Time flies like an arrow

In 2003, many of my friends and riding aquaintences were doing Brevets, the preparation/qualifying rides for the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. I had known of these events, 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides, for some time but had never participated. The Fleche (French for "arrow") is considered a brevet ride, but is in many ways unlike the other brevets. About a week before the San Francisco Randonneurs 2004 Fleche , a spot opened up on a team organized by Bruce Berg, and I was asked to do the ride. For this ride, teams are composed of three to five riders, ride a route of no less than 360 kilometers that converge on a single destination or target, in this case Kezar Stadium in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The riders are given 24 hours to complete their routes, not allowed breaks exceeding two hours at any point, must 'check in' at control points along the way, and must complete a minimum portion of the ride in the last two hours. In all these ways a Fleche differs from other brevet rides.

Of War and Peace

Because of my late addition to the team, I had a little difficulty in arranging lodging at our start point, which was in Leggett, CA. I knew that another Fleche team ("The Fleche Pots") was starting from nearly the same place and my friend Charlie Jonas was on that team. He must have put in a good word for me, as I was able to share their lodge room for the night before the start. In addition to Charlie, that team included Mark, Marty, Tim, and Reid. Allow middle aged men to spend time away from the maturing influences of spouses and offspring and naturally the conversation will take a goofy bent, and meals will consist of processed foods whose ingredients list will rival Russian novels in length.

All the members of "The Fleche Pots" were Paris-Brest-Paris veterans, and much of the conversation was of that and other campaigns in which these riders had participated. In the best tradition of "we'll laugh about this later" all stories had some amusing twist, such as the dead of the night arrival at PBP's end of Tim and John Quaterman (a member of my Fleche Team), where the two riders differed on the likelihood and necessity of hailing a cab to travel to the hotel 3km away, after riding 1200+km.

Great Expectations

Because our route began so near to that of "The Fleche Pots", we were instructed to leave at 9am instead of 8am when all the other teams began. In addition to that, John, who stayed at the same lodge as I did, and I had to ride seven miles to the start of our route. After taking the obligatory photos of the 8am team, in front of the Totem Pole on Confusion Hill, John and I shadowed the other five riders until Leggett where we pulled off to find Bruce Berg and Jim Bradbury. After passing out maps and cue sheets, and getting our control cards signed we posed for our own photos and watched the minutes tick off until 9am. The weather report had predicted clear skys, warm temps and gentle tailwinds. Perfect. And this is just how the day began as we left the Leggett Market (with it's mural/map ) and immediately began to climb. From Leggett to the coast, there are two ridges to climb with a sizeable drop in between. It was warm enough to cause us to roll down our arm warmers but still cool enough to be comfortable in tights. In the trees there was no hint of wind and the road wound in and out of gaps in the tree cover.

Leggett Hill awaits
L->R: Rob, Jim, Bruce, John

A fantastic weather forecast really should be cause for concern, as most things too good to believe end up being just what one should doubt. After realizing that my saddle was not secure in the seat clamp we stopped for me to adjust it without the proper tools and move on. The heat that was rising as we rode the hills was disappating by the time we reached the coast, and the wind kicked up at that point. From the south! I was still in very good spirits and it took Jim, in a cheerful way mind you, to point out the direction of the wind and the fact that it was a *head* wind.

On the coast, pre-fog
Highway One meets the coast. Copyright (C) 2002-2004 Kenneth Adelman, California Coastal Records Project, www.Californiacoastline.org

Parallel to my admitting we had this head wind to deal with, the saddle on my bike just wouldn't hold. Like the pea under the princess's mattress, this mechanical issue took all my focus. We stopped at the General Store in Westport hoping to find the right tool, a common crecent wrench was all we needed. All we found there was a pair of plyers which I should not have used, because in trying to force the repair I ended up with the biggest blood blister I've ever had.

On the coast, pre-fog
On the coast, pre-fog. Photo by Jim Bradbury.

Why does the chicken cross the road?

