Flèche Northwest: 24 Hours, Mostly Rainy

airport_road

“Le tandem avale la distance,” I thought as we pedaled through the night. “The tandem gobbles up the distance.” Long stretches of road seemed to be compressed during the weekend’s ride, with the difference being that I wasn’t riding my own bike, but rather sitting on the back of a tandem.

We choose to include a tandem this year for our annual Flèche Northwest 24-hour ride. We were a team of five friends, and our course took us counterclockwise around the Olympic Peninsula.

fleche_course_2014

It’s a course that takes us far from civilization and traffic. It feels like a real accomplishment when you can trace your ride on a map of the entire continent… You can see the course here – but beware that “Ride with GPS” appears to overestimate the elevation gain by a considerable margin. It’s a hilly course, but not that hilly.

downtown

We met in downtown Seattle. It’s not as romantic as the traditional start of the French Flèche Vélocio in front of Notre Dame in Paris, but it’s still neat to leave the city, and the next morning find ourselves on the other side of the Olympic Mountains by the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.

four_bikes

We started with a pre-ride meal. This year, there were only four bikes, since Mark and I were riding a tandem. My broken hand is healing well, but I wasn’t sure whether holding onto the handlebars for 24 hours was going to be good for it. In addition, we love tandems, and I hadn’t ridden one with Mark in a long time.

agate_pass

We took the ferry to Bainbridge Island, then waited 15 minutes for the ferry traffic to get out of town. Fifteen minutes wasn’t quite enough – tandems really do compress space and distance. By the time we had crossed Bainbridge Island and headed across Agate Passage, we had caught up to the traffic. The weather was still nice, but the windsock indicated that we had a blustery ride ahead. Fortunately, we then turned off the highway and only saw a handful of cars during the next few hours.

One advantage of being on the back of the tandem is that I was able to take photos while riding…

hood_canal

Clouds had moved in by the time we crossed the Hood Canal. The forecast was for a 70% chance of rain.

old_eaglemount

We enjoyed the backroads of the Quimper Peninsula. The uphills were a great time to chat and catch up. On the flats, things were less social because we were going a bit too fast and the wind made too much noise. We didn’t have a computer on the tandem, but one of us later uploaded the ride to Strava. We found that we were cruising at about 36 km/h (22 mph) on the flats – into a headwind. The three riders on single bikes needed to use their best drafting skills, otherwise, they stood no chance of keeping up.

sunset_1

The weather forecast – 70% chance or rain – turned out to be optimistic. It started with a thundershower that doused us with huge raindrops. They surely must have been hailstones not long before they hit us, they were so large and forceful. Fortunately, we had added all kinds of mudflaps to our bikes, so neither our pace nor our spirits were much dampened by the deluge. Then the clouds tore apart for a few minutes to give us a spectacular sunset.

fix_flat

Riding on the shoulder of a busy highway in the rain greatly increases your risk of flats. The almost inevitable happened: A piece of steel wire punctured the rear tire of the tandem. With four able-bodied riders, it didn’t take long to remove the wheel and tube, but it took considerably longer to get the little steel wire out of the tire. We often have talked about bringing tweezers, but I think now we’ll really start doing so. A pocket knife finally enabled us to dig out the offending wire without damaging the tire.

night-time

After a brief resupply stop in Port Angeles, we were swallowed by the night. We passed a house or two every few hours, but otherwise, it was dark. I had been navigating, but that task was easy now: “At the next T-intersection in about three hours, we turn left, then merge with Highway 101 two hours later, and turn left again around 7:30 in the morning.”

With nothing to do except pedal, I was free to daydream – or should that be “night-dream”? Time went by much quicker than it ever has on a night-ride.

Before I knew it, we had climbed the ridge overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca – did I mention that the tandem climbed very well, too? The twisty descent always is fun at night. With the new generation of LED headlights, it was twice as much fun this time. At the bottom, we heard the waves lap against the shore, even though we could not see the water in the darkness.

