So there was this great idea.
What if a bunch of friends that had a shared love of BOTH eating and riding bikes got together and split up into teams and went for a bike ride? What if those teams all started at different points and rode different routes but all ended up at the same place and had a party once everyone had arrived? Sounds pretty great right? Particularly since you would have 24 hours to get to your destination with controls that ensured everyone arrived at about the same time. There’s just one catch, however, and it might be the best part:
The route has to measure a minimum of 360 kilometers (yes, this idea was hatched in Europe).
So maybe this doesn’t sound so great to you, but remember there is a lot of eating. In fact, when I did my first DC Randonneurs Flèche in 2016, we had not one, but TWO full sit-down meals. And we rode 245 miles in the worst weather I have ever been in. And we finished as a team.
Scientists believe that if you eat 8,000 calories and ride 245 miles in gale force winds, you are probably a superhero. That’s the only explanation for why we agreed to the probably harder 2017 route which our team captain, Eric Williams, presented to us for this year’s flèche. Harder because he was proposing three-hundred miles (when you spell it out it seems even more ridiculous) and 18,000+ feet of climbing. STARTING IN NORTHERN PENNSYLVANIA.
On the face of it, the whole thing sounds completely terrible, so of course I was in. Unreservedly. We all were.
As we drove up to Mansfield, PA (the town where we would begin) I kept thinking, “well, now it seems like we are really far from home.” Then thirty minutes would pass and I would think, “okay, nope, I stand corrected… NOW we are really far from home.” This went on for a while.
However! Being with Caleb James and Dana Wise and Eric in Caleb’s SUV with our bikes lashed to the back was a blast – just a bunch of grown idiots going off to do idiot things. And while the great unknown is mildly terrifying, I have to admit loving that feeling.
So we eventually made it to our destination at the EXTREMELY ADEQUATE Mansfield Hampton Inn and had enough daylight left to visit the local bike shop, ride around the countryside for an hour, and then go get dinner at a really good local brewpub. Any day that ends with a bike ride and cheeseburgers and beer is pretty great, so I knew that we would never be more ready for what was waiting for us in the morning.
Once we got back to the rooms we fidgeted with our gear and ride food and clothing and agreed to set our alarms for 5:30am. The plan was to take advantage of the hotel breakfast and then at 6:30am depart the hotel for the official starting control (Sheetz!) that was just down the road. Sleep came surprisingly quickly for me, so in the future you can skip that expensive sleep study and just drink alcohol and eat red meat/dairy before bed and you should be JUST FINE.
So, a lot of words from me so far and ZERO actual flèche riding (just to jazz things up, I like to pronounce it “FLESHY”.) In fact, the Friday travel day kind of felt like this blog post – meandering and undisciplined. That quickly changed at 5:30am Saturday morning as my phone alarm ripped me out of a deep slumber. For once I had everything pretty well organized, and got ready with a lot of time to spare. The weather looked iffy, and I get cold easily (I am extremely fragile and soft), so I settled on Twin Six thermal bib knickers, long sleeve baselayer, long sleeve merino wool cycling jersey, and light wind breaker. I topped everything off with neoprene shoe covers, merino wool gaiter, and wool cap. I was toasty. I was also dressed in all black, as I am want to do, so I made sure I wore a pink Amphipod Xinglet high-vis reflective vest. It went very nicely with the black and I guess has like, uh…safety properties? Whatever. It also matched the pink accents on my helmet and socks so when a texting cement-mixer driver inevitably plowed over me I would still look extremely matchy-matchy.
Breakfast was a blur, Caleb lost the keys to his SUV, we were worried about getting to the starting control on time, and with rain just on the horizon I realized nothing I had on was even remotely waterproof. We hadn’t even started yet and it was MASSIVE CHAOS.
Once we started riding though, all that melted away. The roads were in great shape and as we rode through valleys and along creeks and streams we kept commenting on how beautiful it all was. Through areas with names like Pine Creek Gorge or Reynolds Spring Natural Area or Algerine Wild Area. Eventually, the rain stopped and even the wet roads dried out after a few hours. Then we were left with the scenery.
