Our five-person Team Table for Five completed the D.C. Randonneurs annual fleche ride on Sunday, one of a record nine teams to complete this year’s running. We rode our bicycles 234 miles in a loop from Washington, through Virginia, then into West Virginia, north through Pennsylvania, and then south through Maryland back to D.C.
Put another way, we went on a really long ride. It was tremendous fun, and, as MG says, “an honest challenge.”
Lane G. was our captain again this year and Mike R. joined us from our previous outing as a fearsome foursome in 2010. Our team expanded to five this year with our pal Eric P., which made for an easygoing and strong group.
Our recruit Pete B. could not join us, due to a cold, and our teammate-in-spirit Ray S. cheered us over the Internet. Next year, guys, OK?
For those who know about randonneuring, a fleche one of the three team events in the sport. In a fleche, riders of up to five bikes ride a minimum of 360 kilometers (223 miles) over 24 hours, with the teams taking different routes of their choosing but ending at the same location, and same time, for a breakfast celebration.
That’s right — we rode overnight, in the dark! Those with experience know how to minimize risk and maximize the magic of riding under the stars, by choosing quiet roads and using bright lights front and rear with lots of reflective gear.
The rules require teams to cover at least 25 kilometers in the last two hours, leading to the so-called 22-hour control. You have arrive at an open business by the end of the 22nd hour; you can’t leave before the same time. See more here. We had four teams converge on the IHOP restraurant in Gaithersburg, Md. for their 22-hour control, which led to some lengthy waits for breakfast, but everyone got served and out the door.
As in the past, the DCR teams finished around 7 a.m. at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington (save for one that came in at midnight — Smart Alec’s TNT) where the 49 participating riders and family lingered to swap stores and greetings over breakfast.
This year’s event was blessed with sparking spring weather on Saturday and only a few passing sprinkles overnight into Sunday morning. We adopted a French approach in which we rode hard, then then stopped for food and drink, then repeated. They eat good food, we eat convenience store and diner food, but the idea is the same.
Our total time off the bike was about eight hours. Somehow we ended up mostly at places that served espresso and coffee, which if you know our team should be no surprise. We consider the bean one of the major food groups of randonneuring.
We started just two blocks from our home in southwest Washington and rode out the W&OD Trail to Leesburg, Va., dodging the local runners and club riders. After a control at the 7-11, we traveled to Brunswick, Md. to the Beans in the Belfry cafe for espresso and treats.
Then we took the lovely C&O Canal dirt trail under a canopy of trees for the short run to Harpers Ferry, W.V. The beauty was lost for a few moments while we lugged our bikes up the stairs to the pedestrian bridge over the rocky Potomac River, but the view from up there is always worth it.
By then the sun was high and warm. We had shed our arm and leg warmers and made our way over rolling hills to Shepherdstown for lunch at the friendly Blue Moon Cafe. The Carnivores team was finishing their meal and greeted us briefly on their way out.
After lunch, we lit out to the northeast to Waynesboro and Shippensburg, Pa., with an impromptu coffee stop in Smithsburg.
After climbing away from the river, it was impossibly difficult not to pull in to the Sheetz in Smithsburg where we got a coffee for us, a Coke for Mike and treats for all. Discussion about being behind schedule made for entertaining conversation while got ourselves fortified for the haul to Waynesboro. Nothing much happened there, but we did eat some more and sent out some Twitter updates.
The skies were darkening by now but the temperatures remained in the 70s and westerly winds made the going pleasant. Our group got to Shippensburg around 7 p.m. as the town was coming to life for Saturday night. Snacks and espresso drinks at Sheetz ensued while we put on our night gear — Lane showed off his new MEC reflective vest, with rear pockets! Snazzy.
Our one major climb, over Big Flat Ridge, took place in the dark with enough cloud cover that the stars were obscured. The air smelled like rain but none fell, and we bombed the descent down into Arendtsville, amidst acres and acres of orchards. This is where we hit our top speed of the event, 54 m.p.h. Mike stayed on our wheel while Eric and Lane took it easy, and we all regrouped for the quick run on descending rollers to Gettysburg, mile 157.
The town was active as we arrived around 10:15 p.m. We parked at the Lincoln Diner for dinner just as drizzle started to fall.
By now all of us were yawning and thinking ahead to the 75-mile overnight ride ahead. Diner food and sodas fueled us, as we looked out at the small groups of tourists gathered to hear guides in 1800s period dress explain the history of Gettysburg.
A steady, light rain set in and we put on rain jackets. A rather helpful gentleman suggested we didn’t realize the danger we faced riding at night. I thanked him for his kind words, which made him laugh.
Flatter, but not flat roads led us to Thurmont, mile 175, and our third Sheetz coffee stop of the ride. MG danced a little to the terrible 80s music playing inside and we topped up our caffeine and sugar reserves. The rain slackened and we got out of the jackets. The store clerk was on the phone to police after turning away a drunk customer who tried to buy beer.
While I was in line, the woman behind me asked, “you guys are really riding a bicycle at night in this weather?” I replied, “this isn’t weather!” She thought that was funny. The clerk then took her beer away from her because she was with the drunk guy.
The 40-mile segment to our 22-hour control loomed ahead, over easy roads to Frederick, Md. and then on the hilly Rt. 335 south to Gaithersburg. It was in this segment that we started having some of the typical slowdowns that seem to happen when you’re tired and trying to just get there.
Lane flatted outside Frederick, which we knew about immediately when he commented on it in a very loud and sharp tone. After the rear wheel was dislodged and the rear tire removed, a group meeting broke out over whether to boot the tire.
Lane was also carrying a brand new spare tire. It was roundly agreed that, in the dark and under intermittent drizze, installing a new tire and tube might save some time. That, and the punctured tire was showing cords, which might have led to another flat. Lane pitched the old tire in a dumpster, which we hoped would take the flat tire hex with it.
Later Eric’s front generator light went dark, but the loose wire was discovered and on we went. While we waited for them up the road, I closed my eyes and drifted off, standing up. It felt really good, and I didn’t fall down. Finally we got to the IHOP with 45 minutes to kill, ready to eat. We had planned 90 minutes there. Oh well.
The place was full of randonneurs, late-night clubgoers, and a harried staff. Then, the bad news: Mike Binnix told us their Severna Park group had waited an hour to be served their meals. Turns out IHOP is not ready for the salsa-rando late-night convergence. The riders had to slam their food and run to stay on schedule.
Lane was famished and this was not a good scenario. He dashed across the street to a 7-11 to eat, while MG and I sat in the waiting area, too tired to move. In a few minutes everyone seemed to leave and we were seated and served our food just as Lane came back in. Mike got in a few winks but MG, Eric and I managed to stay awake.
Fed and anticipating the finish, we got back on the saddles to cover the final 20 miles with visions of pillows dancing in our heads.
First light shone in the east between parting clouds. We enjoyed the downhills and dodged the broken pavement that dotted Rt. 355 as it crossed the I-495 Beltway and became Wisconsin Avenue in D.C.
By the time we got to Georgetown, the sun was up and we had the ride in the bag with time to spare. All five of us crossed an empty Key Bridge and arrived at the hotel to a bustling scene of randonneurs and bikes. Finished!
Handshakes and hugs all around, with Mike’s wife Lisa there to greet us, and a sweet kiss from MG, made it a finish to savor. Bill Beck took our team photo and we were done.
I wish to express gratitude to Lane for overseeing our route and controls, to Eric and Mike for being such good company, and to MG for being her patient and strong self. This was our second fleche together on tandem and we loved it.