November 21, 2012

The Ghost Town Tour

It's been a busy, whirlwind month, and - honestly - I'm beginning to wonder if a 3rd R-12 is really something I should be pursuing right now... much less a R-12 at a certain average speed.  I don't know if I care anymore how fast or slow these next 7 rides go (this month being number 5).  What should be a steady progression of training (for lack of a better term) has eroded to almost nothing, sadly - even the near-guarantee of getting some mileage via commuting to work a few times a week has dwindled to a barely ONCE-per-week rarity.  I overheard on a couple occasions how my riding counterparts had ridden 40 miles here and there in the days before... and it occurred to me that I hadn't ridden 40 miles in TOTAL to prepare for this ride since last month.  (No WONDER I felt like hammered dirt the next day!)  Sure, I survived...but, I'm not pleased with the situation - yet, it is what it is right now.  I don't remember a time in my life where I've been quite so busy, at least not in the last 5-10 years.  Yet, at least for my mental health, I still maintain the goal of riding one long ride per month; but, having lost some of the valuable "training" rides in between had certainly caught up in a big way this time out.  What I need to do, articulated very well after last month's ride:  stop thinking so much, and just enjoy.  I have to ensure that these rides actually provide a mental break from work and responsibility, instead of becoming "just another task".  Easier said than done - despite those personal criticisms, what started out fun - yeah, even as hard as it had been at times yesterday - still ended up fun.  It's best, I'm finding - yes, after all this time - not to enter the challenge of long-distance cycling with expectations of any kind.  Clear the calendar, relax, don't worry about when and where and how fast...  Just.  Ride.  Surely as I type it here, I will forget that simple notion on the next ride ... but, practice makes perfect.  I need to stop over-promising things to myself, to relax a little, because I am indeed, lately, treating my riding like every other deadline-oriented task... and that's not sustainable.

Back in St Joseph, MO., dark, cold... Terry, Glen and I mount up at Speedy's c-store, and start making our way out of town.  It's the first properly cold ride of the year, really, for most of us.  The Kickapoo Two, back in August, strangely started out chilly - but not like today.  Thankfully, the wind would be very friendly all day, and the steady dose of hills leading up and out of town helped kick-start the core temperature nicely.

Logistics changes this time, I've invested in a handlebar bag finally.  I say "finally" because - despite second and third-guessing its very installation - as soon as I started riding, it became a joy.  I've messed with these things before:  a long time back I purchased a very nice Carradice KlickFix Super-C handlebar bag... and I recalled its value instantly, today.  I got rid of the Carradice for a few reasons, but, really, I never should have.  Later, I tried a couple different variations of smaller tube-style HB bags over the years, but ultimately abandoned them for taking up too much handlebar real-estate because of their direct-to-bar strap-based mounting arrangement - which leaves the tops of the road bars almost the very least, it had always been sort of annoying - and I ride on the tops quite a bit.  This latest bag, from Banjo Brothers, has a similar quick release to the Carradice, so I can use all of the handlebar, but it sizes-in at a smallish 275 cubic inches.  It's not too big, but not too small.  There are seatbags I could install which would offer this capacity, yet, the handlebar design becomes infinitely more useful just by being in front of me instead of behind me.  During the ride I changed gloves, shed a jacket, got a snack, checked the cue sheet with it's built-in map pocket, all without stopping, or having to dismount, or having to reach to my jersey's back pockets (which is especially troublesome when colder weather adds gloves to my hands and layers to my back).   Further, with the back pockets free, my lower back doesn't feel today like it'd endured 13 hours of kidney punches, and my jersey didn't sag down to my knees after 40 miles - so, ultimately, it's improved rider comfort as well.  Further, I enjoyed much, much faster control routines not having to fiddle with packing and unpacking stuff strapped to the rear rack with toe straps.  It's paid for itself in one ride, in my opinion, and really wasn't all that expensive at under $60.00, shipped.  For the problems it has solved, that's a bargain.  This may ultimately progress into a larger, retro-goof style arrangement with a front rack - to solve some mild handling twitchiness - but, I don't know yet how much fiddling I want to do, because the rest of the bike is working well, and I'd have to do a fair amount of unbuttoning to integrate a front rack, move the headlight, remount the fender, re-route shifter cables (or swap to downtube shifters) ... yeah, just typing all that out, I'm not anxious to make all those changes... when really, I think I'd only realize a 2% improvement over how the bag functions today.  What is definite, however: I don't really see myself going back to riding brevets without some kind of handlebar bag arrangement installed.   

