Blast From the Past: À la flahute

Originally posted on March 10, 2015 at 14:00 pm


Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #101, published in July 2003. Words by flexiflyer. Art by Rudi Nadler.

… I always lose my hours in the driver’s seat …

—Radar Bros. “Distant Mine”

The old-school guys were tough as hell. There were Flandrian diesels that rode 200 km a day, every day on the cobbles, in the wind, to the sea and back, etc. Training was riding … a lot, or à la flahute. Like wild geese. This was the early 1920s, so the roads weren’t stellar anyway and two gear selections (usually one fixed cog and one freewheel, sometimes both fixed cogs, always big-ass gears) via a flip-flop hub held fast with wingnuts was the technology of the time. Philippe Thys, although not from Flanders, is my favorite cyclist of all time. The first three-time Tour winner, he was a consistent long-haul specialist whose success—like Coppi’s—was stunted by a World War during his career. The simple bicycle served him well.

And me?

It’s pushing midnight and I just have to stop for a second. I swear. I clumsily trackstand, my front wheel awkwardly against a rock, and unclip. I then lean over the bars in the dead cold quietness and illuminate a fog of breath, pink-purple legs and a spot of rocky road with bluish LEDs. I cut off my light and look up to the cloudless sky—the full moon and stars are just unreal tonight even for this altitude. I could probably ride the pass without the light. It’s like being in an immense silent geodesic cathedral, with lights strung from random lengths of wire 180 degrees in every direction. All the snowcapped peaks are completely discernable in the glow, as is Hagerman Pass Road winding below me and along the opposite side of the valley filled by Turquoise Lake shimmering below. I can’t believe how lucky I am to see this by myself.

Earlier the previous day, tired of work and bike people in general, it was time to go. The route formed in my head. Escaping for a day or three would really hit the spot. Nothing beats a long, solo journey on the bike to reset the psyche to a more simplistic, benign state. Riding a fixed gear on such a ride just seems to augment the experience for me. As cliché as it sounds, there is an unadultered connection between rider and machine. You want to go fast? Pedal faster! Want to slow down? Pedal slower! It’s difficult to describe to someone that’s never tried it. It’s cycling in its purest form, as it existed before it got so seemingly complicated. You went somewhere on the bike from your door and then rode home. Then you got on with your life. The part in the middle was your reward. Pretty simple. Now the beauty of a two-wheeled journey seems subordinate in importance to the bicycle itself and its componentry.

Bicycle discussion forums are now jammed with brow-furrowed hand wringing, know-it-all edicts, smart-assed retorts, pretentious grandstanding, incessant training analysis and personal attacks all in the name of … well, I don’t know. It all seems a bit harsh and overanalyzed for the usual recreational riding, which usually entails that the bike and rider be trundled between the home base and the trailhead by a motor vehicle. I guess it’s the same on the Internet across the board, no matter the subject. The amount of jaw jacking someone does online about a certain activity is usually inversely proportional to the amount of time they spend doing the activity. Yeah, it’s a solid formula in my book.

Honestly, it was a pretty optimistic itinerary for as much as I’d been riding. Big time. When you don’t map things out concretely (meaning, you don’t take the time to do things like calculate mileage, consider the glut of climbing you’ve damned yourself to, or even try to estimate a time of completion), you judge your trip by the Faulkner-esque sentence you have to construct to describe your route to someone. Here goes:

“Yeah here through Buena Vista up to Leadville on pavement around Turquoise clockwise to Hagerman Pass Road onto dirt down to pavement and Thomasville or Meredith for some more fruit depending on when I get there then back up Fryingpan Road to dirt on FS 400 over Crooked Creek Pass past Sylvan Lake State Park down into Eagle via Brush Creek Road then over to Gypsum on US 6 then up Trail Gulch Road to Colorado River Road back around to 131 down to Wolcott then US 6 back to Eagle rejoining Brush Creek Road then riding home the way I came I’ll see you on Saturday.”

