Looking at the DC Randonneurs calendar for 2014, I decided not to ride the fleche. First, I wasn't sure if I could handle the 360 km (223 mile) minimum distance, since I hadn't finished a ride that long since fall 2012. And I particularly didn't want to fail to finish a team event, where I'd be hurting my teammates not just myself. Second, it was scheduled for the week before the 400 km brevet, so even if I could finish, I might not be able to recover, and might end up having to miss the 400.
After the 300 km brevet, two weeks before fleche, George W. asked if I might want a spot on his fleche team. I was sore and tired after a poor finish to that ride, so I told him I was not interested. Then, a few days later, Nick asked me the same question via email. By then I was no longer sore and the pain of the last 20 miles of the 300 had started to recede from my memory, so I changed my mind and decided to ride. (Without such selective memory, there would be no endurance sports. We'd all be smart enough to stick to non-painful distances.)
Just a few days before the fleche, Christian crashed his bike on gravel and had to withdraw from the team, leaving us with only 4 riders. We were prepared to ride with 4, but then Dave S., who had previously dropped out of the team, decided to rejoin, so we were back to the full 5.
We had some a few small changes to last year's route. An optional gravel detour (to avoid a few miles on high-traffic Route 522) was added to the route, but everyone except Nick decided not to take it. The Westover 7-11 closed, so we changed the start control to the Wells Fargo ATM next door. Tolliver's Grocery (with barbeque) and Baker's Store weren't really needed to guarantee the 360 km distance, so they were removed as controls. The updated route is here.
The pre-ride forecast was for about 50 degrees and dry at the start, wind and a 25% chance of rain during the day Saturday, a high around 75, and then a low in the low 40s Saturday night. So we had to be prepared for cold, wet, and sun. So I packed bike shorts, a poly jersey, sunscreen, a rain jacket, tights, arm warmers, a wool jersey, a balaclava, a reflective vest, fingerless gloves, full gloves, lobster claws, cotton socks, wool socks, and shoe covers. So I was prepared for any conceivable weather, at the cost of having my bags stuffed with clothes.
Nick invited us to crash in his basement, since his house is right near the start of the route. George and Mike and I accepted his offer, while Dave decided to sleep at home and meet us before the ride. I ate dinner (burritos), packed my bike and left my house around 5:30 Friday night. Unfortunately it was raining hard, which probably made rush hour traffic worse, so it took me about 90 minutes to go 26 miles to Nick's house. Hindsight says Dave made the right call, since there's no traffic at 3 a.m.
We went to bed by 8:30, but I couldn't fall asleep until about 11. And the alarm went off at 3:30. So a solid 4.5 hours of sleep. We were all ready to go by 4:30, and rolled downhill to the start a few minutes before 5. I paid the $3 foreign ATM usage fee to take out $20 that I didn't actually need, just to generate an ATM receipt that proved I was there just before 5:00. It was around 50 degrees, and I was kind of chilly in my wool jersey, arm warmers, light tights, and light gloves. But I figured I'd get hot if I put on my jacket, so I left it in the bag and dealt with the chill.
The route did about a mile on mostly-empty Arlington streets, and then joined the mostly-empty W&OD Trail for the next 38 miles. We saw a bunch of rabbits, a pair of deer, and a couple of joggers in the pre-dawn dark. Then the sun came up and we saw a few early-morning riders and more joggers. Around the Loudoun County line, the group split up, with George and me out front. But we kept the pace reasonable and the others eventually caught up. It turned out there was a 5k run on the trail, but we didn't see any big crowds, so either it was a small run or we got through before it started. I needed to use the porta-potty in Hamilton, so I charged off the front intending to finish before anyone else caught up and avoid slowing the group. But this plan failed when a couple of other riders decided they also wanted to use the facility.
We reached the McDonalds in Purcellville right around 8, on schedule. The people working there had a hard time with the concept of initialing our brevet cards, but we eventually got one to do it. This McDonalds had calorie counts for each item right on the menu, probably not to help endurance riders get as many calories as possible to avoid bonking. I had a sausage and egg biscuit with hash browns and orange juice. It was okay. Our schedule said we had 18 minutes at McDonalds, which I thought was optimistic, and indeed it took us more like 20. Close enough.
The next part of the route was really nice, but kind of hilly. We went south from Purcellville, down Snickersville Turnpike and Sam Fred Road to Middleburg. At this point I was feeling great. George and I were taking turns at the front, with periodic stops to regroup. I didn't know it at the time but Dave was having problems on some of the climbs. (He looked fine to me.) We went through Middleburg and turned onto Halfway Road toward The Plains. I didn't see the other 3 riders, but George thought they may have just turned one street early and cut over on the back road, which indeed they had. They caught up, and all rode as a group for a while, with a couple of stops to deal with minor equipment issues.
