MG has written about the travails and ultimate triumph of her fleche with “Team Uncorked.” See the story Here.
When Fleche Captain Steve Ashurst invited me to be on “Team Uncorked” I almost said no, but given the typical logistic complexities of a fleche, I found it impossible to turn down a fleche that started and ended five miles from my house. I responded, “Count me in.”
I imagined the fleche would present a good challenge for me. As many readers may know, I have spent the past 18 months giving my brain an intense workout via graduate school. The unfortunate casualty of my brain workout has been my cycling. Ah well, I thought, you’ve got to get back to doing these rides sometime. Might as well start with the five-miles-from-your-house-fleche.
To help prepare myself for the journey, tandem partner Ed Felker, Steve, and I rode with our good friends Chuck and Crista on the Gordonsville Fleche Tuneup Ride last weekend. “GFTR” was a beautiful 155-mile ride cued by randonneusse Lynn Kristianson. As we rode to the finish, Crista stated that we were officially “fleche qualified.” Right on! The ride was a big confidence booster, even though in retrospect I probably should have ridden it on my single bike.
The week of the fleche, I worked diligently on my light and bike setup. It went like this:
“Ed, I need lights for the ride.”
“Ok, Mary, no problem, I’ll set them up for you.”
“Great, and I really want to use my new Carradice handlebar bag.”
“Ok, Mary, great, I’ll put that on for you.”
“Oh, Ed, I need to pick up some batteries.”
“Mary, I already have some here. I put them in your bag for you.”
All that was left for me was to air up my tires, lube my chain, and ride the bike out the door. What a guy!
Steve prepared the team by organizing our maps, cue sheets and control cards. He placed the cue sheets on oak tag so that they did not turn to pulp during the ride. The weather forecast had begun to look grim, with showers predicted for much of Saturday and early Sunday morning. Fleche drama, fleche drama!
Saturday morning I toodled over to Arlington, Va. to meet my team and begin the ride. “Team Uncorked” was composed of Steve, Mike Granger, James Houck, Michael Rowny and me. While Steve, Michael, and James were seasoned randonneurs, Mike was participating in his first ACP event. However, he had been riding his brains out with Crista over the past few months so he was definitely prepared. We took a couple pictures to memorialize our event, and set off down the W&OD Trail to win the fleche.
We rolled along happily, and James asked the group how many Easter bunnies we thought we would see on our journey. I looked at James and thought, this dude is crazy. The answer to that is a big zero, and I hope we run into a good psychiatrist so we can help this man. James clarified, then, and said he was wondering about the number of Easter decorations we’d find in people’s yards. Well, OK,, that doesn’t seem quite as crazy. I voted for 20, Michael said 40, Mike’s guess was 5, and Steve thought maybe 10. James’s guess was 140. OK, he might still be crazy.
Team Uncorked took a mini-stop to fuel up in Herndon, and then headed toward the end of the trail in Purcellville, Va. James noted that as we got further away from D.C., the colder it felt. A few miles after he said this, we were treated to some freezing sleety stuff, which Steve later informed us was graupel. They were like little snow bullets. Every time it would start graupeling, James talked about how great it felt to have it stinging his face, and how wonderful it would feel to catch a few bits of it on his tongue. If anyone had been feeling drowsy, the graupel was a good antidote. The graupel followed us along off and on for the next 20 or 30 miles, and then left us alone for the rest of the ride.
After emerging from the trail, we climbed up and over Snickers Gap on Rt. 7 and over to Kabletown Road. The route seemed to match our team name. I thought about how going up the trail was akin to us pushing the cork out of a wine bottle, and then after we freed ourselves from the bottle (i.e., the W&OD Trail) we wound our way around the countryside, like little beings who had uncorked themselves and earned their right to roam.
En route to our lunch stop, we were stopped by a train. We patiently waited, and set off again to the next set of tracks, where another train stopped us. What timing! A third train passed by as we continued on, but it paralleled our route so we did not have to worry about stopping and waiting for it to pass. Graupel, trains, and Easter bunnies were the main features of the ride thus far.
