New England Fleche - Team All for One
Back in mid-January, I sat down at my computer, and without realizing the chain of events about to unfold, innocently opened an email from Emily O'Brien. For those who do not know the name, Emily is a fixed gear rider of considerable reputation. She has completed the rather non-fixer friendly event, Furnace Creek 508, twice (2005 and 2006), on fixed, and the equally non-fixer friendly Boston-Montreal-Boston (2006), on fixed. The first time I met Emily was a few years ago on a New Year's Day ride where she very casually did a no-hands track stand. Needless to say, I was impressed.
I've ridden with Emily a few times since, with me on gears and her on fixed and could just about keep up with her descending. Her partner, Jake, is another fixed-gear fanatic. I read their stories last year of doing the Boston brevets on fixed as well as many tours and well just about every ride on fixed. I thought they were insane. I certainly admired the tenacity, but c'mon derailleurs aren't a bad invention. They've been around long enough to be quite reliable! And coasting can be fun.
Now I will admit to riding fixed myself, but only for commuting in the winter and the occasional Saturday morning ride. Fixed has lots of advantages in the winter - less maintenance, more control, less maintenance, no worry of frozen derailleur cables, less maintenance, chain can get salty and rusty and not affect, uhhh, shifting and did I mention, less maintenance. Yep, I'm just plain lazy about maintenance and that aspect of fixed gear riding really appeals to me, especially in the winter. I've been using a fixed gear for winter commuting about 10 years now, usually starting in November and going until sometime in April.
A few years back I picked up a single speed mountain bike pretty cheap and found I really liked single-speeding for off-road - since I need to coast off-road. What I really like is the weight - or rather lack of it. Take away the cogset and extra chainrings and derailleurs and extra chain and shifters and you've got a lighter machine. For mountain biking it was usually the technical challenge more than the gradient that put me on two feet, so I figured if I was pushing or carrying I might as well go for lightness. Then last summer, John started reading posts from a forum from folks planning to do the D2R2 and talking about various $500 cranks they might use. I joked that I should ride my $300 single speed, just because... Then I saw a lovely little Bianchi single speed cyclo-cross bike for not a lot of dollars and decided what the heck - I will do the 100km version of D2R2 on a new single speed that cost less than some folks cranks ...just because...
Ah the slippery slope. Next thing you know I'm at the bike shop looking at all the new lightweight fixed gear bikes. Boy how things have changed recently. When I got my commuter almost 10 years ago, there was nothing fixed sold in a shop. Most folks found old bike with horizontal dropouts and built them up themselves. I couldn't find anything in my size with horizontal dropouts that had the clearance for the studded tires I wanted to use, so I ordered a custom frame. Ted Wojcik was known around here for awesome welding and great mountain bikes, so I ordered a cyclo-cross frame from him, with horizontal dropouts and eyelets for rack and fenders. I spent a lot of time with a color chart in sunshine and on cloudy days trying to pick a color that would go well with the gold fenders I had set aside for this bike. Because I had a fairly long commute and didn't relish the idea of breakdowns in the winter, my hack bike ended up with Phil Wood Hubs and a Chris King Headset. Well, this was part of my no-maintenance obsession too. Then of course generator hubs came along and now the bike has a Phil Wood rear and Schmidt front hub, lights, rack, fenders, suspension seatpost, studded tires and a pannier full of work clothes. It's not a lightweight by any means. And when I did take it on the odd Saturday morning ride, it was a struggle to keep up with the slow group.
So last summer and fall I was frequently spotted standing at the local bike shop drooling over the lightweight stripped down fixers that now costs about half what my custom frame did - well most of them, anyway. There was this one Co-Motion mounted up on a rack accessible only by ladder and it's price is what one would expect to pay for a custom machine. I've left puddles of drool under this display many times, and once even got it down to weigh it. It's on my wish list, but the house needs to be painted and my computer is making that scraping noise again, and my dentist tells me I really need to do something about that broken tooth that insurance won't cover.
