By David Buzzee
"News note: Two flèche teams from Ohio Randonneurs took part in the traditional 360 kilometer Easter riding event on April 14 - 15, 2006. One team took an easterly route between Dublin Ohio and Georgetown Kentucky, the other a westerly route between the same two cities. All members of both teams completed the flèches."
"All I want is a little adventure." Pete Wright, at mile 5 on why he was doing the ride. "Thanks but I have had enough adventure now." Pete Wright, at mile 150.
I had firmly decided to pass on a flèche in 2006. I had ridden three in the previous four years, didn't need another one for my R 5000, and wanted to focus on other rides. Then, a posting on the Ohio Randonneur bulletin board from Toshiyuki Nemoto, a member from Loveland Ohio, asked if anyone was forming a flèche team this year. Well, I thought, it wouldn't hurt to see what interest there was among other OR members. I sent a brief query and within a week had serious interest from a dozen riders. Now what?
Well, it couldn't hurt to look at some possible routes between my condo in Dublin Ohio to Johnny Bertrand's house in Georgetown Kentucky. Hmmm, just at 240 miles by either of two very different routes. Hmmm, with two routes a dozen riders can make two full teams with alternates. Well, I thought, I'll just rough something out for those who wanted to ride.
A month later I had done map and field work on two routes, driven both and written provisional cue sheets. Based on brief descriptions of the routes, the riders selected either a western or an eastern route. Next, team names. Following spirited discussion (well, I did get several suggestions) we settled on the very clever Flèche Side Story - West and Flèche Side Story - East. Registration forms and fees were collected and sent to Johnny, cue sheets and maps were finalized and sent off for approval, serious training was begun. When came commitment time we had nine riders plus a somewhat reluctant me, strictly as a space filler. Not that my firm vow of January had been buried under the business of setting up teams and laying out routes, not at all. If we recruited one more rider I planned to back out. Besides, we needed two drivers to meet us in Kentucky for the transport back home. This was a job suited to my talents. Oops, two experienced OR members (both of whom had been on previous flèche teams with me) volunteered to drive but not, definitely not, ride the event. That should have been a tip-off. I, of course, assumed that they had enjoyed our previous flèches so much that they really wanted to do another one. What's not to enjoy about riding a leisurely 250 miles in pleasant spring weather? Besides, had we not used up our allotment of rain on these events (120 miles of very cold rain in Virginia in 2002, 115 miles of torrential downpour and headwinds in Florida in 2005)?
In any case, a week before the event we had a problem. One of the strong riders I was counting on finally succumbed to a long-standing knee injury and underwent surgery. Now what? I contacted ancien Frank Seebode, who earlier had asked about possibly riding this year. His father Dick, multi-year ancien, had ridden a flèche with me in 2004, the one now known as the flèche with no rain. A part of the dialogue with Frank went something like this: "We will be riding on a bike path for 56 miles? Good, that will be much safer than the roads in the middle of the night. Sign me up." The West team was back to full allotment, with a very strong and experienced rider to help us. But I was still on the roster, where I was to remain.
At 4:30 in the afternoon of April 14, riders, drivers and the occasional next-of-kin began appearing in my garage. Waivers were signed, drop bags packed in one of the return vans, post-ride celebratory wine (and a surprise for later) loaded, tires pumped, adrenaline and a bit of testosterone began to flow, old friends greeted each other and new friends introduced themselves—a most jovial scene, not dampened a bit by the intermittent drizzle falling and the occasional lightning flashing outside.
5:30 p.m. We were ready to ride; we had spent too much time standing around, nervous energy needing to be burned off. RUSA Membership Secretary Don Hamilton had kindly come to the start to wish us well and to sign our brevet cards. Where was Frank, our last-minute addition? Finally, 20 minutes before the start, here came Frank. At last, all present. Last minute pre-ride instructions, route review and cautions, control protocols and flèche rules reviewed—the usual patter. Kentucky has severely lumpy terrain. Both Frank and I had suffered serious crashes there in previous years, so cautions were repeated yet again. In a prophetic exclamation, Frank shouted "Who on the West team hasn't crashed in Kentucky yet?" In our innocence, we all heartily laughed.
