December 20, 2011

Episode VI: Return of the Ice-Face

The normally never-considered vents on the tops of my shoes fill with freezing cold air as I rush down the first hill towards the river.

"Holy.... forget this...."

I check my six, touch the brakes, and turn the bike around.  This is ridiculous.
Not quitting... just, for the first time ever, turning around for the van and the duffel-bag-of-plenty inside.
My first rule on preparing for long rides in the cold when you have to drive to the start location: pack EVERYTHING.
This morning, I'm not even sure it was twenty degrees.  Add in the manufactured wind-chill created by cycling through the pre-dawn air and there was no WAY I was going to wait for the usual mile-three warm-up.  I wanted to be warm, but NOW.
Checked-in already at the QuikTrip up the hill, I didn't much care that I was burning a little clock.  Even the van looked surprised to see me back so quick.  (yeah.)  I fished out the keys from the seat bag and went diving for the few remaining layers that I didn't already have on my body.  Mittens, check... Shoe covers, check... lock, slam, keys stowed, zip, zip, zip, gloves on, ROLL!  ...MUCH better...  now, to get this 200k started already!!!

This time out, it's the "All's Wellsville" route, starting in Kansas City, KS., passing through Edwardsville, Bonner Springs, near DeSoto, Linwood, Eudora, near Hesper, Clearfield, Le Loup, passing near Peoria, and finally the turn-around in Ottawa, KS.  It's an interesting route ... flat in most places, which - honestly - bores me to tears.  It's good training, however: training for the mind.  Flat roads for me provide that anxious feeling like "you'll never get there" ...a feeling I need to learn to block out if I'm to pursue longer distances in a few short months.  It's a great route, honestly, as are all of the KCUC offerings.  I just have my favorites, that's for sure - but, I'm making a concerted effort to add variety to my R-12 run this time out as well as try routes that I wouldn't normally pick.  It helps me hone my control routine in a variety of settings, prepares me for varied terrain, and keeps the scenery fresh.

For the moment, scenery isn't really a concern.  It's dark.  It's flargin' freeeezing.  Without the normal bank thermometer signboard near the start location I don't have a way to confirm it for sure, but this may well be my coldest 200k start - at least in recent memory:  the Knob Noster 200k comes to mind.  The forecast changed hourly the day before, finally showing the mercury bottoming at around 20ºF.  That was at the start location, however:  farther along the route down in the Kansas River valley the temperature was set in the mid-teens.  It surely felt like it - and, it was very humid.  Frost everywhere, reflecting my lone headlight beam back in mystical shimmering sparkles as I rolled along K-32.  Strange images, though... frosty dead possum.... frosty dead rabbit... frosty discarded McDonald's bag... and myriad other unidentifiable bits of roadside trash all rendered sparkly and magical by the fairy ice queen.  Weird.
I grin at myself, and my facial hair resists... confirming that the ice beard has begun.  Yikes... so far this year, I haven't even had that happen on a commute - so it's remarkably cold and wet up here by the river, my breath condensing instantly, flying back onto my face and freezing in place.

"Just take it easy"...

I'm not in a hurry to the first control - just making circles.  I'm approaching the third month of "the new shoes", and lately I've been feeling the indications of possible over-training in my joints.  This happened with the last shoes, and the ones before that.  Time.  Patience.  Yet - in typical dude fashion, it'd be on my mind practically all day, just as it was in the 72-hours leading up to the start.  The weight of willpower not to change something for the sake of "solving" a problem is a weight I don't wish on anyone.  I exchange the hassle of temporary discomfort with the self-imposed burden of trying to find a solution for it - wherein I create more issues.  Rinse, Repeat.  Lock away your tools, dude.  Ride it out.  It's not pain... it's "change".

An early morning freight train passes me, blows its horn.  This route is another rail-fan opportunity for me - nothing quite like combining two of my passions into one activity!  I leave the lights of Bonner Springs behind and drop onto Loring Road, and though it's not technically "the old highway" it has that feel of ancient concrete as it parallels the Union Pacific railroad tracks, finally dead-ending right after I turn west on Loring Road's extension.

