March 4, 2007

The ride of the snow-bikers

March third...a morning that, based on recent mornings, should have been fairly pleasant. Winter had other plans; a last-ditch effort to show seasonal authority. After a long night at one of my fave establishments, the Bottleneck in Larrytown, seeing a couple of decent bands play for about four hours, it was hard enough to wake up on time and get ready for the ride without it being a fairly nasty weather situation. I'm definitely getting "too old" for the 2am bedtime, 6am rise time for a 7:30am ride. Yeesh. Ok, the music was worth it. (For more on the cow-punk showdown, search for The Fast-food Junkies and Truckstop Honeymoon. Good stuff, if not a little off the edge of my normal radar screen) But, nevertheless, I rose on-time, showered, brewed a little stronger-than-normal coffee, and was out the door. I arrived at the parking lot in a haze of blowing snow, and a NW wind at a steady 20mph. It's beginning to look a lot like... well, someplace cold. "Freaking crackers." ...or some paraphrased version... slipped past my lips, as I cracked the window and let in a howling 20-degree breeze followed by a flurry of icy snowflakes. After already listening to a voicemail from an unidentified rider indicating that the conditions were "ridiculous" and he was headed home. I still don't know who it was, but it was a clear enough message. This was dumb. I watched the clock, and counted down to the time where I could declare a no-show and go back home to a warm bed. Then, they came. The hearty. The strong. The nuts. First, Dave - ready, willing, and deceptively underdressed? Dude... He emerged from his car, and we talked a bit about possibly calling it... I was considering it. He retreated to his car and called another rider to see if they were still coming out. I remembered Badgerland was gonna meet us en-route.... and then another car showed up. Dang. It was, quite literally, the northern midwest contingent -- natives of Wisconsin and Minnesota. I was in for a ride, whether I liked it or not. Yikes. You know, I've always said that these rides are partially for me, and not so much for everyone else. I need the accountability, the motivation, to push myself to do these rides so I can get back into shape for future goals. Seriously, if no-one had shown, there was NO WAY I woulda ridden this one in these conditions. No freakin' way. But, these, my angels in disguise, swept in to yank me from the excuse-laden car, and into a VERY chilly saddle. I'm glad they came.... but I didn't realize this until later. With freezing hands, I extracted the bike from the trunk, and started the ride. The wind was still howling - and I mean it, absolutely HOWLING - out of the NW, and the snow was getting worse. The roads, that were not supposed to attract accumulation, were getting dicey. With taillights on, and a few random mutterings addressed to the complaint department, we were off. It was a great group of four, and from afar it must have looked impressive -- or foolhardy, not sure which. As we headed towards the remains of one of the most impressive hills in the county (old College Blvd. between Ridgeview and Woodland, now under construction) for our turn north on Woodland, it was clear to me that cutting this one a little short might be in the cards. The northbound turn onto Woodland clinched it. As most of you that have been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a rather impressive resume when it comes to the "I've had worse" category of rides. In fact, I FINALLY broke down and bought a jersey that is sorta dedicated to that notion. It simply reads "Flandria", which potentially has lots of references - historically to the area in northern Belgium today, and in cycling specifically to the region that hosts many of the "Classics" -- the epic, single-day spring rides that typify hardship, tradition, struggle, and encapsulates the true drama of the sport. In the case of this simple jersey design, it's a vague reproduction of the old "red guard" team of Flandria Bicycles/De Clerck. In the mid-to-late 70's, this team consisted of the dream team of Roger de Vlaeminck, Walter Grodefroot and Rik Van Looy. Hard to pronounce, but easy to remember -- De Vlaeminck won Paris-Roubaix FOUR TIMES, among other famous exploits. Of course, the most famous Belgian cyclist would have to be Eddy Merckx... but Roger was better at Roubaix, as Eddy only pulled out three wins in his career. In fact, it's really a Belgian race, despite the locale: the Flemmish have taken this race more times than any other nation in the race's 102+ year history. They're still at it.... Tom Boonen won it in 2005. Still, Grodefroot and De Vlaeminck rode for the Belgian home-team, as it were, and probably put the best stamp on that race of any riders since. I highly recommend the documentary film "A Sunday in Hell". It shows Merckx and the Red Guard boys battling it out on the cobbles in the worst possible conditions. Simply timeless. Lance, eat your heart out; with all due respect to the big Texan, THOSE Belgian guys knew how to suffer. The word "Flandria" to me conjures suffering, strife in the saddle, and epic racing drama, so I bought it. Simple, not garish or sponsor-laden, but it makes a statement. Sure, maybe it's my own fault that I sometimes prefer rainfall and the choppy bite of a gravel road in south Johnson County on a hearty, steel road-bike to the manicured shoulders of 175th Street on a sunny day - but, I have a kindred connection to the cobbles for some reason. Ask me about the 2002 300K brevet sometime. Suffering!