The rain had stopped, and we saw a sliver of moon overhead, as well as many stars. We seemed to fly through the night. When I sat up to stretch my back, I was surprised how hard the wind blew into my face. Either we were going very fast or the headwinds were quite strong. In fact, it was a combination of both.

forks

One of the modern bikes developed a shifter problem, so we stopped in Forks, the only place with a 24-hour store on this side of the peninsula. We got some lubricant and took a quick break. It was 1:30 a.m. when we rolled out of town. Several pedestrians did a double take as our paceline of four bikes, led by the tandem, cruised through this remote logging town in the middle of such a blustery night.

lake_quinault2

As the new day broke, we reached Lake Quinault. Usually, we have breakfast here, but the historic lodge opens only at 7. It was just after 5, so we signed our cards, then continued our ride.

rain

We had been lucky, and the night had been mostly dry. Now the clouds made up for lost time. It was pouring. Hahn spotted the “OPEN” sign on the Humtulips store, and we stopped for a warm drink and snack.

The storekeeper, like so many on this ride, was delighted by the change from her usual routine, and practically adopted us for time we spent there. We learned that Humtulips means “hard to pole,” referring to the challenges the Native Americans faced when poling their canoes up the river here.

Alas, our hope that the rain was just a shower turned out to be optimistic, and after 15 minutes, we headed out into the deluge. At least traffic was light, so we did not have to ride on the shoulder, where we’d have risked more flats.

aberdeen

Our real “resupply” stop came in Aberdeen, after 411 kilometers. Our handlebar bags were empty black holes, since we wore all our clothes and had eaten all our food. The local Safeway grocery store had a café that provided hot drinks and oatmeal. We bought Ensure Plus meal replacement drinks and chocolate for the road ahead. It wasn’t quite the same as the usual, civilized breakfast at Lake Quinault, but it fueled us for the second portion of the ride.

willapa

From Aberdeen, we headed south along the Pacific Coast. The strain of riding in wind and rain for 16 hours with no real stops began to show on my companions’ faces. Steve Frey is doing a great job drafting, so he is hidden behind Steve Thorne (left). Hahn (right) is taking a break from having to focus on the wheel in front. In a paceline, you get to rest mentally when you are at the front, but with the tandem leading the way, the other three never got to the front, and thus never got to rest. (Life can be unfair – I could rest the entire way.)

ocean

The wind was still unfavorable to our progress, and without the tandem, it would have been tough going. The surf on the shore of Willapa Bay was much higher than I’ve ever seen it. Fortunately, our tandem has a much shorter rear top tube than most modern machines, and it sliced through the wind without much trouble. We truly had twice the power with the same wind resistance as a single bike.

roadside_tree

Vélocio once wrote how riding through the night made you appreciate the things you see much more “because your senses are amplified through the effort of riding.” The trees lining the roadside and the hills with their fresh green of spring did seem much more amazing than they usually are. I was having a great time.

tandem_raymond

We made another stop at a convenience store in Raymond, where we stocked up for the next 80 km (50 mile) without services. Five minutes later, we stopped again to sign our cards for the 22-hour control. We had ridden 501 kilometers, yet the most challenging part of the course was still ahead.

brooklyn

We headed into the Willapa Hills, where we faced two long climbs (and descents) on gravel roads. A few years ago, we were held up here by a car rally, but this year, we had checked to make sure the roads were clear. In years past, our friends from Olympia had acted as spotters and provided us with updates on the road conditions, but this year, we were winging it.

We had equipped the tandem with 38 mm-wide tires, but when you consider the weight of both riders, that isn’t very wide at all. We later calculated that in order to get the same air cushion as we do on our single bikes with their 42 mm tires, we’d need 60 mm-wide tires on the tandem.

This means that there are no photos of this stretch, since we were underbiking, and I needed my hands on the bars, rather than taking photos. We walked up the steepest, roughest portion of the first climb, and I spent much time out of the saddle on the coarsest gravel, which looked more like railroad ballast than the gravel used for building roads. (The above photo was taken on a smooth stretch where I could sit on the saddle and take my hands off the bars.)

end

Almost inevitably, we had a pinch flat. We were on the second gravel section, about five minutes away from 24 hours, so we continued on foot. Then our time was up (above), and we established our position. We had ridden 536 kilometers in the last 24 hours. We were tired and wet, but we felt a great sense of accomplishment. Everybody had been riding strong, and considering the rain and headwinds we had faced most of the way, we were very happy with our performance.