Despite the cold, I find myself dressed perfectly after adding the layers at the van.  Summer cycling gear you almost can't get wrong, but COLD weather cycling gear can be a tricky thing.  I've touched on this in other posts - true cold-use items, compared to chilly-use items that are marketed as cold weather cycling gear.  While I like to keep things generic in these pages and not call out one brand or another, I feel compelled to here because of the experience I've had with their products over the past four years.  That brand is Craft.  All of the information you'd ever want is on their site, so I won't repeat it here - but, simply, when it comes to winter cycling I don't look to anyone else.  Comfort like this comes at a premium price, and truth be told it's taken me years to individually amass the base layers, the jersey, the warmers, the head covers, the shoe covers ... but, each step has brought me closer to a perfect winter kit for long distances.  Again, as I've stated many times, these particular posts are based around long-distance fitness cycling.  For commutes, man, I've seen and used it all - and you can stay warm in hundreds of ways with little to no additional expense above what you'd normally spend to stay warm OFF of a bicycle.  For long-distance, cumulative, fitness-oriented efforts where technical clothing becomes more important, however, there is simply no substitute for the good stuff when it comes to cold weather.  Even if you can only swing one of their long-sleeve base layers, it will change your entire outlook on winter riding.  Like me, you will find it remarkable how FEW layers you end up wearing on a really cold ride.  The warmth and moisture transfer factors are staggering.  Okay, that's my product plug for the day.  Craft.  Insist on it.

For long-time readers - yes, I still LOVE wool stuff.  For rainy rides down to freezing, there's no substitute -- but when it's really cold I've found myself more comfortable if I stay drier.  Wool insulates terrifically when it's wet - so if you KNOW you're going to be wet, it's perfect... like in the rain.  When it gets very cold out, however, wool can hold onto sweat too long in my experience - and when cooling down at a control, I find myself eventually shivering as a result.  The Craft stuff seems to pull moisture away from skin faster than anything I've ever used - it dries faster on the clothes line than anything else I own.  The fabric, the weave - there's something to it, definitely.  I would have thought evaporative cooling would create the opposite effect, but the Craft stuff is very warm as a result.  Problem is - it has to STAY cold for the Craft stuff to be "perfect".  If it gets warm, you'll get too hot.  Wool still rules in the arena of temperature range - proven LAST month when on the Super Big Gulp route: a ride that started in the upper 20's, and ended up in the mid 60's... but I barely had to shed any layers, being comfortable in my wool togs all day.  If you could only spend the money on ONE kit to rando in... because of that flexibility... it'd still probably have to be wool.

Meanwhile, on Loring Road, in a vacuum at sea-level, when vehicle A is travelling eastbound at 55 MPH, and vehicle B is travelling westbound at 55 MPH, bicycle Z will intersect with both vehicle A and B at exactly point X, where the width of the shoulder-less road shall be the width of (A+B+Z)-3 ft., causing vehicle B to slow to bicycle Z's speed, while the combined effect of reflective gear and shadows will cause approaching vehicle A to needlessly slow to vehicle B's speed at location X, which equals "horn".  Crap.  Of all the variables in all the world... at O'dark-thirty on some random road, how come the lone cyclist is always, eventually, found by two random cars travelling in opposite directions at the same time???  Finding the Higgs Bozeon (Boson?) can't be as important as figuring out this chaotic pattern [I find the former spelling more "scientific", as it doesn't conjure images of the key to universal mechanics being strapped to the back of a giant mid-western grazing quadriped, the mighty and elusive Higgs Bison].
Finally, some hills!  Staying ever wary of my intention to take it easy for joint's sake, and to take it easy to avoid overheating, the hills are still welcome.  I arrive at the end of this lovely road and pause for a nature break... marveling at the cascade of steam passing through my headlight beam.  Cold out here.  Stars are gorgeous... dogs barking in the distance... a train horn...  gotta keep moving!  It crosses my mind that if I simply turned back from here, I'd still have a nice 30 mile ride in the bag.  Pah... sure, this isn't easy, but easy is boring.  Besides...the first control has coffee.  

