Misery Loves Company.
The 2005 KC Ultra Cycling 400km Brevet
Having completely skipped the 2004 Brevet series and not really doing any rides longer than 200km in total that year pretty much put exactly the distance I needed in my mind from the anguish and torture that surrounds riding 400km in one day. Well, in one go-round, I should say. ‘One day’, being one 24-hour period, would prove optimistic at best.
The first time I attempted 400km was in 2002, and after a day’s worth of misery I finally succumbed to the challenge at the 212-mile marker, getting off the bike and sitting on the side of the road until a friend came and picked me up. The total mileage, falling asleep on the bike, the utter solitude knowing I was dead last on the road, and severe fatigue all took their toll at about 10:30pm in Hillsdale, KS.
The second time I rode 400km was in 2003, and on that outing conditions were perfect for the cyclist I was back then. The ride start temperature was in the 50’s, the high during the day was up in the low 80’s, and the wind managed to stay calm until the turn-around point, after which it picked up in the form of a tailwind that pushed me and a fellow rider back to Paola in record time. In fact, that year, the sun didn’t set until I was within 25 miles to ride to the finish! Feeling good all day, and having perfect riding conditions, I finished at 11:00pm, and was in bed within the same 24-hour period in which I’d started the ride, 251 miles before. That is not to say there was no pain involved, but the positive outcome of that ride managed to make me forget.
2004 was a year of leisure. I did very little to torture myself, completely skipping the entire brevet series, and riding only 200km in total at the Hills For Hope Hundred, which in itself was only a century, but I had ridden there from home, adding the 27 miles or so to hit the 200km mark. Aside from that ride, I didn’t even come close to reminding my body was randonneuring was all about. I rode a few other random 70 to 100 miles rides, and then the MS-150, and that was all. If anything, I was fresh again – but more-so than that, I had forgotten the pain.
Cut to 2005. After a semi-successful winter training campaign in some of the nastiest conditions I can remember riding in, it was finally Spring, and Bob Burns was again sending out his annual flyer announcing the brevet series, and going over rules and the like. Excited, I signed up for four of the six rides offered; the 200, 300, 400 and 600km events. I knew that I had never successfully attempted a 600km, so ‘this was to be the year’ that I would do a full SR series. Compounding this, as if there was not challenge enough involved already, I began to look at my equipment.
Ever since I became the proud owner of my 1982 Trek 720 touring frame, I wondered what it would be like to do randonneuring on it. I purchased it in 2002, shortly after that year’s 400km debaucle, deciding that a good, long-wheelbase steel frame would solve all my neck, shoulder and comfort issues. After all, at the time I was riding these distances on a straight-gauge 7005 aluminum frameset, and it was ‘harsh’ (putting it lightly) on Missouri’s nastily-paved rural highways. A razor-blade for fast handling and racing, but definitely not a touring champ. I completed Ride The Rockies in 2002 on that Trek machine, and have loved it ever since, but never got a chance to brevet on it until this year, starting with the 200km. The road comfort issues were definitely solved, but neck and shoulders were still a problem. The 300km, same thing; and eventually, after realizing that a Nitto Technomic stem (one of the longest) was STILL not raising the bars enough, I took a tape measure to the seat-tube and discovered that indeed, the frame was too small. The nearly 8” of exposed seatpost didn’t clue me in? Oh well.
The Trek was a terrific frame, but in randonneuring bike-fit is EVERYTHING, and it simply didn’t fit me. After years of good short-distance service, it was time to retire it. Called into service was my Bianchi frame, still good steel, but a little tighter geometry – and more importantly about 4cm taller than the Trek. It should be noted that during all this messing around over the years, I managed to become a single-speed convert. Originally just a good, cheap way to maintain a commuter-bike, I began to wonder more about its potential, and my own. Could I push one gear for XXX miles? After a successful century on one-gear at the MS-150, and a winter of nasty conditions at various distances, it was settled that 2005 would be a season on one gear. The 200 was in the bag, as was the 300km now – but the 400 was looming, and I was swapping bike frames. Not the wisest of moves, granted, but after carefully measuring EVERYTHING, I managed to create a complete replica of the Trek’s bike fit onto the Bianchi, and managed to raise the stem just a touch beyond where the Trek would have allowed it. A few shake-down rides later, it was confirmed – good fit. Still, getting the single-speed platform to work on a bike with vertical dropouts was its own problem, but it too was quickly solved. I was ready.
Bags packed, water bottles filled, the morning of the ride arrived. Not being one to dawdle, Bob sets the ride start times early, so we can get moving and make the most of the day – so at 4:15am, I arrived at the parking lot, Bob arriving shortly after – I signed the waiver, got my brevet card and cue sheet, and tried to stay warm until the ride start at 5:00am. Last time I rode this is was 50º at the start – a harbinger of my day to come hung thick in the air in the form of a frosty 28ºF. Honestly, after this winter, had I known it was going to be that cold, I would have never signed up. Honestly, how much is one asking for to have warmth on the last day of April in eastern Kansas?
