That was completely nutty. It definitely raised the bar for me and Lisa in terms of time we've spent on the bike on a single ride, and the distance we've gone on a single ride.
Nearly 240 miles. No SAG support. Over 15,500 ft. of elevation gain. 24 hours without sleep.
I've conveniently forgotten when, how and why I even began to consider attempting this ride. It couldn't have been more than a few weeks before the ride weekend itself. I think it was also out of character for me during an early season besieged with rider burnout, but something about it got me excited. I think it was mainly the idea that there was no preset course to ride. We were given a distance and time requirement, and it would be entirely up to us where we'd ride. I liked that. Before even committing to the idea of forming a team, I went into a route planning frenzy and, in one night, came up with three, fairly detailed point-to-point route possibilities: two from the South, and one from the East.
By the time I enticed Lisa enough with the whole idea and started seeking other team mates for this endeavor, I had actually already ironed out most of the route details. When the rest of the team came on board, they committed with minimal information about the course. I promised them a spectacular ride, and they trusted in me. Voila! We had a flèche team.
SAY "FLESH", NOT "FLETCH"
A flèche (from the French word for "arrow"), by definition, is:
Apparently, it also happens to be one of THE most rule-packed of all randonneuring events, as I learned quickly when I planned the course for my team.
- A randonneuring-style cycling event in which a team of 3 to 5 riders complete (as a group - not a relay) a course that covers a minimum of 360 kilometers, in a minimum period of 24 hours
- An excessively active, alternative way to spend Easter weekend
- An experiment in motor, mental and physiological stability in the wake (ha ha) of sleep deprivation
- An exercise that bares your true personality and raw emotions, and imposes them upon the other suckers with whom you have to spend in 24 straight, exhausting hours
- A dumb and reckless idea
- Thou shalt not rest at any single location for a period longer than 2 hours. OK.
- Thou shalt not use any section of a road, unless absolutely necessary to reach a control, more than once. OK.
- Thou shalt have a 22nd hour control to document your location at that time, or be disqualified. OK.
- Thou shalt ride a minimum of 25km in the final 2 hours of the ride. OK, OK.*
- Thou shalt bla bla bla bla bla...
(* This is the part where I screwed up, because our 22-hour control was located 3 lousy kilometers closer to the finish than required, which cost us an official flèche finish by RUSA standards)
Where things got really annoying for me was in the dozen or so times I had to revise our course map and cue sheet because earlier versions had too many sections that could be short-cutted, according to the ride officials. In some cases, I had to add a few more controls (checkpoints), just to prove that we were sticking to our presented route.
Gosh, whatever. If anything, I thought that if we short-cutted the route where those shortcuts appeared, I'd be totally depriving my team of what I felt were the best, most special parts of the whole route. In my mind, it would have been shallow and stupid to miss those sections to cheat the rules, and I wished that the brevet gods could simply appreciate that.
Forget the rules. The ride itself became all that mattered. I was thrilled to have a team that shared my sentiments completely.
THE PERFECT TEAM
The team was a foursome comprised by Lisa and me, and two of our distance-loving friends from different social circles: Jason P., who we know from our local cycling scene, and Tim H., a fellow Quackcyclist, who has been a shepherd to us on many previous long events. Among us, only Tim (a highly accomplished randonneur who's done innumerable brevets, including four 1200k grand randonnées) had any flèche experience.
Initially, I actually wanted to recruit a team that consisted entirely of first-timers like myself and Lisa, hence the name I chose for our squad: Virgin Flèche. But, not surprisingly in the least, having Tim along for this ride proved to be immeasurably valuable. He, as we've come to know, was once again the consummate gentleman and optimist in our group, and did by far the most to keep our spirits up in believing that we were doing all right. Despite his rich experience and wisdom in randonneuring, he really let the ride unfold on its own and allowed us newbies to immerse ourselves in the novelty of the experience.
Jason is the perpetually light-hearted sort, and a capable mechanic whose skills would have come in very handy if any of us had encountered a serious mechanical issue (but, apart from Tim's two punctures, we were pretty much in the clear in this department). Lisa's always the reliable diesel who gets through anything with a remarkably positive, and level attitude; as always, my co-conspirator, co-pilot and information auditor. Me? I was the overall planner, the navigator (Jason dubbed me "human GPS"), the guy who figured out the checkpoints, monitored our pace based target arrival times at those checkpoints (that I obsessively calculated ahead of time), and the back-up plans should things not have worked out ideally.
Everybody on the team faced the challenges, one ridiculous and unnecessary one after another, with an incredibly good attitude. There were no meltdowns nor any threats of mutiny. When the going seemed to get excessively tough, there were no complaints or plots to string me up by the balls and hang me from a tree (but I was called "the second most evil person on earth" at one point) -- just laughter. There is no other group of people with whom I would have rather shared this first flèche experience. Of that, I'm totally convinced.
