It was neat and appropriate, however, seeing just a tiny bit of snow here and there on the roadsides as we made our way out of night's darkness and into a fresh mid-winter morning. You may notice the "we"... and not the royal version this time: I was not alone. Another weird experience for January! Taking advantage of the relatively warmer climes, I was host to four other riders on this voyage - a rare treat. Alex S., Gary McD, Terry B. came out to share the experience, along with Randy R. whom we bumped into in Ottawa while out for a day of exploring on his old steel steed. While I've attended a couple of group rides here and there over the fall months, including a great ride out to the Louisburg Cider Mill for New Year's Eve, I hadn't enjoyed company on a long ride since July. Although, I have to say my brain certainly isn't used to having company... I still caught myself staring off at the road and keeping my thoughts largely to myself, instead of striking up conversations - however, as cycling goes I think everyone follows roughly the same playbook: there isn't a tentative feeling of needing to fill the void with words "just because". Sometimes just having another person on a bike next to you is plenty, and I think everyone "gets it". I like that, even though it's taken me a while to get there myself without feeling like I'm being rude.
The whole ride was almost for naught. A sharp pair of eyes caught the fact that the first controls register computer was off by about 16 minutes, producing our first receipt with a time-stamp of 6:47am... something that, while explainable and possibly verifiable later, would have effectively rendered our permanent ride 'void' on paper. No jumping the gun in randonneuring! Instead, we hung out, chatted, and this gave a little amount of time to run back to the cars and drop off a few layers - as the temperature was 12 degrees warmer than forecast! Things have a way of working out - and though we knew we were "wasting time", we waited, got a good receipt, and rolled off into the morning air together. This is precisely what the 1-hour first control buffer is for, I suppose. While part of me was anxious that we were already "behind", I also knew that stiff winds and hills awaited - and there was really no reason to be in a hurry.
Wild temperature swings and anomalously warm spells in winter usually mean "wind", and that was certainly the case. We'd be battling the wind heading west for most of the first half of the ride - but the breaks from it resulted in unexpected tailwind triumphs on the southbound sections. We made our way past Shawnee Mission Park, up and down sweeping hills over some terrific scenery, which is normally obscured by darkness because of earlier start times. Today, the sunrise wasn't far behind our departure - another tidbit my brain wasn't used to. I suppose I've had my fair share of night-time training over the last few months - Back in November I didn't see the sun until I was 50 miles deep. This time out, we barely needed to have our taillights on for 30 minutes. Not bad. What was better was being able to see what was normally hidden on this route - the Princeton Roundabout. It skirts western Shawnee, KS., heads out towards Desoto, Clearview City and the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant and its signature quadruple watertowers, dances with state route 10 here and there (in places I think we are actually on the old highway alignment), and out to Eudora for the first control.
The Cedar Creek section is especially mystical: we dive down into a valley that contains several small branches of the Kansas River, and the resulting terrain is otherworldly compared to the usual vast fields and cropland west of the KC metro. Huddled in the shadow of huge outcroppings and deep into patches of forest, the creeks rippling along nearby, its easy to let myself get transported off to rural places I've only imagined of. Rustic houses, dilapidated barns scattered about, the road twisting and turning - following the river instead of the grid - long morning shadows creating an interplay of flashing sunshine between bare-branched trees, foraging animals scurrying about, birds at play... and a few cyclists silently taking it all in, gradually exiting the area in timeless elegance across an old truss bridge. Picture postcard mastery.
Sidebar: even if you have to drive there to see it, go see that bridge before it is gone. The county has been holding true to a long-standing 50-year bridge replacement plan for the entire area, and the last decade has seen many of these cool, character-rich bridges replaced with soulless, modern concrete decks. The Norman Rockwell-esqe images of rural America are beginning to fade into obscurity as civil engineering firms rush to rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure. Coming across one of these bridges on a long bike ride is one of the things that make long distance cycling worthwhile - and they are becoming increasingly rare. This bridge (link above) is literally one of the last ones open to traffic in Johnson County. If you are planning a bike ride of any length, the Bridgehunter website is an excellent way to find these unique structures and include them in your route plan.