Slowly, the other riders began to fill the parking lot, a near-record sixteen riders this time! For perspective sake, this doesn’t sound like a lot – but it truly IS. For example, the Kansas City MS-150 is a very popular charity ride that attracts usually between 1,200 and 1,500 riders a year. A vast majority of those riders admit 100 miles on the first day is the farthest they’d ever care to ride a bicycle – and they have the luxury of support every 10 miles along the route. By contrast, today’s ride of 250+ miles with NO SUPPORT and a maximum distance between controls of around 57 miles is not something many would voluntarily do. Sixteen riders is a LOT – basically, we represent the fringe, the extreme, the nutcases that spout off things like “only a double-century to go!” and “I like a certain kind of misery”. Misery does indeed love company. With a 27-hour finishing cutoff, there was plenty of misery to be had today.
The hardened randonneur always packs light, especially for the shortest brevets – but coming into the 400km, things begin to change. Riders that you see on the shorter rides sporting only a small seat bag and stuffed-full back pockets now show with full panniers, rack bags, backpacks. Especially with temperatures below freezing at the start and an unknown day ahead, its hard to carry enough clothing to get by and stay comfortable under ALL conditions. Part of the key is becoming seasoned enough that your tolerance for the nasty broadens, and if it happens to drop below freezing at night and you only brought thin leg warmers, you can gut it out. If it starts to rain, you might be okay with only a garbage bag with holes cut into it. Others need guarantees, spending hundreds on gear designed to function under many situations. Gore-Tex jackets with zip-off sleeves and rain-hoods built-in are common. Then others pack extra shorts to change along the way to prevent saddle sores, extra socks, extra WHATEVER – because you literally never know. A lot can happen in 250 miles. Over time, I have become a light packer – but today I was already regretting it: knowing it would warm up eventually, I chose to only wear wool socks, instead of many others who chose to wear two pairs of socks and wind covers – my toes were numb and we hadn’t begun to ride yet!
After the usual pre-ride speech, we were off into the cold darkness, sunrise still an hour away or more. I never thought I’d reach a point where I would be thankful for hills, but today’s ride was full of those moments. Climbing out of Grandview, MO on 15th St, and then out onto 129th St, I was happy to see the first climbs of the day, and their associated warming-up effects. I was feeling pretty good, despite the cold. Conversations rippled thru the group, all slowed down by cold-numbed jaws and lips. Diving down into little valleys between hills revealed colder pockets of air and moisture, robbing any warmth built up on the previous climb – we begged for sunrise to arrive, trolling down Mission Rd towards 199th St, we began to see the first hints of light from the east – thank goodness. People’s water bottles were beginning to freeze, for crying out loud! This was late April?
After a quartet of arduous railroad crossings, we were finally breaking free of the grips of civilization in rural Johnson County, KS – marching on thru Spring Hill, talking about the usual stuff you hear in the first 50 miles of a brevet: recaps of the last ride, hotel stories, the LAST time it was this cold, and how we all said ‘never again’. During all this banter, I was already beginning to see problems in my single-speed choice for the day. I had rigged up the same gear ratio that I’d used on the 200 and 300km events, knowing I would be able to hang in with everyone and still be able to climb – but the 400km route is quite different from the 200 & 300 routes; something of a reward from the previous two rides up north of Liberty, MO (where the real hills are!) the 400 is a LOT flatter, and being stuck in one gear when the road levels out put me at an instant disadvantage; I simply didn’t have enough gear to keep up. Long downhills and flat sections, and pretty soon a gap would begin to open up between me and the riders ahead. Although I managed to stay with our small leading group (Dale, Dan, myself, and Del; who pulled for like an HOUR – yikes man!), all the way thru Spring Hill, that gap began to open on Old KC Road on the way into Paola – a gap that would put me behind on the road by nearly a ½ mile when a critical turn arrived. Now, for those that know me, you kinda know I have a tendency to memorize things, maps being no exception. After being there once or twice, I pretty much knew the route – and since these routes aren’t marked, you pretty much HAVE to know it, or have the cue sheets ready at all times. The leading group didn’t have this compulsion for directions, and after reaching the K-68 roundabout for the turn onto Hedge Lane, I climbed the first hill, expecting to still see them ½ mile ahead of me – but they were not there. Uh, oh! There was not much more to do than simply keep on pedaling. To my surprise, despite their faster pace, I managed to beat them into the Paola control, but only because they got lost, and it really doesn’t matter – because it’s not a race – BUT, for the first time ever at a spring brevet, I was the first one to check in (7:40am, only 20 minutes slower than in 2003), and had to explain to the convenience store clerk what she was about to be faced with: about 16 gents wearing tight, day-glo lycra outfits and helmets, all wanting her autograph. She smiled, signed my card, and I watched as the bunch of lost riders approached from the west. Time to regroup again!
