Look, mum; it’s fruit and cake.
. A single-speed 200km brevet story
I am often times asked “why” by many people I come into contact with, concerning cycling. Many folks can see someone riding a few dozen miles for fitness, and calling it a day – but the idea of riding over 100 on purpose gets stuck in the ‘goofy’ file. For every one of ‘me’, there are countless others that approach cycling from a far different perspective. Perhaps it has something to do with my obsessive nature, or some other personality flaw, that has made me forever destined to question if I am dedicated enough to this sport I have come to love. Some other twitch in my soul that would not let my first 12 mph ride on the bike trails be ‘enough’. Something powerful that turned bad habits into history, poor diet into something I ‘used to do’. I may never know what it is, but it drives me. There is not a single day that passes that I don’t look at my training programme, my bicycle, my gear, my whole approach and wonder “is this good enough?, is this right?” This, over the past six months, has driven me to try bolder, newer things and has rekindled a fire within me once again – a fire of discovery on a mental level and a physical level – places I have not been since I first departed that shaky road ride with Shorty nearly seven years ago.
Back then, on a bone-stock Schwinn Passage, wearing tennis shoes and toe-straps, a cheap helmet and with very little fitness, the nervous twitch was first felt. During that 20-some mile ride, I went thru mile after mile of self-analysis, self-doubt, wondering if I would finish alive, wondering if I would have enough water, wondering if I’d be able to walk the next day. After that, those feelings began to subside. With training, I became faster year over year, and some of the old challenges, while still fun, were not the same challenges they had been the first time I’d faced them. I was becoming a confortable and confident rider. This is what has driven me to start seeing what I could do with less.
After a couple years of commutes to and from work on a single-speed platform, I began to wonder what else I could pull off with only one gear. I showed up at a few training rides that way, short rides just to see if I could hang in. Sometimes I was wrong, other times I was right there in the group – it just depended on the situation. Legs to legs, if one guy has 53x12 at his disposal and I only had 42x17, there is a good chance he’d be able to outgun me on the flats and downhills. That’s a given. For me, it was about survival. It was about showing up back at the parking lot with my pride intact, and a decent average speed to show for it, at the very least. I pushed the boundaries in solo training, taking the single speed out to 70-mile days with only a few stops, and finally decided to try a full century on the single-speed at last years MS-150, with great success. In fact, I was not much slower than I had been on a geared bike, which only proved to me one of two things: either gears are really inefficient, or I’m really inefficient when it comes to using gears. Or, in the end, it all averages out. Your weapon of choice either makes it easier, or harder.
I still currently keep a geared bike in the garage for those weekends where I really want to ride fast – because, face it: around here I COULD average over 20 MPH on a single gear, but I wouldn’t be able to climb anything steeper than my driveway. After much experimentation, I finally found a gear ratio that allows me to stay in a group if I want, but not pop a kneecap on hills. Even still, after that successful MS-150 campaign, it was becoming clear that cycling for me was taking on a whole other dimension – I was taking the good, geared bike out a LOT less – even once considered turning IT in to a single-gear. Some people have to add to gain – for me; I was gaining by taking away. Suddenly, the excuses and second-guessing began to fade, leaving nothing but pure, simple cycling in their wake. It was no longer about being in the wrong gear, having the wrong tires, or having too heavy a stem, too much in the seat bag or some other silliness I used to subscribe to – even though it was putting more pressure on ME, it was exciting knowing that if I couldn’t climb that next hill, it had nothing at all to do with the bike. Something about that purity has gotten me closer within reach of what makes me, ME. I’m not saying that single-speed is for everyone, but for me on a lot of levels it was starting to become ‘what I do’, instead of just another bike in the garage just for nasty weather rides. Cycling, invariably, was FUN with only one gear.
Riding on this wave of new discovery, I decided to take it up another notch, and cross over into that fringe of extremism. Why not? Everyone I talk to at work seems to think I’m a nut anyways for cycling at ALL, especially to-and-from work everyday – but you come to expect that as a cyclist: people who don’t bike will think you are nuts. With a single-speed, some people that DO bike will think you are nuts. Start talking about brevets and 125+ mile rides, and people stop talking to you altogether – you become that wacko in the corner mumbling to yourself and eating wafers at the club banquet. I dunno. Could happen.
