Of all the randonneuring events, I'd have to say that the fleche is certainly the most complicated. Getting it's name from the French word for arrow, the fleche is an event where various teams converge on a common goal. While all randonneuring rides have some rules and time limits, the fleche has a lot of rules. Also, unlike the brevets where the cycling club has defined the course, in the case of the fleche the club merely defines the goal. Individual randonneurs have to work out how they will form teams and what course they will design to meet the challenge of the fleche.
Here are the basic rules for a fleche:
For the 2002 Fleche Northwest, the Seattle International Randonneurs would again converge on the resort at Semiahmoo in Blaine, Washington, just south of the Canadian border. Fleche teams could start riding anytime from 6:00 PM on Friday April 26th to 10:00 AM on Saturday April 27th. On the morning of Sunday April 28th the teams would all partake in the celebratory brunch at Semiahmoo.
A few months ago I began to form my plan for the fleche. In February I'd put together Fast Eddy, my fixed gear randonneuring bike and I liked the idea of assembling a team of fixed gear riders for the fleche. My friend Mark Vande Kamp quickly warmed to the idea and we soon convinced Jon Muellner and Tom Brett into joining us. We needed a name for our team and when I presented this as a challenge to my friends on the fixed gear mailing list Ben Sanford came up with the perfect name: The Shiftless Bums.
Because of the rule about covering at least 25 kilometers in the last two hours of the ride, I figured a smart route would schedule a sleep break at some distance slightly more than 25 kilometers from the end. We would ride fast and build up a time buffer. When we got to the sleep spot, we'd rest there until the 22nd hour, get our cards signed and then ride in the rest of the route. I sat down with some maps and software and figured out that we could have a very nice 380 kilometer ride that would start at my house and have a scheduled sleep break in Lynden, Washington.
Just when I had the route pretty much figured out, the ACP added in an additional rule: The longest rest stop a team may take in any one spot is two hours. The idea behind this rule was to make sure that the fleche really would be a 24 hour ride. I consulted my teammates, returned to my maps and devised a new plan.
The new plan looked like this. We'd ride in three chunks. First, we'd ride from my house to the Seattle ferry terminal. The Streets and Trips software laid out a route like this, but the time and the distances aren't quite right since I can't make the software understand about bike paths. But the 28 kilometer run would let us start at my house at 6:30 AM on Saturday and give us plenty of time to catch the 8:40 AM. ferry to Bainbridge Island.
Fleche Part 1
The 8:40 ferry should get us into Winslow at about 9:15AM. Then we take a SIR standard route up to Port Townsend via Big Valley Road and Port Hadlock. This route is shown here:
Fleche Part 2
We'd then catch the 1:15 PM ferry from Port Townsend over to Keystone on Whidbey Island. Then it's north up Whidbey Island, out over Deception Pass, out to the Best Road and then down to Arlington, over to Darrington and then along the South Skagit Highway to Seedro Wooley and then up to Lynden and over to Semiahmoo. A 22 kph pace should get us in perfectly. Lynden would still be our 22 hour checkpoint but we really wouldn't have time to sleep.
Fleche Part 3
The total distance was a more ambitious 436 kilometers, but all the bums agreed that it was a pretty good plan. We finalized the route and got it approved by Peter McKay, the Fleche Administrator.
On the drizzly Friday night of April 26th, the rest of the bums converged on my house. Tom rode over like the rugged man that he is, while Jon and Mark had their respective spouses drop them off. My lovely wife Christine was off in Seattle for most of the evening, but she'd left us with a stockpile of cheesy pasta, salad, brownies and various beverages. And the monster movie on AMC was the original 1931 version of "Frankenstein." Mark's wife Jane dubbed our evening as "the boys sleep over". The monster movie never grabbed our full attention but we managed to eat food and get the bikes tweaked and ready to go. All the other bums were impressed that I lived in a place where it's OK for bikes to stay in the dining room. Since we had to get up at 5:30AM, we all turned in by around 9:30 PM with the three other bums settled in sleeping bags in the living room while I nestled all snug in my bed.
At 5:30 AM Loud Ticky went off. Loud Ticky is my never fail wind-up alarm clock and as usual it didn't fail. It managed to wake up pretty much the entire household, except for the cat who was already awake and thinking about breakfast. Somehow the cat and the rest of us managed to coordinate our morning activities and at 6:30 AM Christine took our picture and the four Shiftless Bums headed out into the morning drizzle.
