Friday, April 24, 2009

Doin' the Flèche

I'm signed up to ride the New England Flèche in three weeks. A flèche, in cycling, is basically a 24-hour ride done by a team of three to five cyclists. It is not a relay, in that all riders ride all the time and there is no outside support, such as the follow vehicles that will support the 100/200, five weeks later. True to its French origins, the flèche is replete with a host of obscure rules, designed to insure that riders do not "cheat." Having organized the 100/200 for so many years, I find it difficult to get my mind around that one. Who would cheat on a 360 km, 24-hour bicycle ride? Who would care if someone did? There are no prizes, and the event is setup in such a way that it's virtually impossible to have competition. Plus, no rational person I have talked to understands the event at all, so what would anyone gain by cheating? I don't get it.

I also don't get the idea of control cards, which are supposed to be signed by anonymous people at strategic "controls," or points along the ride to establish that you were at a certain place at a certain time. There is a traditional element to controls. There is a video on YouTube that shows a few seconds of a tandem taxi race that took place in Paris during WWII in which the "fare" leaps out of a trailer being pulled by the tandem and sprints to a table where he gets his control card signed. This action was a critical part of the event and one assumes that the ride involved a number of different destinations in Paris. It was also a race, so the controls were an important part of the event. This does not transfer well to non-competitive ultra-marathon events, however. Not only does no one really care, but a flèche's controls are selected by the team. The person initialing the cards will be some sleepy clerk at a 24-hour convenience store who doesn't understand what she is scribbling her initials for. Are we to believe that some event official is going to try to track that person down later to verify that she really did initial the control? How would he find her? Drive a hundred miles to some town in Vermont, find the donut shop and ask around to see if anyone knows whose initial those are? What happens if he can't verify the initials? Does he have enough evidence to disqualify the team? I can see Hercule Perot, having failed as an independent detective and resigned in disgrace to serve as a French government official, whose sole task is to travel the countryside, verifying completed control cards submitted by ultra-marathon cyclists for non-competitive events. That's a vision bound to haunt me at 3 am, climbing some hill in Massachusetts.

If the concept of a control card on a ride like this makes no sense, it must be there for some other purpose. According to RUSA, the sanctioning organization, the flèche is one of a series of increasing distance rides that "qualifies" you for longer rides, culminating in the grand daddy of all randonneur events, Paris-Brest-Paris, the ultimate painfest. Perhaps there's something to be gained by filtering out the casual riders from the longer events, but I'm not convinced by even that, as so many riders who have qualified do not finish. Since these rides are run over non-closed public roads, and do not offer support, who is to stop you from showing up and just riding it anyway? You could be the masked rider who swoops in without registration, without number, who stealthily rides the event, eschewing the corny certificate of completion, requiring no validation of his effort.

Herein we get to the crux of the matter, and it is the age old saw--people want to belong to a group. Whether you call it a "tribe," a club, a gang, or a congregation, people have this evolutionary attraction to organize together. It could be a Yankees cap, a NASCAR t-shirt, or a leather Harley jacket, but in this case, it's flèches and brevets. All the arcane rules and the controls make up the sacrifice component, recognized by prehistoric humans as being integral to getting buy-in by the group members and to hold their attention. There's no more effective way to get people to defend a group than to have them pay dearly to belong. What better way to get investment than to have a person give up his most prized possession, the finest of his flock, which, not incidentally, can serve as the basis for a feast? The odd thing about ultra-marathon cycling is that the people attracted to it are largely odd ducks who pride themselves on being different. Actions speak louder than words, folks!

I'll get my control card initialed by the sleepy clerk after trying to explain in 10 seconds or less why we're out in the middle of the night riding our bikes, perhaps in the rain, but it will only be for the good of the team. I'm in this for the experience and the true tradition of Velocio, in whose memory the flèche was originally designed. Velocio, the father of bicycle touring and inventor of the derailleur, organized a series of Easter rides in the 1930s in which readers of his magazine, le Cyclist, would converge on Provence for a happy picnic. The word flèche means arrow in French and the modern flèches are best ridden as fairly straight routes, converging on a common destination--our route is true to this concept. I'm confident Velocio had no thought or use for controls, only camaraderie. Salute, Velocio!