So arrives the annual 200km brevet – a fabulously run event hosted by local RBA Bob Burns (interested? Check out www.rusa.org). For those NOT nuts, a ‘brevet’ is a French-style ride that is basically a timed-tour. It’s not really a race against anyone but yourself and a clock – a nice, slow clock that allows you to take your time and ‘enjoy’ the day’s ride. Many people treat these ‘shorter’ brevets as races, and I’m no exception, once finishing fast enough that I was technically disqualified because I checked in too soon – the time windows work both ways, you see. No real benefit to riding these rides fast, but many still try for a PR. Adding to the ‘fun’, the local 200km event boasts nearly 8,000 feet of climbing for the day, over countless rural hills scattered between Liberty, Plattsburg and Platte City, Missouri. Because of the terrain, the clock against which the ride is set suddenly becomes more critical as you have to maintain a certain pace, or you risk coming back to the finish too late, after all the hills have taken their toll. Invariably, cyclists tackling this for the first time realize that they did not drink enough, did not eat enough, did not bring the right gears, to this ride. It’s a brutal day on a bike with any number of gears. For some reason, this year, I got the delusion that I would try it with ONE.
The parking lot was alive with conversation, bicycle comparison, revivals of old friendships carved in pavement – people whose only knowledge of each other lies within the confines of these extreme challenges. People from all states, desperate for a challenge to start their season, have driven in to take part. The bikes often tell the tale of their pilots – over there, fenders, racks, lights, reflective tape – the randonneur riders are here. Over there are thin tires, carbon fiber meshed to aluminum, matching shorts and jerseys, aero-bladed spokes, stuffed pockets and small saddle packs – the racers are here to build their spring base. Come one, come all – this is going to be a good day. With temperatures hovering near 40º and sunshine in the east, the organizer calls everyone together to explain the day’s task, the route, the maps, the controls. Shortly, we are off – some into the familiar, others paving their way for the first time. Even though I had been here four times prior, this was going to be new for me.
With shaking heads, gasps, pointing fingers, the pack one by one takes me in as the they mill to and fro, up and down the patch of road of our 36-strong starting pack. It is always a while before the pack thins out, so the time to exchange conversation is now.
You’ve done this before, right?
You know how much climbing there is, don’t you?
Are you NUTS?
Whasammater, dunno how to shift?
All good natured, but it’s apparent that even the heartiest of cyclists here have possibly considered but have never attempted what I’m doing today. After about 8 miles, the first of the hills begin to appear along the rural highway, and it slowly starts to sink in at about mile 20 that this will be a pretty decent day. Nothing too bad, so far.
A small group of us get together; a cheerful guy on a beautiful blue Steelman road machine, a fellow team member from the MS-150 on his shining new LeMond, and one other gent on a gorgeous Pinarello, we four make our way north and west, past Prathersville, past the James’ Farm, and on towards Kearney. Right now, things are good – taking on fuel, drinking water and chatting it up – everything from cows, to eating strategies, horror stories from PBP ’03, tire choice, and why-oh-why I only had one gear. Me and my single gear can be seen smiling to ourselves.
The day wears on, and we approach Edgerton, MO for our first unofficial stop of the day. Even though we were only 20 miles outside the first and only official control of the day, this is a traditionally a good place to rest and recoup. The hills are not too bad up to this point, but they are about to get much worse. The majority of the climbing on this 200km jaunt occurs right in the middle of the day, and I was a little nervous. Although I had no reason to really worry so far, Camden Point was coming, where two or three nasty hills lived – I remembered them from years past. More nerve-racking was the fact that one particular road was now open again, for the first time since I’d been riding these rides back in 2002. Interurban Rd, running between Camden Point and Highway HH towards Platte City would be completely unknown territory for me, and not the best place to be stuck with only one gear. I’m told it’s hilly. Uh-oh.
On we rode after Edgerton, past mile marker 50 for the day, and the beginning of the first of the steepest climbs of the day. Would my chain snap? Would the rear dropouts hold? Did I tighten the axle nuts enough? Would I be strong enough? BANG! The first of two nasty rollers on the east side of town are here, and I can almost hear my knees groan in protest. I’m over, slowly, and fly down the other side at 40+ mph, quite thankful and justified in my decision to have a freewheel, and not a fixed gear on this ride. It crosses my mind that there are indeed riders on fixed gear that do far longer, far steeper rides than this, like Boston-Montreal-Boston. That twinge pops into the back of my head again – fixed next year? I digress. The second hill hits, a mite tamer than the first, and soon I can see the sign for Camden Point, Pop. 484, and the big ‘momentum killer’ beyond it. Slowly I labor up, taking a few hits off the Camelbak as I go, and just trying to pace myself. Whoof, this is not as steep as I remember, thankfully – chalk one up for psyching myself out for a killer hill! Over, and a fun descent awaits, deep in a tuck, legs rotating slowly to spin out the climb – so much for ‘fixed next year’. The second hill approaches, and then down again, faster still. Whew… the worst of the day’s hills were now behind me! No more worries about whether or not I made the right bike choice! Time to enjoy the day!