Anyways, back to this latest edition of struggle -- leading out the small paceline, I turn north onto Woodland Road, and the snow has gotten heavier, and the driving wind is blowing it horizontally, up my nose as I suck air on the first of 40-some hills. The only thing keeping the stinging snow out of my eyes is my well placed cycling cap. I can only see the road about a meter in front of my tire. I dare not glance up - but I must to check for traffic at passing intersections, and I'm punished with a sinus-freezing blast of 20-degree air. My double-stacked wool gloves are starting to show their weakness in such a headwind, and soon I can't feel my pinky fingers. I tuck them inside the inner gloves and eventually have most of my fingers wrapped under into my palm, holding the handlebars with a sort-of thumb and forefinger claw beneath my mitts. Thankfully, my torso is insulated enough - but everything else is beginning to protest. The usual warmth generators of climbing are stricken useless by the constant stripping of our cocoons of body heat. There is no shelter. The road pitches down underneath K-10, speeds increase by gravity, and it gets worse. Eyes water, and freeze. This is nuts. We advance up Woodland, slowly, being careful to point out ice and especially thick patches of snow that has accumulated near the curbline. The long steady slog to Prairie Star Pwky leaves me breathless, and still there is no reward - the internal furnace keeps getting blown out. My ring fingers begin to numb-out, my pinkies long since falling off the nerve-ending checklist, stinging and numb - frostbite crosses my mind. Every so often, over the gale, a cough, a shudder, or a moan emanates from the frozen pack-mates behind me. It's a death march, northbound - and ahead is the 8%, 1.5 mile-long downhill from 90th to 83rd street. Normally a 45 mph thrill ride in warmer months, this time it's almost requisite to pedal - but no-one has the energy. Zippers that can't be pulled higher are tugged at anyways, and eyes are closed in pain as the speed pass 30, then close in on 40 mph... the combined wind chill dropping to an effective minus-3ºF as we dive into the valley below. Finally, after leveling out, we turn west into a berth of trees and a steep climb --- whew! The heat begins to return in our new shelter! Thankfully, frostbite leaves my vocabulary as I begin to feel my digits coming back online. We cross 83rd, and catch up with Badgerland who is coming from the north with words of caution about the road we're about to traverse. It's a snow-packed, slicked-out mess with tight curves and blind hills. Yikes.... Badgerland is used to it, the consummate all-season commuter from Wisconsin - his "I've had worse" file is much thicker than mine! It's good to see him, but his addition to the pack is evened out, as Tim has turned around for home. The day begins to take its toll. Dave, KCNan, Badger and me continue north. Some treacherous turns, unexpected traffic, a railroad flyby, a hill or two, and we arrive at the worst road yet, old Midland Road. It's partly gravel underneath from disrepair, but all of it is hidden by runoff ice slicks, frosty potholes and fresh snowpack. Thankfully, it's all uphill, so butts are in the seats and gears are low to provide traction and control. Oncoming traffic complicates things, eliminating the best lines and forcing us into the chop near the edge. What a ride, so far. Is this Tour of Flanders training camp, or what? The epicness of the whole thing is beginning to come out in references, innuendo and catch-phrase. Still, it's delivered with smiles. Somehow this is all far better than being shut inside for another winter's day. I, for one, have been inside far too long this season, and now that I can feel my fingers, I'm smiling too. We finally reach the first of our rest-stops, and with frozen water bottles crunching free from their cages we trudge inside to the warmth of the c-store. It's COLD, and everyone rushing inside to pay for their gas gives us a similar look, a cross between respect, confusion, disbelief, and sympathy-for-the-dumb. The two teenagers working the counter look as if a pack of Llamas just trotted in for donuts. Their expressions change little, as if they simply can't process the whole scene. They want to laugh insecurely, but something behind their eyes seems to indicate they might be afraid of being attacked. After-all, bearded, sun glassed, spandexed, and obviously hearty enough for the conditions, is it really a wise move to laugh openly at a winter cyclist?

