Tuesday, August 3, 2021

My favorite randonneuring ride

I think I can safely say I've done at least one of every type of allure libre (as opposed to Audax) brevets there are with distances ranging from 100K populaires to 1500K grande randonnées. Although they each have their charms and challenges, my favorite is the flèche velocio

Briefly, this is generally a point to point ride (flèche means "arrow" in French so a traditional route would resemble an arrow pointed straight at the target) consisting of a team with 3 riders minimum, 5 maximum where the team rides for 24 hours and a minimum distance of 360 Km (about 223 miles), 25 Km of which must be ridden in the last 2 hours. A minimum of 3 riders must complete the event in order for any of them to receive credit. For those who are interested, a complete set of rules can be found here.

Why is it my favorite? Several reasons:

  1. The team aspect. A well chosen team is important since you're going to be riding together for 24 hours. In addition to the obvious need for harmonious personality types it's helpful if everyone is relatively evenly matched in terms of pace, desire to stop, etc.
  2. There's little to no incentive to ride fast (more on this later) - you're going to ride for 24 hours no matter what so relax and enjoy. This obviously is less true if you challenge yourself with a route that has an egregious amount of climbing or is significantly over the minimum distance.
  3. Although night riding is part and parcel of the longer brevets, unless the brevet has a night start ala Paris Brest Paris it's pretty unusual to ride through the night whereas this is mandatory as part of the flèche. There's something about riding through the night and to still be riding when the sun comes up that's just a magical, borderline spiritual experience.
I've done a number of flèches in the past but all have been loop routes so not in the "true" spirit of the ride. I decided for this outing that I wanted to do a point to point route in the traditional style and the surest way of making that happen was to captain a team. The captain develops the route and generally plays a role (small or large, depending on the team) in making sure the team as a whole is successful.

The route

The destination for the flèche was set by the Minnesota Randonneurs (the organizing club) as Woodbury Minnesota with a start time of 16:00. I went through a number of iterations using online mapping tools (ridewithgps and satellite views) in order to put together a route that looked like it would meet all the requirements and be fun to ride. The biggest challenge I would face is that a lot of the roads in rural Minnesota are unpaved and although gravel riding and racing are very popular they're a risky choice for a flèche for several reasons:
  1. You're slower on gravel.
  2. If it rains you could be in real trouble - riding through thick mud is definitely going to cause problems.
  3. The less than smooth surface is hard on the body parts over a long ride.
  4. A higher likelihood of flats.
Because of this, I spent a lot of time on my preliminary route trying to identify and eliminate as many gravel segments as I could. My initial route had us starting in Prairie du Chien but with the reroutes around gravel roads this proved to be unacceptably far so I moved the start to Monona Iowa. 

Since we would be riding through a lot of small towns I wanted the team to have a good meal early in the ride before we had to resort to the usual convenience store fare. Since not all of the team members knew each other I also wanted to have an opportunity for everyone to get acquainted off the bike. I therefore routed us through Decorah Iowa with a planned stop at Toppling Goliath brewery. This was a bit problematic because getting there required a couple of miles on IA-9 which at that point has very high speed traffic and no shoulder. I resolved that by setting a control at the Casey's near IA-9 then shuttling the team up to Toppling Goliath in cars (our support crew of Marcia and Kathy did a superb job through the whole ride!) then rejoining the route at the point from which we left after dinner. This worked out very well and cost us very little time.

Enjoying dinner early in the ride

My wife and I previewed the portion of the route from the start to Decorah to make sure we'd have enough time for dinner and to double check my estimated speed for that segment. As is my wont, I'd developed a ride plan that accounted for the amount of climbing in each segment to predict arrival times. I was within a few minutes of the predicted time so all was good (more on this later!).

After previewing that portion of the route on the bike, my wife and I drove the remainder of the route over a couple of days. To my dismay I discovered that a lot of the roads that looked as though they were paved in the satellite view were in fact gravel and some of it was really nasty gravel - deep, sandy, etc., that would really be hard to ride on. We zig-zagged back and forth trying to find reasonable alternatives that linked together without adding an egregious amount of distance. I took a lot of notes so I could redo the route when we got home.

After a lot of work using my notes, satellite view, ridewithgps I had what I thought was a good route for the ride and that's what I submitted as our official route. The route was 378 Km versus the required 360 with just under 10K feet of climbing.

The route

The Team Name

One of the hardest things to do is come up with a name for the team. This is generally the first effort at team collaboration and is usually done via email exchanges. My instructions to the team were simple: come up with a name that was so cool that the other teams would hang their heads in shame over the lame team name they came up with (just kidding!).

We went through a number of iterations homing in on two general themes: we're all somewhat partial to F.C.A.B's (Frosty Carbonated Alcoholic Beverages) and the majority of the team ride in the Driftless region. After a number of false starts Dawn proposed "The Draft Commission" which I countered with "The Driftless Draft Commission" and so we were.

The ride

As mentioned previously, I developed a ride plan that gave estimated ride times for each of the segments and allocated time for each of the stops. It factors in the amount of climbing but it doesn't take things like wind or road conditions into account. This would prove to be significant, especially on the second day. 

