May 17, 2012

The April 2012 400k Report - Open Road Adventures!

The April 28th 400km ride loomed as my longest ride in years.  I hadn’t ventured beyond 300km since 2010, and hadn’t visited Iowa since 2009.  Sure, sure - my recent steady diet of 200 kilometer rides would help things - not as if I’d been sitting around doing nothing by commutes, after all, so I entered into the event without much trepidation.  The forecast looked good, even the winds hadn’t looked terribly awful for once, and I’d actually achieved a decent night’s sleep the evening before.  This was a big one in a lot of ways:  I looked forward to accomplishing my goal for the day of not being alone (riding with people is far more enjoyable than riding solo), I looked forward to just eating “whatever” at the controls (now back to (and liberated by) my Carboplex fueling strategy), and looked forward to checking off #10 towards R-12... with only a couple days to spare in April.

Thank goodness, the Perkins in Liberty has finally come to its senses.  Twenty-four hours of operation on the weekends, for a couple years now, meant that I could get a quick bite before the ride and look forward to a hot meal afterwards - something I missed by a scant 30 minutes on the last Liberty-to-Iowa 400k in ‘09.  Little else on this earth feels quite as nice as a soft restaurant booth, nor tastes quite as good as a hot breakfast platter, after a full day’s riding.  No matter the hour, my reward for the day would be waiting.  

While the atmosphere changes constantly with the clientele, when I walk into our Perkin’s before a ride I feel like I’m walking into a bar full of old friends.  All familiar faces - some I’ve ridden with briefly, some I’ve ridden with for days in total - all sit, conversing, eating, signing forms and waivers and filling out checks for the entry fees.  Bob collects them all, while passing out maps, cue sheets, brevet cards, all packaged in zip-top baggies.  Though we only take up a small section of the restaurant, our busy and vibrant sea of neon safety yellows and oranges, set against colorful jerseys from far-away lands and rides, transforms this hum-drum eatery into a bustling hub of cycling energy.  Rod, Jeff, Alex, Danny, Spencer, Jack, Ralph, Don, Karen, Ron, Glen, Billy (I’m getting better at this name recognition thing, eh?)... and several more whom I forget, sadly.  For a 400k, a great group.  Soon, plates cleared and checks paid, we all headed outside to ready our bicycles for the task ahead.
Compared to the rest of the group, it appeared I’d get the award for having packed the lightest.  I repurposed a shoe bag (which had been included with an old Specialized shoe purchase) as my rear rack trunk.  Spare summer gloves for later when it would warm up, and a lighter head cover inside, and the whole thing rolled up like a burrito and lashed to the rear rack with toe straps.  It works - but, I’ve been kicking around either a larger seat bag, or something purpose-built for the rear rack -- yet, most trunks and saddlebags prove too large... and someone once spoke truth when they observed that “the only problem with a large bag is the desire to fill it.”  I have this problem... so I need to constantly check myself - do I REALLY need it on this ride?  I’ve long-since matured to a seatbag kit which remains compact, yet allows the repair of nearly everything reasonably field serviceable.  Compare this to once-upon-a-time when I’d packed a spare cassette for a 600k, among myriad other things I should have left at home.  The only reason I’m considering a more traditional bag involves speed at the controls.  Where most folks can stop, unzip a bag, find what they need, zip it back up and get moving again, I have to undo two toe straps (the loose ends of which are usually woven in and out of each other to keep the long, extra strap length out of the spokes while riding), unroll the bag, fish around (or deposit a discarded layer, depending), re-roll the burrito, and redo the straps onto the rack again.  As a result, when added to the rest of the usual brevet control routine, I’d consistently be the last one ready to roll out on this ride, despite feeling like I’d rushed.  Even a homebrew zippered pouch would shave off a minute or two of fumbling with my effective and minimalist - yet clumsy - current system.  Someone up in Alaska actually made a custom rack trunk specifically for the Tubus Fly rack I’m running, but they’ve since hung up their operation.  If anyone knows someone that makes a small trunk bag, 11”x4”x5”, with a simple, single compartment, let me know.

