January 3, 2009

R-12, pt.12 - The Final Chapter...

The alarm rang at 5:30am. Not too early. Nothing out of the ordinary... almost like waking up for work. This was no 2:30AM bell for a 3:00AM ride or anything like I'd repeated numerous times this last year. 5:30 is actually reasonable. For some reason, though, I didn't want to be awake. Not yet. New Year's Eve wasn't without it's libations, though limited. I didn't pull anything like a mid-20's partier would have, but I didn't behave perfectly either. Not really pre-200K etiquette, but nothing that would have gotten me arrested, either. Still, no headache, no stomach issues, no nothing -- I just didn't want to be awake. About four hours of sleep, I was TIRED. Having only decided to attempt this ride a few days earlier meant that I didn't really have my head wrapped around things. Even though the car was packed and ready, my soul almost wasn't in it. I knew, back in the corner of my mind, that I had 30 more days left to accomplish this feat, and I should probably pick a weekend where I'd get more sleep. Yeah....

But, then, there was Spencer and Jeff. I checked my email to find Jeff ill, not coming.... ugh... that was ALMOST enough for me to tell Spencer, "hey, me too, man...", but I didn't. He was coming all the way from St. Joseph for this one. I wasn't REALLY going to stand him up, was I?

With that, I was in the shower, drinking my pre-ride drink of Espresso Hammer Gel and Carboplex, and sliding carefully into my super-hero suit - as my kids call it. They're not old enough yet to realize what a dork I look like in these spandex get-ups, but it's cute and I'll take it for now. Into the car, and on the road for this one - starting up in Kansas City, KS., north of the river. No time to waste...

You know you are sleepy when driving is a chore. I haven't been tired behind the wheel in a LONG time, but I caught myself taking those really BIG yawns and shaking my head as the white lines dashed under my car, alone on the morning after New Year's Day -- all the cops are home finally, the drunks locked away, the truckers on vacation - even the rail-yards are quiet for now. Nothing to distract me... lulling me to sleep, the drone of the tires and wind... Ugh, SNAP TO, BOY!

Finally, safe at the American Motel... I unpack the car, hit the restroom a couple times, and try to keep my fingers warm - the morning air is think with moisture and still below freezing, about 25 degrees. Spencer arrives a few minutes later. Ah... this is a treat. In fact, while we have exchanged emails and such for months and months about permanent routes, planning for my next R-12 move, and just shooting the breeze occasionally about stuff, I hadn't ridden with him in probably ... well, okay, August... the 10th anniversary RUSA ride, shortly before he departed for the Pony Express permanent. But before then, it had perhaps been a year. It was good to be in ANYone's company on a winter permanent ride, but it was a pleasure to be riding alongside this guy. We're all individuals, all have goals, wants, needs, and sometimes we look at our own accomplishments with humble reserve, and Spencer is no exception. But, with what he's accomplished in comparison to the rest of the world is truly unique, a catalogue of bicycle-related achievements that is unmatched. We may not have the most robust randonneuring scene (yet), but we have some legends in our halls, make no mistake. Anyways, to share a few miles with someone from whom I can absorb technique, thought, philosophy - it's a treat. Plus, he's just a good guy.

We do the formalities of card signing, cue sheet discussion, and we're off into the pre-dawn glow of the cold morning, greeted by our old nemesis, the wind. From the southwest, and howling a bit - it's going to be a struggle headed to Ottawa today.
78th Street is over with soon enough, and we're on K-32 headed towards Bonner Springs. The conversation is terrific; I can't emphasize this enough. Only a few hours earlier I was talking myself out of this very ride, sitting on the side of the bed contemplating my very existence-- if I had been alone, I honestly think I might have turned back. Especially writing this here, tonight, knowing it was 67ºF today, with light winds and sunshine on this Saturday - even though I could not have foreseen family obligations happening overnight, well - there you have it: things worked out. But, if I'd thought I was going to get a better day in January, and I had been alone, I would not be writing this piece right now. The conversation with Spencer helped tremendously - he talked, I listened and responded, and it kept my mind off the stinging air that was working it's way through my carefully planned out layers of clothing.

