Tough as nails is the phrase that comes to mind as I reflect on my recent RUSA Member Profile of Michele Brougher of the Great Lakes Randonneurs. Michele is currently the RBA for the Great Lakes Randonneurs, and has spent much of the last two years recovering from a serious accident during Paris Brest Paris.
In our interview, we discuss what it’s like to be both rider and RBA, how Michele returned to riding brevets after her accident and traumatic brain injury, and what makes a rider a “great randonneur.”
How did you become interested in being an RBA?
I’d been riding with the Great Lakes Randonneurs since 2010. I would drive six hours to the start because their rides were so beautiful and challenging and I always seemed to find someone to ride with. About four years ago the RBA, Jim, started asking for a successor. At first, I didn’t even consider it; I lived 400 miles away.
Two years ago he sent an email that he was scaling down to 200k and 300k only. I had a really hard internal discussion with myself about what it meant to be a part of a sport. Jim had put in seven great years, but he needed a break. The rides I really loved would be gone unless someone stepped up and took over. That someone was me.
What are the notable features of rides in your area?
East-Central Wisconsin and Illinois have some of the most varied and interesting riding in the world. We have hills, flats, Great Lakes, all kinds of glacial features, and years ago, the dairy industry paved most of the smallest roads.
Many towns have features dating back to the 19th century and the days of the Lumber Barons. I can build a route with little to no traffic for hundreds of miles.
Tell us about the Million Meters of Milk 1000K you are planning for July 7-10, 2017?
I’ve wanted to create an accessible and fun 1000k for a long time. So many rides are really wonderful, but they have an intimidation factor that always seems to be their defining aspect.
I wanted a ride where the idea of camaraderie and fun were primary. A ride to show off all the wonderful places that make Wisconsin such a great bicycling destination. The Million Meters of Milk was created to maximize the riding experience. It’s a clover leaf, so riders don’t have to deal with drop sacks and figuring out where to go at different overnights. It goes to places that even Great Lakes Randonneurs have not gone to before.
I’ve been on many 1000k+ rides over the years. I get to take all the best aspects of those and apply them to one ride.
What are your favorite parts of being an RBA? The most challenging?
It’s been said that at some point you can’t become better at anything until you start teaching it. Organizing and running the rides has given me a new and interesting way to improve my own riding. I’ve met people I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise.
And I like to think that the ultimate goal for any RBA is for everyone to finish safe and strong, so all the suffering is divided and all the triumphs are multiplied.
One of the unique challenges for me has been living 400 miles away from the region. I’ve had to spend a lot of time putting together an online system to handle all the registration and advertising. Our treasurer and I have worked to get cash out of the picture since neither of us lives anywhere near our bank.
But the most challenging aspect by far is getting people to mount lights on their bikes and wear proper reflective gear. It’s heartbreaking to disqualify a rider.
What are the best parts of riding brevets?
My favorite rides are ones where I finish and feel like I have experienced the place that I’ve been through. I felt at the end of London Edinburgh London that I had seen and experienced so much of England that it was the greatest ride ever. In the past, I’ve always said that I do these rides to see cool things and meet cool people.
At the 2015 edition of Paris Brest Paris (PBP(, you were hit from behind by another cyclist and suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result. What did it take for you to get back on the bike after your accident at PBP?
There were stages I went through in coming back from an injury like that. At first, my brain was too hurt to comprehend that it was hurt. It’s one of the worst parts of a brain injury, that you can’t always perceive the symptoms. I’d get raging headaches, couldn’t stand light or any noise, and my processing of the world around me was just “off”.
Curiously, that did not make me afraid to ride, go to work or anything else and I did some really off the wall things as a result. On one of my first outings on the bike, I was nearly hit by a car and knocked off the bike. Though I wasn’t badly hurt, the fear started then. I didn’t get on a bike again for months.
My spouse went all over the internet looking for information. But there was really nothing about what that process was like and how a person handled this from a riding perspective. My first neurologist did nothing to help.
I finally had the good luck of transferring to the Comprehensive Brain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic. My new neurologist had a completely opposite approach, that exercise was good for me. But I was going to have to take it really slow – like maybe do two minutes a day for a week and then consider going to three.
Your confidence takes a complete hit with this kind of injury. I would have to find out how to heal that too.
Come early January I was still not riding. Susan Gryder, who I had only slightly known from the Sunshine 1200K called me up out of the blue and said “There is a fleche in Central Florida in March – be on my team.”
I said at the time that I couldn’t ride bikes and that I was a mess. She didn’t take no for an answer. People reached out to me. A few people I hadn’t even really known before the accident. They had had their own struggles and all helped me realize how important cycling was to my health and well-being, how the accident didn’t have to be the end.
I changed jobs (very common with brain injury victims) into a company of ultra-supportive people who wanted me to succeed in all the aspects of my life. I realized that even if I was on my bike alone, I’d never really be alone because I was a part of a greater community of people that all kept going, no matter what.
I finished the Cracker Swamp 1200K because whether they knew it or not the “great randonneurs” like Kerin Huber, Deb Banks, Susan, and Kathy were there with me. And I had permission from myself to ride at whatever pace made me feel right inside.
I always kept up my blog about the experience of healing because in some recess of my mind, I hoped the next victim out there would be able to find it and perhaps know that they too, are not alone and that as dark as things may seem, there is always hope, even if it takes months or years. You are never the same person again after injuries like this, but in many ways, I think I like the person I am today better.
Tell me about your brevet bike and what you like about it for long rides?
I have several brevet bikes, all of them have different personalities. The Summer Knight, built by one of my best friends, was severely damaged 18 months ago in the accident.
My current bike – the Jester – is the last kind of bike anyone would ever think of for brevets. It has limited space, is made of carbon fiber and I now ride exclusively with aero bars due to nerve damage in my hands.
Do you have a brevet mantra?
I’ve never had one, but my mentor in long distance cycling used to tell me, “Respect the miles.” All of these rides are difficult and challenging.
I’ve known so many who start thinking that it’s just a 200k. Not so to me. All the miles should be respected for the challenge they represent and all the new and interesting experiences they bring.
What inspires you to keep riding brevets?
Many are gifted with perfect health and sometimes we confuse fitness with health. I have two autoimmune diseases and permanent damage from an accident in 2015. The fitness and mental toughness I get from doing these rides gives me the endurance to overcome that. Without the riding, I might not be walking.
What makes a rider a great randonneur?
This sport is different from almost every other in that success comes not only from your own success, but also from the successes of all the people around you. That’s ultimately what camaraderie means.
Even if we can’t finish this time or we don’t meet our own standards, a few supportive words or a single act of kindness can push someone else to go farther than they ever thought they could. We may never know what those moments are but they are the moments that make great randonneurs.