Flèche NW

April 8-9, 2006

A ride report by Kent Peterson

Photos by Kevin Humphreys, Will Roberts and Kent Peterson

"What do you call that saddle, the Perineum Falcon?" My witty riding companion is Fred Mulder and we are cycling west on Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula. Together with Will Roberts, Jon Muellner and Kevin Humphreys, Fred and I make up a team of riders known as the Shiftless Bums. We are riding the Flèche NW, an annual exercise involving riding a lot of kilometers in 24 hours and then eating a big brunch. Anyone who does not understand that randonneuring is a fundamentally stupid activity is advised to study the rules of the flèche. Of all the stupid rides we randonneurs do, the flèche is by far the stupidest. The problem with the flèche is that while you can't go too slow on the ride, you also can't go too fast. Odd rules limiting the lengths of stops and making certain that you must ride at least 25 kilometers between hours 22 and 24 mean that you almost always wind up having to burn time in some odd place at some odd hour. You can try to plan out your route to minimize such inconvenience, but the pace of a flèche is set by the rules and not by the state of the riders. At some point on almost every flèche each rider realizes the stupidity of the endeavor. And yet year after year we ride the flèche. Perhaps a year is enough time to make us forget the stupidity of the flèche. Or perhaps we are not that bright.

Kevin Humphreys at least has the excuse of being new to this flèche business, so naturally we make him design our course. I'd suggested that we do something around 400 kilometers in length and Jon Muellner, who lives in Port Townsend, suggested that we could do a loop beginning and ending there. And even though the event already had a huge set of rules, we added one more condition for our team. All our bikes would be either single speed or fixed gear. Past incarnations of the Shiftless Bums had all been on fixies but this year Jon, Fred and Will are riding bikes with freewheels while Kevin and I are keeping the fixed faith. After a bit of email discussion and few sessions with Streets and Trips, Kevin finalized a 395 kilometer course running from Port Townsend out to La Push and back. We settled on a start time of 7:00 AM on Saturday which would get us back in Port Townsend with a bit of time to shower and change clothes before the brunch.

Jon and his wife provided all us bums with a place to stay and good food on Friday night. My wife Christine and I caught a ride with Kevin and Fred and Will carpooled in as well. While the bums would ride on Saturday, Christine would spend a relaxing day on the quiet beaches, streets and shops of Port Townsend.

A bit before 7:00 AM we ride to Fort Worden State Park, find a friendly stranger to take the pre-ride photo and at 7:00 AM we head south and west out of town. As we ride, we talk and joke and discuss equipment. Fred's bike has a bit of a schizophrenic air about it with it's classic lugged steel frame, toe-clip equipped pedals and thoroughly modern aerobars. Fred admits to mixed feelings about the aerobars but he figures they will be worthwhile in the Race Across Oregon later this summer, so he is trying to get used to them.

It's a cool, gray morning and the forecast is calling for rain. I'm wearing a pair of Rainlegs, a brilliant product that was obviously created by folks who value function far above fashion. These are not only really nice in the rain, they add a great wind-blocking layer on a cool morning like this one. I find these to be far superior to any other kind of rain pant but they do look rather odd. I comment to Will that these are not the kind of things one wears to impress the coffee shop babes but he comments that if one does find a woman who is impressed by such things that "by God, that's the kind of woman you marry!" Of course, I managed to find such a woman years ago and she is probably just now getting ready to head out on her day's worth of adventure.

We bums turn onto US-101 and by the time we are in Sequim, we realize that we are covering ground too quickly and we happen to be right in front of a coffee shop. We all agree when Fred suggests the obvious course of action.

At Port Angeles, we briefly consider another coffee shop but the Safeway promises a far greater selection of portable foods so we stop there and load up on both snacks for now and snacks for later. From here until Forks, we know that there is very little in terms of civilization.