Mmmm, coffee....

At this point, even my insulated water bottles are resisting the day.  I manage to extract a few more drinks - far less than I'm probably requiring, but it'll have to do.  They're almost frozen solid.  
I give the girl working the c-store a bit of an interesting scene.  She pauses briefly from her store-opening register routine to consider me, my clothing, my iced-over face, my numb-tongued requests for time and initials in the appropriate brevet-card box.  Surely a sight... deep in the haze of teenage I'm-too-cool-for-anything-to-shock-me, I still manage to get a glimmer of confusion to show up behind her eyes while I fumble through my back pockets, punch data into my phone, extract calories from various baggies and plastic tubes, fill bottles with hot water, only to then disappear back into the cold darkness outside the frosted-over front door.  Too interested to completely ignore me, but not interested enough to ask - the fate of most non-randonneurs peering into a world that they'll likely never understand; made worse by participants like myself that find it difficult to come up with a quick explanation that doesn't immediately raise more questions.  

The next few dozen miles fade and blur into a mural of a frosty, brilliant sunrise over brown fields and images of a lone cyclist - the only spot in the scene nearly as-bright as the rising sun - making his way across the valley crossing the Kansas River, while birds of prey begin the morning hunt overhead.  Countless pedal revolutions, sips of water, insertion of calories, songs, movie quotes, interesting barns and buildings, trees and cemeteries.  Euroda, Clearfield, Wellsville.... a few stops here and there to rest the legs, take in the views.  These long, cold, solo rides don't do much for drama or storytelling -- marked only by mile-posts, bottles emptied and filled, and the subtle twitch you can feel when the temperature finally peeks above freezing.  The sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is there... but its warmth is fleeting.  I roll along in a dream state - sounds muffled by covered ears.  Mere glances to the horizon feel like minutes - images captured on the landscape of my mind, held there, considered for miles while I carve a tiny envelope  through the icy air.  Everything is happening slowly, and I'm on autopilot.

Weird... a frosted-over dead coyote... that's a first.... I did SEE that, didn't I??

I didn't check my average at the first control, but - interestingly - each subsequent stop since shows a small tick upward in overall speed.  It's difficult enough riding in the off-season.  There are no thoughts towards personal-bests, only survival of the conditions.  I have no expectations this day - just to finish.  However, I'm pleasing myself with the continued upward trend displayed on my cyclometer.  It's a good indication that the work I've done since July is paying off: the weights, the LT sessions, cross-training, diet -- all culminating in a decent performance even without conscious effort towards a number or goal.  My overall goal this fall was to increase my cruising speed - to get back to the point that even when I'm dog-tired I'm still riding consistently without having to think about pushing.  In 2003, that speed was in the 18's.  In 2008, that speed had dropped into the 14's.  Now... we're back in the 16's...  Getting there... slowly.  This is good for the to-be-chosen "big goal" for 2012.  I'm also reaching a point where mentally I can unplug a bit - instead of lamenting about the length of a road or how-long to the next whatever, I find myself just "showing up" at turns - all while still being able to enjoy the passing scenery.  Hard to describe - but I'm liking where I am at the moment, and where I'm headed.

Pizza, cheesy potato bites, more Perpetuem Solids from Hammer Nutrition, water, water, water.... I ate like a pig at the halfway.  It's been stated by nearly every outdoor publication you can get your hands on:  winter sports burn more calories.  Here, here.  This is an area I normally fall short in - and it's especially prevalent in winter cycling where (in my case) most of my on-bike calories are stashed where they aren't easily reached - especially with clumsy gloves and mitts.  While I've played with the idea before in many different incarnations, I always - eventually - get rid of the handlebar bag.  One of these days I'll grow up a little...but, I think my opinions will change once I have an opportunity to set one up correctly, with a good front rack and decalleur - mounting it low, out of the way.  For now, I simply stop more often, unzip a few layers, and go fishing in my back pockets.  At the controls, it's food-game ON.