Brakes! A cyclist is coming up the road in the opposite direction? Now, normally, down in Johnson County, this is nothing unusual – but up here where fine folks work hard and don’t have time for luxuries like cycling, it’s far FAR more infrequent to see another rider just by chance – this guy is with us, and apparently lost. Smiled on by the navigation gods, I suppose, his misfortune becomes my win fall – I slow down enough to watch him begin a slow right turn onto Interurban Rd, the very turn I should have been looking for and would have sailed past had he not been there. Whew!
So far, Interurban is board-flat. Strange for up here, but it seems to be following along the banks of the Little Platte River – it’s a nice view; even though the river wanders away from the road here and there, there is plenty to look at. I fall into a three-man group and we spin away the flat road, chatting a bit about the day thus far, talking about where the next turn is – since most everyone in the group had been turned around at one point or another so far. I start talking to a guy that grew up in England, cycling, and comparisons to riding here in the Midwest, and how nasty the drivers were sometimes – he lives up north of the river, and I to the south in KC, and after hearing a few of his tales, I’m suddenly glad I live where I do. It’s unfortunate that cyclists get the treatment they do in some places – we are a misunderstood bunch, but people need to realize despite our toughness when it comes to hills, long distances and weather extremes, we still only have a thin layer of Lycra to protect us – we are only human, and too often anger and frustration behind the wheel of a car turns dangerous, putting us at risk. Yet, we ride on – counting our luck. The conversation snaps back to navigation, as we round a bend and see a pair of cyclists at an unmarked intersection, looking at their cue sheets and pointing.
After assisting, we all figure out the way we are to ride, and one riders groans aloud, “oh, MAN .. I’ve already been this way once, and thought it was the wrong way – now we have to go back?”
“apparently so…why so glum?”
“HILLY, man – very hilly.”
“worse than Camden?”
Uh-oh. Once again, the validity of my bike choice was up in the air. This was apparent right off the bat, as we rounded a corner and began to climb laboriously over the first of the hills on Missouri’s Platte Co. Route HH. Climbing away from the Little Platte and the junction where the Platte and the Little Platte meet, the terrain begins to get a little ‘interesting’ for cycling. Meandering southwest, HH traverses the edge of the Platte Falls Conservation Area, passing over a branch or two or the rivers, and generally climbing UP, until the final “Welcome to Platte City” hill at the western end of HH. This hill, poised on a plateau, giving it a false flat look, is much steeper than anything previously climbed. Nearly a half-mile long, it’s pitch is ALMOST halting my progress. At a knee popping 30 RPM, I manage to mash it out, as a jet from nearby KCI Airport blasts overhead – I feel like I can reach up and grab it, and we are both climbing hard, its turbines screaming, and my chain straining. Yanking hard enough on the handlebars for leverage, I feel my back pop a little – holy crap this is steep. At the top, I can’t believe how far over I-29 we have reached – the interchange of HH and I-29 seems to be hundreds of feet below us now, and the pitch changes from up to down quickly – gears once barely turning are now singing at full thrust, as speeds top 40+MPH again, flying down towards the bottom of the hill…only to pitch up again on the other side, as HH turns into one of Platte City’s main streets and climbs away from the interstate again onto the perch of another bluff – welcome to town! Ugh!
A few turns later, we are at the first and only control at the Caseys General Store. Legs still reeling from the last climbs, I dismount happily and greet some of the cyclists that had arrived before me, all sitting on the curb stuffing food and drink into their mouths between expletives about that last hill. What a morning! Everyone knows the worst is now behind us, as thankfully we don’t have to go back out of town the same way – and I breathe a huge sigh of relief, knowing that the rest of the route is not nearly as steep. NOW I can rest easy and enjoy the rest of the day, right?
Sure. Checked in, I gulp some V8 juice, some Gardetto’s snack mix, refill my primary fuel bottles and glosh some water, and after about 15 minutes I’m back on the bike for ‘part 2’ of the ride. Halfway done, and it’s barely 11:30 – despite the unexpected hilliness, I’m managing to stay on my average speed target – not bad.
