I'd never ridden a fleche, because it had always conflicted with my daughter's birthday. This year the fleche was a week earlier, finally giving me a chance to ride it, so I started looking for a team. (Then my wife moved my daughter's party up a week until it conflicted with the fleche, but at that point I was committed. Can't win.) The first team to accept me was Team Blue, captained by RBA Nick and featuring George, Christian, and Dave. I'd ridden with all of them before, and I knew Nick was super-organized and had a well-tested route, so the only problem was riding 233 miles in 24 hours.
After losing my bike commute in September, not riding enough all winter, and being very slow in both 200 km brevets I'd ridden in the early spring, I was pretty worried about finishing in time. Luckily fleche pace is pretty slow, a bit under 10 mph, so as long as I kept pedaling I should be okay. I did a bunch of short rides between the Urbana 200 and the fleche, but still felt undertrained. And I was a bit worried about my right knee, which had been sore since Urbana. I had figured it was just spring knee from ramping up mileage too quickly, but the pain was on the outside like ITBS. It wasn't that bad the week before the fleche, though, so I packed some Ibuprofin and figured I'd just deal with it.
The weather forecast said it would be dry, with lows in the mid-30s and highs in the mid-50s. Not bad for early April. It was about 39 degrees at 5 a.m. at the 7-11 in Arlington when we started the ride. Warm enough that I didn't put on my jacket or shoe covers. Dave agreed and said he was getting a bit warm a few miles into the ride, so I thought I got it right. But then it started getting colder, as we descended into the moist valley between Reston and Vienna on the W&OD trail. I didn't really feel like stopping to put on more clothes, though, so I just lived with being chilly, as the temperature dropped to 34 degrees. Luckily it was still above freezing, so the puddles in low spots were water not ice. Having commuted on the W&OD trail for years, I enjoyed not having to worry about navigation for once, just deer and early-morning joggers.
As we approached the end of the trail in Purcellville, we were a few minutes behind schedule. Nick didn't want to speed up and burn energy early in the day, so instead we decided to control at the 7-11 instead of the McDonalds, and try to get through the control fast. But that ended up not happening, and impatience split the group, as Nick and George took off, followed by Dave, then me, as Christian was still putting his gloves and helmet. I saw Dave up the road and sprinted to catch up, but Christian was out of sight, so I rode to the front to ask George to slow down a bit, then we waited for Christian to catch us. He eventually did, though not until Nick and I were starting to worry that he had a flat or something, and I dropped back to ride with Christian and make sure he was okay. Unfortunately we soon missed a turn while chatting and rode a bonus mile, not what you want to do when you're behind.
Nick took a pit stop, so we caught him, and I decided to ride ahead to catch Dave and George and make sure they weren't too far ahead of us. But I heard a clicking from my rear wheel on a downhill, and stopped to diagnose the problem. One of my seatstay-mounted taillights was a bit loose. Two of the pre-ride rules I've learned through painful experience are not to mess with the bike the night before a long ride, and to replace taillight batteries before a long ride. Unfortunately it's impossible to obey both of these simultaneously: it appears that when replacing the batteries I dislodged the taillight a bit.
My initial hurried taillight tightening didn't stick, and when the light came loose again I got off the bike, ate a Clif Bar, took off a layer of clothes, and tightened the light better. This put me behind everyone, so I burned some energy riding back quickly. At that point I was approaching Middleburg alone. I made another wrong turn (626 north is two blocks away from 626 south, not directly across from it like you'd expect if highway design made sense) and rode another 1.2 bonus miles, then corrected my course and got onto Halfway Road toward the plains farther behind my teammates and more annoyed at myself. I rode harder, and eventually saw Nick and Christian stopped ahead next to a closed store. I pulled in next to them to remove the taillight that had just come loose yet again, intending to reinstall it before nightfall. (Though I always use two taillights in case one fails, so I'd be okay even without doing so.) Christian had just told Nick that his hip injury from last year's Cascade 1200 had come back, and that he needed to abort the ride and head back for Arlington before he got too far away to do so. We were about 60 miles into the ride. Nick gave me a Ziploc bag to keep the little taillight hardware from getting lost under all the jujnk in handlebar bag, and we said goodbye to Christian and resumed riding, hoping that George and Dave had the patience to wait for us at the 75-mile control. We continued down Halfway (very pretty road, with occasional traffic) to the Plains, then east on VA 55 (fast two-lane highway, moderate traffic) for a few miles, then off south toward Warrenton.
When we got to the Sheetz they were indeed waiting for us. They said they'd only been there for a couple of minutes, because they'd stopped briefly in The Plains and sent Nick a text (which Nick didn't notice). We all grabbed some food; mine was a large yogurt concoction, which Dave said didn't look like enough lunch for me, but it was really only elevensies not lunch, and I had lots of Clif Bars and Gu packets on the bike if I got hungry before the next stop.