Back on the ride, I was busy NOT worrying about such things.  All of the preconceptions about the bag itself, which had me doing all the second guessing in the garage the night before, never popped up:  it'll handle weird, it'll be noisy/rattly/clumsy... no, not really... okay... cool.  Crisis averted... time to just pedal!

Along for the ride again were Terry and Glen - and I gotta say:  I'm really enjoying our trio these last few rides.  It's helping hold me to the R-12 plan, and riding with a group of friends makes the day go much easier.  Looking back, I know for a fact I would have finished far later and with much more difficulty (mentally) had I been alone on this ride.

Glen, with breakfast, and cold weather gear - hovering right around the freezing mark at 6:00am

We three rolled out of St. Joe without incident, thanks to the helpful guidance of Terry (a St. Joe resident)... I realized I have yet to try to navigate St. Joseph on my own... I've been led out-of and into that town by rando folks that live there, which beats getting lost and turned around, for sure. 

The first section of the ride offered amazing scenery (once the sun came up, of course) - as we meandered around farmland and at least three different conservation/park areas, climbing up and around the bluffs and weaving back and forth across the Interstate highway near Savannah, Amazonia, and Oregon, MO. - where we stopped for a break and a water refill at about mile 30... and encountered some of the nicest folks I think I've ever met on a ride before - a genuinely nice town, Oregon.

After mounting back up and enduring the shivers of having rested maybe too long, we descended a remarkably steep hill down to the Missouri River valley's eastern edge. You know it's quite a hill when, in an otherwise fairly hilly area, the highway department chooses to warn people about its presence with a large "HILL" sign.  That was a fun downhill, and I was glad we wouldn't have to climb back up - this being a loop route, instead of an out-n-back.  Although, looking back over my shoulder, it might have been fun to try it - just for another wicked descent opportunity.

We rolled through Forest City, MO, and then crawled northwest along the bluffs toward Squaw Creek and Big Lake, watching a train roll by, and seeing some neat, old brick structures standing watch over the valley.  It's an interesting area up there -- look for state highway 111, near US-159.  As the crow would fly, we were only six miles from White Cloud, KS, where we'd ultimately end up on the route, later - but it would take us 78 more miles to get there.  The Missouri River valley is massive, and it puts into perspective just how much water the Flood of 2011 involved.  We weren't exactly approaching the river itself at right angles, but, upon turning onto US-159 (which would take us across into Nebraska), it would take 10 miles to reach to other side of the valley on dead-flat roads - and evidence of the massive flood would begin to appear many, many miles from where the river normally flows.  A thick haze hung heavily in the air above the river as we approached, and the fields on either side of the road - a normally bright green feature of a fertile river valley - showed the signs of having endured a double whammy:  first, the Flood of '11, and then the Drought of '12, both conspired to leave the entire area east of the river covered in sand from the river, and largely dead.  It reminded me of RAAM in June, but in a different state; it was like riding across Arizona again.... staggering, and sad - these fields won't be the same for a decade, and I don't think anyone realizes the full toll quite yet of these last two years.

A distant railroad horn, a nature break, and reuniting with Terry along the way, we staged ourselves to cross into Nebraska... a first for me on a bike.  Crossing the massive river bridge was really, really cool - and, I'm not sure if it'll be the last time I get to do it, as a new bridge is being constructed slightly south of the old steel colossus currently on-duty - built in 1938, I suppose it's time for a redo... but, the bridge taking its place is the typical slab and beam design.  

Glen pausing for a photo, Terry on approach, along US-159, preparing to cross into Nebraska.   You can get a feel, here, for the vastness of the Missouri River valley plain we'd just traversed.  With big, blue skies everywhere, it had turned into a remarkable, gorgeous day.

The 1938 Rulo through-truss bridge over the Missouri... soon to be replaced.  Apparently, the new bridge project has funding for demolition of the old bridge, which is frustrating, as the old bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places as-of 1993, and would make a terrific bike/ped candidate.  I fear the big decisions have already been made.  This monster is pretty narrow, actually, which may be part of the motivation - but it will be a shame to see it fall.  As with many major river crossings - it's paired alongside (rust-brown, in the background) the Warren truss BNSF railroad bridge - its piers are original, dating back to 1887.