K-32 became Loring Road, then Golden Road - I tell you I love this part of the ride, the paralleling of the railroad tracks, the views, the hills. This is a great route. Spencer and I climbed and climbed, and had to pedal out the downhills because of the wind. well, *I* did anyways - Spencer was on his usual fixed gear machine, a terrificly appointed Gaansari Scorcher. Still dingy from a 200K ride the week before, it still looked good, purposeful, intent. The kind of bike that says "hop on, I'll take you there." Not unlike the relationship I've grown with my Kogswell. Just good machines. Sturdy. Ready.

Yes, even the downhills required pedaling, the wind coming up through the trees and across the fields driven by pressure and heat far to the south - heat that we'd feel little of today. The corn fields of August were cut down; nothing but dried stalks beneath, revealing details in the terrain I hadn't noticed back a few months ago on this same road. Cruising along with Jason back then, warmth, short sleeves.... today was like another country, another time entirely. Ghostly, yet beautiful.

Soon we were at Stouts Corner, the first control -- only 20 miles in, and again contrast to August, it seemed a lot longer of a trip this time around. That would be the tone of the day, but not really to a negative slant. We fueled up, got our cards signed, and hit the bathroom a few times -- time to roll. Another good thing about having a seasoned randonneur at the helm of a ride like this: while often alone I find excuses to keep hanging around, to stall, while unintentional - because I eventually DO continue the ride - I think subconsciously I am trying to relax more than time would allow. Relaxing is for the finishers... while the clock is ticking, you can "rest" on the bike. While this was never said aloud, it was information that I gathered for myself. Each control, I realized that *I* was the one being waited upon. I would "hurry" like I normally do, and catch myself slowing repacking my bag, sipping coffee, pondering lipbalm or something that COULD be done while rolling. Meanwhile, Spencer was finished with all his business: standing patiently beside his bicycle, helmet on, look of encouragement on his face that says "let's go." I still have lots to learn... the Texas bunch does this, too, I've noticed. They don't call these "rests", they call them "rides". Again, never spoken aloud - but I learned something new, and it's wise to take lessons from those that have many, MANY more of these under their belts.

K-32, a good shoulder, and a steady climb towards 222nd street in Leavenworth County, KS. I was not really looking forward to the long twelve mile stretch southbound into this wind, this COLD wind. But the turn was coming up... or was it? We apprached 222nd St, or LV-1, and came upon a bevy of orange colored construction signs. Uh-oh... While most indications showed the northbound section of LV-1 was closed, there was still a sign showing that the southbound section towards Eudora - our only river-crossing within 10 miles, was ALSO closed. Ugh. This is one of those times where GPS mapping technology on the handlebars would have been REALLY nice. But, alas, we do this one old school... I actually prefer it this way. Do we ride the fours miles, and see if the bridge is open, or even fordable? That would add eight miles if we had to backtrack, and then we'd have to find an alternative river crossing. Lawrence? Bicycle-forbidding DeSoto back to the east? The very balance of this route was held on our next move. If there was no Kansas River to cross, this would not have been a big deal at all... find another road, even a gravel one, and carry on. But this... this could change a lot of things. This was another time in the ride where I might have just tossed in the cards and called it a 50-miler. A training ride. But, Spencer is the regional permanent's coordinator, after all. It IS his route. We decide not to risk the extra 8-miles to discover we might need a detour, and proceed west on K-32.

This is, by the way, completely within the rights of the randonneur: as specified in RUSA rules Article 7, quoted: "if a rider leaves the route, he or she must return to the route at the same point prior to continuing, ie. no shortcuts or detours from the route, unless specified by the organizer." In this specific case, since the organizer himself was present, and also happened to be the route designer, our move was legal. Considering the case of river crossings, you're looking at a sizeable detour anyways if a bridge is out -- not every little country road is going to be equipped with a bridge over a river, after all. Make no mistake, we added quite a few bonus miles with this move, an item later on we'd be pretty miffed about.

