Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In praise of "stupid"

My friend Kent Peterson says the flèche is a "stupid ride" and he may have a point. The flèche has all sorts of oddball rules and (at least in the Northwest) is always cold or wet or both.

But last weekend, I participated in my 11th flèche, so the format must appeal to me. (The alternate explanation, that I'm simply not too bright, does nothing for me, thank you). So what's the attraction? In my case, more than one:

The team.

The flèche is a team event in a profoundly individual sport. Over the years, I’ve cycled many a solo brevet kilometer – whether because I was on a solo organizer’s pre-ride of a 1000km brevet or because I was dropped like a hot potato at the beginning of a 300km this spring (on single speed when the others weren’t – at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it). I love those kms – just me and my bike out on the roads. Of course, I’ve cycled many more kms in the company of good friends and enjoyed them too. On a brevet, however, this companionship is optional – If I’m dragging, I can always tell the other riders to go on ahead for the betterment of their ride experience and of mine.

On a flèche, on the other hand, we ride as a team. We have to start together, finish together, and be together at the 22 hour control. Practically speaking, the flèche teams of which I’ve been a member stay together for 24 hours. We ride together, we plan together, we problem-solve together, and we experience each others’ highs and lows together.

It helps to have a great team. On this ride, Wayne Methner, Peter McKay, Rick Haight, and Robin Pieper were mine.

Wayne and I met on brevets in 1998, the first year for both of us in randonneuring. Wayne’s steady riding and quiet confidence that we can finish have helped me through many a brevet and flèche over the 10 riding seasons since. Maybe I’ve helped him finish a few as well. Early on, too, Wayne taught me the value of a well-placed lie. On my first 600km, I didn’t yet know that feeling bad on a ride didn’t necessarily mean that you would feel worse and worse and worse until you curled up, sniveling, in the fetal position and waited for the adopt-a-road crew to clean you up with the rest of the roadside trash. I struggled into Bellingham on the second morning of the 600 feeling pretty low. I spotted a couple of bikes at a strip mall restaurant and went in to join them. One was Wayne, who told me that I was looking great and was sure to finish. While I was in the bathroom, however, he told the other rider that I looked like crap and would never finish. Fortified by a little rest, some food, and that well-placed lie, I finished the brevet with a couple hours to spare. Although I still forget from time to time, what I learned that day is that a low point is just a low point; the next hour is just as likely to be much better as it is to be worse.

I’ve shared more randonneur experiences with Peter McKay than with any other rider. Paris-Brest-Paris twice, Boston-Montreal-Boston twice, and thousands of kilometers of Seattle brevets in between. Regardless of the conditions, Peter reminds me (and I remind him) on every ride that “It's a beautiful day . . . and we're on our bicycles.” Like an old married couple, we’ve been together for better and for worse over a lot of rides. We’ve also shared enough motel rooms that our “other” spouses must just wonder.

Peter, Wayne, and I rode a flèche together in 1999 and have been on many together since. I was on a team with Robin a couple years ago. I’m sure we only invited him as part of a package deal with his lovely wife Amy, but discovered that he’s a great riding companion in his own right. Amy and Robin have become mainstays of the SIR scene – strong cyclists, dedicated volunteers, and genuinely wonderful people. This year we let Robin ride with us even without Amy. This was my first flèche with Rick, but not my first time riding with him. Rick is a charter member of the “tow-a-suffering-Mark-to-the-finish-of-a-long-brevet” club, waiting for me in Marblemount on the first Cascade 1200 in 2005 and keeping me company to the finish.

The time management challenge.

The rules of the flèche add an odd challenge. Because you have to go for 24 hours with no more than two hours rest at any point and because you can't get closer that 25km to the end at the 22 hour point, it is the only randonneuring event where I have to worry about going too quickly as well as too slowly. Waiting around in a cold rain (as is often present) at the 22 hour point for the 22nd hour to come can really be unpleasant.

Over the first hundred miles, we were averaging about 20kph including our stops. At that rate, we would cover our 370km course in 18 hours or so. That meant that we would need to burn off almost six hours along the way.