The plan

The forecast for the ride looked quite favorable: relatively mild temperatures and little to no chance of rain. It looked as though we'd have a bit of a push until our sleep stop in Rochester then the winds would switch to Westerly and then Northerly so we'd have a strong headwind into the finish. This obviously wasn't ideal since that was when we'd be tired but as Mark Twain famously said "everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it!" so since we couldn't do anything about it, off we went.

The wind forecast

We started the ride in a light rain. Wait! Where did this come from? There was a 9% chance of rain forecast! Other than the rain, our first segment into Decorah went off without a hitch, we arrived about 10 minutes ahead of the predicted time. This section included a three mile stretch of gravel and I was a bit worried about how it would be after the rain but it was fine. Here's a photo of the team at the start and a few from that gravel stretch:

The Team at the start




Heading off
After dinner at Toppling Goliath we headed off toward our next stop in Cresco, IA. As is generally the case when I ride with him, Bill started having trouble with his Garmin at that point and they persisted despite him frantically pushing buttons, doing resets, etc. This would be a theme for a considerable portion of the ride. 

We arrived in Cresco just under 30 minutes behind our plan but this wasn't really a big concern at that point. Our next segment was to Chatfield and included a few stretches of gravel and a lengthy stretch on the Root River trail. I'd done a number of route changes on the Cresco->Chatfield segment. My initial version had us on secondary roads between Fountain and Chatfield but as the route grew longer with other changes further on to avoid gravel I decided instead to route us up US-52 reasoning that at the time we'd be on it there would be little to no traffic and it has a wide shoulder protected by alligator strips. This would prove to be a good decision as it allowed us to make good time on that stretch.

We needed that little speed boost because we had a hard time finding the entrance to the trail. We were riding on a fairly rugged stretch of gravel and the GPS said "turn left" but there was nothing there! We rolled on a little bit thinking perhaps the cue was misplaced but there wasn't anything to the left. We retraced our route and I took my backup light out of its holder and used it to light up the side of the road which was heavily overgrown. Sure enough, after a bit I was able to see a trail over there. Spencer and Eric crawled through the weeds onto the trail but the rest of us continued back along the route reasoning that there must be an entrance somewhere and there was! It was about 3 feet wide and almost impossible to see in the dark - no problem at all when my wife and I previewed the route at 1:30 PM!

We ended up getting to Chatfield only 8 minutes behind our plan so the stretch on US-52 paid big dividends. This was our "middle of the night" control and Dawn pretty much says it all:

Yep, we're crazy
We still had a tailwind from Chatfield to Rochester and made pretty good time through the night, arriving at our next control about 25 minutes behind schedule. This was mostly due to navigating the various bike paths and construction through Rochester. We hit the control then dropped down the hill to our hotel for a brief sleep stop. After an all too short time horizontal we were all hungry so we went back to the control (yet another Kwik Trip) and had breakfast. This put us well behind schedule.

Why yes, there was a bit of gravel! (Photo Dawn)

We rode hard to our next stop in Zumbrota, arriving roughly 1:12 behind plan. The next leg to Hastings also had some very lengthy gravel stretches and now we were running into the forecast headwind. The net result was despite riding hard and making a relatively short stop at Zumbrota we got to Hastings almost 2 hours behind. Fortunately as you see in the ride plan above, I'd allocated a little over 2 hours to spend at the Hastings control so we were not in a whole lot of danger of failing to complete the ride (although a few flats or other mechanical difficulties would have changed that!).

Ruh Oh!

Hastings was our "25 K in the last two hours" stop so we took a photo and got a receipt then headed on to the finish at Woodbury. One minor mishap between us and the finish: Eric entered a crosswalk and got a couple of bike lengths into it before realizing it was the wrong way so he stopped. Bill was behind him and stopped also. I was halfway off the curb when Bill stopped suddenly and couldn't get unclipped so I fell over while still clipped in landing hard on my left hip. Fortunately this wasn't serious (and more importantly, the bike was fine!) and only resulted in a large bruise - this was the only crash on the ride and it was less than a mile from the finish.

But we got it done. Spencer had gotten separated from the rest of the group on the run into Woodbury so he stopped at 16:00 and took a photo as documentation then took a brief nap under a tree. Here's a shot of the rest of the team at the finish:

All done!

And here's a shot of Spencer:

Spencer at the finish

And of course, having successfully completed the ride and despite being awake for 30+ hours we all had to celebrate with a post ride meal and beverage!
Finally, many thanks are due to Marcia and Kathy for their outstanding support during the ride. They handled the shuttle up to Toppling Goliath flawlessly, checked us in to our sleep stop in Rochester, met us at a few points with much needed water and scouted a route around a detour.
Best Crew Ever!

The team worked together very well, no major melt downs or mechanical issues, everyone rode really strongly throughout and other than a fair amount of mostly good nature ribbing about all the gravel everyone seemed to enjoy the route and the ride.

The flèche is still my favorite randonneuring event.