Though sometimes I’m not as good at it as I could/should be, being able to move around and chat with different folks in the group during the first hour of the ride represents the best part of randonneuring.  As we made our way out of downtown Liberty and onto the twisty expanse of county route H, conversation ebbed and flowed throughout the constantly changing group.  Groups formed, fell apart, changed, re-formed as the miles passed.  As the sun came up, the usual distances between groups began to grow and everyone started to fall into their respective paces, not helped much by poorly timed traffic light encounters and varied hill-climbing skills as we skirted north of Excelsior Springs, MO.  After a quick detour around some road construction -- okay, through it -- we were free to roll north, into a slight headwind, for the long run up to the first control, 72 miles away.  

Before the first control, however, is Cameron, MO., and the Burger King I remember having stopped at on the ‘09 ride.  After riding for a while with Karen and Glen, our individual paces began to show, finding me alone after about 30 miles of riding.  The faster group of Jeff, Alex and (a third rider) were well out of sight, and the trailing group with Danny and Spencer were equally out of sight behind me.  Suspended between packs, I started to wonder if this would be another repeat of 2009...and, so, to honor that notion, I stopped for breakfast at the BK.  Always a treat - and as I’d nearly finished my mini-control routine and began to stuff the last bite of egg and cheese into my maw, Spencer, Danny, Rod G. and Ron pulled in.  I hadn’t really assumed they’d stop here, and I’d begun preparing myself to ride alone for a while - but, I was happy to see them, and slowed my rush to get back on the bike again.  Riding with a group is far more enjoyable than riding alone... did I already say that?

For the mental game of “checking off turns”, this route exists as especially challenging.  At one particular point, one rides 30 miles before a turn comes - and even then, the turn is more of a natural curve in the road.  Most of this lies between Cameron and Pattonsburg, where the route stretches ahead of the rider, seemingly, forever.  Sometimes I like that, other times I don’t.  This time out, however, staying with the group helped ease things along nicely.  When the headwind grew to its peak, I sat alongside Jack R. and chatted for perhaps an hour, maybe more, as we both tackled the wind on the way to the first control.  The conversation helped take the mental edge off the slow pace and buffeting wind, proving again that riding with a group is far more …... ok, you get the idea!

Finally, we arrived at the control.  With my control clumsiness, I felt a bit like a fifth-wheel sometimes -- no fault of anyone else in the group -- but, my routine has been largely formed on solo rides with no reference points.  I did my best to stay focused, organized, and purposeful while stopped.  At Pattonsburg, everyone managed to have a good sit-down, and I had plenty of time to take care of business - which involved preparing a bottle with Carboplex, consuming a giant cherry and cream cheese danish, and updating my position with a text message to social media.  Despite this, the biggest hiccup remained with the toe-strap burrito-bag rack situation.  At that point, the sun had risen higher and the temperatures with it, warranting some layer removal.  Since my back pockets were still full of Carboplex baggies and other on-road rations, the only place to stash clothing remained the most annoying and time consuming.  After an otherwise brilliant control, I ended up the last one from the parking lot by perhaps 2 minutes, while the rest of the group advanced up the road.  Motivated to not repeat my 2009 solo adventure, I finally saddled up, made a sprint of it and caught back on.

