Once in a Blue Moon: 2017 D.C. Randonneurs Fleche
That Jerry Seager sure is a charmer. After swearing off the flèche for the rest of my days, Jerry’s keen routing skills and thirst for adventure convinced Felkerino and me to join him yet again for the 2017 edition of the D.C. Randonneurs flèche with Team Once in a Blue Moon.
This year our team consisted of Jerry and Eric – two flèche veterans with whom we’ve ridden on previous flèches and brevets – and first timers (though experienced riders and touring cyclists) Bilal and Natasha.
Like last year, our team chose a point to point course. Team Once In a Blue Moon launched from Cumberland, Maryland, where the GAP trail and the C&O converge.
We would cover 225 miles in 24 hours en route to our finishing point at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Virginia (one block from D.C.). I was eager to explore these new-to-me roads with the group.
Our flèche could be divided into two main parts: the first hilly as he!! 100 miles between Cumberland and Hancock, Maryland; and the second 100-and-change of gentler rolling miles between Hancock and the 22-hour control. See here for our full route.
Seasoned flèche participants know the critical spots to this event are the start, the 22-hour control, and the finish as these are the points where you all must arrive together by a particular hour.
I didn’t realize it until this past weekend, but I’ve come to take these timeframes seriously. Managing a ride such that I finish within the rules somehow became important over my years of randonneuring. Some of it might be that I like to play by the rules, and succeed by the rules. I don’t know. That was an unexpected feeling, and I’m still piecing together the reasons behind it.
Throughout this flèche I was also reminded that I value the group finish. The flèche is a team event after all, and finishing with every rider on the team is a big part of a successful ride in my book.
Team Once in a Blue Moon’s flèche completion appeared in question after our first century – which included intersecting the Eastern Continental Divide twice – and going over some gorgeous but steep climbs, including four or five extended gravel segments.
Our initial morning ascent culminated in a rain shower en route to our first crossing of the Eastern Continental Divide and temperatures that dropped into the mid-30s. The rain and chill took a toll in the early miles, adding to our climbing exertion. Being on the back of the tandem, Felkerino’s draft helped me raise those temps a few degrees so I was never that uncomfortable. It’s a nice tandem benefit.
Compared to other teams we were fortunate with the weather. While clouds loomed around us all day, the rain stayed south and east of us. Flèche routes closer to the D.C. area meant those teams spent most of the day navigating through rain.
Our route was stunning. Redbud and dogwood popped out of the gray day, and roads were extremely quiet. We had the gravel roads all to ourselves. My mind needed this ride, these roads, the escape from the city.
I’ve experienced renewed affection for the bike this year, and riding around the countryside on tandem with Felkerino is one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend. Even with the dreary skies, I was still glad to be out seeing the world from the perch of our tandem.
The tandem’s momentum differs from that of a single bike – faster on descents and slower on the ups. Our hilly course kept our group largely divided for the first half of our route, as everyone climbed and descended at their own pace (and comfort level, particularly on the gravel).
For a time, we wondered if all of us would make it to the finish. Eric did some bonus miles, we did some bonus miles, and Natasha had stomach issues that plagued her for many miles. We had several early controls that cost us time. The rain and cold cost us more time.
Bilal rode steadily with Natasha. It’s unusual to meet couples who ride the distances we do, and it was refreshing to ride with Bilal and Natasha. This was actually my first time riding with both of them. They had a low-drama look-out-for-each-other dynamic that made them easy to ride with.
We consistently regrouped at controls to assess our progress and physical states. It was difficult to make a dent in this course. At each stop, we calculated that we were riding very near the limits of the allotted times.
Because we were substantially off-schedule, the Blue Moon restaurant had long closed by the time we arrived in Shepherdstown. Note to self: never name your flèche team after your dinner spot.
At one point late at night, I confessed to Jerry that I wanted us to be official finishers. I disliked that we were riding with the ride on top of us, rather than the other way around. Yet Jerry was positive that we could do it, if we kept pushing onward. I was optimistic, but less certain. Jerry was the flèche captain herding us cats all over the place, though, so I followed his lead.
I know that these are just bike rides, but I really desired an officially official bike ride. Pride? Perfection? Payoff for the effort? It’s not as though we win grand prizes for finishing, it’s but a paper certificate from France. Like I said, I’m still working through the whys of my feelings.
After the 100-mile mark Natasha’s stomach rebounded and she was riding well. Her energy returned. What relief. Natasha’s grit impressed me. Despite the discomfort she must have been feeling, she kept pushing steadily forward with Bilal.
As night fell the team rode together, and that helped us stay on course. Mostly.
Steady overnight rain was forecast, but the sun set and – instead of rain- the stars popped out to twinkle nighttime greetings. Fog enveloped us for a while, but stars still peered down. I accepted the clear sky as a gift from the universe, practically ecstatic over the turn of events.
Aspects of this ride transported me back to 2008’s Team Uncorked, where I struggled much of the ride but the commitment and care of the team propelled me to the finish. With team Once In a Blue Moon, I sensed that nobody wanted to leave anyone behind. The success of the group mattered.
We raced to the 22-hour control, as much as people who have been riding for 22 hours can race, and stopped for 25 minutes at a diner for a beverage and snack.
Back on the bikes, we then semi-raced the final miles to the finish for a team photo full of smiles and cheer, and all the breakfast. Felkerino even closed his eyes after eating, saying that he was finally getting the 22-hour control nap he’d been denied at the 22-hour control.
Our entire team completed the route in 24 hours. We didn’t have to choose between an official finish and all of us completing the ride.
We had eked out a finish within the rules, within the timeframes. All six of us! Thanks to the doggedness of the group and some help from the weather our flèche came together, and I’m over the blue moon about it.
Many thanks to the team for the group effort and camaraderie. Thank you, Jerry Seager for organizing us cats and for the gorgeous flèche course – even (especially?) the signature gravel sections. Thank you thank you! And thanks to Nick and Mike for being there to greet us at the finish!