The randonneuring events that I had done thus far – brevets and permanents – are individual events. Although it’s permissible and encouraged to do those rides with other randonneurs, you’re ultimately responsible only to get yourself to the finish line. Conversely, a flèche is team event. Each team consists of three to five people, who ride the entire distance audax style (staying together).
Flèche Rules and History
“Flèche” is the French word for “arrow.” This describes how the various teams converge on the same target via different routes, which the RBA pre-approves. The main rules of a flèche are:
· The route must be at least 360 km (about 224 miles).
· The total flèche distance must be covered within 24 hours.
· No rest stop may be longer than 2 hours.
· The final 25 km (about 16 miles) must be covered after the 22-hour mark.
First held in 1891, the flèche is the oldest type of randonée. One of the original objectives of randonneuring was to see how long the human body could endure on the newly invented bicycle. Back then, people thought that the body could withstand such endurance events very infrequently. Therefore, flèches initially were held only every 10 years. We now know that the human body is quite strong and resilient. Today, flèches can occur in any year and are held on or around Easter weekend.
Several months ago I started asking my regular rando buddies if they wanted to be on a flèche team with me. Brian, Daniel, and Robert N. readily agreed. In fact, I think Brian is the main reason why our Audax Atlanta club has a flèche on this year’s calendar in the first place. He asked Kevin to schedule one because Brian is working toward an Audax Club Parisien (ACP) award that includes a flèche. (ACP is randonneuring headquarters, approving brevets and registering results from around the world.) Kevin set Savannah as the flèche destination, where previous years’ Georgia flèches have also ended.
It just so happens that my hometown of Monticello is roughly 360 km from Savannah. I had a lot of fun planning my team’s route. The first 80 miles were easy. I already had a great route from Monticello to Dublin because of one of my longest RAAM training rides last year. I only had to come up with another 144 miles or so. As I considered the possibilities, I decided on a route that stayed mostly south of I-16 because it would take us through such iconic Georgia towns as Vidalia (as in onions) and Claxton (as in fruitcake). My teammates, particularly Brian, gave me excellent input for tweaking the end of the route. I changed our 22-hour control to a Waffle House and rerouted the final miles through the historic part of Savannah – perfect!
A great route, quirky points of interest, fun friends – this was shaping up to be a highlight of my 2016 cycling year. But wait – there’s more! I came up with an obvious team name: It’s Just a Flèche Wound! I planned several little surprises that played off of our team name. Heh heh!
My team met at Jordan Engineering, my husband’s office. Not only did Robert J. graciously let everyone park there, he also agreed to drive to Savannah to bring us home the next day. I am so fortunate to have such a loving husband who’s also an excellent soigneur!
My first order of business when I met up with my teammates was to show them our mascot, which I pinned to the back of my jersey:
The limbs are removable. Although they have Velcro attachments, the designer had the foresight to add little plastic strings, like the ones that attach tags to new clothes. That way I didn’t have to worry about the Black Knight losing an arm or leg during the ride. By the way, we decided that the Black Knight needed a name. We chose Nigel, a good British name.
I put two bottles of Heed in my bike cages and crammed everything else I needed for the ride into my bike bag and into my jersey pockets: flèche card, pen, cash, phone, tire repair kit, food, extra lights, charger and cables, glasses for nighttime riding, contact case, knee warmers, extra gloves, rain jacket, and reindeer antlers (more on that later). I’m glad I found a spot for everything because I used everything I brought.
We set out on Highway 11 S. Even with the overcast, misty day, the riding was pleasant. After leaving the Monticello square, we didn’t have a turn for 25 miles. We did stop to read a historic marker. Our biggest challenge for the ride was not going too fast, and so we stopped anytime something caught our attention.
When we got to Gray, we stopped for one of my planned points of interest, the Otis Redding memorial. Otis Redding lived most of his life in Macon, moving to the outskirts of Gray in his last years before he was killed in a plane crash in 1967. What an incredible musician! The memorial has facts about his life and even plays a number of his hit songs. I’m so glad that my teammates enjoyed visiting the memorial. Brian said that it was the highlight of his trip!
We continued south into kaolin country. When we got to McIntyre, we passed Club VIP, a cinder block building covered with artwork in a cityscape, graffiti style. On the side it read, “C’mon – you know what it is!” We all regretted that we didn’t stop for a picture, but we joked about looking for other similar joints along the route. Alas, apparently there is only one Club VIP in the world.