The rain was light and the forecast was for the day to improve. We rode along my standard commute route to Eastgate where we caught the bike trail over the Bellevue Slough and across the bridge to Mercer Island. On the island we cut off the trail onto North Mercer Way and as we charged one of the hills I advised Tom to "downshift, man!" Of course, since we were all on fixed gear bikes, there were no gears to downshift, but Tom still had the vestigial downtube shifters on his Bruce Gordon, so I had to give him a hard time.
We came off the island onto the I-90 floating bridge. About half way across, Tom's rear tire flatted. Tom managed about the quickest tire change I've ever seen and a couple of minutes later we were on our way. We climbed off the bridge into Seattle and wound our way down to Dearborn Avenue and then through the Pioneer Square neighborhood and down to the ferry dock. We bought our tickets and got onto the 7:50 AM ferry just as it was pulling out for Winslow. Tom seemed a little bummed about almost making us late until I pointed out that we were actually early. I'd figured we'd catch the next ferry, which was 50 minutes later. So we were already quite a bit ahead of schedule.
True to the prediction, the rain stopped by the time we docked in Winslow. We'd each had a bit of second breakfast on the ferry and the cafe worker had signed our fleche cards. At 8:30 AM, we rolled off the ferry under rapidly clearing skies.
We rolled north over Bainbridge Island, across the Agate Point bridge and up to Poulsbo. The weather was perfect and at the llama and camel ranch on Big Valley Road we paused for a bit to take some pictures. Unlike the 300K a few weeks ago, today the Hood Canal was like glass and we all rolled across the floating bridge without incident. The rolling hills between the bridge and Port Hadlock confirmed something Mark and I had begun to suspect, we were just a bit faster than Jon and Tom. We were all pretty closely matched, but Mark and I have more of a fixed mileage base and our gears were pretty closely matched while Jon was geared just a bit lower and Tom was geared slightly higher. But things settled in nicely with our forming twin side-by-side formations for much of the time on the low-traffic roads.
For the record, here is the gearing on each of our bikes:
|Name||Crank Length||Gearing||Gear Inches||Gain Ratio|
The rightmost number in the table is the gain ratio, a number advocated by Sheldon Brown as the best way of comparing the gearing of bikes. Unlike gear inches, the gain ratio factors in the crank length into the calculation and I've become convinced that Sheldon's system really does make a lot of sense. A detailed explanation of the gain ratio can be found at http://www.sheldonbrown.com/gain.html .
We took a very quick snack break in Port Hadlock and then rolled on to Port Townsend. Jon lives in Port Townsend and on the descent into town a couple of cyclist friends rolled past us. We quickly spun up to speed and caught up with them at a stoplight. Riding into town we had a quick chat about 24 hour rides, fixed gears and what a darn nice day it was for riding. It was around lunchtime and we had plenty of time before we had to catch the ferry to Whidbey Island, so we decided to stop for soup, bread and beverages at the Tyler Street Coffee House.
After filling up on clam chowder we rolled over to the ferry dock where we met up with Jon's wife Carrie and his five-year-old daughter Peri. They'd biked down from Jon's house (with Peri on the Trail-a-bike) to provide us with moral support and fresh baked cookies. Since Port Townsend was one of our official control points, we figured accepting this outside support was OK. Again we had a ferry worker sign our control cards and lounged in the sun until the ferry left at 1:15PM. The ferry benches were long and nicely padded and we all took a quick snooze on the half-hour ferry crossing. As we were rolling our bikes off the ferry an older couple quizzed us about where we were riding. When we described our route and the fact that we were on a 24 hour ride the woman said, "My goodness, where will you sleep?" "We just did," I told her and they wished us luck on the rest of our journey.
We rolled north up Whidbey Island, stopping briefly in Oak Harbor. Mark bought some sunscreen which we all shared and I bought yet another of what would prove to be a long series of iced lattes. We were still running well ahead of schedule, thanks in part to a one hour buffer I'd accidentally put into the schedule. We continued north and just before Deception Pass I pointed out what a shame it was that the miniature golf course was closed. The idea of pausing in the midst of the fleche to play a round of mini-golf just seemed really cool at the time. But alas, the course was closed and we pressed on. We gawked like tourists at Deception Pass and then rolled over the bridge and back onto the mainland.
