Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PA Fleche - The chronicles of team "Stealers Wheel"

I’d been looking forward to this ride with much trepidation. This is my third successive year on a fleche team. So, essentially I have a good handle on what the ride is like. But, this time I committed to take part prior to knowing that my choice of mount would be a recumbent. After last Saturday’s skin-of-the-teeth finish on the 200k, I was thinking that maybe my presence on this ride would prove to be a hindrance to the team. My four teammates are all strong competent Randonneurs, on the new bike I would not be their equal. I sent the captain, Paul Shapiro, an e-mail detailing my concerns and offering to drop out of the ride for the benefit of the team. Paul responded writing that given the nature of the route (largely a flat South Jersey course) he felt that I would be able to manage it. If after starting the ride I found it was tough going I could always drop out along the way. With a bit of a knot in my stomach I agreed to take the start. Vowing to myself that if I felt I was hurting the team’s chance of a successful experience I would drop out.

The weather was stunning as we gathered at the shopping center in Princeton Junction for the Friday, 11:00am start. All of us agreed that this was indeed a very civilized hour to begin a long ride. My teammates were: Paul Shapiro (C), Jon Levitt, Todd Kerekes and Ron Anderson. Our team name is “Stealers Wheel”. After getting our brevet cards stamped at the Rite Aid and posing for the traditional team photo we all headed out for the first leg to New Egypt. I felt fine keeping in step with the moderate pace that was set for the early miles. We enjoyed the view of the countryside, the perfect weather and the camaraderie of the team. There would be no hills of any consequence for many miles to come and the light wind was mostly at our backs. Life was certainly good.

Our route would take us as far south as Ocean City, NJ before winding its way back to the northwest for the finish at the Youth Hostel in Quakertown, PA. Tom Rosenbauer, (PA Randonneurs) was RBA for the second year in a row. We have all come to appreciate Tom’s tireless efforts providing randonneuring events for the region.

The day would just get nicer as we smoothly transitioned deeper into the southern regions of the state. The temperature was in the upper sixties, our packs bulging with the warm clothes we did not yet require. The long sleeve jersey I was wearing, along with thin wool under layer became too warm in the afternoon. Having no room left in my rear pack I improvised by laying it on the huge recumbent seat and tying the sleeves around the back. It made a spiffy seat cover. I was able to ride comfortably wearing only the icebreaker long sleeve under layer.

The trek to the south would involve 104 miles of mostly flat terrain. We would pass through New Egypt, New Gretna, Egg Harbor City and our furthest point of Ocean City. The spring scenery was especially enjoyable as we passed through the Pine Barrens, went by cranberry bogs and enjoyed views of ocean inlets and bays. We crossed over two long bridge spans as the sun was getting low in the sky. Our arrival at the Wawa Market in Ocean City came just as daylight was yielding to the darkness. The temperature in concert with the sun was also taking a rapid plunge. Hot foods and coffee were the theme of the hour as we prepared for the cool weather we would face on this next leg.

Adorned with lights and reflective gear we set out to cover the forty-three miles to our next stop in Hammonton. Although the Silver Coin Diner was an unofficial stop, a non-control, it would prove to be a life saver. We were really feeling the drop in temperature riding out of Ocean City. It was a solid twenty-degrees cooler in just a couple of hours. I was reasonably prepared for a cool overnight with a medium duty jacket, glove liners, medium duty gloves, light weight shoe covers, and light wool skull cap. My gear should be quite adequate for temperatures down to 45 degrees. Perhaps it was the rapid cool down that was throwing us off because we were all real cold for the next few hours.

During every ride of any serious duration there always comes a low point. I reached mine on this segment. I was quite cold having left my warmer gloves and shoe covers in the pack thinking that I wouldn’t need them until the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold I was. We rode past a turn by just a few hundred feet and needed to turn around. It was in a busy intersection so making the u-turn would have been tricky for me on my upright bike. I’ve found the recumbent to be an absolute bear when it comes to low speed maneuvering. When I finally determined a break in the traffic I attempt the turn only to hit my foot into the sharply turned wheel. The effect was a sudden flop to the pavement (note to self; do not pedal while attempting a sharp turn). I’m normally not one to panic, but there were a string of cars bearing down on me and I’m intertwined in this crazy bike. I’m trying to scoot off the roadway while still on the ground with only limited success. One of my feet are un-clipped the other is still stuck in the pedal. Thankfully, the person in the car leading the pack recognizes there is some kind of problem and brings the vehicle to a quick stop. I’m grateful that this is one driver who must have skipped the Friday night happy hour at the local gin mill. Safely to the side of the road with bike and rider intact I re-join my worried team mates and continue on.

The diner was a welcome sight to the five of us as we quickly left bikes outside for the warm respite of a table for five. Blueberry pancakes and hot coffee complimented the environment for me. We spent a good amount of time warming up. It was nice to feel all my fingers and toes again. It was about mid-night so I was hoping that it wouldn’t get too much colder after this. Before setting out for the short 15 mile ride to the next official control, in Berlin, NJ, I added the shoe covers and full gloves.

The next section was cold, but thankfully short. The overnight temperature reached a low of 42 degrees. It was a very clear night with little wind. Tolerable conditions but none the less we all felt quite chilled. The gloves and shoe covers took the edge off for me. My core felt chilled but not to the point of shivering. I tried to shift my focus away from being cold and did my best to enjoy the nice roads Paul had selected for our route to the north.. After a brief stop in Berlin we would continue north crossing the Pine Barrens for the second time, this time in the dark. I enjoy the feeling of remoteness this area brings about. I felt quite sleepy at one point and decided to have a real coffee at the next stop which would be Pemberton. I drink decaf in everyday situations and only drink real coffee when I am about to nod off on a long bike ride. My system is quite sensitive to it since I almost never have it. The twelve ounce serving of regular black coffee brought me to full alertness. I felt confident I could stay awake for the rest of the night.

