October 19, 2012

The Flint Hills 225k - Bazaar, indeed...

A picture, often, can be worth 1,000 words.

http://goo.gl/maps/bfHxU , just south of Cottonwood Falls, KS., on K-177.   As far as the eye can see in any direction, there's just a whole lotta "nothin'"...which is really, something.

Taken by Glen, a few miles ahead of me at the time near Bazaar, KS. - the sky, the rain, the wind... it truly had been a "bizarre" ride.  But, I'd wager, in a good way.

So, there's two pictures.  That oughta save some time...
A smarter version of me would have taken even more pictures, yet, I found myself in - ha - bizarre states of mind more often than not, and simply spaced out the camera's role on this scenically epic ride.  I find myself with about a 1/3rd the free time I had enjoyed last October, and it has kept me away from the keyboard, and the bike, more than I'd prefer.  I still, however, make time to ride to work when I can, and ride these longer riders at least once per month.

It simply wouldn't be my style to let a ride pass by without having something to say about it, and this ride proves as no exception - in fact, if anything it deserves extra attention.  It has reversed my old notions about driving a long distance just to get to a ride.  Over the past three months, actually, I've been enjoying a very good run of such rides, each one seeming to raise the bar ever higher.  It's got me anxiously wondering what November will bring, if I'm brave enough to branch out to yet more unknown routes when the weather surely will turn for the worse - at least for the colder.

2:30AM, the alarm sounds.  

Good grief, what am I doing?  Why didn't I drive out and get a hotel room last night?

Live and learn, I suppose - but, life kept me in town Thursday night, so this was how it was going to have to play out.  At least the car had been packed, and I sat ready to roll.  I-35, K-68, and some roads that I'd never had occasion to drive on (K-268, K-31) strung together to reach US-56, and ultimately, under a canopy of darkness, thick clouds, and harsh winds, I reached Council Grove, KS. a little before 5AM - time for a quick power-nap, and prep for the 6AM start.
I pulled up into the parking lot, near Glen's RV (smart man), killed the engine, set the timer on my phone, and drifted off for a few minutes.

The temperature was near 50 degrees F.  Not bad for October... in fact, unseasonably cool by some standards - but certainly not "cold", yet, upon exiting the car to begin unpacking and dressing the sharp northeast wind stripped away any warmth I'd had.  A shudder, and a few layers saved for later appeared from storage.  The humidity and the 15-20 MPH steady winds rendered conditions a bit nippy.  

Glen and Terry stirred, and eventually our three routines found us around a table inside the Short Stop c-store, sipping thin coffee and waiting for the "gun."  Receipts and final prep, and we made the first of only three left turns on the entire course, southbound on K-177 into - for two of us - the unknown.

K-177 is a great piece of road.  It meanders generally south and southwest from Manhattan, KS. at US-24, through Council Grove, ending east of El Dorado, KS at US-54.  The majority of what we would ride sits on the National Scenic Byway plan, surrounded by protected prairie land - land that hasn't been divided, plowed, or developed... ever.  I had been looking forward to trying this route for a long time, but the first part would remain a surprise until the end of the day thanks to the late sunrise.

The late sunrise would create one of the more interesting rides I've had in a long, long time - and it makes me wistful for scheduling another Dark Side Ride - something I've been horribly lax in doing, another casualty of a far-too-packed schedule this year.  In stark contrast to the last few DSRs, which normally take place fairly close to town, the first hour and a half of the Flint Hills 225 brought us out of Council Grove under a canopy of thick clouds on a night very close to the new moon.  Without any nearby towns to cast the usual orange glow of light pollution across the cloud deck, the result instead felt similar to riding a bike with a thick blanket over one's eyes.  The eerie bluish cast from our headlights appeared to project an image of a passing road onto a featureless, black backdrop ahead of my front tire.  Only the very rare passage of a car from either direction helped define the landscape - and sheer expanse - of the emptiness around us as we rode south with a stiff tailwind.   I can't wait to come back to this route on a cloudless night, just to witness the night sky under such conditions... but, "riding in the black box"  proved spectacular enough, and otherworldly.

The tailwind would HAVE to be paid back... this I knew.  The forecast was sketchy:  rain, wind, clouds all day, possibly a tailwind shift... but who knew?  At least for the first portion we stayed dry, watching the black finally yield to some vague purplish blue from our left side as we approached Strong City and Cottonwood Falls, KS., about 25 miles in.  

After a quick stop at the Casey's in Cottonwood Falls - nearly a necessary stop, as we'd pass nothing at all until the halfway point - we rolled out onto the prairie as the sun (which we still hadn't seen) rose and gave us a better view of our surroundings.  

Amazing scenery abounds on this route.  Again, I wished I'd taken more photos - but the images are indeed burned on my mind.  Climbing a hill towards an old stone schoolhouse, seeing the other side of that hill yield to giant expanses of untouched prairie colored a golden hue with fall's first touch, the wind whistling us along at 20+ MPH towards our destination as we danced with the railroad - the engineers acknowledging us as they passed with a couple of quick horn blasts.  Simply an amazing day.

