3:30 a.m. Felkerino and I quietly maneuver our eight-foot tandem out of the hotel room, and Felkerino muscles it into the elevator, hoisting the front half of the bike into an upper corner, since it is too long to naturally fit the space.
Our cycling cleats tap purposefully on the floor as we exit through the hotel lobby. The night shift staff do not bat an eye, barely glancing our way. Once in the parking lot, we pause to mount the bike and silently enter the pre-dawn darkness of summer. 600K to go.
Nobody knows we are out here. No one has a clue about the big miles and intimidating ups and downs laid out for us over the next 38 hours. Our membership in the Secret Society of Randonneuring is alive and well this day.
We pedal into Frederick County countryside. Views are limited, but night sounds and smells surround us. A car periodically swooshes around us. Occasional rooster crows alert of dawn’s imminent arrival. The odor of farmland permeates the air – the smell of money, as we used to say growing up.
Morning is refreshingly cool. I savor it knowing that the heat of summer will follow soon enough. Felkerino comments on the arrival of first light. I look east, and see the deep pink burn of dawn, but we turn west just as the sun positions to beam over the hills. If not for our affiliation with the Secret Society of Randonneuring, we could pause for the full thrill of what surely is a brilliant sunrise. Ah well.
We climb into the Catoctins. A sign posted outside an elementary school touts its students as “Summer Strong.” I like it. Perhaps it applies to us, too, I think, as we have had no breaks from the big rides these past weeks.
Hardly anyone knows of our summer strong. Colleagues have no idea that when the work week ends, we commute home to panic pack and ready for rides that start and end in darkness – or sunset, if we’re lucky.
Weekdays are spent recovering from weekend efforts, rehydrating, stretching, and trying to log sleep to be as prepared as possible for the next ride. We keep a low profile, except at the grocery store, where I can’t stop buying ice cream.
The morning continues to brighten and the forecast warmth arrives. Pure summer! Warm rides exhaust and invigorate. Shaded climbing is delightful reprieve from toasty exposed segments. The sound of rushing water stokes a desire to stop and soak the toes and splash the face, but we dare not. The Secret Society of Randonneuring will not tolerate a loss of time to such antics.
We chose this route because it is a good honest challenge, with around 21,000 feet of climbing over 375 miles. This 600K is our final prep for this year’s grand finale ride – a 1200K in the Midwest. The nature of the climbing is steep chop through gorgeous blacktop back roads in Pennsylvania. It’s really divine riding, except for the part where my legs and lungs can’t keep up with the slope in the road.
At various points, we refuel and eat unusual quantities of gas station food. Unusual for us, anyway, except when we are renewing our Secret Society of Randonneuring credentials. Lifesavers are my emergency randonneuring vitamin. Unfortunately, Sheetz doesn’t believe in Lifesavers so I make do with Gummi Bears there.
Sometimes we ask people to sign our permanent cards – even though only receipts are required as proof of passage – for variety’s sake. Occasionally people ask us where we started and where we’re going – more out of politeness than real interest, it seems.
After sunset, we stop at yet another convenience store. The woman working asks what we’re up to, and we give her the basic details. “I could never do that,” she says. I assure her that she can. If I can do it, anyone can do it, and I believe that.
We pedal to our overnight and pause for five hours before launching again for Day 2. The second day passes uneventfully, with the exception of occasional rain and the pressure of the control windows, which close around us during the early miles that boast 100 feet of climbing per mile for the first 45 miles.
I need a couple of extra pick-me-ups this second day because the climbing, first day’s heat, and short sleep have sapped me of energy. Gradually I’m revived, and we keep pressing toward our final stop in Frederick, Maryland.
We finish after 38 hours and 22 minutes of riding, and I recall the woman who asserted she could not do our ride. She just doesn’t know the trick to it yet. I have learned that the Secret Society of Randonneuring is available to anyone who can confidently ride a bike. The trick is knowing about it. There are other tricks too, but knowing the Secret Society of Randonneuring exists is the very first step, because it is there that possibility is born.
Membership in the Secret Society of Randonneuring is small, but very active. We go about our randonneuring business, and most people are unaware of our endeavors. We return to our everyday lives, and randonneuring sits like a dream in our memories.
The Secret Society of Randonneuring hides in plain sight. We pedal back roads, and light up the night with our lights and reflectives. We nip into convenience stores and pass through towns at any and all hours. Sometimes the locals heckle us, but mostly they leave us alone.
We don work clothes and return to our jobs when the rides are done. Colleagues have no idea that we spent the weekend riding 375 miles. Our weary eyes are the only clue, as we keep the other arenas of our lives moving forward.
Fourteen years ago I discovered the Secret Society of Randonneuring through a friend who had a friend who was connected to the group. Intrigued, I began spending my weekends riding with this group. Time passed. A century shifted from a goal to a training ride. Conceivable distances grew longer. The limits of the possible expanded.
The Secret Society of Randonneuring doesn’t bestow a lot of recognition or celebrate its members’ accomplishments. This is all part of the secret. Rather, the reward for membership in the Secret Society of Randonneuring percolates in the body and mind, and lingers long after the ride is done. The body and mind are strong. Stronger than I dared remember. Summer strong.