Last weekend we rode our 2013 Flèche Northwest. The Flèche is a wonderful event that combines much of what I love about randonneuring. You select your own route, you ride as a team, and you finish together.
Traditionally, the Flèche has had the goal to ride the maximum distance possible, but we’ve modified that goal to “the maximum distance possible on an interesting, challenging course.” So we mapped a course around the Olympic Peninsula that covers backroads almost exclusively, and which incidentally included a lot of climbing.
We met at 4 p.m. in downtown Seattle for a pre-ride meal. From left to right: Steve F., Hahn, Steve T., Ryan.
Our bikes have been honed through many years of long-distance riding. Three sported 650B wheels, and all had fenders and handlebar bags. Four were steel, one titanium. Having similar equipment is useful when riding in a group.
After taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island, we started our ride. We deliberately took it easy to avoid getting tired during these early kilometers, when we were excited to be on the road. Our first control was Port Gamble with its quaint store and museum.
From there, it was backroads for the next 90 km. Since the main road is shorter (and less hilly), we needed a few controls at intersections to show that we took the longer route and did the distance. Most of all, we enjoyed the ride toward the setting sun (photo at the top).
When we reached Port Angeles at 10:30, it was pitch dark . This brightly lit convenience store would be the last resupply until breakfast. It was the last outpost of a questionable civilization as we headed northwest, first toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then southwest to the Pacific coast. We took a slightly longer break here: 12 minutes exactly.
From then on, it was just us in the moonless night. Our Edelux headlights projected a narrow beam into the pitch-dark night. Above us were the stars – so many more than we ever see in the city.
There was little traffic – about a car every 30 minutes. Almost all of them gave us an encouraging little beep with their horns as they passed. It was nice to feel welcome out here, so far from home. Then traffic subsided, and for five hours, we did not see a single car. Our moderate pace during the early hours paid off, and nobody felt sleepy or had trouble keeping up.
After a quick stop in Forks – the only place with a 24-hour convenience store on this 200 km stretch – we saw the silver sliver of the moon rise above the Olympic rainforest. It was a magic sight toward the end of the long, dark night.
We reached the Pacific Ocean at dawn. We pulled into a parking lot on the cliff, climbed on a picnic table and looked over the waves. It’s always an incredible feeling to have ridden to the far end of the continent in just a single night.
At 7:28, we reached Lake Quinault and its wonderful National Park lodge. The restaurant opened at 7:30, so we were the first guests. Perfect timing! Forty-five minutes and a sumptuous breakfast later, we started the new day refreshed and in good spirits.
We took another lovely backroad into Hoquiam, and for the next hour, we speculated whether we’d get the forecast tailwind on our ride along Willapa Bay.
Willapa Bay was gorgeous as always, but the forecast turned out to be 180° incorrect. We battled stiff headwinds with nowhere to hide. Our pacelining skills came in handy here.
After a brief stop in Raymond, we headed into the Willapa Hills. The course included two gravel sections. Two years ago, we had been held up by a car rally that used these roads for a “special stage”. This year, we had made sure the rally was not on the same weekend, and all was calm.
New gravel the size of railroad ballast had been spread in places. Where the cars had compacted two tracks, it was fine, but in other places, we had to ride through the deep gravel. We found that even a 42 mm tire can pinch-flat.
Twenty-two hours into the ride, we stopped and signed each others’ route sheets at the mandatory “22-hour control”. We had ridden 512 km so far, and now just had to ride 25 km in the next two hours. However, on this gravel pass, our progress was slow. After 45 minutes, we had gone just 8 km. If we continued at this pace, we might not make it!
This is where the team came together. Helping hands were extended to those who needed them at various times.
Finally, 24 hours elapsed in the middle of the last gravel descent. We checked the distance – 540.2 km. We had made it! In fact, we just had bettered the previous longest ride in the Flèche Northwest by about 6 km. Time for smiles…
… and celebration. Another shared adventure has strengthened the bonds of our friendship.
In Olympia the next morning, all teams congregated and told their stories. We heard about beautiful roads, starry nights and wonderful teamwork. That is what the Flèche is all about. A special thanks to Josh Morse for organizing such a wonderful event. Maybe you’ll join us next year?
- More information on the Flèche is on the Randonneurs USA web site.