Signing up to ride on a team with four strangers for an endurance cycling event isn’t for the faint of heart. For all I knew it wasn’t for me either, but that’s what I’d gotten myself into because I really wanted to participate in the FlècheNW organized by the Seattle Randonneurs. Luckily I’d received some intel from from our pal CD that one of the gentlemen I’d be riding with was “super smart, and very nice.” That was as much convincing as I needed.
We were a team of 5, the maximum number for a flèche, but with a few days to spare before the start one of our teammates said he wasn’t physically up for the ride after having ridden the #FlècheNorCal with a team from Seattle a few weeks prior. This news had me second guessing my decision to join on. Luckily the email chatter between the remaining four members of our team was positive and kept me excited for the ride.
Not having met Wes, Robert and Chris before, we planned to meet for lunch in downtown Portland prior to our mid-day start time. Introductions were made in person as we consumed heavy sandwiches and a few beers which would hopefully provide ample fuel for the first several hours of riding. Jokes were made, we paid our bill, grabbed a quick espresso at the Ace Hotel and we were off riding through Washington Park up into the west hills.
Over lunch I brought up a section of our route that I’d noticed wasn’t visible on Google street view - a great way to tell whether roads that look rad on a map are indeed roads - and was told not to worry. My concerns about a repeat of my #FlècheNorCal experience with wild animals and private property were put to rest and off we went.
The roads were quiet in the middle of the day, and we quickly found ourselves on the Banks-Vernonia Trail where we’d be spending the next 20 miles car-free. A few miles down the trail we encountered our first flat tire. After finding the piece of glass that had punctured his tube Robert realized that not one, but two of his spare tubes were ‘bag worn’ or pre-flatted. Almost half an hour later we were rolling again and maybe a bit worried we were falling behind schedule.
We powered through to Vernonia on the other end of the trail, picked up a bit more food and some water at a market that served as one of our controls and kept moving. From there we would ride along a secondary highway that would take us over the coast range and into Astoria where we’d find dinner at the Fort George Brewery.
We kept a consistent pace as the light started to fade, only stopping once to investigate a scene out of The Wizard of Oz, and to put on more layers for the descent towards the Pacific. Motivated by food, beer, and a chance to sit down for a little while we made good time to Astoria - more or less back on schedule. At the brewery my teammates from Seattle ran into some friends who were in Astoria celebrating a birthday. We chatted with them for a bit, ordered more food and beer than we likely should have, and finished off the meal with a cup of coffee as we’d be continuing on riding through the night from there. Upon leaving the brewery things began to take a turn for the worse.
Crossing the 4-mile span of the bridge from Astoria into Washington is perhaps best done by bicycle in the middle of the night. We were passed by one car with plenty of room to spare, and continued onto highway 401 and later the coast highway. Bellies full, and freezing we settled in for a colder than expected overnight cruise up the coast.
Roughly 30 miles from Astoria we turned onto the road I’d inquired about over lunch the previous day. No reason to worry. The pavement turned to broken pavement, which then turned to gravel. Still fine. There were no animal sightings, or fences to jump, but we did separate a bit as Robert flatted twice, and I flatted once within spitting distance of the road turning back to pavement.
On an overnight ride like this the hardest part is staying awake in the last hour or two before the sun comes up. For better or worse I didn’t have that problem on this ride. Our meal in Astoria hadn’t agreed with Robert’s stomach, and he had started to roll a little slower because of it. At a slower speed it becomes harder to stay warm, and I was underdressed to the point where my shivering was enough to keep me awake. Not exactly the best solution to mid-ride narcolepsy, but it did the trick.
Chris and I were together after I flatted, and decided to wait outside a closed grocery store in South Bend, WA next to a creepy kid’s carousel ride not knowing what was taking Robert and Wes so long to catch up. I took the opportunity to ride ahead to what we thought was our next control to make use of their indoor plumbing, expecting to regroup there. With no one in sight as I left the bathroom oasis of the 24hr gas station / convenience store I made my way back along the route only to find my new pals changing yet another flat. Our chances of finishing the ride within the prescribed 24-hr time limit were fading fast, and even though the sun was rising it wasn’t getting any warmer.
Still unaware that we were not at our designated control, we spent some more time at the 24-hr gas station. We must have looked cold because the woman at the counter told us to have some coffee for free. That didn’t send us on our way any faster, and when we realized we still had another stop to make in Raymond, WA - our actual control - we were even further behind schedule. Instead of fighting it, we rolled through the sunrise to Raymond and sat down for a meal that I reserve for rides like these - breakfast at McDonalds. I never crave fast food, but in this situations like this, ‘I’m lovin’ it.’
We joked over breakfast about our progress so far, how we’d fallen behind pace, and how we would likely never do something like this again. It is shocking how cold it feels when the sun has come up, but not yet started to warm the air. Especially when you’ve been sitting inside a heated building for a while. That’s what it felt like leaving breakfast and getting back on the bikes. Needless to say we were crawling.
If we had known there was coffee shop 30 miles away we might have moved a little faster, but we crawled all the way to Montesano. Hoping that more caffeine would help we ordered some espresso drinks and pastries, and rolled out shortly after.
Over the final stretch between Montesano and Olympia we saw more traffic than we’d seen in the previous 20 hours. We were most definitely limping our way to the finish, trying to keep Robert - who was having some serious stomach troubles at this stage in the ride - rolling, and fighting to stay awake after 30+ hours without sleep. Then we noticed Robert was no longer with us. He’d made an emergency stop at a gas station when whatever he’d eaten that wasn’t agreeing with him decided it was time to leave the way it had come in. Chris got a text from Robert shortly after that, saying he had stopped to be sick, was drinking a coke at a gas station a ways back, and he would find his own way to Olympia. We weren’t having any of that, and told him to roll on down the road when he was feeling up to it and look for us laying in the grass on the side of the road where we were catching the smallest cat nap when he rolled up.
To say we crawled to Olympia after this point would be generous, but we stayed together, made one more stop for another coke and some salty chips before finishing off the ride. We were all a little worse for the wear, and we had collectively missed our finish time by a good 2 hours.
On a ride like this, by the halfway point you find yourself proclaiming that you’ll never do anything like it again if you have the choice. After a few weeks pass, you’ve told your friends about the ride a few times, and you don’t remember it being so bad. Next thing you know, a year’s gone by and you find yourself calling up your new friends, who now seem like old friends after such an ordeal, asking if they are in for a redemption ride. Who’s in for next year’s #FlecheNW?