THE LONG WAY UP
Each team participating in the event (there were six, including ours, I believe) was expected to plan and design their OWN course, and all teams finished at the same location: a creperie in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco. Most, if not all, of the other teams began their rides close to San Francisco, and more or less circled the San Francisco Bay to achieve their 360 km course. Ours might have been the only team that actually rode a straight, point-to-point route.
The fact that we started so far away meant that there were added logistics to consider: hotel accommodations in the start city and transportation to that location. The ideal situation for us unfolded when I was able to recruit a friend, Jim B., to drive us all down in a vehicle that we borrowed from yet another generous friend. Said vehicle belonged to an accomplished ultra-racer (and righteous pal), Bruce C., and it was rigged specifically for cycling event support. Perfect! We got our ride to Greenfield, and didn't have to worry about leaving a car behind that we would have to retrieve after the ride.
Our route originated in the farm town of Greenfield, in the middle of San Benito County. I chose this starting point since it lent itself favorably to including some notable landmarks that I wanted to include in the early part of the course: the magnificently remote Carmel Valley Road, that travels through the land that inspired Steinbeck, and the stunning, rugged Pacific coastline along Carmel and Pebble Beach (by way of the world-famous 17-mile drive).
Greenfield itself was a looooooong drive from home. As Jim drove us all south, I recall thinking that it was taking forever to get there in the car. After Jim left that hotel parking lot to return to Oakland, the wind howling as it does in this area in the afternoon, it really hit me. We were on our own - no backing out. Only one way out of this cow town, and it's on our loaded bikes via a much less direct route back to where we were headed.
We set off from Greenfield at 8:00 AM on Saturday. The morning hours went leisurely and well. We were treated to sunny skies with the slight chill of Northern California spring -- just the kind of weather you would want if you were to ride over the 2,000 ft. ridgeline and the long stretch from Greenfield to the first place where any drinking water would have been easily available, in Carmel Valley. I've ridden on Carmel Valley Road once before on a mid-Summer day and ran out of water quickly.
Wildflowers seemed to be at peak bloom in Carmel Valley, with blue, lavender, yellow and orange exploding all around. The views from Arroyo Seco, Carmel Valley, and along the Carmel and Pebble Beach coastline were stunningly beautiful, thanks to a saturation of blue and aqua in the water there like I've never seen before. It gave me great joy to see Tim, Jason and Lisa clearly captivated by the sights we encountered, evoking the audible delight that expressed just how lucky we all felt to live so close to such grand beauty.
GO BIG, OR GO HOME
After lunch in one of my favorite grub spots in all of Monterey, the Sea Harvest fish market, we took the canonical bike route up the Monterey peninsula to Santa Cruz, by way of Castroville and Capitola. Santa Cruz itself, marked the 115-mile post in the ride, and the point from which things would get interesting. To me, as I had anticipated during the planning cycle, this is really where the ride began.
I had this brilliant and evil idea while planning the course to make the nighttime miles more challenging, by way of long sustained climbs (many of them also steep) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which I had hoped would keep us both warm and awake throughout the night. Well... it sure worked. Needless to say, it also transformed what was already a standard-setting, challenging endeavor into a downright epic adventure.
But I knew that would be the case. I told myself, my team mates, and our friends: if we were committed to this insane idea in the first place, we may as well have planned it to be a real adventure. Go big, or go home.
It was big, all right. The vast majority of all the climbing we did on this ride would occur in a 75-mile stretch in the middle - all at night. Four sustained climbs that were 10+ miles long, plus three other shorter bumps that were mercilessly steep.
I was familiar with nearly every inch of the course I planned, and thus was able to set expectations accordingly for the team for what was ahead. However, the one section that I was totally unfamiliar with, also happened to be some of the most difficult sections of climbing we encountered anywhere on the course. If the steep, relentless climb up Empire Grade wasn't bad enough, I happened to pick a route through the northern end of Santa Cruz that threw us upon some nasty 20% grades that took me (and naturally everybody else) completely by surprise.
These would have been cruel enough on a regular lightweight road bike, but we were all loaded up with a lot of extra gear and the supplies that would get us through most of the night for lack of any open stores in the mountains. My bike, with all the gear attached, weighed over 30 lbs. Let's not get into how much I weighed.
AT NIGHT, THE WORLD WAS OURS
Night fell as we climbed up Empire Grade. So did my mood. The previously unknown climb to me revealed itself in a most unkind way, and I felt weak and demoralized as we crawled up that mountainside. I was happy and relieved to see that everybody else weathered the climb better than I did emotionally, but somebody at this point did playfully suggest that they would beat me up with a bat for routing us that climb. This was definitely my personal low point in the whole ride, but I was still coherent enough to appreciate that all the other alternatives -- Bonny Doon, Big Basin, China Grade -- would have actually been far more difficult.
As we traveled through the mountain town of Ben Lomond, bars were starting to come alive with weekend party-goers. As Lisa and I came to one particular intersection with bike lights ablaze, some bar hoppers looked at us in amazement and asked, "You guys are going for a night ride?"
"We're roughly half-way done with our ride here," I answered. "We don't stop until the morning. In San Francisco."
