Some trepidation accompanied my decision to ride the Fleche Ouragan last weekend. Several factors contributed to the anxiety.
New, strong teammates. I rode the Fleche NW two weeks ago with a team of old friends and familiar riders. This would be different - I had joined a team comprising two local riders (Michael Wolfe and Sam Huffman) and another visitor (Ed Felker from DC). Our team name - "The Spirit is Willing" - has an unstated flesh/fleche pun, but I was worried plenty that I was "the flesh is weak" part of the team. I knew but a little of these riders, and what I knew scared me. Michael and Ed were participants in last summer's SIR 600km brevet. Ed rode with me for a little while on the second day (and had stopped to offer advice and keep me company while I wrestled with a mechanical problem on the ride). The memory that had stuck with me, however, was the sight of Ed spinning up a hill southwest of Morton as I jumped off my bike to give my single speed a long push up the hill. Michael was a blur at the start of the same brevet as he sprinted off on his recumbent. Later that year, Michael put in an impressive rookie performance at the Furnace Creek 508 with a sub-36 hour finish time. Sam had been one of the riders on the Cascade 1200 who finished each day with plenty of time for sleep and a fresh start the next day. Eric Vigoren, who was helping with the Fleche Ouragan organization, helpfully pointed out that Sam and Michael were "fast, very fast." I have ridden enough with Eric that he knows perfectly well that I am "not fast, very not fast," so I took his comments as warning.
Unfamiliar territory. Although I live less than 3 hours away, my only experience cycling south of the Columbia in Oregon had been on the tedious stretch of highway from the Longview Bridge to Portland on a few Seattle to Portland rides. I knew nothing of the roads that would be on our route. Michael and Sam were fairly casual about creating a route sheet - more of a list of towns and some description of the roads between. It further appeared that some of the roads would be new to them as well.
Challenging route. The first iteration of the fleche route was over 425km. Although this would be my 12th fleche, I couldn't recall ever attempting more than 400km. With some nudging from the fleche organizers, Michael and Sam trimmed out some scenic miles that we would only reach in the dark. But the ride would still be long. (As it turns out, our team took the "overacheivers" plaque for longest distance covered - not a concept with which I would ever expect to be associated!). The aforementioned Eric took pains to point out that if two towns on our route were connected by a relatively flat road or a hilly one, our course headed over the hilly one. One Eric e-mail included the elevation profile for a section with a 2000' summit (vs. 600' on the alternate route). My good friend Greg Cox took pains to let me on a PBP a while back that I "climb like his grandmother"; I am relatively certain that he was not advertising the cycling skills of his ancestors, but rather commenting on mine. I do enjoy climbing, but it doesn't exactly play to my strengths (whatever those might be).
Fussy ankle/aggressive schedule. This year finds me thoroughly infected by the randonneuring bug and I have been doing a lot of riding this spring. Since the last week in January, I think I've put in at least a 200km randonneur ride every weekend. For May, my plans had 4 400km+ weekends - the Oregon fleche, the SIR 400km brevet, the DC 400km brevet, and the volunteers pre-ride of the SIR 600km brevet. The joy of riding has banished all reason from my scheduling. My ankle, never previously a troublemaker, started to bother me on our Fleche NW two weeks ago. Unwilling to accept logical explanations about rest and recover, I chose to attribute the issue to a new pair of shoes. Last weekend on the Carbon River Permanent with my old shoes, my ankle didn't get worse. It still felt a little punk, so I had that on my mind as well.
Why worry? I should have known. The fleche was wonderful. I had a great time on a challenging ride filled with the best of randonneuring.
The team? Yes, these guys are strong, but they are also some of the nicest folks with whom I've had the pleasure of riding. Unfailing cheerful and encouraging, they would wait when catching up was needed, ride ahead when incentive was needed, and drop back to accompany when company was needed. Although I was the only team member with prior fleche experience, all quickly adopted the rhythm of a 24-hour, common finish time.
The route? Unfamiliar roads are no match for the "human cue sheet" that Ed and I discovered in Oregon. We would ride along a nice stretch of road and not worry about missing a turn. Why? Because at every intersection, we'd see Michael and Sam talking and smiling and telling us to "turn left", "go straight", or whatever. Somewhere along the next stretch of road, they would head off to assume their duties at the next intersection.
The distance? Not an issue. Our route of 402km was within my comfort zone (and all the more so for my teammates). I looked back at my average finish time for 400km brevets - 20h16m. On a fleche, this permitted great stops - Black Bear coffee in Vernonia (with delicious apple turnover and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies), sit down lunch at Humps Restaurant in Clatskanie, and late night dinner with the cops and sheriff's deputies (and another fleche team) at the Subway in Tillamook. Michael timed the Subway stop perfectly to get us to our 22hour control right on time, with no waiting around and shivering required. In keeping with fleche tradition, however, we took a short rest in the next available warm, unlocked post office lobby.
The hills? No question that the route was challenging. I'm not sure if any of us had an altimeter on it, but it seemed like 10k-12k feet of climbing on the course, with the hills moderated by some relatively flat stretches along rivers or along the Tillamook Bay. But the roads were wonderful - generally scenic and remarkably low in traffic. Although we could not see the Nestucca River Road scenery overnight, the visual deprivation was countered by the constant companionship of rushing water sounds as we climbed. The gravel section was shorter than advertised and in reasonably good condition, although it did account for our only flat tire of the ride, fixed quickly by Michael in the pre-dawn hours.
Many thanks to Sam, Michael, and Ed for the great route and companionship. Also to the organizers and volunteers who put on the event - Susan France, the local RBA, Michael Rasmussen, Eric Vigoren, and I'm sure many others.
"The Spirit is Willing" team photo courtesy of Ed Felker. (From left: me, Ed, Sam, Michael). More of Ed's fleche pictures are available here.