Tuesday, May 7, 2019

2019 PA Flèche

The 2019 PA Randonneurs Flèche is complete and soon to be in the books.  Preliminary results are available on the website along with finish line photos.  I expect many postcards to arrive over the coming days and can then complete the assembly and verification of each team's documentation of proof of passage before making everything official.  Results will be submitted to RUSA at that time.  As usual, don't expect your Flèche certificate from the ACP until next spring.  Think of it as your reminder to register for the 2020 Flèche.

Nine teams started. Nine teams finished, each fully intact for an impressive 100% finish rate.  This is quite an accomplishment given that most teams spent much of their time riding in the rain.  A tenth team signed up, but some last-minute scheduling hiccups forced team restructuring of Teams Les Chiens Errants/Lost Pups 2 into a single team.  At least they all got to ride together.

The weather impacted our Velodrome finish venue by precluding hot laps on the track.  The FERPS, not to be denied, circled the track apron for a victory lap to make up for not encountering ANY snow on their adventure this year.

Overall the Velodrome had many positives and generally met the organizer's expectations for a first-time new venue.  We learned a few lessons and identified things to do differently next time.  I welcome your suggestions and feedback to help make a decision on a return next year.

Thanks to volunteers Keith Spangler and Nigel & Joyce Greene for pitching in to take care of the soggy riders on Sunday.  Special thanks to Velodrome manager Kelli Bertoni for working with us to make this possible.  Finally, a big thank you to Chris Nadovich who originally suggested the velodrome as a Flèche finish venue and offered constantly encouragement as I navigated the obstacle course necessary to turn a vision into reality.

Team reports follow and will be updated as they come in.

Andrew Mead
Eastern PA RBA

Flèche Mob
Flèche Mob had four riders this year-- Geoff Burge, Jeff Lippincott, Gilbert Torres, and me (Rudi Mayr). Mario Claussnitzer was there in spirit as well, though work obligations kept him away (and, presumably, dry).

Jeff took charge this year, designing and checking the route and handling all the paperwork. I must say it was an excellent route, more of a loop than the traditional Flèche point-to-point.

When we started from a Denny's in Bethlehem at 9:30 AM Saturday (9:00 official time), it was not raining. I had had a Philly cheese steak omelette (good!) and coffee (awful!). We were supposed to leave there at 9 AM sharp, but we weren't actually underway until 9:30.

We rode through Bethlehem itself, crossed the Lehigh River, and then over South Mountain, getting our biggest climb out of the way early. Still no rain, a hint of sunlight, warm. But it soon got darker and the rain started. I don't know how long it rained.

At the end of our first hour average speed was 13.0.  Average speed climbed after that, got well over 14 after a few hours, and didn't really start to fall again until dark. 

Jeff had a slow leak in his rear tire, and his pump wasn't much use. We couldn't find the cause of the puncture. Turned out his replacement tube was very skinny and the valve stem was too short to get a presta pump on it.  Rookie error!  We were able to screw a schraeder adapter onto it and I converted my MT Zefal pump to fit, and we got the tire inflated. I patched the old tube while he put his bike back together.  I thought we'd better get Jeff an inner tube that fits, so I got my phone out... then decided to hold off on the googling since we were rolling again and soon to get to a controle in Norristown where I thought we'd find a bike shop anyway.  Went over a bump and heard the distinctive rhythmic sounds of a smart phone bouncing out of my handlbar bag and hitting asphalt.  I immediately stopped and went back for it but it was a busy road and had to watch a half dozen cars go by before I could go out into the road and get it.  I watched in horror as two of the cars ran right over the phone.  I picked it up, saw the screen all shattered, and chased down my team.  

