November 24, 2009

Looking backwards and forwards

It'd been a while since I'd ridden anything other than the standard to-and-from commute routes, so I took occasion on the National Weather Service's professed "last day of above-average temps" to wander a bit from the usual.  This saw me taking some roads that I hadn't ridden in several years, which was a nice treat and a welcome break from the routine.  

With a slight headwind from the south and my vest zipped high, it was a good chance also to test the legs on some fairly hilly roads.  A holiday week also made things a little less traffic-logged than usual, which helps.  I've noticed, and I mentioned this to some extent in my ten-year retrospective post, that a lot of roads I used to frequent have become less desirable for bicycle riding in recent years.  This is where I find myself on both sides of a clear line:  Leave things alone, or build and improve.  Small mystery, I'm not a huge fan of progress for the sake of progress.  Sprawl, overbuilding, residential confusion and property-value-enhancing road treatments are all on my short list of frustrations, and not just from a bicycling perspective - simply from a "right way to do things" perspective.  I am grouchy beyond my years.  Honestly, if I lived downtown I'd probably be happier because, to a certain extent, there is "no more work to be done."  In the skirts of the 'burbs, though, there is always someone watching for profit, utilization, and making a buck.  Tossing up balsa-wood and wavy-walled "castles" for the opulent, leaving the farmland they are named for a wasteland of "me-too" and lawn-care posturing.  "Perfectly good" farm roads then become dice-rolls of cycling horror.  It has me really limiting the boundaries of where and when I will ride a bicycle, and that isn't good for anyone if you factor it out.

On the other side of that line, just for safety-sake if nothing else, it has me actually WISHING for road improvements.  For someone that adores sleepy two-lane chip-seal, this is a major shift.  It's gotten to the point, even in my ten-mile radius to-and-from work, where time-of-day becomes a big factor when deciding how and when to get to work.  The morning, no problem - the evenings, however can get dangerous.  Recent conversations with other would-be commuters at the recent KC-Sprints event shed light on what I suspected; basically that conditions have worsened so that otherwise savvy cyclists won't even consider riding a bicycle to work.  This is city planning at its darkest hour:  allowing these residential horror-shows to pop up everywhere, while streets and traffic control measures - and cycling accommodations - that should support them are years behind what's considered acceptable in other cities.

I left work yesterday thinking of all this as I made my way east, then south, onto roads that have nearly tripled in traffic flow in the last five years, and are yet still at least two years away from improvements.  127th from Nall to Mission is a wonderful stretch of bicycling road, and thankfully is a lane-plus in width - but busier than it should be considering there have been no residential additions in the area in a decade.  This tells me that major arterial roads nearby are at capacity, and people that don't live along this side-road are trying to shave minutes off their drive-time.  This doesn't bode well for the people that do live here, or cyclists that are trying to stay away from traffic.  I'm very much of the belief that just because the law states I can ride down 119th, for example, I never would:  I'd pick a side street.  Problems arise when 119th becomes so crowded that even the drivers follow this notion, and spill onto the side streets with me.  So, then, where am I to go?  The other streets simply don't go through, and if they do, they don't connect to anything.  Whole areas have been crossed off my list as a result.  Eventually, the side-streets do get widened and improved, which simply invites more cars.  The only hope is that the planners will listen to the advocates and include a bike lane, or that outside lane-plus - but at the very least cyclists end up with an additional lane.  What stinks in the process is that the resulting road and surrounding area becomes homogenized, grade-relaxed, sodium-vapor lit, and otherwise an uninteresting reminder that we truly live and ride in a automobile-centric town.

I end up on Mission Road at 135th, then 143rd, then 151st, then 159th.  More "progress".  159th and Mission was already a difficult road to ride compared to when I used to frequent it, but now the adjacent fields have been cleared and the roads are choked with contractors' pickup trucks working on the next "exclusive living" development that is priced far outside the realm of the working-man's income.  The old, white farmhouse on the SW corner of the intersection is long gone, and some kind of condo or apartment complex is going in.  I'll bet the sod farmers located nearby will be looking for new land soon, either by choice or by force.  Someone, somewhere, thinks that their land would make a good soccer park.  

I ride south on Mission, cross the railroad tracks, and enjoy the best stretch of road in the county.  Twisty, hilly and interesting - not too many cars - a road with a lot of character.  Character that is under fire, if you read the county planning commission's reports on what the next decade holds for this area I'm now riding through; the Blue River Watershed.  Mission road from 159th to 183rd is "unsafe", there are many animal collisions, and bicycle "incidents".  This all flies in the face of common-sense, driving according to the design speed of the road, and generally paying attention - but clearly I ask too much of drivers.  We have to text our friends, right?  In reality, it's all thinly veiled quick-talk to improve the road in order to drive in more development.  Whoever wrote that isn't concerned about Bambi and her cycling friends.  That's not why this beautiful road, with it's scenic overlooks and rustic farms, will ultimately be "improved".  It saddens me, but it is the march of time.

I turn west at 175th street, and dive sharply down to creek level and a low water crossing.  Even as I'm thinking how awesome and undiscovered this area still remains, there sit two public works trucks.  Survey work?  Hard to tell - but probably a drainage study for something or another.  For now, however, this unpaved, hilly, stretch of road is my sanctuary from modern Johnson County.  I catch a train at the crossing, and after a rest there I climb up the long grade out of the valley.  It's a sad thought, but I can almost see the shadow of a huge concrete deck bridge that will fly over the top of all of this, as those with much larger pocketbooks than mine eventually get their way and connect the railroad's new inter-modal centers in Gardner and northern Cass county via 179th street, say around 2015, 2020?  It's not all bad, mind you - 199th street near Ocheltree saw similar changes last year, and 223rd near Woodland is undergoing the same.  For now, I appreciate and enjoy what I have left to ride.

