2017 Fleche: Team Once in a Blue Moon

It’s been a week since our six-person, five-bike team Once in a Blue Moon rode 226 miles in 24 hours on April 22-23 as part of the D.C. Randonneurs 2017 fleche, and I’m just now getting my head clear to post our story, so forgive the tardiness. It’s worth it to get a story that isn’t clouded by sleep deprivation, I hope.

In case you are unaware of the fleche, it’s the main team randonneur event of the year. Teams of up to five riders or bikes (tandems count as one bike, yay!) make up their own route that covers at least 360 kilometers (223.6 miles), with 24 hours to finish and no stops of longer than two hours, so you can’t race and finish way early.

Interested? Perplexed? Shocked, even? Typical for randonneuring, there are a bunch of rules, see them here. In sum, it’s a long ride with time limits, just like other randonneur rides, but you get to make up your own route and have to finish together.

I tried to get this post out earlier in the week but needed time to process the whole event and catch up on my sleep.  I always think I’m back to normal from the fleche after just one or two night’s sleep, but it always takes longer.

The Fleche: What the Heck is That?

We like the fleche but mostly during the ride and after. In advance the concept is daunting.

The fleche is run on or near the Easter weekend so spring weather is a given. Riders have to bring night/cold/wet weather gear, and of course learn how to stay awake in the wee hours. They also have to get to a remote start, if a point-to-point route is chosen to the designated finish at the Key Bridget Marriott in Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington.

This year our team had two randonneur newbies which added another bit of extra uncertainty – though they did fine! More below.  A team must have at least three bikes finish together for an official result, but the goal is always to complete the ride with nobody dropped, and optimally riding as a group the entire way.

Sunny skies in Cumberland for our arrival

 

Lastly, there is always the threat of bad weather. It’s rare that there is no rain somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic on a fleche weekend, and usually some winds. Every team (this year there were seven that attempted the DC Randonneurs event, five were successful) throws the dice in deciding their general direction regarding the weather. Last year half of 10 teams abandoned because of a massive cold front from the northwest with gusty winds.

This year we started in Cumberland, Md., at the northern end of the C&O Canal Towpath where it meets Great Allegheny Passage Trail that links Washington with Pittsburgh. Mary and I drove out Friday morning in a rental minivan with the Spectrum tandem, which isn’t allowed on the train because it’s too long – the tandem, that is!

It fits!

Clean, for the moment

 

Cumberland has an Enterprise franchise that accepted a one-way rental, and a staffer drove us back to the hotel, which was nice.

Our Team

Team OIABM was drawn together by our English pal and captain Jerry Seager, who loves to provide cue sheets in proper European kilometers instead of miles, finds restaurants for meals, and looks for mountains and dirt roads to liven up the proceedings. For the second year in a row Jerry had us start from a town on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited line, which has bike service, so that our team could ride a point-to-point route without arranging a shuttle.

 

Bilal and Natasha in Cumberland

 

We and Jerry were the holdovers from our team last year. Rando stalwart Eric Pilsk joined us this year along with newcomers Natasha Calderwood and her partner Bilal Zia, who Jerry recruited. They are very active cyclists in the DC racing/cyclocross scene but not randonneurs, so they were green to the brevet cards and middle-of-the-night riding thing.

The makeup of the team brought its own stresses, because it would be our first ride together, but also made it interesting to see if we could come together on the road.

Eric and Jerry at our first stop in Corriganville, five miles into the ride

 

To meet the minimum mileage, Jerry devised a question mark-style route that initially sent us in the opposite direction from Washington, which was kind of strange, but hey this is randonneuring so just follow the route, OK? Joking aside, devising a fleche route is not easy, and we’re indebted to Jerry for doing the work.

See our GPS track and data at RidewithGPS and see Jerry’s route at Ridewithgps.

Basically, we took the GAP Trail towards Pittsburgh over the Eastern Continental Divide and then left the trail in Meyersdale for some gruesomely hilly & gravelly/scenic riding to Bedford for lunch. From there we turned south through the steep but lovely Laurel Highlands, landing in the early evening in Hancock, Md.