At the turn onto SR-112, we see one of the other fléche teams heading east. Under the rules of the fléche, teams may start their rides any time from 9:00 AM on Friday to 9:00 AM on Saturday and while each team has a unique route, the finite number of roads in this part of the world mean that it is not at all unusual to cross paths with other teams. We are still near the start of our ride while Team F3 is nearly done with theirs.

The Olympic Peninsula is a mix of hills, old growth timber, massive stump fields,  few houses and lovely views of the water and the mountains. SR-112 is a quiet road winding up and down and gradually westward. Over the years Jon has camped many places along the peninsula and he's often used the Joyce General Store as a refuel point. Despite our still relatively full snack stashes, we stop in Joyce to make sure our water bottles are topped out. The general store is pretty much the entire town of Joyce and while we are stopped fellow randonneurs Wayne Methner and Bill Dussler pull in. Like the F3 riders we saw earlier, Wayne and Bill are near the end of their ride. Shortly before we take off, Mark Thomas and Peter McKay roll into Joyce as well. After all us bums leave Joyce, we encounter Pete Liekkio the fifth member of  Team Darkside.

There are more hills and views between us and our next control, the intersection of SR-112 and SR-113. There is very little at this junction but our control cards demand that we stop and note the prominent man-made feature on this spot. We dutifully make notes, record the time and sign each other's cards. We also take some photos and eat more snacks. Fred comments that he now understands why the rest of us bought such a large food stashes back in Port Angeles. "You were buying all that food prophylacticly," he notes. He also comments that this is the first time he's used the word prophylacticly in a cycling context. Between this and his previous "Perineum Falcon" quip, I'm beginning to suspect that Fred might be patterning his life off of Sartre's self-taught man and perhaps he's currently up to the "P" volume of the Britannica..

As we turn south, we climb along SR-113 which is also known as Burnt Mountain Road. Burnt Mountain Road seems to have a lot of up, a lot of clear-cut stump fields and a rather substantial headwind. The wind is not enough to be annoying, but it is enough to make Fred's stretch out on his aerobars and pull ahead of the rest of us. At some point during the day each of us has taken turns being the speedy guy off the front and also being the sluggish guy off the back but in general we ride at a similar pace. While riding over 240 miles in day sounds super-human to many, when you do the math and consider the fact that we are all rather experienced randonneurs,  you see that our main problem isn't one of keeping out bikes rolling at 10 miles per hour for 24 hours. We spend much of our time going faster and then figuring out when and where to burn time.

Kevin adopts the time-honored technique for time-burning and manages to puncture his rear tire on Burnt Mountain road. Fred is off ahead right now and I know that Jon and Will are behind us, so I leave Kevin to his repairs and chase down the speedy Mr. Mulder. I catch up with Fred and we loop back in time to find Kevin, Jon and Will at the point where they are discovering that while Kevin's bike has 700c wheels, he's been carrying a 26" inner tube as a spare. We contemplate the elasticity of butyl inner tubes and decide that it is probably best if Kevin borrows one of Jon's several spare 700c tubes. Once the tube is replaced with one of the proper size, we continue on to Forks.

This first stop in Forks is not really part of our route but rather than run straight out to La Push, we opt to go into town for some more food. We'll come back here later for a longer stop and the double miles for this first run into Forks won't count toward our flèche total. But we continue to burn time and food so we stop for sandwiches and other food at the Forks Subway/Minimart before our final run out to the coast.

The road to La Push is another hilly affair. Dark clouds and large waves are both rolling over the La Push beach but we stop long enough to dip our wheels in the surf and take some pictures. I wind up futzing too much with my camera while the others are dipping their bike wheels and when I dash to the water's edge I quickly realize I've miscalculated the reach of the waves. I turn my bike around to head inland just as one of the larger waves overtakes me. Kevin manages to capture this moment with his camera and the resulting shot makes it appear that I have just cycled straight out of the ocean.