More and more, that's been the way to enjoy cycling in Johnson County.  I have seen this in a friends' blog entries, and have been brave enough to witness it firsthand, even today, as I look down previously "forbidden" roads, and decide "why not?"  Gravel.  It's the last hold-out for non-competitive, recreational cycling, and there is a lot of it to discover.  Lots of character, old bridges, forgotten farms, and land that has no "value" to someone looking to build twenty homes at a time.  As I toss up self-proclaimed boundaries in my old stomping grounds, I am stripping down boundaries that used to keep me on "pavement only" to the south.  The rewards are plenty, and the negatives are few.  Punctures?  No more-so than usual.  Granted, one does well to run larger tires - and that has greatly modified my views on what a "dream bike" entails.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Surly's Long-Haul Trucker is far higher on my wish list than, say, a Specialized Tarmac S-Works.  Forget about equipment though, it's really not what's needed here.  One only need to ride a little looser, more aware, to enjoy what's out there on the big grid.  Why not continue riding south on "road X"?  While I'd be personally nervous about doing it on 23c race tires, there really isn't any reason to second-guess doing at 15mph what the racers in Paris-Roubaix do at 25mph.  One will find that most gravel roads are quite passable.  Cars?  Far fewer.  Enjoyment?  Indeed.  The chances of your new favorite road being turned into a four-lane suburban superhighway next year?  Slim.

So, while my commute-minded self will likely be looking forward to some road improvements in the next five years to make car-free-to-work more enjoyable and safer, the recreational cyclist in me is expanding his boundaries, exploring local history, and generally having a good time of things.  My goals are still the same, and I'd wager that the training quality is just as good.  An ultra-racer peer of mine confessed to using time-trial work on the Katy Trail as the core of his training, so clearly pavement is not a requisite for distance speed-work.  In short, no worries with regards to Tejas and such.  Sometimes, I just want that quiet cycling getaway, without vying for rights with the quarry trucks and business-class rush-hour.

I arrived home via 175th street and Antioch after jogging across Metcalf at 179th, enjoying some marvelous vistas - some temporary groaning at the construction of a new mega high-school - and rolling down Mur-Len past some open cattle fields, something that I still enjoy having within a few miles from home, despite the residential growth.  A nice jaunt, and a chance to stretch the legs on home good hills, see some roads I hadn't seen in a while, and ponder the future and past.  Quite seriously, even with my questionable view of the future around here, it's a good time to be a bicyclist.  Moreover, I think it's an important time to be a bicyclist.  

Don't you love sentences that begin with the phrase "part of the problem"?  Well, I think part of the "problem" is that it has become so easy for people to let go of what they don't realize they have:  the scenery, the local history.  It's far too easy to miss these things in this digital, heads-down, drive-fast age.  I'm guilty, too, being "too busy".  A local, personal, favorite bicycle store closed its doors this week in Kansas City, and I was always "too busy" to get up there.  I regret that, even though I know it's not taken personally.  In a short matter of years, I doubt many will remember it was there - I hope that's not the case.  To a similar extent, nobody seems to see that quaint farmhouse off the road, or care about the stories of the families that grew up there - or care that in a few months it will be smashed to dust and paved over.  They see a vacant shack, an eyesore, an old world relic, a development opportunity, and the future.  Perhaps I'm too rooted in the past, perhaps I move too slow.  Perhaps I'll simply be bypassed, just like that narrow gravel road near the creek.  Looking forwards and backwards is healthy and important.  We can only go forwards, true; but one has to slow down and appreciate what we have in the present - not be too quick to bulldoze it all, and make sure that someone tells a story about it.  I know progress and change is inevitable; all the more reason to hop onto a bicycle and go see some of it before it's gone - or, at the very least, appreciate what it's becoming.

Back in the bar at the KC-Sprints, a conversation led to another one of those "part of the problem" statements - and that is the notion that we have no peers in my neck of the woods.  With the developments and the changes, it's clear that many names have fallen off the radar with regards to cycling in Johnson County.  There is a lot of disdain about this and that, some of it created in these very pages.  I have dug up cycling books from as recent as 1995, focused solely on Kansas City cycling, and have read about 1930's races downtown, the formation of this bicycle club and that, and I wonder if I have isolated myself so much, or if the landscape really has changed in the last 15 years.  Should there be more bicycle clubs?  Is there enough advocacy?  Am I just not paying attention, or has my life really become so busy?  Who holds the future of bicycling?  Who stands up?  How must they feel, those old guards of local cycling - having formed a bicycle club in the '60s, and seeing what I'm seeing today?  Who takes the reigns?  It's a very resonant sentence, the one that friend of mine muttered - that we don't have any peers.  And it's keeping me thinking.

So I ride, and I think of the future.


Randy Rasa said...

175th! The northern-most bit of gravel in eastern Johnson county, but it's hard to imagine it lasting much longer. South and west are where most of the roads-less-traveled lead me. There's some outstanding riding to be had out there, and once you break free of the suburbs, it's practically infinite...

James said...

All I know is my LHT just loves the gravel road, with some 700x38s.

dmar836 said...

Agree 100% SW is where we ride and every season, it gets tougher just to get out of Olathe. With the new truck "transfer station" thing at New Century firing up, we might have to first drive to a cycling route.