At the Norristown controle I realized my phone was still working (and it turns out only the glad screen protector was shattered -- the actual phone was/is fine (doh!). From there got on the Schuykill River trail. Jeff's tire was still leaking, so we stopped again. Next thing you know an old friend of mine said out of nowhere, odd coincidence, small world. Anyway, this time I turned Jeff's tire (Schwalbe Marathon Plus something, a pretty much indestructible tires) completely inside out, and finally found the little bit of wire stuck all the way through it.  Gilbert had pliers that pulled the wire out. But then the tire wouldn't seat right because I'd turned it inside out-- the wire bead had twisted somewhere, got funky.  But Gilbert got that sorted out as well.  The tube I'd patched previously, with the longer valve, was easier to deal with. Tire inflated, I patched the second tube while Jeff was putting his bike back together.

The party was nice. Crowded, but not bad. Scenic. Easy riding.

At 4 PM we reached the 75 mile point, an hour in the bank. That's good, but not as much as I'd have liked.  Starting to want a longer rest stop, dinner and maybe a beer, but it seemed unwise to stop while it was light; we knew the night would be long and probably rainy, so we kept riding as long as the riding was good. We kept our stops pretty short. A bowl of chili at Rutter's was dinner. It was good.

Just after mailing out first post card controle at Lititz, by now it was quite dark, a car appeared out of nowhere on an intersecting street, going much too fast, unclear at first whether it was stopping (we had right of way).  This caused me to brake and swerve a little --really, a very little, but still a bad move-- Jeff was close behind and I knocked him right off his bike.  Landed on his head.  Helmet smashed.  He sat at the side of the road for a minute or two while Gilbert stuck his helmet back together well enough (the liner snapped back in) and we inspected the bike (no scratch on it!) and Jeff (no road rash, nothing broken) and then he got on his bike and we got underway again.  We were all a bit shaken by that, Jeff more than the rest of us.  Doh!

For an hour or more it kinda felt like it was starting to rain; I'd feel something against my skin, or hear something hitting my helmet, vest, goggles,etc, but it was all gnats. The gnats gradually got mixed with occasional raindrops, and as we were getting into Palmyra there was no doubt, this is rain.  So we stopped for a longer rest. I don't remember what kind of sandwich I ate there, but it was good. Okay, ANYthing would have been good.

Leaving Palmyra we were close to two hours ahead of schedule, but now we rode more slowly due to the rain, dark, and general fatigue.  The roads were covered with saturated earth worms, large frogs bouncing all over the place or just sitting frozen in the headlights.  Trains went by, really loud, really close, and oddly you could rarely see them or know which way they were going.  Just this disembodied sound. Over the hours that two hour 'lead' shrank steadily.  Original plan had been to get to a diner at Leesport PA no later than 5 AM to hang out and burn two hours; we didn't get there until 6:30 and since it wasn't an actual controle we just kept riding.  Final controle was a Turkey Hill in Fleetwood.  The last leg of the ride went smoothly, and we finished at 8:30. Strava says the ride to just 23:00 hours.

That's not the whole story by far, but it's all I can remember right now.

Amazing, how everyone was in such good spirits at the end! Everyone I talked to said they'd had a good ride, and I believed it. We too had a good ride. Wet, though (doh!).

I'd like to thank my teammates, the organizers, the volunteers, the Velodrome staff. Everyone was great. I didn't like the rain much, but it didn't ruin our ride, though it kinda ruined the post-ride banquet fur me. I really wanted to hang out and talk to people, but I also wanted a shower and dry clothes... and once I was dry, I didn't want to stand around in the rain. Doh!

Fistful of Xanax 2019
The day began with Vadim Gritus pulling up at 4:45am in a rented Chevy Silverado pick up truck: “Sorry, Mike: I know you wanted the Ford F-250 – but we’ll have to slum it up to Pittsfield in this thing.” Inauspicious beginnings.

Vadim had put together an ad-hoc bike rack in the bed of the truck – and quickly hoisted my bike up. Once secure we were on route for the 2.5 hour drive to the start in Massachusetts – where we would embark on a brand new route, previously untried.

We drop the truck off at the Enterprise depot in Pittsfield just as they open,  leaving a plethora of brand new bungee cords on the counter that we’d used to keep the bikes steady. Then it was onto the start at McDonalds - meeting up with Gil Lebron and Chris Slocum. After a quick breakfast we were on our way – contemplating how long it would take to get out of the city.

