Fleche NW

April 15th and 16th, 2000

A ride report by Kent Peterson

On Easter weekend in France, randonneuring clubs ride in teams from their respective towns to a common destination in sourthern France for a banquet dinner. This event, known as a "fleche" from the French word for arrow, has been adopted by randonneurs around the world as an excuse to ride someplace and have a feast. The rules of the fleche are as follows:

This year it was decided that the finishing point for the fleche would be Blaine, Washington and the celebratory meal would be a Sunday brunch at the Semiahmoo Resort. I'd never ridden a fleche before but when I started asking around, I found that Mark Thomas, Peter McKay and Wayne Methner were a team this year and yes, they'd be glad to have me join them. The only other team signed up was "Team Extreme" consisting of Pete "The Bullet" Bajema, Ken Carter and Bernard Comeau. Peter informed me that our team was "Team Sunnyside". The name was a leftover from last year when the fleche was held on the eastern (dry!) side of the Cascades. And even though the forecast was calling for rain, Peter assured me that "Sunnyside is an attitude thing, unrelated to the weather!"

Team Sunnyside was going to start the ride at 6:00 PM Friday night at Mark's house in Redmond, ride north and then east to Darrington for a brief break at a motel before returning west and then north again to Blaine. The total propsed distance was scheduled to be 368 kilometers, a relatively rational distance. In fact, it was a little too rational for my tastes, so I had this crazy notion that maybe I'd ride back down from Blaine on Sunday. Riding straight back looked like about 120 miles. That looked doable. I knew Pete Bajema lived up in Bellingham, so I emailed him asking about a good route to ride back down. I knew Pete wouldn't think my notion of riding back was too crazy.

Sure enough, Pete mailed me back encouraging words and suggested that I take part of Team Extreme's route for the return trip. This is how I got a look at their route sheet. While Team Sunnyside had come up with a route that met the minimum distance plus a tiny bit, Team Extreme approached the problem from the other angle: how far could they possibly ride in 24 hours and still finish? The result was a convoluted loop of a course begining at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, heading up the Snoqualmie Valley, doing a big loop out the North Cascades Highway and then South to Darrington, then East all the way to Anacortes, then West again, up to Bellingham and then angling around to Blaine. The total proposed distance: 547 kilometers.

"Wow," I thought, "Now that is nuts!" Since all of us who ride extreme distances are used to having other people call us nuts, it's good to find someone a bit further out there. Team Extreme was definitely out there.

It was the Thursday before the fleche that Pete relayed the news: Bernie had injured himself training and would have to pull out. Team Extreme was down to two riders and they'd need another person to meet the minimum team requirement. Would I be willing to ride with Team Extreme?

I didn't really even pause to think about it. The important thing was to keep both teams in the running, so I jumped ship from Team Sunnyside to Team Extreme. My lovely wife pointed out that "sunny" wasn't one of the words she'd use to to describe me, but extreme was an extemely good fit.

Friday night when the rain was coming down at 6:00 PM I was safe and warm at home. Team Sunnyside was pulling out for a long dark, wet night of riding while I went to bed early so I'd be ready when Pete and Ken picked me up the next morning.

Early Saturday morning we piled in to Russ Carter's big Jeep. Russ, who is Ken's dad, would drive the support vehicle that we'd connect up with at certain control points along the route. Our ride would go from 7:00 AM Saturday to 7:00 AM Sunday with a possible sleep break at Pete's house in Bellingham. By starting at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, we figured we'd build up some decent speed to help with the overall average time.

It was 33 degrees and raining at the summit. Russ took a picture of us bundled up in our rain gear and tights with a big snowbank as a backdrop. At 7:00 AM, we pulled onto I-90 for the descent into North Bend.

The one degree of buffer was all we needed to keep the road from icing and as we dropped, the temperature climbed to the upper thirties and then into the forties. Luxury! We all had good gear and the rain wasn't too heavy.

Since I was on my fixed gear bike, we'd agreed that we'd ride at our own pace for the descent. Pete and Ken on their carbon Treks with bigger gears and the ability to coast could out descend me. My top speed was limited by how fast I could turn the 70 inch gear on the PX-10. Surprisingly I kept them in sight on the descent and by the time we hit the exit at North Bend I was only about 30 seconds back. We regrouped at the base of the exit ramp.

The area around North Bend, Snoqualmie, Fall City and Carnation is my home turf -- the places where I log lots of training miles. I was nice and warm from the spin down from the pass and we kept up a good pace into Snoqualmie, past the falls and at Fall City we turned north to follow SR-203 up to Monroe.