Pointing our wheels to the southeast, the remaining highlights were:

  • rolling back roads to Shepherdstown, W. Va., (for a planned dinner at the Blue Moon Cafe, hence our team name);
  • a few flat and muddy miles on the C&O Canal Towpath to a Potomac River crossing at Brunswick, Md;
  • more back roads to Leesburg in Virginia;
  • the finish in Arlington via the paved W&OD and Custis paved trails.

Friday Arrival in Cumberland

The forecast for the weekend was ominous, and that left us with some dread on Friday, with cold rain forecast for most of Saturday and all of Saturday night. Our hopes were pinned on the chance that the rain would somehow miss us.

Mary and I got into Cumberland under sunny skies and light breezes, an ironic touch. I forgot my knee warmers at home but we found some nice Endura ones at the friendly nearby Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop, right by our Fairfield Inn hotel.

We had just one gear scare. I brought my Sidi road shoes by mistake instead of my mountain shoes. They are set up with Shimano SPD road cleats so we tried them out on the tandem and they worked fine with our dual-sided SPD pedals. Using only SPD pedals on our bikes paid off this time.

Saturday: Rain at the Start

We met at 7 a.m. for handshakes and photos under heavy cloud cover in Cumberland and sped off to the early control points that were needed to verify our route. We had our rain gear handy and it would come out in short order.

Our humble start point

Eric in Cumberland

Steep hill into Frostburg

Us, in Frostburg, mostly dry

Bilal and Natasha in Frostburg

 

Light rain started after Frostburg where we picked up the GAP Trail. By the time we were over the Continental Divide there was steady cold rain, and we were shivering. At the Sheetz store in Meyersdale we put on all of our cold weather gear and rode off in drizzle that seemed to be getting less intense. Before long the rain stopped completely, which was great news.

Natasha and Jerry on the GAP Trail. Courtesy Mary G.

The Continental Divide on the GAP Trail

Bagging that turkey on the GAP Trail

 

Best of all, the rain did not catch us again on the entire ride, as we stayed behind the cold front moving toward the southeast. It was chilly, especially on the downhills, and cloudy, but that was so much better than rain.

Dirt Climbing with Eric and Jerry

 

We still had a lot of ups and downs to conquer in the first century. Jerry has a knack for finding steep dirt lanes and on this day he did not disappoint. We took on a few including Schoolhouse Road on the way to lunch in Bedford, and the appropriately-named Hill Road that took us over McKee’s Gap into Hancock. We added these to our annual list of fleche grievances.

(Tech note: we enjoyed good traction with our new tire choice, the 700×32 Panaracer Gypsyking Gravelking file tread model. We’ve been using Panaracer Pasela PT 700×32 for years).

Crazy steep Schoolhouse Road

 

Jerry is also good at finding better lunch spots. This time we enjoyed the farm-to-table restraurant Horn O Plenty in Manns Choice, where Mary and I each had a Monte Cristo sandwich – a ham-and-cheese on French toast – which must have had 1,000 calories, and we didn’t leave any behind. The staff was really great too about getting us our food fast. Eric shot past the place (it was easy to miss), but he returned with five bonus miles and they got him fed in fast order.

Big Lunch at Horn O Plenty

 

The many hills in the area offered fantastic views but they came with a downside for a fleche team with a tandem included – we became well strung out.  The fast downhill speed of the tandem (48+ m.p.h. on one hill) pulled us away from the group and we rode a number of the miles by ourselves, with Eric coming up from time to time on the ascents before we’d fly off again. Jerry,

Natasha and Bilal were out of sight behind us somewhere, which made us worry, but we figured there would be a regrouping in Hancock. Temperatures remained in the 50s, not ideal but warm enough.

Up in the Hills courtesy. Mary G

 

We arrived at Hancock way behind schedule, at about 6 p.m., or 11 hours for the first 115 miles, and the rest of the group was some minutes back. We were barely making minimum overall speed for an official finish. Not good!

Dinner was not happening at the Blue Moon in Shepherdstown – the restaurant would be closed at 9 long before we got there, and Natasha’s stomach was acting up, keeping her from getting nutrition and slowing her progress.