As beautiful as the road ride was, nothing could prepare us for the gravel. Because of the rain and little-to-no local knowledge, the gravel climbs were a big wildcard going in and Eric had even devised detours in case they weren’t doable. One of our debates before the ride was whether Dana and I could do the 20 miles of gravel on our road bikes with skinny road tires. I was running 25mm Conti GP4000s on my bike (which does not have clearance for the next size up – 28s) and I was worried that wouldn’t cut it. I came so close to switching to my gravel bike, but in the end, the 280 miles of pavement justified sticking with my road bike and tires.
My gamble paid off. Our first climb was up Lower Pine Bottom, on a meticulously maintained gravel road. It was still, uh, gravelly, but not to the point where I was sliding all over the place or spinning out. Eric and I kept commenting that we had gone through a portal into the Shire, because everything had such a Middle Earth feel. Babbling brooks and old growth trees and brown rock formations and even a porcupine or two.
About that gravel:
So we were on a major high as we pedaled all morning. Caleb wasn’t feeling great, but he would catch up on the descents and flats and for the most part we kept the team together. We had agreed that we would try to crank out 85 miles before we stopped for food, which would put us in Lamar at around lunch time. Sure enough we crossed the western branch of the great Susquehanna River at about 11:25am and hit the Pilot on the outskirts of Lamar at noon on the dot.
This stop definitely set the tone for the rest of the ride. I hooked up my Garmin to my power bank to get a charge boost, then went inside to use the facilities and get some food. There was a Subway attached and I decided I needed real food (insert Subway food quality joke here) and grabbed a foot long toasted ham and cheese, bag of chips, and diet coke. Yes, I realize most smartypants riders would be drinking REAL COKE here, but my brain is wired to enjoy the crisp refreshing chemical complexities of a Diet Coke and the fact that it was ice cold and caffeinated just sealed the deal.
I brought my food outside and I had a feeling Eric was already ready to go. He hadn’t really grabbed much food and was making noise about how we needed to GET GOING. I then made like Homer Simpson and basically sword-swallowed half of my sub. I swear that’s how fast I ate it. After giving someone a bite of the second half of my sub (can’t remember who, may have been a random homeless person, may have been Dana) I destroyed the rest of that too. I was in such a food craze that I barely noticed Caleb having digestive issues and either spitting up or throwing up or maybe just singing Tom Waits. Still not sure. Either way, Caleb still didn’t feel great. And goddammit Eric was talking about how he had three virtual partners set up and one had already passed us and the other two were gaining and we needed to HURRY THE FUCK UP.
So off we went.
Our first stop ended up lasting about 22-23 minutes. Probably a little longer than we wanted and to be fair, until that point, I did not appreciate how hard we were going to have to push to make this thing happen. Our second stop was planned for Lewistown, PA, which was about 40 miles from our previous stop. Not a huge number, but every mile gets bigger the deeper you go into one of these rides.
We immediately hit the big climb up Madisonburg Pike and reached the top but Caleb had fallen off again. After a while he made it but it was obvious he just wasn’t feeling tip top. That would be the last we would see of him as he called it soon thereafter. It sucks to lose a teammate like that (after having lost Jamie Wiedhahn to thumb surgery a few weeks before), but I also think he made the right call. You have to listen to your body and sometimes your body tells you to go F yourself, and that’s just how it is. The good news is he got back safely and even found his SUV keys and was able to drive back to DC without incident. Also Caleb figured out how to get all four of us and our bikes and our gear to Mansfield when no one else would rent something adequate to us. Caleb is the man.
The main feature of this segment is the gravel road/climb that goes through Bald Eagle State Forest. It connects a number of recreational areas and goes on for miles. Dana and Eric and I got into a rhythm and the miles just kind of flew by. Probably because, again, it was so gorgeous there.
