Events: Fleche Buffoon 2016
(2016) I could empathize with Phil Gaimon’s situation two weeks ago as I pulled into the parking lot for Kermesse Sports' final Spring Classic, a tribute to the Ardennes, the Fleche Buffoon. Racked with illness and injuries Garmin Cannondale decided to call Mr. Gaimon on the Wednesday before Paris- Roubaix to inform him he would be racing it. I’m sure that sounds exciting to those who would love to plow through the historic sectors and welcome the jiggle of cobbled vibration. There was one slight detail: Phil Gaimon is a skinny climber who stated he had never touched cobbles in training or racing except for a short stretch outside his house. I'm in no way implying I'm some cobbled specialist, but surely he must’ve felt out of his comfort zone. He even stated to forego the exploratory rides citing they would serve no benefit.
I was in Phil Gaimon’s playground on Saturday. I was about to embark on a seventy-five mile affair that neatly packed fourteen of the area’s most notorious climbs into one outing. It was the only Kermesse ride I hadn’t completed in all the years of their operation. Even though I’m a local, and thought I knew what I was in for, it turned out I was absolutely incorrect. I am a pudge. And pudges don’t climb economically. Fourteen climbs.
My partner in climbing today was another aforementioned ridekick, Josh, who had texted me earlier in the week to inquire whether I was doing the Fleche Buffoon. A short conversation later and he was registered along with the nearly 150 other band of climbers. Under partially sunny skies and perfect temperatures, we decided to roll out unceremoniously ten minutes in advance of the official start from Saint Martin of Tours Catholic Church on the fringes of New Hope, PA. We joked around like race announcers might call the Fleche Buffoon that we were the breakaway.
It took a few moments to get onto those famous Bucks County back roads. It’s quite the experience to roll down commons while spring works its way into full summer action. Color is everywhere. Rather quickly we hit our first climb.
The East Coast struggles to gain acceptance in just about every sport. Our “mountains” top out thousands of feet below base lodges out west. Therefore we do not have miles-long downhill runs. Our snowstorms are laughable to western states that have snowblowers capable of throwing snow higher than East Coast mountains. On the flipside one friend moved out west and said she missed green plants, having swapped them for the dry brown shrub of Colorado. The west typically lacks rain and humidity. It also lacks the violent-winding carriage roads. I’m fairly certain it lacks the Appalachian mountain topography complete with destructive gradients in short lengths. A recent Strava data number-crunching revealed East Coast riders weren't far behind West Coast riders in climbing. To attack these hills and have it in the vicinity of out West’s totals is nothing to scoff at. I wonder what a western rider would say of this event's collection of inclines.
We broke our legs in going up (dis) Comfort Road. It’s certainly not long- only half a kilometer. It averages 8%, but its initial welcoming wall juts up over 15% in some areas. It’s a nice little taste of what’s coming. Being a pudge, I enjoy the other half of Fleche Buffoon: the descents.
I kept Josh informed of what was coming next. The route unfolded in my mind, as I knew the stinger, Fretz Mill, was next. These climbs are great as stand-alone experiences; combining them is a new concept. We curiously approached Fretz Mill after passing through Carversville and rolled a fraction down Fleecy Dale Road, one of my favorites. We made the familiar awkward cindered-laden left turn and immediately went to work on the lower portion of Fretz Mill. I once led a group ride up this hill and one rider went over backwards pulling up so hard on the handlebars. According to Strava, the initial wall hits 30% for a brief moment (debatable). It was only the second climb and it gouged the legs. This climb has a longer satisfying descent down to the river town of Point Pleasant, PA.
Tohickon Hill Road into Stover Park Road combined to give riders an experience of mellower grinding climbs. Josh and I were going back and forth debating whether this was one climb or two. Upon completion we would be three (or four) climbs in. For the next few miles the route calmed down, although Bucks County roads are hardly flat and sympathetic. What now were little glancing blows of ramps would become mountains later in the ride. Even pedaling downhill would be reconsidered as the hills hammered our legs. Coasting would equal rest.
Around this time the lead group caught us. Josh and I pretended to be breakaway riders who conceded to being caught. Together we went into the next climb, a hidden ribbon of road through old forested land, attached to the group. We packed it in on Clay Ridge and the group scattered when a rider mid-pack had a mechanical on the steepest portion. Even the bikes were suffering. The leaders rode easily away from us at this point, which I surmised was completely ok. If we cooked ourselves trying to keep up, we would never survive the later climbs. I thoroughly enjoyed the long downhill back to the River for the time being.
The enjoyment was cut emphatically with the left turn onto one of the most anticipated and feared climbs of Fleche Buffoon. Uhlerstown Road, a hill I’ve focused on before, is a beast. It’s not long at over half a kilometer, but it packs an awful brutish resistance in that short time (which, not to believe everything you see, Strava states a 59% incline at one point). It does not want many riders to succeed on this climb. It would be prudent to hang Dante’s quote on the facade of the Uhlerstown Covered Bridge, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” to perfectly capture the mood of what follows. Strangely two cyclists were coming down the one-way seasonal hill, not something I've ever recommended (or seen).
I did Monkey Knife Fight in 2015 and was given advice to always give myself one extra gear on their climbs. That way I would be optimistic just a little longer. This same mentality came to play on Uhlerstown. I kept searching for a higher gear. I wanted to sit so badly but couldn’t. The bike’s front end would bob at each pedal stroke. Standing for the three-plus minutes was the only option. The bike lurched at each pedal down stroke. One rider disembarked halfway up and watched the procession of determination pass by. I chose not to look; I had enough to worry about. Normally it’s polite for riders to inquire whether a stopped cyclist is ok. That didn’t happen here. It’s not an option here either. He would re-mount his steed after I passed. I heard the sound of crunching machinery immediately thereafter. He must’ve fallen over trying to get back onto his bike. I couldn’t look behind without tempting the same fate. This climb hurt immensely. The hoods were squeezed tightly with each yank to impel the bike forward. Every solution to get to the top without putting a foot down was entertained. Too many cyclists were around to give audience the concept of a dismount.
