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Cinque Terre

Our Fleche by Pamela Blalock

We left New Zealand just as winter was rolling in. Trying to keep up that endless summer thing. We travelled to Italy and Ireland, and then meandered about the US before settling back into real life in the Boston area. We wasted no time and quickly found jobs, bought a new house, and rejoined the world of the working. Suddenly our life of leisure came to a screeching halt. And as if to reinforce that, Boston suffered one of its harshest winters in history. It snowed and snowed and temperatures plummeted below 0F, and barely made it out of single digits for weeks on end. Fortunately we'd found a house close to our jobs, making dealing with the snow a bit less of a nightmare than it might have otherwise been. But better still, we also could work from home, because some of the snowstorms completely overwhelmed the plows!

We kept telling ourselves that riding on studded tyres through the winter would make us stronger in the spring. We reminded ourselves that we would again see green leaves on trees and grass and flowers and while we're at it, the sight of actual pavement would be nice too!

Then emails about the upcoming Fleche served to remind us that spring would indeed come. Although I still had my doubts that a ride in mid-April would not involve studded tyres!

We met Max last year at the end of BMB. John and I had just returned to the Boston area days before, and we dropped in at the finish of BMB to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. After chatting a bit at the finishing picnic, we checked out Max's web site, and found we had a bit in common. A few months later, when we started talking about potential team-mates for the fleche, we decided to contact Max to see if he had any interest in doing something crazy. Max and his friend Chip were definitely interested in joining us. Although Chip said he might be a wee bit tired. He was riding an early season brevet series down in Florida, and would do a 600 km. the weekend before the fleche.

We ended up getting together for dinner to plot out our route and come up with the all important team name! We pulled out lots of maps and talked about the many different mountain passes we could climb. The basic idea of the fleche is that a team of three to five members (with a tandem counting as one member) ride at least 360 km. in 24 hours, with the destination being Westfield. The problem for us is that Westfield is only 170 km. away. How would we get the extra 200 km. I kept pointing out that there could still be snow if we went up to any elevation, so heading out to New York State or up into New Hampshire might not be the wisest idea. Somehow my lack of enthusiasm for mountain passes got translated into finding a flat route. To be fair, a flatter ride this early in the season was certainly fine with me, but I really just wanted to avoid the potential of hitting icy roads. After lots of discussion, we came up with the idea of hitting 5 of the New England states, and following the Connecticut River Valley for much of the route. And since we'd do 5 states, we decided our team name would be Cinque Terre (5 lands in Italian). The other basic rules are that no stop can be longer than 2 hours and the team must ride at least 25 km in the final two hours. We actually figured we would be under reverse time pressure, given a relatively easy course and the distance, so we were all pretty relaxed about the ride.

Of course, we had to get out to the river for the easy part and that would involve quite a bit of climbing. We also would have New England Spring weather to contend with. And finally we'd also have to get home. Remember, the ride ends in Westfield, 170 km from home.

I mentioned before that despite not knowing each other prior to the ride, we had lots in common. One thing we share is that none of us owns a car, which means riding home after the event or taking the train. This, in turn, influenced our start time. According to the rules, we could start anytime between 6 A.M. Friday morning and 10 A.M. Saturday morning. I was all for 10 A.M. so we'd be well rested, but the lads suggested 10 P.M. Friday so we'd be fresher for our night leg. We would finish up at 10 P.M. and then could sleep in Westfield Saturday night and then ride home on Sunday after a good nights sleep. I agreed to the 10 P.M. start if they'd let me pick the route to CT. I knew a great series of backroads practically by heart that would take in the highest point in Rhode Island, and avoid lots of urban riding in Massachusetts.

Of course there is such a thing as too quiet, and when riding through the night, it isn't so bad to occasionally pass through a town with an open shop. Our first sign of civilisation was Putnam, CT, after 110 km. and 27F overnight low temperatures. But I've gotten ahead of myself. We started at our place in Watertown after a few shots of espresso, and headed down to our local grocery store to get our first control. We then headed out through Newton and Needham and picked up part of the Saturday morning club ride. The forecast was for clear skies with an overnight low below freezing and a daytime high in the 70s! This was a real challenge for proper dressing. We wanted to be warm enough at night, but not have too much excess to carry the next day. The tandem makes it even harder, in that between two of us, we have half the carrying capacity of a single bike. We have a big racktop bag and bar bag. We wanted to avoid panniers, just because you always fill the space you have! But really, we probably should have taken panniers. And John definitely should know better than to go out without a jacket. I had a wool crop top, short sleeve wool top, long sleeve wool top, wind vest, windstopper jacket, my heavy sporthill pants, wool knee warmers for later, my heavy Mountain Hardwear gloves (lighter gloves for later), wool neck warmer, headband, helmet cover, heavy wool socks, and windstopper overshoes. John had two long sleeve wool tops, a windstopper vest, wool shorts, heavy tights, knee warmers for later, wool socks, overshoes, heavy lobster claw gloves, and a wool hat. I did not discover until it was too late, that he did not have a jacket. At some point, I gave him my neck warmer and my knee warmers for his arms. I started out without my jacket, but as it got cooler, I added the jacket and knee warmers on my arms. Chip and Max also pulled most of their spare clothing from saddlebags and panniers, until we were all wearing pretty much everything we had!