We ended up in Lewistown, which sits on the Juniata River, at about 3:30pm. Even though it felt like I had JUST eaten, I was starving (as were Dana and Eric). Fortunately (?) we stopped at Subway again! This time we sat in a booth to eat. It’s amazing how luxurious that feels when you haven’t stopped to sit and eat for nine hours and 125 miles. I got another footlong toasted ham and cheese, and a diet coke, but no chips. I ate 2/3rds of my sandwich and shoved the rest in my rear pocket. At this point I had eaten two clif almond butter bars (snacks), belgian waffle and bagel with cream cheese (breakfast), footlong sub with chips (lunch), 2/3rds of a footlong sub (2nd lunch) and two diet cokes and two coffees. I had probably burned about 4,000 calories at this point and consumed about 3,000. If I factored in dinner from the night before though, I was all square!
This was a physical AND mental regrouping stop and where we got the final news about Caleb (he had pulled the plug before we arrived). Still, we ordered and sat and ate and used the restrooms and filled our water bottles and charged our shit and were still in and out in 30 minutes. Per Eric’s orders (advice) we never removed our helmets.
Our next segment featured the hardest climb – 3.1 miles and a 1,318 foot category 2 ascent up State Route 74. It averaged 8% but that’s only because the 5-6% parts (aka recovery zones) balanced out the significant amount of 10-12%. I ended up getting a top 10 time going up which is extremely obnoxious of me to brag about but I’m a glory hog, so suck it.
This was a pretty tough segment because we were supposed to ride 65 miles before our next stop in Mount Holly Springs (just south of Carlisle), which was our one possible chance at a sit down meal. In addition to State Route 74, there was one other big climb we had to conquer – a cat 3 called Waggoners Gap. The climb was tough but not horrendous and besides, as the great Juliana Buhring says, “why do we climb mountains? Downhill!”
We flew down the other side of Waggoners and once again I was struck by how incredible it feels to be on a bike going 45 miles an hour down a steep hill. I mean, driving in a convertible at 45 mph? Who gives a shit! But on a bike…it’s just wow. Also – it was magic hour! The sun was setting and everyone knows your pictures look better during this time of day. The miles were starting to take their toll though and by the time we rolled into the Sheetz in Mount Holly Springs, I was at what they might call “the low point.”
After about six tries, I managed to connect my Garmin to the charging cord and then stumbled into Sheetz. I was pretty disoriented and could not decide what the hell I wanted to eat. The last two stops with real food had served me well, but in my current mental state I was in no shape to use the high tech touch screen sandwich ordering system. Fortunately my instincts kicked in and I went into SHITTY CONVENIENCE STORE MODE. Candy bar? Sure! Peanut Butter Crackers? PROTEIN! Trail mix? PERFECT FAT-CARB BALANCE! Coffee? Make it as black as my soul felt at that moment.
The cashier asked me where I was headed and then asked where I had started and then looked at me like I look at my teenager when he asks if I can buy him beer. It always sounds better in my head, but when I try to explain these rides to strangers, well…it’s probably better just to make shit up.
I was a few steps behind Eric and Dana at this point, and my big worry was that they would be looking to hammer out of there and just eat on the bike. When I found them sitting down at a table I think I MAY have squirted out a few tears of happiness. We sat and chewed spastically for the next 15 minutes and I put down another thousand calories. We were 190 miles in and it was 8:15pm and the fun part of the ride – the part where you can actually see stuff – was over. It was time for grinding.
Or so I thought.
(Yes, this stupid story will NEVER EVER END)
We had a relatively short stretch until our next stop – a 7-11 in the middle of Gettysburg. It was at almost exactly 220 miles on the route (less than 30 miles from Mount Holly Springs). The 7-11 was adjacent to Gettysburg College, so there were a lot of drunk teens and twenty-somethings wandering around. The dude behind the counter took pity on us and let us use the employee-only bathroom. The bathroom was magically warm and inviting because with the clock approaching 11:00pm, the temperature outside was cooling considerably.
I wasn’t super hungry, so another coffee and a banana did the trick for me. I did have my one and only mechanical at this point, as my USB rechargeable light died and the backup battery never got charged. Fortunately Eric had a backup that he could lend me (he runs his main light off of a dynamo hub), and it kept me in good shape the rest of the trip. Lesson learned: get a light that takes real batteries and bring a lot of them.
