Eli Brettler passes his two-wheeled test of endurance

Eli Brettler, professor in York’s Department of Mathematics, heads down the road at VanIsle 2006, a 1,200-kilometre cycling event held July 5-9 on BC’s Vancouver Island

As York mathematician and avid cyclist Eli Brettler approached his last years as a "50-something", he wanted a challenge that would test his physical and mental endurance. He came up with a doozy: riding a bicycle 1,200 km in under four days.

After qualifying in several shorter events, randonnées or brevets as they are called, he tackled the "ultra" distance for the first time at the Boston-Montreal-Boston event last year but quit at the half-way point after giving in to others’ concerns that he wouldn’t be able to finish. "I was exhausted, feeling pain in unexpected places, still punchy from a crash the previous week but, most critically, I was weak in my commitment," Brettler wrote in a season summary for his fellow members of Randonneurs Ontario.

Vowing not to accept a DNF (Did Not Finish) without a fight next time, he made his second attempt, July 5-9, at VanIsle 1200 – a scenic ride along BC’s Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, across Vancouver Island to the logging and fishing town of Port Hardy and then back to Victoria – all in under 90 hours.

"I had set a goal for myself of finishing, especially after the previous year," Brettler said. "I was a little afraid of it – it’s a little extreme."

Right: Brettler (second from left) with friends after completing his first 1,200-kilometre ride

Cycling wasn’t always such a challenge for Brettler, who doesn’t own a car. Until 10 years ago, he was just a commuter cyclist travelling back and forth to work in York’s Department of Mathematics where he specializes in algebraic numbers and the teaching-learning of math. For the next seven years he began cycling for recreation, riding longer and longer distances. Three years ago he found the Randonneurs Ontario Web site and decided to join.

"What attracted me to it was the physical challenge," said Brettler. "I knew I was good at endurance. On one tour, my teenage son tried to ride circles around me but he was the one who fell asleep on the picnic bench while I made camp."

Randonnée is French for bicycle rally. The term originally referred to long-distance walking, and has evolved to mean long-distance paced cycling. Riders compete against time, distance and the elements over preset routes and distances. Riders must complete the distance within designated time limits and stay on time through the various control points.

What Brettler found particularly challenging this time around was the mental discipline needed to finish a ride, especially with concerned friends again suggesting that he couldn’t do it. "At 800 km, things in your body start to breakdown," he recalled. "My hands hurt and it was hard to sit in the saddle."

But with memories of last year’s DNF still uppermost in his mind, Brettler repeated to himself, "just don’t stop, don’t lose it" and pressed on, completing the ride in 89 hours, one hour under the time limit. He was among the 30 riders to finish (36 started) and for his trouble, he and the other rider who finished with him received the lanterne rouge, a distinction reserved for those who finish last.

"I used to think [randonneuring] was 90 per cent physical but I know now it’s 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental," he says. "Once you have a certain minimal level of physical strength, it’s all in your head."

With his first full 1200 behind him, Brettler is now thinking about celebrating his 60th birthday by entering next summer’s Paris-Brest-Paris brevet, the event that is to randonneurs what playing a round at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews is to golfers.