On flèche rides a few years ago, this was no challenge – the team would check into a motel along the way, sleep an almost civilized 5 hours and ride to the finish. A few years back, however, the ACP added a rule that no stop could be more than two hours. We considered stopping at a motel for a 2 hour break, but somehow no one wanted to be the one to say “it’s just the five of us and we only need the room for an hour or so.”

Time burn tactic #1: Stop at the Beehive Restaurant (with next-door Honeycomb Lounge) in Montesano for dinner. Meet Amy Pieper and two locals for good conversation and lots of food in a classic setting. The Beehive has been there for decades, probably with the same charming waitresses the whole time. We stretched the limits of their patience as various sweaty randonneurs followed dinner by sprawling every which way for a nap. The closest to a complaint was a warning from the older waitress that “those boys better not sleep too long; we’re closing at quarter to ten.”

Time burn tactic #2: Get lost in Shelton. Great tools abound for scouting out a route in advance in the internet age. The one we chose lacked the detail needed to show that the intersection of Cloquallum Road and US-101 was an overpass with no access to the highway. Our enjoyment of the bombing descent into town that followed was tempered by the certainty that we would need to gain all that altitude back and the complete uncertainty about how we would do so.

Time burn tactic #3: Kill a lot of time at the 24-hour Denny’s Restaurant in Shelton (after finding our way back on course). Drape sweaty clothing over the banquettes to dry. Order bad food and worse coffee. Check out the post-bar crowd. Sprawl and nap again.

Time burn tactic #4: In an effort to burn time and to warm up (temperatures had dipped into the 30s), we stop at the post office in Lilliwaup, WA 98555. Although I’m sure it’s more if you live there, to a passing bicyclists, Lilliwaup is a curve in the road on the way along the Hood Canal. It does, however, have a new post office. Old randonneur secret: many rural post offices have unlocked lobbies so the residents can access PO boxes during off hours. In Lilliwaup, the lobby is also heated! We’d have stayed longer, sleeping on the floor in these delightful accommodations, but our snoring woke us all up.

Time burn tactic #5: A long breakfast. In addition to managing our pace to avoid reaching the 22 hour point too soon, we also hoped not to be too early for breakfast at the Loggers Landing restaurant in Quilcene – open at 7AM daily. The sun was coming up as we crested Walker Pass northbound but the north side of the hill was 5 degrees colder than the south side (back in the mid-30s again). With time spent regrouping at the top, we were extremely cold coming down. We were also too early with a 6:40 arrival likely, but we hoped that we might prevail upon the proprietors to let us in early while they set up. Debating which of us would make the most pathetic case, we concluded that all were equally qualified. Cruising into the Loggers Landing, we saw a half-dozen pickups parked outside. Maybe we had the opening time wrong? No, the sign still said 7AM. Tentatively pushing on the door, we were warmly greeted: “They aren’t opening for a while yet, but the owner gives us a key to come in for our early morning coffee. Help yourselves to some.” Now, that’s my kind of place. Coffee and warmth until the cook arrives to make a terrific breakfast.

Success: We arrive at our predetermined 22hour point, 18 miles from the finish, with a minute to spare.

The party.

My particular flèche prejudice: the essence of the event is that multiple teams follow different routes to converge on a celebration. I’ve heard of flèche events where teams of riders go out and ride 360km or more and then go home, never seeing the other teams. Makes no sense at all to me.

The French converge on Provence; Seattle Randonneurs converge on Port Townsend. Sunday brings our celebratory brunch. Wayne gives out trophies – recognizing the team who rides closest to 360km and to rookie-est team (highest average RUSA membership number). The real fun, however, is hearing the tall tales. Each team stands up and regales the others with stories of adverse conditions, odd napping locations, incredulous locals, and epic adventures. This year we had 10 teams, our largest ever! Family members often attend, drawing some small comfort from the knowledge that they are not alone in having rando-demented loved ones.


Last, but not least, I’m attracted to the trinkets. Yes, I ride for the feeling of accomplishment, but mostly I ride for shiny pieces of metal. The lovely Flèche Northwest pin. The possibility of another Randonneur 5000 medal.

Maybe it’s a stupid event, but I love it. Did someone say that the Oregon Randonneurs are holding a flèche in two weeks?

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