There was some consternation at this point about our team prospects. We decided to split up, with Bilal and Natasha taking some extra time to see if she could recover. It was sad but we had to move on if there was to be any chance of making an official finish.

The Reunion and the Magic

Along the way to Shepherdstown, riding by ourselves, we got off course for a couple of miles. After returning we noticed bike lights ahead and eventually caught up to Natasha and Bilal, who had gotten past us. Natasha was so surprised to see us that she initially thought we were some other tandem couple riding around in the dark!

Meanwhile, Jerry and Eric found a pizza place in a shopping center near Hainsville and we had a happy gathering. Natasha’s appetite returned, we got plenty to eat, and set out in good spririts. The gentle terrain kept the group together and the miles flew by.

There was conversation. There was laughter. We stuck together and got into Sheperdstown late but happy.

Racing to the Finish

The night ride was foggy and damp but mostly uneventful, except for a chance meeting with the Severna Park-based Four Guys and Another Guy team at Harpers Ferry. Our group stopped under the pedestrian bridge across the Potomac River after midnight, only to hear people clomping down the spiral staircase above. Another happy meetup!

After some pleasantries they sped off east while we took the C&O south, splashing through the puddles, toward our next control at Knoxville outside of Brunswick, Md.

Eric in Knoxville

 

Our final goals were a 7-11 control in Leesburg, and then our last control at Amphora diner in Herndon, which we had to reach by 5 a.m. We knew it was going to be close. After getting confused in an apartment complex trying to get on the W&OD again in Leesburg that required a bit of bushwhacking, we rode hard to get to Amphora, and made it with about 10 minutes to spare.

After a 20-minute rest we trundled out toward Arlington, and a randonneur team time trial formed. We arrived with seconds to spare at 6:59 a.m.! It was a joyous moment after a long and at times tough ride.

Team portrait at the finish. Courtesy Mike Wali.

 

Final Thoughts

There is a lot of talk in cycling these days about epic adventure rides, particularly on gravel. The fleche, at least when Jerry is making up the route, is a great way to experience the long miles, night skies and remote roads right here in the Mid-Atlantic. This year’s edition was particularly challenging and an official result wasn’t always a sure thing. Our team pulled together in the dead of night and made it happen, and for that I’m proud of them and us.

It was a pleasure to ride with Natasha and Bilal, who remained calm and resolute throughout.

And, as always, special kudos are due to Mary, who rode with her usual aplomb. I’m always glad to be part of our tandem team.

Mary and Me. She looks much fresher. Courtesy Mike Wali.

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Italian Ice Fleche Report: The Spirit is Willing, But the Fleche is Weak

The “Italian Ice” fleche team of Chip Adams, Bob Casciato, Greg Conderacci and Clint Provenza left Middletown, Va. looking like this:

Chip, Greg, Clint, Bob

and finished in Quakertown, Pa. looking like this:

All Finished

In between, they went from sun and fun to dark, cold and wet, and that’s before the police got involved. Greg has written up the team’s adventure and it’s a must read for anybody who has left that heavy rain jacket in the car.

The Italian Ice Capades:
The Spirit Is Willing, But the Fleche Is Wet
by Greg Conderacci

April 29, 2008

The saga of Team Italian Ice and the April 26-27 Eastern Pennsylvania Fleche actually begins on April 25. On that day, Clint Provenza, our strongest member, rides the 140-plus miles from his home near Annapolis, Md. to the ride start in Middletown, Va. Our lazier members, Bob Casciato, Chip Adams and Greg Conderacci, drive.

Feeling a little guilty, Adams and Conderacci ride out to meet Clint about a dozen miles from the finish – and confront our first adventure. The low water bridge across the Shenandoah River is under water. Chip plows across the bridge, up to his bottom bracket in water, ignoring Greg’s pleas to turn back. OK, so tomorrow we start with wet shoes.