We rejoin our riders emerging from Eudora refueled and ready for the next stage. The sun is getting higher in the sky, and the wind is finally favorable. Alex, ever the strong rider, is opening a big gap with the strong tailwind - and before long he's WAY up the road. Spurred on by having a target up the road I can't help but push my own pace to the limits - and, foolishly riding outside myself, I am eating up the road with a smile. Along with spirited climbing over the hills leading out of the Cedar Creek valley, I am beginning to cut into my reserves far to early... typical, and at the time I don't even realize my mounting mistakes. While there is one thing to be said for training by chasing stronger riders, my brain is excited about riding with others too much to care about the consequences.
I burn a fair amount of reserves, and don't take in nearly enough calories for the return to a westerly direction at Douglas County highway 460, where the wind returns with a mighty slap to the face. Pace is reduced to a crawl, and at times its a lot to ask to even maintain double-digit speeds. Nuts. Absolutely nothing to block the gale out here. Head down, I start to shove out the pace. Vinland arrives, and I take a moment to take in the old church and some of the stone foundation buildings before turning south again to enjoy the tailwind... which, "strangely", this time isn't as enjoyable. Not as much push remaining... wonder why THAT is? (ha) Alas, I still have some climbing left in the legs for the grunter of Baldwin Pass that awaits. I manage to make a good personal showing up the climb - possibly the best and most controlled I've ever climbed the beast, keeping breathing and cadence in check... so, while I still have something to learn in the mental control department when it comes to riding with other people, I'm pleased with how things have progressed over the months.
Baldwin City, and control #2. The group comes together again within minutes, and we all do our control routines and mount back up for the next leg. Thankfully, we're still to be heading south for many miles to come, so the NW wind will be our friend for a few hours more. Whew... Even while I stuffed another Powerbar Harvest into my gut, it wasn't enough by a longshot. The tailwind would continue to provide the illusion of energy, despite the protest from my gut. Poor food choices the evening before had also caught up, but I was focused ... get to the halfway, and things will improve.
Alex, Terry and Gary were pictures of pacing and control, while I yo-yo'd a bit here and there on Ohio and Tennessee roads before finally arriving at K-68 for the final push west into the increasingly strong cross/headwind.
Ottawa, and the welcome sight of the Casey's there - where Alex and I stop for resupply and restroom. Surprise, there's Randy R., out for a day's ride, and we welcome him to tag along for a bit. While I was quick to complain about the temperatures, I had to remind myself that they were still above normal (!), and everyone was out riding today - so, the more the merrier! Always a treat to stumble upon someone that happens to be headed the same way you are. We mount back up and head towards the next control at Princeton, KS. a few miles south. While this section is also a major highway corridor, the shoulder is nice and wide with well-made and thoughtful rumble strips. Much better... and still a slight tailwind to help. I remember this section from doing the route in July, and the fact that it trends uphill almost the entire way to Princeton. With Alex still fresh and fueled, and me still trying to stay latched to his wheel, I begin to burn through the rest of my reserves - and find myself seldom reaching to the back pockets to put the energy back. Uh-oh...
We reach Princeton to find Terry and Gary (thanks again to the local Ottawa resident that indicated he'd seen cyclists dressed like us heading south, which prompted our departure from the Casey's) hanging out and taking a much-deserved rest. At this point, I'm a little dazed. I take a full four laps of the c-store and for some reason I can't find ANYTHING that looks appetizing - even though I need food. The mild hassle of being a vegetarian jumps up to bite me, as the pizza smells really good -- but it's all with meat. Gads... I finally default to just grabbing something random and buying it, just to keep moving. While the rest of the group has been smart, and has stayed consistent, my follies have caught up. I'm supposed to be the experienced one here, yet the fun of trying to catch Alex and waging personal war on the headwinds has put me into rookie-mistake land. Nobody's fault but my own, the only thing to do is try and rebuild. While the mental toughness training that comes from riding 200k after 200k alone, there is still a need to remind myself that personal pacing is of the utmost importance when I get with a group. Even when he's slow, Alex is fast... and me trying to work on speed in January is foolish, yet, there I was.