At Ottawa, The sun is out - it's bright... frost is melting off the roof of the Casey's in Ottawa and dripping down onto the sidewalk around me while I chow down, packing this and that onto the rear rack.  It's finally warm enough to shed some protection, and the much needed layers I grabbed at the last minute finally get retired.  It's certainly no tropical paradise, but it's above freezing - and that's PERFECT weather as far as I'm concerned.  Comfortably full, I finally declare the ride "halfway done" and point the bike east on K-68 for the return leg.
I mentally discard the highway section by playing "what the ____ is that noise??!" with my bike.
This actually continues all the way back to Wellsville, where-in I spend perhaps an hour not thinking about saddle comfort or my legs or knees or anything... because I'm trying to find that rattle.  This involves keeping one hand on the 'bars, while the other roams from cable to cable, fender, light, wire, brake lever, pump, rear rack, helmet strap, zipper pull, computer mount.... WHERE ARE YOU COMING FROM?!


It brings me to the subject of "sanity savers".  
What's that?  Some of you know... but for others:  those seemingly ridiculous rubber donuts that fit over your top-tube routed brake cable?  That cleverly placed bit of electrical tape that prevents two crossing shift cables from rubbing?  That re-purposed bit of taillight bracket shim that keeps a frame-pump quiet?  Wrapping everything in your seatbag in shop rags, to ensure NOTHING can rattle or shake?  There are roads out there that make these things necessary, even on a properly tire'd steel framed bicycle.  There are a few of those roads on this route.  It may not seem like a big deal - but when your brain runs out of things to focus on, deep into hour seven of your next ride, that tiny rattle that you can't find will drive you completely, Edgar Allen Poe, Chinese water torture, Dumb and Dumber road-trip, INSANE.

Cut to a picturesque scene of a country lane from the point of view of a local cow, and in the distance the silhouette of a cyclist dismounting his bicycle in a scream of fury and defeat, tossing it into the adjacent ditch and shouting "make it stop" at the heavens.  The cow looks on, confused, but continues chewing - raising his bovine eyebrow in curiosity.

Marveling at my ever-increasing (if you can count 0.1 MPH at each stop "marvel-worthy") average speed, I notice that the wind is beginning to shift - as forecast.  I'm truly blessed... this, for the 2nd month in a row, was another of the fabled and (now-not-so) ultra-rare double tailwind events.  Thank the maker... but, man, I am SO gonna pay for this next month.  My zippers are a little bit lower, my smile a little bit wider as I settle into a good rhythm heading northbound on Tennessee Road towards Le Loup, KS.  It's only five miles, but it always comes across as a bit of a death-slog.  This is where the "80-mile wall" starts to show up... but, today, it is a joy.  Crystalline skies, and approaching the T-intersection at the northern end I catch a container train heading NE, its brightly painted boxes contrasting nicely against the dead hillside behind them.  Wellsville is next... keep moving.

I tango a bit with I-35 and finally make the bricked streets of Wellsville and the welcome sight of another Casey's.  Today, while my rolling average is good, I'm still not passing up any opportunity to get off the bike and step inside for a few minutes - control or no control.  Apparently, Wellsville has a town ritual - and today, I'm standing right underneath it, at noon, when it happens.  Perched about halfway up the superstructure of the city water tower is a civil defense siren... and that water tower is directly behind the Casey's.  I'm literally 20 feet from the base of one of its legs.  It's SO loud, that it encompasses my senses fully - vibrating my entire body.  It's only a 2-second long burst, but it spins back down to idle passing through every conceivable frequency - from spine tickling to teeth chattering... it will find your head's resonant frequency and exploit it.  Apparently, they do this every day at high noon.  Some towns have nice church bells, or a clock tower.  Wellsville has a giant WWII-era air-raid siren.  Scared the living daylights out of me.  Right when quiet was restored, I swear I heard muffled, maniacal laughter coming from the operations center at city-hall... "we got another one!"