Finally, two minutes until six o'clock. Jim Koegel changed from arm warmers to jacket back to arm warmers for the last time. All posed for one last group picture, a final round of "Bonne routes" and "Bon voyages" from the modest crowd and we were off. The drizzle began again.
The two routes coincided for 4 1/2 miles before my West team headed North and the East team headed South. The misting rain briefly stopped but began again, this time with greater seriousness and a buffeting headwind. In the village of Woodstock we ducked under a country store awning (first unscheduled stop) to get water (it seems we didn't have enough in our faces) and to change clothes (Jim replaced arm warmers with a jacket and rain pants). Pete said he was enjoying the adventure.
Thirty miles of rain in our faces followed—not much chatting on this leg. The rain came heavier, the sky darkened and a spectacular lightning show began, to precede us for the next four hours as we rode to near the highest point in Ohio. On into Urbana, with the rain tapering to a heavy mist. We caught a sandwich shop just 20 minutes from closing and, although we weren't particularly hungry, we stopped to eat. With the crush of work that day, some team members had not eaten before the ride and this would be the last chance for a sit-down meal for 12 hours. The rain stopped during dinner and, with the typical (but misplaced) optimism of the randonneur, we cheerfully left Urbana expecting a clear night for riding. Of course the rain resumed within five miles. I previously had lived in the area and began to look for familiar villages which might offer just a bit of shelter from the storm. Finally, a crossroads with an awning—the North Hampton Land Auction Center, Barber Shop and Post Office. We remembered that post office doors are left unlocked, at least in rural Ohio. We let ourselves into the lobby while the storm crashed and howled outside. Not to waste time, several of us took brief naps while Jim changed clothes, still looking for the ideal balance between warm and cold, wet and slightly less wet. Toshi took pictures of us lying like wet dogs on the soiled carpet—grist for the blackmailer, no doubt. Twenty minutes later, back on the bikes, then CRASH! Toshi misread a pothole filled with water and fell quite heavily. Low speed, not much damage to rider or bike but his helmet's condition promised an eventual unsatisfactory discussion with his wife.
Bits and pieces put back together, Toshi was OK, we rode on into the storm again. On this leg the lightning was nearly unbelievable—the flashes were so close together that, for stretches we could have ridden without headlights. Jim described it as heat lightning—perhaps, but the temperature was cold and it was definitely very wet. We wondered if the East team had missed the storm—they had not but theirs is another story. A dog barked—we briefly considered reporting its owner to the SPCA for leaving the dog outside on a night like that—the poor creature was too disheartened to give us even a little chase - but we decided to stick to our riding. A lull appeared in the storm and we rode on into Yellow Springs.
The Yellow Springs control, a convenience store on the main street, had always provided a warm ambience on my previous stops there. Friendly attendants, an interesting array of party items and libations appropriate for a shop in the village defined by the progressive Antioch College just down the street, and a laissez-faire attitude toward very wet cyclists creating puddles with every step—all that was missing was a crackling fire. But after a protracted stop, Toshi and I cleaned our glasses ("That's not going to do much good, you know," opined the clerk), Jim changed jackets, and the Wet (make that the West) team was off again. We joined the Little Miami Bike Path and headed south, expecting to make up time on the long (65 miles) gradual descent to the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
The bike path was littered with debris from the storm but the rain gradually petered out and we made decent time to Xenia. There, a few minutes stop to empty bladders (too much good coffee in Yellow Springs) and for Jim to remove his jacket, then back to the path. The rain had been gradually replaced by patchy ground fog which mixed with the rooster tails from our tires. With our lights slashing through the gloom this created a damp version of a B-grade movie—very memorable, in a humid kind of way. We were really rolling through the mists now, all systems working well, with full stomachs and empty bladders, no traffic to worry us, just keeping a sharp eye for branches blown onto the path. Frank was pulling with real spirit, far outriding his light, trying to make up lost time. Suddenly—too suddenly to react—two fallen trees blocked the path. Frank barreled into them at nearly full speed, giving only an unintelligible cry at impact. Given the lackluster state of his light, the gloom from fog and mist, and his accumulated sleep deficit, he just didn't have time to brake. He flipped head-first through 270 degrees, stopping on his back well over the first tree with his bike and right foot over the second one. Frightening. Fortunately, and surprisingly, other than facial bruises and scrapes he was unhurt. His fork was bent, leaving his front brake useless. There remained perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 feet of climbs (and screaming descents) ahead later in the ride. His helmet was damaged. His light was beyond repair. We discussed things. We considered alternatives. Then we rigged a backup light and made several adjustments to his bike, and somewhat gingerly and definitely more slowly rode on. And within ten miles, Frank crashed again, after riding awkwardly over more debris. Much less dramatic this time, fortunately. Some team members heard him muse, "Looks like the trail isn't as safe as I thought."
