December 28, 2005

Spring? Is that you?

This last week has been something of a wonder, and looking back I realize that I usually write about this kind of thing once a season, but it's still magical. Deep in the midst of December, and better yet on the first day of winter, we have been enjoying near-record high-temps here in the heart of America. It's been GREAT riding weather, and the rural roads that are usually quiet from November to March have been bustling with activity lately.

On an extended afternoon's ride home last week, I passed by or near at least a half-dozen cyclists, on the bike trail, on the roads, all with huge grins on their faces. Those that truly take an off-season, these days are a rare opportunity to scratch that spring-time itch.

Monday last week was a company holiday, and I took advantage of it by treating it like a Sunday. I rose early, but then realized that I didn't have a headlight mounted on the good bike, so I brewed a cup of coffee and instead sat on the back deck, facing east and waiting for the first hint of sunrise. It was brisk, but not terribly cold, and there was almost no wind. The near-record temps managed to squeeze out a little fog, which hung heavy in all the low spots in the backyard, in the field across the way, too. Eerie calm, occasionally interrupted by a passing bird. There were no cars, no morning rush-hour humming in the background from the highway a few miles north. Peace and serenity, and a good cup of strong coffee.

The first hint of orangish light began to flood the eastern sky, so I took the last of my coffee in a gulp, and retired to the man-room to suit up. Still chilly, but not nearly as bad as 3 weeks ago, I grinned at the fact that I could finally leave some of the heavier items on the shelf this morning, instead of pretending to dress for an arctic expedition. A few minutes later, I was straddling the bike, listening to the garage door close behind me. Time to ride!

After the initial shock of being able to coast sank in, I was at home on the geared bike and steadily accellerating thru the gears to a cozy warm-up speed. The sheer silence and lack of cars was simply WEIRD -- not even the pre-dawn hours of a normal Sunday ride were as quiet as a holiday-weekend morning ride. The world slept in, there was no church rush, no busses, no runners, not even the neighborhood dogs were barking -- just me, the fresh orangish-blue of a new day's sky, a few birds, and a mystical frost/fog coating the grassy fields around me.
My freewheel sounded downright LOUD against the stark silence, and I found myself keeping the pedals rotating even on the downhills, just to preserve the quiet. The only sounds left were from my tires which droned out a quiet hum, and occasional crunch of sand or rock, as I pedaled along thru the thick morning air. These are the moments that will stick out in my head, years from now, as I remember the "good times".

I made my way south, then west, and eventually ended up in Spring Hill at a familiar cycling stop - the Casey's. Even in my cycling garb, I felt at ease among the regular clientelle of farmers and those that don't take days-off. Normally, a quick dismissive glance would be fired at me -- the one that doesn't belong in this picture -- , but today I get "mornin'" and smiles instead, and even a "good day for a ride" from someone that otherwise looked like bicycles would be the last thing on his mind; the prospect of working the morning's chores in relative comfort for a December day has everyone in a rare mood. I buy some coffee, engage in a little conversation, and make my way back outside to continue my journey. Even though things only stand to improve, I'm only out for a short morning jaunt -- so I finish my coffee, pop a fig bar, and ride back north - exploring a few new gravel side roads on the way.

The new sun has melted all the frost on the grass, and the fields look different now as I roll northward, aided by a slight tailwind that popped up since dawn. I stop and take a few pictures of some random intersections for the "remember when" file, and remove a layer -- it's getting downright WARM out here! I sprint the last few miles home, testing myself and the good bike, checking shifts, etc., and arrive home quickly --- the birds have awakened and are singing, right in tune with my heart -- a heart that is happy that I took this short opportunity to dance with Spring, a few months early.

Sleeping-in is over-rated...

December 20, 2005

The long haul

I tell ya, EVERY ride this time of year feels harder, seems longer than that same ride in the summer. Regardless of bike, terrain, even rain - winter rides seem LONG and epic in nature, even when arguably they are not really "epic". After all, since I really don't observe an "off-season" like most reasonable people would, I still taper back a LOT -- so any ride that exceeds the normal commute seems like a century.

Taking advantage of the wife not having to work, and therefore me not having to be home in record time, I decided it was time for a break from traffic, and also the bike trail - which was snowed in anyways. Granted, while that can be a little epic in itself, the bike trail is getting a little tired; further, as I alluded to in previous posts, the road construction that is surrounding all access to the bike trail is making it difficult to get to ANYWAYS. Might as well cross it off for the winter and find a new route home. Even if it's longer.

Well, I at least satisfied THAT requirement -- for a commute, this was a lot longer than usual, and traffic was indeed not AS bad, but dangit there are a lot of freaking school zones in suburbia. I don't mind school zones all that much -- except that it means I have to conceal the piece a little more carefully (gun-free zones, ya know) ((uhhh, kidding.)) .. but it's at least a rare opportunity for me to break the speed limit and mow down the occasional school crossing guard (also kidding - geez. What kinda creep do you think I am?)) Where was I?