Sound the alarm... cyclist comin'....

Fast-forward 15 miles, and I'm back at Eudora... the QwikStop, and another personal stop.  Average speed ticked up another notch... more water refills.... only 30 miles to go!  I cross the Kansas River again, across railroad tracks and up the ridge ... finally some more climbing ... to K-32, and then back to Linwood, where I manage to catch the same girl working the counter as earlier that morning.  She's right at the end of her shift, but I still manage to get matching initials scribbled in the 1st and 2nd-to-last boxes on my route card.  Bonus!  My summertime mark of trying for under 10-hours total is slipping into impossibility, but I'm still pleased considering that was never even a thought for this ride.  I calorie-up a little for the last 20-mile or so shot ... which, I swear, always seems like WAY more than just 20 miles.  

I dance with a couple more trains along Golden Road north of DeSoto, KS., climb up the big hill on 158th street that takes me back to Loring Road for more interesting climbing and a nice, long descent back down to river-level.  More trains, and FINALLY... confirming that I'm not completely nuts, I see another cyclist!  We exchange waves across the lane as we pass each other head-on -- big thumbs-up to the guy in the red jacket, whoever you are.  There must be some cosmic significance to that part of Loring Road, because it's almost exactly where the pre-dawn chaos-theory experiment happened nearly 10-hours earlier.  Bonner Springs city limits come into view, and afternoon traffic.  It's not too terrible, but I manage to catch every red light through town.  Nothing like traffic-light intervals after 110 miles are in your legs!

I check off the landmarks... K-7, the nasty railroad crossing, the shoulder disappears, then reappears again, Sonic, gas station, I-435, Edwardsville...

Another random and poorly timed nature-break opportunity beckons... ugh!!  Pick you battles, dude... you're WELL hydrated today!  It's moments like these where I'd much prefer a little solitude and some shrubs... but, alas, gas-station loo it is.  I like a certain kind of misery -- but sitting on a full bladder while tackling the hills that await on 78th street isn't my kinda treat.

Climbing away from the Kaw cut towards I-70 to the finish is a mean way to end 127 miles of riding.  I feel fresh, spirited - despite a few troublesome cramps and yanks in the calf area of each leg... more growing pains from the new shoes, no doubt... no panicking allowed.  Climb!  Don't think about the pedal stroke... just let it happen!  More traffic awaits near the motel finish - and I have to ride past the van again to get the last box checked at the QuikTrip.  I catch each red light near the highway, again... ugh.... tick-tock:  but it's only time.  This one's done, effectively... I can sit at these lights for hours and still finish.... and it seems like it takes that long!!!  GREEN!  GO!!!

Perhaps a more desolate route for January?  Second month in a row I've ended a 200k in the throes of afternoon traffic.  Ugh.
Said with a grain of salt, of course ... the GOOD thing about such routes in winter, if you need shelter and services, they're there.  
Maybe I can gut out the traffic... maybe.

QuikTrip, a bottle of chocolate milk for the road, a final receipt, a final signature... and one final encounter:
"you ridin' across the country or somethin?"  from a local gent, also checking out.

"mmm, no - but, this is like a training ride for stuff like that, I suppose.  Someday, someday..."

"well, I was behind ya in traffic back there trying to figure out what "randonneurs" meant..."  (thanks, French people)
It was a neat encounter with an unlikely party - which is one of the things that makes these rides so interesting.  The people you sometimes meet, never who you'd expect to talk to about it with you, and they are always genuinely interested, fascinated... and sometimes as confused about our motivations as WE are when it comes to explaining that one, lingering question of "WHY?"

...heck, if I knew WHY, I don't think I'd be out here looking for it...

That about sums it up.

Schtuff in my head:

Thanks for reading!!!

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