I hadn't ridden K-32 this far west since probably 2004, when I did the Lawrence run with ... oh, man... the way-back machine... TomKC, and Bob --- wow, guys if you're still readers, drop me a line. Would LOVE to ride with you again. Seriously...
Anyways, I hadn't seen this part of K-32 in years, and Spencer and I kept checking with each other: "Does this road cross the river?" "no... farther...", I'd mutter. I'd gathered up my mental maps. I knew the terrain out here better that I'd given myself credit for, knowing landmarks pointed out by Shorty (RWark) years before on a car ride into Lawrence on Old K-10, I sighted the twin smokestacks on top of one of the Kansas University buildings. I sighted a water-tower that looked familiar. There was the airport. K-32 ended, and we took Us-24/40 into Lawrence proper, and finally crossed the Kansas River just before entering downtown. Looking at maps later on, it was true -- there was no other way across the river. We had done the right thing. Now, get through town, and find the route again. I hadn't been to Lawrence in years it seemed, not since seeing the Fast-Food Junkies and Truckstop Honeymoon with Big-AL a few years ago (good show). We passed by Mass Street Music, the city park, all the neat houses - right south through town as we backtracked east to find a quick way back to the route.

Eventually we ended up on Louisiana Street and continued our great adventure at the behest of the route organizer. This, Spencer told me, was what a Free-Route Permanent felt like -- which intrigued me greatly. No idea where we were going, just a general idea of heading and purpose. This was COOL, roads I had not seen before. Some people - I used to be one of them - freak out at getting lost, especially on a bike. Today, I felt inspired, thrilled, excited to see where this completely foreign piece of pavement would take us, and how far! I knew certain landmarks, I knew that cross streets would eventually HAVE to meet, but for now we were adventurers!

A song entered my head, and stayed there: "Buildings and Mountains" by The Republic Tigers, a local KC band. Check it out, and if you can find the acoustic version... it's magical. Visit the link above, and that song should play automatically. Now, imagine, riding along into the high sun, the wind in your face... and the scenery, never before seen, rises slowly from the horizon as you pedal into the unknown. Dude, it was good....

We rode, quite literally, into the noon-day sun and blazed a trail that zig-zagged us back to the south and east. The road came to a tee along a stretch of the Lone Star Century route, which I knew well. We headed east. We met an intersection, and took a turn south -- the road narrowed, each new intersection we didn't know exactly what we'd see, and the hills came. Steeper than usual, as should be expected. Off in a field to the right, I see the usual scattering of cows, and a couple of weird looking Llamas... uh, no.... that's not a llama... that a FREAKING CAMEL. I swear, TWO, single hump, high-desert camels IN KANSAS, just chewing on grass in a field - alongside cows and other usual field fare. CAMELS. It's the weirdest thing I think I've ever seen from a bicycle. We reached another tee in the road, and turned east again, and the pavement disappeared... not exactly gravel, more of a silty, forgotten stretch of road that might have once been overlayed with gravel -- but it had been so long that what was left was pulverized into a fine powder, leaving a perfectly even patch of nice, quiet dirt road. Tucked back into those side roads, the un-improved sections of Douglas County, we rode into an area - I kid you not - a pure, undiscovered treasure of a landscape so post-card perfect I could barely believe I was seeing it. Spencer immediately commented it reminded him of the Flint Hills. It was literally breathtaking, even with the browns and tans of winter having taken the grass the rolling untouched hills on either side of the road were magnificent, astonishing. All of the sudden I was immensely glad I had woken up, showered, and rode.

Shortly after, we were reunited with pavement and closer to being back on the intended route. We rounded a curve and skirted Vinland before approaching Baldwin City, along the biggest, longest climb in the area - probably in the county. The climb over the ridge into Baldwin City is magnificent, but I could really do without the traffic. It's truly the only way into that city from the north, and on this late Thursday morning - which still felt like a Saturday - there were plenty of cars, trucks and duallies headed into town for this or that. With nothing to speak of for a shoulder, Spencer and I were at the traffic's mercy. This is where I have to remind on visibility and safety: in a situation like this, you just HAVE to be seen. After grunting out the climb we began our descent into town and stopped briefly at the c-store at US-56 before heading south again. We were close to the route again, and only had to traverse Le Loup, KS, and then head south on Tennessee Road and we were back on course with only about eight bonus miles so-far. That at least saved us the detour turn-back mileage, and kept us moving in a progressive direction for the day's goal. The wind was relentless, as was Spencer's fixed-gear pace, and for the first time that day the distance between us began to grow as I slacked off the pace. I didn't intend to, but something was catching up to me -- hydration?