After the usual control routine of refuel, refill bottles, question motivation, and mount up again, Del and I proceeded back out onto Baptiste St. in Paola, heading east, eventually ending up southbound on Block Rd off of 319th St. Del and I were pacing along, but I was having the usual gear limitation problems again – Del was kind enough to keep waiting along with me – until about two miles later, when the larger group that had left after us began to bridge up and buzzed by on the left, about six riders strong. Del, not limited by his machine, hooked on to enjoy the hotter pace, and before long I was alone again – sure, sure, I could have spun faster to keep up, but there was a long day ahead, and conservation was in order. All the excitement of a large group at a heavy pace seemed to eclipse the necessity of the cue sheets, and at 343rd St the large bunch just kept on sailing, right past the turn! Again? I hollered and hooted, but to no avail – too much wind noise and distance for them to have heard me. Shortly after, Bob and another rider pulled up to meet me, and we rode on from there, onto the correct path – after a few minutes of waiting, it was clear that the large group would not be appearing over that hill for a while. Time to move on! We continued west on 343rd back to catch Hedge Lane for the march south to La Cygne, KS, and an unofficial but always welcome Casey’s gas station. Hedge Lane is a pretty neat road, actually – it’s about 11 miles long at this point, with no stop signs and very few intersections except for a few rural home’s driveways. With low traffic and decent pavement, it’s a good time to chat it up and wonder how the rest of the day will go. Talked with Bob for a good while, then with the other guy who’s name I forget at this writing – let’s call him Joe. Joe and I talked about the 2002 300km ride, with great affection on the amount of misery that we endured, although he finished and I did not because of the horrid conditions. We talked about gearing, which always seems to come up when people notice I’ve only got one gear back there, and commented on how nice the day was becoming – I think at this point it was nearly 50ºF – heat wave! (uh, no.) We crossed over a large overpass, at which exact moment a train pulling empty coal cars passed loudly underneath us, rattling and clacking along, likely on it’s way away from the KCPL generating station at the La Cygne Reservoir, which we’d pass later on. After a long, steady climb, we reached the end of Hedge Lane (technically, Linn Co. Rd 403 at this point) and readied for the turn east onto K-152. This is a terrific highway, if you ever get occasion to drive it from west to east towards La Cygne. After a mile of seemingly boring pavement, you climb a short hill, then a longer one – and upon reaching the top of second hill, the vista opens up to reveal a gigantic valley within which live the Marias des Cynge River and Middle Creek, nestled between Scott and Lincoln townships. Stopping at the top of this second hill is a necessity, as you can see, quite literally, for at least 10 miles to the east. For the brevet rider, this is an awesome sight, for you can see precisely where you are going and nearly all of the road that takes you there, stretching like a ribbon laid straight across the land pointing toward the horizon. The twin steam towers of the KCPL generating station at La Cygne Lake shoot up over the landscape, dwarfing everything around them. In the foreground, one can pick up the old steel truss bridge that spans the Marias Des Cygne River and the tiny water tower of the town of La Cygne just beyond it, and beyond that lies the other big hill that climbs out of the valley and takes you to US-69 a mile on the other side. It’s probably the most scenic part of this whole route, and I love it every time I see it. This is one of those instances where the camera can’t do it justice – it’s far more striking in person, on a clear day like today was.
The warm sunshine and view was having a positive effect on my riding, as I pedaled onward chasing down Bob and Joe, whom had advanced up the road after I’d taken the picture above. Before long I was crossing the bridge into La Cygne proper and the Casey’s appeared fast on my right, and I pulled in to greet Bob and Joe (9:52am) – after getting more water and resting a spell, a group of riders passed Casey’s out on the road – part of the large group that had gone straight at 343rd street had made up for the error, and were hammering down the road, hands extended in embarrassed waves, as Bob gave them hell for not being able to read a map (that HE had put together, mind you, since he’s the ride organizer!) Absent from the group were a couple other guys and Del, as they three had likely lightened the pace a little to conserve – this was the longest stretch of the day at 57 miles between Paola and Butler, MO, the site of the next control. Joining in the fun was David, from Germany – a model of what all American high-schoolers should aspire to be: Yes, in a sport with a seemingly high average participant age, David is 17 or 18, I think, and breaks the mold on mental toughness in today’s youth, having completed the 200 and 300km levels right along with the rest of us. Needing a breather from the faster pace of the leading break, he joined us at Casey’s for a respite from the road. After 10 or 15 minutes, we five were ready to roll again.
The next section of road was pretty cool, as we continued east across the valley, towards the big hill on the other side. Having already completed the hills on the 200km ride, I wasn’t nervous about this hill like I had been in the past, but it’s still no cake walk. Up, over and beyond we rode, towards the road atop the Lake La Cygne dam, which provides a close-up view of the massive power station, and farther east where the road unceremoniously becomes Highway “J”, crossing into Missouri on the way to Amsterdam. This is another section of road where there are not too many hills, but the ones that are there are long and steady, and consequently have long, steady downhill sections after them – so, just like on the road to Paola hours before, I was again starting to see holes in my single-speed plan. The group of five quickly often became groups of four and one, as I would drift off the pace despite my steady cadence and determination. I was relegated to one gear, and there was nothing to be done about those with bigger chain-rings and cog options.
