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Putting Mettle To The Pedal: Cyclist Karel Stroethoff
Montana Senior News, Feb. 2016/March 2016
Should you ever notice a bicycler asleep by the roadside, just imagine a “Do Not Disturb” sign posted and keep driving. Though your initial impulse may be to stop and check on the person, chances are any cyclist sprawled on the grass or stretched out on a picnic table is not ailing but could be a tired Randonneaur. And while your intentions would be noble, the catnapping cyclist would prefer you not act on them, thank you very much.

Though rare in America, this sight is more common in Europe where the sport of Randonneauring started. Randonneaurs are endurance cyclists more concerned with covering countryside miles within limited time periods than with finding a motel mattress to rest on. That explains the 30-to-60-minute byway power naps. These calorie-consuming cyclists require minimum sleep for maximum alertness on each segment of their journey—be it 50 or 150 miles of non-stop pedaling day or night.

No one knows this better than Karel Stroethoff, who discovered this arduous sport in 2006 when he took a year-long sabbatical from teaching mathematics at the University of Montana.

“I had a mid-life crisis. I was overweight and knew I needed to get in shape so I started cycling,” says Karel, who came to the States in 1981 for graduate school and joined the UM faculty six years later. “In Holland where I grew up, everyone rides bikes. I rode mine everywhere but did not get into racing then.”

The trek that introduced him to long-distance cycling brought him from Missoula to Glacier Park to Yellowstone and back to Missoula covering some 1000 miles in ten days. Karel tackled the ride with the Helena Bike Club loving each minute of each mile. He appreciated everything about the sport from the camaraderie to the conquest over aching muscles.

“I like the challenge that appears out of reach. You have to use your time efficiently and do with less sleep,” remarks Karel, who notes that this is not necessarily a sport for the young as much as a passion for those whose life or work situation allows them the flexibility to pursue it.

According to bicycling history, Randonneauring’s roots trace back to the late 19th century and a grueling round-trip race from Paris to oceanside Brest, France. Known in cycling lingo as the PBP, this picturesque but punishing 750-mile route was the inspiration behind the more famous Tour de France, which began 14 years later.

The PBP attracted lots of endurance cyclers and still attracts some 5,000 of them—along with Karel—today. Surprisingly, what has always set apart the PBP from other cycling events, aside from its 36,000-foot elevation gain, is its non-competitive nature. Finishing within the allotted timeframe, now set at 90 hours, is what matters, not placing first.

Additionally, this continues to be an “unsupported” event. No teams follow riders with food, water, spare bikes, or spare bike parts—a tradition that has remained. Support crews can only assist at designated checkpoints, though cyclists can purchase food and water wherever available.

“You should be able to do these rides on your own and be self-motivated and self-sufficient,” says Karel, who has participated in three PBPs and hopes to do many more. If you can imagine pedaling a bicycle from Bozeman to Kalispell and back to Bozeman in four consecutive days, that tells you what the PBP race is like. However, to call this event a race may be a misnomer.

“The goal of these rides is to simply finish them. People always ask, ‘What’s your time?’ but that is not what matters. You are only competing with yourself,” clarifies Karel. “The primary goal is just to finish. Time is secondary.”

To prepare for such a challenge, Karel, like other Randonneaurs, has to complete a series of six long-distance rides, known as brevets to qualify for the PBP. Randonneaur chapters around the world organize and closely oversee these brevets, which range incrementally from 200 to 1200 km (about 125 to 745 miles). Early on, Karel learned some valuable lessons about pacing himself to complete each brevet.

“If you try to go too fast you will be very sore the next day. But if you are too slow,” he cautions, “there is no time to sleep and recover. The first time I did a brevet, I was very discouraged. I could not keep up with any of the riders and saw no one. But I don’t give up easily; I just kept pushing.”

When not qualifying for a brevet, Karel usually covers 200 miles on weekends throughout the academic year, even on snow and ice. One of his favorite outings goes from Missoula to Glacier Park and back to Missoula. For most cyclists, that is an achievement worth celebrating—however long it takes. For Karel, the three-day trip is just a practice run for staying fit. In fact, to make it a tad tougher the next time he plans on riding his fixed-gear bike that he pedals around Missoula in wintertime.

“I like highways that are scenic and have a good shoulder. Though deer can be an issue here in Montana. They’ll jump into the road because they’re afraid of cyclists, not of cars,” says Karel. “And cars can’t easily avoid hitting them.”

Aside from appealing viewscapes, these excursions offer Karel something else he values—quietude. Because he has to be able to hear oncoming cars, he cannot listen to books or music while riding. And he considers that a bonus not a detriment.

“Riding gives me a whole bunch of nice thinking time. I work while I ride, think about math problems. There are many similarities between my job and biking,” he explains. “In math and in bicycling you have to be persistent to solve problems. You need to be satisfied with breaking up big problems into small pieces. On my bike, I can’t work on computations but I can think about other ways to solve problems. I’ve learned from bike rides that there are always times when things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like. But you just have to push through it.”

One of Karel’s more unusual cycling moments occurred during a night ride when a trucker pulled alongside him as he pedaled through the Swan Valley on Highway 83.

“He rolled down his window to visit and drove side by side with me at 15 mph for awhile,” recollects Karel. “He was interested in what I was doing and why I was doing it and then he drove off.”

Riding by moonlight, when possible, is more the rule than the exception for Karel, who considers himself a night person anyway.

“Normal people find this crazy, but roads are most quiet at night. The night sky is a big part of the enjoyment for me, seeing things like the lunar eclipse. And by morning,” adds Karel, “you can have 150 miles done already.”

Come daylight, he will likely stop for a brief roadside nap—preferably without interruption.
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