We continued south on Tennessee Road towards K-68, and the final turn towards Ottawa, KS., and Spencer stayed just out of grasp as I began to realize my errors with the preoccupation of being happily lost, and started a strict rebuilding regiment of drinking a mouthful of water every five minutes until Ottawa... which eventually worked. They say you can't get rehydrated while on a bike... but I was at least going to try, and the end result was a renewed spirit and push by the time I was a few miles from the turn-around. Not shabby.

FINALLY, the halfway... and Spencer said it best, paraphrased, once you make the halfway, you can pretty much finish the ride. He had never failed a ride after having made the halfway point, which reminded me of my story from way back about the 2002 400K attempt, which I oddly never blogged or journaled about. Basically, I had ridden all the way from Grandview, MO. to Appleton City, MO., effectively LAST on the road, my first brevet series, my first distance of ANY kind like that. I made the final checkpoint at Paola, KS, and was on my way back north, alone in the dark, for the last 45 miles of the journey. At the time, Old KC Road was closed for the bridge that now crosses over the railroad tracks and Ten Mile Creek between 279th and 255th streets -- there was no good way across, and it was pitch black. So, I opted for Bob Burn's suggestion of just taking the shoulder along US-169. This was also under construction at the time, and the big concrete barricades had reduced the shoulder to a sliver of pavement barely wide enough for my handlebars... and it had just started to rain. The three miles still stands as probably the scariest, longest three miles of my life as 18-wheelers and cars zipped by in single file, in the dark, probably completely unaware of my presence there. I was white-knuckling the handlebars so hard, my hands hurt and cramped up afterwards. I made it to 255th street, and proceeded back to Old KC Road, to continue north -- and my phone rang. It was the Warbird. He had gotten lost, ran out of food, bonked, and had layed down in the road
miles south of me. I had thought he was ahead! He was calling from the safety of his car, already having been driven back to Grandview. At that point, frazzled from traffic, I announced that I, too, was done. I asked him to come get me, and I rode to the BP station (then an Amoco) at 255th and Old KC Road, and sat on the curb and waited in the dark until he showed up. I'd had until 8AM the next morning to finish that ride... enough time to be taken home, sleep, be taken BACK to that point, and continue the ride to finish it... but I was DONE. So, SO long ago.... But, worth mentioning.... sometimes, regardless of you situation, it just isn't going to be the day.

Hot pizza, drinks, and conversation, and Spencer and I were ready to saddle up for the last part of this ride. We mounted up and left the Casey's, and I was thrilled not to have been worried about the clock on this ride. Spencer, wicked relentless on his fixxie, was often hard to keep up with -- something that got me thinking about the times I'd broken personal records on fixed gear and single-speed bikes. Even in my fittest condition, on a light, fast bike, I had never posted as good a lap-time at Shawnee Mission Park than on a fixed gear. Not even CLOSE. Hmmmmm....Why did I stop riding fixed, again? At any rate, Spencer was making me work today, and the clock was reflecting it.

Finally, the wind was on our side: We didn't even have to hammer to get the 21 MPH pace we managed on the shoulder of K-68 headed back towards Tennessee Road. We were flying along, smiling big, good food in our stomachs, and hope in our hearts that we might beat the sundown despite our detour. We made Tennessee Road quickly, turn north, and realized that most of the wind was a cross wind now, but it was still a big help. We enjoyed a healthy pace along this stretch, made it back to Le Loup - but the distance was growing between us again. Man, I tell you what -- you'd think after all this time I'd be faster at these 200Ks, but I'm here to say that it's not that easy. It goes back to me New Year's realizations of a couple weeks back, the purchase of the heart-rate monitor, the new goals -- any fool can ride these. Spencer is trained by his fixed gear machine, and that's the pace. Period. It's nearly perfect... all things being equal, you WILL go this speed, generally. On the geared bike, I find myself sliding the chain all over the cassette, finding the easiest gear for the job, not pushing myself. Today, that lack of self-discipline was showing: when it came time to push the larger gears, I didn't know how. I kept up the hydration, and kept food incoming, and kept Spencer in sight. I'm not saying that any one method, fixed or freewheel with gears, is better or worse than the other. To each his own, certainly, but you have to be willing to push bigger gears than your choices afford you if you want to go faster. I hadn't been doing it for years now. But, now, I had a target.

