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2013 Flèche!

by on April 8, 2013

Well, that was a lot of fun!  I finished with 235 miles and lots of good memories.  Fatigue was never a factor.  Team Chain Reaction worked well together and had a great time.  As it turns out, we were the only Severna Park Peloton team (of 3) that finished with all five riders.  The route Jack designed had its challenges, but you will read about that in the longer ride report below.  Anyone looking to extend their riding beyond a 200k would do well to ride on a Flèche team.  Thanks go to the other team members: Jack, Mike, Fran, & Theresa.  Now, if you are interested, a longer ride report begins after the break.  I warn you now … it is nearly as long as a 235 mile ride over 24 hours.

After a reasonable night’s sleep Friday night, I woke up and made final preparations for the Flèche, relying on the list I had made the night before.  I still forgot a few minor incidentals, but never really needed them.  As usual, I brought more than I really needed and learned enough on this ride that I think I’ll be able to carry significantly less gear on many of my upcoming rides.  At 6:04 I pushed off from home, and rode the easy 2 1/4 miles to the start at The Big Bean in Severna Park.  It was 42° F, a full 4° warmer than the forecast and a delightful surprise.  When I arrived at The Big Bean, a dozen people were already there, and the number swelled to at least 40 by the time we left.  It was a great turnout of friends and other riders, most of whom were in bike gear.  After the obligatory Team Photo, we pushed off onto our adventure.

TCR Start

As we started, we watched the temperatures fall.  We were all pretty much dressed for a minimum of 40° and so those early miles were pretty chilly.  We rode familiar rural roads passing through Bowie, MD where we started to really pick up more of the suburban type of congestion more consistently.  Our route continued down to Clinton, MD where our first control stop was scheduled.  By the time we arrived there, it was starting to warm up again.  We filled water bottles, I ate a Snickers and Theresa discovered several missed calls on her phone.  She discovered that there were family issues that dogged her the rest of the ride.  That kind of distraction really was unfortunate.

The route from Clinton to the next control was a mix of urban and trail riding.  We were in heavy Saturday morning traffic and worked at staying bunched together to make ourselves a larger, more visible target.  We started to encounter much more frequent outburst of displeasure at our mere presence on the roadways.  In fact, this ride had more “incidents” of inappropriate driver behavior than I’ve ever experienced on any ride.  We even had one pedestrian screaming obscenities at us … but we were not the target of his invective speech.  We were only the audience.  Things quieted down considerably as we approached the Wilson Bridge and rode the trail across the bridge.  There were enough pedestrians and bikers on the bridge that it was hard to take in all the view, but the bright blue sky, warming temperatures, light breeze all conspired to make it a lovely crossing.  Immediately after crossing the bridge, we navigated south again, still on the trail, to our next control at Mt Vernon.  Yes, the George Washington Mt. Vernon.  We stopped in to get the control cards signed, and I bought a chocolate chip cookie and wolfed it down.  We resolved that we would eat lunch about 10 miles past Mt. Vernon, and we found a Quizno’s where we stopped to eat, re-hydrate, and otherwise relax.

As captain of our team, my primary responsibility was time management.  I paid attention to our speed, our elapsed time, our strength and stamina, and out of that calculated and suggested timing for our stops.  Our first two stops were less than 40 minutes total, and we were slightly ahead of our “maximum expected time” by the time we got to lunch.  We spent just about an hour for lunch (with 70 miles ridden).  I drank an orange juice and ate a small flatbread chicken sandwich and a small bag of baked chips.  This was the least I’ve eaten at that point in a ride, but I was satisfied and never had digestion issues.  Water bottles filled, we took off, encountered two quick red traffic lights, then about a mile down the road, Fran started becoming quite verbally expressive.  He had forgotten his backpack at the Quizno’s.  We waited by a park entrance, soaking in the sunlight while he rode back and retrieved the bag.  I spent part of that time on my back with my legs propped up high.  I was laughed at, but none of the others knows to this day how good that feels during a long ride!