It was around Carnation that I notice Pete and Ken were no longer behind me. I figured one of them had flatted and at Duval I pulled over to wait. I snacked on some granola bars and just as I was begining to consider doubling back, they rolled in behind me. Sure enough, Pete had flatted. We continued on.

We were going at a good clip, drafting on some sections. We all took turns at the front, with Pete stretching out on the aerobars of his Postal Service Trek. It had stopped raining now and the day was about perfect for riding, overcast and not too hot or too cool. As we pulled into the gas station that was our control point at Monroe, Ken flatted his rear tire. Perfect timing!

We got our cards stamped and while Ken fixed his tire and Pete topped out his tire with my pump, I did a few calulations. We reached this control at 9:45 AM and my computer was showing the distance to be 88 kilometers with an average speed of 33.8 kph or 21 mph. Not a bad start.

Ken and Pete were both impressed with my Topeak Road Morph pump, a frame pump that turns into a tiny version of a floor pump. In the course of our 15 minute break we got the tires all in good shape and had time for a quick snack. Then we were headed East on Highway 2 and then North on SR-9 heading for Sedro Wolley.

Somewhere along Route 9 we pulled into a small general store so Ken and Pete could refill their water bottles. They were each running with dual bottles while I was using a single bottle and a Camelbak. After this brief stop, we were back on the road and at 1:23 PM, we pulled into the control at Sedro Wolley.

Russ was here with the Jeep and we took a 12 minute break. I again logged the stats: this stage had also been about 88 kilometers and our average speed was 29.5 kph (18.3 mph). Russ told us he'd seen Team Sunnyside earlier when they'd stopped here heading the other direction.

From Sedro Wolley we headed East on SR-20 to Rockport. When the terrain would climb, I'd tend to drop Pete and Ken. I'm a fairly light guy and despite the fact that I was carrying a bit more gear than they were, it's very hard to beat a fixed gear bike on a climb. On the descents, the balance would shift the other way but we actually stayed pretty close together most of the time. At Rockport, it had gotten a bit warmer and we all stopped to adjust our clothing before heading South on SR-530 to Darrington.

We pulled into Darrington at 4:45 PM and took a 20 minute break before heading West on SR-530. Our speed for this last leg was 27.2 kph (16.9 mph) for the 69 kilometers. Now we had a bit of a headwind but the riding was still quite pleasant. We pulled into the control at Stanwood at 7:42 PM and took a longer break (33 minutes) to eat and adjust our gear for night riding. The numbers for this 55 kilometer stage showed our average at 23.4 kph (15.5 mph).

Now we rode through Conway and LaConner, a bit on Highway 20 and then on some backroads along the bay. It was an odd scene with the giant Anacortes refinery on our left making creaking mechanical noises, lit up like a backdrop from BladeRunner with jets of vent gas burning in the night. Above us the nearly full moon shone down and to our right was a small strip of tidal beach was crowded with parked vans and campers next to people sprawled in lawn chairs around driftwood fires.

At 10:45 PM we pulled into the control point at the Anacortes Safeway. We'd covered the last 55 kilometers at a pace of 23.4 kph (14.5 mph). We took a 25 minute break and then headed back into the night, backtracking along Highway 20. The temperature had cooled back down to 47 degrees but we were still feeling pretty good.

Having just gone up a hill, I was ahead of the others by a bit and as the road turned down, I was moving at a good clip. With my Lumotec Oval Plus being driven off a Schmidt hub generator I had the best lights of the team but even so when I saw the scrap of two by six lumber gleam in my headlight beam, I didn't have time to avoid it.

On a fixed gear bike, you don't unweight the bike like you would a conventional bike. On a bike that coasts, you lock your pedals in the horizontal position, flex your elbows and lift your butt off the seat. On a fixed gear, you accelerate to unweight your saddle as you bend your elbows. It's a reflex that's been drilled into me over thousands of fixed gear kilometers. I punched the pedals and semi-levitated as the PX-10 caught the board square in the wheels. No pinch flats, no wobble... no problem!

We regrouped at the turn onto Bayview Edison Road and rode together up to Chuckanut Drive. As we got closer to Bellingham, I said to Pete "we're almost to your house, right?"

You know that saying "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?" Pete said nothing at all. It should've tipped me off.

We rolled into Bellingham and it seemed incredibly busy. People may tell you that New York is the city that never sleeps but Bellingham at 1:00 AM on an early Sunday morning is one happening place. Lots of kids walking and driving around. Hadn't these people heard of sleep? We'd all heard of sleep and were thinking it sounded like a mighty fine idea.