In a daze I made a few decisions about clothing, packed a layer onto the rear rack, and made my way back out onto the road. Gary and Terry had left a dozen minutes or so earlier, on the notion that we'd catch them up, and Alex left a little bit after them. It was me and Randy now, and more importantly it was me beginning to admit that I had a problem. My pace began to slip, then my mind... I announced my condition, and shortly after was unable to maintain my speed. John Brown highway spread out before me, there was a slight tailwind... but, there was nothing in the legs but lead. I allowed myself to be upset about it for a couple minutes, then proceeded to engage on-the-road-recovery-plan Alpha. Watch the clock... this will only last fifteen minutes: drink every five... and start eating. You have back-pockets full of rations, and you haven't touched hardly any!!! Get to it... but be careful. I start to slowly feed the giant hole growing in my gut... The last fig newton from the START... and Hammer stuff... every few minutes, just chew and swallow. I watch patiently as Randy advances up the road... then, on the horizon I see yellow safety vests... and it feels like I'll never reach them. Patience... five minutes pass, then ten... a hill... a water tower... Texas Road... a 4-way stop... five more minutes... more food... drink... and the push slowly returns. The problem with this is that there is no resting now: having pushed to the brink, I will spend the rest of the ride putting calories in nearly as fast as my body uses them. My stomach growls furiously as soon as I'm finished swallowing the last bite of whatever is in my mouth... and so it will be for the last half of the ride.
As hard as it is to recover from a near-bonk ON the bike, it is possible... but the key is not getting there in the first place. Keeping in mind that it's far better to keep moving slow than not to move at all, my cadence is in the gutter and my muscles are paying the price - but, I'm moving down the road. Chin up.... finally, even though it was only minutes, I begin to reel the group back in - and eventually we're all together again, just inside the Osawatomie city limits.
We stop together at the Casey's there, refuel and rest a bit - and the mental recovery for me still isn't quite complete: with all the rushing around for food and restroom, I forget to refill my bottles before leaving the c-store. Thankfully, I'd end up having enough to make it to Paola and the next control, but literally to the last sip. Ugh. "Get it together, 'dude!", I scold myself. I feel better leaving Osawatomie than I had leaving Princeton - but not quite 100%. I pull the group out of town, over a group of cool bridges over various creeks and rivers - startling a deer with my loose rendition of some random Elvis tunes that make it past my lips, as my mood recovers. The pace isn't epic - but it's all I've got. Not even a train flyby to cheer me up today... but, I'm still with a group, and it's a great feeling - and turning into a great day. The harrowing feeling of turning north into a waiting headwind for the entire last leg of the ride is held at arms length... the wind, quietly to myself, isn't THAT bad... the sun is out, there are birds heard nearby, and though content to leave nearly everything on despite the warmer temps, I still unzip a little as we turn from north to east in direction.
The group breaks up a little again as my legs remind me that we're not fully "back" yet - but no matter... even the horn of a local attempting to remind us who's road this was (right) can't get me down, but I'm already dreaming of the next stopping point. We make Paola and the next Casey's in good time - refuel, refill bottles (!), and check in. Old KC Road is checked off, and Alex's consistency shows as he and Randy enjoy the day in full stride -- strong riders, both. I, learning my lesson, maintain a sustainable pace and take in the scenery, chat a bit with Gary, and we eventually sorta spread out into our own little realms as we clear Hillsdale and advance towards Spring Hill. I lose track of Randy, as he peels off for home somewhere in here, and Alex and I regroup at the Casey's store at the north end of town.