Frequently, however, the group of four would stop for one reason or another – once for a slow leak on Joe’s tire, which he would smartly top off with air – waiting until Butler to change out the tube. A few times for nature breaks, and another time for a casualty of Missouri’s rural highway conditions: Highway “J” curves south and then branches off onto highway “F”, and at this point the pavement, compared to north-west Missouri, is fairly good – but still not without rumbles and vibrations. Riding steel, it’s hard for me to remember how bad these roads can get, but a fellow in the group on a Softride bicycle found out first-hand. A large carbon-fiber beam isolates the rider from the aluminum backbone of a Softride machine, so it’s hard to gauge the road conditions – but vibrations are soon accumulated, and weaknesses can be revealed; this time a headlight bracket simply can’t absorb any more shock, and snaps – sending $100 of headlights crashing to the pavement below. Uh, oh. Amazingly, both headlamps still worked fine (thank goodness, because you’ll need them later!) – parts are collected, stuffed into pockets and seat-bags, and the worry about fixing them is saved for later. Onward.
After completing the 11-mile stretch of Highway “F”, we arrived at US-71, for the turn south – not on the main highway, mind you, but old ‘business’ 71, leading straight into Butler, MO. From here, only 5.5 miles to the next control, and a needed rest – but things have not been too bad so far, with a nice tailwind from the west and bright skies overhead. Unfortunately, it was becoming clear after arriving at Butler (11:50am) that the nice tailwind we had been enjoying was getting stronger – normally not a problem, except in this case our tailwind would eventually become a headwind. The mental games began. Joe fixed his flattening tire, and the Softride guy began to rig his lights onto his handlebar after freeing them from the broken mount he’d lost on “F”. After 20 minutes, I was ready to roll again, and announced that under the tailwind and flat conditions, the group would catch me again anyways, so I would continue on ahead, solo, towards Appleton City, MO, and the turn-around control at the eastern extreme of the days ride.
I carried on back thru part of Butler and turned east on highway “H”, towards Appleton City. “H” is a nice road, with scenic vistas on either side after you get out of Butler’s neighborhoods. Cows, pastures, rolling fields and hills, and lots of blue sky and puffy mid-level clouds floating by – at a pretty good clip, judging by the shadows passing over the road in front of me as I pedaled along. I kept up a pretty good pace thru Spruce, MO nearly halfway along, and interrupted a trio of buzzards snacking on some roadkill. They popped up off the road and seemed to hover in the air as I passed, the west wind providing enough lift to keep them aloft while I rolled past. Nearly to the turn at highway “KK”, I stopped for a moment to check the cue sheet, the mental games about the coming headwind robbing my knowledge of the route, temporarily – turns out I was only a few hundred yards ahead of the rest of the group I’d been with – we all rolled along together from there, more or less, climbing the one monster hill on highway “H” and then turning south onto “KK”, passing the massive RWD No.5 water tower for Henry County, MO, and then past some of the second best vistas (next to La Cygne valley) the route had to offer, one manmade, one natural: There is a giant communications tower sitting high atop a hill in the middle of a field, beaming to who-knows-where, and just the sheer size of it, the guy-wires and superstructure, it’s breathtaking. On the other side of the highway, a huge rolling pasture of the greenest grass, loaded with hundreds of jersey and limousine, some new calves as well. Truly an interesting spectacle, as the whole landscape looks probably as it did 100 years ago, but then the giant comm-tower manages to date the scene to modern times. Onward we rolled, with only 2 miles to go to the turn-around checkpoint, at which time we spot Dale C. from Iowa and his tall co-rider, making their way back north, seemingly an hour or so ahead of us. Shortly behind them are two other riders, also on the return trip – which makes up for everyone that was about 30 minutes ahead of us at that point. We hit Appleton City, MO. at 1:50pm – but I knew I was nearly 45 minutes off my successful 2003 pace already. No worries, though – well, none except that coming headwind, which was the topic of conversation as we all refueled and prepared for the next section. Despite the early cold, the tailwind was making the day easy so far, even though we were 122 miles into the game – from here on, it was gonna get rough.
After a short 20 minute break at Appleton City, it was time to ride again. We all saddled up and began to work our way out of town once more – there were mixed feelings in the group, feeling the elation of being halfway done, but also knowing that misery awaited us on the road back west. The winds from the morning had been relatively calm, but now that the sun was high they were practically howling. There was not much out here to slow down any wind, and as we made our way out of town, it began to wear on the mind after only a few minutes. First, we headed north back on “KK” highway, when we saw a large group of riders approaching, about seven strong, making the final run into Appleton – the remainder of our contingent was reaching the halfway goal, too! Waves, thumbs-up, peace signs all exchanged as we passed, which brought a smile to everyone’s faces.