George and I went off the front again, and waited for the rest at the 55 intersection, as a huge group of motorcycles (I think a charity ride for veterans) went by. A few minutes later, when my hearing had recovered, we started rolling down 55 to the east. It wasn't very crowded (the motorcycles were going west) so it was a very pleasant ride up and down the big rollers. Nick and George and I were together in front, with the others not far behind. At mile 66 we turned off 55 onto Blantyre, and that's when I first started to get a bit tired, as George's pace was a bit fast for me and I watched him pull away into the distance. The turn onto uphill Blackwell Road surprised me, and I didn't shift down quickly enough, and got a horrible crunching noise from my drivetrain. Fortunately, it was only chain suck, and I'd stopped pedaling before the chain could do any damage to the front derailleur. So I unjammed it and continued.
At one point on Blackwell Road, I was zooming down a nice straight descent enjoying the breeze and not paying enough attention to the road surface. When suddenly a giant pothole appeared right in front of me. I had to very quickly choose between trying to swerve around it (and maybe falling), trying to bunny hop it (and probably failing), or just hitting it (and probably wrecking a tire and maybe a rim). I swerved, and somehow missed it. I paid more attention after that; the rough winter has given us a bumper crop of potholes.
I rolled into the Sheetz outside Warrenton around 11:15, a few minutes ahead of schedule. George was already there but hadn't gone inside yet. I stayed out to watch bikes while he went in, then when he came out I went in to get food, and while I was getting food everyone else arrived. So we were still on schedule. I had a meatball sub and an ice cream cookie sandwich, both of which were good.
We left the Sheetz as a group and climbed through hilly downtown Warrenton. That part features lots of turns so I stayed off the front to avoid leading others astray. In a couple of miles we got onto Springs Road heading out of town, which had some traffic and some hills but was nice enough. I was still feeling pretty good, but George was clearly faster. We mostly stayed together for the next several miles, until Rixeyville. There was too much traffic on Rixeyville for my liking, so I decided to take it fast to get off it sooner, and as a result pulled ahead. I stopped at Ma & Pa's market to wait for the others. George pulled in right behind, the others a couple minutes later, and we decided to not stop at Ma & Pa's and instead stop at Reuwer's Store in 10 more miles. Since it had been 20 miles since Sheetz, I ate a really nasty-tasting Roctane gel. (I bought a Gu variety box a while back, so it's like those Bernie Botts Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter, a random mix of yummy and vile flavors. Next time I'll just get a box of all vanilla. Boring but safe.)
The next road was Monumental Mills, which was apparently paved with a cheese grater. It was super-buzzy and I felt most of my pedaling effort going to fight road friction. Definitely the kind of road where fat tires make you faster and 25mm tires make you sad. Luckily we were only on it for 4 miles, and my speed picked back up afterward. There were some more hills on Eggbornsville and then we were at the Reuwer's Store stop. George was ahead of me again, and I was a bit tired but still doing okay. I had a Vanilla Coke, and for the second ride in a row it didn't sit well in my stomach, so I'll be avoiding soda on my next ride.
Our group fragmented again on the next section. George was still very strong, and got far enough ahead of me that I couldn't see him except on long straight sections. So when I got to the Reva Road T intersection, and had to choose between left and right, and the cue sheet said "S", I was stuck. I decided to just wait there until someone else caught up, rather than guessing. Dave caught me a couple minutes later, and his GPS said to turn right, so I went with him. We rode together until mile 115, when I had to stop to flip my cue sheet and note the problem so Nick could fix it before next year. That let Dave get far enough ahead that I couldn't see him when I got confused again by a turn at mile 116. So I waited for Nick and Mike, who arrived a couple minutes later and reassured me that I was on course. I rode with them until we reached 29, a fast high-traffic road with a decent half-shoulder. We rode the shoulder for a while, then Nick said he knew how to exit the highway early and take a calmer parallel road to the control. So I followed him and it was indeed much nicer. And we reached the 124-mile Madison McDonald's control, where George and Dave were waiting. Mike was just a minute or two behind us. We were still on schedule.
At McDonalds, I consulted the convenient calorie counts on the menu sign and saw that the Double Quarter Pounder had the most of any burger on the menu, so I got that. With fries and a Coke. (I'd already forgotten that the earlier Vanilla Coke hadn't sat well in my stomach.) The burger and fries were excellent, with the salt on the fries tasting extra-good (so maybe I was low on salt?), but the Coke was flat. Not just one flavor: the whole fountain. George told them, but they didn't fix it, at least not in the 45 minutes we were there. [Note to fast food managers: if a huge percentage of your profit margin comes from marking up a few cents worth of branded fizzy sugar water, you had better make really sure the soda is consistently good. Being lazy about quality control here will cause your customers to switch from high-profit soda to free water.] Everyone seemed to be in pretty good spirits; there was a lot of picture-taking and Facebook posting.
