— BY MAIILE NEEL —
After PBP in August, my partner in velo-crime, Lowell Grubbs, and I set our sights on the remaining rides needed to earn our R-5000's.
Endless discussions about which 1000k we would do were interrupted only by one more telling of our PBP adventures or by discussions of a flèche. Who would be on our team? Could we design a route that had absolutely no climbing? What would we call ourselves? Many of the DC Randonneurs were talking doing the Pennsylvania Flèche because the April date was more likely to have good weather than the DC Flèche scheduled for Easter weekend. The end points of each of these rides were about a Flèche distance apart and it seemed like it would be "fun" to ride one direction on one flèche and ride the reverse direction a month later. Yeah, that sounds like a GREAT idea.
So not only did we need a flèche team, we needed team members who would think two flèches a month apart was a good idea. We laid out some stiff criteria for teammates: 1) No quitters— if someone committed they needed to follow though; 2) No whining—which is a corollary of our motto "shut up and ride;" 3) No dramas on the ride— except reliving the dramas contained in all of our epic tales of rides past; and 4) they had to laugh at our jokes and find our stories fascinating.
We instantly decided to recruit Carol Bell. She did not take much convincing —she was on board right away. Sometime in October Carol and I were without adult supervision on a weekend century led by Crista Borras (i.e., Lowell was home earning husband badges). Mary Crawley was down from PA for the ride. Carol and I simultaneously had the brilliant idea that Mary would be a perfect team member and we instantly recruited her. We had to do some backpedaling with Lowell and admit that we had violated protocol and made an unauthorized addition to the team. He gave us a one-time misbehavior waiver because it was Mary we were talking about and there was no question about her exceeding all stated criteria. The final team member, Lara Sullivan from Minnesota, was selected because she is an exceptionally strong rider and she met the no-quitting requirement. She finished PBP after crashing and separating her Achilles tendon with about 200k to go. There was a little incident with a mandatory stop in an infirmary, a brevet card being taken by the officials, some arguing about the need to get said brevet card back, and a knife. But that's a different story.
So now we needed a name. We had some good ones, but the only one suitable for public consumption was Lowell's Flèche Pedalers and it was an instant hit. Too bad our thunder was stolen by a certain politician from New York about a month before our debut.
At some point Lowell tells his wife Cheri that he is going to be doing two 24 hour rides with four women. He's trying to act all surprised and innocent, like, golly gee, how did this happen to him? Cheri is non-plussed and unsympathetic to his supposed tale of woe; with an eye roll she tells him she is sure he will cope. Several months later, Mary decided to ride tandem rather than single and her captain Kelly Smith sought to join the team. Lowell took the fall from alpha male status with grace once he realized drafting off the tandem for 237 miles could be a good thing. After a thorough background check including retinal scan, Kelly was welcomed as the 6th Flèche Pedaler. Having joined after much of the planning was done, he was very thankful to Lowell and I for have having done all the legwork. I told him not to worry, he would be doing plenty of legwork pulling us along behind the tandem for the entire flèche.
And now we needed routes. Two of them. Trying to make one route that would work in two directions consumed a lot of time. The job was even more complex because I felt compelled to go through every Pennsylvania town worthy of a Flèche Pedaler's visit including Intercourse, Fertility, Blue Ball, Bareville, and Eden Heights. And due to the positively false accusations of my doping on PBP with Espresso Hammergel, passing through Landisville seemed essential. This route looked really good on MapSource as I checked and rechecked it on the computer screen while nestled in my warm house in December.
The bidirectional plan was laid to rest after, well really during, the most inappropriately named Crista ride ever – The Serene Century. Crista is legendary for leading challenging and "scenic" centuries every weekend all year except when she is on a longer tour or riding brevets. On this fateful day of ~11,000 cumulative feet of incessant short steep hills, I recognized many of the road names as ones on our flèche route. Even before we rolled into the parking lot in the sleet in the dark, Carol and I decided to abandon the original plan and find the flattest routes to each flèche ending point.
Crista offered us her 2004 Team Carnivore route starting from Buchanan, VA for the DC ride. The route starts at Watstull's Inn and after a 50 mile jaunt west and over Goshen Pass, it runs north up the Shenandoah Valley through Curchville, Harrisonburg, Edinburg, Strasburg, and Middletown. At Stephens City it turns east through Berryville, crosses Snickers Gap (our only major climb on the ride), and drops into Purcellville and Leesburg. In Leesburg it runs down the Washington and Old Dominion rail trail to Arlington. It was about the most tandem friendly route we could have imagined. On the sunny, windless Friday of the big weekend, we converged on the DC suburbs of northern Virginia and with Lowell's son Geoff and Friend of the Pedalers Lesley B, we loaded up the Flèche Assault Vehicle (the Jeep Wagoneer) and the Tacoma support truck and drove down to Buchanan. Poor Kelly had to ride behind the FAV watching his tandem take its first ride on a roof rack. Poor Lesley and Geoff had to endure the endless tales of riding adventures.
