Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Fleche of all seasons.

Maybe we should celebrate the start of a new year at the Spring solstice like the ancients once did. Gather with friends and strangers at the time of year when the seasons are in a state of flux and day and night balance for a moment on the needle of time. Maybe that is the time of year to celebrate new beginnings, not in the midst of winter's cold slumber but later, at the leading edge of Spring, as the world awakens, when anything seems possible and the promise of a new season of growth rises clean and bright on the horizon. Perhaps it is appropriate that a PBP finisher is called an Ancien because the Randonneuring season begins in the early Spring. At this time of year, in our part of the world, it is the season of the Fleche and this year, I rode a Fleche of all seasons.

In brief description, a Fleche is a bike ride where teams of three to five riders cover a course that is at least 360 kilometers (223 miles) and must be ridden over 24 hours with no stops lasting longer than two hours. In short, the team rides together all day and all night. Many teams reconvene for the yearly event and ride the same course but some teams change over time, at least in part, as new riders sub in and, maybe, become permanent additions. Each of the teams start at a different location but they end at the same destination; hopefully, with group meal with all the teams.

My previous Fleche team was not riding together this year. However, I received an invite from Bill B. from the DC Randonneurs to join their team which they called "The Carnivores." Although I didn't personally know Bill, I knew of him "through the grapevine" of friends we have in common and an excellent reputation is always a good recommendation, Plus, I had met him briefly on prior occasions, so I gladly accepted the opportunity to ride the event with a new team over a new course in a new area. Only later did it dawn on me that I had agreed to participate in a 24 hour event with a new team over a new course in a new area. Hmm, this could be interesting.

Just before dawn, four of my five team members met at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, where all the routes would end the following morning. Bill and I happened to meet in the parking lot then made our way down to the front. Caroline arrived shortly thereafter. This would be Caroline's first Fleche and her excitement was audible in her voice. Kelly S. rolled up in just in time for us to ride off to the official start in Falls Church, Virginia. Kelly was just getting over a recent cold and his tandem partner would not be riding, but he was here and ready to go.

A light rain started just as we rolled out from the hotel. A few miles later, our fifth team member, Mitch P., joined us at the Starbucks in Falls Church which would serve as the official start. We had time for first breakfast, so we ate. As we ate, we made introductions and talked about the route. Then, just as the rain began in earnest, we began our ride. If this story was a work of fiction, the rain would symbolize some epiphany or maybe an anointing of a new team with the washing away of the past for some new and bright future. In our case, it was just rain. Or maybe it was something more. One thing I've learned is that if you want to know what your riding companions are like when things go wrong, ride with them in the rain. In this case, as we rode through the rain, Caroline exuded excitement, Bill calmly flashed a toothy grin, Kelly got down to the business at hand and Mitch shared stories of his recent adventures in New Zealand. At that point, I had a feeling that I was in good company.

The Washington and Old Dominion Trail is a multi-purpose trail that links Arlington, Virginia to Purcelleville, Virginia, with a two lane black top path that threads though the suburbs for 38 miles in a loosely straight line. We ride in the soft cold rain of an early spring morning. With the wet swish sound of tires on the rain dappled trail streaming in the background, I meet my teammates.

Mitchell recently returned from a bike packing race in New Zealand that took him 13 days 22 hours and 17? minutes to complete and involved three water crossings by ferry, rowboat and jet boat. The sub 22 pound 1 x 11 drive train bike with tubeless tires that he rode for that dirt road race is the same one that he is riding now. It is his one bike to rule them all.

For Caroline, this is only her second randonneuring event, the first being the Flatbread 200K (a flat but usually windy ride on eastern Maryland) but she has competed for years in adventure racing, ultra racing, triathlons and ultra triathlons, so this is really just a training ride for her upcoming events. Caroline upbeat attitude bubbles out in stories of her athletic career.

Bill rides quietly with a innate stillness of motion. He frequently takes pictures with no flash and frequently flashes a toothy smile that puts his subjects at ease. He exudes the calmness of someone who has successfully completed over 70,000 kilometers of brevets and enjoyed himself in the process.

Kelly, frankly, isn't saying much. I can hear the remnants of his recent cold in his breathing and can only wonder what affect the 24 hour ride in chilly temps might have on his recovery. But he is an experienced Randonneur, including a PBP finisher, and he is willing to give it a go. We continue to the next control.

After leaving the W&OD trail, the morning rain gives way to sun. We climb a long pass to Snickers Gap in western VA and then stop for a delicious second breakfast at Pine Grove Restaurant. The day now seems warm enough for one less layer, so we adjust.

Bill and Caroline check the weather forecast. Severe weather alerts predict a potentially tumultuous night with gale force winds, rain and snow. But right now it is sunny and dry, so we ride on. In the rolling hills that follow, subdivisions are replaced by fields of cow sheep, llamas and even camels. Yes. I said camels. 

At some point, it dawns on me that we are in West Virginia and that the frequent West Virginia license plate sightings are not just a coincidence. West Virginia is a beautiful state with rolling hills and lush green fields. Most of the drivers were noticeably polite. They pass when it is safe to do so even when it means driving behind us at biking speed for far longer than most drivers seem to consider. Even the idiot in the pickup truck who tried rolling coal when he passed us couldn't ruin the experience because he was going in the opposite direction and the strong cross wind was having none of that. I laughed at the victory of nature over numbskull.

