When in January DC Randonneurs announced the April 6 running of the Flèche, a 24-hour bike ride of at least 224 miles, I emailed my riding buddy Lane, who’d been lobbying me to do it for a long while: “mm k.”
Turned out I wasn’t the only potential member of the team less than certain about participating. Lane wrote back:
Ed, Mary and I had a brief conversation that started not-too-interested, turned could-take-it-or-leave-it, then spilled into let’s-see-if-there’s-an-interesting-route. Mentions of a remote start were made: Martinsburg and Charlottesville. . . The next day, Eric — also a member of Team Equivocal — sent me a rough route from Charlottesville that covers nice territory (specific roads need fleche-ing out) and puts the controle/meal pearls at good spots along the string.
Thus the ruminating began.
For the uninitiated, a definition. The Flèche is a rite of spring, a world-wide, 24-hour ride administered by Audax Club Parisien and its affiliates, including Randonneurs USA and its affiliates, like DC Randonneurs. Flèche, French for “arrow,” refers to teams starting from locations of their choosing and converging on a single target after riding routes of at least 360 kilometers. Ours is a non-competitive event, in which teams must meet certain rules to be certified (and certifiable), like maintaining a controle card and collecting clerks’ initials and receipts at 7-11’s and the like, to prove you rode the route. DCR members fielded 13 teams of three to five bikes for this year’s running.
I hadn’t been riding much, having devoted the winter months to other pursuits. With five weeks until April 6, I kicked training into gear. Lane and I rode a hard century (some pics here) in snow flurries that included parts of our potential route in the Virginia counties of Fauquier, Clarke and Warren. The next weekend, we rode DCR’s 130-mile Wilderness Campaign brevet, which toured Civil War battlefields near Fredericksburg, with Ed and Mary on their tandem. We took the following weekend off when forecasts predicted rain and snow (falsely, it turned out), but planned the next week for a two-day ride from Sperryville overnight to Lexington. When a terrible forecast for Sunday (true, it turned out) led us to call off the trip, our foursome spent Saturday on a 155-mile tune-up (some lovely pics of that ride here) out of Warrenton, looping counter-clockwise to Gordonsville.
For the weekend before the Flèche, Lane and I mapped back-to-back 125-mile routes from Marshall to Staunton that included about 110 miles of the intended Flèche. Saturday’s ride took us through Front Royal, over Edinburg Gap to the Shenandoah Valley, where we picked up our Flèche route to Staunton, with about 10,000 feet of climbing. The return went over Rockfish Gap to Charlottesville, the start of our Flèche. But somewhere between Rockfish and lunch, Lane mused, “You know, we don’t have to do this. We could just run our tried-and-true.” After several hours in a cold rain that began the second we stepped out of the hotel in Staunton, and dubious about all the climbing we had planned, I quickly agreed.
And so we returned to the 235-mile route the rest of the team (other than I) had ridden twice. Eric, meanwhile, citing lack of training, had bailed early on the ride but offered to help us get to Charlottesville for the start. Mike, a veteran of the team, had responded with an enthusiasm for the Flèche that belied the name Captain Lane settled on: Team Definite Maybe.
After our 250-mile weekend, I spent the next five days resting and trying to catch up on sleep, and counting down to my next test in endurance riding. I’d had several 12-hour days on the bike, a hundred-fifty-something miles. But never anything like this. The anxiety reminded me of starting my 2010 solo tour from Portland OR to Jackson WY, when I had scheduled 1100 miles in 11 days on a loaded bike. Similar, but different, especially in forgoing sleep.
Saturday morning, Laurie drove me down to the start in D.C. Call me lazy, but I had no interest in adding another 6 miles to the day. Besides, we needed a photographer to capture the launch.
The daytime proved mostly like other DCR group rides, with a couple more rest stops, and we clung together more tightly. Ed & Mary, riding their wind-blasting Co-Motion, created a draft for us most of the time — one I would need if I were to complete the ride. Just after sunrise, we departed from a Starbucks not far from the Tidal Basin and rode northwest up the WOD Trail to Clarke’s Gap in Catoctin/South Mountain, which would remain our spine all day and night.