Keeping my grumbling to myself, but being noticably quiet, we pushed on, rolling in and out of the fog blowing off the water, and stopping at any place that looked like it might have the tool I needed. All those stops were for naught, and only reduced our progress and eroded my good mood. Finally, we reached Fort Bragg and found an Ace Hardware store on the main drag. Wahoo, the problem was fixed and it would be the last mechanical issue I would have for the rest of the trip. From this point to Elk, south of the Navarro River (about 25 miles), I would be riding familiar roads. A bit north of Mendocino, just after crossing a long and narrow bridge, an enormous turkey came running across the road, pulling up short of the brush to turn around and stare at us. Apart from other birds, and assorted road kill, it was to be the only wild fauna we would see, and 'wild' might not have been correct about this bird, it looked too well fed to have been relying on it's own wits to find food.

At mile 53 of our trip, we rolled into Mendocino, a very pretty small town on the Mendocino headland, crawling with tourists. After to'ing and fro'ing a bit in search of a lunch stop, we heard the shouts of "The Fleche Pots", who had pulled into town earlier and were just gathering themselves for departure. In spite of all the bother my saddle had caused, to our surprise we rolled in to lunch precisely on schedule. Historically, lunch has been my downfall on long rides. After eating as much food as I would think I should eat, I would always suffer from depleted energy and a quarrelsome stomach. Not so on this trip, for the most part. Late last year I had discovered that Hammer Gel and Endurolytes worked very well for me, and I was using them on this trip with great success. The sun, shining on us in Mendocino, disappeared for the last time as we left Mendocino, and fog became a constant companion. For parts of this leg, I would see Bruce and John disappear into the fog, though they were only 50 yards ahead of me. While the dampness and loss of vistas was a letdown, the upside was that traffic was far less than normal. Who, aside from four kooks on bicycles would want to tour the coast on that day?

Even Cowgirls get the Blues

Something began to happen to me at around mile 75 or 80, as I began to lag behind. No sooner would I catch up, and Jim would announce we were all together, then I would drop off the back, lacking the oomphf to hang on. The sun was gone for good in the clouds and fog, I was cold, getting wet, and I wasn't enjoying this. Brevet riding, particularly for the 400 and 600km rides, takes more than physical toughness, it requires mental toughness. I seemed to lack that kind of toughness right then, and entertained thoughts of failing.

While I never voiced these concerns, John, Bruce and Jim could tell I was struggling. It was with the encouragement I was given by my riding companions with only a third of our goal achieved that I was able to keep plugging away. My thoughts at that point were of reaching Gualala, our next control, but really I was being helped to reach Kezar Stadium. We made a lucky guess, and found a bakery in a small indoor mall out of the cold and damp (it was 53F, foggy and windy, which may not be bad but when expectations were of a sunny 65F with tailwinds ...) Next to the bakery was a super market, where I got bananas, bottled water and other consumables. As we left the warmth and fog free bakery I didn't know that things would begin looking up for me, but they did.

After crossing the Gualala River we once again headed toward portions of Highway One with which I was familiar. South of Gualala is Sea Ranch and Stewart's Point, both set in sparsely populated stretches of the coast. All of the rides that I've done that have taken me to this portion of the Coast have been challenging rides, due to the topography of the area. The coastal hills and mountains leave just a little space between them and the ocean, and the terrain is mostly rollers, with slightly longer descents and climbs where one encounters creeks and streams on their way to the ocean. The fog began to lift, but not disappate along this portion of our route and with me out of my own personal fog, the group made good time. Our goal was to reach Jenner in time for our dinner reservations at the Jenner Inn, which would occur shortly after the end of civil twilight. If you know the coast here, you know there is a fairly good sized climb to about 750 feet, followed by a wickedly fun and twisty descent. While I was looking forward to the plunge what I didn't expect was to climb up out of the fog. An all too brief moment in the warmth and light of the setting sun was followed by the drop down to Russian Gulch, and the last short climb up to the hills above Jenner. During the climb we had gotten split up more so than any other time during the ride, and we collected outside of a restaurant (which had told Bruce they would be closed at that time when he was planning the ride) where I made a call to my family to update them.