We continued to dodge branches and small trees for another ten miles until Jim, now nearly in his back yard, led us to alternate roads parallel to the bike path. We agreed to take on bonus miles to avoid the trash- filled path. Not surprisingly, Frank vigorously supported this route change.
I remembered this section from brevets done years ago. The roads followed the very scenic Little Miami River, the views unfortunately obscured by darkness and intermittent fog. Just past Morrow, deep in the woods, we passed an old pickup truck awkwardly parked against a guardrail overlooking the river. Then, 100 meters later, two staggering young men stopped us. They seemed unfazed and not particularly curious at our sudden appearance. I heard "Mumble mumble mumble cell phone mumble mumble," followed by more mumbles. Finally we understood them to be asking to borrow a cell phone. As responsible citizens and good-hearted folk, we offered to call 911. Their reaction was immediate and loud. They insisted that there was no need to call 911, that their buddy would be happy to come at 3:30 a.m. to help them, that everything would be A-OK. It transpired that they were slightly (?) impaired and were reluctant to have the police investigate their crashed truck. We hurriedly retrieved the phone and rode on. Another ten minutes wasted. After five more miles, another stop—bladder issues. Then, a too-leisurely stop at the Loveland control. We were only halfway done with the ride but were behaving like it was nearly over. Back to the bike path again, this time riding with care. End of bike path, another biobreak and quick change of clothing (Jim). A ride through the dawning Cincinnati suburbs, a climb to one of the seven hills surrounding the Queen City of the West, followed by a lovely descent to the River Road (Frank took this with extra caution) and a mighty five-mile pull by Pete along the Ohio River. Lovely river views, lovely houses overlooking the river, leading to the downtown levee. The sun had by now fully risen and the town was beginning to stir.
We crossed the half-mile wide Ohio River on a converted railroad bridge, the quaintly named Purple People Bridge, with wonderful views of the Ohio and northern Kentucky skyline. Then through the old river towns of Newport and Covington, past restored historic districts and to the foot of the first Kentucky hill. Another stop to remove extra clothing (everyone this time), then a real eye-opener of a climb—the first of many. At the top we had an easy five-mile ride to the home of my daughter where we had planned a rest stop. However our adventures and unscheduled stops had used all of our extra time so, after emptying bladders and hurriedly greeting her family ("You didn't ride through that dreadful storm, did you?" "Uh, well, sort of.") we rode to a nearby restaurant for a sit-down breakfast. There, the napping began—only a few minutes worth for me but it suddenly had become a very high priority. Frank nudged me awake, helped pour some strong coffee into me and we rode on. There remained 86 miles of climbing to the finish.
The sun was rapidly moving overhead, heating the road and steaming off the damp from the storm. The temperature rose. The traffic increased. Toshi flatted at a very bad spot (no shoulder, narrow lanes, heavy traffic, bad sight lines) so Jim and I rode on to the first paved drive. I stretched out for a nap while Jim rearranged his wardrobe, drying some items and putting them away. Toshi, Frank and Pete arrived; we rode on. Lots of rolling hills now, the traffic gradually dying away as we entered rural Kentucky. We rode for miles along Route 17, a smooth-surfaced ridge road—the scenery was memorable, the sun shone brightly, the wind shifted from head- to side-, and all of God's children had shoes. The villages of Nicholson and Piner passed our center of the universe. We stopped once or twice to remove more clothes (all of us by now) and, at the foot of a long descent, eventually arrived at the 192 mile control in Falmouth Kentucky. We were well over one hour behind our pre-ride schedule. Time to discuss options.