On toward the C&O Towpath to Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown in West Virginia, farm towns in Pennsylvania and then Shippensburg, where at 12 hours and 132 miles, we turned for the climb over South Mountain at Big Flat, a pass I’d heard much about.
Climbing a mountain on a rural road you’ve never been on in the dark, save for your headlight and the lights of a rare passing car, is an unusual experience. It’s quiet. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going. You don’t have a sense of the passage of time or miles, you can’t tell how fast you’re going (but you know it’s slow). Now and then, when a car passes, you can judge the relative grade. All you know is that you’re working. And when you reach the pass, you know it because you’re no longer working. Sooner than I had figured, we reached the top, and began the frigid descent toward home.
After “dinner” (10 o’clock) in Gettysburg, we had a relatively easy, 17-mile run to Thurmont for a controle and a quick nutrient infusion at the Sheetz station.
Mike had been strong all day despite a bad cold that had hung around for a week. He had ridden to the start, and maintained good spirits. At Thurmont, Lane lobbied him to quit the ride. Mike was hurting, but he kept going. Out of town, Lane asked me how my stomach was doing, as I’d hardly eaten there. OK, I said, it’s just that my whole body is on the verge of collapse. (It was an exaggeration; my teeth were chattering and body shivering after the stop, but soon I was warm again — I was functioning.) I was riding mostly behind Ed & Mary when Lane, adopting his captain’s personna, rode up beside and ordered me to tuck in behind the tandem. “They will get you home.” If Mike dropped back, Lane told us, he would stay with him, so just keep moving. Near 2 a.m. (I guess), as we approached Frederick, Mike mumbled, “I have a decision to make.”
Somewhere in the center of town, Lane and Mike disappeared behind us, as Ed & Mary and I began chugging the rollers and crosswinds of Route 355. Ed asked if the pace was OK. I thanked them, “This is the pace I’ve been hoping for for 200 miles.” “Well,” he replied, “we can’t go any faster.” My mind adopted the mantra of a marathoner, “just get to the next mile marker”: It’s just a few miles to Urbana; It’s just a few miles to Hyattstown. Ah, said Mary, here’s Little Bennett State Park — an omen! Soon civilization crept in: street lights, light-industry, subdivisions, and then, about 4 a.m., the buzzing IHOP in Gaithersburg, HQ for the final controle for several Flèche teams.
I asked for a table for four and rather than fall down, just took one — no standing around for me. A while after we’d settled in, Lane marched in the door. “Move,” he glared at me. With a big smile, I made way for the captain, who had escorted Mike first to a crappy hotel and then to a better one in Frederick, then charged that same 25 miles through rollers and crosswinds on his own.
Refueled on America’s finest dining, our crew was ready for the final 22 miles through the Maryland burbs to our target: the Key Bridge Marriott, on the Arlington side of the Potomac. I felt just fine. The crescent moon rose, the birds began chirping, and dawn broke as we reached the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda. I phoned Laurie. “We’re inside a half-hour,” I reported, allowing her time to get to the hotel for our arrival. It was one of the beautiful dawns I’ve seen, as the woods along the familiar trail lit up with each passing minute. The sun was just below the horizon when we pulled in at 6:45, greeted by dozens of returned riders, and my dear bride, ready with her camera to capture the moment — of me choking back sobs, and handshakes among my teammates who’d made it possible.
Without them, I wouldn’t have made it to Frederick. I would’ve been back in Gettysburg or somewhere, either waiting for Laurie to pick me up, or showing a little consideration by checking into a hotel. But I was surrounded by veterans like Mike, a journeyman rider whose idea of a good time is biking from home to Manhattan, and Ed and Mary, who’ve ridden Paris-Brest-Paris among other 1200k’s (750 miles in no more than 90 hours), and my dear friend Lane, who by every measure was my partner over a couple months of training and planning, and then became my captain when it mattered. I’m one of the lucky guys on the planet.
Some pics of the trip are here.