We were riding easy, often on busy 4 lane divided highways with frequent traffic signals.  I think we hit 90% of them red.  I know I was getting a little frustrated at times with all that stopping.  Just as we developed a good rhythm and settled in for the ride, we hit another red light.  Never-the-less, our spirits remained good and we rode as a team.  For us, that meant that no one was riding alone and we never really separated more than shouting distance from one another.  I knew we had a general clockwise route for this ride, but I never could get my head around how many left hand turns we were making.  That became one of the running jokes among the team.  Turns were well announced and any right hand turns were made very apparent.

Soon enough though, we were in a more rural setting, and with that came more frequent rolling hills.  It was on one of these short steep hills that our only crash happened.  Fran attempted a late shift into a lower gear and “dropped his chain”.  It came off the rear cogs and immediately wedged between the cog and the wheel stopping his rear wheel immediately.  At single digit speeds and going uphill, he had no time to unclip and he went down.  Mike avoided crashing into him, but Theresa caught Mike’s fender and she fell.  The car approaching from the rear was able to stop in time.  After everyone untangled and determined that there were no injuries and no bike mechanical problems, the three of them walked their bikes to the top of the hill, the only time during the entire ride where walking the bikes happened.  (The hill was too steep to start riding midway up.)  We again ascertained that everyone was ok and that the biggest damage was a small dent in Mike’s fender and bruised egos.

As the temperatures warmed up, we gradually exposed more skin.  I rode without arm warmers and wind vest for a while.  I kept my leg warmers on though, and was glad for that extra warmth.  I think the temperatures made it up to about 55° and the sun felt marvelous.

We stopped for our first supper (an early one) in Warrenton, VA at a Ledo’s.  This was an hour long stop also.  We had pleasant service and we had a wide variety of meals.  I ate 1/3 of a serving of spaghetti and drank a Pepsi.  We knew the sun would be setting on the next leg of our route into Purcellville, VA so the arm warmers and wind vest were put back on.

Jack routed us on a 4 lane divided highway out of Warrenton to avoid the many rolling hills on the more rural roads.  The gentle inclines/declines of the highway, the warm sun, peak temperatures, and a tailwind made for a quick segment and had us all rolling down the arm warmers and opening the wind vests.  It was a very pleasant segment of the ride.  Turning off the highway, we entered northern Virginia horse country.  The terrain was comfortable with small rollers but the countryside was spectacular as the sun moved lower in the sky.  Stone fences, sometimes topped by wood seemed to go for miles.  Homes were often set so far back and surrounded by trees that they were invisible from the road, but when they were visible, they were always large and magnificent.  It was common for there to be sections of the fence arranged for horses to jump (think foxhunting).  It was pretty countryside to ride in the waning daylight and it stretched for miles and miles.  We continued to make good time.  It was in Northern Virginia horse country where Theresa passed her maximum mileage milestone.  It was also good to be able to ride side by side, unencumbered by heavy traffic.  All in all, a perfect end to daylight as we watched the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains … our upcoming and looming challenge.

It wasn’t very long after sunset that we entered Purcellville, VA.  We made short work of this control at a 7-11.  We estimated that the next 20 miles would take us about 2 hours just to cross the Blue Ridge into Charles Town, WV.  Originally, we had not considered this as part of our ride.  When the first draft of the route came in with less than 9,000 feet of climbing and knowing that West Virginia was so close, I suggested a stop in West Virginia so we could add another state.  As we rode to the mountain, we kept wondering when we would hit the climb.  It was dark enough that we couldn’t see much past our headlights or the lights of the occasional cars.  I estimate we traveled about 10 miles before we hit the base of the climb.  As we turned onto Charles Town Pike, we soon discovered we had our work cut out for us.  Mike negotiated his way to the front of the pack and he set the pace.  The rest of us stayed tight together on the one and a half foot wide section of roadway that counted as paved shoulder and started our long slow climb.  The pitch started out rather manageable and peaked somewhere around 8.5%.  That really wasn’t the problem.  The problem was the traffic, of course, they would say that we were the problem.  We encountered more than our fair share of cursing, object thrown at us, spitting, etc on that climb.  Traffic was never really backed up behind us, but we slowed people down for a few moments and that seemed to be sufficient excuse for immature behavior directed at us.  For our part, we simply kept our heads down and pedals moving along those 5 miles of climbing.  At the summit, we stopped to make sure we were dressed warmly enough for what we imagined to be a fast 5 mile descent into Charles Town.