Across the river and into the trees

Dinner at the Jenner Inn was an interstellar jump in culinary distance from our other meals on the trip (and I dare say most other brevet rides). I think we all had versions of the special of the day, a seafood and pasta dish preceeded by asparagas soup. I also took advantage of the break to change into dry clothes which made a huge difference. We had arrived at this control, at mile 140, fairly early which allowed us to turn a planned 77 minute stop into a 90 minute stop. After making sure we all had our cards signed, gear collected, water bottles topped off and bladders emptied, we rolled back out onto Highway One for the last time. Just outside of town, Highway 116 splits off, and heads inland for Duncan's Mills, Monte Rio and points east. Highway 116 follows the course of the Russian River and at Duncan's Mills we crossed the river on Moscow Road which quickly turned to run parallel to the river on the south side. At Monte Rio we turned south and began the climb up Bohemian Highway to Occidental. Occidental is situated sort of on a crest along the Bohemian Highway, with the highway in both directions heading downhill slightly. Tall redwoods surrounded us in all directions. Bohemian Highway runs generally north and south. The approaches to the town of Occidental from the east and west descend into town however, and our route would have us glance off of the city limits and head east toward Graton. Before we did the climb we figured a pee break for those that required such was in order, and as we were stopped, double checking lights, luggage and whatnots a pickup truck rolled by. Out of the rolled down window the driver yelled to us 'you bikers are f$!@$#$*ing idiots to be riding at midnight'. Only a moment of silence preceeded John's statement in reply. 'Well, guys, you know he is right.'

Now that our role and place in the universe had been clearly defined, we happily began the climb east toward our next stop in Santa Rosa. Once clear of the redwoods we could see that the fog, so thick at the coast, was limited to the coast and we could see thousands of stars in the post midnight sky. Along the way we passed a small ranch with almost surreal landscaping of floodlight palm trees about an eight mile off of the road. During this leg on our route John had to stop to change clothing, and Jim had a few small lighting mishaps. Bruce had purposely directed our route to cover the last few miles of the Terrible Two double century route, followed by the first few miles of that same course. I had DNF'd on the Terrible Two last summer, so finally I got a small taste of what it would be like to be finishing that course, almost without question, in the dark. The Santa Rosa control was the 24 hour Denny's, and just as we reached the city limits we were back in fog and overcast, never to leave it for the rest of the trip. My spirits dipped a bit at the return of the fog and damp, barely a bit compared to what the Denny's experience did to me. We had planned to stay there for 90 minutes, but we had lost a little time with the five unplanned stops between Jenner and Santa Rosa. John, Bruce, and Jim, all got Slammed, if I recall correctly, while I had a grilled Turkey sandwich and fries, both way too greasy for me, and I finished neither.

Night of the living dead

Denny's, at that hour of the night/morning is a place unlike many others. The parade of humanity that flows through there covers a wide spectrum, and we certainly presented a colorful, if sweaty, float in that parade. A young woman, wearing a party dress that put me in mind of one of the most memorable book titles I've ever come across (A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown, by Robert Baker) was escorting her justifiably crabby toddler out as we took our seats. The evening gown was out of place enough at the Denny's, but what was out of place with the gown itself were the tatoos seemingly escaping upward from each breast. Their table was fairly quickly taken by the couple that arrived on the Harley which had momentarily drowned out the noise coming from Highway 101 a half block away. Well, the Denny's served it's purpose in several ways, and one of them was to insure that I would quickly reach the point where I preferred to leave and resume riding.

On the coast, pre-fog From Santa Rosa, we headed south southwest toward Petaluma, on a very flat, very short leg of barely 18 miles. The terrain, which offered no variety combined with the darkness which afforded no view beyond the unlit roadway made for a dull and uneventful leg. We navigated the outskirts of Petaluma and found the 24 hour Safeway, our next Control. It was a surprise to run into "The Fleche Pots" again. They had arrived ahead of us, having stopped for coffee at the Jenner Inn an hour behind us, and then going south to Bodega Bay, then running due east for Petaluma. We spent an hour there, catching up with the other team on their ride, filling up on soup and caffine delivery agents, and of course, telling jokes.