We followed SR-20 as it turned east and then turned south onto the aptly-named Best Road which runs through the farmland of the Skagit Valley. The tulips were still in bloom and we took advantage of a few more photo opportunities. Normally the Best Road is lightly travelled but on a sunny Saturday at the end of April there we had to share the road with a fair number of other tulip viewers.
When we pulled into Arlington it was definitely supper time and we decided the grocery store was the best place to eat. We loaded up on deli fried chicken and chips and various drinks. I was getting worried about time. We still had a buffer, but I knew night riding tends to be slower and we still had many miles to go. This stop was a bit more leisurely than the stops I make when I'm riding solo, but before long we were back on the road and headed east toward Darrington.
Darkness overtook us on the road to Darrington and we pulled over to turn on all our head and tail lights. We pulled into Darrington at 8:42 PM, loaded up with provisions and and got our cards signed at the minimart. Tom and I had a discussion about how far it was from Darrington to Sedro Woolley. I was sure it was only about 50 kilometers while Tom was sure it was more like 50 miles. I had the route sheet and unassailable logic on my side while Tom only had the facts on geography on his side. Of course he was right and when I properly read the route sheet, I saw that it too was right.
Tom also mentioned grated bridges that lay ahead of us, something that neither Mark nor I recalled. Again we questioned Tom's knowledge of the route. And again, when we rumbled across the grated bridges, we had to admit that Tom was right. From Darrington until the time we rejoined SR-9 just outside of Sedro Woolley we probably saw a total of a dozen cars. A nearly full moon shone down on us and the Skagit river gurgled off to our right.
We had a good chance to compare lights. Mark and Jon were both running Lumotec lights driven off Schmidt hubs but Jon's light was much brighter than Mark's. Jon's light hadn't been working, so he'd replaced the bulb back in at my place the night before while Mark's bulb had already seen quite a few hours of use. We speculated on the dimming of bulbs and I took advantage of the opportunity to point out that I was avoiding the problems associated with such crude 20th-century lighting by using all LED lights. My headlights consisted of twin Princeton Tec Impact flashlights which cast crisp bluish-white beams that Jon declared to be "rather car-like" despite their relatively low power. Tom Brett was running the tried and true randonneurs lighting, a Cateye halogen light wired to a set of external D-cells that he'd picked up back in Arlington.
Somewhere along the South Skagit Highway, Tom flatted. We all stopped and Tom set to work on the tire. I recounted my tale of a nasty Michellin wire that has caused me no-end of woe on a dark night and we convinced Tom to swap in one of our spare tires. It turned out that Mark, Jon and I were each carrying a spare tire, so Tom selected Mark's lovely $3 special tire, since it looked the toughest and fattest of the three spares we had. In the dark, Tom wasn't nearly as speedy with the tire change as he'd been in the morning but eventually we were on our way again.
We made it a few hundred meters down the road before a blast tore through the night air. "Me again!" said Tom as he rumbled to a stop. It looked like the tire hadn't quite been properly seated in the last repair and this blowout ripped a big whole in the tube. Fortunately we all travel with multiple tubes and all Tom had to do was dig into his stash for another tube.
We weren't necessarily firing on all cylinders at that hour of the night. Tom puzzled for a while over his "damn aero rim" and why the valve won't sit up high enough for the pump to get a grip. Even though he was sure he'd taken the valve nut off the tube we convinced him to check and once he removed the valve nut everything worked great. Similarly Mark replaced the dim bulb in his light with a fresh one that completely failed to work until he turned it around so the glass part faced forward and the metal part faced backwards. It was just too easy to make jokes about there being more than one dim bulb on the road that night.
We got all our equipment in order and got back on our way. I was getting rather worried about the time. We'd used up almost all of our time buffer and I kept reworking the time and distance calculations in my head. We were still OK, but we couldn't afford to loose much more time.
It was around 1:00 AM when we pulled into Sedro Woolley and stopped at the AM/PM for our post-midnight snack and a quick break. "How quick?" Tom asked and he looked quite forlorn when I snapped "I'd really like to keep it to five minutes!" "I'll eat fast," he said.