We get our control cards signed at the La Push store and purchase even more snacks while I dump some of the water and sand out of my shoes. We are now a couple of hundred kilometers from our starting point and less than eleven hours into the ride. As we roll back toward Forks we discuss food. Food is a major topic of conversation on these rides. We all agree that a sit-down dinner is called for and Jon makes a compelling case for any place that serves mashed potatoes. We also need to get even more supplies for the long dark section of road between Forks and Port Angeles so once we hit Forks we do a quick prophylactic provision raid on the local Thriftway before selecting a place called "The In Place" that promises homestyle cooking.

The In Place is the ideal place to stop. It's raining now but mentioning that it's raining in Forks is like commenting that people are speaking French in Paris. Forks gets so much rain that they measure it in feet rather than inches but if there is one thing Seattle Randonneurs know how to deal with it's rain. One good way to deal with rain is to spend a couple of hours indoors in a warm homestyle café eating dinners that include mashed potatoes and gravy while watching the rain bounce off the windows. However the rules of the flèche tell us that no stop can be longer than two hours and we do have to be back in Port Townsend at 7:00 AM so around 9:00 PM we don all wet-weather and reflective gear, turn on all our lights and head out into the wind and rain.

I really can't make the ride to Port Angeles sound epic. The temperature is in the upper forties, the wind is at our backs and our rain gear is more persistent than the persistent rain. Apparently few people other than randonneurs have any reason to travel from Forks to Port Angeles on a Saturday night, so traffic is almost non-existent. The road surface along the southern edge of Lake Crescent is rough grooved pavement but the jarring "free butt massage" road surface really just helps to keep us awake. A bit after 1:00 AM we roll onto the dark wet streets of Port Angeles.

Of course we stop at the Safeway. Now is the time when we'd really rather just be riding but once again we have to kill time. In the wee hours of an April Sunday the only people in the Safeway are a few night shift employees, a handful of drunks and 5 damp randonneurs. If we continue riding we'll be too close to Port Townsend at the 22 hour point so we have a few hours to waste here. We buy some food to legitimize our stay and find a soft bench by some tables near the closed Starbucks stand. Will falls asleep almost instantly and I have time to reflect that my life is very odd. A couple of years ago I was on a flèche team with Will at a Safeway in the early morning hours. That time I got to watch Will fall asleep while sitting upright in a chair so snoozing on a bench seems almost normal. Almost.

We burn two hours snacking and snoozing. Not all the bums share Will's naptacular powers so this stop is not equally refreshing for the whole team. We each have our own methods for keeping our minds going along with our bodies. As we roll back into the damp darkness Fred and I continue our ongoing discussion of things that piss us off. We'd already covered lights that take three batteries which are very annoying since batteries come in packs of four and almost all battery chargers charge an even number of batteries. We'd also extensively discussed the rules of the flèche, which we believe are the product of bureaucratic Bartlebys intent on making us do that which we'd prefer not to. As we roll out of town, I launch into one of my favorite gripes -- my beef with Steve Miller.

Fred has not heard my infamous critique of Mr. Miller, so I list off my grievances.

"First off," I explain, "time is not slippin, slippin, slippin into the future. It slips into the past."

"Second, the man totally made up the word  'pompatus.' Pompatus of Love my ass! Do a Google search on pompatus and all you come up with is Steve Miller. The word doesn't exist."

"Finally, he rhymes 'love' with 'love.' Come on, that's just plain lazy. He can toss out great lyrics like 'really love your peaches wanna shake your tree,' but then stoops to rhyming 'love' with 'love'? Give me a break!"

Fred takes my tirade in stride. I practically see him replaying the lyrics in his head. "Oh man, you are so right. I never realized what an A-hole Steve Miller is!"

Once Fred agrees with me, I've got no more rage to expend on Steve Miller. "Don't get me wrong, I like his stuff and it's catchy. I just think he cut a few corners he didn't have to. " Of course if he hadn't popped the word pompatus into that song who knows what we'd be talking about at 3-something AM?