Chip, Greg, Clint, BobChip, Greg, Clint, Bob

Saturday dawns bright and clear and our ride scout and navigator Chip adds another benefit to his great route – a visit from his parents who cheerfully pick up our bags from the hotel and send us on our way with waves and hugs at 7 a.m. The Rando Rules specify that a fleche must be at least 240 miles and, just for fun, Chip has added an extra 35 miles. After all, we don’t want to be bored.

You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and Chip has placed what should be a safe bet on that: we’re heading east to Quakertown, Pa. with the Prevailing Westerlies at our backs – we hope.

Through Golden FieldsThrough Golden Fields

It is a spectacularly beautiful day and we motor along, four cocky PBP finishers, resplendent in our French jerseys, snapping pictures of each other and casually stopping to gorge ourselves at breakfast and lunch. After all, a fleche is supposed to be relaxed, right?

Randonneurs Unite!Randonneurs Unite!

All morning long, no real wind, but as it comes up, it seems to be blowing from the east. Oh, well, no big deal, we think, as we roll into Gettysburg with 125 miles under our belts and almost 5,000 feet of climbing. It’s only 4 p.m. We are making great time and we barely feel the temperatures which hover in the high 80s.

Classic PA Covered BridgeClassic PA Covered Bridge

But as we turn east, the temperatures drop, the headwind stiffens and the hills become relentless. We press on, jaws set, eyes squinting, legs churning. We arrive at Fawn Grove, Pa., just as the light fails us. We are at 175 miles and it is 8 p.m. We have 11 hours to ride just 100 miles. Piece of cake.

Dinner StopLast Time in Dry Clothes

With temperatures in the 60s and the heaviest climbing ahead of us, Conderacci, as usual, over-dresses and is ridiculed by his mates. But as we cross the mighty Susquehanna, the skies open and the temperature plunges into the 40s. Everyone digs for rain gear in the drenching downpour and we all think the same thing: this could be one dark, nasty century.

Over the next 25 miles, the complexion of the ride changes dramatically. Can you say “hypothermia,” boys and girls? We pull into an all-night 7-11 and take stock of our situation. We are all shaking uncontrollably, especially Clint who does not have the advantage of the body fat the rest of us carry. Conderacci heads off to a coin-op laundry in a vain effort to dry his clothes. Everybody else chugs hot soup, hoping to restore internal body temperatures. Nothing much helps.

Warming UpWarming Up

As we ride into the bitter black night, our average speed falls like a stone. Since none of us believe in fenders, we can’t draft without getting an icy shower. Fast descents on slippery roads are out of the question. The wind is slashing through our wet clothes and every descent is like taking a dip off the Titanic. We pray for climbs and are grateful for the shred of warmth they offer. Fortunately, there are plenty of them: we will climb more than 10,000 feet in the second half of the ride.

We stop to wrap Clint in a space blanket under his sopping jacket, but it doesn’t help much. We need to go fast to maintain body heat, but Clint is too cold to do that. Finally, we have to face reality: we need to get Clint help – fast.

Warming Zone AheadClint’s last control: No. Coventry TWP Police Station

Chip remembers a police station on the route in Pottstown. At 3:45 a.m., the lone cop on duty lets us into the station and points Clint to the restroom. Before we know it, Clint sees a shower stall, strips off his sopping wet bike clothes and hops in to warm up. After using all the hot water, he bundles his still-shivering body in a huge blanket and plasters himself against the wall heater. We fetch him a cup of hot tea. He urges us to press on, realizing there is no way he could survive another three hours in his hypothermic state. The officer asks again if he should call 911. As soon as we leave, Clint promptly falls blissfully asleep, wearing only a wool blanket. Sadly, with less than 30 miles to go, he doesn’t finish – even though he’s ridden 393 miles and climbed over 22,000 feet in less than two days!

The next control is only 8-9 miles away and we have over an hour to arrive by 5 a.m. As easy as it sounds, we realize we have a long way to go and not much time to get there. The storm and terrain made the trip incredibly difficult. We divvy up the space blanket, each tucking a third of it under our rain gear to block the chill. Suddenly, we are sprinting through the night, trading the warmth of our effort for the bitter cold. We must have a control stamp at 5 a.m. – two hours before our scheduled finish. We come flying into our control. It’s a sad state of affairs for a team that had expected to be lounging at this point.