Another quick refuel here, and discussions about my condition. Alex is a class act... a super strong rider, content to hammer it out at the front, he encourages me, gives a few pointers to which I am always open (be not fooled: whether it's your 120th brevet, or 4th, there is always something to learn - always listen). Cycling 101... and it's something I perhaps needed to hear: keeping my cadence up. Part of my riding style falls back to my days of riding fixed gear - my natural cadence is probably somewhere in the 60-70 range... and that, combined with my caloric shortcomings, was resulting in fatigue and inability to push. Had I actually been ON a fixed gear today, I might have suffered more... who knows... but now, to get "back in the game" and finish strong, I needed to rev it up a little. Long story short, it worked. Despite Alex's promise to finish together, no matter my condition, my refueling and conscious effort to keep the cadence higher resulted in him not having to worry about slowing down and waiting for me.
The last 20 miles were stellar for me, considering. Alex could have, at any time I'm sure, jumped off the front and finished more quickly -- but he stayed with me. I adopted a plan to continue through the rest of my rations and put them IN my body instead of carrying them around in my pockets. I drank every 5 minutes, ate every 15... and combined with the cadence drills, I managed to stay with Alex and not limp along like I might have had I been solo... and, to boot, we managed to work our way through Olathe and then into Shawnee, finally catching sight of Gary and Terry up the road on Renner Blvd. It looked like we might all finish as a group after all! Maybe there's something to this whole "90-100 RPM bologna", I thought to myself... (doy, science has proven this is where cyclists are most efficient, yet I still fall into the gear-masher camp more often than not). Post-ride.... surprise, surprise, my joints aren't as sore, and I don't feel destroyed. Hmm. Interesting. Thanks, Alex, for reminding me of this basic endurance cycling tip, and helping keep me motivated. A true class act, even as I suggested back on Ridgeview Road "if you happen to get up the road away from me....", he interrupts... "no, no, we finish together..." - and so we did.
We caught up to Gary near 95th Street on Renner, just short of making the green light that Terry advanced up the road through, and stayed roughly together through the carnival of roundabouts prior to 87th Street, to finally stop there at a red light and witness a terrific sunset in the making over our left shoulders. Not bad at all... with the trials of the wind, and my personal issues, to finish as a group, on a winter ride, without freezing to death, and without hardly needing to worry about turning the lights on at the end... not a bad showing at all! Figuring in the delay at the first control due to the clock being off, we nearly completed the thing inside ten hours - which is great! Whether it had taken hours more, I don't care... because I finished it with friends, on what had turned out to be a great day. Mixed feelings that I might have about the mid-ride challenges aside, all in all - a success for January, and learned a few things about myself ... even if the group-ride-forget-everything factor that jumps up on me occasionally is something you'd think I'd have squared away by now. Proof that there is indeed always something to learn, even if it's RE-learning. We all dodged a bullet, weather-wise... and I was lucky enough to have a strong rider like Alex nearby when I needed him, dodging a personal bullet. I probably would have still finished, but it wouldn't have been with style and resulting smile, that's for sure.
Many thanks to Alex, Gary, Terry and Randy for sharing the ride!
Songs in my head:
There weren't many today... but, interestingly they were loudest when my stomach and ability to push were lowest:
Adele - Someone Like You <- popular radio tripe, perhaps - but this girl can sing, don't care who you are.
Ramblin' Man - Allman Brothers <- the foundry of the modern jam-band, nobody jams and runs riffs like these guys, IMHO.
The Big Bang Theory - The Bare-Naked Ladies <-- after watching a DVR marathon of this show, it doesn't take long for the theme song to take hold... and I honestly, in my own little geeky way, can't think of someplace I'd rather find myself than at Comic-Con '10 when this happened. As a BNL fan and a BBT fan, how freakin' cool would this have been???
I know there were others... but they were lost somehow between then and now...
So, that's all folks!
See you in February!