Then we took stock: We were 65 km from Olympia, and we were out of tubes for the tandem. We tried patching a tube in the rain, but even drying the tube with our last piece of clean clothing and then shielding it with a handlebar bag was not enough – the patch would not hold. Fortunately, Hahn’s 650B x 42 mm tires hadn’t suffered any flats, and we used one of his tubes to get the tandem moving again.

heading_to_dinner

All that was left now was completing our ride to Olympia. Mark and I were starting to be hungry, so we pushed the pace a bit. I took the photo above without looking back. Only later did I realize that our friends were struggling a bit on this stretch. The upside was that we arrived in Olympia at 6:30, in perfect time for a shower and dinner, after 600 km on the road.

train_station

The next morning, we met the ten other Flèche teams for brunch. It was great to hear their stories, see the courses the other teams had charted, and reconnect with old friends, as well as make new ones.

Then we rode to the train station and took the train back to Seattle. It was a memorable, challenging ride, spent in the company of great friends – which is what the Flèche is supposed to be.

Further reading:

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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59 Responses to Flèche Northwest: 24 Hours, Mostly Rainy

  1. capejohn says:

    Reading about over the top rides like this one is a joy. It’s refreshing that there are other things besides the Sunday morning club rides.

  2. Greg says:

    Just one word, Benjamin – gnarly! Wow. A great narrative of a great ride!

  3. doug in seattle says:

    An impressive ride!

    I once suffered a series of flat tires on the same road you guys did, between Brooklyn and Oakville. It was also pouring rain and I discovered I had forgotten a spare tube. My efforts at patching were for naught and my pump fell apart anyways.

    I ended up spending the night behind a bar in Brooklyn, listening to the rain pound the tin roof of the patio all night. At five I tried fixing my tubes again but ended up hiking my bike 11 miles before some loggers picked me up and drove me into town.

    Probably the worst bike ride I’ve been on, but I learned a lot and would love to try the road again under better circumstances.

  4. Alex says:

    Fantastic story. Makes me want to try tandeming! (sp?) Is that a Jack Taylor tandem? How did Mark get his hands on that?

  5. Adam in Indiana says:

    Sounds like an amazing ride, despite the rain. Although, I’ve found that less-than-perfect weather or other conditions often make a ride that much more memorable.

    By the way, in the last photo of the bike at the train station, is that a Brooks Cambium on the bike immediately behind the tandem? If so, I’d be curious to hear your and others’ impressions of it.

  6. Gert says:

    Great story
    I hate rain, headwind and flats and the most memorable rides are often the ones wit rain, headwind and flats. They generate stories for years to come.
    I am doing the Fleche Nordique with a team the 7th-8th of June. And I am really looking forward to it after reading Your story. But I still hope it will not generate too many stories

  7. R. Jones says:

    A shame someone had to keep ruining the ride with flat tires.

    • The further you ride, the more flats you get. Neither the steel wire nor the pinch flat would have been prevented by sturdier tires… but on a 24-hour ride, spending a few minutes here and there fixing flats isn’t a big deal. Our long-term average on the Fleche is about 0.8 flats for the entire team. Considering that we have 4-5 riders doing 600 km, for a total of 2400 – 3000 km, that still is a rather low flat frequency.

  8. Brendan Hennessy says:

    Now that was enjoyable and a lovely distraction from a train ride from Dublin to Cork! Great advertisement for tandem riding too. Well done, Brendan

  9. riggs says:

    Envy Envy Envy…..

  10. doug peterson says:

    What error factor have you observed in RidewithGPS? I too have noticed this & brought it to their attention. One route I have ridden often has 4,500′ of climbing, yet RidewithGPS tallies up 9,000’! My sense is the greater the total elev gain and variation in gradient, the greater the error factor, but I have not studied it in detail.