Oh yeah. School zones. A lot of them --- I may have neglected to mention that nearly 100% of the time I'm riding home from work, the school zones are in force, and loaded with mini-vans, SUVs and other suburban tanks, all dodging kids, busses, and other suburban tanks, trying to get home, while talking on the phone, etc. This makes for interesting riding. I'd wager this brand of cycling would rival the mean streets of NYC during rush-hour, or any gnarly section of double-track you can dish out. I have more close-calls in these school-zones than at ANYWHERE else along my ride home. I wish the wife didn't have to work at ALL, so I could just leave work later in the afternoon. I won't even bore you with the details.
Let's just say that eye-contact with drivers does very little if the person on the other end doesn't have their occular nerves touching their brain. Yeesh.

It's cold out - there CAN'T be any cyclists about! (meep-meep!)

On I go, eventually reaching "sanctuary" on the south end of the 10-mile long strip of school zones, on Metcalf - south of 159th. Nice shoulder, and sporadic, evenly-spaced highway-velocity traffic. I can deal with this. I trek southward to 179th Street, and then turn west -- smack into a nasty headwind! Yikes! Oh, so THIS is what was blowing leaves and stuff at me from the side all this time. Duh. This'll be FUN, because I only have 8 miles west to ride! (only?)
Multiply that by ten, and that's what this section felt like! And I had forgotten, or was asleep or something: but since when is 179th Street all UPhill from US-69 to like Pflumm?? HAH!
Getting in my cardio won't be a problem today, apparently!

I finally turned north 8-miles later, onto my 2-mile stretch of gravel road, which I didn't mind at ALL because the headwind was OVER. Toes? Are you still down there? Toes? Hello?!
Even though it wasn't terribly cold --- like 34ºF -- the headwind really does strip away that thin thermal barrier -- my extremities were really not liking me.

A nice, hot shower awaits at home.... just keep pedalling....

2-hours later, a hot shower, and some fresh wool socks, and it's allll better.
Chalk another one up for winter, and another semi-epic commute home, which can be safely filed in the "I've had worse" section of my memory, for easy reference this coming spring on the first few brevet rides.
Surely, I'll have a few moments when I'll wish I wasn't on the bike --- and this ride will remind me that I probably shouldn't complain.

That is, of course, assuming the 200K isn't like this, too!
I'll stay home.

December 14, 2005

gridlock kills!

The myriad of WEIRD, long-term road construction in this area lately is really hacking me off. They closed a good portion of the bike trail that safely gets me under two major highways, safe from teh steady stream of soccer-moms and tax attorneys driving like mad in the "Corporate Weeds" area of my fair city. The construction associated with this mess won't be wrapped up until the end of 2008! Grrrrrr..... That's angerin' me a mite.

So, every afternoon I put myself at risk on the mean streets of Johnson County, trying desperately to get home on the major streets -- another debaucle: none of the side streets cross over the highways, many simply dead-ending right before it. There simply is no "back-way".

Who designed this place??

Compounding the issue, the recent snow event has rendered the streets a litter-box of salt, sand, glass shards, and gritty leftover snow-pack - virtually eliminating the small section of the road I formerly called my own all summer. After a couple close-passes yesterday, I'm not really spooked so much as wondering when my luck will run out. EARLY in the mornings it's never a problem -- simply a matter of very few cars on the road. Quadruple that number in the afternoon, and we've got issues. It's not that I'm not visible -- with bright orange messenger bag on my bag, repleat with reflective accents, flashing LED taillight - even in daylight - it's not like they can't see me -- it's those idiots that follow each other too closely -- when the first car in that line sees me, they give me room --- the moron immediately behind him has no idea what's going on because he's been transfixed on the back-end of the car in front of him. So, I get the brush-by. Let's assume for a moment that the low sun angle, the reflections off the wet roads from said low-sun, tire spray, etc., don't play a factor. Let's not forget about those a little light on the automotive maintenance, where washer fluid might inpair vision a little.

Friggin' idiots. GAWD.

Time to get out the maps.

You know, 5-years ago, I wouldn't have cared, but lately these things bother me. I have kids and a wife to think about --- at what point does adult responsibility take the place of pride and commitment to cycling? Is winter commuting WORTH IT?

Maybe I should think about selling that gigantic steel contraption I call a car, and get something that actually scores gas-mileage in the double digits. There's a thought. Save the bike for the warmer, "safer" months. ...if there really is such a thing as a 'safer' month for bike riding in this conundrum we call suburbia.

(are you done yet, dude?) I suppose I'm done ranting. CERTAINLY there is a safer, lower-profile route homeward. Cycling is a relatively safe activity -- but it's not entirely up to ME.
Again, time to get out the maps --- I'd rather add a few miles and fare better, than continue to deal with this mess.

Special thanks to all the city engineers that decided to work on all the roads, all at the same time! Whoooo! Big, fat, gold stars for your collective lapels.