The four of us rode together through the hilly old downtown part of Warrenton, which was a bit crowded, and then down nice suburban highways. George had been leading the whole previous section and didn't want to set the pace for a while, so the other three of us switched off. My previously-injured knee started to ache a bit, and at noon I stopped for a second to take two Ibuprofin. Traffic was light and friendly, until out of nowhere a crazy SUV came flying past us at about double the speed limit, despite an oncoming car. I was in third position and slowed down, fearing that the psyco would swerve right into us to avoid the head-on crash. Luckily the oncoming car had a good driver, who stopped (despite having the right of way) to give the psycho more room, and he made it around everyone without impact. But rather than continuing on his deranged way, he stopped and waited for us to catch up so that he could scream at us for a while. Dave backed way off, fearing that the guy might turn around and try to run us over, while Nick and George discussed the Virginia highway code with the nut job, and I memorized his plate number in case he ran one of them over and I needed to call the cops. Luckily his passengers talked him down and he eventually left without any real harm, but a nut case with a two-ton weapon can ruin the mood even if he doesn't actually hit you.
So we watched carefully for the psycho in case he came back at us and we needed to bail off the road, and discussed the multi-time drunk driver who killed our friend Stan a couple of years ago and was up for parole. The only silver lining was that my knee had stopped hurting; either the Ibuprofin from earlier had finally kicked in or the adrenaline from almost being run over was helping. We made it to the 104-mile control at Tolliver's Grocery / Sonny's BBQ, and everyone ordered a pork barbecue sandwich. Unfortunately there were a bunch of customers and only a few people working there, so it took a long time to get our food, and while we waited my knee tightened up again. The sandwich was good, though. I did some stretches to try to loosen up my knee, and then everyone needed to use the bathroom but the store didn't have one, so we all headed off down the road in search of secluded trees.
When we all got on our bikes again after the nature break, George had broken away. The other three of us rode at moderate pace while digesting, and didn't see him for a long time. Nick needed to stop to adjust his bike, but I told him that since I was worried about my sore knee making me slow, I'd keep going. He agreed and then we were all split up, with George then me then Dave then Nick all out of sight of each other. Dave eventually caught me as I approached Reva, and we saw George waiting ahead on the porch of a closed store. I got off my bike to stretch my knee, and after Nick didn't catch us for a few minutes, George called him. It turned out that Nick's chain had broken. He asked us to wait for him. But then George suggested that I go ahead since my knee was slowing me. I did so, and rode ahead pretty slowly. Eventually the others caught me, but then Nick had to stop again to adjust his bike's shifting, and asked George to stop with him and Dave and me to keep going. My knee was warmed up and feeling a lot better, and there were no steep hills for a while, so I started riding faster, until Dave told me to slow down so Nick and George could catch us. At that point I was much more optimistic that I could finish, though a bit worried about Nick since he kept having mechanical problems.
Nick and George finally caught us, and Nick mentioned that he thought I was rocking my hips. I was pretty sure my saddle height was good, but it was possible that I was using a different position to favor the sore knee, so I lowered my saddle a couple of millimeters. It didn't really help, though. As we approached the 125-mile control, it started hurting again. We stopped for dinner at a McDonalds in Madison. I had a Southern Chicken Sandwich (basically McDonald's imitation of Chick-Fil-A) and a vanilla shake. While we were there, Nick got a call from Christian, who'd made it back to his car in Arlington.
The next 24 miles got progressively worse for me. The road was a bit rough, and there were some hills, and the knee got worse, and I started falling off the back of the group. George noticed and dropped back to ride with me and provide encouragement. I did my best to tough it out, but about mile 140 I decided there was no way I could finish the ride in time, and that if I kept trying I would slow down the team and possibly cause them to miss the time limit. So I continued to the mile 148 control at Baker's Store, then told the team I was DNFing, and tried calling for a ride. My wife was hosting my daughter's sleepover, so she couldn't come pick me up, but my parents could. My cell phone was acting flaky, so I ended up using George's phone to call them. They weren't home yet so I left a message and decided I'd continue along the course, slowly, aiming for a nice spot to be picked up like the Inn at Kelly's Ford (mile 165) or M&P Pizza (mile 171), if I could make it that far.
While I was making phone calls, the Hamid's fleche team, which was using the same route as us but started an hour later, rode into the control. We chatted a bit with them, then rode off before they did. My knee was pain-free for about half a mile, and I briefly had delusions of finishing the ride, before I remembered that I hadn't bothered getting my card signed at the last control so I was a DNF regardless. A bit later, the knee pain returned. A couple miles after that, my phone rung, and I said goodbye to the team so I could arrange a ride.
While I was on the side of the road chatting, Hamid's team rode by. They asked if I needed help but I waved them on, since none of them seemed to have a bag big enough to carry a motor vehicle inside. My parents were able to pick me up, but we had to arrange a rendezvous point and I'd rather ride slowly toward a better landmark than sit on the side of a highway getting cold. So we agreed that I'd ride to the Inn at Kelly's Ford, and if they got there before me they'd call again. They ended up calling again when I was in Lignum, about 10 miles from the previous control. I saw the closed but well-lit Lignum Main Post Office ahead, and asked them to meet me there. It was fully dark by then, and getting cold, so once I got to the post office I put on all my warm clothes, and paced back and forth rather than sitting on the cold metal bench.
George and Nick and Dave did manage to finish the fleche in time, and 3 riders is enough to count as a team finish, so bravo to them. I wish I'd been able to finish with them, but dropping out was clearly the right decision. Stairs were really hard for a day, and the knee's still sore. I'm pretty sure it's ITBS, which I had in the other knee after a long off-road ride years ago. The treatment is rest and some specific stretches to loosen the tendon on the outside of the knee. So no long rides for me for a month or two. I'll certainly enjoy volunteering the 600 more than I would have enjoyed riding it.