Flèche rules state that a ride may be a shorter distance than planned, shortened by as much as 20 percent, provided that the total final distance remained at least 360 Km. Also, a route must have a control at the 22-hour point which is at least 25 Km from the final 24-hour control. Hmmm. We looked at map and cue sheet, calculated speed/distance versus energy reserves versus terrain, plotted strategy, called Johnny (not successful due to dearth of cell phone towers—rural Kentucky rivals rural nearly anywhere else), then reached consensus among team members. We decided to shorten our ride by some 16 miles, still meeting the flèche minimal requirements. With this decision made, for Frank and me it was time for a nap. Toshi took more incriminating pictures, Pete paced outside, Jim mulled wardrobe changes—a typical flèche family luncheon.
Back on the road, back up the hill that was so welcome on our way into Falmouth, then over 15 miles of undulations characterized by increasingly hotter and slower climbs alternating with faster and ever-more- welcome descents. On this stretch Pete proved to be a very capable climber. Apparently he found this part of the ride to be a pleasant adventure once again. And so the group swept into Colmansville, our substitute 22-hour control. Hmmm. It didn't really take as long to get here as we expected. Well, the die was cast. We were now on schedule for the alternate distance. We took advantage of the extra time to take a group nap (and another picture—this trip had the potential of making some real money for Toshi. Well, perhaps we could blackmail him with evidence of his crash). After a short but sinfully relaxing break we rode on, with more undulations stretching into the distance. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the ride. Unlike my previous flèche s which finished at dawn, I did enjoy riding the last part of this one in daylight. Finally, as we entered the historic town of Cynthiana, we left the hills behind on our way to Ruddle's Mill, the substitute 24-hour control.
We arrived at the open-again, closed-again General Store and Pool Parlor at the crossroads of Ruddle's Mill. Good, good. Open this time. We entertained the proprietress and her boyfriend with slight exaggerations of our ride, bought a few bottles of rehydration fluid, and got a special flèchers reward—the proprietress was also a notary public. On request she commemorated our stopping using her official embossing stamp. We appreciated this very special touch.
A call to our driver brought him (and a cold supply of more rehydrating fluid) to our impromptu ending. We loaded the bikes and drove toward Johnny's. But the adventure was not quite over. Only five miles from the finish we came upon remnants of Flèche Side Story - East. Our only female rider, who had ridden with the East team, had made the ride of her life. However, the extremely petite Donna was exhausted and lying very still on the side of the road. Roy, her regular riding companion, was waiting with her. Roy flagged us down, helped load Donna and her bike into the crowded van, then rode himself to the finish.
The other three members of Flèche Side Story - East were at the finish when we arrived. They had seen the same weather that we had, accentuated at 1 a.m. by a countywide tornado alert. All agreed that a tornado might provide a decent tail wind but would make for tricky riding as a cross wind. It was better that the team missed the tornado. Besides the Flèche Side Story teams from Ohio, teams from Kentucky and Tennessee also completed their rides. To the dismay of the Nashville team, the southerly winds which had been head winds for us had been 20 mph tailwinds for them. They had seen no rain and in fact found it necessary to take several long breaks to avoid finishing hours ahead of schedule. Quell dommage. We were equally dismayed by their tale. The Kentucky team likewise missed the storm. We all devoured pizza and a selection of red, white and hop-laden rehydrating fluids provided by the Kentucky RBA Johnny Bertrand. After their showers, members and drivers of the Flèche Side Story teams began appearing wearing customized tee-shirts commemorating the event. Then the very long drive back to Columbus began, as background to incredible tales of riding already tinged with exaggeration. All in all, a memorable and unexpected series of adventures. But if anyone asks, I definitely will not ride a flèche in 2007.