With no time to waste, we now must go 22 miles in under two hours. Suddenly, that doesn’t quite seem like enough time. The hills, rain and cold take their toll, but the sky lightens and our spirits soar. It’s 6:30 a.m. and we have only about five miles to go.

Chip in the NightChip in the Night

But then Chip punctures. It’s a slow leak and we try pumping it up and pressing on, but it doesn’t hold – we have to change a tire. Our fingers are numb and trembling, but we manage to fumble through the change. Now, we’re sprinting again. We rocket down a long hill and into the hostel where food, friends and warm showers await us.

We arrive at the final control – right at the 24-hour mark. Chip looks down at his tire: it’s flat again. We’re so cold we’re barely conscious, but, thank goodness, we’re done. RBA Tom Rosenbauer passes out towels and we trundle off to showers, grimy and begging for blankets.

Among us, we have too many years of riding experience to count, but we all agree on one thing: this was the ride that froze Italian Ice.

All FinishedAll Finished!

Weekend Roundup — ROMA 400K and PA Fleche teams

DCRs were active this week up and down the East Coast, despite the wet weather on Saturday night. The group of us at the North Carolina Randonneurs 300K enjoyed the best weather, with just a passing shower in the evening.

Three teams comprised of DCR riders pointed their wheels north towards Quakertown, Pa. as part of Tom Rosenbauer’s PA Randonneurs fleche. See the results at the PAR home page.

They all had rain overnight but tried their hardest. Maile Neel’s “Fleche Pedalers” were successful in completing the team’s second fleche of the season, having ridden the ROMA fleche on Easter. See her photos at her Flickr page or see the Slideshow.

Bob Casciato’s “Italian Ice” Team also finished on time. TDR has been promised a report and photos; stay tuned.

Bill Beck’s “Fleche in the Penn” team took a group spill in the rain with no permanent damage to riders or bikes, but decided for safety’s sake to DNF rather than continue. See Bill’s photoset or the Slideshow, complete with details about the team and their ride.

Before the weekend, Crista Borras and Chuck Wood’s Team Carnivore withdrew from the event due to rider illness and the withdrawal of a team member, which left the team with only two riders.

Over in Leesburg, Va., a group of 17 riders undertook the ROMA 400K, which included the opening segment of the Shenandoah 1200K. They also endured a wet, cold night and had to cross a flooded low-water bridge. Nick Bull has posted a long report at the Randon list.

Team Blue Without Two’s 2008 Fleche

Nick Bull has written up the saga of the “Blue” fleche team, whose name changes every year. In 2008, it was Team Blue Without Two. Thanks for another great tale, Nick.

Nick on the road with Team Blue Without TwoNick on the road with Team Blue Without Two

by Nick Bull

A few pictures (two are courtesy of Bill Beck) are at my Flickr page and my Motion Based track is Here.

Team Blue Without TwoTeam Blue Without Two: Tom, Mike, Fred, Nick, Alex

Two regular members of the “Blue” fleche team couldn’t ride with us this year: Hank Greenblatt and Doug Young. So two new riders joined the team: longtime randonneur Alex Sanchez, and rookie randonneur (but experienced triathlete) Mike Desmond. The remaining members of the team are (captain) Tom Reeder, Fred Robbins, and Nick Bull. Why are we the “Blue” team?

In 2004 (before I joined the team), the team was on a training ride and kept being passed by a group of cyclists, so the team said “They blew right by us.” Thus the name “Blue Bias”. As it turns out, the team rode so strongly that they blew by all competitors–thus they blew by you (well, in their dreams, maybe …) so …

In 2005, they became “Blue Bayou”. During that fleche (my first with the team), two riders blew out their tires, so …

In 2006, we were “Blue Attire”. During that fleche (we all wore some blue attire, of course), temperatures were quite hot, leading to serious stomach upset after a stop to eat barbeque sandwiches. The result? Riders didn’t actually blow chunks of barbeque, but they wanted to, so …

In 2007, we were “Blue Barbeque”.

