The planning for the Fleche started off in March when the discussion for the team began to take shape. A group was formed and with more than a month to go we had about 10 members in the group. As the date for the Fleche neared the team members began to drop out. We could have formed 2 teams at the beginning, however, with the dropouts we were looking at no team. I was able to confirm my availability very late on account of dates for hockey matches being published only on 10 April 2018. As soon as I got to know that I could ride, I confirmed and we had two riders in the team, Raghu and me. We needed a minimum of 3 riders to form the team. Swamy said that Rafi and Meera were interested in riding the Fleche, Raghu spoke to them and confirmed their participation. We had a team, 4 members, although we would have liked to have one more member, I was happy that we had a team and would be able to ride.
Fleche is a brevet, however it is different from brevets in the sense that it is a team event. The requirement is to ride a minimum of 360 kilometers in 24 hours, in which we have to ride a minimum of 25.6 kilometers in the last two hours. We select the route that we want to ride and mark the control points, only the finish point is common and we have to finish at the designated location.
The Fleche was being conducted by Madras Randonneurs and we had 3 teams participating from Bangalore. The finish point was given as MSP Plantations office near the Yercaud base. As the requirement was to ride 25.6 kilometers in the last two hours, the thought process was to have this section in easy terrain and not to involve any climbs. The route that we decided on was Bangalore – Palamaner – Gudiyattam – Krishnagiri – Salem. On first thought this was an easily doable route since there are no climbs involved and further it is a general downward gradient. Although the requirement was 360 kilometers, the route that was decided was 378 kilometers. The additional kilometers looked like an easy task as we were going to be riding in familiar roads and in downhill gradient.
Rafi and Meera, are Super Randonneurs (SR) and have completed an SR on a tandem bike, their list of achievements on the riding front is long and this would be a leisure ride for them, however not having ridden in 2018 and being the first long ride of the year for them, it was posing a small challenge. Raghu, is a super fast rider and it was going to be a difficult ask from him to ride ‘only’ 378 kilometers in 24 hours (after having clocked 550 kilometers in 24 hours).
As soon as the team was finalised, the discussion about the ride was started. Registration process was done by Raghu, we got lucky with the return from Salem since a team from Bangalore dropped out and Alok was kind enough to offer the Winger to us which we took without blinking an eyelid. The team was confirmed and the return was taken care off. Practice rides were done separately by the riders with the exception of Raghu who was recovering from a bout of illness.
As the ride day approached, we got ready for the ride. The limiting factors for this ride were that we had not ridden together and we knew that all of us ride at different speeds. As such, getting all of us to ride together would be a difficult task. The next point of difference was the nutrition, Meera and Rafi are accustomed to nutrition gels and take small breaks as rest stops, Raghu has a few gels, but it dependent on local food as the main energy source and I am completely dependent on local food for energy. Getting a proper mix of speed and nutrition breaks were the main issues for the ride and the distance of the ride was not even looked at as it was not a matter of concern for any of us.
A total of 24 teams had registered for the event. There was a lot of chopping and changing in the team composition and a few teams dropped out as well. Only when the organisers started approving the route, we realised that it is a cumbersome process. As we were three teams from Bangalore and all of us were riding the same route, we did not sweat over the route, Alok was very helpful as he plotted the route with the control points and we piggy backed on his route. The only catch was that we had to have a 1 hour gap between the teams start time. Guru’s team was starting at 6:00 am, Alok’s at 5:00 am and we had to take 4:00 am.
The registration formalities were completed, the route had been approved, return was taken care of, only completing the ride was remaining.
I was up at 2:30 am, got ready and started for the start point at 3:15 am. I reached at 3:50 am, Meera and Rafi came by in 2 minutes. Raghu was delayed as he had a puncture and came by at 4:15 am. We quickly took the photo and started the ride at 4:17 am.
The ride started slowly and we picked up speed gradually. The initial time was spent getting to know each other as we were meeting for the first time and warming up. We covered 20 kilometers in the first hour which was decent considering that we had started slowly. As the clock ticked towards 6:00 am and the light began to improve, we could see dark clouds hovering above, however the clouds were mostly behind us and we could see clear skies ahead. There was a slight drizzle and I made a quick stop to pack the phone, however, it was an unnecessary halt as the rain threat petered out. The pleasant weather along with the improved visibility had us pedaling pretty quick and we were happy to have completed 40 kilometers of the ride. So happy that we took a break at Coffee Day near Narsapura and before we knew it 30 minutes passed by. In spite of taking a long break, we were not unduly worried as it was easy terrain and we had a lot of time on hand to make it to the first control point.
