Flèche 2013 Report: Springward, Southward

Sometimes randonneuring makes me feel like the luckiest person on Earth. Being able to ride long distances requires a lot of a person– it can be tough on a body, and you need a sturdy, fast bike. You need to devote time to stretching out, keeping in shape on and off the bike, eating lots of wholesome and healthy food before and after rides, and getting plenty of rest. It’s not always easy to work all of this into one’s lifestyle, and most of the time, some of these things fall through the cracks. But whatever I do have that enables me to do rides like the flèche, I’m thankful for it, and there is not a moment I take it for granted.

Our team’s route for the 2013 NorCal Flèche was hard, but worth it in so many ways. My team was fun and low-key, made up of five hardy and experienced riders, including my sweetie as our brave and noble captain. It rained a bit, just enough to make bringing rain gear worth it. The night riding was mystically envigorating. This was my first flèche, so of course I will remember it with misty eyes! There were tough things about it, but the natural beauty far outweighed any detractors.

The flèche is a different kind of randoevent than I’ve done before, and it is only held once per year in any area. In standard brevets, everyone is free to ride at his or her own pace along the same route. This is the principle of allure libre: as long as you check in at all the controls within the time limits, you receive your brevet, or certificate, of having completed the ride. You are free to ride by yourself (as I often do) or with others (as I also do). Even after a year and more of riding brevets, I am still finding my own pace, and I like riding by myself to avoid the pressure of staying on someone’s wheel who is riding too fast for me (like most of the SFR riders).

The flèche is different because it is organized through teams of up to five machines (bikes). Each team has a different route, but they all are expected to finish at (about) the same time and the same place. One of the rules is that the riders of each team must stay within sight of one another for the entire ride. I was apprehensive about joining a flèche team for that reason: I am a relatively slow and inexperienced rider– would I be able to keep up?

The flèche is also different than any ride I’d ever done because half of it is carried out in the dark. It is a 24-hour ride with only 3 hour-or-so breaks for food and rest. The longest ride I had done was the 300k , once as a brevet and twice as a permanent, taking me about 16 hours. The flèche mileage was longer too, by about 80 km.

The ride began in the dusky morning hours of March 30, the day before Easter. Instead of puttering around the apartment at 5 am getting ready, my now-growing Randowisdom dictated that since this is an overnight ride, I should sleep in a few extra minutes. My Randowisdom also dictated that in the rush of finally getting ready to leave, I forget my camera (so I could focus on riding, right!), so I don’t have any of my own pictures from this ride.  All the pictures here on this post are from Photographe Cinq or Capitaine Quelle Heure Est-Il.

By this time I have become downright spoiled by the unspoiled California landscape, but the scenery on this route was different and still more breathtaking than the usual gorgeous SFR routes.

Here’s the basic idea for Team Harshing Your Mellow, also known as Capitaine Quelle Heure Est-Il and the Wotnaughts… http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2162344?privacy_code=vXopfpOmRA5KjYth

Our route took us southward through huge berry and dairy farms in gorgeous flat valleys, which in late March, already were getting close to harvest.  There were plenty of beautiful hills, too, though, and several tough climbs even before lunch at my fav Summit Market.

Taking in the view

Taking in the view

My classy manners fit right in

We wotnaughts are classy

My repeated trips up Bolinas-Fairfax Road from the coast side were not wasted on this ride. Lots of beautiful vantage points were taken in from the crests of the hills we climbed, and thrilling descents were enjoyed. We had a good mix of riding on dirt and on paved surfaces, too.


Descending into Eureka Canyon

After a coupla-two-three luxurious climbs and descents, we ended up in the tiny town of San Juan Bautista (population 1,862). The mission there is pretty cool and not too much like sprawling, bustling Mission Dolores in the middle of metropolis-by-comparison San Francisco (population 805,235). The Spanish missions of California, or Alta California as it was then called (as opposed to Baja, or lower, California), were established between 1769 and 1823. The first was in San Diego, then Monterey, then San Francisco in 1776 (with the first mass being held five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence). Eventually they spread as far north as Santa Rosa, and there were enough of them that the distance separating each from each could be traversed on horseback in one day. This forms what is now known as El Camino Real, or the King’s Road (though all roads in Alta California belonged to the king of Spain). Between San Francisco de Dolores and San Juan Bautista there are three missions: Santa Cruz, Santa Clara de Asis, and San Jose de Guadalupe. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and within the next few years began secularizing the missions, ultimately abandoning them and El Camino Real along with them. Highway One, closer to the coast and the communities of Anglo and Russian settlers there, opened in 1937. Presently El Camino Real is theoretically traced in parts by California’s highway 101, no longer a trail for horses. We only touched on it to cross it. This year, Captain found us some peaceful trails out in the country to traverse. (Special thanks to former area resident Jake M.) The great thing about our team and our route was the desire to avoid high-trafficked auto roads, instead finding bike-friendly ways. Our team does not care for speed; we value other things in a bike ride. So we are happy to ride on rocky dirt trails or semi-abandoned pavement, especially if it means we’ll be the only ones out there.


