Saturday, June 28, 2008

Q&A with Sara Huston | On Camaraderie & Crossing Jordan Lake

Continuing our newcomer series, RTP recently caught up with Sara Huston, who rode several of the NC brevets this year. Fearless Leader Al says he was especially struck by Sara's unflagging enthusiasm, even as she rolled in from a soaking rainstorm or an exhausting night of hills.

Sara says she really enjoyed night riding. And her ability to ride past the 200-mile mark "blew my mind," she says in her interview.

Count Sara as the latest convert to the sport of randonnuering -- she promises to be back next year. That's good news for all of us.

Sara did the series with her life and riding partner Gary, another welcome addition to the NC series. Look for his interview in the coming days.

RTP -- Tell us about your cycling background.

When I was a kid and even into college I rode my bike absolutely everywhere – I loved riding my bike (my first 10-speed: a red Schwinn Traveler II). But then I went to graduate school in Pittsburgh, and the idea of riding in the city unnerved me, so I pretty much hung up the bike for a bunch of years. (Ironically, Gary really got into long-distance riding while he was in grad school in Pittsburgh). Gary got me back into riding again, around 1996, after we were both living here in Raleigh. He had already done his first century, but he would go out with me on little 5-mile rides around the neighborhood. I think my first organized ride was in 1997, my first metric century was at the 1999 NCBC fall rally, and my first full-week Cycle North Carolina was in 2001. I love multi-day rides and I love climbing (even though I don't do either quickly). I've completed CNC and Bike Virginia a bunch of times, among other multi-day rides.

RTP -- Before this year, what was the longest ride you'd done?

105ish miles – last October I completed my first "solo" (not on a tandem) century at the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Festival in Staunton, VA (one of my absolute favorite weekend rides). That area of Virginia is not flat, and it was a challenging route. But I finished strong, and that gave me a huge amount of confidence for tackling my first 200K. By the way, my goal for 2008 was to complete a 200K. I had no intention whatsoever of attempting a 300K, let alone a 400K. But my experience on the 200K showed me that it really was a safe environment in which to fail, so I should just go ahead and go for whatever I felt relatively confident in completing.

RTP -- What got you interested in randonneuring?

Like I said, I really love multi-day rides – traveling long distances over the countryside under your own power, being out in nature, sticking with it during the rough times, thoroughly enjoying the "no chain" times, all of that! I love it! And randonneuring seems like taking all that to another level. Also, the time limits in randonneuring are achievable for me – I'm not a fast rider, and a lot of century rides want you off the course in 6 or 7 hours. Getting into randonneuring has taken me several years – I've been thinking about it, getting up my courage to try it for several years. And then reading and hearing all the P-B-P reports from last year, horrendous rain and hypothermia and kidney stones and all, and it just sounded glorious and gave me that little extra inspiration.

RTP -- Did you need any special equipment for those rides?

My most special equipment is Gary. Seriously, he is my secret weapon. The things that stress me out on a ride don't fluster him, and he always helps me to put things in perspective. I think that sometimes goes both ways. I think we help each other keep going when things get tough (often by knowing what NOT to say). And we have a blast when things are going great.

RTP -- What adjustments did you have to make, if any, to your bikes?

Before the 200K I swapped out my stem (sorry, correction, Gary swapped out my stem) for one with a little more rise (I have some non-bike-related neck/shoulder issues). That took a little tweaking, but I've got it now where it's great. My main changes between the 200K and 300K had more to do with me – more core strength work to help take pressure off my hands, testing out protein drinks, since I had some issues with nutrition on the 200K, and moving my cleats to help with toe numbness (still working on this one). I did invest in more lighting before the 300K (I have serious generator-hub envy). Before the 400K I put some "half-fenders" (fenders that don't go under the brake, for bikes with very little clearance there) on my bike. Worked great! The 400K was dry as a bone!

RTP -- Do you think you had the right kind of bike?

For the most part. I've been riding my pink carbon-fiber Trek Pilot 5.2 WSD – not exactly your stereotypical randonneuring bike, if there is such a thing. This bike fits me great, which is probably the most important thing, is light (when I'm not carrying my kitchen sink), and rides and handles great. It doesn't have great clearance for fenders, but I've see some hardware work-arounds for that, and I may try that to get full fenders on there. The big thing I think is to get some stronger, higher spoke count wheels – I haven't had a problem yet, but I feel like I'm on borrowed time. And maybe a generator hub while I'm at it…

RTP -- Did you like/dislike night riding?

This was a big unknown for me. Turns out that I absolutely love it. I love being out at night in general, anyhow – the moon and the stars and all the night sounds and everything looks mysterious. It's so peaceful and you feel like you have the world to yourself. And riding at night, I feel like a kid who's snuck out of the house after bedtime to go for a bike ride.

RTP -- Did your ability to ride those long distances surprise you?

