When I first told my friends that my next randonneur event was a “Flèche”, I noticed they’d get hung up on the pronunciation of the word. (I guess I’m not acquainted with any Francophiles.) So they’d ask me, “How’s the training for your Fletchy going?” Or, “Are you excited about your Flay-chay?” It was hard for them to say the word, “flèche”, which rhymes with “flesh” — maybe because it conjured up images of the sore skin on one’s ass after riding at least 224 miles in a 24-hour period.
A “Flèche” is a team event that takes its name from the French word for “arrow” due to the traditional shape of the route: it goes from one point to another in one direction with no backtracking. There’s a ton of rules — more so than other brevets — and we received another two-page addendum from our Flèche coordinator Roland Bevan, which included the funny commonly asked question:
“I don’t like all these stupid rules. Can’t I just ride it the way I want to?”
“Not really. The rules are what make the event. You can always get a bunch of friends together and go for a 24-hour ride the way you want, but if you want to ride the Flèche then you’ll need to follow the rules.”
So in other words, it’s our way or the crybaby way!
But the gist of the rules is to ride steadily for one day with your 5-member team (and you have to have at least 3 members finish). You can’t go too fast (the final 25 km must be ridden within the last two hours of one’s ride) or too slow (no lollygagging at stops for more than 2 hours). Then you all meet up afterwards, stuff your faces with breakfast and swap stories — in our case, we do this at Crepes on Cole which has been the post-ride venue for the SF Randonneurs for several years.
This would be the next big notch up in mileage for me and the first time I’d experience true sleep deprivation on the bike. I’d already had a preview of this on my accidental century from last week, but I’m naturally nocturnal by nature so this aspect of the event didn’t worry me as much. I was more nervous about the weather report — the weekend forecast predicted a 30%-50% chance of rain — and feeling comfortable on the saddle for that long. So I was mentally prepared — I just hoped that my derrière would be as amenable as my mind for this endurance adventure.
It hadn’t even occurred to me do the Flèche until my friend Alfie suggested I give it a try at the Tour de Biere. After a few brews, I thought to myself, “What the hell!” (behold the persuasive powers of alcohol) and subsequently emailed the SFR email list to see if anyone wanted to form a team. I found four other guys — Franklyn, Joey, Eric and Manny — who were also Flèche newbies. Our team’s name — Crampandgoslow — is borrowed from the Broakland jersey made by my favorite local bike shop, Montano Velo.
I was interested to see how our group of beginner Flèchers would ride together since we were all pretty much strangers to one another; hopefully we’d forge a bond during the long hours on our bikes — or maybe we’d all end up in a big fistfight on the side of the road at 3AM. (I was optimistic and betting that we’d become friendonneurs by the ride’s end.)
During the several days leading up to our Flèche, the fretting over preparations ensued. How much food could I carry? What clothing should I wear? I definitely had to bring a rain jacket and reflective gear, and layers of wool would be best for the chilly evening hours. I also made sure to get plenty of sleep and took it easy on the bike.
Sadly, the plague hit two of our teammates and by Friday afternoon Eric told us he’d be dropping out due to being under the weather. Franklyn was 50-50 on whether he’d be able to ride as well, so I contacted Roland to see if it was possible to find a last-minute replacement. It seems we weren’t alone and that other teams were going through the same final hour shuffle; even Roland had to switch to another group when his original team dissolved. That’s part of the challenge of the Flèche: keeping your team together from the start to finish. Unsurprisingly, I had no takers for my invitation to ride nonstop all weekend, so it was down to 4 of us — or possibly 3.
Saturday Morning: Time to head to the Emeryville Amtrak station to take the train up to Davis. We’d be riding just over 225 miles with over 7,000 ft. of climbing.
As this was everyone’s maiden Flèche voyage, we wanted a route that was relatively straightforward (much of it crossed through pretty familiar territory) without too much climbing. Franklyn showed up to deliver us our brevet cards and some words of support — he was still under the weather — and send Joey, Manny and myself on our way.