    • Andy says:

      Short of staring at maps and counting contour lines for a few hours, how do you know what data is inaccurate? I’ve found that my GPS-based elevation data tends to *seem* much more accurate than the altimeter-based data logged on a GPS when it’s raining. This would make sense because the barometric pressure changes over the day, so I’d never trust an altimeter to log amount of climbing, yet that’s how many cyclists do it.

    • Fred Blasdel says:

      It’s dependent on the spatial resolution of the topographic data, and the algorithm used to generate the route data that’s then summed for cumulative gain.

      RideWithGPS has the best user interface I’ve found, but they don’t smooth out the input data anywhere near as much as their competitors. Curiously it usually gets further off when the area in question has high-res LIDAR data, because there’s so many more opportunities for ‘jaggies’ within the higher sample rate.

      • I remember when I designed the Volcano High Pass Super Randonnée 600, Bikeroutetoaster (old version) showed a little over 10,000 m of elevation gain, while the French Openrunner came up with more than 11,000. It appears that you can only compare elevation data from the same site – just like Power Meters give you relative, not absolute data. (We once used two, and found they were 10% apart for the same rider at the same speed.) I guess that is why the ACP uses just one site for evaluating the elevation gain of the SR 600 courses.

  11. Bill Gobie says:

    Great story and great photos! The fine weather last week made me regret not joining a team, but then when the storms blew in Saturday I was not so sad!

    For removing wire from tires I carry small cheap wire cutters like these. Used delicately they grip and pull wires better than tweezers. They also cut zip ties and cables during roadside repairs.

    Apparently your guys’ vision was up to the task of finding the wire. I am nearsighted and have no trouble with close work like that. Conversely, last summer I helped a farsighted rider remove two wires from his tire. He literally could not see what was wrong with his tire. Older riders with near-vision trouble might consider carrying a magnifying glass. A digital camera in macro mode might substitute in a pinch.

    • Andy says:

      I find the Leatherman Squirt to be the most useful and tiny tool to carry. New versions have both pliers and tiny scissors, in addition to a knife and screwdriver parts.

      • Ben says:

        I was going to say the exact same thing: Leatherman Squirt. It weighs 60 grams and it’s spring-loaded, so it’s somewhere between pliers and tweezers. Great for extracting stubborn bits and pieces from your tires.

    • Steve Palincsar says:

      After cataract surgery I overnight went from a lifetime of being nearsighted to farsighted. I quickly learned I couldn’t fix flat tires without reading glasses: unless it was a glittering piece of embedded glass in my tire, I couldn’t see whatever caused the flat. A pair of folding reading glasses of twice the power I normally use for reading books is now a regular part of my tool kit.

  12. Joel Niemi says:

    Tell us a bit about the tandem, please …

  13. AdamB says:

    Awesome write-up and photos Jan. Having experienced this weather myself, on my maiden Fleche voyage, I think that you captured just how soggy- and yet beautiful- it was. I also really enjoyed meeting you and having a great chat after the banquet; that was the ideal way to cap off one of my best weekends on the bike (and on my new Baby Shoe Pass tires- those babies sing!).

  14. marmotte27 says:

    Nice ride (a little understatement here….)

    One thing however where modern Randonneuring doesn’t live up to its ancestors is clothing. It’s worlds away from the elegance of the earlier days (even during the war).Especially the garish colours of the rain gear just don’t match the elegance of the bikes.

    • The raingear is designed for visibility. Unlike the pre-war years, we have to deal with traffic, and in the rain, visibility of drivers is limited. Also, the camera flash makes the reflective material stand out, which does look garish. When you look at the finish photo, taken without a flash, you can see that in daylight, the raingear doesn’t look so bad.

      When it’s dry, I think our Seattle Randonneurs jerseys are pretty understated and classy…

      • marmotte27 says:

        Your jersey is really nice and elegant, the fact that you designed it yourselves probably has a lot to do with that.
        As for the rain gear of course it has to be visible, but there must be ways of achieving this without it looking so out of place on a randonneur bike (which is not your fault of course), and without it costing a fortune like the Rapha brand.

