On Saturday, April 23 and Sunday, April 24th, I was the captain of a team riding the 2011 Ohio Flèche. A flèche is a randonneuring event where teams of 3-5 bikes each ride separate routes, from different starting points and all aim to finish the ride at the same finishing location, 24 hours later. The ride has to be at least 360km (~224 miles for the metrically challenged). Each team defines a number of controls where they must get cards signed and the official distance of each route is defined as the shortest possible riding distance between controls. Also, the longest anyone is permitted to stop at any one place is 2 hours. In order for any team member to get credit for finishing, at least 3 bikes from the team have to finish together.
Here is my rather long winded, sleep deprived recollection of the ride.
The weeks leading up the Ohio Flèche this past weekend were a jumble of equipment decisions, route options, team decisions and weather obsession. Our original team of 5 bikes was whittled down to 3 due to illness and injury as Joe continues to recover from his crash with the suicidal squirrel and we lost the tandem of Don and Phyllis as Don came down with a chest cold and back pain in the weeks before the ride.
I probably spent more time looking at weather forecasts than I did anything else leading up to Saturday. Every service I looked at had a slightly different forecast and the range of possibilities was incredible. We had our choice of light rain, showers, locally heavy rain, thunderstorms, chance of thunderstorms, wind, gusting wind and any combination of the above.
4 of the 5 registered teams had lost riders and there was a flurry of emails from team leaders and RBA Bob Waddell as late as Friday with offers and suggestions to recombine riders to make fewer, 5 bike teams. But, our group of 3 decided that knowing the route and knowing the other riders well was just as important as having more wheels to draft. We decided to stick with the original plan and go with just the 3 of us. That meant, for any of us to get credit for riding, we’d all have to finish.
The ride started at 7:00 at my house on the northeast side. Everyone showed up around 6:30 and we checked all of our equipment and our drop bags and rolled out a few minutes after 7:00. I think all of us were thrilled to be starting without rain, but we knew that wasn’t likely to last all day. Tom’s wife Evette had agreed to pick us up at the end of the ride and my wife, Tracy and Ned’s wife Linda had graciously agreed to meet us for dinner in Chillicothe, bringing bags of dry clothes for the night time leg of the ride. All of us talked about how we were riding the heaviest bikes we can remember riding, but I’m sure that Ned wins the award for hauling the most stuff. At one point he referred to himself, compared to Tom and me, as a cargo plane compared to jet fighters. We all had fenders, some sort of giant bag and/or rack combination, headlights, taillights and rain gear.
Our first control was in Sunbury. Here we got the first of what would be many quizzical looks and questions about whether someone was holding our children hostage to force us to do what we were doing. We had a slight tailwind heading over to Utica for Control #2, then out the hills on Blacksnake and Eden Church to Purity. Our pace was ahead of schedule and we kept the stops shorter than planned, in an attempt to put as much time in the bank as possible for the headwind stretches we knew would make up the bulk of the day. We arrived in Hanover about 40 minutes ahead of schedule and then took the bike path, through Newark, to our lunch stop in Granville. Don and Phyllis made the trip out and met us for lunch, bringing towels, tools, a pump and, most importantly, Rice Krispie Treats. It was great to have them join us. Based on the way Don was coughing, they certainly made the right choice to skip the ride, but they, and Joe, were missed (and would be missed even more when we hit the wind).
We left Granville and started heading south, through Hebron, around the east end of Buckeye Lake, through Thornville and into Rushville. It was a very pretty, but hilly section. The hills through there were pretty much the only thing that broke up the group during the entire ride but we still got to Rushville within a couple of minutes of each other.
We had a decision to make at this point. Our next control was in Circleville. The original route went due west hen stair stepped south and west to the control. I had an alternate route that went southwest through Lancaster and Amanda. The original route was a bit flatter and had changes in direction, but it was 8 miles longer. With a strong (15-25 mph) southwest wind, we opted for the longer route in order to not spend the entire leg riding directly into the wind. Not long after leaving the control, we began to see dark clouds south of us and by the time we got to the long stretch heading west, the rain had started. Fortunately, it was reasonably warm but it continued rain harder and harder. None of us had rain gear on at this point and Ned was in shorts and a short sleeve jersey. Finally, Tom picked out a church, just east of Carroll, and we pulled under a walkway and dug out rain gear. We had steady rain for the next few hours but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. I did yell at a particularly long roll of thunder but the subsequent lightening convinced me not to push my luck. After that, we had a few sessions of light rain but that really was the worst of it. We made a short course modification and rolled into Circleville pretty close to being on schedule.
Our next control was in Chillicothe, where we had time planned for a sit down dinner at Frisch’s (mostly because they were open later than any other place I could find) with Tracy and Linda. We rode a beautiful road called Sulphur Spring Rd. from Kingston to Chillicothe and arrived just as the sun was setting. We’d ridden 161 miles with close to 100 of it being headwind. The schedule called for us to arrive at 8:23pm. We started 7 minutes late and arrived at the restaurant at 8:32pm. So, it took us 2 minutes longer than we’d planned and that gave us a lot of flexibility if the night riding threw us any curve balls.
Tracy and Linda had gotten there early, gotten a table and, apparently, told our story to the people sitting nearby. A woman at the next table started asking me questions as soon as I sat down. But first, we had bags of warm dry clothes and our spirits got much better with the chance to clean up, get dry and have some real food. One of the decisions we’d made earlier was to spend a little more time at dinner than we’d planned and spend less time at the next control in Washington Courthouse. Sitting around a table at Frisch’s, warm and dry, seemed like a better choice than hanging out, potentially in wet clothes, at a Walmart. Sometime during dinner, the rain started up again and I was sure we’d be leaving in the rain. The forecast showed rain in the southern part of the state and I figured we’d just gotten lucky on the first half of the ride. But, the rain had stopped by the time we left and, although the roads were wet, we rolled out feeling pretty good. Both Ned and Tom decided on full rain gear leaving the restaurant. The pants looked amazingly hot to me and I told them that I thought they’d be sorry. We may have gone 4 miles before both of them called out that we absolutely had to stop. The temperature was in the mid-50s and they were burning up. So, once we got clothing adjusted, we headed out for a long stretch on the bike path.