The sun shone through, the temperatures became pleasant, and Team Uncorked moved along toward Shepherdstown, W.V. RBA Matt Settle was there to greet us at our lunch stop, the Blue Moon Café. Our team ate plenty of yummy sustenance, and enjoyed some midday banter. Michael and I also took advantage of a little wood heater by drying some of our clothes on a chair Michael had industriously converted to a drying rack. I am sure all the patrons and servers thought we were quite a classy bunch. It was a nice treat to leave with full stomachs and dry clothes, though—how often do we have a chance to dry our clothes by a wood heater over lunch?
After we left Shepherdstown, James seemed to get into counting Easter decorations. He better get focused on that, I thought, he’s got a long way to go to meet his lofty goal of 140 decorations. James thought he should also be able to count any fallen bunnies he found in the middle of the road, but I told him that did not count and was not in keeping with the spirit of our Easter fleche.
The group decided it would be acceptable if James counted year round yard ornaments that happened to be rabbits. It was funny how we started developing rules around this little game, especially since James was the only one counting. Later, James stated talking about his familiy and shared that he had two children. Ah, that explains the Easter ornament counting. He’s not crazy, he’s a dad!
I noticed that I began to look for Easter ornaments after the 100-mile mark of the ride. It was a nice way to distract myself when the pedaling became monotonous. I never became as avid as James, but I did enjoy looking to see if people had put out a little something extra to acknowledge the holiday.
My legs started telling me that the ride was getting hilly. Crista Borras, the mastermind behind our ride, had informed Steve and me that the fleche was one of the flatter rides she and Chuck do. That had comforted me at the time, but as the ride went on, I came to understand that flat is a relative term. I was sure my wheels lost some of their roundness, and I also felt the wind fighting against my forward motion a bit.
It turned out that Michael’s wheels had lost some of their roundness, and we pulled over so that he could fix a flat. Then we hopped back on the bikes and pedaled and pedaled to the next control in Clear Spring, Md.
Around this time, I began feeling disconcerted that my pace was not in keeping with that of the group, and I was going through some intense Jedi mind games. I decided I needed to have a heart-to-heart with Captain Steve.
“Steve,” I said. “I need to talk with you.”
“Now?” he asked, and came up to me.
“Yes. I have to tell you that I am worried about my pace.” I was also worried because I had not ridden my single bike this far in two years.
“How are you feeling?”
“I feel fine, I’m just worried that my pace is not acceptable.” I answered.
“Mary,” Steve said. “Your pace is normal for a ride of this distance. As long as you’re feeling ok, we’re fine.”
“Ok. Thanks Steve.”
“Sure.” He answered.
“Was that a tandem team meeting on single bikes?” Steve added. “Yes, Steve, I believe it was,” I replied. I thought about this and decided it was a good thing. No matter how fast or slow you are moving, there is always time for a tandem team meeting!
The roads meandered, the wind blew in our faces, and I started to feel like I was riding into the middle of nowhere. What was I doing? Where had the W&OD trail gone? How many Easter bunnies are we up to now? All these thoughts seemed to consume me. The ride was lovely, but the miles were taking their toll! Then the sun bade us farewell as we arrived in Chambersburg, PA. I threw on some toe warmers, and readied for the night riding. Steve treated us to some yummy chocolate covered coffee beans, (the randonneur’s secret weapon of choice), and we RODE ON! This ride is all about riding on, I though. Just ride ride, ride, ride.
Suddenly, I found myself on Rt. 30, climbing my way to Gettysburg. Climb and ride, climb and ride. What was I doing out here? My hero, James, happily rode along with me, making sure that I kept pedaling my way to our evening stop.
