Bikes of the Bunch: Orbea Orca randonneuring machine
When we think about the longer rides we like to do, we often end up with something in the range of maybe 3-5 hours. That sort of duration is longer than what most of us are usually able to cram in during the week, and enough to be properly tired at the end of the weekend day without being an outright sufferfest.
Malcolm Fraser is not like most cyclists. For him, a long ride is more like 200km at minimum, or better yet, 300km, 400km, or even 600km. He’s among the growing legion of randonneur riders ticking off huge distances, unsupported, and often solo.
Randonneuring may not be a huge subset of road cycling, but its roots run deep, and as a result, its proponents are well established and well organized. Fraser, a relatively recent transplant of Colorado, taps the resources of local outfit Rocky Mountain Cycling Club, which provides a wealth of pre-determined routes, complete with RideWithGPS navigation files and printable cue sheets.
“It couldn’t be any easier,” said Fraser. “Everything has been thought out.”
What was anything but easy, however, is how Fraser got to this point in the first place.
Randonneuring is usually considered to be a subset of cycling that is discovered much later in someone’s road cycling experience — long after the adrenaline rush of racing has lost its appeal. But Fraser only started riding bikes at all a decade ago, at the tender age of 60. Nearing retirement, he found himself woefully unhealthy, the result of a long career in the corporate world and the unfortunately inactive lifestyle that often goes along with it.
And it was at that point that Fraser decided it was time to do something about it. He checked himself into the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, stayed there for nearly a month, and eventually lost about 70 pounds (32kg).
“But the problem with losing weight is not losing the weight,” Fraser said. “If you look at the statistics, keeping weight off is much harder. So I had to find something to do that I couldn’t do when I was 70 pounds heavier. My children bought me a used LeMond Tourmalet for my 60th birthday as a congratulations for losing weight, and I got into cycling.”
Things didn’t start easily at first, of course, and Fraser says that even riding around the block proved challenging initially. But it didn’t take long for the cycling bug to bite. And not surprisingly, it also wasn’t long before all he wanted to do was ride more. Shortly after his physical transformation, Fraser and his wife moved from Florida to Colorado to be closer to the couple’s grandchildren. The once-great expanses of flat ground now gave way to mountain vistas and open land.
Fraser’s total annual distance isn’t all that excessive — about 8,000km or so — but it often comes in big chunks, and typically during the week so as not to cut too much into his time with the family.
He joined a local cycling group for older riders called Seniors on Bikes — better known as the SOBs. “The SOBs were wonderful and helped me progress to the next level,” he said. But Fraser still wanted something different. And so he started doing the longer prescribed routes from brevet section of the RMCC.
“They have these rides called Permanents, which you can do any day of the week. For a couple of years, I did a 100km and 200km every month. That’s a really good way to build up a base fitness. It doesn’t sound like very much, but when it’s really challenging outside and when the days are short, it can be tough.”
Equipment-wise, Fraser insists that the bike itself doesn’t have to be anything specifically engineered for randonneuring, and in fact, he’s still using an older Orbea Orca that replaced the LeMond several years ago.
Major component changes are about what you’d expect given the distances traveled — slightly wider and more durable tires, easier gearing, double-wrapped bars — and Fraser has found his Quarq power meter and Rotor Q-Ring elliptical chainrings especially useful.
“If you have a power meter, it’s much easier to figure out how you’re doing and how to improve,” Fraser said. “And overnight, I got an extra 7% of power at the same heart rate [with the Q-Rings]. They claim 4 or 5% percent, but I’m just the average Joe. I think the worse your pedaling technique, the bigger the advantage.”
However, it’s the accessories that Fraser has added that really make a road racing bike like the Orca more suitable for the task. A Moots Tailgator seatpost-mounted rear rack provides plenty of space for a tool kit and spare clothing, there’s a top tube bag for his phone and snacks, and also a handlebar bag to hold a third bottle. A spare tire is zip-tied to the saddle.
Also earning high marks from him is the Garmin Varia rear-facing radar system, which warns him about automotive traffic approaching from behind.
“It’s a superb product. You’re always better off knowing what’s there. There’s no situation where you shouldn’t know what’s behind you.”
As for fenders, well, let’s just say that Colorado isn’t exactly known for its prodigious precipitation.
Tackling longer distances invariably requires riding during twilight and nighttime hours, since the rules of randonneuring require a minimum average speed of 15km/h from start to finish, including time spent sleeping, eating, mechanical repairs, and even bathroom breaks and traffic lights.
Fraser started out using battery-powered units, but quickly discovered the limitations of run time, and eventually switched to a front hub dynamo. In addition to the essentially unlimited burn time, that setup also provides the benefit of portable USB recharging for his Garmin GPS computer and iPhone. And if all else fails, there are still ancillary battery-powered lights — both for daytime and nighttime riding — and a plethora of reflective tape applied nearly everywhere.
Three years ago, Fraser crossed off a major goal for himself, earning the prestigious “Super Randonneur” status after completing routes of 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km. His family worries about Fraser being vulnerable out on the road, but they’re still supportive. So much so that his daughters are planning to join him for next year’s Triple Bypass, a classic 30-year-old Colorado organized cycling event that crosses three major passes in the Rocky Mountains. That one ride alone covers nearly 200km of distance with roughly 3,300m of total elevation gain, but for Fraser, it’s just another day.
“It’s a shame that they retired the Double Triple,” he said. “That was a great ride!”
His goal for next year? A monster-sized 1,200km route. At the age of 70.
“Why not?” Fraser said when I asked about his motivations for such a lofty endeavor. “It’s like climbing Everest. Why do it? Well, because it’s there.”
Fraser is whimsically practical about one key aspect of his randonneuring habits, too. Although he still works part-time, his days of long hours at a desk or sitting on a plane are far behind him, and he’s essentially retired.
“I was very sedentary. I was traveling a lot, and didn’t have any time for myself,” he said, before finishing with an ever-so-slight grin. “Now, I have a lot of free time.”