Control 1: Get receipt at Starbucks or Subway Sandwich; 9:45AM
We emerged from the train just as Stephen Haas’ team, the Goober Grupetto, was stepping out of the front car. He was with Tom Haggerty, Brooks Wong, Keith Beato and Robbins Peek and riding to Davis, Copperopolis, Tracy, Fremont, Millbrae and back to the city.
All of us headed to Starbucks to kill some time before our official start, although our team promptly got lost right from the get-go heading to the coffee shop (consider this foreshadowing).
We asked the Goobers for some advice in our journey since we had no idea what to expect, and they told us: “Keep moving.” “Take advantage of your rest stops.” “Someone will get cranky in the middle of the night.” (I think they said to make this person the butt of our jokes.) After caffeining up, we set out at 9:45AM.
Control 2: Fairfield Safeway; receipt; approximate arrival time 11:45 – 12:15
Despite finding some errors in our cue sheet and getting turned around in some sections, we made good time for our first control and arrived at 12:09PM. Onwards to Napa for lunch!
Control 3: Oxbow Market, Napa; Receipt; Approximate arrival time: 13:15 – 13:45
We got here just after 2:20pm and were a little behind due to getting off track again. One thing we realized, as our team captain couldn’t be with us and he had designed the cue sheet, his absence made it harder to decipher some of the directions. Note for next time: have more than one person know the route well. None of us had ridden in the area so we had to rely on some detective work and our smartphones to guide the way.
Control 4: Fast and Easy Gas Station; Receipt; approximate arrival time
16:15 – 16:45
On our way to Calistoga, we encountered Team “Nerds on a Run” led by Alex Plumb. He and Francisco Grajales, French Clements, Charles Jonas and Andrea Symons were riding from Castro Valley to Martinez, Rockville, Calistoga, Healdsburg, Occidental, Petaluma, Corte Madera to San Francisco. It’s always a thrill to see other randonnerds on the road as you feel this swell of solidarity in your heart and think, “Here’s some fellow kindred spirits who are also crazy enough to be undertaking this ride!”
Despite running on carrot power, we arrived at our third control about 40 minutes late — partially, I think, due to the fact that we we stayed longer than we should have in Napa.
We bumped into Team “Oblio’s Dog” led by the RBA Rob Hawks with Barley Forsman, Michael Burke, Bryan Kilgore
and Jason Pierce. They were headed to Healdsburg as well and told us to find the Bear Republic brewery just off the main downtown square.
Control 5: Open; Receipt; approximate arrival time 18:00 – 18:30
Time for dinner in Healdsburg! We reunited with Teams Oblio’s Dog and Nerds on a Run.
Everyone was enjoying their liquid carbs in IPA form, but I was not in the mood for beer (I’m drinking one now as I’m writing this, however). And while burgers and fries are usually one of my guilty pleasures, I had to force myself to eat — which surprised me since as a foodie, I usually have the opposite problem. Both Manny and I weren’t hungry at all and everything seemed unappetizing — except for the special bright yellow “safety Peeps” that he gave to Joey and I for dessert. Part of me now understood why some endurance racers rely solely on gels and sports drinks while on the go. Your body undertakes some severe stresses while undertaking these endeavors, and it’s not always easy to get the necessary calories you need in food form.
Control 6: Guerneville Safeway; receipt; approximate arrival time 21:00
The rain began in earnest just as we left the brewery for the night portion of our ride. There were moments when it was pouring, but for the most part, it was a steady drizzle that felt like Chinese water torture over the next 12 hours. And it was hard to regulate temperature; one moment you’re sweating up a storm due to all of the waterproof layers, the next minute you’re freezing due to the rain. I also didn’t have fenders since I’m using my Frankensteinized-CX bike for these rides and it would take some real kludgy techniques to get some on there, so my chain started to feel pretty crunchy with all of the muck getting kicked up from the road (and apologies to my teammates whenever they rode behind me.) We arrived at the Guerneville Safeway about an hour and half behind schedule and feeling a bit drained from the wet weather.
