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Going the Distance

Written By: Andrew Merritt

Photography Provided By: Max Poletto

In a nation where only 20% of adults get the minimum recommended exercise, there are others that seem to be determined to make up the balance for the rest of us. Having never owned a car, Max Poletto is one of those people making even the most devout gym rat seem lazy. He spends an incredible amount of time on a bike saddle, riding hundreds of miles a week. The longest of these rides are accomplished while participating in Randonneuring events.

Randonneuring is timed, unsupported long-distance cycling. The longest events, known as Grandes Randonnées, can reach or even exceed 1200 Km in length. Competitive cycling traces its origins here, though the modern version is exclusively for amateurs. These challenging events – called brevets – have no winners or yellow jerseys. There are, however, maximum finishing times, ranging from 13.5 hours for 200 Km to 90 hours for 1200 Km rides. There’s no pause button for bad weather, broken equipment, or the calls of nature, and riders must check in at “controls” for proof of passage along the way.

Throw on your best spandex shorts and read what this extreme athlete has to say about dumping the car and going the distance.

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An Exclusive Interview With Max Poletto

Q: Many people are unfamiliar with Randonneuring. How did you discover the sport?

MP: I started Randonneuring in 2003, in Boston. I was doing a lot of touring and club-style road riding. A friend and I rode together frequently on weekends, and we both discovered the website of what was at the time the Boston Brevet Series. Some of the ride reports were amazing, and we decided we had to try it.

We rode our first 200K in an epic ice storm. The event was postponed at the last minute due to weather, but we rode it anyway because we had already cycled 15 miles in blowing snow to get to the start, and we thought we may as well ride the rest. We made a (stupid) name for ourselves and got hooked on the sport. My friend went on to ride the Paris-Brest-Paris 1200Km event that year.

Q: What got you into cycling in the beginning?

MP: As a kid, it was the feeling of freedom. I grew up in the mountains of southern Italy, and there were tons of unpaved forest roads to explore. Mud and independence – a potent combination. Then in college (in Boston) it was the most efficient and least expensive way to get around. Around the same time I discovered touring and long-distance cycling: it was a whole different way to see the world.

Q: What draws you to noncompetitive long distance riding compared to racing?

MP: The camaraderie and the landscapes. I’ve made some of my best friends through cycling. And even when I’m going hard (e.g., trying to set a personal best), it’s difficult not to look up and admire the beauty of the land. Also, importantly, fewer crashes!

Q: The non-competitive aspect of Randonneuring is a big part of its allure. How does this feature during a brevet?

MP: Many ways. Some examples:

  • No sprint finish: if we get to a few miles from the finish in a small group, we all ride in together.
  • No tactics designed specifically to “drop” another rider, such as sprinting on a hill, etc.
  • Helping each other out with flats/mechanicals. I am a reasonably fast rider in our club, and even when I’ve been in groups that were aiming for specific ambitious time goals (e.g., 600Km in under 24 hours, or a new best time on a particular course), we’ve stopped and worked together to fix a problem rather than dropping one of our group.

Q: Do you have favorite bars/gels/liquids to keep you going during a ride?

MP: I am partial to maltodextrin, a complex sugar made from potato starch. It takes longer to digest than glucose or fructose, so it gives you a longer energy boost than those simpler sugars. I usually make my own energy mix, combining malto with soy protein and soy lecithin (for fat) in a roughly 75:15:10 ratio, and mixing with water. A similar, excellent mix is available commercially as “Perpetuem” from Hammer Nutrition. I also like Power Bars, but I’m a tiny minority among cyclists. In general, energy bars become hard to chew after many hours on the bike.

Q: Hundreds of kilometers of riding equals thousands of calories burned. How do you reward yourself after all that exercise?

MP: The morning after a very long ride I like to have a big, savory breakfast: whole wheat pasta with pesto, fried eggs, butter and toast, tofu with soy sauce, a bowl of fruit, dark chocolate – that sort of thing. I’m vegetarian, so no meat. Other than that, nothing too special. It’s easy to “reward” oneself too much.

Q: Brevets often end at a brewery or restaurant. Do you have any favorite destinations in the Bay Area to pedal towards?

MP: Our annual “flèche” (French for “arrow”) event is one where teams of 3-5 riders design their own courses of no less than 360Km and converge on Crêpes on Cole after 24 hours of riding. I live a few blocks from there, so the combination of team spirit, all-night adventure, good breakfast, and the feeling of coming home are hard to beat.

Q: What technology do you utilize when you ride? (i.e., apps, custom gear, headphones, etc.)

