Ride Report from Bob Macleod:
Of all Randonneurs ride formats, the Flèche is one of my favourites and each Spring I eagerly look forward to Flèche weekend. I got hooked in 2012 when on my first Flèche with Kathy Brouse, Stan Shuralyov and Fred Krawiecki, which was also my first event longer than 200kms. Based on that experience and others since, I’m convinced the Flèche is one of the best ways to introduce longer distances to those new to Randonneuring. Since cyclists on at least 3 of each team’s bicycles must finish together to successfully complete the event, the Flèche truly requires a team effort and provides an ideal nurturing learning experience for rookies, and I might add, an excellent early-season training event for veterans. It’s loosely structured, with simple rules to complete a minimum distance of 360km in a fixed 24h timeframe, with each self-organized team free to plan its own route to a common destination. In 2017, Randonneurs Ontario designated Barrie as its Flèche destination and fielded two Flèche teams, from Ottawa and Toronto/Huron (Hogtown Express). This is Hogtown Express team’s 2017 Flèche ride report.
Flèche rules (see Flèche rules link) require 3 to 5 bicycles per team, so a minimum of 3 cyclists on single rider bikes up to potentially 10 cyclists if all on 5 tandems. Given that at least 3 bikes must complete the whole distance for a team’s Flèche to be successful, planning for a team of 3 is risky and a full complement of 5 bicycles is preferred. I put a call out for Hogtown Express 2017 team-mates in February and our team as planned consisted of 6 cyclists on 5 bicycles: Andrea Ferguson Jones and Stephen Jones on their tandem, and Dick Felton, Bob Macleod, Erin Marchak and Joey Schwartz on singles. As things played out on event day, Erin and Joey both had unexpected work commitments, so Andrea, Stephen, Dick and I started out on our 3 bicycles, fingers crossed.
In addition to recruiting team members, planning for Hogtown Express’s 2017 Flèche focused on route design. Stephen and I, with feedback from others on the team, collaborated closely on key design decisions. We wanted to make this early-season experience enjoyable and reasonably achievable, so decided to keep total distance under 400km and climbing reasonably humane. After mapping out various alternatives, we agreed on a route northbound out of Markham to pass eastward of Lake Simcoe into Muskoka before looping back southbound to the destination in Barrie (see Hogtown Express 2017 Flèche Route link). In early May, allowing time for final route changes before registration deadline 2 weeks before the event, I test drove the overnight section of the route to personally confirm road conditions and overnight food services. Incidentally, in addition to using Ride With GPS as our route design tool, we drafted a Control Plan spreadsheet to assess and refine route leg lengths and target times for rest stop arrivals and departures. Since the only formal timed controls on a Flèche are Start, 22-hour and 24-hour points, with no single stop to exceed 2-hours, it’s up to each team to carefully manage rest stop departure times to ensure its objectives are achievable. I find a detailed Control Plan to be a useful tool during route design and also for time-management during the event.
In late May, overnight temperatures often drop into the low single-digits, so a key Flèche planning requirement is to identify indoor overnight rest stops with food services. Based on Hogtown Express’s route, this meant careful assessment of overnight services in Beaverton (eta 10:00pm), Orillia (eta 12:30am) and Port Carling (eta 6:00am). As it happens, Tim Horton’s was the only viable option in each of these locations. With an overnight low of 3C during the event, we were grateful for the indoor rest stops.
Another key planning consideration for each team is start time, since Flèche rules permit starts from Fri 6pm to Sat 10am. This decision clearly has a big impact on the ride for various reasons, not least of which is expected arrival time at overnight rest stops. Stephen and I have both experienced Fri-evening and Sat-morning starts on previous Flèches and after a short discussion, we agreed to propose a Fri 6pm start. An evening start would enable riding the overnight section of the route while still relatively fresh, but also meant we’d arrive in Barrie early enough to socialize over a meal with other teams and to get a good sleep Saturday night. A secondary objective for Hogtown Express was to arrive at Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve before pre-dawn for some spectacular star-gazing, assuming clear sky of course. We polled Hogtown Express and the Ottawa Chapter’s Flèche team and all agreed with a proposed Sat 6pm arrival time in Barrie, so the Fri 6pm start time for Hogtown Express 2017 was set in the plan.