We roll on through the dark rain absorbed in our own thought and paces until the next topic of conversation surfaces. This topic turns out to be "what's happened to Jon and Fred?" Kevin, Will and I all notice at about the same time that two of the bums are missing in action.. We look around for someplace warm and dry to shelter us as we wait for our missing pals. A few kilometers down the road we find a model home with a big porch. We pull over and wait. After a bit we see an approaching bike headlight and I signal with my helmet lamp. Fred joins us and reports that Jon flatted a while back. Fred stayed with him long enough to make sure he had repairs well underway and then continued on. A few minutes later, Jon joins us and the full team rolls eastward.

It is now clear that we may in fact have burned a bit too much time. The 22 hour mark is approaching and we are not just 25 kilometers from the finish, we are more like 25 miles from the finish. We pull over at the Seven Cedars Casino, which is completely closed up at this hour of the morning, note the time (5:00 AM)  and sign each other's cards. Jon says something obvious like "I suggest we ride until we are done" and this sounds like profound wisdom. We ride.

Covering 25 miles in two hours is not a real hard thing but when you have ridden about 220 miles in the previous 22 hours and it is raining and the road is hilly, it is not a real easy thing either. Fred is starting to add distance by weaving back and forth in the road, so Kevin introduces him to the wonders of a Starbucks Double Shot. This canned mix of sugar, heavy cream and espresso is to a randonneur what spinach is to Popeye and Fred quickly recovers his focus.

As we turn onto SR-20, I pull over to answer the call of nature. Kevin asks if I'm waiting for the others and it's at that moment that I realize that Jon and Will are no longer in sight behind us. I'm thinking of the time and Jon's wise words advising us to "ride until we are done." "Nope," I explain, "pee break. You guys go, I'll catch up."

Fred and Kevin hit the first big hill on SR-20 with a burst of espresso-fueled enthusiasm while I take care of business and grab a Cappuccino Powerbar from my snack pack. I still don't see any sign of Jon and Will and I'm wondering if they fell victim to another mechanical misadventure.

Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the past and I have to ride until I am done. I hit the hill with somewhat less enthusiasm than my fully caffeinated colleagues but I keep the pedals turning. I keep glancing in my rear-view mirror for any signs of Will and Jon but I see no sign of them. And I also see no sign of Kevin and Fred. I look at the clock and I look at my odometer. Kevin and Fred should make it to Fort Worden in time but the flèche requires that three of us complete the distance within the 24 hours. God only knows what has happened to Jon and Will, so it is up to me to make it to the end.. (Astute readers will note that this isn't strictly true. As long as you complete 25 kilometers of your course in the last two hours and you've covered the minimal distance, your flèche will count . But that is not what is going through my head in the last kilometers of the flèche.)

So with heroic thoughts in my head and a Cappuccino Powerbar in my bloodstream I ride until... I run over a nail. Probably the only damn nail on all of SR-20 and I run smack over it. It punches a tiny perfect hole in my rear tire and tube. I pull over and change the flat in the rain while time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the past.

Jon and Will roll by just as I'm fitting in the replacement tube. "You punctured also?" "Yes," I reply, instantly grasping the explanation inherent in Will's remark. "Keep going, I'm almost done here." My fellow bums roll northward and a few minutes later I follow.

Jon, Will and I reconnect at Fort Worden and the timing is as close as it can be. 6:59 AM and we are back at the coffee shop where we started 23 hours and 59 minutes ago. And we have no idea where Kevin and Fred are.

We are baffled, but we are a quorum. Three riders done within the time limit. We have ridden until we are done. We speculate, we theorize. We picture some missed turn in the final navigation or something more gruesome. We are too tired to figure it out. We sign each others cards and head for Jon's place.

As we ride back towards Jon's, Mark Thomas drives up. Mark says something odd like "we were wondering where you guys were" and I say something odder like "We've lost Will." My statement makes no sense considering that Will is riding right next to me but part of my brain knows that I meant to say something more coherent like "we've lost Kevin and Fred." It turns out that the SIR club booked a cabin in Fort Worden and Kevin and Fred rolled in there about ten minutes ahead of the rest of us. Somehow the cabin equals finish line part of this exercise hadn't been conveyed to the rest of us and we'd equated the finish line with the Fort Worden coffee shop.