We were still OK on time, but just OK and I was nervous about the next section. I knew the terrain climbs just north of Sedro Woolley and the roads into Lynden were an unknown quantity. Another unknown was how we'd fair as the night wore on. Fortunately the weather was still fine, although it had gotten quite a bit cooler. Our stop was almost as fast as I'd hoped and I had twenty ounces of Coca-Cola going flat in my front water bottle. There was nothing left to do but ride.
Tom and Jon were fading a bit and at one point each of them tried the "don't let me hold you back" argument, but Mark and I wouldn't hear of it. Sure we could finish with three, but we weren't going to leave any man behind. Besides, nobody was really going much slower than anyone else and we were still OK for time. Just OK, but OK was enough.
At Deming, I flatted. I never thought of the noble "go on without me" line but I didn't waste too much time finding the staple that had punctured my rear tire. We quickly replaced the tube and continued on.
Somewhere in the little town of Nooksack we were supposed to turn left onto something that the Streets and Trips software assured us was called either Milne Street or Tom Road. We nervously eyed road signs and never saw it. We did find the Lynden-Sumas Highway and followed it toward Lynden.
The original plan had us in Lynden at 4:30 AM and we were very close. At 22 hours into the ride we were about 4 kilometers outside of Lynden and we wound up skimming the northern edge of Lynden ten minutes later. We stopped at a closed gas station and signed each other's cards. Our missed turn only wound up adding a tiny bit of distance to our route and now we were back on course. We had an hour and fifty minutes to cover 33 kilometers.
We rolled down Badger Road and the other small farm roads leading to Semiahmoo. As the sun rose we began to speed up. We had one quick mis-turn which we quickly corrected and rolled alongside Drayton Harbor. Loons, ducks and other birds were lazing on the water as the mist glowed in the sunrise. We could see the resort and the one hill that lay between us and it. We climbed the hill with strength that I think surprised us all and then dropped down to the resort. We pulled to a stop, took the final photograph and went inside to get our cards signed. It was 6:23 AM. We'd covered the 436 kilometers with 7 minutes to spare.
The desk clerk congratulated us, sign our cards and delivered the welcome news that the cafe would open at 6:30 AM. The official fleche brunch was scheduled for 10:00 AM, but we all agreed that immediate food was good food. Breakfast was wonderful.
After breakfast Jon and I find the phones and called our wives. We figured we'd wait awhile before waking the other teams who'd timed their rides to finish the night before. My shiftless comrades doze in in the sun in comfy chairs overlooking the bay. Mark's wife is driving up for the brunch and Jon and Mark are riding back with her. Tom has arranged to catch a ride back with one of the other teams. I'd figured on taking a nap, chowing down on the brunch and then riding the fairly straightline distance of 238 kilometers back to Issaquah. It was a good plan, one that appealed to that part of me that likes to kick a challenge up to the next level. But now, at the end of the fleche, there is one thing wrong with the plan: I'm not tired. I try to nap, but I can't get past that great day. I should be riding.
I stare at the others and they open their eyes and look at me. "What's the rule with the brunch? Do we all have to be there?" I ask. "Nope," Tom replies, "at least three of us have to finish and at least at the Canadian fleches a couple of people have to be at the brunch, but not everybody." "Cool," I say, "Look I've got a long way to go and I'm not tired and I'm burning daylight here. Turn my card in for me, OK?"
My friends are used to this. They tell me to "Ride safe" and they take my control card. At 8:06 AM, I'm back on my bike, headed home. It's a great day to ride. As I backtrack through Lynden I verify that there really is no sign on the Nooksack side of Milne Street/Tom Road but if we would've found the turn we might've found somebody awake to sign our cards. I chock it up as a lesson for another day. I catch a piece of glass and have to patch a flat but there's no clock running and the sun is shining down on another terrific day. There's a headwind on the way back to Sedro Woolley but it becomes a tailwind south of there. It's probably all the lattes and ice teas coursing through my system but I don't feel tired, just very, very alive. Around Lake Stevens I see a bald eagle riding the thermals above the highway and I know how he feels.
At 7:29 PM, I'm back home. My son Peter greets me at the door as I wheel Fast Eddy into his parking spot in the dining room. "Good ride, Old Man?" he asks. "Good ride," I assure him, "good ride."
|SIR 2002 SIR Flèche Results - April 26 - 28, 2002|