Happily back with the group, the smells of spring charged into our noses by an ever-increasing headwind, we six paddled upstream, northbound, on the majestically quiet expanse of US-69 highway.  An interesting example of how the Eisenhower Interstate plan selectively managed to kill off a lot of small-town America in lieu of a national “oh crap” military conduit system, US-69 still sits relatively close to the interstate which replaced it, and as a result nearly all traffic, even a large majority of local traffic, uses the faster I-35 route, which keeps US-69 very quiet, and perfect for cycling.  An interesting side-note, I find it frustrating that as America builds and advances and wishes to go ever faster, even the old US-highway system has begun to bypass itself of late.  Looking at a map of eastern Kansas represents a prime example, especially with two derivatives of the same “corridor 69” network, US-69 and 169.  Towns like Pleasanton, Trading Post, Humboldt, Welda, will all probably be just fine in the grander scheme of things, but they have been bypassed again in the last decade by improvements to the Federal highways which used to run right through their hearts, due to the demand of highway users and commercial interests to enjoy Interstate-like speed and efficiency.  Contrast to northern Missouri where the two systems serve the same towns almost equally, leaving the US highway usable by car and bicycle alike, the Kansas system leaves the old highway network splintered and broken, leaving cyclists almost zero paved options between small towns.  Certainly inevitable, it is no less saddening to see such good bicycling touring routes over-layed and cut off by 70 MPH, non-Interstate super-expressways.  Bicycle-legal, sure... but enjoyable?  Hardly.  Northern Missouri... at least with regards to my experience on US-69 north of Pattonsburg... is quite a pleasure.

Bethany, Eagleville, Lamoni, IA. all came in quick succession, as we all took turns pulling for a couple miles at a stretch (except for Danny (hahahah!).  Finally, we made the Casey’s at Lamoni, IA., the last control before the halfway point, still a few miles north and east from there.  We’d caught up to Alex and Jeff, the “fast bunch” -- Alex getting ready for RAAM and Jeff just being fast in general -- on their way back from the halfway, about an hour ahead of us - which, really, was fine by me.  I knew for sure that I’d enjoyed a nice breakfast break at Cameron, and the six-pack (as I had started dubbing our collective group) would stop again at Lamoni on the return for a sit-down lunch at Subway.  I wasn’t so sure if Alex and Jeff were enjoying the same “tourists” approach to the day, so only being an hour down hit me as good news for our groups’ pacing.  Alex and Jeff would, however, ultimately finish a remarkable 3 hours and 45 minutes ahead of us, proving their determination and strength at distance.  I’d argue that our group had a better time - but, hey, who’s to say?  Fast, sometimes, is fun, too.  Easy for me to say...

The road from Lamoni (past I-35) to Davis City, IA. is amazing -- hilly, scenic vistas over every rise, gorgeous expanses of green in all directions, and picturesque farmscapes and majestic barns dotting the horizon, with little roadside stops selling Amish treats in certain places, and extremely well-made Amish furniture in others.  We shared the road  with a couple horse-drawn carriages here and there, too - terrific country up there.  Making quick work of the post-card drop at the turn-around control, we turned our bicycles south and west, finally able to enjoy a tailwind!

After our lunch at Subway, we made our way through the rest of Lamoni, and headed south to begin the last half of the 252-mile journey.  The weather was simply stunning -- warm, but not too hot, lots of sunshine, and birds of all types in song.  I blundered a little at the control in Lamoni on the return, however, forgetting to fill up my water bottles.  Thankfully I realized this before reaching the “bail-out” c-store at US-69 and I-35, right near the Iowa/Missouri border.  I pulled in for a lightning-quick top-off, and was back with the group again after another sprint-catchup maneuver.  Whew... glad I’d looked down, as I would have been out of water well before Eagleville - a town with no services.

The day marched onward.  We’d made decent time on the way up, reaching the halfway point perhaps an hour before I’d calculated we should have.  Full of strong riders, we’d made good time against the wind, and the new tailwind would only serve to add time into the bank, not that we’d been in a terrible hurry.  We made Bethany in good time, made another quick stop - each of us preparing for the setting sun.  Music players came out, layers, reflective gear, and food and drink were consumed for the leg back to Pattonsburg.  