When we restarted, the drizzle had abated. As we got closer to Kolar, the roads were wet and we had missed the shower. It was good to have missed the shower, however, the spray from the wheels was making me uncomfortable as I was wary of a saddle sore. Fortunately, the wet roads did not last too long and we made it past and entered the dry zone.
There was a good cloud cover which kept the Sun at bay. The heat was not much, as a result of which our pace did not suffer. The average pace was hovering around the 23-25 kmph range and we made good progress. We had a good one hour of riding before we began to feel the hunger pangs bite. The restaurant was around 5-6 kilometers away and the ride to the restaurant was a little stretch since the pace was beginning to drop.
We stopped at Saravana Bhavan near Mulbagal and had a sumptuous breakfast. It was a relaxed break and we were not worried about the clock. I had a masala dosa while the others had idli vada and coffee. Refilled on water and a nice chat and we got going.
We had to stop within a couple of kilometers of restarting as Raghu had forgotten his bag at the restaurant and had to return. Fortunately the bag was still at the restaurant and Raghu was relieved that he had not lost it. We restarted the ride and made steady progress towards the Karnataka border. The Sun was out and the heat was beginning to rise. Riding was becoming difficult and the water was being used quickly. We stopped for sugarcane juice at the last town in Karnataka and had a 15 minute break here.
We crossed the border in a short while. After we crossed the border, road widening was in progress and we had a tough time riding here as the traffic was heavy and also impatient. Buses and trucks pushed us off the road and also came directly onto us. It was a rather difficult time and we were happy to see the first Control Point. We reached at 10:55 am. By the time we congratulated each other for having reached the control point and took the pic to upload it was 11:00 am. Right opposite was a store with juice, coconut water and watermelon. We took a break as we had a huge buffer. The control point opened at 10:30 am and we had reached within 25 minutes of it opening. We had a 1.5 hour buffer. 127 kilometers completed in 7 hours when we had 8.5 hours for the same.
We refilled water and had refreshments and by the time we restarted the ride, 30 minutes had passed. It was 11:30 am, the buffer was down to an hour, we were not worried as the next section was going to be the easiest since we had a downhill coming up. We reached Palamaner town and took the right towards Gudiyattam. We were off the highway and onto empty interior roads. The road surface was not good, at the same time it was not bad either. We had to stop for a short while when we realised that Rafi had left his water bottles at the store and purchased a couple of water bottles as replacements.
I had expected a downhill almost immediately when we exited Palamaner, however, we were riding in rolling terrain and the ghat did not arrive. In a few kilometers we reached the forest area and crossing it was not exciting as there were no animals around. A small stop as we passed a lake just before we exited the forest gate.
The ghat arrived after the forest gate and we were beginning to pick up steam when Raghu had a puncture. We stopped and carefully replaced the tube which took about 25 minutes. We were reminded by Rafi and Meera that we should take only 10 minutes to fix a puncture and taking 25 minutes is too long. When we resumed we passed by a beautiful view of the valley and then raced downhill. We crossed over to Tamil Nadu and when we were done with the downhill we were welcomed by roads lined with trees which shielded us from the wrath of the Sun. We were able to ride quickly here as the heat was not a factor and made a stop at a petrol bunk to wash up as we had dirty hands after fixing the puncture. The wash break took 20 minutes and we got back on the saddle.
We were 10 kilometers from Gudiyattam. It was 1:00 pm. The plan was to get to Gudiyattam and have lunch before resuming. The lunch break would cut the time that we spend riding in peak afternoon heat. However, when we reached Gudiyattam, it was a small town and we were not convinced with stopping here for lunch. We opted instead to have bananas and refill water and ride to Ambur to stop for lunch.
The decision to ride ahead seemed to be a good one as we would reach the control point at Ambur with a sufficient buffer and would have sufficient food options. However, things did not go as per plan. We were 10 kilometers from Ambur, when Raghu suffered another puncture. This time the side wall of the tire was damaged. We were close to a puncture shop and were told that the tire is in an irrepairable state and that he would not be able to help. We requested him to fix a puncture patch on the side wall and said that it would hold. While he fixed the puncture patch to the tire, we swapped the front tire to the back and then fixed the repaired tire to the front. We inflated the tubes to 80 psi, Raghu usually rides with tires at 100 psi. We hoped that it would hold and got ready to restart the ride.