      • Good raingear always is very expensive, but well worth the price if it means you don’t overheat, get sweaty and clammy, and then cold as soon as you stop pedaling.

  15. Fred Blasdel says:

    I think I passed Hahn in Seattle Sunday night on his way home from your overnight Olympic ride, while I was on my way home from mine!: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4636508

    By camping deep in the rain shadow we managed to avoid all but one brief shower, our destinations from previous years got inches of deluge: http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2014/05/may-inundation.html

  16. Paul Ahart says:

    What an awesome ride. When reading it I had questions to ask and suggestions to make (such as wire cutters or Leatherman tools. and what kind of tandem) but other commentors and you, answered them. I love cycling the Olympic Penninsula and would love to someday repeat your ride. I might take two days to do it, however.
    Thanks for the wonderful story and fine photos!

  17. JD says:

    Ahh, flats. I’ve had my share this year, including two rides with double flats. One rainy commute I flatted with a wire that I just could not grip. I ended up using my tongue (to locate) and teeth (to pull). About a mile later I got squeezed to the edge of the road and punctured with a huge nail that embedded itself into the rim bed. I’m thinking of sacrificing a new tire to the puncture gods or something…

  18. ahongo says:

    This is Al from team “due north” out of Eugene. I enjoyed your comments at the banquet. I meant to ask you what it’s like to not have a handlebar bag. I think I would feel lost without my snacks and cue sheet right in front of me. Did you turn around and extract things from a rack trunk? Fish about in a frame bag? Reach right into your pilot’s pockets?

    • I simply asked my captain to hand me things. He was very good about that! Packing 411 km worth of food for two people into one bag, plus all the extra clothing we’d need for the rainy night was another matter. The bag was seriously overstuffed at the start, and the overflow went into our jersey pockets.

      Congratulations on your Flèche. Yours was an inspirational course and ride. In fact, we are tempted to try something similar next year.

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        A Jandd frame bag would be a really good fit for the stoker’s cockpit thanks to the placement of the marathon tube, and not interfere with your bottles. They even come in purple to match!

        They’re a bad fit on most of your bikes because of the downtube shifters, but your tandem would be a perfect test bed.

  19. Jerry Scott says:

    Did you have to do anything heroic to get the tandem on Amtrac in Olympia? (I thought that was a limited station where you could only load single bikes if they were in boxes and I wouldn’t have even considered boarding with a tandem!)

    • Nothing heroic. The Amtrak Cascades takes bikes in the baggage car… We reserved a spot, and that was it. They leaned the bike against the other luggage, since it was too long to fit on the hooks. In Seattle, they complained that tandems weren’t supposed to go like that, but by then, we had arrived. Of course, you may not always be so lucky.

  20. Michael says:

    Do you all use any kind of wheel reflectors for quick bike ID for motorists? I didn’t see any. Though the ankle bands are good for that. Just curious what’s your take on wheel lights/reflectors.

    • Wheel reflectors look impressive when they light up in the headlights of your car. They don’t do anything for safety, because by the time the car reaches you, you have moved out of the way. To avoid collisions, cars need to see you coming from the side.

      On the Fleche, we saw very, very few cars at night, and most came from behind. On the pitch-dark roads, all you need is a red taillight to be seen. Much more can actually be detrimental – see this post.

      • John Duval says:

        Wheel reflectors are required in the Vehicle code here, as are pedal reflectors, side reflectors, head and tail lights. I use super reflective tape. I read somewhere recently that an organic movement is psychologically more quickly recognized over a steady light, resulting in more caution taken by drivers, though I don’t know that rim tape would qualify.

        As a motorist and night time mountain biker, I have always thought reflective rim tape helps visibility and judgment of distance and speed, all important on busy streets. But powerful blinkies make things worse.