We venture back out, and back onto the route. Badgerland takes point, saving my fingers from another bout with the frozen gale and we zig and zag our way towards Johnson Drive for the first real challenge of the day. The snow seems to be slowing at this point, and the sun even makes a few random appearances from behind thick clouds, but the warmth is not with it. Something in the upper atmosphere is playing a mean point guard against the rays that might have made things better. At least now the winds are at our backs! Johnson Drive's first hill looms, capping out near 13% in places, as we circle away from the ballfields, past Barker Rd, and onto the climb. From behind me, someone asks -- "oh, geez, is this Johnson Drive??", as if they just realized where they were. It has a certain reputation, this road... and now I fear this ride does, too. So be it. Momentum, gone, along with gears, the conversations begin to fade as thresholds are reached on the way to the summit. From the first time I climbed this beast, I have respected it, loved it, revered it -- this is Warbird country... and I have yet to meet a cyclist that has simply been able to throw the gauntlet, shift, and FLY up this monster since his departure. I almost see a ghost passing on my left as I grunt up the grade trying to shake my pre-season unfitness. The grade levels, and Dave is next to me -- what a climb, and what a view, but another eye-chilling downhill awaits - this time, with the tailwind, it's not too bad, and I actually enjoy a bit of a tuck and peek into the low 40MPH range, approaching the end of the Johnson Drive double-header that takes us up over I-435. We cross to Renner, puffing, and the strong winds literally gust strong enough to give a noticeable push up the very last part of the grade. The gods of cycling are smiling on us for being brave enough to be out training - perhaps the Belgian gods of cycling, specifically, giving a little push to the back, like an enthusiastic fan on the side of the mountain pass, giving that little bit of "professional acceleration", as Sherwin would put it. There isn't a commissar in the world that would scold us for taking the assistance today!

Badger and Nan make it back up to Dave and I and we all turn north again, this time on Renner Road for a thrilling downhill - taken with caution as always because of its history - towards Holliday Drive -- it's tempting to let it hang out, but brakes are at hand, even though most of the snow has since been blown clear of the pavement. After looping around, we head south on Quivira, and the road again pitches upward - the famed "Alpine section" of the course, with three good climbs in succession. It's almost like a full Tour stage, super-compressed; the profile is foreboding, and there is a hellish mountain-top finish at 55th Street. I love it... simply love it, even for all the suffering it shells out, maybe more so than Johnson Drive -- the wooded beauty of the Lake Quivira area, it's future secured by land grant and golf course, trees line the road all the way to the top and a fresh coat of blacktop makes the usual pot-hole dodging a thing of the past. Dave and I pair up again and grunt out the climb at a steady pace, talking about Floyd Landis, Lance, Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, etc., and actually referencing back to Greg LeMond on the highest notes. It's a good distraction from the knee buster we were slogging up - soon the reward, the first fast descent, actually enjoyed with a little unzipping, as the sun begins to help finally. Maybe this isn't such a bad day after all? On to 55th Street, and I can feel the remains of my fitness slipping away - the last of the three climbs is a REAL grunter, the Koppenberg of the day, perhaps -- again with the Belgian references, but hey -- sue me: A 77m-long cobbled hill that exceeds 22% in places, so steep that even professional riders have to stop and run up the beast on foot??? Show me a climb like that in one of the grand tours, and I'll stop talking about Belgium. I promise. So, the final climb to 55th street isn't QUITE that bad, as it peaks at 14%... it's the worst of the day today. We regroup, and decide that this day is becoming too much to bear. We reroute to our second stop of the day, at QT store at Johnson Drive and Quivira, a touch to the Southeast, after climbing up the beast of 55th Street itself, which in itself is no ant-hill, another 13%+ hill. Finally we dismount at the QT, and rush inside - as rushed as our weary legs will take us! It's warm, so warm that Badgerland burns his hand at the cappuccino machine! Opps! Numb fingers will get ya! The snow begins again, with a little less punch than before - but still notable enough for Dave to bring up Andy Hampsten's exploits at the '88 Giro. At Gavia Pass, in a snow-storm, Andy captured the overall lead in the Giro, and kept it to the end. Epic. Suffering. Ahhh....

After a quick, awkward interview with a mom and her young daughters about why we are crazy cyclists, we re-mount and head south to rejoin the route again at 67th Street.
As we turned west onto 67th, we rejoined the route, and the wind. Although possibly diminished, it was still there, but the temperatures had moderated enough that I began to hear trickles of water in drainage grates as we rode past them, and icy slicks on the roadway began to shimmer with the addition of fresh melt driven by the sunshine. We rolled towards 71st Street, and another little section of tough rollers. At this point, I was beginning to regret a couple things: forgetting my wallet, my cell phone, and my hammer-gel flask. Gravy, dude, are you just TRYING to make things hard on yourself? Sure, weight-loss is the goal, but it's advisable to EAT occasionally. The miles were mounting, and it made me recall a time where someone asked me (you know who you are) how many miles we had ridden because that number was exactly how many miles a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich was worth. I was starting to feel that little pang in my stomach -- so I slugged some semi-frozen water, and pushed on. Only about 10 miles left, really...give or take.

