Last weekend I joined 4 team mates, and about 56 other riders on 9 other teams, to participate in the DC Randonneurs’ annual Fleche ride. The Fleche is a long distance, self-supported ride covering at least 225 miles over 24 hours. Each team designs its own route, but all routes end at the same place – the Key Bridge Marriott in Roslyn, Va. – at about the same time, where we all meet for a club breakfast and exchange of stories. As with all things Randonneuring, there are rules and formalities, and the rules giveth and taketh. On the one hand, 225 miles over 24 hours does not require one to maintain a fast pace and the rules really do not permit you to finish early because you have to leave the final stop at the 22d hour of the ride and then ride at least 25 kilometers. It is not a race, but you do have to keep moving albeit at a comfortable pace. Also, being able to design your own route allows you to choose your meal and rest stops as well as the terrain, so you can ride the ride you want. On the other hand, the rules require you to ride through the night and generally keep moving, with stops more than 2 hours long not permitted. You also have to document that you stopped at the appropriate places to prove you rode the route, which means collecting receipts and keeping track of the receipts throughout the ride, which can be challenging as the hours and lack of sleep pile up.
This year was a new experience for me. I have ridden three previous Fleches, all with teams made up of friends with whom I had ridden before. This year, none of my regular friends was doing the Fleche, so posted an ISO Fleche Team on the Club listserve and was lucky enough to hook up with Jerry, who it turns out was also a friend of two former Fleche-mates. Jerry’s team was two riders short, so I joined Jerry, Steve, and Jose to make it four, and we were later joined by Georgi to make it a full team. The long DC winter and our conflicting travel schedules meant that I met Georgi, Steve, and Jose for the first time at the start of the Fleche. I was a bit apprehensive having never ridden with these guys before the Fleche, but it turned out just fine. We rode well as a team and got along great throughout the day and night.
Our route described a large circle northwest of DC. Starting at the White House we headed west through Poolesville and Leesburg and across the Shenandoah River in Virginia, then north through Shepherdstown, WV to Mont Alto, PA, then east over South Mountain to Gettysburg, and south through the night through Thurmont, Frederick, and the Maryland and DC suburbs to Roslyn. Here is the full map.
We met at the White House for ceremonial pictures and introductions at about 6:40 a.m. and then zipped up to a nearby Starbucks to get a last coffee and the first receipt of the day for our official 7:00 a.m. start. We were sent off by Rando/Coffee friends Ed and Mary, and rolled out through the quiet streets of downtown DC and Georgetown and into the Maryland suburbs. About 10 miles into the ride we noticed Georgi was no longer with us, and cyclists passing us told us he had flatted, so we circled back to help. A new tire proved tricky to get off and on and suddenly we were behind schedule. We also began to realize that the steady wind from the west/northwest was slowing us down. On the plus side, the day was gorgeous, with bright crisp sun, blue skies, and blossoms everywhere. The wind also kept the temperature cool, which made for comfortable riding. We reached our first break in Darnestown a bit behind schedule, raced through the Harris Teeter to get receipts and a candy bar, and then hit the road for Leesburg. The wind was really strong in this section, until the road turned a bit south and the wind was not in our faces. We had a nice break taking White’s Ferry across the Potomac and then rolled into Leesburg for a second breakfast stop at Mom’s Apple Pie. We treated ourselves to assorted baked treats – I had a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie and others enjoyed brownies and lemon squares. Biking long distances means never having to say you’re sorry for eating poorly!
After a nice break, we headed west on the WOD trail, where the wind again asserted itself. After leaving the trail in Purcellville, we enjoyed a fast run south on Airmont Rd, made a short stop for another receipt, and began a several mile slog up the Blue Ridge to Bluemont for yet another receipt stop. The scenery here is just spectacular, with the rolling hills of the piedmont framed by the Blue Ridge and the brilliant blue sky. We had a snack and refilled water bottles, and chatted with other cyclists. As we rolled out, we found ourselves slogging up the steepish climb over Snicker’s Gap with another Fleche team -- Team George Mason? We chatted for a few minutes until our routes split, and enjoyed a fast descent to the Shenandoah, and then made a turn north on the quiet roads of the Shenandoah Valley.
At first the road was perfect; right next to the river, sheltered from the winds, and lots of birdsong (and a glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker zipping by, and perhaps a hawk). But as we rolled along we saw an odd warning sign that we could not figure out at first, but quickly realized meant that the road was about to become unpaved. In general, that is fine, as many rural roads in the area are very rideable, hard-packed dirt roads. Unfortunately for us, however, this road had recently been “treated” to a fresh layer of loose gravel, which made riding very difficult, slow, and testing. The back tire kept slipping and the front tire kept sliding. Jerry and Steve were agile enough to ride through it all, but I was more cautious and walked up a couple of short rises rather than risk a fall.
I had been feeling less than great most of the day. In part it was due to riding with new folks and fighting with the wind, but mostly I think I had not eaten well that morning (maybe pie at 10 a.m. was not wise) and probably had not been drinking enough. I began to cramp a bit on this section and fell behind the others. Some Motrin and electrolyte pills, and the company of Georgi who hung back to keep me company, seemed to get me through this patch and we rolled as a group through the beautiful Virginia and West Virginia countryside to our late lunch stop in Shepherdstown at the Blue Moon Café.