There was some concern on the team about riding that section of bike path at night but we stuck with the plan in order to avoid any traffic in the Chillicothe area. I think the concerns turned out, fortunately, to be wrong. The path was wide, straight and smooth. We had either a slight tailwind or enough shelter from the trees and, after fighting headwind all day, it didn’t take much to feel like we were flying. We were holding a conversational 16-18 mph, which was much faster than we’d planned. Then, we had our only mechanical problem of the ride. Ned had a flat on his rear tire. But, we were on the path, with plenty of lights and it wasn’t raining. He quickly found a stone that had worked its way through the tired so we didn’t have to work too hard to find the cause. It was not exactly the quickest tire change, but we were tired and it was after midnight and we were back on the bikes without issue.
We stayed on the bike path as far as Austin. The plan called for us to stay on it for a few more miles but it just ended and dumped us into a gravel driveway with a dozen barking dogs (a situation that I didn’t help by riding back in there to see if the path continued). I’m sure we could have found the path again, but we always had a back out plan of hopping up to the parallel county road if the path became a problem. So, a quick map check and we were back on the road. Once we left the path and the tree cover, we noticed that the wind was still blowing in from the southwest. I didn’t realize it at the time, since the road seems to be flat, but were actually climbing slightly since our last stop (and would be for 70 miles). Having stayed longer at dinner, taking time to fix the flat tire and the crosswind and slightly uphill road, I knew we were pushing our time schedule for the first time, but I couldn’t remember the exact schedule. We rolled into Washington Courthouse and headed for Walmart.
If you think that the Walmart in Washington Courthouse might be a center of activity at 2:00 on Easter morning, you’d be wrong. When we pulled in, I thought they might have been closed, but there were a few early morning souls there. Unfortunately, we arrived a few minutes after we were scheduled to leave that control so we were now more than 90 minutes behind schedule. We knew we’d have to keep the stop short. We tracked down the folks at the customer service desk to get our cards signed and, somehow, Tom started a conversation with them about marshmallow peeps. The next thing we knew, the women at the desk had pooled their money and bought us a pack. By this point, Ned was having some stomach issues (although, who knows, a couple of peeps might have been just what he needed) and I knew it was a bad idea for me. But, Tom took one for the team and polished off a number of the critters (purples ones).
We rolled on toward London and the rain started again. It wasn’t hard but we contemplated putting our rain jackets on. We had a many miles of light rain throughout the rest of the ride and did eventually stop to put on our jackets but we didn’t have any significant rain for the rest of the night.
The road we took between Bloomingburg and London turned out to be a perfect night riding road. Straight, smooth and with absolutely no traffic. Ned’s stomach problems were making it tough for him to take in enough calories and I know how frustrating that can be. The three of us kicked it back to a nice conversational level and headed for London. At one point, I had stopped for a nature break and was riding to catch the lights of the other bikes. I was looking up the road and didn’t notice the dead possum in the middle of the lane until much too late. I was too tired (and moving too slowly) to do a proper bunny hop (possum hop?) so I basically rolled over the thing. There was a moment of panic about crashing in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 in the morning but I successfully cleared the thing.
We knew we were late getting into and leaving Washington Courthouse. But, since we didn’t stay there long and we were riding a bit faster than the 14 mph we’d planned, we weren’t too far off on the schedule. This was really the only place all day when there was any stress about the pace and the time schedule. The flèche rules required us to be at the 22 hour control at 5:00am. The plan had us arriving at 4:15 and leaving at 5:45, if we could average 15 from there back to the finish. We had 2 route options and took the slightly shorter, busier one to get to the control sooner. We arrived at the Waffle House at 4:30; 15 minutes behind schedule but well ahead of the 5:00 requirement. Knowing that we couldn’t do anything for at least 30 minutes was a great relief. We all ordered a waffle and bacon and I took a 10-15 minute nap. Tom had been riding with only one of his headlights for many miles and took the time to try and get the 2nd one working. He eventually gave up but Ned had an extra one and they switched it to Tom’s bike.
We knew that averaging 15mph might be tough so we rolled out a bit early and had a nice leisurely ride back to Columbus. After a quick stop for Ned to cover his legs, we rolled back into town, arriving a few blocks from the finish with about 20 minutes to spare. Wanting to keep up the tradition of the flèche, we pulled into a park and chatted for a few minutes before hitting the finish close to 7:00.
It was an amazing experience. With the exception of only a few miles, we were within eyesight of each other for the entire ride. We all had our up and down moments, but the mood was good the entire time. Ned had some back and foot pains and, in Chillicothe, I heard Ned tell his wife about how he was feeling. She asked him if he wanted to stop. His answer of “no” came out amazingly fast. He reminded her that if he didn’t finish, none of us finished. It was a great pleasure to ride with Ned and Tom and I appreciate the work that the injured half of the team did to help us pull everything together.
Our thanks got out to Don and Phyllis for meeting us at lunch and to our understanding and supportive wives for allowing us to go out and play and for sacrificing their time and their time with us to make this possible.
The final stats for my team were 252.73 miles, 7,174 ft. of climbing, 17:00 of riding and 23:49 total time.
Now, I have a lot of bike cleaning to do.