      • Reflective material can help in situations where a lot of visual clutter makes it hard for cyclists to stand out. However, any visibility is useful only if it can be seen at the right time. Have you noticed that cars in Europe don’t have any lights on the sides? Yet cars don’t broadside each other at intersections at night…

        There may be a larger societal benefit to wheel reflectors: Since wheel reflectors light up so spectacularly, they may make drivers more aware that cyclists are sharing the road, which would be a good thing. But I think that is pretty far-fetched…

  21. Craig Dempsey says:

    We saw you guys coming through Port Angeles and I reacted about the way I reacted to seeing Ted Williams when I was ten. For an old guy who came to bicycling late and who is put off by what he reads on the sports page, it was a real thrill to observe amateur athleticism at its finest.
    I live a mile off 112 just west of the Elwha and if it would ever fit your needs we would be honored to host a pit stop for you, hot soup – whatever, just shoot me an email.

  22. Bryan Petersen says:

    Wow! So cool! I’m inspired! Going to seattlerandonneur.org right now to join! Bon velo!

  23. baru says:

    Hello.
    I’m leader of the team which went to Tokyo and has returned to Kamakura introduced in the text “Fleche in Japan”.
    Thanks to have it said “true to the spirit of the Fleche”.

    This year’s Fleche in Japan was very pleasant.
    Last year and the year before last, the weather is also bad and has felt tired in Nice Place.
    However, it was blessed with the weather this year.

    Please participate also in Fleche in Japan next year.
    I’m looking forward to being able to meet again.

  24. vladluskin says:

    Jan, congratulations on another epic tale of another epic ride. Recovering from surgery for a broken wrist two months ago myself, I wonder how your wrist tolerated a wet 24-hour ride so well.

  25. aquilaaudax1 says:

    What wheels are you running on the Jack Taylor? 27″?

    • It was originally built for 27″ wheels, but we changed them to 700C, so we could run the Compass Barlow Pass 700C x 38 mm tires. There was no way we could take the tandem on the gravel on 27″ x 1 1/2″ tires, which measure about 28 mm wide.

  26. Michael says:

    I am always amazed by Randonneurs.
    I can only pull off a 7-hour century.
    You guys must have amazing fitness to pull maintain the speeds you do.
    Jan, did you always ride long, or ease into it through the years?

    • Michael says:

      PS- that’s 7 hours on-the-bike time.

      • I’ve always wondered what was behind the next hill and over in the next valley… Of course, I eased into long-distance riding. Like anything, it gets easier and more fun the more you do it.

        Beyond that, you need a comfortable, yet fast bike. That is the reason we’ve spent so much time and effort on researching the performance of tires, frames, etc.

  27. Mike Arciero says:

    Thanks for another great ride report. It looks like everyone has hats, gloves, tights… What kind of temperatures did you encounter overnight? For me, the combination of sustained rain and low temperatures is a particular challenge. In fact, for me personally, I think 50’s and rain will be my limit on long distance rides. I did a ride this past weekend, my first overnight, where it was high 70’s in the day and about 40 overnight, but no rain. I still had multiple glove liners, full winter mitts, and full winter shoe covers, which I ended up needing. Another thing is storage capacity. I am really impressed that you did this ride with one bag for two people. For my recent ride I used the handlebar bag with a Carradice Nelson Longflap (about 15 liters). Aside from all the clothes, I wanted to be sure I had enough food as I was on rural roads with no services. Still, it felt like too much, and I did end up with more food than I needed for the overnight. For your Fleche, it sounds like you were you able to plan pretty accurately what you needed and where you could re-supply, since you seemed to be out of food when you re-stocked.

    Mike

    • I think the temperatures never dropped much below 50°F (10°C) at night. In the past, we’ve had ice form on our handlebar bags, but then, it was dry. Our clothing and the amount of food we need has been fine-tuned over years of riding long distances. Wool clothing has the advantage that it adjusts to a wide range of temperatures. I find that a handlebar bag can hold 600 km worth of food and clothes for me.

      On this ride, we had our big “re-supply” at km 411, so it was a bit tight for two people. The hardest part was the start, since it was warm, so our bag had to hold all our clothing plus all of our food. Once we dressed for the night, the space crunch was alleviated.

  28. Lynne says:

    for finding the wire in your tire – a friend suggests a cotton ball. Run it along the inside of the tire, and it will snag on the wire. Better than snagging on your finger.

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