Me and the Captain out for a ride

We passed several families on this trail out for a scenic hike and got a fair number of raised eyebrows. After pausing at the top for some photos…

car back

car back


Another well-earned view

we zoomed down the other side to arrive in San Juan Bautista. The San Juan Bautista mission, also the location of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo, has a lovely courtyard in front with beautiful flowers, and only hosted a few visitors (besides our team of cyclists) on a Saturday afternoon.


We took another group photo in front of the church doors, and then four of us went to a little diner across town (2 blocks away) while the captain went to a grocery store to get our proof of passage. Central California has some pockets of Portuguese and Basque I was not aware of until last October, when Mr. Potis and I went to a diner in Half Moon Bay and noticed Linguica, or Portuguese sausage, on the menu. The diner in San Juan Bautista was owned by Basque people. I would love to go back there for dinner sometime. While we waited what seemed like a century for our five chocolate milkshakes, I was reminded of my Earwax Cafe days and how freaking long it takes to make even just one milkshake. It just does, it’s no one’s fault, but they were out of malt, too, so standard chocolate shakes it was. When I ducked inside the tiny restaurant to use the facilities, the counter gal was flustered with all the parfait glasses, steel milkshake cups, spoons and scoops and such lined up on the counter.



We were slightly behind schedule at this point, and I don’t think a milkshake and fries was quite enough to prepare me for what was to come, the strongest headwind I have ever experienced. I tried to hold the paceline with Brian at the front, but after about thirty seconds I was pushed all the way to the back! I felt like I was in a Roadrunner cartoon, except I didn’t find the situation too hilarious. Brian tried to give me some kind advice about holding up against the wind, but it was lost as the wind whistled around my ears. The effort it took to try to keep pace with Brian took my breath away, and I ended up slinking backward in the line and hiding behind Gabe and John for a while. Then we all sort of hid behind Brian for a while… then finally somehow ended up at the giant artichoke. Whew. In front of the Giant Artichoke, Bryan said, “One of these years we gotta do an easier route.” It made me feel a little better to know that even Bryan was tired. Still, I was not feeling too photogenic at the time of our team photos–usually I find some way to muster a smile for the record books, but the expression I am wearing is more along the lines of disbelief.


There was a heavy lady exiting the restaurant in the midst of our active shutterbugging with a stoma and walking with a cane, asking us where we came from and so on. She was really nice, and made me feel even luckier that I’m able to undertake bike rides of this nature. I had been feeling guilty about drafting my friends for the stretch from SJB to Salinas, but now I relaxed a bit.

The Giant Artichoke marks the turnaround point for this route. And so, we rode back. We rode on iconic Highway 1 for most of it, on parallel backroads and farm roads for some, winding through Soquel, Santa Cruz, all the little towns along the coast, then reaching Pacifica and back to San Francisco for the celebratory brunch at Crepes on Cole. The latter part of the ride was carried out mostly in darkness, and I enjoyed the quiet and lack of car traffic. I had heard stories of riders dozing off while riding, but for me on this ride, the night awoke all my senses. Our team spread out during this time, beginning with me riding closer to Gabe and Bryan, and Captain and Photographe Cinq further back. Eventually, Bryan, Gabe, and I spread out too, and all I saw of our band of riders was Bryan’s tail light far up ahead. I worried about my sweetheart so far behind, and convinced Gabe and Bryan to pause and wait for our team to regroup (which I’m sure they would have done anyway). We stopped just before the new tunnel, proceeded ceremonially through it, and arrived at Pacifica Denny’s. The last Denny’s we were at was in Santa Cruz, and it was Raining. It had begun raining when we sat down, and there was talk of waiting out the storm, but eventually we had to go. It rained for all of ten minutes once we got back on the road, just enough to get us all thoroughly soaked, and have all of our sweat-producing rain gear on, but what can you do? Keep riding is all. In nice, warm Pacifica Denny’s, with the cushiony booths, I got just a snatch of shut-eye, but due to some confusion about timing, I was sluggish to get out the door. Captain got a bit snappy and I realized, “Holy crap!! We have 15-20 miles left, and only an hour plus a little, and there’s that horrendous climb up to Skyline!!!” I hauled ass as much as I possibly could, keeping not too far behind Gabe and Bryan, though Gabe valiantly took the San Francisco city limit sign. Once we turned off the Great Highway, I could not believe the slow climb to Crepes on Cole. What?!? I was slightly outraged at having to do more climbing– we’re back in San Francisco now, why should this be?!? I wondered aloud why we could not have our Randoconvergence at the Beach Chalet, conveniently located at sea level, later realizing I had probably been bonking or was just suffering from a lack of sleep. I did notice, however, that no other teams arrived at Crepes on Cole from the direction whence we came– they all took the flatter, longer route around the park.

Well, no matter. We arrived on time, Captain handed in our cards, Jesse with the homemade reflecto necktie took our bikes for valet parking, and we ordered our breakfasts: beer, omelets, french toast etc was all consumed in the company of our fellow riders, each team arriving in more or less good time. Captain and I slouched against each other on the wooden booth for a couple hours, pleasantly chatting with other teams about their rides and ours, then took off with Madame Cinq. Thanks to my fellow teammates for being so swell with a newcomer; thanks to the San Francisco Randonneurs and all the volunteers who support and advance this peculiar sport; and thanks to my sweetheart Mr. P. for inviting me along so we could spend some quality miles together.


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