The best part of Gettysburg is the battlefield and we rolled through there in the middle of the night with the stars twinkling in the sky. It was a moonless night and our bike lights eerily illuminated the hundreds of monuments that lined the roadway. A surreal experience and if I was at all superstitious, that would be the place where I would swear there were thousands of ghosts wandering around. Also, I am sure I took a bunch of pictures of this part of the ride, but strangely I don’t have a single one on my phone. Undead magic.
At this point, we’re about 10 miles from the Maryland border and maybe 60 miles to our final control in Olney, MD. It’s 11:20pm so we have more than five and a half hours to get where we are going (rules state that you have to leave your final control by 5am.) Basically, if we keep our heads down and keep cranking, we’re going to make it.
We did not count on the redneck bar that was closing down in the backwoods of Maryland at like 1am. Eric and I were a little ahead of Dana and a bunch of people were milling around in the parking lot in front of this bar. Someone shouted something at us, probably about how our fly-ass outfits were so color-coordinated they COULDN’T EVEN.
What they DEFINITELY said/shouted was “Hey I’m talking to you, come back here you #$^&ing #*ggot!”
Needless to say, we picked up our speed and left Dana for dead (go team!). Fortunately he caught up to us, but for the next 30 minutes, every single loud pickup truck or muscle car engine I heard was for sure a drunk idiot coming to straight-up murder us. I kept imagining the worst, and every time I heard an engine in the distance, I plotted about how I was going to roll/crash into the ditch when the time came.
Despite the horrors I mentally conjured, we managed to survive, and rolled into the Olney McDonald’s at about 3:15am. It felt really good, because we had a massive cushion and the rules stated that we couldn’t leave until 5am, so now we could just sit and eat and zone out. I had a breakfast sandwich and coffee and tried so hard not to fall asleep. I knew if I did I would have a hard time coming back from the dead.
Is this the first time in history something good has happened at 4am at a McDonalds? Maybe. I do know that I made everyone buy cinnamon melts before we left because they are like mini-Cinnabons and it’s hard to argue that quicker, more ruthlessly efficient carbs exist anywhere else in America.
With the wind at our backs we gleefully hammered to Bethesda, where we picked up the Capital Crescent Trail. With daylight starting to break, I was convinced one of us was going to get blown up by a wayward deer. However, even the dumbass DC Metro area deer population stayed out of our way – it was just that kind of ride.
We arrived in downtown DC at about 6:15am and after a victory lap around Washington Circle and up M Street, crossed Key Bridge as we hit 300 miles for the ride. We were the first to arrive at the Key Bridge Marriott – at 6:24am – and after getting our paperwork situated sat down to a breakfast buffet worthy of a long ass bike ride. The best part? Caleb made it to the finish to eat with us and help celebrate. We make a good team and I would ride anywhere with these idiots.
After all of the eating and talking and crap was done, my amazing wife, the person who puts up with all of this garbage, drove to the Marriott and picked up my bike and me. I went home and slept hard for an hour – the kind of dreamless black out sleep that I love. The rest of the day I spent putzing around and napping on and off – basically preparing for life at 80. But in all honesty, I felt pretty incredible.
One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the opening scene of the documentary about the Trans Am bike race, Inspired to Ride. The late, great Mike Hall is talking about what makes racing in unsupported ultra-distance cycling events so thrilling:
It’s kind of like being on the run. It’s kind of like being a fugitive. Not sticking around in one place for too long, always thinking someone’s coming after you. That’s exciting. That’s kind of like living in a little bit of a story. Almost like a double life. There’s something about it that’s a lot of fun.
It’s just you against the world and the world is coming to get you, so don’t stop moving or it is OVER. Maybe it’s a silly little contrivance, but it makes the miles that much more meaningful and more importantly, manageable.
So find good people to ride with, beautiful places to ride through, and make up whacked out fantasies to keep you paranoid enough to never stop moving. It works!