We reached Wellsville, asked about the river crossing bridges - but we were too far south for anyone to know for sure. We fueled up again, and continued on. DG-1061 was fabulous, good pavement finally in Douglas County, rolling hills and gentle breezes. Fields of cows, sheds blown apart by high winds the week before, light traffic. Ahhhh... the sky was alive with blue, and the sun peeked in and out of passing clouds as the wind continued to help us move north. I like this road. Finally feeling frisky, I tailed Spencer harder now, but realized that the wind had moved a little, and so I took a few pulls. Was the wind shifting?

We made Eudora, finally... just south of our intended, original, river crossing from hours before. We asked inside, and after I emerged from the bathroom, I could tell on Spencer's face. Our detour was completely un-needed. The bridge was open... only the road in downtown Euroda was closed. ACK!!!! Well, you know, sometimes it's like that, and we can't go back and change the past. Live, ride on. We mounted up again, and laughed a little as we crossed the perfect bridge over the Kansas River, thinking about that pre-sundown finish, and how it probably wouldn't happen because of our detour.... but at the same time, countering with how neat it had been to see the unique scenery, and undiscovered treasures we'd seen. Personally, I'm glad things turned out the way they had.

Back on K-32 again, we made Stouts Corner before sundown, but light was fading fast. Vests came on, lights were checked, and layers that had been taken off in Ottawa were added back in. The last 20 miles of the day... the last 20 miles of my 12th 200K in as many months....

Twelve of these in a row... back in February 2008, which I can now call "last year", I didn't really REALLY think that I was going to do this. That first ride was really just a chance to see an old friend in Texas and enjoy some nice weather for a change... the previous winter had been horrid. Then came the 200K in March, which I skipped: the official BREVET, that is. The weather was bad again, and only three brave souls set out in SEVEN DEGREE weather (including Spencer) for that ride. I chose the following weekend, and that became the March edition, #2, of the run. It was no longer about the brevet series... I could have easily waited until the April 200K to continue the series, but something was edging me along to make this an official goal. Looking at the training schedule I HAVEN'T stuck to over this last year, it's amazing to me that I was able to complete this goal. I don't know how much of a role long-term fatigue played in my steady slowing down over 2008 on these events, but I still contend that is something that can be remedied with focused training. I'm still sticking to my guns: there will be no "2nd R-12", not this year. Will I still do the occasional 200K this next summer? You bet! Really, truly, THIS is the kind of rider I am. I love this sport, and I feel strongly attached and part of something now. Never again will I hem and haw about, "well, I don't race, so...", or "I'm not fast like you guys..." or whatever... I am what I am, and I can be as fast or as slow as I want to - that part is still up to me, and I do still need to take care of myself - but if someone were to ask me what kind of rider I am, I proudly answer that I am a randonneur. No apologies.

But, I still have 20 miles...
The sun dips fast this time of year, and as we made our way east from Stouts Corner in Linwood, KS, we turned SW onto LV-26 highway, towards the setting sun. Ahead of us was the most magnificent, brilliant sunset I think I had ever seen. Oranges, pinks, reds, purples, blues... I'm not even sure a camera would have done it justice as the colors were so explosive and overpowering as to completely surround my being. I'm lucky I hadn't ridden into the ditch, because I'm sure I was staring straight into the sky and not really watching the road. It seems silly to attach an analogy to such a beautiful moment, however it truly seemed fitting that after such a long journey I would be lucky enough to have been granted that view as I approached the home stretch. No trees to block it, and the route just happened to angle back to the southwest for just a couple miles, otherwise I might not have seen it at all. I felt my father nearby, I felt my kids watching me, cheering, my wife giving my that knowing grin not wanting to hear any excuses venturing near "I can't...". This was it. The home stretch was clear. Nothing bad was going to happen. No bonk, no flat, no hassle. Just a good, strong finish to a really long journey.