Water levels were an additional concern this year. With flooding and record water levels throughout the Great Lakes Basin and St Lawrence Valley, it was top of mind in April and May when we were finalizing our plan. When driving the overnight section of the route in early May, I found that while many farmer’s fields were completely inundated, lakes and canals at flood level, and rivers and streams raging torrents, the roads on the route were in good condition except for some debris in remote areas. So, assuming conditions didn’t worsen, it looked like the event wouldn’t be adversely affected by high water levels. Still, given all the extra standing water in prime mosquito breeding season, I brought extra fly repellent with me on the ride. It turned out to be too cold overnight for mosquitoes or black flies, so we dodged that special kind of torment, but when we stopped for a celebratory picture at 6pm Saturday, a cloud of hungry flies swarmed us within seconds – it made for a very brief picture stop!
Our route to Barrie, starting in Markham at 6pm Fri, took us 395km with 3,121m ascent through a number of beautiful geographic zones (see Hogtown Express 2017 Flèche Route link): the rolling hills and meadows of Oak Ridges Moraine, the flat plain bordering Lake Simcoe’s east shore, the rising plateau north of Lake Simcoe, the southern perimeter of 2.5 billion year old Precambrian Shield bordering lakes Muskoka, Joseph and Rosseau, and finally the relatively flat Lake Simcoe north-shore on final approach into Barrie. A site of interest on the route was Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve on Southwood Rd (CR13) at 181km, which promised unparalleled star gazing should we arrive to a dark clear sky. Six rest stops were planned, being Beaverton (80km), Orillia (127km), Pt Carling (210km), Windermere Rd / CR4 (242km), Bala (281km) and Orillia (350km). Flèche rules require at least 25km to be cycled in the final 2 hours with minimum 360km total distance, so the team would need to pace itself to arrive at its 22-hour control (Sat 4pm) between 335km (Cambrian Rd inbound to Orillia) and 370km (Ridge Rd at Hawkestone).
The north-south road network between Huronia north of Lake Simcoe and Muskoka is extremely limited, as I’m sure Simcoe-Muskoka Chapter route planners are painfully aware. Given that Highways 11 and 400 are neither legal nor safe for bicycles, Southwood Rd / CR13 is the only centrally located north-south road between Orillia and Bala, with bike friendly north/south alternatives being far to the west (~22km west of Orillia) and east (Housey’s Rapids Road / CR6, ~25km east of Orillia). Given that Hogtown Express’s Flèche route used this road twice, northbound and southbound, it accounted for 68km (17%) of total route distance. Should it suffer from pop-up construction or flood damage anywhere along its length, the ride could be significantly affected, and if impassable for any reason, detours are so distant that Hogtown Express’s 2017 Flèche would be finished.
After meeting for a hearty pre-ride meal at Main’s Mansion in Markham, Andrea, Stephen, Dick and I departed as planned at 18:00 Friday, with temperature a comfortable 17C and wind not a significant factor. We cycled northeast over the beautiful rolling hills of Oak Ridges Moraine and then the relatively flat plain beyond to our first stop in Beaverton (80km), arriving in darkness at 21:55 to a noticeable chill in the air. Cottage-country bound traffic was a steady stream on the few northbound main roads we used, but not as heavy as I had feared it would be.
Departing Beaverton, we continued along the relatively flat northeast shore of Lake Simcoe, with a short delay to bypass road construction exiting Beaverton. There’s a sudden sharp 55m climb approaching Orillia’s north end, which as we approached our rest stop felt particularly dramatic after the 70km flat run from the Oak Ridges Moraine. It marked the beginning of a steady climb into Muskoka’s granite highlands. It was uncomfortably cold when we arrived at our rest stop in Orillia (127km) at 00:47 Sat morning, 17m behind plan. We greatly appreciated the opportunity for a warm rest, but Tim’s had shut down their grill at midnight, so no soup or warm food was available, a bit of a disappointment. But of course, we made the most of our chance to warm up, eat and rest. As we set out from Orillia, temperature still falling, we were grateful no rain was in the forecast and the wind was light.
Shortly after leaving Orillia, we encountered construction on Division Rd E for about 1.5km, a slippery deep coarse gravel that shifted under our wheels and tore at our tires in the dark. Fortunately, we got through without incident, grateful to be again riding on firm road surface.
The next leg of the route from Port Stanton on Sparrow Lake to Torrance on Hwy 169 near Bala, is one of my favourite rides in Ontario. Southwood Rd / CR13 rolls and winds through magnificent forest, wetlands and granite ridges for 34km of mostly unsettled country. Traffic is very light and, being a challenging road to drive, drivers are alert and speeds low. In early morning hours, when we now cycled this leg of the route, traffic was almost non-existent – a cyclist’s paradise! As we rode through the Torrance Barrens in darkness, we were greeted by a loud distinctive bird-call every 100m or so along the roadside – I haven’t discovered yet what type of bird it is, but it was a perfect otherworldly musical accompaniment to our overnight ride.