Then one day I spied this cute little Cannondale Capo and picked it up and it was pretty light, and the price was well within budget. So I decided this would be my Saturday morning bike. A nice light weight, stripped naked, as they were intended, fixer. I swapped handlebars and stem for my favorites that I had at home, and put on my favorite saddle, and headed out. I don't think I'd ever ridden over 40 miles in one go on fixed before. My third ride on this one was 100km in December, and I loved it.
So then I opened this email from Emily. The subject line was "Westfield Fleche?" I just figured she would ask advice about routes or logistics, since John and I had done this event twice in the last two years. But what she asked was if we'd be interested in being part of a team with her and Jake. She thought it would be cool to do all fixed, but not necessary. They would definitely be on fixed. I read the email out to John, sitting across the room. We laughed. He said he'd be up for another Fleche, but not on fixed. So I replied that we were interested, but with gears. We decided to get together for dinner and we could show them our previous routes and other ideas.
In the meantime, I started to think about ... maybe... I could ride it on fixed...
I looked at the route we did the last two years and saw a couple of roads I would prefer to avoid if riding fixed and starting looking at alternatives. By the time they came around for dinner, I had almost talked myself into doing this on fixed. I would do some more long rides and see. John's knee starting bothering him just thinking about it, and besides he has this new bike with a Rohloff - the antithesis of a lightweight fixer - it has 14 internal gears, but only one cog - so we could be team one cog. At some point we tossed out the name Team All for One, which sort of implied the single cog nature of our team.
We talked about several different possibilities, using our old route with some modifications, starting somewhere other than Boston and trying to pick a non-mountainous route. Everyone seemed happy with a non-strenuous, non-mountainous route, so we said that we'd check out a few alternatives in Connecticut and go with mostly our old route. Given that we had all the old route data, we said we'd take care of the paperwork too - effectively making John the team captain.
Then one day on a Saturday ride, I mentioned my descent in insanity to Mel Stoler, who is also a fixie purist, and he decided to join the team, so now we had 5 riders on 5 bikes, all with a single chainring and single cog, with John opting for, as he called it, feet clearly in focus on the descents, and the other 4 on fixed.
I was still pretty nervous. Mel, Jake and Emily had all done many, many long rides on fixed, including full brevet series. While I've been randonneuring for over 20 years, I was the novice distance fixie. I also had 20 years of degenerative injuries on Jake and Emily. I'm not one to call myself old and complain about aches and pains, but I don't usually ride with such young strong folks, and their energy made me feel old at times. At least when Mel joined the team I wasn't the oldest ! And I did have a secret weapon - John. To help balance things out, John could carry some of my stuff. We do it backpacking. In fact I have the prescription from my surgeon that John is to carry half of my gear when backpacking, since my knees are so shot from osteoarthritis. I'm not proud. John is a heck of a lot stronger than I am, and he will have gears, so he can carry some clothes for me! I really was worried about slowing the team down, especially on descents. Jake tried to reassure me, claiming he was cautious on descents too. I also joked about keeping the route secret, so they'd have to stay with me. In the end, I did give everyone a cue sheet, but I didn't actually make a big deal about the fact that there was a cue sheet in that ziplock bag with their brevet card!
We had also discussed logistics for getting home and at some point I had the idea to check out limo services and I found a van service that could bring us and our bikes back for not a lot of money. The first year that we did this, we rode home, and last year we had a bunch of car-owning fleche-mates who did the shuttle thing. While riding home is nice, I wasn't so confident that I would be happy to ride home on fixed, especially if the weather was icky. There was also another Boston based team, and they decided to join us in sharing the vans, which really brough the costs down..
I kept riding fixed, foregoing even tandem rides, although we did get out a few times with friends, Dena and Aaron. I did a few 100 mile rides and then the Boston 200km. It was a relatively flat route, but did have some nice rollers at times. John, Dena, and I rode together to the start, and most of the ride - getting separated briefly after the start, but then regrouping fairly early. We actually ended up with a fairly good sized group thanks to our navigation skills.
Mel and Emily met for the first time at the start of that 200km and hit it off right away and rode along together to the turn around, losing Jake in the crowd somewhere along the way. We met up with Emily and Mel at the turn-around. We spotted a coffee shop just before the control and decided to take a sit-down break there. It gave Jake, who had missed a turn and ridden a few extra miles, a chance to catch up. By the third control, we again had a good sized group, and then after a stop 20 miles from the finish we hooked up with two others on fixed and a gal on single speed.