We enjoyed a longish break, and some good, real food, before setting out on the next leg. The break was good, and we chatted, checked in with family, and ate well. Steve felt so good he had a beer or two!
Realizing we were still running late, we rolled out into the late afternoon for the run across Maryland and into Pennsylvania. We all felt good after lunch and kept together well, although the wind kept our pace a bit below expectations. We made it through the next two stops in Waynesboro and Mont Alto, Pennsylvania relatively quickly, although we took a few minutes in Waynesboro to eat a snack and put on our nighttime lights and reflective gear as the sun was getting low. We had hoped to make it over South Mountain, and its steep descent, before dark, but we did not make it. We made it most of the way up the long, steady climb in the fading light, but by the time we began our descent night was falling. The climb was good. I was the slowest of the bunch by a few minutes, but the chirping frogs and rushing stream were good company on the climb.
We regrouped at the top and stayed together on the descent. Our collection of lights made it pretty easy to see the road. As night fell, we rode in an eerie bubble of our lights and each other, but with no real sense of what was around us or where we were. It was a bit surreal and very peaceful with virtually no traffic on the road. The descent was long and fun, and after a couple of final hills we rolled into Gettysburg for our late dinner.
Jerry had chosen an Italian restaurant he had used on a prior Fleche, and it hit the spot. My spinach calzone was great, and everyone devoured their meals. We then rested for a while as the staff closed up for the night and we tried to cat nap for a few minutes. By about 11 we realized it was past time for us to go, and in fact we were running late enough that we needed to step up the pace to make up lost time. We also realized it was getting cold, so we all bundled up in everything we had and headed out.
Luckily, the section from Gettysburg to Thurmont is mostly flat or trending down, so we made good time. Again, the peaceful quiet of riding through the night made this a great section, and we rolled into the Sheetz in Thurmont for a rest. We took a few minutes to have a coffee and snack before setting out. By this point, our schedule was shot and we realized we might not make the 22 hour stop in time. We decided to take a slight shortcut and follow the minimum legal route on the wide shoulder on US 15 rather than the slightly more winding route we had planned. I had done this a few years earlier and led the way as we tried to make up time. We enjoyed a brisk and fast run from Thurmont to Frederick.
After a quick stop in Frederick to adjust a loose wire on my lights and have a quick snack, we headed out for what I think is the toughest section of the route: the 25 or so miles down MD 355 to the IHOP in Gaithersburg. This section is all up and down, and comes at the time in the ride when the legs are tired and the mind is frazzled. I think we all struggled in this section. We stopped to regroup and I simply could not figure out how to open my pill bottle for some Motrin; Steve had to help me out! We were treated to a beautiful moon rise, though, and we knew the miles were ticking by so we kept on pedaling and joking to keep the spirits up. Eventually, and finally, we got to the IHOP with about 20 minutes to spare. There were a few other Fleche teams there and we exchanged greetings and commiserations about the wind and miles. They all headed out and we finished our early breakfasts and gathered ourselves for the last push.
The last section took us straight down Rockville Pike and Wisconsin Ave. It is very odd to ride this road, notorious for its traffic, in the predawn hours on a Sunday morning with NO traffic. We pedaled on, keeping one eye on the clock to make sure we were on pace and one eye to the east as the sun rose. The rising sun gave us a boost, but that was offset as the traffic lights switched from flashing yellow to red & green, but by this time we felt comfortable that we would make it on time. The last run down a heavily pot-holed Wisconsin Ave. was highlighted with the sun rising behind the National Cathedral. Finally we got to Georgetown and crested the final rise to see the Marriott framed in the sun. Kind of sad to think that heaven turned out to be a Marriott in Roslyn, VA, but after 24 hours on the road heaven is where you are going to stop.
We passed cherry blossoms at their peak and stopped for final pictures on the Key Bridge before rolling into the Marriott with 15 minutes to spare.
Lots of other teams were already in, and others coming in behind us, so there was lots of chatter as we exchanged greetings and stories, and then began to sort through our receipts to turn in our paperwork.
Finally, we went into the dining room and enjoyed a second breakfast and more stories with more teams. After a nice meal and camaraderie it was time to ride home. Jerry and I headed out and took it VERY slow through downtown and Columbia Heights. Sunday was simply spectacular, and we stopped to peel off a few layers as the day warmed up. I dropped Jerry off and pushed on for the last three miles to home, shower, and a nap.
All in all a tough but rewarding ride. The wind really took a toll, both physically and mentally, but the scenery, the challenge, and the camaraderie made for a great adventure. I am really grateful to my teammates for slowing up to let me catch up on the hills and when my legs were cramping, and I hope I repaid my debt by taking my time in the wind. I also want to thank Georgi for the photos. Every time I do this ride I am struck by how much fun the ride through the night is; so quiet and peaceful and eerily beautiful. A great, fun time and a hard day’s night.