Weather is gray and foggy – but temps are relatively warm. Our first break is at mile 13.5 for a photo opp at the New York/Massachusetts border. We would have a relatively long and steady descent for the next 20 miles – so we put our rear lights on – to make sure we were visible to each other if no one else. Our route for the next few miles would also double back on the roads we’d driven to Pittsfield - so there were familiar landmarks.

We cruise to our second official control, Village Pizza in Red Hook NY at mile 57; a few slices, salads and sodas – and we we’re good to go; done in about 30 minutes. At this point we are doing well timewise; things are humming along. This route promises lots of rollers but no serious sustained climbing. We pass Poet’s Walk State Park. All of us note the name.

At mile 62, we cross the Hudson to Ulster County. In Kingston, we pass Jim Glass Corvette on our right. I joke about hooking Vadim up with my buddy Jim – who can get him that 71 fiberglass special. He winces and says apologetically, ‘but, the G-Wagon will get lonely if I start spending time with Jim’s toys. Better to stick with what I have.”

Something about these New York State small towns: passing through was a treat. Lots of churches in Kingston; some amazing graffiti in the back of a gas station – with ebony and ivory, I kid you not, riding a tandem. Some of these towns are a little on the down and out; rougher around the edges. Lots of abandoned houses and others not in the best shape. Still, it’s fun experiencing new neighborhoods we’ve probably passed through at one time or another – but never really seen.

Getting into New Paltz, Gil realizes his 2nd water bottle is empty. At this point it’s warm enough – and it won’t be possible to get to the third control without more water. We see a farmer’s market/stand on our left (Walkill View Farm) and pull in; Chris and Vadim following. This turns out, as many a farmer’s market does, to be a fantastic detour. Vadim goes for the apple cider doughnuts and coffee; Gil the iced tea. I buy everything under the sun trying to capture the energy I’m lacking – from blueberries and pears to a $7.99 apricot bar from Spain. Chris humors us – as we all know the price of an unscheduled stop as enjoyable as it is.

We decide there will be no need for a full meal at the next control 25 to 30 miles away – and we should plan on a touch and go. But upon arrival at El Rancho Mexican in Goshen, we order huge meals – and stay an hour. Vadim and I are disappointed they don’t serve coffee – and cancel desert choices because of this – while Gil and Chris nurse a couple of beers between them. The waiter tells us we are the first people in months to, gasp, ask for coffee – and due to a drop in demand they’d stopped serving it. Goshen.

Lots of pics taken here – because this is another time out of mind stop; quirky small town mixed with decay - but a still interesting energy you can’t ignore.

On to Hackettstown and mile 170. Getting there we pass single runway airports; have trail roads turn into mud and puddles – or just dead end. Gil was the star here: he led the charge on his 32s through dirt trails for miles long stretches, re-routing as necessary – even if it meant some cyclocross time. Yep, the bikes were over our shoulders – as we waded out of impassable rock strewn trails.

We hadn’t meant to trail ride but as this was a brand new course, roads appearing to be paved on google maps turned out not to be. it could have been much worse. As is, we spent maybe 10 miles on less than standard roads.

Another stop at Owen’s Station Crossing at mile 125 or so; putting on reflective gear; taking care of nature’s calling.  

We near the NJ border at mile 130.5 – and we’re in awe. Very pretty back roads as the sun goes down. NJ is/has been a home to all four of us and it’s as if we’ve never seen it before – at least not from this angle. One last re-route as to avoid another gravel pass from possible dead ending.  

We pass through Andover and Whitehall, successfully negotiating gravel in the relative dark. Gil says portentously: ‘the real test is going to come tonight – with the rain.’

The rain starts around 11pm; softly at first but builds steadily. Never gale force, it is moderate and steady. I made the mistake of not donning rain gear right away. As the temperature dropped, the rain gear couldn’t compensate for the already soaked clothes beneath. This heralds in the deepest part of the journey, riding in the dark and rain.

