferred bike for riding brevets is my 2012 MAP semi-custom randonneur. It’s a low-trail 650B bike with a steel frame, full fenders, generator lighting, and a handlebar bag. It looks like a bike from an earlier time, which I appreciate for the sense of connection to the history of our sport, but the things that are most important about it have nothing to do with appearance.

The low-trail thing is about how the bike handles with a front load – stable enough to ride with a light touch or hands-free, but responsive enough for challenging descents. I like having my food, clothes, and cue sheet in the handlebar bag because it’s so much more accessible than a trunk rack or panniers.

650B gives me some nice options for wide tires, which makes for more comfortable riding over a variety of surfaces. Chipseal, gravel, and bad pavement don’t have a negative impact on my ride – which is good, because there are only so many miles of decent pavement out there.

Full fenders (with a long, generous rear mud flap!) are a must in the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve never regretted keeping them on in other places. I’ve been rained on, in the summer, in California, Colorado, and Kansas, to name a few, and keeping myself even a little bit dry makes the riding a lot more pleasant.

Generator lighting is probably the best thing you can do to a bike for randonneuring. It’s wonderful to have reliable, high-quality lights at night or in low-visibility conditions, without worry about batteries running out. I can’t recommend this enough! And it doesn’t matter what bike you’re riding, it can be as different from mine as you like, it’s important to see and be seen in the dark.

You use Instagram (@randotheo) to post photos and updates of your rando rides. What do you like about sharing your rides on social media?

When I’m organizing a ride, I really appreciate the riders who share their progress. It helps me keep a picture in my mind of where everyone is on the course and to determine when volunteers need to be at various controls, or if someone seems to be having trouble.

Especially on longer rides, I worry a lot less when I know that people are still making progress on the route. And it’s fun to follow ride progress, in the same way it’s fun to watch bike racing or other sports.

I post photos and updates of my rando rides in part to provide that bit of information and entertainment for organizers and rando-fans. I also feel like I’m swapping ride inspiration around the world.

For instance, on Instagram, I follow cyclists in France, South Korea, Japan, and all over the United States. The pictures they post from rides are a great source of bucket list rides! Based on some of the comments they leave on my photos, I think the feeling is mutual.

What randonneuring ride or event would you recommend that others experience?

My favorite event is the flèche. It can be rough to pull an all-nighter, but I find the event to be deeply rewarding. On long rides, you get to know your riding companions pretty well, and with 24 hours (or more) together with your team, you can’t help but talk about all kinds of things. Riding with a team of good friends is one of my favorite things. Often I don’t want the flèche to end!

The gathering of teams at the finish is a lot of fun, too. We swap stories (and sometimes tall tales) from our rides, laugh at our misfortune (bad weather, a rash of flats), and share the moments of beauty (a herd of elk, the kindness of a random person or another rider).

I strongly recommend a flèche. But I also recommend an unsupported ride of 600K or more. 1000K is a great distance. You might want to work up to this, but it’s pretty cool to know that you can take care of yourself on a multi-day ride. And I mean carrying your own gear, no drop bags, and finding or bringing your own food and water. If you ride with a friend, sharing only enhances the experience.

Highlight of the Cascade 1200K: Washington Pass and the Early Winter Spires. (Photo by James Gregory Walsh)
What keeps you coming back to ride brevets?

It’s the randonneuring community that keeps me coming back. Without my riding friends (and I’m including all of you who I haven’t yet met), I would get tired of brevets pretty quickly. Riding alone can be good sometimes, but I’m a pretty social person and sharing these rides is an important part of the experience.

Do you have a randonneuring mantra?

I don’t have a randonneuring mantra of my own invention, but one that helps me out comes from Vinny Muoneke: “This too will pass.” This is particularly true of the longer brevets.

Are you feeling bad? This will pass. Are you feeling hungry? This will pass. Are you feeling good? Are you feeling tired? Are you hurting? Is this climb too long? Is it too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry? All of this will pass. There are certainly times when I need the reminder!

I’ve been lucky to have a number of randonneuring mentors from whom I learned valuable lessons. Maybe these lessons could be expressed as mantras; certainly they are things that I come back to again and again on rides. Have a plan when you go into a control and limit your time faffing about. Carry the tools you need to fix your bike, but also to fix other people’s bikes: we can all use the help sometimes. Bring a spare tire (really). It’s better to have too much food than not enough.

Looking outside of randonneuring, I’m partial to Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” The next time you’re having a great time on a brevet, say this aloud, even if you’re alone.

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