I know I was surprised at the descent.  The city of Charles Town twinkled in the valley off in the distance (looking a little further away than I expected).  I never knew a descent like that could have so many inclines!  We would descend for a little while, then unexpectedly, we were climbing again, just enough to make it some effort.  We made it though, and arrived at the “Hollywood Casino” where we would control and stop for our second “supper”.  We found a place to park our bikes, locked them together, then approached the entrance to the casino … where we were stopped and asked for ID by security.  None of us had ID’s with our birth date on them, which got us another look of disapproval by the security person along with a short lecture about how we should always carry that kind of ID.  He also wanted to check inside the bags that a couple of us were carrying.  Before he implemented the search he asked what we planned to do here.  We explained we were on a long bike ride and had planned to stop in to eat.  His response was an incredulous, “Dressed like that?”  We diffused his skepticism with an explanation that this was our first time here and asked for his recommendation for a food stop.  He pointed to the food court, and forgetting the search and the ID check, let us go into the casino where suddenly the whole place went deathly quiet.  Well, that’s an overstatement, but we did attract a lot of glances with our colorful garb and funny duck walk in the cycling shoes.

We found a place to sit in the food court, noticed that the food choices were severely limited, and started the process of ordering and eating.  I call it a process because food service was slow, expensive, and let me just say … no one would make the casino food court a destination.  None of the “food” distribution sites could have made it independently as a restaurant apart from the casino.  The lines were long and slow.  The food was bad.  I had a chicken “cheesesteak” that I ate 1/4 of, a bag of baked chips, and a Coke.  The bag of chips was the best part of the “meal”.  We were completely unimpressed with the casino atmosphere, other than for people watching.  Mike did try his luck at a quarter slot machine.  He lost.  We were back on the bikes at about an hour, which was a miracle with the slow service we had.  But as it turns out, visiting the casino as a control, although it seemed like a good idea at the time, was the worst decision of the whole ride and had the added implication of nearly ending our quest for a successful completion of the Flèche.  Karma at work?  Maybe, if I believed in that kind of thing.  I was later to learn that my Garmin started to misbehave here as we left.  Eventually, near DC, I was able to reset it.  The resulting Garmin track shows a straight line from Charles Town to DC, even while it properly recorded everything else.

Our route took us on exactly the same road back to Purcellville.  On the climb out of town, Theresa started to have some nausea.  Soon, her entire GI track was determined to rid itself of anything consumed in the last several hours.  There was a considerable delay just before the summit.  By the time we reached the summit of the Blue Ridge, she had slowed down considerably and was in significant distress.  She could no longer drink Gatoraide, and only Mike was carrying simple water.  We stopped again to prepare for the downhill, hoping that she would strengthen with the limited effort of the descent.  It was getting colder out, and I scavenged around and finally found some paper towels to stuff in my jersey for additional insulation from the cold wind.  We rode our brakes hard on the way down, keeping to our narrow foot and a half shoulder.  Traffic was lighter, and that was appreciated.  Once we hit the flatter part of the ride, we quickly discovered that Theresa was not better.  She was down to riding at about 12 mph and barely hanging on.  It took us 2 hours to get to Purcellville, when the same ride to Charles Town had taken only an hour and a half.  The other guys and I were talking about what we would do with Theresa if she was unable to continue.

In Purcellville, Theresa was definitely in trouble.  She was grey, still had GI purging, and her mental faculties were severely compromised.  We decided to give her until 2 am, 30 minutes before we made a decision.  In that time, she was able to eat two bananas and get some fluids down.  She was still in “trouble” but she was determined to continue on.  We talked about the pace and arrived at the firm decision that she would need to be at the next control 25 miles away by 4 am.  We learned that two riders on two different SPP teams had abandoned already.  While we waited, I had a hot chocolate and chatted some with the 4-5 police officers who had emptied the 7-11 of coffee.  Yes, one of them grabbed a half dozen donuts to go.  They were quite interested in the ride, and had met another Flèche team earlier in the night.

Theresa looked little better than this.

Theresa looked little better than this.