Back to the story for 2008. We followed the same route as usual: Our route is somewhat of an arrow shape, pointing toward the south west, with its tip at Madison, Va. The “top left” corner of the arrow is at Purcellville. The top right is at Key Bridge, which crosses the Potomac from Rosslyn in Arlington County, Va., to Washington, D.C. We start out from the Westover district of Arlington County and head north-west on the W&OD trail to its end at Purcellville. From Purcellville, we head roughly southwest to Madison.

Then we turn roughly northeast heading in the direction of Key Bridge. After Madison, we face a nearly-80 mile stretch that has practically no convenience stores, and only one place we can fuel up–a pizza place that closes early enough that it can be a bit dicey whether we can get there in
time for food.

After a little bobble when the 7-11 clerk at the start control refusing to sign our fleche cards because of fears that he would be deported (or something), which were thankfully overcome by the persuasive powers of Ruth Reeder, we started just a few minutes late, riding into near-freezing temperatures. Just to keep things interesting, we had a few minutes of sleet near Leesburg, plus winds from the north at 12 m.p.h. with gusts to 18 m.p.h. that hindered our progress to the northwest.

Alex, Nick, and Mike powered down the W&OD, with Tom and Fred coming along behind. Apparently, Fred just hates the W&OD, but he told himself that if he could just get to the end of it, then he could do the rest of the fleche with no problems. We regrouped at the 7-11 in Purcelville, with riders heading out as soon as their teeth started to chatter, so the late arrivers left a few minutes after the early arrivers. Now heading southwest, we had a nice tailwind that kept up for the remainder of the day until our turnaround at dinner.

Alex and Nick rode together for most of the leg down to Warrenton — or at least, Nick kept up sufficiently with Alex so that he kept him in sight most of the time. Mike powered off down the road, only to arrive at Warrenton a few minutes after Alex and Nick. Apparently, the Blue route contains too few miles for Mike.

Sheltered from the wind by the Warrenton Sheetz, it was comfortably warm sitting in the sunlight, which made it hard to get going again, heading back into the chilly mid-40’s temperatures. This year, the barbeque at Tolliver’s store was fabulous. Many hours later, after an afternoon that barely reached 50 degrees, and that fortunately only had one “scattered shower” we regrouped at the McDonald’s in Madison — again, Alex and Nick beat Mike there, as Mike decided to add a few more miles to the route.

We were worried that the tailwinds would now become a problem as we turned northwest toward home, but the hlly terrain provided some shelter, and the winds died down somewhat with the arrival of dark. But … now the temperature dropped precipitously, heading toward freezing quit quickly, and then gradually getting down to an overnight low in the high 20’s. This year, when we stopped to put on lights, I remembered my experience last year with painfully-cold feet in the desolate wasteland between Rapidan and the M&P Pizza control, so I put on my full kit of foot-warming technology.

We arrived at the M&P at 9:30 (Alex, Nick and Mike), which is quite early by historical standards, because of the earlier tailwinds; Tom and Fred came in just a few minutes later.

Matt Settle, Doug Young, and Ruth Reeder were all at the M&P, so we had quite a party, at least as much of a party as tired, cold, and hungry randonneurs can handle. We suited up in our coldest-weather gear (well, as usual, I had just a little bit more in the Carradice, “just in case”). We headed off at 11 p.m., riding as a group for the remainder of the night, for another 45 miles of riding in the wasteland between M&P and Occoquan, eventually controlling at a 7-11 where I dipped into my clothing reserves and put on a wool, long-sleeved shirt.

We moved out fairly quickly, but when we arrived at the 22-hour control had only 20 minutes to spare. I’d been having problems staying awake, so took a 15 minute nap in the dirt, sheltered from the wind by a fence and a dumpster. What a lovely little spot!

After carefully buying a muffin at precisely 4:00 am (to get the time-stamped receipt), we headed north again, we eventually were riding along the bike path next to the Potomac. Someone had
thoughtfully arranged for a choir to sing to us from across the river.

