This was my third fleche, my third adventure with Escargots Volant. Waffles and coffee at our house before the start, photos with team-mates a little nervous, a little excited, anxious to get started. Once we get going, we’ll be better. Then, all that matters is simple forward motion toward the Quakertown finish in 24 hours.
Experience has taught me to be prepared. I carry a space blanket this year for the wintery temperatures overnight. Extra gloves, hats, shirts, chemical toe warmers, all for the same reason. I’m trying to pay attention to eating more, too, so that the stretch between Titusville and Riegelsville in the middle of the night isn’t such a slog. More importantly though, I’m in the company of good, strong, committed companions, all solid randonneurs.
The fleche is all about the team. I’ve completed the same route three times although each fleche was very different. In 2008, Laurent Chambard, Katie Raschdorf, Joe Filip, and I trained, planned and then struggled with sleep issues during the night. That year, Katie cajoled and when that didn’t work, demanded, our best pet stories to keep her awake. There was a bit of newbie euphoria on Sunday morning when we rolled down the driveway of the youth hostel. The second team—Laurent, Katie, Chris Newman, and me—joked around more, trained and pre-rode parts of the route, even got ourselves some jerseys, and then rode reasonably fast so that we had time for long rests along the way. Very un-Escargot like. That year (2012), we expected to finish even though we struggled a bit with the sleepies in the middle of the night. This year—Chris Nadovich, Chris Newman, Nigel Greene, and me—did not train as a team, did not pre-ride (not the best idea we discovered), but did manage time well. We weren’t fast, probably because of the cold, but took short breaks when we needed them. We had all done this before. We had also all done other rides together so we knew the randonneurs we were riding with. We knew we were in good company.
We cleared the first controle rather efficiently for Escargots although the first 15 miles is my favorite part of the ride so I almost want to stretch it out. Winding down to Forgedale Rd and then through Oley Valley, we were still fresh, the route is scenic and quiet, and we were happy to be on our way. After Island Pizza, it started to get a little more exciting as we turned onto a fairly busy section of Route 724. Then we came to the first closed bridge near Pottstown. Fortunately, there is a bike path detour at hand and we were
quickly back on route.
I remember struggling along the Schuykill River bike path to Manyunk last year but not so much this year. We moved steadily toward the Manyunk Diner and our first meal. Nigel ordered the Chicken and Rice soup. When it arrived, Chris Nadovich (or Capn’ Chris, Sir!) and I decided that we wanted some, too. Our server decided to have fun with us and rolled her eyes at us as if we were causing her great inconvenience. But then she smiled and brought us our soup, and later a whole pitcher of water to fill our water bottles. She told me I didn’t have to steal the water out of my water glass to fill my bottle. She was in a mood to joke with us, and we were willing to play along. The fleche is a long day.
I think we were all sort of dreading the next section, through the city, over the Ben Franklin Bridge and around the edges of Camden. It’s very busy, there is much navigating to do, and it feels a little dodgy to be riding expensive road bikes through one of the poorest cities in the area. And of course, it was on our way around Camden that we came upon our second bridge construction project. This time, the detour was not immediately evident. However, Chris and Nigel pulled out their smart phones and fairly quickly found us a route that kept us on the back roads and put us back on the cue sheet in a few minutes. That was the end of our route problems but we were reminded of the wisdom of pre-riding a route… For next time, if there is a next time.
There are lots of long stretches on the fleche where we just needed to pedal as consistently, efficiently, and quickly as we could while making sure not to set a faster pace than was sustainable. Patience is key. And conversation definitely helps. Capn’ Chris Sir and I talked about our students and what we’re teaching. His engineering students, I learned, are building a battery for an electric car. Pretty cool. Along the long stretch from Titusville to Lambertville, Nigel and I discussed our rando goals for the year and what it takes to get ready for longer events. I worried that my knees aren’t up to my goals, that my stubbornness could keep me from stopping when I should. Nigel said go for it but give yourself permission to stop if you must. Chris and I talked for a while in the middle of the night about the ways in which our bodies make life more challenging as we get older. It’s strange to me how our bodies age but our minds and dreams stay young.
We moved steadily along the course and eventually, just before 11pm, made it to Allentown in time for a brief stop at the bar that was still open. We were grateful. It was probably 30 degrees outside so the chance to sit inside for almost half an hour was very helpful. We bought cokes but ate our own food: Wawa sandwiches, yoghurt, rice pudding, whatever we had in our bike bags. The most “interesting” part of this 30 minutes though, was the story that my companions inadvertently had the bar patrons believing about why we were out on the road in the middle of the night. While I was in the restroom, someone at the bar, who had clearly been sitting there for a while, asked what we were doing. One of my companions answered that we were riding to combat cancer and diabetes…or at least I think that is what happened. All I know is that when I returned, I was being asked about the members of my family who had cancer and diabetes and someone was offering to go home and cook pasta for us because surely we needed pasta to keep going. And we were surely all going to heaven and would be sleeping on beds with 1500-thread count sheets. I pretended to be deaf and dumb.
The stop at Princeton Wawa was short this year. It was cold and we were sort of behind. And there were fewer drunk students there…not sure why. The leg from there to Titusville went quickly this year. The route even seemed less hilly, but maybe I was enjoying the hills because they were keeping me warmer. Titusville came and went and we started the very long stretch through Lambertville, Frenchtown, and eventually to Riegelsville. Lots of time to think and talk and practice our patience. We briefly got off the bikes in Frenchtown for a quick rest and snack, but it was really to cold to dilly dally.
Then, a few hills, not very many miles, and we arrived in Riegelsville. Now, for a long time we had been eagerly anticipating the pancakes, eggs, bacon, and mugs and mugs of coffee that we were going to drink while cooling our heels for an hour in the diner. However, we pulled into the parking lot to see that the restaurant lights were out. The place was dark. No! Capn’ Chris Sir, however, noticed that lights seemed to be on in the store attached to the restaurant. We went in, and after stumbling around and eventually finding out that the restaurant wouldn’t open for another hour, we learned that we could get breakfast sandwiches, coffee, and that we could use some of the restaurant tables. Yes. Saved. Not our dream breakfast but still, food and somewhere to sit…inside, not out in the cold.
After that, all that was left was to get our butts and bikes up the hill from the river to Quakertown. We did it, with 15 minutes to spare. Escargots Volant were, naturally, the last team to finish, but no matter. New memories. A new understanding of being part of a team. A deeper appreciation of my team-mates and this crazy sport. Not a bad way to spend 24 hours.