Quick sidebar on music players.  I’m a recent, reluctant convert here.  For the longest time I’ve held the strong belief that earphones and cycling don’t (and shouldn’t) mix.  I believe in the context of commuting this combination can be dangerous, so I’ve always abstained, keeping both ears open and my senses available for traffic - subtle changes in tire pitch, cars approaching from odd angles from parking lots or side streets, faster cyclists passing me on the trail, similar.  Naturally, I took this belief into randonneuring as well.  As alluded to in previous, recent posts, however, I’ve been changing my opinion.  A very large part of randonnuering remains, indeed, mental.  While I still struggle with the notion that I am somehow recently taking the “easy path” by using a technique to occupy the mind and prevent fatigue onset, I can’t dispute the success of the last 70 miles of this ride for me, personally.  It’s impossible to tell if it had been the music making the difference, or, that I was simply on-form; but, having a steady stream of familiar music fed to my brain seemed to have a compression effect on the long expanses of highway, especially after dark.  Note however - and this is vitally important - this music was delivered at a ridiculously low volume, and through only one ear.  I wasn’t alone, and it was notable that everyone had taken the same approach of keeping our traffic ears open and free, either through a specific stereo-to-mono earphone, or by simply taking the wire snips to the left earbud on a traditional headset.  I didn’t see anyone riding with both earbuds in.  This, combined with the low volume, revealed in many cases the music to be merely a suggestion, the audible gaps often filled with wind noise or conversation with the rider next to me.  The part of my brain which would normally begin wondering about saddle pain, knee position, miles remaining, time of day, time ridden so-far, remained firmly occupied “singing along” with the “suggestions” being delivered through the right earbud.  As a result, many sections of road which I remember being nearly unbearable during the 2009 edition simply whizzed past this time without much thought.  Again.... better training, more familiar with the route, more familiar with myself??  Lots of variables... but, the music certainly helped guarantee my finish, and my good mood.  Considering I was still easily able to pinpoint approaching cars from any direction, and was still able to hold conversations with those around me without pausing the tunes, I think it worked well.  In fact, it worked SO well, that on several occasions while stopped, I’d forgotten to pause the player - thinking momentarily in each case that the c-store or restaurant happened to be playing a song I really liked over their PA, or that a song was simply stuck in my head - finally realizing that I still had the music playing.  Will I do it on commutes?  No.  That’s just me, though.  For my commute routine, it just adds complexity to a pretty short ride.  For rides longer than 200k, however, this trick remains on my personal menu going forward - and I’ll probably still only use it in the last half of any ride.  Approaching cities and higher traffic volumes, however, it’s easy enough to pull the earbud out and let it dangle until I’m back on low-traffic roads again.  Results will vary.  Everyone is different - and, for some reason, while my hearing has dulled in certain frequencies (most annoyingly for me, right on some people’s speaking timbre) it remains one of my sharper senses with regard to pattern changes.  For some reason, I can sense “car back” before some people with helmet-mounted mirrors can announce it.  So, I’ve always been super-hesitant to hamper my hearing on the bike.

Back on the ride, we slowly approached the final control before the finish -- though, it would be no major amount of relief.  At that control, after all, there still remained 72 miles to the finish.  The sky began to dim a little in the final few miles before Pattonsburg finally came into view - but not due to the sun set.  Sunshine fell out of view, and clouds began to dominate the skies overhead as a few rain drops colored the roadway.  Mmmmm, awesome.  I hadn’t ridden a brevet or permanent in the rain in … ok, nevermind.  I guess I’d completely blocked out the March ride there for a second!  So be it... no sense panicking, with wool in tow for this perfect-for-wool day, I didn’t give a second thought to my last-minute decision to leave the rain jacket behind in the van, hours prior.  The rain picked up and continued for probably 20 minutes before we arrived at the Pattonsburg control, where we checked in, made some adjustments, ate some food, checked the radar, and headed out again quickly.

Still firmly partnered-up with the group, the rest of the ride would begin to slip into darkness over the next section, the sun finally slipping out of sight - yet, we were making great time, overall.  The tailwind, though diminished slightly, still highly preferred over the alternative, helped us along nicely as I chatted with Danny and Karen.  Otherwise, as tends to happen when the sun drops after a long day on the road, quiet fell over the group in longer intervals.  Each of us would drop into our own thoughts, and then someone would blurt something out loud, starting it up again for a short time.  After hitting Winston and “surviving” the overlay of US-69 and MO State Route 6 (the busiest part, traffic wise, of the entire ride), Danny and I paired up for a bit and chatted over a few dozen miles on the last leg into Cameron, MO. - and a planned stop at Burger King.  

