2005 Flèche New England

One in the morning. 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Thousands of stars in a crisp, cloudless sky. It feels surreal to be sitting on the steps of the white-washed wood gazebo in the center of the town green in Douglas, MA. The village is quiet: everyone's asleep except for me and my cycling companions. I grab my toes and hunch over into a fetal position to conserve body heat. A few feet away, Pamela is rummaging for clothes and food in her saddlebag. To my right, John lies sprawled on the floor of the gazebo. He claims the wood surface is not that cold, but I find it hard to believe him. To my left, Chip rubs his knees and occasionally lets out a shallow grunt: his knees have been hurting him ever since we left Boston. All in all, the cold and Chip's knee problems have put a bit of a damper on the start of our Flèche adventure.

John Bayley and Pamela Blalock got in touch with me in early March about riding the Westfield Flèche, and it didn't take a lot of convincing to rope Chip Coldwell into the plan as well. A flèche ("arrow" in French) is a traditional randonneuring event that requires a team of 3 or more bicycles (a tandem counts as one bicycle) to complete an itinerary of at least 360Km in a 24-hour period. Each team designs its own route, and there are few rules other than that no stop may be longer than two hours, and that the last 25Km must be ridden in the final two hours of the 24-hour period. Each team must finish together, which creates a very French "all for one, one for all" spirit.

The details came together one night over dinner at Kara's and my place. John and Pamela would ride tandem, while Chip and I would be on our singles. We decided to make our Flèche into an early-season tour of the New England states, less Maine. Starting from Boston, we would ride soutwest into Rhode Island, then west into Connecticut, north into Massachusetts to Amherst, then along the eastern shore of the Connecticut River to New Hampshire. We'd cross the river into Brattleboro, VT, then head south, back into Massachusetts and to the designated finish in Westfield, MA. 24 hours, 380Km, five states. Regulations require that each team have a name: we picked "Cinque Terre," a reference to the "Five Lands" coastal region of northern Italy.

Chip rang my doorbell around 9pm on Friday, April 15. It had been a long week at work, and I didn't particularly feel like setting out on a 24-hour ride, but Chip was in good spirits. He talked about "reverse time pressure," the idea that we'd have to ride particularly slowly to cover only 380Km in 24 hours. But he also mentioned his knees, which had been bothering him since the Florida 600K brevet that he had completed just the previous weekend.

John and Pamela were almost ready to ride when we reached their home in Watertown. Pamela brewed some excellent coffee, and we were off. Almost. First we wasted some time at the neighborhood Stop-and-Shop, convincing one of the cashiers to sign our brevet cards to mark the start of our ride. It was 10:30 before we actually headed southwest for good.

Conversation flowed freely as we wound our way on familiar roads through Newton, Needham, Dover. The coffee, cool air, and anticipation of the long ride made me excited and a little giddy; gone was the tiredness of a few hours prior. Chip recounted stories of epic climbs (or lack thereof) on the Florida brevet series. I mentioned my dream of cycling across Asia. And John told us about some group rides with Jobst Brandt in the Bay Area. My ears perked up. My Jobst-number was now two: I was cycling with someone who had cycled with Jobst. Maybe some day I'll go Jobsting myself.

The temperature continued to fall as the night progressed and we left the relative warmth of the city. Chip's knees also began to give him grief. West of I-495 our route became hilly, with several short but fairly steep climbs and descents. I'd frequently push ahead on the climbs, only to be brought back by Chip's sudden gasps and grunts, uncontrollable responses to the shooting pain in his knees. We stopped a few times to add layers of clothing and give Chip's knees a rest. By the time we were in Douglas, we could all have used a hot chocolate, but all we found was the little white gazebo on a hilltop.

So after a brief knee-rest we headed south into Rhode Island along Wallum Lake Road. We really only touched the northwest corner of the state, just enough to have a fifth state on our route. I remember a gentle climb through thick pine forest, then gradually deteriorating pavement, then a fast, bone-jarring descent into Connecticut on a dangerously rutted road.

We reached Putnam, CT at 4:45am. I was borderline hypothermic, and had lost feeling in hands and feet. Chip's knees were sore. John and Pamela were also cold, though they seemed to be doing better than me. We stopped at the local Xtramart and stayed there for a long time. Ah, the wonders of hot coffee and doughnuts!

When we left, heading northwest along CT-171, the sky was beginning to brighten in the east. I realized that the worst of the nighttime cold was behind us, and truly began to enjoy the ride. Northeastern Connecticut is a wonderful place for cycling, a patchwork of meadows, farms, ponds, and hardwood forests, punctuated here and there by old stone walls. Sunlight bathed the tops of big oak trees along the road near West Woodstock, momentarily gave way to shadow as we sped past the fishermen at the bottom of Bigelow Hollow, and then finally lit the pavement and warmed our backs as we climbed out of the Hollow and headed towards Stafford Springs.