I totally blew my own mind. Yeah. The 200K, not so much. But the 300K, definitely, it took several days for that to sink in. And the 400K just blew my mind. I still don't think I believe it.

RTP -- What was the biggest personal challenge about riding that distance?

Thinking that you can't possibly do it. I just kept remembering the advice in the RUSA handbook to not think about the total distance, but just focus on the distance to the next control, or store, or whatever. The hardest moments for me were on the 30 miles from Siler City to Seagrove on the 300K. Despite 13 years in N.C., I am a New England girl, and don't do so well in the heat, I need time to acclimate every year. That was the first decently hot ride I had done this year, and I kept overheating, having to pull off and dump water on my head – it was bad, really, really bad. Somehow I managed to get to the Seagrove control. I didn't think I could recover enough to finish. But some time in the A/C, some Gatorade and salty chips, and I was ready to ride again. The 30 miles back to Siler City weren't so great either – just wanted to lie down in a ditch by the side of the road – looked so cool and inviting! But then we left Siler City, and we had a tailwind, and the sun went down, and I just felt awesome – I mean just ridiculously fabulous – the final 60 miles. That taught me that I should never count myself out.

RTP -- You most pleasant experience during those rides?

Crossing Jordan Lake, at all times of day and night, and all different conditions was one of my favorite things. But I think the absolute most pleasant was that 60 miles, mostly at night, from Siler City to Morrisville on the 300K. The night was beautiful and the weather was perfect and it was just awesome.

RTP -- Any revelatory moments (as opposed to hallucinations) after spending 24 hours on the bike?

Just that 24 hours on a bike could actually be so much fun – not that I had fun every minute of it, but overall. But moments that have stuck with me – smelling the wisteria while crossing Jordan Lake on the 200K; watching far-off lightning after nightfall on the 300K; the silvery shadows of the large herd of deer that crossed in front, behind, and in between Gary and me on the 300K; crossing Jordan Lake on the return of the 400K at almost the exact time (7am) that we had crossed it on the way out 24 hours earlier – that was like some kind of time travel, like you were in those two moments at the same time, a little strange.

RTP -- Any rookie mistakes that others should avoid?

Don't let the weather report scare you away. Gary and I let the threat of thunderstorms deter us from a 200K attempt on the tandem in 2006 and we regretted it ever since. That regret got me to the start line of this year's 200K, for which torrential rain was predicted (and which never materialized, we had some rain, but nothing bad). Be prepared for the weather, but don't let it intimidate you. Go for it!

RTP -- Complete this sentence: Randonneurs are ___________.

Just Awesome. Really, I had heard all about the camaraderie and all, but y'all take that above and beyond. Everyone has been supportive and encouraging and so many have gone out of their way to help us be successful in our brevet attempts. If I can mix a southernism with a northernism without the sentence spontaneously combusting: Y'all are finest kind. Thank you!

RTP -- Will you be back next season? If so, any goals?

Oh yeah, I plan to be back. Gary and I are planning to do some permanents during the rest of this year, and also the August 200K – I'd like to get a few more 200K's under my belt. And next year, well, I'll decide on goals later this year, but it'll probably involve improving times and maybe attempting a 600K (although I may need to find one in a cooler climate – say Alaska?).


Charles Lathe said...


They don't have a 600K in Alaska; only a 200 and a 300.

See you in August.

Chuck Lathe
Franklinville, NC

AHands said...

great interview! made me wish i was out riding now!

> thoroughly enjoying the "no chain" times

is that when you drop your chain? or does that mean time not in a paceline? or riding out in the countryside away from chain stores? or time not chained to a desk? or...

Sridhar said...


Great interview and good writing. I'd like to think Mike interviewed you the old-fashioned way -- with a tape-recorded with wires hanging out -- but methinks he had you wax poetic on the keyboard...All those nice things you say about Gary -- how's he going to top that in his interview? Really nice to see you on the road. As for not being thrilled about riding in the brutal June heat -- you and me both sister!


Jerry Phelps said...


To sum it up in a few words -- you nailed it girl!! And from now on, use the pronoun WE when you talk about randonneurs! I am so proud of you that I have tears in my eyes.


dean furbish said...

Great interview, Sara! I was taken by your poetic rendition of riding: "smelling the wisteria while crossing Jordan Lake . . . watching far-off lightning after nightfall. . . the silvery shadows of the large herd of deer that crossed in front, behind, and in between Gary and me . . ."

I look forward to reading more of the like. Congratulations on your accomplishments this year.


bullcitybiker said...

Hey Sara-

Wonderful reading. We're lucky to have you in our peloton!


slhuston said...

Thanks guys! Sorry, Adrian, that "no chain" reference is a little obscure - but a saying Gary and I use a lot! First use of "no chain" is attributed to pro cyclist George Hincapie, it means when you are just riding along so smoothly and effortlessly it's like you don't even feel the chain on your bike - when the riding is just plain joyful!