I mean, that has to be a paragraph without a punctuation mark in sight. Billy Faulkner would give me a high-five for that. My friend Scoty was, for once, speechless after listening to the rambling course notes. He summed it up with his usual three-syllable mantra: “Ho-lee-shit.” Yeah. It was well over 300 miles, lots of it dirt.

To me, nothing is more comical than making the commitment to travel by bicycle and then transform your steed into a rolling garbage barge full of racks, panniers, trailers, orange flags and 100 pounds of coddling “just-in-case” crap. Morphing a perfectly good bike into a two-wheeled wobbling junior RV-behemoth-supertanker does pretty detrimental things to your mobility.

Understanding the differences between “needs” and “preferences” is pretty important. Basic human needs are food, water and warmth. That ain’t much. I feel if you can’t carry your load on your back in a messenger bag or big backpack without crippling yourself, you got to ditch some stuff. There’s nothing wrong with being a little stinky or dirty. Folks in the Third World would roll their eyes and give each other elbows in the ribs over what we think we “need.” I dump the still-dingy-from-the-last-time contents of my XXL messenger bag onto the living room floor for the quick inventory:

  • Bivy sack
  • Emergency mummy bag (goes inside the bivy when really cold)
  • Small windproof tarp
  • Two LED headlamps (one for the helmet, one for backup and camp)
  • Pack of AAA batteries
  • Fleece clothes (socks, T-shirt, tights, pullover, hooded sweatshirt, gloves, hat)
  • Nylon rain jacket
  • Nylon rain pants
  • Cotton T-shirt
  • Cotton duck shorts
  • Running shorts
  • Tool roll bound by toe strap (multitool, tire lever, patches, spare length of chain)
  • Two spare tubes
  • Some zip-ties
  • Towelettes
  • Small vial of sea salt
  • Iodine
  • Two 96 ounce collapsible plastic canteens (water for long stints and camping)

I then toss the remaining stuff I’m missing into the mess:

  • Yoga mat (lashed to the outside of the bag, used for ground cloth)
  • Red flashers (clipped to outside of bag)
  • Big plastic bag of raisins, raw almonds and sea salt (emergency food)
  • Six bananas
  • Two water bottles
  • Wallet with $38.20, ID and ATM card
  • Frame pump that’s already on the bike
  • Wristwatch

It seems like a lot of stuff to me, especially compared to the old Tour guys, but I know I can ride indefinitely with the kit, provided I have money available for food and the occasional laundry trip to quell the stench. It takes just a minute to neatly reload the bag. I get dressed quickly—running shorts underneath some cotton duck work shorts, a T-shirt up top, cycling socks, recreational MTB shoes and helmet. It’s still really warm out. Bag on shoulder, out the door, water bottles on bike, mount up the fixie and pedal. Done deal. It’s now six o’clock at night.

Six hours and 80 miles later, I’m re-lit and remounting on Hagerman Pass Road after a short break to put on some warmer clothes and marvel at the sky. The 42×19 I’ve spun so quickly and easily from home, up U.S. 24 and through Leadville to the lower reaches of Hagerman, is infinitely harder on the steep, rough 4WD road. It takes garish body english to float and coax the bike over rock after rock. My line zigzags back and forth across the road before I finally skitter out on a rut, having to relent and dismount. Again, silence.

Pushing over the top of the pass at nearly 12,000 feet, the beauty is almost numbing. The moonlight is so freakishly bright —lighting up the green tundra and throwing shadows off the big gray stones. I quietly chew on a battered banana standing by the weathered wooden sign marking Hagerman Pass and the ubiquitous yellow and brown Continental Divide marker.

Turning off my light again, I allow my pupils to adjust to the surreal landscape … it slowly becomes brighter. My thoughts turn to guys like Thys, cresting a derelict goat track like this one in the dark over eighty years ago. I pull my headlamp off my helmet, stash it in my bag and clatter down the opposite side—hopping, skipping and dodging over big rocks and ruts, relying on giant pupils and moonlight to guide me below the treeline and into the abyss.

Those guys were rad … à la flahute. Like wild geese.

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