Anyway, at the end of the day, I felt pretty good that I could actually ride with these guys and not slow them down too much. John and I had planned to ride out to Greenfield and back the next weekend, but a northeaster did in those plans. Still we managed a couple of good rides, and I was feeling reasonably well prepared.
We'd made two minor changes to our route of the past two years. I wanted to avoid a couple of the really big descents in the dark, so altered our section in Connecticut to not go through Bigelow Hollow or down the screamer into Stafford Springs. This involved going further south, and added some distance, so we cut out the loop in Rhode Island, and found a sublime road that replaced the bumpy descent down Buck Hill.
So as in years past, we aimed for the CT river and headed up one side and down the other. As you can see from the route profile below, this made for a very fixer friendly route. Despite the jagged nature of the image, aside from the 30 miles between Putnam and Stafford Springs, it really wasn't that bad, and rumor has it that Jake found it too easy - youngsters!
But I've gotten ahead of myself. Our plan was to start at 8PM Friday evening, do the hard part of the ride in the dark and cold, and then just ride from coffee shop to coffee shop in daylight hours. The first year I was not sold on the nighttime start, but I love it now. You get through the coldest part when your legs are fresh. The sun comes up and wakes you up, and then you finish just as the sun sets, have a nice meal and go to bed at a regular time. It has really worked better for me than any other start time. If only more brevets did this. I mean PBP has the 8PM and 10PM starts - I don't get why so many brevets start at 3 and 4AM!
So Friday evening, everyone came to our house in Watertown and John played barrista, pulling shots of espresso before we started. I handed out cue sheets and control cards, John took a group photo and we headed out. We made 30 turns in the first few miles, just to make the others forget about trying to follow the cue sheet on their own. I actually had told them before hand that there was no cue sheet and they'd just have to ride at my pace and stick together. I've read many Fleche reports from folks who just seem to pick a route and 5 people ride it independently, meeting up at the end. The thing for us that makes the Fleche fun is the group riding, and fortunately everyone on the team was in agreement.
I had a stack of maps in my saddle bag, as well as a small simple GPS with the route. I have a really basic model that doesn't show maps, just line segments for the route. It works amazingly well as a supplement to a cue sheet, provided you enter enough via-points. John and I both were reading the cue sheet that I'd made up with the Garmin software. It doesn't indicate left and rights, so I had gone through and removed the extraneous stuff and added left, right and straight directions, but had mixed up my left and right on a couple of occasions just to keep us on our toes!
I was using a new Ixon Speed light that I'd only had for a month or so. It has the same optics as the original Ixon, but an external NiMH battery pack with a 12+ hour advertised run time. But since I hadn't used it for more than a few hours (commuting), my paranoia caused me to bring the original Ixon and a few AA batteries as backup. Well I say, I brought it, but I actually packed it into one of John's panniers. John's GPS uses AA batteries as do all our taillights. Everyone knows an AA battery weighs nothing, so how much could 30 of them weigh? Yes, I did pack almost 30 rechargeable AA batteries into Jon's pannier. When I thought about it later, I realized that it was excessive, but John is strong and had gears and needed a handicap. Of course I also threw in my rain jacket, and some cookies and gels, and he had all his own stuff. And the bike is no lightweight to begin with, so that combined with the tender IT band made for a suitable handicap. Hey, but I did carry the maps!
We had a little informal weigh-in. Mel's bike wind hands down, but he had a giant bumbag with his extra clothes and batteries and stuff, so I think I was carrying the least. Jake and Emily were both pretty well laden. Emily had made he most beautiful saddle bag and handlebar bag I've ever seen. They were both beautiful and functional and full. But John's bike couldn't be lifted. So he won that challenge or lost - however you may view it.
Anyway, we headed out of town shortly after 8PM and made our way out toward Dover and along some familiar roads for the Saturday morning crowd - too familiar, it seemed, as I had to stop Mel from leading us of course a few times. Mel was riding along in a spirited fashion and I finally pulled up beside him to breathlessly suggest if he kept up this pace, he would finish too fast and I wouldn't finish at all. Thankfully he settled right down.