Paced by Fred, we arrived with only five minutes to spare at our usual “regrouping” park bench, 1/4 mile south of the Key Marriott. We had a moment of panic when Tom hadn’t shown up by 5:59:00 and we decided we’d better ride to the hotel and check in, but he arrived at the hotel a minute or so later, which is close enough to be “simultaneous.”

This is the first time that the “Blues” have gotten five members across the finish line together, which is cause enough for celebration. But all of us were particularly inspired by Fred Robbins, who had DNF’d in our previous two years, and who this year had begun training earlier and harder, and who stuck with the ride with determination and fortitude. Several of us went to Lynn Kristianson and Gordon Meuses’s post-fleche breakfast party, and had a great time. Thanks so much to Lynn and Gordon.

With the deep, cold weather this year, many of us spent much of the ride blowing our cold, drippy noses. So …

For 2009, we will be “Blue Noses” (I don’t know how Tom comes up with this!)

April 8, 2008

No “I” in Uncorked — Mary’s 2008 Fleche

MG has written about the travails and ultimate triumph of her fleche with “Team Uncorked.” See the story Here.

“I’m Just Waitin’ on a Train”“I’m Just Waitin’ on a Train”

by
Mary Gersema

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.”

Team Uncorked at the FinishTeam Uncorked at the Finish, courtesy Bill Beck

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.

Team Uncorked’s Steve, Mary & MikeTeam Uncorked’s Steve, Mary & Mike

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.

Steve, James, Mike, and MichaelThe Men of Team Uncorked: Steve, James, Mike, and Michael

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?

Blue Moon Cafe drying rackBlue Moon Cafe drying rack

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.

Fixing that FlatFixing that Flat

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!

Michael Rowny at the Gettysburg dinerMichael in Gettysburg

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.”
“Who’s there?”
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.

The Unretourables: Successful

Branson Kimball writes that his fleche team of North Carolina randonneurs, “The Unretourables,” finished in Falls Church on Saturday morning with enough miles. One of the teammates had to stop along the way, but the remaining four rode on to “win the fleche.” Branson has updated the team’s web site with photos and story. Congratulations guys!

The UnretourablesThe Unretourables

Fleche Weekend Tales and Pictures

UPDATE: Bill Beck has posted neat photos of the Sunday morning finish. See them at his Flickr page or check out a captioned slide show Here.

The traditional Easter fleche events took place this weekend, with D.C. randonneurs taking up the challenge all along the Eastern seaboard. Starting out, we have photos of the “Team Uncorked” organized by Steve Ashurst (sans Lynn Ho, who, like yours truly, could not ride this weekend). Steve recruited TDR’s own MG, James Houck, Mike Granger and Michael Rowny. They rode a modified circuit route from Arlington, Va. to Shepherdstown, W.V., Gettysburg, Pa., Frederick, Md, down to D.C. and back to Arlington.

Team UncorkedTeam Uncorked, courtesy Bill Beck: James, Steve, Michael, Mike, MG

Michael Rowny at the Gettysburg dinerMichael Rowny at the Gettysburg diner

Running short on time, but not on miles, they used a northwest D.C. McDonald’s as a finish control and rode the last four miles to the official finish as something of a non-optional cool-down ride. They fought through headwinds much of the day and a couple of freezing rain downpours, then subfreezing overnight temperatures, to finish with their team intact.

Steve has posted a Motion Based graph and map and his photos of the adventure.

MG has posted her photos at Ed’s Flickr page.

James plays with MG’s Bike FridayJames plays with MG’s Bike Friday

Two other teams controlled in Sunday morning, including the “Blue Minus Two” team of Nick Bull, Tom Reeder, Fred Robbins, Alex Sanchez and Mike Desmond. They rode from Arlington out to Purcellville, Va., then southwest to Madison, Va., then northeast back to Arlington.

Team Blue Minus TwoTeam Blue Minus Two: Game Faces Intact! Alex, Fred, Nick, Tom and Mike (courtesy Bill Beck)

The “Fleche Pedalers” team of Kelly Smith and Mary Crawley on tandem with Maile Neel, Lowell Grubbs, Lara Sullivan and Carol Bell had a fun ride from Buchanan, Va.