Slowly the unbelievable begins to happen. The pedals turn slightly easier. The hill no longer continues to go remarkably up. Riders disappear over a crest. Faster now. This can continue. Houses show up. Almost to the gate. Other riders appear in shock as to what just happened. Josh and I continued on having successfully not put a foot down on the sixth climb.
At this point we were motivated by a coffee stop. Homestead General Store was a screaming descent away. We would cover a mile in fewer than two minutes. Making a hard right into their parking lot we peeled off the route to realize how many riders were close behind. We slid into the corner table where we met the Missus and talked about how the ride was going. There were large cycling groups behind Homestead going up or down the canal. Fleche Buffoon riders could be seen zipping by outside on the road. Participants even came in; we were particularly asked about our luck on Uhlerstown. With the gaggle of general stores on the route, visiting some is how the event should be approached.
Fully caffeinated by Dead Man’s Brew we returned to the course, this time in New Jersey. It is here we ascended Crab Apple Hill Road, a section I had never ridden before. It was a beautiful climb with rolling ascents. It also stands out in my mind because nearly every mailbox was destroyed on it in some way or other. We then began our descent back to the river signifying the approach of the second major climb.
I’ve never gone up Adamic Hill Road completely. In the vicinity of Shire, it is often pedaled past as an also-ran. Yet it is not any easier to slay. We approached a rider soloing up Adamic. As we passed I asked, “How’s it going?” He responded with something like, “Looking for another gear.” The climb has at least two switchbacks on it. Unlike Shire though, it gives the rider a proper break at the top. This is when the same rider passed me again, to whom I said, “Looks like you found that other gear.” Then two beautiful sites came into view.
The first site was anticipated. I told Josh about the dilapidated windmill at the top of Adamic Hill Road. The second was not anticipated but happily met in the form of a rest stop. One of Kermesse’s staff, Janine plus her trusty canine Reilly, manned the feedzone stating many riders had already come through. The sun had come out by this point and I had expedited my water intake, so this worked out perfectly. To stand in view of such a beautiful structure was a perfect way to prepare for the return trip. I told Josh the hardest climbs were bagged.
There we were buzzing down Milford Warren Glen Road. I love flying down this newly resurfaced and slightly downhill road. Yet today there was no power. I was beginning to wonder if I left enough effort in the legs for the final four climbs. We passed through the river town of Milford, NJ. Josh led the way. He took his hands off the bar to point left, which I mistook for asking to pull through. I didn't comprehend we were going back up already. The next climb came that unexpectedly. Back up we went. The conversations came to a halt for this slice of the event. I think deals were being made internally.
We descended into Frenchtown, complete with cyclists basking in the sun outside a coffee shop. Again we went back up, this time Horseshoe Bend Road, which required some cyclocross action to cross two barriers marking the recently closed bridge. Judging by the curious sign’s warning, it would seem a truck got wedged against the stone retaining walls and eliminated one, just like the sign predicted. The hill is its own experience; it is unique among the fourteen at having two descents within its gain. At the top we caught a break in a long beautiful descent, a road I had never taken before either.
We paralleled the Delaware River heading south. Cramps began to came upon me. There were two climbs remaining along with ten miles of riding. Tumble Falls Road tried to reach up and weigh us down. It seemed determined to have us quit or at least zap us of any remaining energy. We could have simply gone down Route 29, crossed the river onto River Road and would be back in New Hope with minimal climbing. That’s the challenge with the Fleche Buffoon, it could all be over so quickly, but we chose to keep going up. We took a small break at the top of Tumble Falls to collect ourselves before descending back down to the river and back into Pennsylvania.
We rest- stopped again, this time at Lumberville General Store. I could feel the closeness of the finish line, but even closer was the final climb. After a dosage of cola we were again heading south when the punchy Armitage Road made itself known. Josh put how he was feeling bluntly, “It’s a real bitch putting this in the final seven miles.” I secretly had my doubts of making it. Each muscle in each leg would cramp when I stood. I refused to believe the buckets of coffee dehydrated me. Most likely it was the IPAs the night before.
We let the legs unwind coming back into New Hope. The course had granted us mercy in the final miles, though the easy uphills felt like mountains today. We pushed into the finishing area in a slight state of shock once we realized it was all over. It was also a cause to celebrate topping all of the climbs without putting a foot down.
Checking in we were directed to the refreshments tent manned by Rubber Soul Brewing out of Salisbury, MD. They brought the perfect brews, one IPA and one cream ale. Their cream ale was aptly named Chamois Cream Ale. They were both great beers and exactly the way to end such a difficult ride. The warm temperature at the finish time made this the perfect relaxant.
I could sympathize with Phil Gaimon when I say I felt out of my targeted events by doing the Fleche Buffoon. On the ride home we both remarked how impressive it was to combine all of those climbs into one route. We were certainly exhausted, but it was an exhaustion that was the result of a satisfying effort. I will say that changing my perspective throughout the ride gave me a new appreciation. Perhaps it isn’t fourteen of the hardest climbs along the Delaware River. I think the Fleche Buffoon should rebrand itself as fourteen of the greatest descents, how you get to them are merely details.