At about mile 54 we reached our first control in Irwinton. All of our controls were open, meaning we could stop anywhere to get our cards signed and obtain receipts. I hoped that the Blue Goose would be open that morning, and it was! The Blue Goose is a wonderful bike hostel, comfortable yet inexpensive. Donna Abell, one of the owners, was there, and she graciously provided coffee and Cokes to team It’s Just a Flèche Wound. Because of the moderate pace the flèche required, we lingered at our controls. We enjoyed chatting with Donna for a while. I was glad to hear that business is good at The Blue Goose. If you’re ever in the area, make sure to plan an overnight stay.
|(L-R) Brian, me, Daniel, and Robert N.|
We continued on some great roads toward our next control in Dublin. We looked forward to that stop because we would have an actual meal. My original plan was to go to Deano’s, a delicious Italian restaurant that I have been to a few times. Deano’s was my destination on my RAAM training ride from Monticello to Dublin and back last year. On that ride, the Deano’s staff was so accommodating, insisting that I bring my bicycle inside to keep it safe. When we got there on the flèche, however, we couldn’t get any service. I asked a server if my team could bring our bicycles inside. She went to ask the manager. When she didn’t reappear after about five minutes, we gave up and went to a bistro across the street. That turned out to be a very good thing.
The other restaurant was Company Supply. The owner and staff were so nice. They immediately offered to bring us towels to wipe down our wet bicycles and were glad to let us park them inside:
The food was terrific. They have a number of Cajun dishes – one of my favorite cuisines! They also use a number of locally sourced ingredients – even better! Brian and Robert started with some delicious looking gumbo. Daniel had an appetizer of pimento cheese (one of my favorite foods) with pita bread. I got shrimp étouffée and a side salad. Brian also got the shrimp étouffée but added a side of flash fried spinach. It was crispy, and you eat it with your fingers like potato chips. Daniel got the chicken sandwich special, and Robert got chicken and waffles. I was so glad to learn about this other great restaurant in Dublin.
Up to that point, it had drizzled off and on, but as we left the restaurant, it was raining steadily. There’s really only one way to head east out of Dublin because you have to cross the Oconee River. U.S. 80 through East Dublin is kind of dicey anytime, and the rain certainly didn’t help. Fortunately, we made it safely through that worst part of the route.
As late afternoon faded into evening, we reached our next control, Mt. Vernon. I looked for V-8 at the convenience store but couldn’t find it. So, I got chocolate milk instead, always a good choice on an endurance ride.
I wish we had been able to get to the Vidalia Onion Museum before it closed, but our necessarily slow pace prevented that. There wasn’t even a giant Vidalia onion for us to visit L I didn’t cry or pout, however, because it was only a few miles to our next point of interest: Santa Claus!
Yes, Georgia has a town named Santa Claus! As I had mapped our flèche route, I simply had to take us there since we would be in the vicinity. Street view on Google Maps indicated that there is a life-sized Santa Claus at the welcome sign at the edge of town. Photo opp! Believe it or not, I had carried my reindeer antlers all this way just for this purpose. We arrived right after sunset. This made my photo even more hilarious. I had to strip down to my base layer to get a usable photo because of the reflective strips on my vest and jersey, similar to the ones on my ankles (see photo). Not surprisingly, the guys had fun teasing me about playing reindeer games.
|Ironically, you can barely see my reindeer antlers.|
I had to put a control in Santa Claus because going there required a slight detour from the shortest route between the controls before and after it, Mt. Vernon and Reidsville. Fortunately, Santa Claus has a Minit Mart. Robert made the astute observation that we had to get milk and cookies. Brilliant! However, I really didn’t want another chocolate milk after having had some at the previous control in Mt. Vernon, and I couldn’t find any cookies at the Santa Claus Minit Mart. But Santa drinks Coca-Cola, too, and an OCP is sorta like a cookie:
We were ready for a more substantial meal. Fortunately, Santa Claus is a suburb of the larger town of Lyons. As we pedaled the couple of miles into Lyons, we saw a billboard for Subway, which sounded fine. We continued into the downtown area, where Brian and Daniel started scouting around. After a few minutes, Daniel came back with (rather complicated) directions to Subway. Brian had found an even better option: Hardware Pizza! I’ll take an independent restaurant over a chain any day.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many small Georgia towns have decent pizza places. I guess it’s a matter of being a relatively inexpensive restaurant startup, and it’s not hard to make palatable pizza. Not only was the food good at Hardware Pizza, they also had craft beer! Brian and Robert split a couple of flights (samples of four beers), and I got a pint of Red Hare, a craft brew made in Atlanta. We all had a blast shooting the breeze and hanging out for a while. Actually, we pretty much camped out there. Management didn’t say a word about my teammates spreading their paraphernalia along the bar top by the window:
The Wee Hours
Now well fueled again, we were ready to face the wee hours of riding. We got to our next control, Reidsville, before midnight. We stopped at a convenience store where an employee was busy cleaning floors, rugs, and windows.
He commented that he enjoyed riding his bicycle, a basic Schwinn, but he thought he would be able to ride a lot faster and farther on a bike like ours. It reminded me that there are so many people like him in the world who might be excellent cyclists but just don’t have the means or opportunity to find out. I’m grateful I get to do something that I love so much.