It was time for breakfast, and we were in luck: in Stafford Springs we found no less than a French bakery, replete with croissants and many different kinds of breads, and operated by a friendly French-speaking man of Algerian origin. He humored us as Chip and I tried to speak French (we were "randonneurs," after all), our efforts none the better for a long night of cycling. We were in great spirits when we left, and made short work of the remaining mileage in Connecticut. We skirted Bald Mountain northeast of Somers, CT, crossed some rolling farmland, and then enjoyed a fast descent into Massachusetts.

Hampden, Wilbraham, Ludlow, Granby: this was the easiest part of the ride, as we followed the eastern edge of the Connecticut River valley north towards Amherst. Chip's knee got a bit of a rest after the rollers of Connecticut, and we made good time on well-paved roads. For the last several miles into Amherst we followed the rail trail: no traffic, and close-up views of beautiful wetlands.

Lunch in Amherst was at the Black Sheep, a place recommended by Chip. The food was great and pulled no punches on the political commentary. I had a spicy vegan tofu wrap called the Ronald Dumsfeld, one of several "Electile Dysfunction" sandwiches on the menu. If one could but dispose so easily of the real Dumsfeld.

We continued north on MA-116, flat and fast to Sunderland, and then took a left on Falls Road. From there we followed the Connecticut River for a while, sometimes on pavement, sometimes on dirt or gravel roads. The scenery was beautiful; broad views of the river and surrounding farmland alternated with brief shady wooded stretches. After all these miles, the long stretches of rough stuff felt like a real adventure, and nowhere more so than in Millers Falls, where the bridge was closed to traffic because of construction. So we resorted to a kind of portage, lifting our bikes onto beams on the sides of the bridge to get around the closed gates at either end. Chip's amazing loaded Bob Jackson tourer weighed almost as much as John and Pamela's tandem!

From Millers Falls it's just a short jog to Northfield and then into New Hampshire. I had been taking it easy at the front of the group, almost dozing off in the afternoon heat, when John and Pamela shot past me to take the New Hampshire state line sprint. The dozen or so miles to Brattleboro seemed longer than ever: after a freezing night I now felt hot and dehydrated in the mid-afternoon sun. So it was with some relief that we eventually crossed the iron bridge across the Connecticut River into Vermont, and helped ourselves to delicious fruit shakes at the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

We were back on the road after 40 minutes, heading south now along the west bank of the Connecticut River, just a few hundred meters, by air, from the road we had taken north. This time I noticed the state line well in advance, but I wasn't quite crisp enough in my attack, so Pamela and John accelerated next to me and took the Massachusetts sprint too, if only by half a wheel. They're a fast couple.

Meanwhile, Chip lagged behind. His knee problems were being compounded by acute lower-GI issues. We saw him waving for us to stop from the top of a hill as we descended the other side. He rolled down towards us, mentioned his roiling gut, and disappeared into the nearby forest. He emerged many minutes later, more relaxed but lacking a bandanna.

Slowly, we picked up the pace. I pulled a little bit ahead on the gentle rollers around Deerfield, and then John and Pamela started charging forward on their tandem. We rode fast through flat, open farmland. We passed hot-air balloons lit by late afternoon sun near Whately, beautiful white houses along tree-lined streets in Hatfield, then stripmalls, stripmalls, and more stripmalls outside Northampton. Finally, at 7:30pm, we arrived in downtown Northampton. We had covered over 360Km and had only 25 or so to go to our destination. Pamela, John, and I ate burritos for dinner, while Chip dieted to calm his upset stomach.

We left Northampton shortly after 8pm. It was dark by now, and chilly once again. Chip's knees were in bad shape, but we didn't need to break any speed records. I moved to the front and tried to keep a very steady, smooth pace; Chip followed behind me, and Pamela and John brought up the rear. I'm not as smooth as Chip, the "Buddha of infinite smoothness," but in the end my pace-setting served its purpose. We arrived at the Elm Motel in Westfield without incident or audible signs of pain from Chip. It was 9:30pm, half an hour ahead of our planned arrival time. The computer read 392Km from my home in Cambridge.

The next morning Don Podolski, owner of New Horizon Bikes and organizer of the Berkshire brevets, arranged breakfast for all the flèche riders at the School Street Bistro in Westfield. I was surprised by the number of other participants. And as we sat there---John and I splitting 3 large portions among ourselves---another team arrived. It included Sandy Whittlesey, Russ Loomis, and Russ' teenage son Garrett. They displayed varying levels of freshness: Sandy showed almost no signs of having spent a night on the road, while Garrett was asleep at the table within minutes.

I would have preferred to talk longer, but by noon it was time to leave. Cindy arrived from Boston to pick up Chip, whose knees had not yet recovered, while Pamela, John, and I cycled home. The weather was perfect for cycling, and we had a beautiful ride along my usual Westfield-Boston route, via Warren, West Brookfield, Paxton, and Sterling. The tandem would chase me up the climbs, and I would (unsuccessfully) chase the tandem down the descents. On the home stretch, along MA-117, I decided to draft them for a little high-speed riding. John and Pamela gunned their engines, and we flew for many miles at over 40Km/h.

We finally split up in Weston, Pamela and John heading southeast to Watertown, and I northeast to Cambridge. I arrived home at 8:30pm, after about 570Km and 4500m of climbing for the weekend. What a great way to start the brevet season!