After a short stink on “KK”, it was time to turn back west onto “H” again – time for the wind to become a factor. After this much distance, part of my randonneuring strategy began to present itself. It’s not so much that you are strong enough to push a big gear as you are weary from pedaling, period; which eventually forces your cadence to slow down due to fatigue – with this comes the tendency to shift into a large gear and slowly, but consistently, turn it over, thus keeping some speed up. Unfortunately for me, this is difficult to do with no gears present, and since my 65” gear was proving too short already for these long flat sections, I was now finding it hard to keep up enough cadence to show a respectable speed. Even though I’d stripped off the computer, I could feel that I was not moving along very fast, and that was reinforced by the other four people in our group slowly moving farther and farther down the road away from me. Their combined ability to increase their gear ratios AND draft off one another was a successful formula, and it was distancing them from me. It was a game I was used to. Putting my head down into the wind, I concentrated on making good circles and keeping the bike straight as I trudged along “H”, ticking off miles slowly on the way back to Butler.
After passing Spruce, MO., and realizing there was still about 11 miles to go to get to Butler, I grew increasingly weary. I started taking on fuel at a faster rate, feeling fatigued and alone. It was then that thoughts of possibly not finishing well crossed my mind. It’s simply amazing how quickly the mood can turn on a ride like this, how thin the morale can be when long hours of physical activity are piled onto a person. Where only hours before I was joking and running songs thru my head, I was now running dialogue with myself about will, drive, focus, and how silly I was for trying this with only one gear. I harkened back to the 2003 400km, being in the big ring on this exact section of road, with a tailwind, flying along at 27+MPH for nearly 1½ straight hours, and feeling awesome. And now, I was maintaining a limping pace and wishing I was home on the couch. Butler eventually came, but not quite as fast as I’d have liked (3:57pm – nearly an hour later than in 2003) – and the four others were (thank goodness) waiting for me, with unnecessary apologies.
“Man, we lost you back there and didn’t realize it – we can hold up the pace a little, it’s no big deal, no sense beating yourself up out there.”
I made this justification and that, stating that my gear choices were my own, and I have to reap what I sow, but I was thankful they were being considerate. After all, the pace they took back to Butler had obviously taken a heavy toll. Bob, of course, looked fairly fresh – a seasoned veteran; the Softride guy (his first series of brevets EVER this year) was looking mildly cooked, and Joe was having stomach issues. Young David was also feeling the day, sitting on the curb and taking on food slowly, staring off at the cars getting fuel only a few meters away; probably wondering if anyone would give his a ride back to Grandview, as I started to wonder. Quitting, however, at this point was out of the question – we’d all invested too much to consider it, and Paola was ‘only’ 60 miles away. The big bonus of the ride, making it back to Paola meant the time window was yours for the taking – at that point, we would have until 8:00am tomorrow to officially finish the ride. We could rest, sleep, anything we wanted! But we had to GET there first. The wind was still howling, and the sun had already passed its zenith – there was a new chill in the air that reminded us of that morning. Time to keep moving.
Wind jackets and gloves came out of hiding and were donned for the next, hardest section of the day thus-far. Highway “H” had proven tough with its wind, but after our stay in Butler the wind had picked up even more, and after making it off of Business 71 and back onto Highway “F”, we got a face-full. Bob, the recognized mentor, leader, and veteran of our group, quickly organized us into an echelon to battle the stiff WNW crosswind, but it was strong enough to make the draft minimal. We took what we could get, taking short turns at the front, one by one. Joe, proving that old saying about randonneurs that we always look out for one another, stayed behind me the entire time to ensure I didn’t get dropped and left alone again. If you are reading this, MANY thanks, man. Each time someone would get excited and start pushing away on a long flat, I was motivated enough to keep the cadence high and hammer to keep up, but on two occasions Joe hollered out to ‘hang on!’, and would fly around me to tap Bob on the shoulder to bring the pace down and keep the group together, which I repaid by pulling the group for a couple miles as fast as I could manage. Even then, the pace was too hot for the geared riders, and David began to feel the effects of the drive west, falling off the pace rapidly – we all stopped to allow him to catch up, and Bob asked what was wrong.
“I’m tired”, he replied.
“We’re all tired; what are your symptoms? Talk to us”
“No energy left – no push left.”
Bob proceeded to ask what his fuel was, what he was drinking, eating, etc., and found the culprit – water bottles were volunteered, and a fresh serving of Carboplex was mixed for David to drink. After a short time, we were rolling again, with only a few more miles until we arrived back near Amsterdam, MO. – which meant nothing, really, but it helped to have landmarks to count off.
After passing back into Kansas with no fanfare like you’d get on major highways, the name of the pavement changed and we began to see the road climb up to traverse the La Cygne Lake dam again, only this time we were 170 miles in, instead of only 72 or so (a bicycle mileage that most riders would consider ‘reasonable’, by comparison). At this point, the group began to splinter even more, knowing there was only a few more miles to that Casey’s in La Cygne, where we’d all elected to stop and rest again. Joe advanced up the road and joined the Softride guy, and Bob stayed in between myself and David. David began to pass me, looking fresher, and looking like he was attempting to catch the duo off the front. Bob slowed a little and joined back with me, pulling me along again, unsolicited. He had no doubts about finishing, and was happy to take some extra time to help out a guy that was not having a stellar day. Finishing is EVERYTHING, and he wanted everyone to have a taste.