The best part of the day unfolded near the halfway - still dry at that moment - rifling west alongside railroad tracks with an ever increasing tailwind, and seeing a wide strip of black clouds spread out ahead of us... the biggest signs that our "luck" with the weather had been about to run out.  Brilliant cloud-to-ground lightning, still too far away to hear the thunder, lit up the sky ahead.  An incredible scene.

Later, near El Dorado Lake and the halfway, the clouds, lightning and thunder met us and unleashed a hard, cold rain for our final 8-10 miles to the control.  It was nice, after summer's drought, to get a little rainfall during a ride like this.  Thankfully, it cleared up right before we reached the Casey's in El Dorado, giving us a chance to dry out and perform our usual control routines for the journey back.  Nothing quite like trying to wrestle wet wool gloves back on!

The return trip was something of a mind-game.  We thought for a while at the halfway that the wind had actually shifted in our favor, a miracle - yet, when we finally turned the corner and proceeded out of town from the control, the wind was indeed in our faces, and strong.  Just part of the game, I tucked under the brim of my cap, and pedaled it out.  There's just no other way to get home than to pedal.  The byproduct becomes a lot of heads-down grinding, with occasional glances to one side or another to see landmarks or to follow the call of a nearby bird.

The last few rides I've been able to hang with Glen R., pacing and exchanging pulls - but this time out, I don't know if I had tendered my on-board fuel TOO much - knowing the stops were few and far between - or if I had been using the wrong off-board fuel at the few controls - if I'd used up too much gas enjoying the tailwind by pushing it - or if it'd just been an off day, but starting about the time the rain came, I couldn't bridge-up anymore.  The 2nd half of the ride became a solo-mission.  The three of us, Terry, Glen, and I, had never been too far apart - we'd regroup at each stop - but, we were far enough apart to avoid seeing each other at all, most of the time.  While I've spent far more miles alone than I have with others, I spent a few miles being frustrated with myself for not being able to keep pace.  This, in turn, made some of the sections harder than they should have been, mentally.  The wind hadn't been THAT bad, and the terrain seemed to be forgiving in most places - yet, I remember having a rough time on the miles between El Dorado and Cassoday.  The skies a relentless grey, the wind stiff and cold, the bike feeling like it'd been lubed with tar and my legs full of lead, I struggled.  

Back at Cassoday, I felt stiff and heavy - falling into a bench across from Glen and letting the relative warmth of the surrounding store breathe life back into my body.  Terry arrived shortly afterward, and we three got ourselves back together for the next leg.  The same pattern unfolded again as the miles progressed - we'd chat for a bit, smile, laugh (all in all, it really was a GREAT time) - and then separate into our own rhythms on the road.  More content this time with the pace I was able to muster, I enjoyed the scenery and wondered about the clouds that still dominated the skies around us while occasional raindrops dotted my handlebars, only to dry away.  Strange day, weather-wise.

Terry ended up with a flat tire somewhere along the way, calling me to let me know (phone service?  bonus!) that he'd be a little behind, but was okay.  I took the opportunity to unload the jacket, as I'd become too hot - which began a comical routine wherein over the next couple of hours I'd wear, and then retire, the rain jacket off and on as the weather changed - passing pockets of showers, cold rain, drifted along the same route we pedaled.  With the wind, the lack of sunshine, and the effort of the day - often times I'd feel chilled, but then would become too hot - also, I'd upped my fuel intake to try and recover some of my pace, which worked.  I never caught Glen on the road, but never ended up being too far behind him at the next stop, either - but it also meant more nature breaks on the roadside.

Back at Cottonwood Falls after what'd seemed like an eternity, I found Glen waiting - not quite ready to roll - and I took advantage by trying to rush my own routine, but then we both ended up waiting to make sure Terry made it in after his flat.  It ended up being a fair amount of time resting, but it ended up being a good thing for me.  I stretched, ate, relaxed, readjusted some layers and warmed up.  Locals were overheard talking of more rain heading in from behind us, so once Terry came in, we three took steps to get moving again.

A few miles north of Strong City, the steady rain foretold came to be - jackets back on to preserve core warmth, we finished the last 20 miles in the wet.  The portion of the route we hadn't been able to see in the dark earlier that morning proved worth the wait; more rolling hills and open prairie as we marched back to Council Grove.  The route offers a reminder of how generally flat it is, saving a few larger hills until right at the end of the route as we rolled into Council Grove's outskirts.  Finally, the last turn and the short leap to the final control.  

Finished!  Glen in just over 11 hours, me about ten minutes back, and Terry another 7-10 minutes behind me.  We rested for a bit, celebrated the ride's end in style, collected cards and receipts and packed up in the rain for the drive home - making for a long, long day... part of what made this feel more like a 400km than simply "another 200".  

But, I will be back -- I don't think, honestly, there is a more beautiful route available in this area:  miles for mile the best views and roads possible.  Maybe a little warmth, less rain, more stars, and a favorable SW wind for the return would have been nice - but hey, you get what you get, and it's never all that bad by the time I finish.  Sure, it could always be nicer, easier, drier... but I think that's what ultimately made this ride so worthwhile.  

Thanks for reading - and to Glen and Terry, thanks for riding along!

Stay tuned.

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