But first we had to get to Pete's. Ken and I weren't looking at the route sheet, we were just following Pete. At every intersection that we'd stop at if one road would go up, one road would go straight and one road would go down, you could pretty much count on Pete turning onto the one that went up.

And up...

And up...

I began to realize that Pete doesn't actually live in Bellingham. No, Pete is a member of some cliff dwelling race who live in the mountains above Bellingham. We ride up into the darkness.

Eventually Pete turns down(!) a side road and pulls up to a house. "We're here," he announces simply. It's 2:10 AM. We stumble into Pete's house, grab something to drink and settle in for a quick nap. Pete tosses some clothes in the dryer. Somehow my warm gloves have vanished from my hands and I can't figure out what I've done with them. I managed to log the stats, however. 64 kilometers for the latest leg with an average speed of 21.7 kph (13.49 mph). Pete set an alarm and we all collapsed on his floor

The alarm went off way too soon. Actually it went off at the time Pete had set, but we agreed that that was too soon. It wasn't that far to Nugents Corner and some extra sleep would make us that much faster for the tail end of the ride. We went back to sleep.

When the stupid alarm went off again we had to get going. I still could not find my warm gloves but I had my mesh short-fingered cycling gloves and how cold could it possibly be? Ken put forth the theory that at least we were done with the climbing and it was a flat run to the end now.

Pete said nothing.

Ken pressed the point, "We're pretty much done with the hills now, right?"

"Well, there's still some climbing..." Pete confessed.

I think Tenzing Norgay said something similar to Edmund Hillary while they were still hanging out at Lhasa.

The road went up. We went up. We kept going, knowing that evenually we'd be descending. At one point we saw a bunch of flashing lights ahead. As we drew closer we saw a tow truck and a couple of state troopers working to pull a pickup out of the ditch. There was just enough room for us to squeeze by.

When we finally got the descent, it came with a cold fog and truly horrible road conditions. Since I had the best light, I was out front. We were bouncing along as best we could when I saw the sign "Rough Road". Just as I was thinking "well, duh!" the road surface changed from bad to damn near non-existant. Huge craters opened in front of us and we slowed and veered from one side of the road to the other trying to pick our way among the few bits of pavement that still clung to what the sign had mockingly called a road.

We knew we had no chance of making our full distance now. We were going to fall about 50K short. This would still count using the 80% rule but now we were into survival mode. We were making lousy time, we couldn't see in the fog and it was really, really cold.

At Acme there are a set of railroad tracks that cross the road at a sharp diagonal. I caught my front wheel on the fog slicked tracks and went down. Fortunately I landed well and was already numb enough from the cold that I didn't feel a thing. I eventually got smart and wrapped the sleeves of my spare jersey over my fingers which warmed my fingers slightly.

Road conditions improved tremendously once we were back on Highway 9 but we were too cold to care. Nugents Corner was the end for us. I held out the hope that casinos are open all the time and that we'd have someplace warm but it turns out that the casino there is closed from 5:00 AM to 8:00 AM on Sunday mornings and by golly there was just nothing open at that hour. We did find the last guy who'd finished his shift at the casino and asked him if he knew of any place that might be open. He directed us to the Texaco down the street and we rode off.

The Texaco was closed but our new buddy saw that as he drove by and stopped to offer us a lift. He had a pickup truck with room for three bikes in the back and we all crammed in the cab. It was crowded, but it was warm. We'd spent hours on cold lousy roads riding away from Bellingham and now all that distance was being erased in one fast pickup ride.

The driver let us off at a 24 hour sports bar & grill in Bellingham. Pete called his long suffering wife to come rescue us while Ken and I ordered breakfast and coffee. We were nodding off and they told us we couldn't sleep in the bar (they have an image to uphold!) so Ken stayed awake by telling them the tale of how we'd come to be there.

I worked out the final numbers. My computer sensor had gotten knocked off kilter when I went down on the tracks but it looks like the average for the leg from Pete's house to Nugents Corner was a dismal 20.6 kph (12.8 mph). Overall distance for our 24 hour fleche was 499 kilometers (310 miles) with an overall average speed of 27.6 kph (17.17 mph).

Back at Pete's we napped for a while and then Ken, Pete and I, the bikes and Pete's family all squeezed into Pete's van and we drove up to Semiahmoo. Here we had to put up with the good-natured ribbing of Team Sunnyside who'd managed to ride the entire distance they'd said they would. Mark Thomas dubbed us "Team Over-Promise and Under-Deliver."

Next year we'll go the distance!