Spring will soon be here—that means it is flèche time! Virtually all our RUSA members will have ridden one or more brevets, but not so many have done a team event. These are frequently called a flèche.

What is a flèche? Well, first, it is a French word pronounced somewhat like the stuff that covers your body—flesh.

Second, a flèche is a randonneuring event strictly for teams; individuals are not allowed. A team is made up of three to five members, but note that a tandem or other multi-rider machine counts as a single member. So, a small team might have only three riders, while a large team with five tandems could have a many as 10 riders.

The other basic characteristic of the flèche is that it lasts for 24 hours and each team will design its own route from a starting point of its own choice and then travel at least 360 kilometers during that 24-hour period to a designated finishing point set by the Regional Brevet Administrator for all the teams. The idea is that everyone will arrive at close to the same time and enjoy a post event celebration together.

Perhaps to understand the flèche better, one needs to learn about its origins in France. Like the famous Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée held every four years, the Flèche-Vélocio is organized by the Audax Club Parisien, creators of our free-pace style of brevets back in 1921. Since we have closely copied their style of brevets, it makes sense we do the same with their team event. The first Flèche-Vélocio was ridden in the years just after World War II and they have steadily grown in popularity ever since. In France, the pattern is to assemble a team and then ride to the big cycling rally in Provence that opens the French cycling season each year. This rally is held in southern France on Easter weekend and it attracts tens of thousands of club cyclists from around the nation. For the Randonneurs, arriving there after having ridden 24 hours straight gives them a certain status of being one of the “tough guys” of the sport. And with hundreds of teams doing the event yearly, this status is obviously a desirable thing to have.

One of the basic tenets of the flèche is that it is held at (or at least near) Easter. Not for religious reasons, but because this means the length of night and day are roughly equal. Doing it with the long days of late spring or early summer just wouldn't be the same. Each team will be spending a good bit of time cycling in the dark too—no rest stop can be longer than two hours in any one location. Add in some rough spring weather and the event is justifiably known as being a real challenge— hence the pride that finishing one brings to the hardy randonneur. Sometimes snow is part of the story, but more often rain, wind, and cold temperatures will be encountered when riding at the end of March or in early April. Enduring the elements and long hours of darkness are all part of the flèche mystique. (Enduring, too, are the life-long friendships among teammates who did the 24- hour ride together. Brevets allow riders to choose their own pace but on the flèche only the riders on a team who finish together will earn ride credit—one cannot "do their own thing" and finish alone. So, the Musketeer spirit of "all for one, one for all" is imperative for team success.)

A major component of the flèche events is that they normally use point-to-point routes. In French, the word flèche means arrow, and the title implies that the teams will ride from their various starting points more-or-less in one direction to the finish, just like a multitude of flying arrows that all converge on the bullseye. Sometimes, though, following traditions cannot be done due to the road network available in certain regions. The regulations do allow for differences in the overall route design since the Audax Club Parisien understands that not all regions or countries will have the countless good cycling roads as found in France. As much as arrows flying straight to the target, one might also think of a major turn that makes the route resemble an “L”, and this is perfectly acceptable. Or, a team could do a large “boomerang” loop that makes a 360 km or longer tour of a region. This non-traditional loop-style route has the advantage of beginning in (nearly) the same spot as the finish and lengthy pre- or post-event transportation is not required for the team. But do note that using the same road twice, as you have likely experienced on an out-and-back brevet, is simply not allowed in the flèche. (Here in the US, Randonneurs USA has adopted a team event rule that allows for a short segment of out-and-back riding in order to get supplies if none can be had along the basic route. Some of our roads, particularly out West, simply don’t have the options for food and drink like other regions.) And if doing a big loop, your starting and finishing towns cannot be the same, even if they are close by.

Another way a flèche is different from a brevet is that a brevet has exactly one starting time and date. This is not true for a Flèches-USA event—the teams can select their starting time between Thursday noon to Saturday at 10 a.m. of their region's flèche weekend. The vast majority will choose the weekend to ride since that is when they have time off from work, and (usually) the RBA hopes all the teams will arrive at once and enjoy the post-ride gathering on Sunday morning—but the choice is still up to the team. Perhaps they have religious considerations to balance against their cycling desires, and riding the event Thursday through Friday will allow them to do both.

Over the years a few teams have, alas, had various problems and not earned their ride credit despite covering 360 kms in 24 hours. I can't stress enough that it is essential to learn about the peculiarities of the flèche before the start—this event is a distinctly different critter than a brevet; riders cannot rely on what they know about brevets to somehow help make decisions during a flèche. It is vital that all the team members read the flèche regulations, not just the team captain; smart teams will also carry a copy of the rules with them during the event. (One never knows if bad weather or a road closure will force an unexpected deviation from the planned route, or a control location will be found to be closed.) Also note that during a flèche, if a team was planning a route that, say, covered 400+ kms but became delayed by persistent headwinds, they could still earn ride credit so long as they covered at least 360 kms and got themselves controlled properly on their modified route—they do not have to actually reach the finish line set by the RBA so long as they make a good-faith effort to do so. So, unlike a brevet which always has a set distance and finish line, there is some flexibility during the flèche about how long the ride is (so long as certain conditions are met.)

Despite what my warnings and admonitions might seem to convey, riding a randonneuring team event really is a lot of fun and this is why we see so many "repeat offenders." Year after year riders come back to do them again, even if they did the first one primarily to earn the Randonneur-5000 medal. The group camaraderie and memories of adventures that usually come from a flèche event stay with the participants a long time. (With this in mind, I strongly urge prospective riders to choose their teammates carefully. They should look for riders who finish brevets in a similar time and, more importantly, look for those individuals who have an upbeat attitude, even during the tough times that are usually part of long-distance cycling.)

If you are tempted but don't know where to begin, first look at the RUSA calendar to see which regions are hosting a flèche event this spring. Then check out your RUSA member handbook; it has useful information about doing a successful Flèches-USA team event, as does the RUSA website. If you lack team members, the event organizer has probably heard from some riders in search of a team. He or she might be able to also suggest some possible route ideas that will get you started. When you begin forming a team and designing a route, you'll need to act swiftly; unlike with a brevet, the RBA has to check each team's route prior to the start and there is often an entry deadline well before Easter to allow this to happen.

All in all, being on a flèche team means more work before the ride compared to, say, riding a 400k brevet—but the rewards that result will make all the effort worthwhile. Bonne Route!