We weren't too far out of Dover when Jake mentioned a pee break. I never realized how suburban these roads were until we tried to find a stand of trees away from houses. Coming into Medway, Mel knew of a handy spot. We had been riding about two hours. We all took advantage and also added clothing as the warm air was long gone and it was starting to turn cool. This was a very efficient stop and I had hope that we could keep our stops quick. About an hour later riding into Mendon, we took another quick break as Mel's lights needed fresh batteries. Then it was onto the first control in Douglas. Unfortunately the store we used the year before had already closed for the night, so we made a quick stop at an ATM. I ran in to get a receipt, and came out ready to go, but folks seemed to want to take a break and eat - not on the move. Having gotten severely chilled in Douglas two years before, I was eager to press on, but we took a 15 minute break. It was shortly after midnight. But we were still well within schedule, so it was fine.
We then headed onto the new section of route. The road down through Douglas State Park was lovely, with smooth pavement, no traffic and brilliant stars. I have failed to mention the moon. The moon was a sliver but it was brilliant. It was already setting and as it was low in the sky, so the sliver was enormous. And the sky was crystal clear and the stars were like I haven't seen in several years. City lights and streetlights make stargazing less than rewarding around here, but the views out there were phenomenal. John also took advantage of the pure darkness to give his new light a try. We had both commuted with this made in the UK, very expensive, but very aptly named Solidlight, an LED light than runs off the Schmidt hub. But we hadn't truly been able to give it a good really dark road high speed test. We had heard great things about this light from AUK folks, but as the exchange rate is so high, these lights haven't made an splash here yet. We could only splurge for one and have shared it, moving it from bike to bike to give us both a chance to check it out. The light has now passed all our tests with flying colors. It is compact, well built and puts out great light in a nice even pattern. It has a symmetrical beam, but it puts useful light well down the road. It has two LEDS, and some fancy electronics to make the light brighter at higher speeds. It comes on very bright at low speeds and just gets better. The beam is wide enough to be useful on twisty roads, and long and bright enough to work well at high speeds. The case is very industrial looking, but compact. It comes complete with spade connectors and ready to plug into the hub. It doesn't need a taillight or secondary, like the German LED lamps for generators, and it handles high speed riding without issue. I can definitely recommend it to anyone seeking a one piece solution who doesn't mind spending a bit more.
I was also quite happy with my Ixon Speed. It is also an LED light, but with a wee tiny external battery pack that I carried in my seatbag. It lasted through the night and then some. It was great not having to stop and fidget with changing batteries, and the light output was quite nice. I never exceeded 30mph on the fixed gear, but I would be quite happy with this light for any overnight ride. I am still a devoted generator user, but this is a very nice light to use on that stripped down lightweight bike that you just want to use for one overnight event!
Anyway, we left Massachusetts, and passed the Rhode Island Marker off to the left in the woods (honestly we were probably 10 feet from RI at one point) and rolled into CT, where we paralleled the Quinebaug River for a while before entering Putnam, our next scheduled checkpoint. We'd stopped at a 24 hour store in Putnam on the ride two years and joked that it would be funny if the same gal was working. Well she was, AND she remembered us! She signed out cards and even brewed some fresh coffee. It seemed to take a while to get folks to leave the warmth of this shop, but we were still on schedule and everyone seemed to be happy. The shop had no restroom facilities, but their was a public loo down by the bridge in the center of town, so we rolled down and found only the ladies room unlocked, but we all took advantage of the facilities. It was then that we learned that Jake's digestive system was not coping so well with the late night, but he eventually emerged and we headed up to Pomfret.
