After riding through the night on a solo adventure the weekend before I figured sleep deprivation would not be my achilles heel on the Fleche NorCal. My bike, and the gear I’d be carrying along was dialed. I would have two highly capable riders as part of my crew in Max and Andrea. Between the two of them they have a vast knowledge of most of the roads we’d be riding, and even though they might not volunteer the information they may or maynot have posted some of the fastest times for some of the San Francisco Randonneurs brevets over the past few years.
The trip to northern California, to meet my teammates for the start of the ride was more eventful than I had hoped. Along the 101 in the middle of a beautiful state park full of giant redwood trees I got rear ended by a tractor trailer in a construction zone. I am fine, but the rental car was a bit worse off. Between waiting for the police to show up and write a report, and swapping out the car for an unbroken version I realized I would arrive late to meet Andrea in Arcata to drive to the start.
We had a two hour drive to meet Max for dinner in Laytonville, CA, and one more night’s sleep before starting our overnight 400k adventure. Coincidentally, Max’s bus from San Francisco was running over an hour behind schedule and we almost arrived at the same time. We made short work of checking into the cheap motel we’d reserved, dropped our bikes in the room, walked to a Mexican restaurant for a quick dinner, and got to bed early.
Photo by Max Poletto.
An 8:30am start meant we were up and having breakfast by 7:45 at our first control — that way we would have proof of passage at our chosen start time by picking up a time stamped receipt before rolling out. Throughout the ride we had 8 controls at points along the way to prove we’d followed the route, covered the entire distance, and not taken a shortcut. Fully caffeinated and well fed, we started out riding west knowing we wouldn’t be stopping for good until the following morning.
The weather was perfect - not too warm, no threat of rain, and steady tailwinds any time we were headed south — our general trajectory. Perfect conditions may have been why we were convinced something was a little off in the first few hours of the ride. Upon arriving in San Francisco and having a look at our ride on everyone’s favorite ride tracking social media platform the feeling of bad legs might have been related to the fact that we had a few trophies next to the first few segments that popped up. (Aka - we were going too fast). As fate would have it, going out a little too hard out of the gate, and ticking off some fast miles early would help us to finish within the time limit when a known unpaved section of the route was slightly less of a "road" than it appeared to be on the map.
Photo by Max Poletto
The first 90 miles ticked off without many issues - one flat tire, and a stop for lunch in Point Arena, Ca at a little market. From there we would cover nearly half of the route’s roughly 20,000ft of climbing in 50 miles of mostly unpaved roads, at least half of which we would be navigating in the dark. In retrospect, that should have raised some red flags. We did know the second half of that stretch might require us to trespass onto private property. Our worries about running across a marijuana grow operation or similar were unfounded, but we found plenty of adventure beyond the 5 or 6 fences we hopped along the way.
From Point Arena we turned East and began climbing away from the coast. The climb was paved to start, and slowly deteriorated until it turned to dirt at the base of Fish Rock Rd. Stopping for food was essential before the climb as we wouldn’t see another store - that might not be open - for 30 miles, and if it happened to be closed we would cover 100 miles into the night before refueling. The store was closed, and after knocking on doors in the tiny town and checking for spigots on the side of houses with no luck, we started the second, unknown climb knowing we would run out of water well before having a chance to refill our bottles. The sense of foreboding was palpable, but we had no idea what we were in for next.
Trespassing was a given. We paused for a moment at the first of many fences and gates to decide whether or not we felt comfortable getting into some trouble - we were all in. Despite passing a number of houses and barns over the next 20 miles we didn’t see any people. The wildlife we encountered on this ‘road’ would more than make up for our fear of running into a shotgun wielding pot farmer.
Before dark we had our lights off and were keeping quiet as we prepared to pass one of many houses when a sounder - had to look that one up! - of more than 10 wild boar crossed our path and ran into the woods. These are rather large animals and we were hoping that was the last we’d see of them. The road ahead kept climbing as darkness fell, and conditions began to deteriorate to the point that we could tell there hadn’t been any car traffic from the direction we came from in some time. That’s when we surprised two mountain lions that were sauntering up the road less than a hundred yards ahead of us. When they appeared in the beam of our headlights, they turned to give us a look, and casually dipped out of view.
We had now seen two groups of wild animals that could definitely kill us - which is as frightening as our presumed encounter with the gun toting rancher we’d imagined. Immediately we regrouped and began singing songs and shouting. There weren’t any more cougar sightings, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t see us.
As we continued the road kept getting worse. Downed trees, loose gravel, super steep grades, and rain damage forced us off of our bikes more times than I can count. The fog settled in, the temperature dropped, we had minimal visibility. Plus, the wild pigs had found us again, and had taken to charging across our path every 20 minutes or so. Just to keep things exciting.
Then I got a flat. It was my second - a piece of glass still wedged in my tire from the previous puncture. As I was changing the flat we noticed a pack of 5 healthy coyotes checking us out. I hurried and we kept rolling until our map suggested we turn off into the fog where there was no road.
After a moment we came to a consensus to follow what looked like a trail off to our left. It more or less followed the gps track we had all assumed was a road at one time. Plus, we were desperate to find someplace to refill our bottles. The trail was rugged, but we all navigated it - even Max and Andrea on skinny tire bikes - only to find the ‘road’ on the other side in even worse condition than the one we veered from to take the trail. A few miles later we hopped our last fence of the trip, crossed a few cattle grates, and hit pavement shortly after.
Fully out of water and having covered only 60 miles in the previous 11 hours, we were woefully behind schedule to complete our ride in the prescribed 24-hr time period allowed. Plans were made to check for water at a recreation area we’d be passing. Sucess — a working water fountain! We filled bottles, I changed a third of 4 total flat tires, and we were back on the road with 15 miles to go before hitting a control at a Safeway in Healdsburg where we’d see another of the 16 teams out riding their own Flèche route.
A quick bite to eat, more fluids, and a rare mid-night stop someplace with indoor plumbing, and we were rolling towards our 200-mile mark control. Denny’s. We needed to cover thirty miles, and be riding again by 4am to stay on schedule. We needed to eat, and drink some diner coffee, so we covered our fastest 30 miles giving us a solid half hour to relax and enjoy an early morning breakfast at a table across from yet another Fléche team.
We left Denny’s full of warm food and coffee. We were also back on schedule. Our last control was at a donut shop in Larkspur another thirty miles and a few climbs away, and only 25k (~15 miles) from Crepes on Cole where all the teams were meeting that morning for brunch. Easy.
I changed my last flat of the day/night just before we rolled into Larkspur. We each ate a donut, and sipped some coffee as we recounted some of the night’s more interesting moments before making our way to the Golden Gate Bridge. After everything we’d seen and been through in the past 22 hours getting into the city in daylight wasn’t going to be an issue. Plus we had a pre-paid tab at Crepes on Cole to look forward to.
252 miles later we got off our bikes, handed in our brevet cards, got some food, and began to share stories with the other teams that had already arrived. Each team had high points and low points over the course of their ride, but ours might have been the wildest.