Pretty soon, Bob’s hand dropped off the left of his handlebar, waving me down to a stop. David was stopped on the side of the road near the western edge of the dam, sitting on the guardrail. Not anxious to hear another of Bobs lessons, he simply asked for two minutes to regain himself. And then Bob turned to me with questions.
“How ya doin’?”
“Okay, just wishing I’d brought a bigger gear.” And I went into the whole schpeel about how having a big gear, but not necessarily spinning it very fast was something I’d grown used to doing on longer brevets, and since I only had one and my legs didn’t want to fast-twitch anymore, the pace I was maintaining was literally all I could push.
“I don’t know how you and Spencer (a far better man than *I*, riding 42x15 FIXED GEAR today!) do this, honestly – it’s bad enough you’re out here all day, but ONE gear? Why did you decide to do this on one gear?” he asked.
After a half-second, I replied “to prove to myself that I could actually pull it off.”
“Well, you can pull it off, because I know you’re strong and you will finish – but after this, go get yourself some f’ing gears.” To which we both burst out laughing, David included. “Now, let’s go to La Cygne, guys – five miles.”
We were off, David and I exchanging conversation, and Bob advancing up the road to prepare for the monster hill that would allow us back into the big valley again. We climbed hard, and enjoyed the long downhill on the other side – even though the climb was brutal, we were enjoying the payoff of the first long downhill in dozens of miles, and a rolling rest. A few miles later, at 6:44pm, we arrived back at the Casey’s General Store in La Cygne. Not an official control, no, but for the same reasons as before, it was nice to have a landmark achieved. Only 65 or so miles to ride to the END. But, Paola was still looming – getting back there was the biggest of many, many smaller goals remaining. Each rider has his or her own strategy to finishing such a ride, but for many as the day wears on, the goals become smaller and more manageable – otherwise the remaining task seems too daunting. For me to say ‘65 miles left’ as I type this is easy – at the time, it was HUGE, GARGANTUAN and a completely unseemly task. It was far easier to think “5 miles to the turn onto Hedge Ln.”
Focus on that, and check it off as a small victory. And so on, all the way back home: the only thing to do now was to focus on reaching the next turn in line.
After a good long rest of a whopping 30 minutes, we were ready again to hit the pavement. This was after prepping for the coming sunset by zipping sleeves back onto jackets, pulling on balaclavas and donning extra socks. Yes, the sun was still up, but the time to conserve body heat was fast approaching – the sun waits for no-one. On by one, we alien figures on bicycles poured back out onto K-152 westbound, ready to cross the Marias des Cygne and leave the valley behind. The dipping sun, not expected to set for another hour or so, had taken some of the gust out of the days wind, thank goodness – heading back out onto the road, we all realized that we’d picked a good time to rest up – the wind had nearly died out! This was taken with mixed emotions, because really there was not much fighting left to do, westbound, and much of what got us thru the previous onslaught of gale was the notion that sometime later in the evening on 199th street, eastbound, we would get payback. It looked now like that would not play out after all, but still no-one was complaining too loudly. With temperatures already dipping with the decreased sun angle, the fact that there was no wind-chill to factor in was a definite ‘plus’. With renewed vigor, the group of four riders began again to distance themselves from me once again, as visions of bar-end shifters and 52-tooth chain-rings danced in my head. Bob was right, that I was indeed proving to myself that I *could* do this on one-gear, but my justifications were beginning to pale. For commutes, pub-runs, errands and the like – absolutely: ONE is all I need – but perhaps for this kind of riding I should take advantage of the ingenuity of mankind, and succumb to a derailleur, just for the sake of keeping up with the group. Perhaps, that is. Perhaps.
I was alone on the road, the hard charging group ahead of me, hungry for the next-to-last control, had disappeared from my view. I marched along Hedge, northbound, and hit the Miami County line right around 8:15pm, and proceeded to pull on the reflective vest and fire up the taillights and headlight. The rest of this run would be under cover of nightfall, much like it had been in 2002 on my first 400km attempt. Night is tricky. For the uninitiated, many things can happen, mentally and physically. For one, if it’s been a warm day, you might have been lucky enough to ride sleeveless and with shorts – not so today, by the way – and in which case you might have a touch of sunburn working. After the sun dips, the cooler air hits your burned skin and chills you to the bone, making an already apparent drop in temperature feel even colder on the skin.
The same applies for windburn on the face from a day in the saddle. Even in the heat of summer, when night falls things can turn brutal. And that’s when it’s dry out – things can be far worse if an evening round of thunderstorms gets organized. Combined with a day’s fatigue, fighting sleepiness, soreness, and staring off into a lonely headlight beam for hours, it’s the hardest part of any long brevet. Many a brevet is abandoned after nightfall. It simply becomes too much. Thankfully, my commutes are ALL done pre-dawn, and riding at night is something I have become used to – for me, many of the usual factors are taken out, and it simply becomes an extension of the ride already in progress. Despite the pain of the day, I was feeling pretty much at home on the road now, and there was only 15 or so mile left until Paola – at my pace, that was about an hour. I could handle that.