Andrea and Stephen pulled ahead on Southwood Rd, hoping to arrive at Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve (181km) before pre-dawn light degraded the stargazing brilliance. Also, the temperature was now 3C, so they picked up the pace on the tandem to try to generate a bit of warmth. Dick and I arrived shortly after they departed the Preserve trailhead, twilight spreading in the eastern sky and only brighter stars now visible. In the middle of this darkened remote rugged landscape, the small rocky parking lot at the Preserve’s trailhead was packed full of silent parked cars. Who knew there were so many committed stargazing enthusiasts? We pressed on quickly, but were soon stopped again at a railroad crossing for at least 10m by what seemed an endless freight train travelling northbound at high speed.
We pulled into Port Carling (210km) at 06:15, still only 15m off plan, but everyone was cold and weary. Dick was feeling bad and having difficulty eating. He was training for the June 4 Comrades 87km ultra-marathon in South Africa, so I’m sure that was a significant drain on his energy level. We warmed ourselves, napped and ate as best we could, before pressing on about 07:40, now 40m off plan.
The next 72kms of the route, with almost 900m of climbing to Windermere / Raymond Rd (242km) and Bala (282km), was by far the most challenging of the ride. Tired from the cold overnight ride and grinding up the steep grades northeast of Pt Carling, I was questioning the wisdom of bringing the route this way on a supposedly easygoing Flèche. Dick was feeling very bad physically and I was grimly hanging on, so I fully expected to DNF at any point. Andrea and Stephen doggedly set the pace and shadowed us through the most difficult parts. We arrived in Bala at noon, an hour off plan, but still an achievable time. We had 4 hours remaining to achieve our 4:00pm 22-hour control within the minimum distance, which was 53km outbound from Bala.
At this point in Bala, Dick was concerned about making the 22-hour control, so he chose to immediately press on, with Andrea, Stephen and I following 45m later after resting over lunch. The southbound daylight ride on Southwood Rd / CR13 was the most enjoyable of the Flèche for me, with beautiful remote forest blanketed with white trilliums, rolling and winding terrain, and very little traffic. I felt great and the struggles of that morning faded with every passing moment – it’s amazing to me what a difference a few hours can make on a long-distance event. We were all mindful of the 22h control objective, so couldn’t linger, and rode independently to make the best possible time. We had planned for the lead riders to hold in place before 4:00pm to allow those following to catch up, so we regrouped approaching Orillia about 3:45pm and continued to 4:00pm, where we marked our distance at 340km – 22h control objective achieved!
Pressing on together now, we took a brief rest in Orillia (350km) before continuing toward Barrie along the north shore of Lake Simcoe, very familiar to all of us from our many Simcoe-Muskoka Chapter rides. At 6:00pm, as we entered Hawkestone (369km), Andrea, Stephen, Dick and I stopped for a celebratory picture, graciously taken by a passing cyclist, before swarming flies drove us to mount up and press on for the remaining 26km to Barrie, another successful Flèche experience to remember fondly.
The Ottawa team, made up of Guy Quesnel, Peter Grant, David Hamilton and Alan Ritchie, was waiting for us when we arrived in Barrie, having also successfully completed their Flèche. We all shared a well-deserved meal at the Mandarin close to our hotel, my mind already racing in anticipation of Flèche 2018!
RO’s 2018 Flèche, scheduled for May 18-19, targets Blue Mountain Village on the Niagara Escarpment near Nottawasaga Bay, enabling a huge scope of possible interesting routes from far and wide across the province. Given that the Flèche is, 1) a fun social cycling challenge, 2) a great early-season training opportunity for Rando veterans, and 3) an ideal introduction to longer distances for those new to the sport, I’d like to throw out a couple of simple challenges:
- To veteran members, I propose that each of us resolve, where feasible, to either organize, join or assist an RO 2018 Flèche team, and to take the opportunity to encourage one or more rookies to join each team where possible.
- To cyclists who are relatively new to Randonneuring and curious about riding longer distances or riding a team event like the Flèche, I encourage you to set aside May 18-19 on your calendar and seek out a Flèche team to join in 2018. It’ll be an amazing experience!
RO typically fields 2-3 Flèche teams each year, but I believe we have potential to field at least 5 or more. It would be totally awesome to have an overflow crowd of Rando’s gather at Blue Mountain Village next May 19. I hope to see you there!
2017 Hogtown Express Team