How do you tell a story about human frailty without taking away the humanity of the frail? A story that takes place along the rough edges of the human experience, that seldom visited place where decisions are made on the fly, based on instinct and id, a place where, sometimes, you fall short of what you hoped to achieve, of what you hoped you would do? Sometimes this sport takes you to that place . . .
During the day, the tailwind made heroes of us all. From our start, just north of Quakertown, a stiff steady wind blew us south toward Philadelphia and New Jersey. With that wind at our backs, with that sunshine after weeks of gray skies, with that oh! so new Spring green grass after a long and cold winter, with all that, my god! we were supercharged: riding 21, 22 mph at a relaxed effort, laughing and chatting like performance drug enhanced pros out for a bit of a quick spin on an early Spring day.
The tailwind blew away the memory that, just 48 hours ago, I had a slight fever and congestion that forced me to take a rare sick day from work. That Spring sun and almost ideal temperatures blinded the thought that the Fleche is a 24 hour ride over 234 miles long and I have not gone so far or so long in one day for many, many months.
In the bright light of day, with the wind at our backs, we sail through the rolling expanses of the still brown and unsown small Pennsylvania farms. We speed down the long uninterrupted stretches of the Schuylkill River Trail racing past recreational cyclists. We cruise past the cafes and shops in fashionable Manayunk. We whirl past the golden brown Greek Temple architecture of the Philadelphia Art Museum with the skyscraper city skyline in the background and dappled river in the foreground. We soar above the broad expanse of the Delaware, crossing the long graceful arch of the Ben Franklin Bridge, taking in the panorama of the contrasting cities on either side. We weave our way through the gritty details of Camden's urban reality, emerging, still wind aided, to flow into the picturesque towns and manicured lawns of the Garden State's suburbia, exurbia and beyond.
At just over one hundred miles in, we sat for an early dinner in an almost windowless pub that serves big hot Angus burgers (lettuce and tomato upgrade available) and chips (fries are extra) to families seated at faux wood veneer tables while the crowded bar across the room has space for maybe one more drinker.
Refueled and hydrated, we left just before sunset. The Fleche was less than half over in time and in distance. The next stretch would be a long one, about 66 miles, without a guaranteed place to re-supply food or water. With legs now feeling the effects of the fast run throughout the day, I remount the bike and we take to the course.
"Flat!" I called out when the rear wheel began to bounce with every pedal stroke. One teammate circled back to help as the others rode on. I knew it was probably a small hole because the tire lost air so slowly. So instead of searching for the hole, to save time, I swapped it all out: new tire - new tube - all of it. It's the fastest way to get back on the road. Then we went after the other three. I wondered why they had rolled on but they were waiting up ahead at a crucial turn that we certainly would have missed if they had gone on. From there, the five of us rode off together.
Then came the night.
Maybe we turned into the wind, but if we didn't, it certainly died down because suddenly, after the day long wind boost, my pace seemed sufferingly slow. The daylong effort made itself known in my thighs and lungs.
The group was riding maybe 1-2 miles per hour faster than my pace - just enough to keep stretching the distance between us to the breaking point. I had that deep breath burns lung feeling that makes me think of running hard in the deep cold of winter - air slicing into my chest.
Occasionally, I spit out the coughed up chunks of leftover pale yellow cold-phlegm that open mouthed deep breathing seems to dredge up from the lungs. I tried to keep the group in sight and catch up at red lights. But I didn't say anything about the pace. In hindsight, I should have.
This is a good place to digress with a quick parable.
A scout troop goes hiking. Soon the troop splits up into faster and slower hikers. Then the faster hikers stop, with the best of intentions, to let the slow ones catch up. As the last scout trudges into view, the fast ones (who've been drinking water and resting while waiting) says "OK, he caught up let's go! and off they go again with the slow scout soon falling off the back. Eventually, the slow scout has an "inexplicable" breakdown and refuses to continue.
About three hours into the night, with the others off unseen in the distance, I decide I'm not going to be the last scout anymore. However, I can't just speed up. So, at the next controle, I do a touch and go. I tell the group that they can catch me on course and I'll keep rolling along at my own slower pace. I was hoping to build on my head start until the inevitable time I am caught and dropped again. And off I went.