The sunset beautifully, with blazing oranges and a light purple hue cascading against the last remaining mid-level clouds – light began to fade slowly, and I could make out my headlight beam on the pavement. I was quickly reassured about my night-time lighting arrangement, as passing cars were slowing down, giving me a wide berth as they passed – some even offered up a friendly wave out the window, which made me feel pretty good. On 343rd Street, a couple of deer pranced across the road, pausing for a second to ponder my small approaching headlamp before bounding off into a freshly plowed field, barely visible in the fading light. Slowly but surely, I ticker off the miles, reach Block Road again, then 319th for the long, three-mile downhill to the curve back onto Hedge Lane, and then the turn at 311th Street which would take me to Baptiste, and back to the Phillips 66 gas station that was control #5, the last must-have checkpoint of the route. Checking my progress, I realized that it was 9:15pm, and I was almost 2¼ hours off my 2003 pace – but I didn’t care. It was Time to REST for REAL.
The five riders I’d watch disappear were still here, too, and so were four others – the leading group that was so far ahead of us at Appleton City was seated at a booth near the windows, looking mighty tired. EVERYone was looking mighty tired, milling around and eating, or sitting and staring off into space, contemplating what had just unfolded – and the heavy realization that it STILL was not over yet.
Slowly, one-by-one, more riders showed up at Paola, each with a full day’s worth of pain on their face. No-one was smiling much now. Everyone was making double-sure that no-one was leaving without them, as if to say “please, please don’t make me go back out there by myself.” Plans were made, coordination and talk, interspersed with mouth-fulls of food and drink. David was working on a huge ham and cheese sandwich, the Softride guy, looking especially whipped, was nursing a bottle of Powerade and a Powerbar – looking completely spent as he sat and stared off at nothing. After a short time, David and Dale C. and one or two other riders announced they were headed to McDonalds down the street to collect Bob, and start the final march back to Grandview – I was still looking forward to a long sit-down, so I waved them ahead. Spencer, Duck-man (from the 300km) – my fellow Bianchi brothers – and a couple other riders, including Dan, rolled in and collapsed into the seats near the window. “What is it about these rides that makes me eat the worst possible foods?” Duck-man posed, dropping a bag of Twizzlers and a bag of mustard pretzels on the counter as his card got signed. After my second bag of cashews, half a bag of pretzels, and 6 or 7 Fig Newtons, I was wondering the same thing – one thing for sure is I didn’t want anything to do with the energy drink resting in my water bottle anymore.
After another 15-20 minutes, I realized that I’d been sitting here for nearly an hour – which is perfectly ok, considering how much time was left, but it was time to either get moving, or make a phone call. I elected to make a phone call, but not the end-all phone call of doom that I’d made in 2002 – instead I just dropped 50cents in the payphone to tell my wife that I was going to be later than I’d planned – and she encouraged me that I could do it, and to take my time and be safe. That’s what I needed to hear. Feeling warm and full again, it was time to take advantage of the small mental window that was telling me to get back in the saddle, before the moment passed. Spencer, Dan and another rider were ready to roll again – Duck-man stayed behind with the Softride guy and another gent that was having a bad day, too. He’d work on getting those two back in the saddle, because it looked pretty bleak. Softride guy was playing with his cell-phone, contemplating making the ‘call’ probably, and the other guy was sitting and zoning out. I’m still not sure at this writing if either one finished, but I hope so. Still, having been there before, there is no shame in knowing your limits – been there.
Our new group of four scrambled for plastic bags to cover cold feet, extra layers and last minute food, and then we mounted up for the last 41 miles, which would be taken in small, manageable sections. Remember, your only goal is to make it to the next turn. Mentally, I could see the entire return route in my head – but I had to quickly shake it off, as it became too much to comprehend – on any other day, this would be barely enough mileage to justify getting suited-up for, but now it seemed impossibly long. Right now it was a matter of staying in contact with the other three riders (one of them also being on one-gear would make it slightly easier), and making it to the roundabout at K-68 highway. Slowly into the darkness we rolled, ticking off miles one at a time, and exchanging conversation to keep everyone alert. At times a slight wiggle of the handlebars would reveal that someone was getting sleepy – so we’d start talking about gears, bags, pedals, stocks, gas prices, the cold, the day, the color of the sky, ANYTHING to stay alert and focused on something other than ‘tired’ and ‘sleep’. Dan probably had the best weapon of any of us – a small FM radio rubber-banded to some makeshift aero-bars, which he kicked on to a local station, now that we were close enough to town for the small antenna to grab a signal. It was horrid music from a station that I don’t normally tune into, but it would work. It had a beat, and it helped. The last bank sign we’d passed said “38ºF” – anything to keep the mind off the cold would work just fine.