It was only 18 miles to the next Wawa at Hamilton Township. This would be the sixth and final Wawa Market on our route. Southern New Jersey abounds with them. They are quite useful as control stops as they have a wide variety of hot and cold foods, water, sports drinks and good coffee. At all the stores the staff were also very friendly to us. They happily signed our brevet cards, asking questions about our ride and wishing us luck. Paul was a bit concerned about our time here and suggested a brief stop. We would leave with daylight just beginning to show. Skirting to the north of Trenton headed for the Deleware River at Washington’s Crossing, the terrain would make a gradual change from virtually flat to slightly rolling as we crossed US 1 in Lawrenceville. Our next stop was designated our twenty-two hour control. The control was a restaurant in Lahaska, PA. Our hope was to arrive with enough time in hand for a sit down breakfast before our 9am departure and the twenty miles to the finish. Shortly after crossing the highway, Paul had a flat on the rear tire. The tire itself was damaged beyond help thankfully a spare folding tire was carried with him. He asked that Ron, Todd and I continue on to the control while he and Jon remain to change out the tire and tube. I’ve seen Paul change flats on other rides and he is quite proficient at it. I am confident they will be back on the road shortly. The three of us continue on to the control. We are just a few miles from the river crossing and I am actually enjoying the rolling terrain. After over 200 flat miles the extra resistance on the pedals feels good to the leg muscles. At Washington’s Crossing we are required to walk our bikes over the bridge after which we mount up and head north along the river on PA 32. This six mile stretch next to the river is pleasant but slightly uphill the entire way. Our pace is moderate but we have enough time in hand so there is no concern. We will have about an hour at the restaurant before the required 9am departure. After turning off Route 32 we have a few miles of up and downs before arriving at the control. We make it there just a few minutes after 8am. Already it is starting to get warm. Todd heads in to get a table. I remain outside readying myself for the final leg, Ron does the same. I stow all the cold weather gear pushing my rear pack to its maximum. It takes less than ten minutes in which time Paul and Jon arrive. We enter the restaurant and join Todd at a nice large table. The place, called Sweet Lorraine’s, is actually quite nice. A waiter brings us glasses of water with lemons floating in them. Our order is efficiently taken and soon I am enjoying the best breakfast I’ve ever had on a bike ride.

With breakfast food settled in we set out at 9am for the final section. My teammates are adjusting their clothing for the warm temperature so I start out a couple of minutes ahead knowing they will catch me on the hills shortly. The first ten miles to the finish are actually quite hilly. And one particularly steep climb just a couple of miles away from the control on Street Road (didn’t know you could call it both) causes the bent to veer sharp left headed off the road. I can’t get it to correct so I have to clip out. After doing so the steepness of the hill won’t allow me to hold the bike upright with one foot down so I take another flop over. Suffering no more than embarrassment I upright the bike, walk up the remainder of the hill and start out again. More hills present themselves as I turn off onto Aquetong Road. My team mates catch me as I am slogging up one of them. I know I will be slow on this hilly part so I tell them to keep their pace. I will meet them at the end. Should time run out for me they can earn the fleche. The rules allow for as few as three riders to finish. They refuse to do this telling me we will finish together as a team. What I like best about the fleche concept, and being on a great team, is that no one thinks individually. It’s a one for all and all for one concept. My team was supportive of me undertaking the ride on the bent despite the potential that it could make things riskier. So far I felt as if I had not been a burden to them. Now the best I could do was minimize the impact of my slower climbing pace by working hard especially on down hills where I could make back some of the time. Of course, there is a head wind that makes this a little harder, but we get through the ten miles of hills with adequate time to cover the remaining miles. There is but one final hill to face on Route 313. It’s a tough one, but we all make it up in good form knowing there is only about two miles left, mostly downhill. We are all together as we make the turn off the highway onto the road leading to the Youth Hostel. Paul makes the turn and has another flat on the rear tire. With less than a mile left he opts to ride it in on the flat. We make it to the Hostel with ten minutes to spare. Tom is outside to greet us. His enthusiasm for our success is contagious. We are tired but quite happy as we pose for the traditional finish team photo.

Inside the Hostel we enjoy snacks, beverages and a hearty portion of Tom’s homemade lasagna. Paul manages a nice nap in one of the upholstered chairs. An hour after our arrival a second team comes in, The Cumberland Cruisers from south Jersey. We know this team from last year’s fleche. Also, their captain Walt Pettigrew is a friend. We recognize Rick Lentz from NJ Randonneur rides as well. Their four person team all finished together.

Summing it all up this ride worked out great for me. The team concept differs from other brevets. The camaraderie is stronger which adds to the enjoyment of the ride. There is no feeling of isolation as there are four others working with you to achieve the same goal. We covered 400k this year, 40k over the minimum distance. The route was not particularly challenging, nor did the weather present any real problem. The challenge as I see it is covering 400k so early in the season. I was very pleased to have managed the ride while still adapting to the recumbent. Maybe there is hope for this season yet.

A special thanks to Tom Rosenbauer for his dedication to this event, and, to my teammates for all the support and encouragement.
Team Stealers Wheel at the Finish in Quakertown, PA.

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