We exited Rt. 30, ground our way up a little hill, and plummeted down to Gettysburg. Steve had not put on a jacket, and when we arrived to the Gettysburg Diner, he was shaking and shivering, a trembling leaf. He still looked good, just trembly!
I looked at my watch… we had 7 and ½ hours or so to ride 77 miles. Oh my goodness oh my goodness. What could we do? Pedal pedal pedal. We must pedal pedal pedal!!!! I felt so crestfallen, though, because I could not seem to pedal any faster, and I knew it would behoove me to do so. I asked Steve if he was worried. He gave a big smile and said, “No, as long as we finish together, that’s what I care about!” I love you, Steve!
Team Uncorked said goodbye to Gettysburg and made our way over to Rt. 15. Pedal pedal pedal. Pedal pedal pedal. That was pretty much all I thought about. That, and the fact that it must be hard for James to find Easter ornaments in the dark, ha ha!
James came up (or should I say back) to me and shared some jokes to help us pass the time. “What key does a piano thrown into a mine shaft play in?”
“I don’t know, James.”
“A flat minor.”
“I don’t get it, James.”
Pause. “Oh, I get it. Very clever.”
He shared a couple of others and then told his daughter’s favorite “knock knock” joke. “Knock knock.”
Blah blah blah blah.
For the life of me, I cannot remember this joke. However, when James’s night at the improv came to a close I said to him, “Those are kid jokes, James.”
“Hey, I have kids! Those are the jokes I know,” he answered. Good point. I could not argue with James’ jokes when I considered his usual target audience.
Amazingly, the moon rose to spend the evening with us, as did the stars in the sky. The roads were quiet and it was a great night for riding, albeit cold. The stretch on 15 was gentle, and I felt good about riding again.
James pulled over to take a little nature break, and when he caught up to us, he shared that a policeman had stopped to check and make sure he was ok. James said the policeman then proceeded to yap with him about his friends who ride bikes. I was shocked that a conversation like this would occur at 2 a.m. on Rt. 15. James said he had told the policeman that he was out riding with some friends, and if he didn’t mind, he was going to hop on his bike and catch up to them. I guess you just never know who you are going to meet on a fleche!
Around this time, I decided that James needed to be canonized. While every team member looked out for each other, James was so great about assuring that I never rode alone. He kept encouraging me with his entertaining banter, and he never seemed to mind that he was slowing his pace for my benefit. He just seemed happy to be out riding his bike all over the countryside!
We cruised on the quiet roads into Frederick, Md. and then we continued our journey on MD355 to Gaithersburg. AHHHH!!!
Suddenly the gentle terrain we enjoyed vanished, and I felt the hills eating away at my legs. Oh no! Oh no! I started fervently wishing that Ed were on this ride, and that we were riding tandem. This road would be much better, then. What was I doing out here? Why was I on this fleche? What if I could get into my time machine and go back to when Steve invited me to do this ride, and I said no? What then? I’ll tell you what then… I’d be sleeping, cozy in my bed, loving life like a normal person!
All of a sudden, the angel James Houck was at my side. “You’re doing great, Mary. Just keep pedaling through. We’re going to make it. You’re doing great.”
“Thanks, James. You must have sensed the Jedi mind games that I was playing in my head!”
My hands were trembling as I slogged my way up the hills. Each time we crested a hill, James would say, “A downhill, whee!” or something like that. I did not share his enthusiasm. I recalled the message imprinted on the end of the brevet cue sheets, “ Tired is not an emergency.” Yes, tired is not an emergency. Really? Not an emergency? “Tired is not an emergency.” Is being tired never an emergency? Surely there must be some exception, right?
My tiredness was morphing to take on an emergency-like quality in my brain. It is funny what my mind will do (or not do) when I have over 200 miles in my legs and know I have at least 30 more to go.
The other mental challenge I faced was that of my cyclocomputer. For some reason, the Dinotte light messed with the wireless signal to my computer. I could not get my mileage or speed to register. I would look down at my computer and it would reflect zero miles per hour. I’d look again. Zero miles per hour. Now I know I’m going slow, I thought, but zero? It’s just not right. And of course, I was never gaining in mileage.
