November 12, 2007

40 miles to freedom

This weekend, or ths first time since late September, I rode a bike with a group -- well, if you can call three people a "group" -- ok, I suppose you can.
Still, it wasn't SOLO, for once! Wasn't a commute, wasn't some lame solo training -- just a good ride with a couple other blokes.
Started out from home, rode to the ride start, then basically almost rode home again, passing within a couple miles of the home-20, and then working back towards the start again - afterwhich I rode home, much the same way I had ridden there.
The result was a good 40-mile workout, and some pretty neat scenery along the way. Because of high south winds, we decided to ride towards the south first and get a little push all the way back, but that quickly turned into bike trail abandon as the south winds proved a little strong for some. Since I was just along for the ride, I didn't have the heart to say "uh, I just came from this way" -- it was too good a vibe to spoil with pettiness about the route.

Jeffrey and Jim led the way as we proceeded SW on the trail system, towards Olathe. Leaves were everywhere, and the condensation from a particularly wet airmass made the pavement sweat - keeping things damp, without rain. Thick clouds blanketed the sky, and the ride had that flavor of fall that I really like - but unfortunately I was a little over-dressed for it, temps were in the mid-60's - which was weird for November, but had the markings of the steady fall rains that I kinda like. The thick southern wind were'nt as bad back in the trees, and so we settled in, conversation, occasional avoidance of oncoming joggers, riders, dogwalkers out for probably one of the last good weekends of the year.

The scenery was the same as usual for me, but something about riding in a group made things seem a little more exciting today. My mind was relaxed, no work to report to, and the bike felt spry and ready without the normal baggage of the workday strapped to the rack. Rounding underneath Antioch and behind the ballfields near 137th St, we were all three surprised by a sudden encounter with a red-tailed hawk that had found his breakfast, or early lunch. No caring that we were bearing down on him on the trail at 16 MPH, the hawk spread it's wings and appeared from above, landing past Jeffrey, and just to the left of the trail and about 5 feet (no kidding, FIVE feet) from me in a pile of leaves -- and before you could blink, he was airborne again with what appears to be a clump of leaves, wherein was probably a squirrel, mouse, something like that. Hawks are brave, smart, and it didn't seem to care that we were there, or didn't size us up as a threat - either way, it was business as usual. The hawk re-perched from where it launched, and proceeded to examine the catch of the hour as we rolled by, awestruck. While a common sight on top of lightpoles, trees, and circling the air around town, I'd never been THAT close to one, and the color and detail were amazing -- I really wished I'd had a camera ready. Instead, some stock photos will have to suffice. It was rare, the smell of the leaves and the fall air, thick with humidity, and the stillness of the moment was almost surreal, hearing the wind beating beneath wings, the effortless grab and ascent, and the faint humming of drivetrains and bicycle tires in the background.

We rolled on, through the interesting part of the trail that I usually avoid - even though I end up catching the trail again later on by using 137th street to bypass this section, it is worth the small detour during the week. It's twisty, tight, blind corners, and the thickness of the woods here makes the trail a slurry of dead leaves, mud, and slick spots even in the summertime -- because of the additional care needed in negotiating this section, I often save a few minutes by detouring around it. Today, however, there was no time to save, no need to reroute - we advanced through, around corners, up hill, down, over the broken branches and leaves and slick mud, carefully arriving at Switzer. Things were about to get interesting - I knew this section of trail well, part of my daily routine in the afternoons. This is where I pick the trail back up again normally, and awaiting it a steep grinder 10% and above, with a few curves thrown in for good measure. The condensation here on the lee-side of the hill is thick on the blacktop, and the thin dusting of dirt from recent landscaping over at the golf course has made for interesting traction conditions. Jeffrey, leading the climb, stands out of the saddle only to have his rear tire slip on every pedal rotation. I'm seated, and actually have a similar problem! It's low-gear chaos just to get to the top, as I stay seated to harness whatever traction I can get, and just spin it out. The other side, usually a reward, is also just sloppy enough to make the next mile of descent into a brake-riding nervousness. Eventually "out of the woods", we are soon back on the flat heading towards Quivira.

Just about then, we three regroup and begin to enjoy the scenery again - when we are rewarded again with a rare treat. Normally very shy, we catch up to a bobcat that is on the morning hunt.

The clouds and humidity must be playing crazy with some of the wildlife, because this is again a first as a normally semi-nocturnal prowler is caught in action. Not as bold as the hawk, however, our latest encounter is short - one quick glance, and the bobcat leaps with one muscular bound out of our sight and into the brush closer to the creek below.

No, not THAT one.

Mercury Bobcat? Rare, yes... but no.

That's the one!

We coutinued onward to the west to trails-end, and then joined traffic on the roads for the rest of my usual commute homeward, along 143rd Street through Olathe towards Mur-Len, eventually heading north finally, and enjoying a tailwind treat. I felt a little guilty for enjoying it, since I'd been playing 2nd wheel for a while - but hey, I'd forgotten how much fun it is to actually FOLLOW someone! Tejas was a non-drafting event, the MS-150 had a little paceline fun - but was mostly solo, and before that was the 600K, which was all solo primarily -- I hadn't ridden with someone in front of me since the 400K back in May. Ok, there were some night rides in there, too, but that goes back to August, at least --- yeesh. Group rides are a treat anymore - and I need to change that, because Jeffrey and Jim are beginning to get warmed up. We reach 127th street, and begin the mildly hilly march back towards Antioch. I'm allowed to pull for a little bit, and the climbs are going fairly well considering. I can still feel the weight - not the bike's weight, but MINE, holding me down a little. I'm not exactly poking up the grades, but I'm not flying up them either - and I can feel my legs groaning under the first real efforts in months. It's just acclimation, I tell myself -- done it before, just need to blow out the cobwebs and do it again.