December 2, 2005

Silent Running

"The order is...engage the silent drive!"

Ahhh, yes... this is the time of year when it's good to be fixed. As the mercury drops, activity on my route homeward drops with it. A large portion of my commute home is on the local bike trail, which runs alongside Indian Creek through the remainder of the woods that weren't clear-cut for suburbia. As if gets closer and closer to winter, the attire on the trail changes dramatically -- once scantily-clad runner are now wrapped up like jogging burritos, their faces clouded by wisps of their own condensed breath. A short time, and several degrees later, the runners are gone, as are the dog-walkers and the casual cyclists. The only ones left are the hard-core, which I suppose on some level includes me.

Being 'hard-core' is not something to consider one-self, so I don't. That's a moniker that is left for others to describe upon you -- in my own mind, I'm not hard-core at all: mainly because of the above, and mostly because I know people that truly ARE hard-core, and I fall WELL short. But, in a small sense, I suppose as far as the bike trail crowd goes, I am the hardest by elimination. Today, as sleet and snow fall and wicked westerly winds blow at upwards of 20 MPH, I am alone. There are no tracks on the trail save for the ones my own tires leave behind me. Today was cold. Cold and hard.

Anyone that has stood outside in the cold during a snow shower knows of the magical sound-absorbative properties of snow in the air. Traffic noise from major streets that normally echo across miles is suddenly absent. Only the loudest sounds come through, like a nearby freight engine wailing at a railroad crossing, but that's it. Today was the first of those days this season, and even as the snow was only light the effect was profound. The bike trail, though isolated at times, is really not that far off the main drag, so you're always aware of the intense susburban traffic-stream that the trail offers protection from. Today, it was as if the cars were not even there. The only sounds making it over my own breath came from the tires flying through crushed leaves and the occasional fallen twig -- farther off the trail, squirrels and rabbits could be heard frantically forraging for the months ahead. Proving it's worth as the quietest form of forward propulsion the fixed drivetrain rotated silently underneath me and, combined with the sound-killing snowfall, allowed me to glide past the wildlife virtually silent. Past the Atlantic patrols, past their sonar-nets..... uhhh....yeah.

The first solid evidence of my silent-running was near the last trailhead in Overland Park, where I completely freaked out a rabbit that was grazing near the path's edge -- and when you scare a rabbit, they jump straight up into the air. High. Which this one did, and I'm not 100% sure but he might have jumped higher than my head. He let out a little squeak when he hit the ground, and took off in a line perfectly perpendicular to mine. I scared a bunny. I smiled. This nature thing was kinda cool.

That was, until I scored a kill.

A few miles later, after getting used to the fact that nature was practically oblivious to my prescence, I began to revel in it a bit. Instead of making the usual "ticking" sounds with my tongue to scare squirrels out of my path, I simply took pleasure in observing how close I could get to them before they noticed me. Not dangerously close, mind you, but just rolling along the path and not making a sound, seeing if they'd notice. Always on the lookout, squirrels are not easy to sneak up on, so most were off and running up a tree before I was within a meter. Save for one.

Looking quite occupied while digging something out from under a fallen branch, this little squirrel didn't hear me until I was REALLY close -- and because he only SAW me, and didn't HEAR me, I don't think he knew precisely where I was - and there wasn't much time for his brain to figure out which of his two highly-seperated eyes was correct. He darted left instead of right - directly under my front tire. Remembering what a friend once told me about this exact set of events, I fully expected to come halting to a stop, flying over the bars headlong into the path ahead. I don't know if it was a last minute subconscious bunny-hop attempt, or pure luck, but the front tire simply rolled - seemingly with very little pressure - directly over the squirrels mid-section. The back tire never hit him, because he was already off and up a tree on the other side of the trail! CERTAINLY he was not injury free, because I defintely hit him -- but there was nothing I could do if I had caused damage, because he was gone! I'm not sure, but he probably didn't even have time to launch counter-measures. I didn't ride back to check, anyways, but if the tables had been turned, I would have launched them all over the road.

I made my apologies to the pagan god of the forest, and rolled on.
Fixed gear - always silent, sometimes deadly.

Needless to say, the nature-watch was over, so anything producing body-heat within a 5-meter radius was getting a brake-lever click, a vocal 'tick', or a bell ring. Luckily, I was nearly to the southern end of Red Route One, so it was my turn to live in fear of quick Karma. I ventured onto the streets of suburbia for the final few miles homeward, wondering if I would get struck down by a quiet Hybrid car out for a cyclist-watch. "I was just seeing how close I could get before he noticed I was beside him, officer."

What a weird day. Uneventful as far as repayment goes, I made it home intact.
I'm seriously thinking about some small bells on the handlebars - heaven forbid there ends up being a migration of brown bears to the bike trail.
Talk about quick Karma: try sneaking up on a bear. He,he.

"I would have very much liked to've seen Montana..."