We have a few hours to shower and change clothes and nap for a bit before the brunch. At the brunch all the teams get up and tell lies about what a fun ride the flèche is. I am elected to tell the story of our group and when it is time for the Shiftless Bums to recount their tale I begin my remarks with the words "I'd like to correct a few misconceptions. First off, I'd like to state that this is the stupidest ride we do..."

I ended with my annual vow. "This is the last flèche I'm riding. It's a stupid ride."

Every year I say this. Every year I believe it. But in the end, we didn't lose will. With all the stupid rules, the flèche manages to cram about a season's worth of riding into one twenty-four hour period. Any of us could devise a better ride, a ride that would make more sense. But would that ride impress itself on our senses, the way this stupid flèche does? I don't know. Some things are stupid and make no sense and yet we can't leave them behind. Perhaps the flèche is one of those things. Perhaps it is the pompatus of love, something too stupid to forget. But time still slips into the past. I know that for sure.

And when another year has slipped into the past, will I once again be doing something I know is stupid? It's possible. I'm not that bright.


Shiftless Bums at the start

The Shiftless Bums: Kevin Humphreys, Jon Muellner, Will Roberts, Fred Mulder and Kent Peterson


Jon on Hwy 20

Turning onto 101

The bums turn onto Hwy 101

Jon and Kevin coming into Sequim

Jon and Kevin coming into Sequim

Will and Kevin

Will and Kevin coming into Sequim

Hurricane Coffee Company

Stopping to refuel at the Hurricane Coffee Company

Aero Fred

Fred on his aerobars

Jon and Kevin

Jon and Kevin (the over the shoulder Pencam shot!)

Fred, Kevin and Will at Joyce

Fred, Kevin and Will at Joyce

The Joyce General Store

The Joyce General Store. This is pretty much the entire town of Joyce.

Fred at Joyce

Fred at Joyce

Bill Dussler and Wayne Methner roll into Joyce

Bill Dussler and Wayne Methner roll into Joyce.

Bums on a Hill

Bums on a hill.

Will, Fred and Kent

Will, Fred and Kent

Kevin and Fred

Kevin and Fred

Jon by the Strait

Jon by the Strait

Jon looks out at Vancouver Island

Jon looks out at Vancouver Island.

Kent by the Strait

Kent by the Strait.

The 112/113 corner

The 112/113 corner.

Snack stop

Filling out the control cards.

Fred and Jon

Fred and Jon.

Kevin's flat

Kevin's flat.

The bums first Forks stop

The bums first Forks stop.

Jon and Will at La Push

Jon and Will at La Push.

Fred and Will head for the water

Fred and Will head for the water.

Beach Bums

Beach Bums.

3 Beach Bums

3 Beach Bums.

Driftwood beach

That's some mighty big driftwood on the beach.

Kent comes out of the ocean

Contrary to appearances, Kent did not just cycle in from Japan.

The bikes at La Push

The bikes at La Push.

Kevin's bike.

Kevin's bike.

Will's Bike

Will's bike.

Fred's bike

Fred's bike.

Kent's bike

Kent's bike.

Jon's bike

Jon's bike.

Kevin leaving La Push

Kevin leaving La Push.

3 Bums leave La Push

Leaving La Push.

Jon waits for a bus

Jon waits for a bus. Unfortunately the rest of the bums arrived before the bus.

Will at Forks

Will at Forks.

Jon is happy to be in Forks

Jon is happy to be in Forks.

Will sleeps in the Safeway

Will sleeps in the Port Angeles Safeway.

Will is done

Will at the finish line Coffee Shop.

Jon is done

Jon is done.

Kent and Jon at the final Coffee Shop

Kent and Jon at the final Coffee Shop.