While some people ride brevets throughout the year, Felkerino and I tend to do most of our of brevets during what we call the “Spring Season,” which basically consists of the four-brevet Super Randonneur series and the Fleche.
One of the big kickoffs to spring is the Fleche, as it is usually one of the first events on the D.C. Randonneurs ride calendar and, compared to brevets, seems slightly lower key.
For those unfamiliar with this strange ride with some historic significance, the Fleche (French for arrow) is a 24-hour team cycling event. Audax Club Parisien started the Fleche in 1947 as an homage to French rider Paul de Vivie, Mr. Velocio himself.
Typically completed over Easter weekend, the Fleche must be at least 360K in length. Teams may have separate points of departure, but all arrive at the same destination point after their 24-hour adventure. Historically, groups had to ride point-to-point routes, as opposed to loop routes, but that has changed over time. Another original concept of the Fleche was for teams to challenge themselves to cover as much distance as possible.
Some teams still ride point-to-point routes and try to cover ambitious distances during the course of their Fleche, throwing in some significant climbs along the way. Others stick close to or slightly over the 360K distance, traverse moderate terrain, and complete loop courses. A loop course simplifies transportation to the start and designing a mellow-ish route close to the minimum distance generally allows for a slightly more leisurely pace and any mechanicals along the way.
Fleche teams can be composed of three to five bikes, and at least three bikes have to finish in 24 hours in order to receive an official finish. Because it is a team event, teammates must start and finish the ride together.
Since I started randonneuring in 2006, I’ve participated in four Fleches. Three of the four have been on my single bike, one was on tandem, and each one has been with a different team. Two were point-to-point routes and two were loop courses.
I look forward to the Fleche each year because it emphasizes several things I like about bicycling. Camaraderie. Food. A scenic journey that offers both a physical and mental challenge.
I’ve completed each of my Fleche rides in various physical and mental states. My first ride, with the Randonnettes, I had no idea what I was doing and was the slowest member of my team, which slowed the team down, too. While my teammates were patient about my lack of speed, my inability to ride easily with them stressed me out.
When I rode a with the Gray Ghosts, I was in pretty good shape and well-matched in terms of pace with my fellow Fleche-mates. The only hitch in that ride was when a teammate and I went off cue for a total of 6 or 7 miles, causing us to almost miss dinner. Oops.
My third Fleche outing, as a member of Team Uncorked, came after an 18-month hiatus from randonneuring and resulted in some difficulty in maintaining speed and energy throughout the ride due to a lack of overall fitness. There was some unpleasant vomiting toward the end as a result, but I did officially finish with my team.
Two years ago, Felkerino and I rode a Fleche together on tandem with two other cycling friends and had a great time laughing, caffeinating, and eating our way around the Mid-Atlantic. Team Velo, Espresso, Gelato. That about sums up that ride, though I don’t recall any gelato.
When I consider Fleche participation, I now try to make sure I keep in mind the following things:
- Point-to-point courses are not my favorite. While they are the most fun to ride and I definitely feel like I’m on a real journey as opposed to a big 24-hour ride-about, the logistics of getting my bike and me to a starting point about 200 miles away is a pain. Loop courses simplify this aspect of the fleche.
- I want to cover at least the minimum required Fleche distance, but I don’t need my team to win the region for kilometers covered on a Fleche.
- Undulating terrain is perfect for a Fleche. Hilly, unforgiving terrain? Not so much.
- It’s all about the 22-hour control.
About that last point. No matter how you ride your Fleche, all riders must control in somewhere at the 22-hour mark of the ride. If you don’t get, you get the big DQ (disqualified, ahhh!).
After the 22-hour control, riders must pedal at least 25 additional kilometers before they complete their ride. At 24 hours, at least three bikes from the team must finish and have covered the minimum 360-kilometer distance.
During my first Fleche, I had no comprehension of the 22-hour control. I just thought we needed to make it to the end of our route by the time 24 hours passed. I was so uneducated then, ha! Now I know that the 22-hour point of the ride is the one point that matters.
When I rode with Team Uncorked, my lack of conditioning (and vomiting) caused a bit of a delay at the 22-hour control. Because of that, we ended up finishing the ride at a different control than the official finish, about three-five miles away from the official end of the ride. While acceptable to finish at an alternate location, teams still must cover at least 25 additional kilometers over the final two hours. We finished just over the nose of the minimum distance.
I’ve heard many people extoll on the upsides of the Fleche, but they aren’t all a pedal through the park. (Did my modified pun work? No, I didn’t think so.) Good base level fitness is required to keep your Fleche from becoming a ride of desperation (see my Team Uncorked writeup).
The weather can be… well, you know. See this writeup from our friends in Severna Park for an epic weather tale.
Riding all night can also tire a person out. I hate to admit it, but this no-sleep-til-the-Fleche-ends has gradually become more of a factor for me as I age (shh, don’t tell anyone). It takes me several days to recover from the sleep deprivation as well as sleep schedule confusion brought on by a 24-hour ride.
As I mentioned, though, Fleche events don’t always involve vomiting and they can be super-fun. I think there’s something inherent about the magic of the Fleche construct that lends itself to great stories.
All teams have names and people have come up with some great titles. And people love to come up with great Fleche puns for team names, too (see here, for a good example). Tee hee!
Team members stick together and finish together. You can really get to know people. Because you are most likely covering fewer miles over that 24-hour time span than if you were doing a brevet, you can sometimes move along more leisurely than a brevet. Night riding is a bonding experience and, if the weather cooperates it can be sublime. Seeing all the teams at the finish is a blast, and food after 24 hours of riding really tastes awesome!
I’d love to have a few more miles in my legs for this one, but overall I feel pretty good, and I’m excited to join team Table for Five’s 2012 Fleche adventure on April 14.
There’s so much good stuff to share about the Fleche that I’m sure I’ve overlooked something so please feel free to add your thoughts and experiences to the comments. Thanks to Bill for all the photos of rides gone by, and I hope to see some of you at the D.C. Randonneurs Fleche rendezvous point!