A few months ago, bmike contacted me with the idea of forming a team for Don Podolski's April 21st Westfield Fleche. For non-randonneurs on the forum, a fleche is essentially a non-competitive team endurance event. It occurs over the course of 24 hours, with a team riding from a location of their choice, to a destination chosen by the organizer. Various teams ride different routes, starting at different times to prevent one team from intersecting with another's ride. The route is left up to the team, but the main conditions are that the route must cover 360km in a straight line between your chosen controls, you cannot stop at any one control for more than 2 hours, and that you must ride the last 25 km of your route between the 22nd and 24th hour.
Therefore, everything about the fleche is intended to keep the team together and discourage fast-paced riding. It doesn't matter if you finish at 23:45 or 23:55, just finish with your team together. A team can be anywhere from three to five vehicles, with tandems counting as one vehicle.
So, begins the story of a fateful trip ...
We started with a roster of bmike, myself, Kevin, Tom and his wife Eva on a tandem, and my friend Forest. Kevin was a seasoned randonneur with past PBP and BMB experience. Tom was in his second year of randoneering and completed BMB last ear. Both bmike and I rode up to the 600k of last year's series and Forest was a rookie who had done centuries and multi-day rides with us previously. So, not an encyclopedic level of experience, but not novices by any stretch. We got along together and generally had a great deal of confidence in ourselves, and were looking forward to a weekend of riding at a leisurely pace. The route that we picked was a moderately difficult itinerary, with a flat, but scenic jaunt through the western suburbs of Boston, a northern detour to Nashua, NH to add distance for the 360km requirement, rolling traverse of New Hampshire and Vermont, and then an easy tour of the Connecticut River valley, with another brief detour to Belchertown.
Unfortunately, due to concerns about surgery, bmike had to bow out of the team and postpone his 2007 randoneering season. We were sorry to see our mastermind go, but were determined to continue. We were originally concerned with the weather, but forecasts for this weekend were for 60s and 70s with sunny skies. This was fortunate as both Forest and I had been fending off a fairly stubborn cold for the past two weeks. I was still coughing a fair amount on the day of the fleche, but I felt ok on my commutes to work. We also realized that if either of us bowed out now, the team would be down to its minimum number of participants and wouldn't not be able to afford another loss.
So, on the day of the fleche, we were scheduled to depart at 7pm. I arrived at the start, Tom and Eva's South End apartment, to see that Kevin was there already and helping Tom troubleshoot an issue with the hydraulic disc brake on the tandem. The problem couldn't be resolved, and as 6pm rolled around, Eva convinced Tom to abandon the idea of the tandem and just ride solo with us. So, while Eva quickly cooked us a pasta dinner, Tom hurriedly began transferring his gear to his Serotta.
We got on the road a little late, probably 7:15 pm or so, and had to wrestle with rush hour traffic to get out of the city. We scheduled our first control for a Peet's coffee in downtown Lexington and were slightly dismayed to see that we were already running slightly behind our pace. It was an 75 minutes into the fleche and we had only covered 11 miles due to stop lights and a slow start.
However, we were now out of the city and in the open roads of the suburbs, and so we sped through Lexington, determined to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, the dark suburban night made it difficult to navigate by the back roads that we had designated. So, after a few missed turns, we decided to ditch the low traffic backroads and aim for numbered local highways. At least then, navigation would be simpler, and riding at night meant that we wouldn't have to worry about auto traffic too much.
Nonetheless, even with a faster pace, we had more to worry about than just missed turns. A long, thin crack on the road missed our notice until it was too late, and both Kevin and I hit it fairly hard. Kevin's rear tire got a pinch flat, and we pulled over to the driveway of a nearby house so that he could change his tire while illuminated by all of our helmet lamps. On the porch of the house, a bunch of college kids partying on a Friday night, offered us beers and a chance to fix the tire indoors, but by then, Kevin was almost done and we were on our way.
While I was hoping that my cold wasn't "that bad", I was noticing that my legs were beginning to cramp early in the ride. Almost any hill steeper than 3% brought me a twinge of pain. The night was getting colder as well, and I was only dressed in a light, waterproof jacket, fleece leggings and a pair of wool gloves. I had warmer clothes in my rack trunk, but thought that I would wait until our second control in Clinton before changing. We had already lost enough time as it is.
We arrived in Clinton at 11pm, four hours and 43 miles into the fleche. Our moving average was pretty good, but we had lost a lot of time with navigation and mechanicals. We spent about 20 minutes at a Dunkin' Donuts and a 24 hour gas station before heading north to Harvard, Ayer, Groton and, finally, Nashua.
I forgot to change into my cold layer.
By midnight, the temperature had fallen to about mid to low 40s and my core was beginning to feel chilled. My cough was getting worse and my breath was starting wheeze. As we rode through Groton, I realized that we were all of five miles away from a friend's house, and I brief contemplated the idea of abandoning the ride somewhere safe, but dismissed it both as weakness and as somewhat rude to wake up friends with an unannounced visit at midnight.