We reached Lackman Rd and then made our way west to Renner again, this time south of Johnson Drive for the LONG and storied climb (this ride is full of 'em) up to Shawnee Mission Park. This is another hill that I have seriously fond memories of, and before long I am looking down at Badgerland's rear wheel and having visions of the Tour of Shawnee -- no, not another Belgian race, but a local favorite reccie/racer festival in late August that comes up this road. It was here that I was having probably my best day, as I was part of a four-man breakaway that was at the front of the race (ok, it's just a ride... but man, I tell you what... at that exact time, it was a freaking RACE, baby, as real as you like.). We four; the big German Feltens, another riderwhose name I can't remember, and Fancher - the nine-times winner at the time, and favorite. I simply couldn't believe that I was staying in that group, and after nearly 30 miles of hard, HARD tempo, we arrived at the base of that climb. I found myself on the front, which was tactically not a good place to be, but I gave it a good shot - and something that will stay in my self-esteem file forever, I dropped two riders on that climb, never to be seen again until the finish. By the time I was shifting into a bigger gear at the top of the climb, it was only me and Fancher -- but I was spent, and Fancher left me inside Shawnee Mission Park -- he was the stronger rider that day, but my head still stays high. I kept clear of the two racers I'd dropped, and took second place. A pack that started with ten, and was whittled to 8, then 5, then 4 and then two -- and I survived to solo to the line behind someone that had won that event NINE times. He made it an even ten that day - but I could not stop smiling. I love this damn hill. I just want the fitness that made that day in 2004 possible BACK. This is the year I get it.
Today I didn't have it, clearly -- despite the cold and the wind, I was managing to knock on history's door by passing Badgerland (only because he let me, most likely) and pulling Dave the rest of the way up, only to shift into an easier gear in self-disgust about 2/3rd's of the way up. It'll come. Time. Give it time.

At 83rd Street we bid farewell to Badgerland as he turned homeward, and then it was down to three riders - we crossed 87th onto Renner, which is undergoing something of a facelift with new roundabouts and such, complete with a blown-over road construction sign! Did I mention this was a windy ride? After reaching Prairie Star Pkwy again, we bid good-day to Nan also, as she took a more direct path homeward -- it was down to two. Dave and me rode side by side, enjoying the tranquility of PSPkwy, but missing the treeline that had been providing a windblock on Renner. Up on the ridge again, zipper were pulled high and faces began to shudder -- even with the temps above freezing, and the sun trying to come out, there was a wet, bitterness to the wind - and it chilled straight to the core even at that later hour. Woodland came, and nearly the final turn southbound back towards the high school, with the promise of warm cars and an end to the torture bringing a grin to my face. My stomach was screaming, my waterbottle dry, and my legs sapped -- I counted the miles until I saw the little black cocoon of my car peeking at me from over the roadside. There was no line sprint, no speed play, simply no hint of spring or summer cycling. We were finished, and that was all there was to it.
Dave and I quickly said our goodbyes and thanks, packed the bikes, and retreated into our steel shells. Wow.

I want to thank the brave souls that made this epic ride possible, for without them I would have simply gone home and gotten back into bed like a slacker.
I'm endlessly grateful that your presence got me out of the car, and onto the road - sincerely.

To Badgerland, KCNan, Dave and Tim

Comrades thru Suffering; it's the CommuterDude way!
See you next month!!!


daniel m (a/k/a Rant) said...

Hey cDude,

Excellent story. Inspirational. Makes me think I should have braved the cold, snowy weekends more often this winter.

Out of curiosity, would that Fancher you refer to be Paul Fancher?

- Rant

Noah said...

Yo 'dude.

I had to haul my wife to work and my hybrid was in the shop (still is, come to think of it...)

I wanted to show up and I've ridden in way worse but not nearly the distance. I decided to drive the route backwards to see if you crazy bastids actually did it. I was the guy in the black explorer that waved on Renner. You guys are flippin' troopers, and after hitting the Lake Quivira area in my damned Explorer, I know why you say that you run the hilliest ride in Kansas City. Holy carp.

Kudos, guys! Maybe soon I'll join you (I kinda broke my face on monday, may be a few months before I'm up for a 'dude ride)