It was now after midnight, and I started getting sleepy. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay up all night without at least a short nap. I said something to the guys about taking a sleep break, and they were glad to oblige. We pulled over at the post office in Claxton. A post office with inside boxes is a great place to take a nap because it’s open 24 hours, it’s warm, and it’s unlikely to have any foot traffic in the middle of the night. What a great randonneuring trick!
I was pretty out of it. First, I asked if it was OK for us to be doing this. Robert assured me that although we were occupying a federal building, we didn’t have to worry since we were unarmed. Then, I asked Brian where I should lie down. (Normally, I could have figured that out on my own.) He pointed to a space under a counter; I was the only one of us small enough to fit under there comfortably. I hadn’t been so glad to find a sleep spot since that party in Little Five Points back in 1992 when I found a desk to crawl under.
Brian woke me up a couple of minutes before my phone alarm went off. I must have slept pretty soundly because I hadn’t heard the train that the others were talking about. Then, nature called – loudly. I went outside to find a tree. I was concerned that security cameras might be documenting my foray, and so I made sure to go a good distance away from the building.
I had hoped we might get some fruitcake, Claxton’s famous export. Although I knew that we wouldn’t be there in time to go to the bakery, I had called the chamber of commerce earlier in the week to see if there were any fruitcake retailers that might be open late at night. The local grocery store carries it, but unfortunately, it closed at 10:00 PM, way before we arrived in Claxton. Bummer. Oh well, I needed that nap way more than I needed fruitcake.
We got back on the road, heading toward our next control in Pembroke. Around that time, I determined that riding much more slowly than usual is actually more tiring. Still, I’m so glad I did this. It just added one more type of cycling experience to my repertoire.
Brian and I got a little ahead of Daniel and Robert. Was it my imagination, or was I suddenly having to work harder? It was real; Brian decided to do interval training at 2:30 AM! For 20 minutes I hung onto his wheel. When he finally let up, he said he was just trying to keep his mind occupied. I think he was also trying to help me fight fatigue. I didn’t feel terribly sleepy at that point, but maybe that’s because the interval worked!
We arrived at an all-night convenience store in Pembroke, and Daniel and Robert followed soon thereafter. We chatted with a policeman who had passed us. Understandably surprised to see us on the road at such a late hour, he enjoyed hearing about our adventure.
After the Pembroke control, I had my sleepiest time of the night. I told the guys to start talking about something interesting. They talked about the waffles they planned to get at Waffle House. That sort of kept my attention, but they quit talking after about two minutes. I had to do something else to keep myself awake. I started singing to myself. The only song whose lyrics I could think of was “Doraville” by the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I wracked my brain trying to think of more songs. All I could come up with was theme songs to classic TV shows. I sang The Addams Family, Laverne & Shirley, and The Jeffersons, belting it out when I got to “Fish don’t fry in the kitchen. Beans don’t burn on the grill…” Then I moved on to cartoons: The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, and Spider Man. The grand finale was Popeye: “I’m strong to the finich cuz I eats me spinach. I’m Popeye the sailor man! Ack yack yack yack yack yack!” With that laugh, I figured that I’d better quit before my teammates killed me. Besides, the singing worked; I was more awake.
We rode through Bloomingdale and into Pooler. Daniel was in front, and I called out to him to turn right onto the entrance ramp to Pooler Parkway. He was pretty fatigued at that point because he was convinced that I was taking us onto I-95. I assured him that we were going the right way; fortunately, we were.
Waffle House at last! The timing was just right. We arrived at about 4:30 AM. A waffle and some hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered hit the spot.
It was cold inside the Waffle House. They must have been trying to cool the cooks standing over the hot stoves. Also, we were chilled in our clothes that were damp from the mist and rain that had accompanied us most of the way. It’s just as well that we had taken that one-hour nap; without it we would have had to sit in the chilly Waffle House even longer. Not that I would have noticed. As soon as I ate, I nodded off:
|It looks like the waitress is writing me a ticket for sleeping at the Waffle House.|
The guys woke me a little before 6:00 AM. It was time to ride the last 16 miles. We followed the Savannah River in the shipping district, crossing about a dozen sets of railroad tracks. Then we approached downtown Savannah. The sky was getting lighter as sunrise neared. The grand finale was riding down Bull Street around historic squares draped in Spanish moss. Savannah really is a beautiful city.
We rolled into the Courtyard Savannah Midtown at 7:23 AM. We completed our flèche in 23 hours, 23 minutes!
I had gotten a room at the motel for my husband. This also provided my team with shower facilities. But first, I presented them with team T-shirts:
|Robert N.'s shirt|
A few hours later, we met with Kevin and the two other flèche teams at a nearby deli. The other teams completed the flèche successfully, too. We swapped stories, but I’ll bet they didn’t have nearly as much fun as we did!