We made it to Nashua to see that the cops were out in force. Friday night, rowdy drunken kids everywhere, and the only place that was open was a 24 hour Denny's. The Denny's was, of course, crowded. It was 2:00 am, 7 hours in and 75 miles covered. We didn't have time to wait for a table, and so, instead opted for a nearby gas station and grabbed fig newtons, breakfast sandwiches, and some coffee. This time, I remembered to throw on my fleece clothing.
The original plan was to take a series of country roads running parallel to the New Hampshire border, before jumping on Rt. 119 to Brattleboro, which we had ridden as part of the 600k last year, and I remembered as being fairly mild and beautiful territory. Instead, because of the time we lost with navigating, we opted the more straightforward route of 101 to Keene to 9. What we didn't realize, at the time, was that 101 to Keene was a 33 mile, 2000 ft. climb and that there was another 1500 ft. ascent between Keene and Brattleboro.
By this point, my legs were shot and while I just focused on eating and spinning my way up, the cramping in my legs was restricting the amount of power I could generate. I was trying to be conscientious about eating properly, going through packets of Gu and Clif bars to offset the fatigue, but it was getting increasingly difficult to keep track of time. Outside Peterborough, muscles just behind my knees both seized up and I nearly toppled off the bike, but unclipped and walked a hundred or so yards while trying to work out at least one of the cramps enough so that I could remount my bike and pedal on. The guys waited for me patiently at the top of the rise, and I felt terrible for holding them back.
Eventually, we arrived at a 24 hour gas station outside Dublin, NH. It was almost 6am, 11 hours into the ride and we had only covered 114 miles. Forest asked how I was doing, and I said that if I could get to Brattleboro, sit down and get a decent breakfast, I could probably be ok. Everybody looked at me like I was mad, stubborn, or both. I took a sip of ocffee, then thought about it further and realized that the guys were doing far better than I was, and it wasn't fair for me to hold them back, so I changed my mind and told them that they should go on and make up for the time that we were losing. Tom asked me what my plan was, I and said that I could probably get to Keene, get a decent meal, and then make my back on my own power. I figured that I could recall most of the return route on the 600 and could get home with a bit of rest and recuperation. Tom looked at me again and reminded me that we were 114 miles from home, and Eva had offered to pick up any of us if anything happened. So, I called up Eva, apologized for waking her and asked for a pickup. The guys made their goodbyes. Tom congratulated me on "a valiant effort." Then they were gone. I found a corner of the gas station, pulled out a milk crate and slept for 30 minutes.
On getting up, I felt a little better, and a part of me wanted to chase the guys down and possibly see if I could catch them at breakfast in Brattleboro, but I realized that Eva was on her way, and it would be selfish of me to have her come up, only to have to chase me further down if I encountered some kind of mishap between here and Vermont. Still, eventhough my lungs felt terrible, I didn't like abandoning.
Eventually, Eva showed up, packed me and the bike in the car and drove me home. My girlfriend was sympathetic as I explained the sordid story to her. She rubbed some Vicks on my chest after my shower and bundled me off to bed. It was almost 10 am, and I figured that the team was somewhere around Deerfield by then. I was hoping that they were having fun.
I got up at 3pm and staggered around the house for a bit, eating whatever wasn't nailed down and checking on my bike to give my mind something to occupy itself. At 6pm, Forest called me and told me that he and Tom had just finished. I asked if Kevin was just a little behind them.
"Kevin didn't make it," he said.
It turned out that 6 miles out of our last control at Easthampton, Kevin had a mishap with his rear wheel and suffered a pretty severe crash. His bike was totalled, but his injuries didn't seem to be too severe. Kevin had a friend in Northampton to pick him up, but now that it was only Forest and Tom, the team had too few members to qualify. Nonetheless, the two of them pressed on to finish the ride, just for the sake of finishing.
Despire the failure of the team to complete, and the fact that we were all clearly frustrated with the outcome, Forest reminded me that it was still the right decision for me to have abandoned when I did. Apparently the Rt. 9 segment between Keene and Brattleboro was also pretty brutal, and Kevin, who had finished Quadzilla, multiple B-M-B's and one PBP, said, upon arriving in Brattleboro, that this was the hardest 200k that he had ever done. Still doesn't stop me from going through the what-if's; like "what-if I had been more sensible about staying warm" or "what-if I remembered to stretch between controls to keep my muscles from cramping" or "what-if I just pressed on to Brattleboro and got my second wind" or "what-if I never got this stupid, long-lasting cold in the first place."
but there are no what-if, only what-was. What we had was a collection of five distance riders who, together, hadn't been that familiar with each other when this effort began, and now were friends. What e experienced was another excellent test of our capabilities, self-supported in the truest sense with no logistical assistance from any of the organizers. What we saw was a Friday night in New England, rife with people who looked at us in awe and amazement as we explained what we were trying to do -- riding for 240 miles across the breadth of the region for no other reason than just because we could do it and could revel in that experience with 8 other teams who shared that ambition.
I'm already looking forward to the 300k next week. I only hope to ditch this cough by then.