Replacing the tires in energy sapping heat on low energy reserves took a huge toll. Further, it had eaten into the buffer that we had and we had to ride fast to make it to the Ambur control in time. We had 60 minutes to ride the 10 kilometers, however, the concern was not that we would not be able to make it in time, the concern was that we would not be able to have lunch as the next segment was going to be the difficult part of the ride and we needed to have a buffer for that section. We rode hard and made it to Ambur in 25 minutes, uploaded the pic for having reached the control point, made a quick stop where Meera and Rafi shared a fried ride, I had a quarter portion of chicken biriyani (parceled the rest) and juice and Raghu had a Samosa and juice.
We rode quickly when we restarted as the gradient was even and riding was easy although we passed through a crowded Ambur town and had a problem with negotiating our way through traffic. There were cross winds which slowed us down a little, however, we were riding well and were making up for the lost time. However, the puncture had cost us on two fronts, one that we had to ride in the peak heat longer than we had expected and we had not had a proper lunch. We stopped at a Cafe and had milk shake and resumed hoping that the milk shake will provide sufficient energy to keep us going till the next control point which was at Krishnagiri.
The Sun had begun its descent when we restarted the ride. I was hoping that the body would start to recover and riding would become easy. The pace was steady, neither fast nor too slow. We had to make a stop near Vaniyambadi to refill water and resumed riding. Since the pace was good we were building a buffer and the outlook was positive for the ride. There were signs of tiredness setting in, however, we were able to take short breaks to keep going. We were closing in on Krishnagiri when hunger began to take over. We took a break during which time Rafi ate the remaining biriyani, I was happy as it was weight off my back. We made a stop for tea and refilling water 12 kilometers from Krishnagiri. We were 14 kilometers from the Control Point at Krishnagiri and had 1.5 hours to do it. Comfortably placed on the time front.
We rode steadily towards Krishnagiri and picked up speed as we got close to Krishnagiri as we were in a fast rolling section and passed a slew of Saravana Bhavan hotels before reaching the Saravana Bhavan which was our control point. It was 8:50 pm when we reached and we had made it with 40 minutes in hand. We went in to Saravana Bhavan to have dinner. We ate well to make up for the lunch which we had missed and took 40 minutes for dinner.
It was 9:30 pm when we restarted. We had to ride 80 kilometers to get to the next control point and had 4.5 hours to do it. This required us to ride at 20 kmph. This was one aspect which had been overlooked, the other control points had an average speed requirement of 15 kmph, however only this section required us to ride at 20 kmph. We did not realise this when we restarted from Krishnagiri. It was very windy and we were in relaxed mode as it was downhill gradient. We tried to draft to conserve energy and to take shelter from the wind but it was an unsuccessful attempt since our speeds were not synced in spite of riding for the whole day. We had ridden about 10 kilometers when we began to pass riders from other teams who had stopped for dinner. Our pace did not pick up and it was only getting slower when we stopped for tea.
While sipping on tea we realised that we had fallen behind on the time front and we had to cover 65 kilometers in 3 hours. We had to ride at 22 kmph average to make it to the next control point. There was a little unrest when we realised that we had to ride hard to make it, however, everyone was determined to make it and it showed when we restarted the ride and began to ride quickly. The pace was up or so it seemed since we had been riding very slow before the break, the small increase in pace felt like we were flying. Realised that we were still slow when we were passed by a host of riders from other teams just as we entered the Dharmapuri bypass. We were just under the required average since the average speed requirement to get to the control point had edged up to 23 kmph when we entered the by pass.
Having ridden on this route I knew that we could make up for the time in the downhill ghat as well as the downward gradient after the ghat. However, it was imperative that we continue to ride till the ghat at the same speed if not more. However, doubts were beginning to creep into the minds of Meera and Rafi who were pushing hard and still not seeing the results on the time front. They were pushing hard in spite of being tired and it took a lot of effort for them to keep going as this was their first long ride of the year. The bypass took forever to get over and it was a stretch mentally to keep going, however, by the time we got to the end of the bypass we had ridden strongly and had brought the required speed down to 20 kmph, however a couple of short breaks to recover from the effort edged it over the 20 kmph mark again making it a tight run thing.