Just 30 miles after second breakfast, we had lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe in the artsy riverside town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with Crista, Chuck and Chris. From the conversation, I kind of gathered that they were the original Carnivores and that they had ridden out to share lunch with us even though they weren't riding themselves. I toasted them with a Stout beer. I think I get the team name: Carnivores are fleche eaters. We are certainly eating well on this fleche.

The afternoon passed with more pastoral scenery but also with a greater urgency. The weather forecasts transformed from watches to warnings even as we transitioned from West Virginia to Pennsylvania. We make shorter stops at the next two controls as we focus on getting to Gettysburg, PA, our dinner stop, before the high winds, rain and snow.

After dark, we arrived in Gettysburg in the calm before the storm. We decided to forego the planned sit down meal in favor of getting a quick bite at a McDonald's and staying ahead of the weather. However, the weather didn't cooperate. The storm arrived before our food. Trees began whipping in a harsh wind that brought in a rush of cold air and turned a light rain into a stream of needles. We delayed our departure to put on our cold and wet weather gear and check the local forecast. The temperature would drop precipitously and the wind would blow strong and gust stronger - in excess of 50 mph. The McDonald's guy warned us of downed power lines and tree branches and asked us to be careful. After the harsh wet leading edge of the storm blew through, we continued into the night under slightly less wet and windy conditions.

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. It was. A strong westerly wind was blowing a snow clipper into the Northeast United States and we were at its southern edge. Our route would take us south before veering east which would mean cross winds for the most part and, hopefully, some tailwinds near the end. But for now, the temperature was dropping into freezing, the wind was howling and we had the rest of the night to go. Layered up for the changing conditions, we rolled on into the windy night.

Fortunately it was mostly a cross wind. With the right balance, a lean could get you through. Sometimes the terrain provided shelter. The group stretched a bit over the bends of the road and the hills and there were times when looking for each others head lights or taillights provided the link that maintained the team connection. But we regrouped regularly and then pressed on.

On one bridge crossing, a road sign warned of gusty winds and the sign proved right. A wicked west wind literally blew Kelly of his bike. He caught himself from falling and then he and Bill began walking the bridge. I have a much more wind resistant build so I decide to slowly ride across leaning slightly sideways the whole way, taking advantage of my low center of gravity.

wind and snow. Photo by Bill B.

As we made our way through the night, the wind blew snow pellets sideways and they streaked through the beams of our front lights. I was glad for the rolling hills as hey blocked some of the wind and the effort to climb them helped keep us warm. 

The next controle, a McDonald's in Frederick, MD, is woefully understaffed and its first concern is the drive thru customers. My oatmeal order, which only requires pouring hot water into a cup takes over twenty minutes. I waited, eyes closed lying on a booth seat, for my order. After eating, we make our way through the night by leaning into, or balancing against, the wind and occasional bursts of horizontal graupel.

We arrive at the penultimate control in Gaithersburg, MD. At 4:15 am, the IHOP is busy with folks ending their Saturday nights with an early breakfast. Another fleche team arrives at about the same time so the 10 of us share a long center table. Under the rules of the Fleche, we cannot leave earlier than 5:00 (two hours before the finish) to ride the last segment of the route. However, we soon learn that if we ordered food, it probably would not come out in time for our planned departure. We opt for coffee, juice, milk and other items that don't require the cook's attention. Then at 5:00 a.m., with just 19 miles to go and two hours to get there, we leave for the final leg of the ride.

The heavy wind was at our backs. On the flat paved roads it quickly blew us up to speed. With just a little effort, we were maintaining a pace that would get us in with time to spare. Soon the sun would rise.

I saw and heard the crash before my brain registered what was taking place. Caroline and I were riding side by side with the others just ahead. Then she just dropped out my peripheral vision and I heard the scary sound of her body hitting the blacktop. I screamed something, and saw the guys coming to a stop as I was grabbing brakes.

We went to assist and thankfully, she was conscious and coherent. Everyone did what they could to help and Bill called an ambulance. In the process, we saw that the carbon fiber fork on her bike had snapped in two just below the headset. It was a sudden and catastrophic failure. The ambulance arrived a short time later and they transported Caroline and her broken bike to the hospital.

The remaining four of us remounted and completed the last bit of the last leg. Amazingly, despite the accident, we still arrived at the finish with two minutes to spare. Mitch immediately left to go to the hospital and follow up with Caroline. The rest of us went inside to join the other fleche teams. Caroline's injury put a damper on our celebration but we soon got word that her injuries were not life threatening and would not require a hospital stay. Later that day, she contacted us to let us know how she was doing and her positive attitude still shone through. She was looking forward to healing and getting back to her active life. That is an attitude worth celebrating.

Bill took some great pictures. You can see them HERE. I took a few pictures and you can see them HERE.


  1. Great post, as always. What a crazy weather for the Fleche teams this year

    1. It was an experience! Thanks for reading and posting

  2. Reminds me a little of our Escargot adventure a few years ago! Well done on finishing in spite of the obstacles.

    1. Sometimes having no other way home but to finish is good motivation

  3. As always Nigel, a wonderful report. I would imagine that very few literary pieces include the terms graupel and rolling coal.... Hopefully you'll have better weather for your second fleche this weekend.

    1. Thanks Bill. Hope to see you at the Fleche next weekend

  4. Thanks again for the great write up. So I'm left wondering what caused her fork to fail suddenly & catastrophically like it did?