I learned to ride a bike when I was four years old, and I've been a cyclist on and off ever since. Like most people I usually ride my bike over short distances, for utility and pleasure. My ride to work is a little less than 7km, and I use the bike for most shopping and leisure trips. I've got a trailer that can carry loads of up to 100kg, so we rarely need to use a car. At the time when I could be bothered to have a speedometer on my town bike, I found that my average speed around time was about 17km/h, and that I generally rode about 100km/week in the course of my activities. My girlfriend rides for utility as well; and about half of our holidays involve cycle touring at the relaxed pace of 30 - 50 km/day, though we have been known to manage 100k in a single day.
I don't generally think about cycling like this--I just like to ride my bike, for all the usual reasons: convenience, economy, the environment, physical fitness, and so on. But it may help you to evaluate my claim that I hardly train--which I don't. My fitness (such as it is) is basically built-in to my lifestyle.
It was Patrick Field's unique Dunwich Dynamo event that got me into the long distance stuff, luring me out of London one moonlit summer's evening a couple of years ago. There was tea and cake in controls set up in village halls and a motorised sag wagon followed up the rear to provide psychological reassurance for the novice. I rode the 200km in about 12 hours, had a few problems with my guts, my rechargeable batteries, and stiff knees, but it felt like a satisfying thing to do. And it wasn't as hard as I thought.
Cycling is between 2 and 3 times more efficient than walking, which means that the moderate pace of 15km/h is equivalent to walking at 5 - 7.5 km/hour or about 3 - 5 mph. Keeping this level of effort up for long periods does require modest fitness, but it is not the stuff of athletic legend. If you ride a bike every day around town you could almost certainly complete a basic Audax 100km event. Qualifying for the 100 brevet means finishing the ride within 6 hours and 40 minutes of the start, which is a brisk afternoon's riding, but easier than you might think. Or you could get stuck straight into a two hundred.
If you use a speedometer to measure your average speed round town you will rapidly observe that although you can blow a gasket trying to get your average speed up between stop lights, what actually determines your average speed is how long you spend waiting to move when you do not have priority--a fact that every cycle courier knows. Acceleration is extremely wasteful of energy: the energy used in stopping and regaining cruising speed could propel you a further 70 metres along the road. So for every 14 junctions that require you to stop on a short urban journey, you get another 1km for free in the countryside. Audax routes are out in the countryside, so stops required by traffic measures are few and far between.
Why do it? If you ride a bike you'll know: if you don't it's hard to explain why, but I'll try. Out on the open road, the constant rhythm of your legs and your breathing is very relaxing. You can do just as much work as you want to, and then maybe a little more uphill, a little bit less downhill. Cycling uphill gets you high and cycling downhill gives you a thrill, and the rush of air blows all the bad stuff away, leaving you alive and alert. If you like to tour the country, cycling is the most pleasant way to do it, especially on a recumbent: a steadily changing vista of hills and trees and rivers and big skies. Picturesque villages and towns, come, pass by. You are like the wind, and as free.
Achieving this level of consciousness requires a little attention: to fitness, to navigation, to the mastery of cycling technique and mechanics; and regular practice. Modern life offers many distractions from the true path; so much so that many never even discover the bicycle for short trips, let along ride free in the country.
Being a super randonneur also provides new possibilities in the economic sphere: if I decide to ride from London to Edinburgh to see my family I know I could be there in 48 hours. A long distance cyclist connects physically and mentally with the reality of distance, and has the tools to master it, personally. Most people are not so independent. Travel is necessary to fulfil human potential, but if that necessity is unsustainable--and there is little doubt that motor travel has done much to corrupt and pollute the world we live in--then we need to look for alternatives. Sure, most times I travel to Edinburgh I will take the train, but weighing the price of the ticket against the experience of cycling provides a measure that values human strength against the exigencies of the global economy and sets me free from it.
©Douglas Carnall 1999