Control 7: Petaluma Safeway; Receipt; approximate arrival time: 12:30 -
I think this was the most difficult portion of the ride for me. The rain was wearing me out, we were getting lost up in the hills just south of Sebastopol and I ended up getting two consecutive flats. (Note: Grand Bois tires have amazing ride quality but are extremely flat-prone when the weather’s bad. Don’t ride them off-road, either; I had to replace my rear tire after last weekend’s Diablo shenanigans.) My teammates were super patient and helpful in getting me back on the road, but I felt terrible as the flats definitely slowed us down considerably.
By now I was definitely wearing my crankypants at this point and having those existential randonneur thoughts, “Am I enjoying this? Why am I out here?” One of the most challenging aspects for me of riding long distances is finding the pleasure through the pain of the experience. My friend Clayton, who’s well-versed in randonneuring, told me, “Remember, it does not have to be fun to be fun.” In essence, he was saying that it’s a real privilege to be out there suffering on the bike as it was by choice — and of course, not everyone has that ability or means to do. But it’s hard to keep that in mind when you’re cold, wet and dealing with mechanicals in the middle of the night. It really does make you think about how much you love riding your bicycle: do you love it enough to be on the saddle for that long?
We finally got to our 7th control two hours after our approximate arrival time of 1AM and resolved to start cracking the whip harder so we could make our 22-hr control. (I forgot to take a photo at this one.)
Control 8: San Rafael; open control; receipt; approximate arrival time 4:
30 – 5:30
Sadly, most of the climbing from our ride was in the latter portion of our 360k. The climbs out of Petaluma seemed interminably long and our tired legs slowly grinded our way upwards. To keep our spirits up, Manny asked if I knew of any good songs to sing. I suggested the “Game of Thrones” theme song as we’re all fans. We all starting humming the tune as we made our way through the quiet roads of Marin that were dimly lit by the moonlit sky. It was peaceful and serene without hardly any traffic at that early hour of the morning.
Lucas Valley was a pleasant change from the usual Nicasio slog and mentally it was refreshing to be winding our way through the dark forest. Joey kept the pace moving as he’s a really strong rider and would get little bursts of energy whenever he’d eat more snacks. And the smooth, winding descent down into San Rafael was rejuvenating and a much-needed reprieve from all the climbing.
We picked another Safeway as our control and try to be as fast as possible in getting our necessary receipt.
Control 9: Information: Paradise Beach Park; 3450 Paradise Dr.
Our brains were pretty fried at this point and we weren’t sure if we were going to hit our 22-hr. control in time. We ended up getting lost again and so by the time we found and completed Paradise Loop, it was well after 8 o’clock.
Control 10: Tiburon; Open Control; Main Street and Tiburon Blvd
receipt; approximate arrival time 6:45 – 7:15; will leave this control at 7:30; this is our 22-hr control
When we got to Tiburon at 8:18am, I was ready to call it and hop on a ferry. We didn’t think we’d be able to make it to Cole Valley by 9:45AM and decided to DNF at the cafe.
After breakfast, however, we rallied and decided to ride back to BART to catch the train back to the East Bay.
Just as we reached Embarcadero, however, I got another flat. I bid farewell to my fellow teammates and our epic 230-mile+ adventures had come to a close. It was great riding with them and I think we all learned a lot about what to do differently next time. (Sadly, neither of them can make the upcoming 400k SFR ride.) In many ways, this was physically easier than the 300k as I didn’t experience the same terrible exhaustion and discomfort — but being able to ‘be in the moment’ and enjoy the ride was much harder. Perhaps that’s only something that comes with time as I continue to do more brevets and gain more experience. So while we didn’t complete our distance in time, we were happy to have ridden that far — the furthest anyone of us had pedaled our bikes in one day. The Hopland 400k awaits…