Jaws dropped. My spirits picked up a bit.
The air temperature began to fall dramatically, not just because of the night, but also because we were climbing up to the highest point in our route. Before reaching the foot of the next long climb, we took some warm refuge in the lobby of the post office in Boulder Creek (which we were surprised to find was open at all). Shortly after putting on numerous other layers and more reflective accessories, we were off again, climbing up Highway 9. Soon enough, we had the roads mostly to ourselves.
Thick fog moved in. Condensation from the evergreens was so heavy that it practically rained on us until we reached the summit. I led the fast twisty descent on Hwy 9 towards Saratoga, mainly because the next turn would be a very easy one to miss. Good news: everybody made the turn and stayed on course. Bad news: the course turned skyward again, in a cruelly steep way, on Mount Eden.
By the time we reached Stevens Canyon and saw the moon reflected on the still water of the reservoir, we all livened up again, knowing that we weren't far off from our next control: a 7-Eleven store in Cupertino. There, hot beverages and instant ramen awaited, and another warm room in which we could take temporary shelter.
It was 1:00 AM when got there. The suburbs were quiet and asleep, except for the handful of youngsters who happened to stop into the 7-Eleven themselves by bike to pick up more booze for their house party.
"Look!" They squeaked. "We're not the only ones who thought about coming here for a beer run!"
Ya, if only.
1:00 AM. This meant we were also, once again, sort of back on schedule. Since the very first control at mile 40, we had actually been running considerably behind schedule all day. It was good to know that we caught up.
We spent the most time off the bikes here. The warmth of the indoors was comforting. Strangely, so were the bright, overhead lights. Recharged, we saddled up again and took to the streets of Silicon Valley that are usually buzzing with tons of constant traffic, now completely deserted and all ours.
Our next destination was a post office in La Honda, which we used as a postcard control. On the way, another long sustained climb over the ridge. We didn't dwell on it much during the few flat miles leading up to the foot of the climb. Instead, we soaked in the reality of how far we had already come since we were seeing sights so much more familiar to us - places and things we identified as closer to home (relatively speaking, anyway).
On the way to La Honda, I made some on-the-fly route changes with the groups approval to avoid a particularly treacherous descent, in favor of a longer, but safer way to get to the control. We arrived at La Honda at a quarter to 4AM. There was a fierce chill in the night air, fog was thick again, and we had our last long climb of the ride ahead of us, up Highway 84. It was long, but we all agreed later that the miles on it ticked by quite easily.
HERE COMES THE SUN ... IT'S ALL RIGHT
All through the day and night, we had made a point to ride together, or at least two by two, with regular regrouping if the pairs grew a little distant. At the summit of Woodside Road, I changed the plan temporarily and broke the team apart - at least until the location I had intended to use as our 22-hour control. The area in question was very sparsely populated with businesses that would be open, other than the gas station I had in mind, and since we were running behind schedule again, I wanted some time allowance to scout alternatives if they were necessary.
Tim and I rode ahead and, at least from where I was pedaling, absolutely hammered the next 20 miles. With 200 miles already clocked, I had no idea where I was getting the strength to do this. Tim, of course, was hardly breaking a sweat, but admitted later on that we were riding pretty hard at that point.
Lisa and Jason took up the rear, and it was at this point when Jason really hit the wall with a classic bonk, punctuated by hypothermia. What Empire Grade was to me, the usually inocuous Cañada Road and Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County were to Jason. Lisa came through in mother hen fashion and made sure he bundled up with extra layers she had, and that he forced down some food and drink. By the time he reached our control and regrouping point, his visit to Bonktown was nearly at an end.
The sun had risen while we were on our way to this spot, and as Tim had assured us, it would do wonders in rejuvenating us for the finishing stretch. That stretch still imposed a few dozen pesky rolling hills on us, but we all smelled the finish. On account of an extra control that we needed to seek, the last 5 miles of the ride also seemed to just take forever to ride. We were back in the city alive with people and traffic again, after all. Tim appeared to have some difficulty dealing with the fact that we were so close to the finish, yet were taking forever to get there. I'm sure this had everything to do with the fact that he was downright hungry for breakfast too. This was, by far, the most unsettled I have ever seen him, which in no way was even remotely unpleasant to us. Still, I guess each and every one of us had to experience a cranky moment during the last 24 hours.
We rolled to the corner sidewalk of Cole and Carl Streets in the Inner Sunset, where all the other flèche teams had already convened for breakfast, compliments of the San Francisco Randonneurs. Some of the teams, in fact, were already leaving. A handful of others remained, taking their time with their crepes and potatoes, smiling and sharing stories as we were.
As we sat and tried to recap all that we had seen, encountered and endured in a mere 24 hour period, it was as if we were trying to narrate the highlights of a week-long vacation. Getting home after breakfast still required another 4 miles of riding to the train station, and a half-hour on the train where fatigue really started to catch up with me.
Then it came. Home. Bed. And hours and hours of sleep -- sweet, sweet sleep -- on a perfect Easter Sunday that came and went in our forgotten dreams.