We pushed off and found the trail that would take us to the finish.  We were on a hiker/biker trail that was well marked, had limited crossings, and was mostly flat.  Theresa continued to struggle.  Fran spent a lot of time with Theresa encouraging her and riding with her.  Mike and I noticed that we had “locked into” a 12-12.5 mph pace and that our apparent effort became uncomfortable after that.  Jack, who was riding 100 yards behind us tried but couldn’t close the gap.  We were having trouble staying warm since our heart rates dropped into the 80-90 bpm range.  With a few miles left to the finish, Mike and I picked up our pace just to see if we could ride faster than 12 mph.  Luckily we could.  Mike and I arrived at the Twilight Zone Diner (really named Amphora’s Diner Deluxe) at 4:01 and Theresa, Fran and Jack arrived at 4:10 am, well past the established time limit we had set.

Once we were all seated and had gone through the disaster of ordering what little food the diner had left on its shelves (no fresh coffee, donuts, muffins, fruit, oatmeal, etc) that we were assured would arrive at our table in time for our 5 am departure, we talked with Theresa about the odds of successfully finishing the ride as a team and what our options were.  She dismissed abandoning the ride.  She insisted on riding as long as it was clear we would all make it together and that we would agree to drop her if it looked like our finish was in jeopardy.  This really wasn’t a great option.  Her GPS and odometer were not functioning and there were some tricky turns ahead.  Eventually, as our “food” arrived, we developed a plan.  We would put Fran and Jack up front to rotate pulls.  Mike would follow allowing Theresa to draft.  I would follow Theresa to help bring the group together if anyone dropped off the pace.  That settled, we quickly consumed our coffee, orange juice, and toast (Theresa got the last Danish), hardly enough “fuel” for the last 21 miles.  As I stood in line to get a receipt for the right time at this control, someone came in to inform me that Mike had just vomited his entire breakfast (of toast, oj, and coffee).  The odds of finishing this ride just got worse!

I don’t know what happened.  We got on the trail, implemented our plan, and over the next hour flew down the trail at breakneck speed in the dark.  Theresa hung in there.  I “pulled” her and Mike back to the lead once.  Mike and I took the lead on occasion.  We averaged 16 mph during nearly an hour, even with the relatively frequent slowing at the cross streets.  I know I saw 23 mph on the Garmin on one occasion.  After about an hour of that, we determined that even if we flatted we would be able to finish in time, so we slowed it down some, but back into our start of the ride pace.  A couple of miles from the finish, we put Theresa into the lead and coasted into the Marriott finish at 6:30 am, a half hour before the cut-off time.  We took Team Chain Reaction’s traditional victory lap (as far as I can tell, we are the only team to do this) and checked in with the waiting group of friends and family with our faces with huge grins.  Dave shot video of our second finish.  No one had a bigger grin than Theresa.  She is the first “local” SPP female to complete a Flèche.

The rest of the morning was a quick blur.  We greeted other arriving teams.  We told some of our stories.  We changed into street clothes, ate a good hearty breakfast, loaded our bikes and we were home by 10 am.  By 10:30 I was napping.  I slept for 3 hours before getting up for the day.

While we were in good shape at the end of the ride, our bikes were exhausted.

While we were in good shape at the end of the ride, our bikes were exhausted.

Here is the Garmin track for the route.  Remember, my Garmin was not properly functioning from Charles Town to near Washington, DC.  That is unfortunate.

Fleche route


This Ride: 235.2 miles
Month: 316.3 miles
2013: 1624.8 miles
Total since 1/1/2010: 21,397.7 miles

From → Cycling, Flèche

  1. permalink

    Congrats, my friend!

  2. Well, this is certainly very exciting! You managed to navigate the mean streets of Northern VA with little difficulty. Well done! Lorton and crossing the Occoquan is tricky business and I only travel Minnieville Road early on Sunday mornings. It was great to see you zipped along Hoadly Road (within four miles of my house) and Aden Road (a common route I use to the rural parts out west). Congratulations on a job well done and thanks for the great report!

  3. Charlie permalink

    Well done! You overcame significant adversity. Kudos to Theresa for hanging in there. I enjoyed the pictures of the exhausted bike and rider slumped into the basket. Surely this sense of humor contributed to your success.

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