It was a relief to get to the ghat and we sped down hill. It was risky as the visibility was not great for the speed that we were riding at, however we had to do it to make up a little time to be able to get past the 2 kilometer short climb after the ghat. Just as we made it downhill, it got very windy which slowed us down further and the short climb seemed like more like climbing a hill. When we made is past the climb, we had to ride 10 kilometers and had 25 minutes for it. Still a close run thing given that the wind was slowing us down.
We increased the speed and were helped by the downhill gradient and rode very quickly and were able to sustain the speed in spite of having tired minds and bodies and made it to the Control Point with 3 minutes to spare. We were overjoyed to have made it in time, however I guess the feeling which was accentuated at this point was relief.
We had 2 hours to complete the remaining 31 kilometers, given that we had ridden at 20 kmph over the past 4 hours, riding at 15.50 kmph for the remaining 2 hours seemed to be a very easy ask. We got rather complacent about it and took it a little too easy to start with. The effort to get to the previous control point had drained our energy reserves and also the water. We had to stock up on both. We stopped at a bakery to refill water and had a couple of biscuits to get going. However, time was flying and the average speed required was almost 20 kmph by the time we restarted.
We rode quickly again and made the most of the easy gradient until we crossed the Salem toll after which we get into rolling terrain for a few kilometers. These kilometers the speed was slow and we did not recover from the lethargy that had set in, mentally we had completed the ride when we reached Salem town and made slow progress inside town. When we took the turn towards Yercaud, we still had about 4 kilometers to get to the base and riding the last few kilometers is always painful since the body does not want to listen to the mind anymore.
A few painful kilometers later we reached the end control and the time when we reached was 4:00 am, on the dot. We rushed to click the pic and upload it. At the previous control I had thought that it could not get closer than 3 minutes to spare, however, making it to the end control on the dot was stretching the luck a little too much. The only difference was that for the previous control we were riding hard and were aware that we were short on the time front, however, for the end control we were oblivious that we were running short of time and probably on another day might have fallen short as well as we had not looked at the time.
We were very happy to have completed the ride and headed to the place where the organisers had made arrangements for rest which was just 400 meters away. The Winger had not reached when we reached the resort and as we did not have clothes to change into we opted to catch up on rest. We parked the cycles and chose a spot on the lawn under the Shamiana near the fan and went to sleep. I woke up at 7:00 am and saw that all the riders from the various teams had arrived. Further, Alok’s team had arrived and had freshened up as well. There was a queue for the bathroom as well. We got our bags from the Winger and waited for our turn to freshen up. Got ready, submitted the brevet card and then loaded the cycles onto the Winger and headed out of Salem. We stopped for breakfast near Saravana Bhavan and then made the short journey back home as we recollected the ride stories with Alok’s team.
It was a different experience to be riding in a 4 member team. I can think about all the advantages which riding in a team will bring about like saving energy on account of drafting, moral support, safety and so on. However, it takes time to set the team dynamics and riding with the group is essential, especially in a group where the riders have different temperaments. It is essential that the ride speed is in sync to be able to maximise the gains from a team ride.
In our case, it was 4 individuals who had not ridden as a group. We came together on the ride day and it was clear that we had our differences, however each person worked towards the common goal of completing the ride and overcame the obstacles that came our way. We worked together to motivate each other and achieved the task which we set out to do, which was to complete the ride within the set parameters.
We did come close to breaking point while riding to the penultimate control, however we stuck together as a group and managed to pull through as a team to reach the control in time. The section from Krishnagiri to Thoppur is the section which was the highlight of the ride for me, as this was a segment when we were fighting against the clock and in spite of being tired kept pushing each other to make it to the control in time. The sense of relief and elation of having reached the control was overwhelming and to have achieved it as a group rather than as individuals was very satisfying.
First Female Fleche Finisher
Hats off to Rafi and Meera for pushing so hard and completing the ride in spite of not having ridden during the year. They were exceptional in the way they paced themselves to complete the ride. Raghu was his usual brilliant self, a strong and fast rider who was always there for the team and his constant updates about the time and distance remaining kept us on our toes.
I would like to thank Alok Shrotri for helping us with the route and selecting appropriate control points which were very helpful as they invariably were refreshment points and easily identifiable. Further, he helped with the transport for the return which was very helpful as we did not fancy riding back to Bangalore after the event which had left us physically and mentally exhausted.