We reach Pflumm, and a lucky green light that allows us to continue pace towards Quivira. This is where things got interesting, and I felt like I got a little training today. First, Jim advances on the left, sweat apparent on the tip of his nose, working -- I jump on, and proceed to hold pace until we hit the top of the hill at the intersection. A brief rest, and we get the green light for a nice downhill. I coast it out, and then the grade pitches up again towards the ascent to Nieman. More action -- but this time it's me at the front, and I think I have Jeffrey in tow. We hit the intersection, and get the green, and the grade continues. I hear a shift on my left, and there's Jeffrey spinning a big gear. He advances up away from me, one bike length -- I try to answer... two bike lengths... I'm dying fast.... three bike lengths.... four.... he's away, and my legs are screaming! I thud back into the saddle, and shift down to spin the burn out of my legs. Dang. Yup -- outta shape! Gasping for breath, I manage to catch up near Grant street, as Jeffrey lets up and looks back to assess the attack. Jim and I bridge up, and next is Antioch, what I affectionately refer to as "the hard part" of my morning commute towards work. Here, from 127th street, the road is a steady climb of about 4%, then peaks at the overpass for US-69 and hits a solid 8% - which doesn't seem like much, but the way it's delivered slowly and then redlines at the end, it's torture -- toss in relentless traffic, and the stress levels make the climb a do-or-die affair. The only way I've found to get driver's respect here is to LOOK like you're not trying to stay in their way for very long. Out of the saddle is essential, and usually the effort requires it anyways. I'm at the front, and manage to pull our group up and over the bridge, and then a little downhill on the other side awaits before turning onto 123rd street. Then, a short downhill, little faster, and then another climb. My legs are always on fire by this point, and today is no exception. Thankful that at-least I don't have full panniers to lug up the bump this time, I settle in and try to control the breathing. There is a lot I've forgotten since riding to try and keep from getting passed. Even though this is a leisure ride, there is always something to be gained. For the moment, I'm managing to get some good training off the front. It's cool-down time behind me, and we eventually regroup at Metcalf - then to Lamar, and finally back to the ride start. It was a great time, but sadly with conflicting schedules and holidays coming up, it may be the last time the temperatures cooperate at this level. We'll see, but I look forward to the chance to do this ride again.

For now, it's time to head homeward - and I sincerely think about waiting for the wife to show up so I can get a ride home. Nah... you've had worse, remember? But, the vague soreness of not having ridden even THIS long for over a month was really apparent. Gotta push it home, man...remember your deal with yourself from years ago? If I leave the house under my own power, I get home that way, too. Earn it. If it was EASY, you'd never have gotten OUT of shape, right? I put the helmet back on, fill the water bottle, and mount up.

The ride home is fairly pedestrian, the same route as my normal commute - and solo again. Still, the busy squirrels, the birds, the colors - it's still a treat for the senses, even if this would be the third time I'd see it today. Doesn't HAVE to be like that, though -- and quickly, I start to get that old feeling back -- the old feeling of, "let's try THIS road" -- the long period of burnout must really be behind me now, because I haven't wanted to shake things up like that in a while. Today, I have the urge, and I start to remember the old-days again, and thinking about WHAT got me into shape: Switzer... Ah, Switzer... part of the old "standard loop", today, I hit it a little late --- normally, one of the best training runs I can get to from the house is just Switzer from College Blvd, heading south to 175th Street. It's got everything, really, and a fair amount of climbing. From creek-level at the trial crossing just south of College Blvd, it's a steady climb all the way to 127th Street, two miles worth with a small break in the middle. Then, a fast downhill with a curve in the middle takes you to another long climb up to 135th street. Invariably, you are caught by the traffic light here, so it's a chance to rest before the next interval. Recently widened, Switzer between 135th and 143rd has lost a little of it's punch, but the grade is still there. A slight downhill all the way to it, today in a headwind, and then you climb the rest of the way to 143rd street. After that, ANOTHER downhill with a curve in it, and then the long, steady climb to 151st street. With a new traffic light, 151st is a LOT safer to cross than in years-past, and after you reach the other side the fun continunes as you climb AGAIN, steadily to one of the highest points in the county. Stopping just before 159th street confirms it, as you can see for miles in almost every direction from here. After that, a really long downhill, un-interrupted cruising until you reach 175th street, then 179th and the Tee. You can pick out any route you like now, as 179th is a great road to ride on, or you can continue the training and turn around -- the trip back north on Switzer is just as challenging, but the hills are longer and steadier heading northbound. It's no Johnson Drive, but it allows you to get into more of a realistic rhythm - where Johnson Drive and the hills surrounding it are just pure punishment. Swizter is good training! Today I take is as far as 141st, and then zig-zag my way southwest towards the new trail that parallels 151st, and finally home. Right at 40 miles, and a lot of fun today!

stay tuned --- more good riding to come!

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