We left just minutes ahead of them and began the climbs out of Petaluma on D Street, going past the Cheese Factory, and through Nicasio. I forced a brief stop in Nicasio to use the porta john, and the other team caught and passed us there. Once we rolled out of there for the climb up Nicasio Valley we began a game of leap frog with the other team. We first repassed them at the crest of the climb near Cece's Memorial (for a cyclist killed by a repeat offending drunk driver). Our next and last control was at the Starbucks in San Anselmo, but to get there we needed to descend to San Geronimo, then climb the hill before Fairfax. The Starbucks turned out to be inside of the Safeway, which took a little while to figure out. As we pedaled down Sir Francis Drake Blvd, we could see through a gap in the clouds the wanning moon, but daylight was already beginning to weakly illuminate the hillsides. The stop here was somewhat hard to endure. Sure the hot chocolate and muffin were nice to have in hand, but being so close to the finish only made me want to keep riding. The attendent at the Starbucks booth appeared to me to behave much like the images on the screen of dying VDT, which is to say jumpy unless the guy from IT is looking at it. I've no doubt that his, pep shall we call it, came from his employee discount of which he must have made liberal use.

Finally, 7am came and we could ride the last leg. From San Anselmo we left Sir Francis Drake Blvd, and zig zagged through the residential and collector streets of Ross, Larkspur and Mill Valley. There is a bike path that crosses and skirts the marshes near Mill Valley, and it leads to Sausalito where we hit the biggest of the remaining hills left on our route. "Big Hill" of course gets redefined as a ride lengthens. I'm pretty sure you'll find that in the RUSA hand book. We crossed under highway 101 and got on the Golden Gate Bridge. The winds near the pylons are always tricky and one has to slow down anyway because the line of sight and travel is interupted here, and there will be oncoming bicycle traffic on the west side on weekends. At the other end of the bridge we again crossed under highway 101, looped around a parking lot for the toll booths, and once more but for the last time crossed under the highway through a tunnel. We again ran across the riders with "The Fleche Pots". Their route to Golden Gate Park (actually quite a few miles from Golden Gate Bridge) was much more direct than ours. We held as near to the coast as we could, passing through the Sea Cliff neighborhood (where Robin William's home was pointed out to me), around the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and wigwagging out to Ocean Beach and the western edge of the park. John then checked his watch, and conveyed some small alarm at his calculation of the remaining time we had and the distance we had to travel. Our pace picked up a wee bit, and a wee bit more as we crossed lengthwise through the park, cutting on to and off of the roads closed to weekend car traffic. At this point I simply surrendered to the directions of John and Jim, who were residents of San Francisco. We caught some fortuitous green lights and found Kezar Stadium, and made the right guess as to which way to ride around to find Todd Teachout, and the finish for the Fleche. At 8:56 am on Sunday, the 11th we completed our Fleche. For the team, we had 241 miles and change. For John and myself we had 248 and a squidge miles, the significance of this is that it's 400km, which John and I finished in 25 hours.

It seems like yesterday ...
At the finish near Kezar Stadium, and strangely looking none the worse for wear. (L-R: John, Jim, Bruce, Rob)

What a long strange trip it's been

Ahead of me still was the ride across San Francisco to BART and a train to the East Bay (and yet another ride to home). By trips end, I had 255 miles and a head full of memories. In no small measure, credit for me finishing belongs to Bruce, Jim and John. John was pretty much lead dog for only about 200 of our 241 miles. Pretty good pull John. It was also great to share stories and a meal with the guys on "The Fleche Pots", and a welcome sight to cross paths with them on the road. Thanks Charlie, Reid, Mark, Tim and Marty. I made it home, amazingly, unloaded, showered and my head hit the pillow at 11am. I was asleep at 11:00:10. What a trip indeed.

(for great aerial photos of the coast, including many points along our route, check out: http://www.californiacoastline.org/. I had a camera, but because of the fog, and well, the night darkness, I didn't take more photos than a few at the beginning and end of the ride.)