The Flèche is the kind of ride that doesn't make sense to most people the first time you try to explain it. It's 24 hours long, self-supported, self-designed, and tough, mentally and physically. It's also the kind of ride that can feel radically different to people who are riding right next to each other. One person's meditative climb is another person's breaking point; one person's thrilling descent in the pitch black is another person's teeth-clenching phobia brought to life.
Our route, designed by map-whisperer Cindy, took us through 4 states, starting in Fort Lee, New Jersey and ending in Providence, Rhode Island.
Friday night, just before 9 o'clock, after downing quad shots of espresso, we embark. The rain intensifies from steady to blinding.
Our riding companions were each other and a drenching rainstorm. Here's how our night unfolded, from all of us:
CAROLYN: Five minutes in we descend a modest hill in Fort Lee. My Garmin says to go left, but all I can see is blackness and the menacing glare of headlights and taillights. Other people's computers are acting up, too. We pull over to regroup and figure out where we've gone wrong. I am worried: about descending at night, about the impossible level of downpour, and about the fact we are already off course. I notice Cait looking at me and realize my face must be frozen in visible panic. She asks how I am doing and where I want to be on the descents – front, back, middle? It's such a simple question, but it is so pro. My fears are making me feel pretty isolated and this is like being towed back in. I am not doing this crazy thing alone.
One light shorts out. A stick on the road nearly snaps a derailleur. Most of us experience intermittent periods of not being able to see anything at all. People begin shouting "flood right" and "flood left" to warn about deep water gushing down on either side of the road. Snakes and frogs are our companions. Time passes more quickly than anyone realizes because we have to go so slowly in order to stay safe.
CAIT: Somewhere around the New York, New Jersey border, three of us hit a giant pothole (crater?!) on a semi-busy road during the night. I thought for sure I was going to smash my face into the pavement in the middle of nowhere, but I totally didn't! Yes!
MILICA: We had just come back to normal roads after the tree debris-littered River Rd. The going had been very slow and we needed to push the pace slightly to make up for it. "Can you slow down?" I look behind me and half the team has fallen off pace. It was the realization that we weren't going to be able to do this.
Around 11 p.m., we turn on to what is supposed to be a beautiful path next to the Hudson. Pros: no cars and the sound of the river lapping the shore. Cons: a washed out trail that in some areas resembles a streambed more than a path.
CINDY: Blinking through the waterfall of rain cascading from my helmet into my eyes, I strained to scan the washed-out trail for storm debris in the headlight's beam. As we steadily battled the deluge and made our way north along the edge of the Hudson, shouting "stick!" "rock!" "hole!" to the teammate behind us, our ultimate destination of Providence, RI seemed like a dim phantasm, an imagined notion not quite real. To keep spirits up, we laughed about all the fries we would eat and the beer we would drink when we met our friends and changed into warm, dry clothes at the end of this adventure.
CAIT: I learned that there is another level of being completely soaked I had not previously reached -- and yet you can break through to the other side and not care, especially if you prepare for battle. Also, if you ride long enough in spandex it will dry!
The rain begins to abate sometime after midnight, but everyone is so wet that we barely notice it at first. Leah gets a flat in Haverstraw and many college kids driving home from parties stare at us. Someone speculates about whether it would make more sense to go to a college party. Obviously, the answer is yes, but we get back on our bikes.
CINDY: The longest climb of the ride culminated in a terrific, swooping descent to cross a stately bridge spanning the Hudson. Our route turned eastward, where a swollen moon shone silver over the wet roads and glittered the river's surface. As we blinked the last of the raindrops from our eyelashes, the change in weather brought a new cheer to the team. We knew we had fallen so far behind schedule that our destination would be unreachable - but were reminded that the adventure of the journey remained before us. We kept on riding through that quiet night, hurtling through the backroads as the countryside slept.
CAIT: My favorite moment was descending the smooth, twisty pavement of Bear Mountain by moonlight, with the sight and sound of waterfalls at about 2 in the morning. Another favorite moment was riding on these woody path at dawn - it felt like we were in Narnia.
At a 24-hour gas station in Peekskill, we learn an essential truth of riding all night. Canned espresso drinks will never again taste so delicious.
LEAH: At some point during the pre-dawn hours, we were looking for our next turn when Carolyn remembered we would be entering a "path between two rocks", something that stood out for her from the cuesheet. I was jonesing for some dirt at this point so hearing this put a much-needed kick in my stride. We entered the trail in the dark and, as we meandered up and over narrow, swoopy trails, the quickly brightening sky above began to peek through the trees and we started to notice the mossy trees and creeks beside the trail. Birds were chirping, everything was that wet-green color. We had found Gnarnia! It was no longer raining, and it was morning.
CAROLYN: The trail was our gateway from one world into another. It dumped us out in a weird, random parking lot. We turned our lights off and forged on.
LEAH: We had already decided we were going to end the ride in Bethel but we still had some tough riding to do. I was feeling pretty bad (EPIC UNDERSTATEMENT), physically after a stressful night of riding in the cold, wet rain and just plain not being in climbing shape. I knew we were riding through some beautiful farm country in North Salem, NY, it was quiet, maybe 6-6:30 am, no cars around. It should have been the perfect morning ride. All I could think about was one pedal stroke at a time, barely able to focus in front of me without tipping over, let alone the scenery beside me. Not being able to fully enjoy the route that was carefully put together was one of the biggest bumouts for me.
In Bethel, we discover a drive-in restaurant that says you can have curbside service if you blink your lights. We opt for a booth instead. We stuff our faces and try to feel normal. People ask us if we're going on a bike ride and in our sleep-deprived states, we just can't even begin to try explain the situation to them.
Twelve hours in, everyone is feeling a lot: pain, exhaustion, disappointment. We have to call the ride. Everyone feels discouraged, but we're beginning to realize we've had the kind of adventure that makes a better story than a ride.
I learned that the best way to start a ride is with a real New York salted bagel with almond butter, cream cheese and potato chips inside, and the best snack 4 hours in is a bag of Sour Patch Kids and a Starbucks canned espresso from a gas station at 2 am. I learned that no matter how strong you are mentally, your body needs to be prepared to come along for the ride. My mental toughness was, quite literally, only enough to take me halfway.
And then, everyone starts thinking about the next one.