The cue sheet said bear left at 3.6 miles (unmarked) after the controle. So I bear left. But apparently, this unmarked bear left is not THE unmarked bear left because when I see stores and restaurants in a place I don't recognize, I realize that I am off course.
At about this point I realize I may have an unsolvable problem: How do you know if you are on the right road if you don't know the name of the road you are supposed to be on? I knew the name of the road I was on, the GPS on my phone tells me that, but knowing the name of the unmarked road I was on didn't tell me if this unmarked road was the correct unmarked road.
Luckily my phone is smarter than me. So I have Google maps direct me to the next named intersection on the cue sheet. I ride there and discover, to my great pleasure, that I only added one half mile with my meanderings. Back on course, I ride on.
Four hours into the dark, I realize that the group must have passed while I was regaining the course. That means I'm on my own until the next control. Shit... Dinner has long worn off. I am getting a little cold. I pull my wool neck tube over my mouth to dull the icy edge of air I breathe in. I only pull it down to spit out the chunky stuff that works its way up.
Focus on the cue sheet. Miss another turn. Idiot. Getting addled. I do the math. The morning tailwind has put me so far ahead of schedule that almost any pace will get me in to the finish on time if I am willing to ride through the night. miss another turn. goddammit. pull out the phone. where the hell am i now. need to eat something. dig in my bag. where's the damn brownie I was saving. must have fallen out somewhere along the route. Dammit! do the math. still have time.
The controle is less than an hour away.This is another good place to digress.
Let me share a personal truth about long rando rides at night. They are optional. Riding such an adventure means leaving the comforts of home, the presence of family, the requirement of sleep. I have made that choice in favor of an adventure, a new accomplishment, a particular goal, but I never make it lightly. In the dark of night, family faces are easily envisioned, missed responsibilities are clearly seen and my innate vulnerabilities are exposed. I am willing to ride all night for a reason, but I do not love it, I endure it.
I am off route again.For some strange reason (lack of food? lack of sleep?), the cue sheet is hard to follow. It's close to midnight and almost five hours since I last ate. I know I am close to the next controle - maybe twenty minutes? It's a post office where we are supposed to mail a postcard to prove we were there.
I check my phone. There is a text from the group. They left the post card at the controle for me to sign and mail. You have got to be kidding me. They ditched me before I even arrived at the goddamn control! This is supposed to be a team event! The cognitive dissonance between my desire to complete the ride I started and the frustration in attempting to do so grew large and distracting.
A few minutes later I walk into a hotel with my bike and the clothes on my back. I got myself a room with cable TV and a hot shower. I drape my sweat damp clothes over the window HVAC unit and crank up the heat to help dry them while I sleep. On the bedside table, I set the two cold beers and two servings of microwave lasagna that I bought at the registration desk. Then I texted the group that I had abandoned the ride.
I made my way home the following day. And, honestly, I was more than a bit disappointed in myself and in the group. The following day, under a cool clear sky, I wondered if I gave up too early. A few more miles, just a little more riding, I could have said something to them and salvaged the fleche. I blamed myself for being weak and needing help. I blamed them for not helping when I needed it. I considered all the words unspoken that may have made a difference. It was a long ride home.
A couple of days after it was over, I got an email from one member of the team. We had been going back and forth about the night. Here's part of what he wrote:
I think of how fragile it all is. No matter how experienced we are, no matter our accomplishments, our deeds are frail. It's ever easy to destroy delicate things of precious value that took such immense effort to create. For me, the biggest lesson of the 2015 fleche was this: no, no, it never gets easy. The "calm", the "casual deliberateness", is deceptive. Things can't be taken for granted or we very well might lose them. We'll lose them regardless, but we need to rage against that inevitable loss.
My friend has a point. The truth is, we all will lose in the end. Time is patient. It outlasts us. No matter what our deeds, if we live long enough, frailty and weakness await us all in the future. But friendship, like a good randonneur, should never easily accept frailty or being destroyed. It should emerge from a setback with a lesson learned and an even deeper resolve to do better. Then move on to the next adventure, ever raging against the inevitable loss.