Pomfret, for me is a significant point. My first visit came many years ago on a Boston 300km. We had ridden down through Rhode Island and turned around and got on Route 169. I started reading through the unabridged cue sheet, with included every intersection and town line and determined than 169 had something in common with the Hotel California. It seemed we would never get off this road!. Oh and it went up and down and up and down and up and down. It was lovely and classical rural Connecticut with a private school at the top of each long climb, but the climb up into Pomfret was brutal and left me feeling like a Pomme Frite! But then we pulled into the Vanilla Bean Cafe and it was heavenly. A Penny Farthing hung from the ceiling as if to say we were home and welcome cyclists. We had lovely cold drinks and sandwiches and this cafe has become a regular stop for me. What a shame, it would be 2AM when we passed! I was thrilled when we got there, because I'd been dreading this climb. Little did I know all the hard climbing followed. Shortly after the next big climb, Mel had to change batteries again. It was actually an opportune stop, because the starts were truly brilliant. I even spotted a few shooting stars. But enough lounging around on this hilltop in CT. We headed on to Ashford. Ashford was our southernmost point and we needed a control there. Fortunately there was a large 24 hour Dunkin Donuts, where we got bagels and coffee and Jake had a lovely nap, while sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. Once all the food was gone, we woke Jake, who then headed off to the men's room. I truly felt for him. Digestive issues are no fun on a ride. I took advantage of the delay to change the batteries in my GPS and we were off.
Somehow despite driving this bit of road a month before, I had totally blanked the next 6 miles of nasty steep rollers. I knew that Route 32 to Stafford Springs paralleled a railroad, but we still had to get there from here! John very nicely gave me a few pushes on some of the steeper bits. We finally reached Route 32 and flew into Stafford Springs. We had used Stafford Springs as a control before and I'd included it on our route info to the organizer. In years past, we got blank route cards and filled in our controls, but this year, Don had filled in the controls, so we needed to get one here, even though the straight line rule probably made it superfluous. We were only 20km, albeit a hard 20km from the last control, so I said this should be quick one as we pulled in. Unfortunately some Dunkin Donuts are more efficient that others, and this one was slow. We grabbed a few drinks just to buy something and got in line to get the cards signed. I dashed off to the ladies room, and came back out to find Jake and Emily had food. I jokingly asked Jake if he could eat that while on the toilet, but the look I got back suggested he saw no humor in my comment. I then phoned my friend Susan who was planning to meet us in Amherst. At was 5:30, but we'd agreed I would call from Stafford Springs. I said I thought we'd be there between 8 and 9AM. We started to head out, but Jake's digestive system rebelled just as we exited the building. We all headed back in to avoid getting chilled but soon we were back on the road.
Fortunately the terrain become much easier. This was part of the plan - try to keep to a 10mph overall average through the cold, dark and hilly night, and then make up time in daylight - time we could then spend at various cafe's in the Connecticut River Valley.
Daylight broke, but the temps stayed below freezing for quite some time, although it was slowly turning into a lovely day. We made great time to Amherst and arrived at 8:30, right on the 10 mph schedule. We headed to the Black Sheep and ordered various things for breakfast. I thought I'd talked enough about the coffee shop that folks knew there would be a second quick stop a block away, but should have been more explicit. Still the espresso drinkers in the crowd enjoyed the second stop. It was warming up and I removed a lot of clothing after drinking my latte.
So we finally got going again, and headed up Rt. 116, which is now a minefield of construction. I must check into alternative routes north from town before doing this again. Emily decided to show off. She sat up and while not holding on to her bars, removed her jacket and proceeded to stuff it into her saddlebag, all the while avoiding the rumblestrip just to her left. We all were duly impressed.
Just as we approached the Sugarloaf mountain, the temps had risen dramatically and everyone else was ready to strip. Some took longer than others, and I might not have been popular when I suggested the more time we spent there, the less we would have for dinner. The next leg was a great one, and one we are indebted to Max for it. He selected the series of tiny roads by the river two years ago, including the crossing of a bridge for non-motor vehicles, where we took a short break to take a few photos and take in the view. Then it was off to Brattleboro. We were still on schedule, but a headwind was going to try to put us off - that and a potential detour. Shortly after reaching Northfield, we saw signs indicating Rt. 63 was closed. We decided to press on. If it was impassable, we could mark the turnaround and go back and cross the river in Northfield and then look at what we needed to do for distance. Fortunately, it was only 3/4 of the road that had caved in due to recent rains, and we could get by. The great thing was no car traffic!