We reached K-68, made the turn onto Old KC Road, and kept right on rolling – next turn was at 223rd Street near Spring Hill – pedal pedal! Trying to keep the heat up moreso than the pace, we all managed to hammer along at a decent clip, until we were unexpectedly stopped at 255th and Old KC Rd, by a Miami County Sheriff’s office sobriety checkpoint. THIS would be interesting, but thankfully, since another contingent of riders had already been thru here, we wouldn’t have to explain as much about WHY we were out here at midnight on a cold night. Taillights and headlights blazing, we slowed, and got the flashlight in the face treatment, the usually canned questions and were waved thru – and it was refreshing to be treated like a vehicle on the road for once! They passed us out their standard fliers, which we considered discarding – but then realized that unfolded and stuffed under a jersey, they might actually provide some extra warmth. Hmm. Onward we rode, towards our next little goal, eventually reaching 223rd Street, and a Shell station for another quick rest and restroom break before heading north thru Spring Hill.
A few short hills later, we were past Spring Hill, making the turn onto 199th St for the run east, back towards our ultimate goal. The wind had indeed died down, but there was still a hint of a westerly breeze, which made us feel a little better about things. Teeth chattering, we lumbered on, music blaring and lights blazing into the night while the rest of the world slept. Occasionally, a passing car or truck would snap everyone back to reality, and before we knew it, we were approaching another short goal’s realization – the Shell station at 199th and US-69 – we rolled past it to 199th and Metcalf, but then realized that another break may not be a bad idea – Dan and the fourth guy rode back to the Shell station for a cup of hot coffee, and Spencer and I sat down on the curb to wait for their return. As Spencer laid back and commented on the stars overhead, I shuffled thru my bag for something – ANYTHING to put on my feet to stave off the numbing chill. I grabbed a pair of thin gloves – that’d work. I slipped them onto my toes as far as they could go, empty fingers dangling outside the straps of my Shimano sandals – it looked weird, but I didn’t care. Warmth, PLEASE!
After Dan and friend got back from the coffee run, we saddled backup, and carried on – only a couple miles until the turn onto Mission Rd, and only 17 TOTAL miles left to ride --- now it was becoming manageable, something we could foresee in real terms, like and hour and change at current pace. One more hour – no problem. We made our way east, then north, climbing out of the last of the rural Johnson County hills on the way back into civilization again, and we started to count off the miles remaining, and the turns remaining. After heading east and north onto Kenneth Rd, I announced “only three turns left, guys” – everyone smiled and practically cheered. We were close… the cheerful banter started up again, even the pace lifted a little.
“Lookee over there, boys, a Wally-Mart” chimed Dan, “we can get ourselves some thermal underwear, sweatpants, jacket…” and everyone added in what they wanted in sequence, ski-mask, different bike seat, some food, a cot and sleeping bag. We passed a McDonalds – an extra large fries started to sound really good…maybe good for sticking a few hot fries under my sandals – maybe a hot apple pie stuck in a jersey pocket….mmmm, warm…
We turned east onto Blue Ridge – getting really close – two turns left, and only a handful of miles to the finish. It’s amazing; the pain begins to drop away because you know it’s nearly over – reinforcing the “90% mental” argument about these kind of rides. Stay positive, and you probably won’t hurt as much – I think there’s some validity there after all. Easy to say now, with only 7 miles left to ride, and a warm car to climb into at the end. We turned onto 129th Street, passed an early morning jogger making his way home – (really early morning? It’s like 1:30 in the morning!) – and we climbed the last three monster hills back into Grandview, including the 17% grade monster on 129th, and the mile-long grinder leading back into the west edge of Grandview that crosses the RR tracks and becomes Main St. A mile or so later, we made the final major turn onto 15th Street, and sailed downhill, all the way back to 140th St, and the Phillips 66 station at the top of a short hill, which marked the end of our long, tiresome day.
With arms extended, hands slapped, hands shook, and Spencer and I extending single index-fingers at each other with a smile (for the power of ONE, baby), we were FINISHED.
Cards signed, times checked, and damage assessed.
Twenty-one hours after we’d left the parking lot, we were back – and if I’d had the foresight to take before an after headshots of myself, they would have spoken volumes – but I’ve already done that here, haven’t I?
It was 2:00am on Sunday, and the only thing I wanted to do was drive home and take a shower and eat some real food, so after saying our final goodbyes and thanks, we departed ways – and as I drove home, taking part of the bike route backwards to see if I’d catch any other cyclists making their way back (I didn’t see anyone – yikes…) I realized that I’d polished off a huge personal goal – I had indeed finished 21 hours and 252 miles on one gear, and even though I finished a full three hours later than I had in 2003, I was happier about THIS finish than I had been about the last one. Still, looking forward to the 600km, the amount of climbing promised in the additional 200km section thru the Ozarks, and the possibility that I would see the sun come up TWICE during THAT ride… the notion of having addition gears crept into my head. We’ll have to see what I end up doing, but so far, I think completing over 900 miles for April 2005, all on one gear, might be accomplishment enough.
It’s something to sleep on. And when I finally got home, that’s exactly what I did.
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