Spencer and I began to shift our focus towards our brightening headlight beams as the night closed in. The stars came out, the moon and Venus were brilliant, and traffic was forgiving. Off towards the river, a coal train blew it's horns for a crossing, and made it's way across the open fields to our south. I pulled my zipper a little higher, took a drink, and hunkered in for the last few hills that were coming around the next bend. We made our way up the long grinders, back towards Loring Road, K-32, Bonner Springs. We enjoyed long, mysterious downhills back towards the flatlands of the river bottom. We helped an older lady that pulled up behind us find her way. We heard the cries of coyotes in the woods. Another coal train accompanied us along our way back to town. We made good on green lights in Bonner Springs, passed with ease over the nasty railroad tracks near K-7, and followed the long, lonely shoulder back towards I-435. At this point, I had lagged behind the farthest of the day, to the point where Spencer's bright taillight was nearly indiscernible amid the car lights and traffic lights ahead. It took miles, but I found the spirit to lift my pace and time-trial back up to him, just barely before reaching the bridges at I-435. Even the coming hills on 78th didn't bother me; my pace on K-32 was lifted with the hopes of finishing, and realizing what I was about to wrap up had crept up on me. I was excited, but partially sad... not doing one of these in February? REALLY? Could I honestly stick to a goal of NOT doing one of these a month this year, too? It has become habit, something to plan for, month over month --- I think it's helped me get through work's turmoils, helped keep me occupied. What was I doing to do NOW? I still don't have the answer to that, but it will certainly involve riding, and fun, and the good news is that I will still have the '09 Brevet Series to look forward to. If this truly is the kind of rider that I am, should I really switch gears? February? Man.... I already said once I wouldn't, but I tell you --- it's going to feel REALLY WEIRD not to. Maybe if my training allows me to truly finish these before noon on Saturdays... maybe if I can actually take one weekday off per month, instead of killing the weekends... maybe, maybe...
Ah, just rest on it a while.... the answer will come.

Finally, the final control is in sight - and with hearty handshakes and a personal, silent cheer, we arrived at the last stop. As of this writing, only 147 people in the country have this award. I am privileged to know at least a dozen of these fine folks from the rides I've shared, and by the next few weeks when results are verified and certified, I will be "in the club", as they say. That feels pretty darn good.

But, regardless of feelings come February, a new journey awaits.

Even though it's already posted, I must repeat my thank-yous, as they can't be said enough:

My wife and kids, for being supportive, patient, and allowing me to miss one weekend day a month to do this crazy bicycle thing. I love you all very much, and this isn't worth doing without having you to share it with.

God: for the gift of a strong tailwind on the return, the strength and health to do what I love, and the most amazing sunset I've ever seen from the saddle.

Everyone that rode with me on this epic personal quest: Del, Noah, Jason, & Spencer, and the many others that attended the August RUSA 10th Anniversary ride which was part of this journey.

The Warbird. Without you having talked me into trying that first 200K brevet back in 2002, I would not be here. You handed me a key that unlocked things I didn't know I had in me.

Casey's General Stores. Thank GAWD for you guys. Hot pizza on a cold day.

That wraps up this amazing journey, folks -- thanks for all the support, and thanks for reading. Stay tuned, because this is only the beginning. For all I have done, there is SO much more left to discover, so many more walls to push, obstacles to face and overcome. So long as I enjoy the ride, that is all that matters. I can't think of a finer pursuit, and a more fitting end to a really great year on the bike.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Enjoyed the ride with you! Especially the CAMEL!

Positive mention of the Kansas Flint Hills always gets my attention.
Hope your readers will stop by for a visit; a truly distinctive place!

Dr. Bill ;-)

Personal Blog: http://flinthillsofkansas.blogspot.com/

Our 22 county Flint Hills Tourism Coalition, Inc. promotes experiential tourism visits to the Kansas Flint Hills – the website is: http://www.kansasflinthills.travel/

Jason said...

What a thrill, to have a detour like that and have it turn out like it did!! Who would have guessed, The flint hills right around the corner! Awesome! A CAMEL?!?!!?! How exciting!! :) Every time I read these, I want to get on my bike and ride!! No really!!! :)

Congrats again! And I look forward to riding with you soon!! Enjoy the rest, you deserve it! :)

O. T. said...

Heh, heh, heh, Good thing I was not with you, the "halfway point, always finish rule" does not apply to me.

Nice work & well earned!

I predict by February 28th you will be looking at route and cue sheets again. Bon route, bon chance.