We quickly realised we had even more in common. We all wore wool. We all had fenders and Schmidt generator hubs. While John and I were travelling light by our standards, we did have the bar bag and big racktop. Chip was using panniers, and Max had a big carradice saddlebag, and a bar bag. We all loved the small quiet roads, although Chip was more into technology with his GPS, while John, Max and I liked navigating with maps. To be fair, John and I also have a GPS that we used lots of the forest roads in New Zealand, but we still hadn't bought US maps for it, so ours is really only good for looking at elevation profiles and seeing where we've been!

At some point, John and I blew a bulb. We'd recently upgraded to the Schmidt E6 lights from our lumotecs, but hadn't actually ridden at night with them before. We had several bulbs, and popped a new one in. I really like how easy it is the change the bulb in these lights. I also really like the beam cast by two of these lights. We have the same set-up on our commuting bikes, and they are well worth the extra dollars.

Anyway, there we all were wearing everything we had with us, riding through a crystal clear cold New England night full of stars and half a moon. We'd tentatively planned a control in Douglas, but we weren't sure what we might find open. It turned out there was nothing open. One store had all its lights on, but it was closed. So we stopped for photographic evidence at the sign on the common. Chip, fresh off a 600 km. the weekend before was having some knee pain. We took a break at the gazebo in Douglas to give his knees some relief, but the 27F temps got us moving again quickly.

The next leg took us down into Rhode Island. I'd talked the lads out of aiming for a larger town because I didn't want to ride on US 44, and I wanted to go over Buck Hill Rd (the highest point in RI). but this meant a much smaller town and as it turned out nothing open there either. We took a little detour around a lake to try and find a shop or police station or something, but no such luck. At some point a police car passed, and I tried to wave him down. He flashed his lights in a friendly greeting, but did not stop to sign our control cards! The lads did not mutiny at this point or give me too much grief for picking a too quiet route, but we we are eager to find some sign of civilisation soon.

Then shortly after rolling into CT, we blew another bulb. We're definitely going to have to check on these lights after the ride. We replaced that bulb and rolled on. We did make it through the rest of the ride, but we exchanged the lamp for another and have not suffered any more blown bulbs!

We eventually hit Putnam, where we were spoilt for choice of 24 hour stores open at 4:30! We spent about an hour at one, thawing out and drinking coffee. By the time we got back on the road, it was getting light and soon warm air would follow..

Chip was worrying about his knees and was a bit psyched out by the thought of going through Bigelow Hollow. Despite our plan to make the ride easy by travelling along the river for most of it, we still plotted a route into wonderfully hilly Connecticut and through the locally infamous Bigelow Hollow. It is what John and I call a fifty-fiver - 50 mph down the hill, 5 mph (or worse up). We all made it through the hollow and then down the screamer of a hill into Stafford Springs where we found a great French Bakery. Another short break here to take in some French culture, some French croissants, some French coffee and we were energised to move on to the easy part of the ride.

From this point on, we made our way toward the CT river. And we followed it pretty closely up into NH. We had planned a longer break in Amherst, but found we were a wee bit behind schedule, and while the time pressure wasn't great, we couldn't spend 2 hours napping there. Once we left Amherst, Max pulled out his maps and decided to have some fun, as he picked a first dirt roads and at least one closed bridge. We had a great time lifting the three bikes over the gates at each end, and realised Chip's bike weighed almost as much as the tandem!

The sun was out at this stage, and it was even feeling warm. We slowly navigated a series of tiny backroads into Brattleboro, where we stopped at the co-op and had cold drinks. We then began making our way back down the west side of the river with a goal of having dinner in Northhampton, and checking in there for our 2 hour to go control. Chip's digestive system was starting to rebel and considered joining his knees to go out on strike, but we joined forces and took it easy the remaining miles into Westfield.

After a well earned 8 hours of sleep, we met up with other Fleche riders for brunch and war stories. Then we loaded the bikes up and road back to Boston. It was an amazing weekend. The weather deteriorated afterwards, and for the next month it was cold an rainy. We felt very lucky with the lovely clear weather we had. We also felt very smart in our route choice. This early in the season, we felt there was little need to do an outrageously difficult route, but we did still manage a challenging and beautiful one, and I hope to reuse large parts of it next year!