MP: I have a small Garmin GPS unit. On a few 24-hour or longer rides, I’ve used a single headphone in my right (curb-side) ear to listen to music from my phone. I’m a computer programmer, but on my bike I am very conservative about electronics–almost everything eventually fails due to weather and abuse.

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Q: Is Randonneuring an expensive hobby?

MP: Not particularly. For the first several years, I rode brevets on an old mountain bike that I’d bought in college and put slick tires onto. Because events are minimally supported, fees cover little more than insurance and are in the $10-40 range, whereas many organized centuries and double centuries may cost well over $100. Of course, if you want to spend money on fancy gear, the sky’s the limit.

Q: Do you have any upcoming events that you’re preparing for?

MP: Paris-Brest-Paris, the oldest and arguably most prestigious 1200 Km randonnée, which will be held this August. It occurs every 4 years.

It used to be a professional race from the 1890s until the 1950s, but it fell out of favor with pro cyclists, whose season revolved around shorter races. While such a grueling event came to be seen as a season killer for pros, it was enthusiastically adopted by amateurs.

Q: How do you prepare for such a huge race?

MP: To prepare, I have a training regimen:

  • About a dozen official brevets in the 200 – 600Km range
  • Several 150-200Km rides on my own, on weekends
  • Shorter but intense rides, usually climbing hills in SF or Marin
  • Some weight training
  • Healthy nutrition, no alcohol
  • Reasonable amounts of sleep

Q: Do your wife and children cycle with you as well?

MP: Yes. We have no car— we get around everywhere by bike. Admittedly, SF is one of the few cities on the west coast where such a lifestyle is practical. Living without a car is easier in dense east coast cities like Boston or NY, or in many European cities.

We have a tandem, a trailer, a baby bike seat for the little one, and so on. My wife and I enjoyed bike touring together in pre-kid days. My older daughter and I ride to school and elsewhere on the tandem daily.

Q: Riding the streets of San Francisco can be daunting even for experienced riders; what advice do you have to keep safe?

MP: Every day I ride with the assumption that drivers cannot see me. You have to assume that you’re completely responsible for your own safety. I hope that will be enough.

Q: Have you had any run-ins with some of SF’s less observant drivers?

MP: Several, though I’ve never actually been hit. Usually it’s verbal abuse, dangerous lane changes, swerving into the bike lane, that sort of thing. That said, there are many rude cyclists and pedestrians, too. We are all responsible for the tenor of our public spaces.

Q: Take us through the mental challenges of a +400km ride.

MP: For me, the toughest parts are preparing the night before. I am making sure that I have everything, that the bike is ready, etc. and then getting out of bed in the morning, usually at an ungodly hour like 3 or 4 a.m.

Once I am on the bike, and I have ascertained that all is well (bike working fine, food packed, etc.), I feel a great sense of peace and focus. It’s a relief more than a challenge. The key for me is to not think too hard about the ride as a whole but to focus on small, intermediate goals. Sounds corny, but it’s sort of a metaphor for life.

My biggest concrete physical challenge on the longer rides is ingesting enough food. It’s hard to explain just how difficult it can be to lift one’s arm and bring a peanut butter sandwich to the mouth after pedaling near the limit for 15+ hours.

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Q: Do you have any riding goals ahead?

MP: To finish Paris-Brest-Paris, hopefully briskly.

Q: How has Randonneuring changed in the years you’ve been involved?

MP: Not very much, actually. The number of participants has grown a lot, but it’s still a relative small tribe. There has always been a broad spectrum of riders, from the competitive and athletic to the more relaxed and touring-oriented. I do miss my friends from my early rando days in New England, however.

Q: Tell us what contributes to a great ride.

MP: A ride can be great for many different reasons. Here are a few:

  • Good company
  • Scenic beauty (and coming home with great photos)
  • Discovery of new places
  • Achieving a difficult and strongly desired performance goal
  • The feeling of the body and bike working well, effortlessly
  • Overcoming problems with the body or bike
  • Coming home after a long adventure

Q: What aspects of Randonneuring have inspired you to keep participating?

MP: I’m tempted to give roughly the same answer as to “What draws you to noncompetitive long distance riding?” I compare Randonneuring to competitive rowing in college and feel that somehow it’s easier to not burn out in Randonneuring. You can choose whether to have a “hard” season with ambitious time goals or whether to be more relaxed and spend more time riding with friends. And it fits well into a broader cycling lifestyle.

Also, I think I’d miss the people: the Randonneurs I know, by and large, tend to be quiet, reliable, non-complaining, and non-ostentatious types. Good company.

If you’d like to read more about Randonneuring or the Paris-Brest-Paris event, head on over to www.rusa.org