Heading north thru town, we end up on Mo-371, heading away from Platte City towards Route-U, to go back thru (gasp) Camden Point, which doesn’t bother me anymore since I know I can already climb thru with the gear ratio I brought. With a slight tailwind, I’m making good time, but still end up being caught by a large group of riders that had left slightly after I had. One serious disadvantage of single-speed: if the wind is right, you still can take advantage of the tailwind and get some easy speed --- but you run out of gear too fast. All geared riders, the group stays with and around me for a short period, but the temptation to push the big ring with the tailwind is too great, and they escape up the road – I’m alone again, but it’s all good – I take the opportunity to relax a little and take nature’s help while I can, even if it’s not super fast.
Soon, much faster than in years past, we are at Route-U, and the tailwind is still just right to help in this direction, also. Flying along effortlessly, the Camden Point hills are back in my sights in hardly any time at all, and I labor up, fly down – repeat three times, and I’m back at the east end of town near the next turn, to the north on Route-EE. I remember THIS road – ugh. Route EE is one of those ‘roller coaster’ roads, with continuous hills every ½ mile for its entire length; in this case nearly six miles of them. None horribly steep, but MAN it can wear on you after a while. A neat sight awaits at the northern end, as the road passes one of KCI airports’ outlying radar sites, looking like a huge golf-ball perched on a tripod. After that, Route-Z heading east packs in not as many hills, but a few good ones here and there – and by this time, I was starting to feel ‘off’ – a vague headache, stomach iffiness (medical term) and a general desire to stop pushing. My “70-mile wall” seems to have been a little delayed this year, a bout I always seem to go thru at this mileage point – once I get past it I can continue all day, but this ten-or-so mile bad-patch is always predictable: thoughts of quitting, thoughts of stopping to lay down, thoughts of waffles with lots of syrup, hashbrowns, cheese sandwiches, getting a different seat – a whole myriad of junk flooding the brain, along with a general weak-feeling, slow-going, goofiness, with a mild headache. There is only one fix today: Fig Newtons. For reasons I can’t explain, I hit Edgerton again, the convenience store – I go inside and look for something to eat. This is no more scientific than wandering the aisles until epiphany strikes. Today, it was Fig Netwons. Two packs; sit outside, consume. Ten minutes later, I was king of the freaking world, back on the bike, climbing out of the saddle and having FUN again. Weird.
And, luckily, just in time for the ‘bad’ part – speaking from history: Missouri State Route 116 heading east towards Plattsburg has two sections. Pre-US169, and post-US169. The ‘Pre’ part is another roller coaster road like ‘EE’, but steeper. Back in 2002, this is the road upon which (on a geared bike) I got to the top of a hill and simply stopped riding for something like 20 minutes, just staring off at the stack of hills still to climb, realizing at that one exact point I was THE furthest away from my car that I could possibly be on that ride. I somehow managed to continue after that, but it was not fun that first time out. Today, I was picking off the hills one by one, on one gear, and just taking things in. Including riders – which was weird, and completely NOT the goal on a brevet, but still sometimes rewarding. A group of four riders that I’d been watching for a few miles that had passed me on Route-B were now starting to be within reach, so I started to up the pace to see if I could do it, and I managed it – which fueled the fire even more! Unfortunately for the paceline that should have come out of that, we hit the intersection at US-169, and they elected to stop and rest a bit, it seemed. Post-US169, Mo-116 is a little more moderate, but still a challenge on a bike. Fresh pavement and longer, flatter hills, with a good shoulder. I particularly like this section because it reminds me of the roads leading into towns back in Colorado. After passing the cement factory on the outskirts of town, that’s always the first thing that pops into my head here – the way the road looks, the rumble strips. Eventually I made Plattsburg – might as well take another un-official stop here, like always. More Fig Newtons, a little water, off again!
Fig, fig, I like fig…la, la, la, LA!
Yes, a big part of ultra-distance riding is eventually realizing you are totally alone in the rural wilderness, and you can sing nonsensical songs as loud as you like. Either that or the fact you’ve been in the saddle for 8+ hours tends to soften the brain a touch. In any case, the last 20 miles, for some bizarre reason, were the strongest of the day for me, and I sailed into Liberty again just before 4:00pm, hitting the final control with a strange song in my head, and 126 miles and change on the odometer. The single-speed was certainly not a mistake, despite what I may have thought near the halfway point, but instead ended up making this a ride to remember, and a big personal challenge chalked up for 2005!
Now… for the 300km on 4/16! Hmmmm…..
I know two things – I’m bringing one gear, and a bag of Fig Newtons.
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