One more unscheduled stop at a Quickchek for about 30 to 45 minutes.  

Air conditioning here is a nightmare because of being water logged; it’s chilly outside and too cold inside; the vestibule between the entrance is the best bet. Gil gets a salad; Vadim some chili. Leaving there the water accumulation in driveway crevices is at least an inch.

Our controls at Hacketstown are closed as we get in around midnight. McDonalds still has the drive through open – and Gil begins to bargain with the manager to let us in. We’re met with an unequivocal ‘No.’ Chris is the voice of reason urging us to move on. We find a Wawa, staple of NJ randonneuring, less than a mile down the road. We do the usual for about 45 minutes and head out - to our secret weapon of choice: a hotel about 30 miles up;

Vadim had booked a hotel approximately 10 miles out from the penultimate control – if only for a quick stop to take a shower. We all laughed when he’d told us earlier. Oh, who would need it. He proved to be the hero for it saved us from having a much worse experience in the rain. At around 2:45 we arrived. It takes forever to sign in – and get the necessary change for the dryer. The woman behind the counter begrudgingly parted with $5.00 of quarters – warning us her manager was going to give her the business for having done so.

We crank the heat in the room; Gil strips the bed for most of the sheets. The plan is to walk around toga style – while wringing our clothes out and taking them to the dryer. We settle in for about 45 minutes of rest. I set the alarm for 4 and use two chairs as a makeshift cot. Gil and Vadim take opposite ends of the bed – while Chris is on the floor near the door.

Leaving there around 4:30 I notice one of my front lights isn’t working. I pop the battery and out comes a stream of water. My Cygolite Expilion 850 had been through worse – and lived to tell the tale. But we all have our breaking points. And the steady, coldish rain has pushed us in the direction of ours. Gil was adamant, leaving the hotel, that this would be one of his last tours of duty; he’d done his bit for queen and country and could look forward to greener pastures whatever they might be. Most likely he’ll change his mind – but it’s never guaranteed.

Travelling down a water logged main road before making a u turn, Chris takes a fall; there is a block of small wood, impossible to see with the cascading water and lack of street lamps. Gil murmers under his breath: ‘This is what I was afraid of.’ Fortunately, Chris and the bike are relatively unscathed - outside of a cracked rearview mirror.

Onto to the penultimate control in Bethlehem at mile 205. We arrive a little after 6am. Vadim, our Captain, is adamant no one gets off their bikes here - while he goes for a receipt. We need to make it to the finish by 8 – and though our momentum is fine, you just never know…..

But we make good time – passing through Allentown – which looks only a little like the Billy Joel song from 30 years ago. Lots of rough edges – but also new residential construction, the kind you grow used to seeing in bigger cities these days; a sign of economic rebirth lacking character and denoting a kind of sterility – ultimately making for a mixed blessing. Still, in that state that comes with travel, I contemplate moving there as an alternative to what I know too well. It would at least be different.

We climb into Trexlertown. Vadim rings his newly installed carbon fiber $70 bell – that allows his bike street legal status in NYC- and we rejoice. The welcoming committee as we enter the velodrome was great to see. (Many, many thanks to the volunteers.) Chris Nadovich takes our picture – and then it’s all you can eat and some socializing with other teams - before the ride back home. No victory laps this rainy morning around the velodrome for us.

I’ve never experienced an ‘easy’ Fleche; some have been more drama free than others. We muddled through with rain on this one – and tried to keep our mutual spirits up – because it was, truly, a beautiful ride on new roads. Watching the water cascade down the streets reflecting any light it could was transcendental in that way sleep deprivation and heightened senses allow for. Still, this ride was work: struggling to scan the road always revealing itself too slowly; riding brakes on even the mildest of descents due to the very limited visibility – and the fear of catching a pot hole and going down.

Much like life, the Fleche is about getting through – and trying to have some fun in the process. 

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