Someone mentioned that, with the Baker's Store control removed from the route, the next water stop might not be for 45 miles. (There's a store on Ely's Ford around mile 158 but we weren't sure if it would still be open.) This concerned me a bit because I only had 66 ounces of water on my bike: 2 Zefal Magnum bottles and no Camelbak. But we were approaching dusk and it wasn't that hot (probably low 70s), so it might be enough. And if it wasn't, I could always go a bit off-route to Baker's Store.
We put on our reflective gear (it wasn't quite dark yet but would be pretty soon) and left Madison as a group. A few miles later we fragmented again; George was off the front, then Dave and I, then Nick and Mike. But Nick took the gravel shortcut detour while the rest of us took 522, so when we reached the turn off 522 onto Algonquin Trail, Nick was waiting for us along with George. We waited a minute for Mike to catch up, and watered some trees, and ate some snacks, and then did the really nice Algonquin – Batna – Lignum stretch. George and Nick were up front, with Mike and Dave and I behind but within sight. I was starting to tire a bit. Mike and I both wanted to stop for a bit to switch sunglasses for clear glasses, so I suggested the Lignum post office, and went forward to the leaders to convey the message. We stopped for a couple of minutes in Lignum right at dusk, then George thought we were taking too long and started riding again, which was very effective at getting the rest of us moving.
The plan was to stay together after dark, but we failed, and ended up splitting into two groups, with George and Nick and I in front and Dave and Mike behind. We crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, having decided to stop at M&P Pizza at mile 170 instead of the Inn at Kelly's Ford at mile 163. (We were afraid there might be a long wait for food at the Inn.) There's a big hill on Sumerduck right after the river crossing, which my legs didn't like much. George was still really strong and accidentally dropped Nick and me, which cost him when he missed the turn onto Courtney's Corner. We were still within sight, and did a lot of yelling and whistling, but he didn't hear us, so we stopped and waited for him to realize his mistake. He did, and decided to stay behind us for a while. I didn't really feel like navigating in the dark so I stayed behind Nick, and the three of us continued at a sane pace for the next 5 miles to pizza. I was definitely tiring, at around the same distance where I got tired on the 300 two weeks earlier. (So I guess the 300 didn't really help.)
We got to M&P Pizza at mile 170 right on schedule, and Dave and Mike arrived a few minutes later. Dave got a flat tire right before he reached the restaurant, close enough to walk the bike there and fix it later. Mike wasn't going well; he had an upset stomach. I ordered spaghetti, which was pretty good, and a vanilla milkshake, which was okay. Mike didn't want to eat anything, but Nick made him get some spaghetti and he ate a tiny bit of it. He also took some antacid, which eventually helped some. But Mike didn't look good at all and there was some discussion of what we'd do if he couldn't finish. Dave and I hadn't finished a fleche before, and Nick needed to be at the finish on time to receive the other fleche teams, so Nick thought George should stay with Mike if needed. George wasn't so happy about that. Of course we all preferred for Mike to finish, but it didn't look likely. After an hour of eating and resting and tire-fixing, Mike was willing to give it a shot, and we resolved to all stay together to look after him. I developed a bad case of gas and decided to stay at the back as much as possible to avoid fumigating my teammates.
After M&P, we were on Elk Run for over 9 miles. There was some traffic so we mostly stayed single file, with Nick leading then George, Dave, Mike, and me bringing up the rear. After a very long pull, Nick asked to move back, so George took over at the front. We eventually pulled over for a brief rest on Aden Road, with a view of a field of McMansions in the middle of nowhere. We turned onto 234 (old-style small road portion), then onto 234 (might-as-well-be-an-interstate portion), and then onto Minnieville Road. I grew up in Dale City so Minnieville is familar to me, but there's been so much construction since that I only recognized the older bits mixed in between the new stuff. I pulled the group down Minnieville, but it was hilly and I pulled a bit too fast on a couple of uphills (I guess the spaghetti and milkshake kicked in) and had to be slowed down. Then, right as we approached the Dale Blvd. intersection, my chain got sucked into my front derailleur again. Second time on the ride, so I knew what it was instantly and fixed it (without lasting damage) quickly. It's a new chain, and I might need to shorten it a bit. Also, the switch in one of my taillights failed, and the light was periodically turning itself off. That's why you always ride with at least two. Of course, that one is getting smashed with a hammer and replaced before the 400.