This was a nice, relaxed stop --- but, not for the reasons we’d have liked.  Staffing was low, and service was tedious... but, eventually, we all had a hot meal in our stomachs, and - though longer than most would prefer - a nice sit-down rest.  Pleasing to all, especially to me, was the time:  personally, on the 2009 ride, I didn’t make Cameron until nearly 11pm - and now, with hot food coming, it was only a bit after 9pm!  Bonus!  (Last time out, the Burger King had closed by the time we rolled into town.)  Food in, well rested and indoors for a short time - all good things.  We each wrapped up the remaining steps in our re-mounting routines, bottles filled, bladders emptied - just a little bit after Jack and Billy, who had been just out of reach for the last couple of stops, pulled in to get a meal of their own.  I still felt a little odd leaving them there, again, just the two of them - but, they insisted they were doing ok, and so our potential group of eight would remain a group of six for the finish - only 45 miles distant.

With Cameron behind us, we each knew about what time we’d finish - and I started to look forward to my hot meal at the Perkins back in Liberty.  We pressed on, over some perfect pavement (I don’t remember the road being quite so nice back in ‘09, but maybe that’s just representative of my frame of mind at that point in the ride, back then).  The group generally stayed together, sometimes stretching apart, sometimes coming nicely back together.  Another milestone down, we crossed MO-116, along the same parallel as Plattsburg, MO. - which told me we had at least under 30 miles left.  A good sign... until a bright flash lit up the sky.  A few expletives rumbled through the group, mimicking the distant thunder that followed.  Uh oh.  Still, it could have been far worse - all the forecasts promised the storms (which were to have held off until after 1am, but whatever) would remain below severe limits, so fears were minimal.  After a few rain droplets began to fall, Lawson, MO. came into view - and the overhangs of a closed gas station.  We stopped, regrouped, and took another look at the radar for good measure - as rain jackets, stowed after the brief shower near Pattonsburg had ended, came back out again.  

As we headed out into the shower, after a brief rest and consideration, I must restate the continued love-affair I maintain with fenders and light wool gear.  No rain jacket... and, any colder, I might have been wishing for it, yes … but, I remained comfortable and happy throughout the last 25 or so, wet miles into Liberty.  The storm stayed calm - there was some lightning, but no nearby strikes - and everyone remained upright and safe, with the typical randonneur overkill reflective vests and strong taillights.  My thoughts turned, a couple times, back to those that were farther back on the road, and what laid ahead for them - but, it was nice to finish.  At about 1:25 or so, we rolled up into the Perkin’s parking lot, and quickly headed inside to a warm booth.  Menus, hot chocolate, food.... a great way to wrap up a ride.  Honestly - the worst part of the ride was the drive home afterwards - where the heaviest of storms collided with my departure... I should have stayed for a longer meal at Perkins, and a nap!  Emails came through the following day, however, and we learned of the safe passage of all riders eventually making it back to Perkins - some wetter than others.  All in all - a terrific, terrific 400km brevet.  

What can I say in reflection?  The training, the string of 200ks, all seemed to work out nicely -- sadly, I’ve let enough time pass in posting this report, that any memory of bad things, things to change or adjust, have faded.  Even pausing to think, I can’t come away with anything but positive thoughts for this one - my longest ride in 3 years, coming away without any remarkable soreness.  (knocking on wood) --- that’s a great feeling.

Stay tuned for the next one --- which will come very, very soon.

Thanks for reading!


dcee604 said...

Amazing! Nice work! Great to read about your latest adventure, I can't even begin to imagine the 200k rides, let alone 400k!

Bill Penland said...

Nice man...another awesome writeup. I'm a big fan of your site and your randonneuring chronicles. As dcee604 said, I can't begin to imagine a 200k ride, let alone 400k. One of these days, I firmly believe I'll join the randonneuring ranks (it's my intention to anyway), but it's a ways off. For now, I love reading about it :)

Congrats on the R-12 progress...following with avid interest for your success...