At dinner, Carol gave the team chocolate Easter critters. Kelly received a lamb which completed the Flèche on the back of the tandem. Sadly the lamb did not properly complete his brevet card and was sacrificed in the arrival celebration. Lara gave the team and drivers the most awesome homemade energy bars. She also gave the team special Rando knives in honor of the PBP episode involving the infirmary, the knife, the doctor, and the brevet card. Lowell issued rider packets complete with our cards, cue sheets, and rules for flèches to be carried by each team member. He even made up special cuesheet for Carol that had each line colored differently so she wouldn't miss a turn or a controle.
We had a randonneur-worthy breakfast at the fabulous North Star Café that would take 237 miles to clear from the arteries and we were on the road at 0800. As mandated in the Flèche Pedaler's Rules of Conduct, our ride was quite free of drama. We pedaled, we ate, pedaled more, and ate some more. Then we pedaled for a while, and somewhere in there we ate more. No muss, no fuss. We had no significant mechanicals or missed cues – o.k., there was that one short trip down a small dark country road after a controle in the middle of the night. It is truly amazing how quickly a cohesive group of five bikes can end up separated in the dark when there is disagreement/confusion over which way to go. We quickly regrouped, got on the right road and resumed the mission.
There was no whining. When discussion turned suspiciously to the whining side of things, it would be prefaced by, "Now, I am not whining, I'm simply making an observation…" Or, "I am not whining, I'm just stating a fact..." The most difficult part of the ride was deciding what to wear. Predictions for temps starting in the 30's, going up to ~65, and dropping back into the high 20's again made striking the carrying enough but not over-packing balance challenging. Top that off with the chances of riding right into a rainstorm and you simply have a fashion accessory nightmare. After starting out bundled up, we shed layers at the first and second controles. Shortly after the second controle we needed yet another stop to peel off more layers and I was regretting my choice of tights rather than shorts and leg warmers. Once I had decided on tights I hadn't been able to decide between heavier wool tights and light tights with wool knee warmers. The latter were the morning choice, but the wool tights went into the bag at the last minute.
Within an hour of shedding layers, the sun vanished behind the clouds, we hit the headwind that was ripping down the Shenandoah Valley from the storm up north, and the temperatures dropped. The wind would be our constant companion all day. None of us wanted to stop again to layer back up so we just kept plugging away, turning increasingly blue with cold. About 10 miles before our afternoon feeding controle, we finally succumbed and made an unplanned stop to move clothes from the bags onto bodies. Lattes, cappuccinos, soups and the best sandwiches in the world when we got to the Old Dominion Coffee Shop in Harrisonburg helped with the warming process. As night fell temperatures dropped more than the thermometer would have led us to believe. At our 9 p.m. McDonald's dinner stop in Stephens City pretty much every piece of clothing moved from bags to bodies. I ended up being happy with my clothing choices that had seemed like overkill a few hours earlier, and wore everything I had brought— all at once. The wool tights went on over the lycra tights, the rain jacket went on over the wind breaker and the head band went on over the balaclava. Kelly got to use my knee warmers. Having been a little too optimistic about clothing he also learned that a paper napkin makes a fine neck gator. The McDonald's manager gave Carol a free cup of coffee when he found out how far we were riding.
As we were getting ready to hit the road the Moby song
After this descent we warmed up at a 7-Eleven where the young hip clerks were incredibly tolerant of us sitting and laying on their floors. They were even apologetic that they didn't have more comfortable seating options for us. The one with the semi-dread-locked hair down to the middle of his back, lower lip piercing, and eye liner/eyelash tattoos said it was really nice to see people who he thought actually might be weirder than him. Now that's a compliment. We rolled into our 22-hour controle at the 24-hour Amphora Diner with about an hour and a half to relax. This is a really big restaurant that has a diner theme, not a cute little diner. They let the 6 of us take up 3 booths so that we each could have our own bench. But they weren't so keen on us actually laying down and sleeping on those benches. The manager came over and told us to wake up because our sleeping would bother the other customers as he seated a party of loud drunk guys right next to us in an otherwise pretty much empty room.
As we rode the rest of the way in to the finish, the sun rose and lifted our sprits. We rolled into Arlington just on schedule and arrived at the final controle at 7:45 a.m. A number of the ever-supportive DC Randonneurs were there to greet us with hugs and smiles. We rode together as a group almost the whole way. That either means we were really well matched in pace or we were all seeking refuge from the wind behind the tandem. Turns out Kelly took my suggestion that he could do lots of the legwork seriously and he and Mary pulled us into the headwind most of the day. Then they pulled us all night as the winds shifted and stole our hopes of a tailwind on the home stretch. It was simply amazing. They didn't seem to want a break—ever. Lara got the true grit award —having no riding opportunities in the Ely, Minnesota in winter she had almost no miles in her legs and she just kept going and going. Lowell got the border collie award for riding at the back nipping at heels to make sure nobody dropped off the group physically or mentally. Carol got the saddle princess award for showing up with a brand new saddle. The shop told her if she didn't like it she could return it. She said she would just try it out on her little weekend ride.