We continued down Minnieville all the way to Old Bridge, then turned right toward Lake Ridge. There was some traffic but the roads are wide and have lots of shoulders and right turn lanes so we were able to mostly stay away from it. Old Bridge turns into windy twisty downhill sweepers as it approaches the Occoquan River, and I had a hard time keeping my hands off the brake levers so I could keep contact with the group. Unfortunately, what goes down must go back up, and after we crossed the bridge into Fairfax County we had to climb a long way up the debris-strewn shoulder of 123. Luckily nobody got a flat. After way too long on 123 we got to turn onto usually-low-traffic Lorton Road, but there were tons of cars coming the other way. (Apparently there was a big backup on I-95 that people were avoiding.) We had several more miles of rollers before reaching the 209-mile control at a Lorton 7-11 around 1:30 in the morning, a few minutes behind schedule.
It was only supposed to be a 5-minute stop but Mike was pretty beat and it took a few extra minutes to get him moving. He seemed fine on the bike but in bad shape off it. I think it was upset stomach leading to inability to eat or drink much leading to bonk and dehydration. We discussed whether to make our 22-hour control stop at a 7-11 in Springfield or at the Silver Diner in the ruins of Springfield Mall. (There's a big hole in the side of JC Penney, along with a sign that says it's still open during construction.) I thought we agreed on the 7-11, but then George lobbied for the Silver Diner because it was getting chilly and he thought sitting in a warm booth was much better than sitting on a cold stoop, even if we had to ride a few miles out of our way, and we decided he was right. I wasn't navigating at all anymore, just following wheels and hoping someone knew where we were going. There was some confusion in the mall parking lot but we eventually found the Silver Diner and pulled in around 2:10 in the morning.
The 5 of us walked in in our matching reflective vests, to the amusement of the local teenagers. I ordered a BLT, George got a milkshake, Dave got some soup, and Nick and Mike did some napping. We had to stay until 3 a.m. per fleche rules, designed to force you to take almost the full 24 hours rather than just zooming to the finish. (That rule wasn't really needed for our team, except George. We needed the time.) Eventually 3:00 approached and we had to pay our bill and get back on our bikes. It was only 17 miles to the finish and we had 2 hours to do it, but Mike was still not looking great, and I was pretty tired too. We had to go down this crazy slalom trail under the Beltway with turns that were sharp enough that I had to put a foot down. Then we got to drive through normally-busy Alexandria with almost no cars, which was surreal. We ran every red light after verifying there were no cars around; the only time there was a car coming, four of us yelled "car left" in quadrophonic stereo, as if we'd spotted something rare, wonderful, and dangerous.
Five miles from the end, we just had to get on the Mt. Vernon Trail. But — surprise — the bridge over the Four Mile Run was out, with a detour sign. So we tried to follow the detour to cross the stream on a road and rejoin the trail, but (as usual) the detour signs weren't as numerous or well-placed as they should have been, so we spent several minutes hunting for a way across. I was about to suggest that we give up on the trail and just take roads to the finish, when someone found the next detour sign and we made it across the stream and back onto the trail. The Mt. Vernon trail is a handful at night — it's narrow, twisty, bumpy, and poorly marked. (During the day it can also be crowded, but that wasn't a problem at 4 a.m.) Luckily it's on Nick's regular commute route, so he was able to lead us to the finish with no problems.
We rolled into the Key Bridge Marriott well ahead of our 5:00 deadline, and got to do our paperwork then wait for all the other teams to arrive. (We were first at 5, with most of the other teams finishing between 6 and 7. This was because we started earlier, not because we were faster.) We got a bit of sleep on the lobby's couches and chairs, then the hotel started waking up. There was a women's half marathon starting a couple of hours later, so we got to chat with a few runners. Then there was a steady stream of arriving fleche teams, and a buffet breakfast.
We all finished. Mike looked a lot better after he got off the bike, but he and Dave and I were all pretty worn out. George and Nick looked ready for some more riding. We ate our buffet breakfast pretty early, then went back to greet arriving riders. George rode to where his van was parked, then went home. Dave and I didn't want to ride 5 uphill miles to Nick's house where our cars were parked, so we hung out until all the festivities were done and squeezed into Nick and Jan's minivan. I was very tired, but had napped enough in the lobby that I felt safe to drive home, so I did that, then slept from 9 to 2.
Any fleche where the whole team finishes and nobody gets hurt is a success. I was happy with my riding in the first half but disappointed that I faded so badly at the end. Unfortunately, there's only one week until the 400, not long enough to do much about it. Dragging your fatigued body along at 10 mph for the last few miles is an important skill that I wish I didn't get to practice so often.