My brain started telling me that everyone else on the team had ridden farther than I had because my miles hadn’t registered. No, that can’t be true, I thought. Not true. Unfortunately for me, 4 a.m. does not seem to be the time when my logical brain is operating at its finest. Later, I thought maybe the lack of my computer registering was a blessing because it allowed me to avoid the reality of the pace my legs were actually pedaling by this point.
FINALLY, we made it to our 22-hour control in Gaithersburg, the IHOP. As we approached it, I decided that I was going to move into the IHOP. I was going to stop riding, get off my bike, take a long nap, eat some pancakes, wait a few hours until I felt better, and then I was going to ride in. I was sure the IHOP people would not mind at all. They might even have a sleeping bag in the kitchen that I could use… with a pillow. Yes, I was sure of it.
The group decided to roll across the street to control at the 7-11, and the IHOP temptation diminished a wee bit. I drank some Gatorade, had an unpleasant moment that involved that unfortunate side effect of randonneuring– occasional vomiting— and I told Steve and the team that I did not think I could go on. I was feeling yucky… completely dispirited and depleted. Tired had become an emergency!
I had turned out to be a bad vintage on Team Uncorked. Flat champagne. A dud. Boone’s Farm. One of Wine Spectator’s “Wines to Avoid.” Take me out of the wine cellar and dump me down the drain at the IHOP!
I shared my thoughts with the group and said that I did not want to keep any of them from finishing. James looked at me seriously. “But I’ve done so much… I mean, you’ve done so much to get here.” He did not look happy that I was considering not finishing, and he had a point. His statement even made me smile a bit inside. James had been an outstanding team member, keeping me going throughout the Team Uncorked fleche adventure.
Steve said we only needed to ride 16 or so more miles to finish. He seemed certain I could do it. Michael talked about riding back with me in the event that I could not finish within the time limit. He was willing to sacrifice his fleche for me. Thanks, Michael, I thought.
I told Steve I was really sorry, or something to that effect. He responded, “Mary, we are blessed to have you on this team.” I thought, Steve, you have lost your mind. Blessed in what way, I was not sure. However, seeing how everyone pulled together, encouraged and believed in me and took time from the ride helped restore my spirits. I had to go on!
Team Uncorked was just that, a team. Tired somehow ceased to be an emergency, the IHOP vanished from my mind, I clambered awkwardly back onto my bike, and we rode away from my Day of Reckoning 7-11.
After Gaithersburg, the hills let up, and we began a lovely descent towards Washington, D.C. The main inhibitors to our speed were:
1. The 218 miles we had already ridden;
2. The pesky stoplights.
We rode our required distance for official completion and finished our ride at a local McDonald’s. We had done it! We had won the fleche. I had been redeemed! After a cup of coffee and some hash browns, we rolled through Georgetown and into the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel together to the delight of at least five fans who had come out to cheer us on, including Ed, daughter Dagny, Chuck, Crista, and Bill Beck. I felt disbelief, relief, and pride that we had arrived!
The 2008 fleche turned out to be one of the most difficult rides I have ever done. I was undertrained physically, and overtrained mentally. I could not believe how many games my brain played with me throughout the ride. Jedi mind games galore. As soon as I fully catch up on my sleep, I am going to have a serious heart-to-heart with my brain!
I know it was because of the unflagging teamwork of our fleche team—Steve, Michael, Mike, and James– that I successfully made it to the finish. I have seldom experienced this sort of cohesion in a group, where everyone looks out for each other with such care and diligence. Even though the finish was not a pretty one for me, there was beauty in how well our fleche team worked together. At my most downtrodden moment, no one was willing to leave me behind. I was truly blessed to be part of Team Uncorked.
Thanks, guys. Oh, and by the way, the final Easter ornament count stood at 54.