We then reached 119 and unfortunately Mel and Emily were out of shouting distance when we reached the turn that would avoid most of 119. And traffic and the headwind made this section downright miserable. We decided to stay on the main road, since we didn't want to get separated and have them lost, but I grumbled under my breath a bit. Well not totally under my breath. I did tell them in Brattleboro what had happened and suggested not getting so far ahead! It was really the only time, and just unfortuanate timing. We actually all stayed pretty close together most of the ride and shared lots of great conversation.
When we reached Brattleboro, it was hot and we were all pretty beat, and the co-op was a welcome site. We spread out and each found various things to eat and drink. I made a beeline for the smoothie counter and ordered two for John and me. John found various other edibles and we headed over to the seating area. The cashier was taking a break, so we decided that we would just keep our containers and pay on the way out. I cleverly ducked into the loo ahead of Jake, knowing I'd be out quickly. As we paid, we got all our cards signed, and then I headed out to the bike to change route sheets and get ready for the next leg. I missed the events that followed, but Mel came out to relay that we might need to take it easy. Emily, while waiting to pay, turned a distinct shade of green and returned all the food she had just ingested into a dirty dish tray by the cashier, and without missing a beat apologized and said she still needed to pay. She actually had a pretty good sense of humor about it as this story was retold a few times the next day.
And apparently it didn't do her much harm, because she still rode quite strongly, although as we approached Turners Falls, she indicated a stop would be welcome. We stopped at a strip shopping center with a grocery and a drug store. Jake laid down on the sidewalk for another nap. That boy could sleep hanging over a fence post! If only I could just fall asleep like that! I grabbed a couple of sweet drinks that I have had many times before, but they didn't go down so well this time, and I struggled for the next 20 miles to keep them down.
The next leg had a few climbs, and while I tried not to unswallow, I slowed the pace a bit, but folks were tolerant, and I kept it below my VO Puke threshold. By the time we reached Northampton, we were behind schedule for n hour long dinner break, but still OK for 20 minutes and making our remaining target times. I think all our stomachs were rebelling anyway, so we opted for Brueggers, where those who were in the worst shape could have plain bagels and John could get a nice spicy sandwich.
Unlike last year, I carefully checked out the route out of town to avoid Mt Tom, and we had a very gradual climb, followed by the descent on Mountain road and the screamer down Paper Mill into Westfield. We reached the motel right on schedule, 378 km in 24 hours - all 5 riders together - another successful Fleche!
We checked in, had quick showers and headed off to the School Street Bistro for a proper dinner. The next morning, we rode the 2km back to the Bistro for brunch where we met up with the other 6 teams and exchanged war stories. Two of the teams lost various members to injury or mechanical, and only had two riders finish, but 5 of 7 completed the official Fleche. Everyone stayed for brunch and it was great fun catching up with so many other riders - some of the same faces, and some new. I suspect this event will continue to grow in popularity - and it is great fun.
We headed back out to the parking lot where all bikes got checked out. John clearly impressed with the weight of his. Emily's saddlebags got many admiring compliments and requests for quotes. She says it's too much work to do for others.
Soon enough the vans showed up and drove us home. It was a lovely day and a nice one to ride, and a couple of Boston folks did ride back. I was happy enough to get out for a short spin later in the day and not be faced with a 200km ride home.
You probably are wondering where all the photos that I mentioned are. Seems we have lost another camera somewhere between taking a photo of Emily's saddlebags after brunch and getting home! We did at least see them at breakfast, and there were some very nice ones. I keep hoping the van company will call to say they found it, but like the camera full of last summers vaction shots, I think we are destined to relive these only in our memory.
I did have a little ceremony Sunday, where I removed my geared commuter/brevet bike and lightweight gear bike from their winter storage hooks. I then hung the Capo and and the Wojcik, and called an end to fixer season. We headed out and I coasted for half the ride, cackling wildly whenever I did. I truly enjoy riding fixed, and actually found it wasn't that big of a deal to do long hilly rides on one, but when I touched a shift lever for the first time in over 5 months, and then let my feet stop and settle into focus for anyone still possessing a camera, well it just felt nice.