Fleche Pedalers TeamFleche Pedalers Team, courtesy Maile Neel

Carol and Lowell at the FinishCarol and Lowell, courtesy Bill Beck

Maile has posted a photo essay with comments at her Flickr page.

Here’s a quick roundup from Mary about the “Fleche Pedalers” team.

Hi all,

We had a great team and a great ride. The Fleche Pedalers were: Captain Maile Neel, Lowell Grubb, Lara Sullivan, Carol Bell, and Kelly Smith and moi en tandem. We took on the cold (it got down to about 30 degrees!) and the headwinds, to ride from Buchanan VA to Arlington VA, from 8 a.m. Saturday morning until 8 a.m. Sunday morning, March 22 and 23. Our total mileage was 237.91. We spent 16 hours 38mins on the bikes, and our average speed was 14.3 mph.

The “NC/DC Team” paired locals Lynn Kristianson & Bob Sheldon (on tandem) and Lothar Hennighausen with North Carolina Randonneurs’ Mike Dayton, Jerry Phelps and Byron Morton for a 240-mile jaunt Friday from Raleigh to Ocean Isle, N.C. For them, blue skies, warmer temperatures and fine dining. See the story at the Research Trailer Park blog.

Mark Vinette’s “Team Friday Night” finished Saturday morning. Here’s his report:

Hi All,

I am happy to report that Team Friday Night Fleche, consisting of George Winkert, Dave Goodwin, Ron Tosh, Craig Duck and myself sucessfully completed our Fleche at 0700 on Saturday. We had beautiful full sun all day Saturday, with highs in the low 60’s, but NW/WNW headwinds of ~ 15 mph for the first 10 hrs/100 miles from Chez Winkert to Shippensburg, PA. The wind died, the roads flattened and the rain never showed for the ride SE down the Cumberland Valley to Williamsport, MD. The full moon even came out for a few hours during the ride over Gapland and through historic Waterford, VA to the WO&D in Leesburg.

Low temps barely dipped into the 30’s as visions of the Amphora Diner danced in our heads. Alas, we were just barely too slow to take advantage of this 22 hr control and settled for her poor step-sister, milling around the restroomless Reston 7-11 until 0500. Motivated power riding brought us to our super secret Starbucks Re-Group spot where we enjoyed a 15 min coffee break before we finished.

Matt was at the Key Bridge Marriott to greet us and sign us in. Sadly, there was no sign of the NC Fleche Team, coming in from Lynchburg, VA and scheduled to finish at 0700 as well. Matt had seen them out on the roads of western VA during the day on Friday doing well and was hoping they had finish controlled at another location, although their planned route was not much over the min distance. (Editors note: this was the group of Branson Kimball, “The Unretourables.”)

The Rando Gods were smiling on our team for our one major incident: George’s rear Chris King Hub totally and catastophically failed in Gettysburg within a block of the only bike shop on our route, while it was open and at the beginning of a planned 1 hr lunch stop. The shop mechanic actually had a used King freehub, which failed to correct the problem, so George worked a deal to rent his personal DT Swiss rear wheel for the remainder of the ride! We ordered George lunch, lounged around the Perkins and got on the road only 20 min behind schedule. From that point on I knew we were going to make it.

Mark

Drew Roth gave the fleche thing another go this year as well, but with just three riders, “Team Torque” had to stop when one of them developed sore knees. See his report at the Vicious Circle blog.

News: 2008 Brevets Posted

The Randonneurs USA website has been updated with the 2008 ACP brevets and fleches, including those in our lovely Washington, D.C. region. It does not give ride start locations. More to come for the D.C. folks at the D.C. Randonneurs site.

Veterans of the D.C. scene will notice that the series has been compacted somewhat to make room for the Shenandoah 1200 on June 5-8. There is also a 600K coming in late June. For those of us whose Easter observances rule out a fleche that weekend, the PA Randonneurs will stage their fleche on April 26.

Here is the D.C. schedule:

200K……March 15
Fleche….March 20-23 (Easter Weekend)
200K……March 29
300K……April 5
300K……April 12
400K……April 26
400K……May 3
600K……May 17
1200K….June 5-8
600K……June 28