The new Rulo river bridge, under construction - the center span is still missing, but we watched over-sized trucks moving the massive steel beams through Falls City, NE. a bit later, on their way to be bolted into place above the water.  Crossing the river may be rendered easier, but it certainly won't be the same.  I feel privileged to have ridden across the Missouri on the old bridge in the shadow of its giant steel trusses - but next time, it might be on this thing. 

The signs speak for themselves, obviously - but, once across the river, we stopped again to celebrate the crossing and catch up on our history.  Having read "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose, I was thrilled to ride this route - we had been passing Louis and Clark Trail signposts all morning, and finally reached one of their campsites, here, at the river's edge.

So cool to hit a state-line crossing on a bike - I can't describe it.  This shouldn't be a big deal, since I live within 10 miles of the KS/MO border, and cross it all the time - but this is different.  With this, I've officially ridden in all my regionally-connected states now: KS, MO, IA, TX, OK, CO, IL and now NE.... hmmm... what's next??  Something tells me Arkansas brevets would be something special.. and probably fairly tough.

After reaching the river and taking a quick break, we climbed out of Rulo onto the big Nebraska plains, heading west to Falls City for the first control, about 60 miles in.  Subway awaited with real food and a comfy place to sit.  Terry suffered a wallowy tire here, a mystery flat in the making - yet, changing it revealed no issues with the tire or tube, at least nothing apparent; good news.  We packed up and headed through town to catch Nebraska State Hwy 8, which heads ever further west into the plains.  Looking at maps, pre-ride, Nebraska looks interesting for riding in general - and KCUC's own Spencer K. has taken up the task of RBA for the Omaha region, offering a multi-day brevet tour in the far western sand-hills of this giant midwestern state...and after being surprised more than a few times by the state's scenery, it's got me thinking about 2013 already.

We meandered around the edges of some neat hills and bluffs marking the myriad creeks and streams which crisscross the region, and with that we ended up on something of a bridges tour.  In addition to the Rulo Missouri River bridge, we crossed the Big Nehama River on a nice structure, which was probably the best example of all the smaller bridges we'd ultimately cross on the trip south and east, back towards the river.  Props to Spencer, intentional or not, for designing such an interesting route!

The next section entailed a long stretch without any services to speak of besides pop machines, but plenty of turns and an information control tossed in to keep riders on their toes.  We reached US-75 at NE-8, and shed a few more layers as the warmth of the sun began to take a good hold of us, and noticed the tiny anemometer atop a nearby utility pole spinning happily in the indicated SE wind.  We'd have to push a little bit for the next few miles on the highway, but, we had a good shoulder to enjoy, and traffic remained light.  Cake... 

At this point I think the sandwich from Subway (rather, my ingredient choices) began to fight back - gut tension, a bit of lethargy in the legs... the protein again?  (sigh)... nothing to do but shove through it, but my speed began to drop - even before the turn south - and I started to suck air.  I don't really feel like I'd messed with the nutrition formula this day, however the addition of Clif Bars and the double-cheese sandwich may have thrown me for a loop, somehow.  Hammer Gel and my liquid Carbo Gain mix had been working well, so I eventually employed only those items - but for a while, it seemed the addition of any protein simply slowed me down.  Things could have been far worse, however -- the highway was forgiving, the wind wasn't bad, the temperature perfect, and the scenery vast and interesting - with a giant wind farm about a mile to our west, towering above the surrounding landscape and oscillating slowly in the gentle breeze to the rhythm of my cadence.  Having been used to sitting on the same hunk of pavement for miles on end, I settled into a sustainable rhythm as I watched Terry and Glen advance ahead - but, I was glad Terry slowed after a couple miles.  We'd only be on US-75 for five miles, yet, I'd been looking much, much farther down the road than that.  I rolled right past the first info control without even seeing it -- and thankfully we had three potential info controls to pick from.  I don't even remember rolling back into Kansas... something I'd planned on taking a picture of.  Terry and I stopped for a nature break on a concrete pad siding which used to be home to a weigh station, which is where I sorta "came-to" and remembered what I should have been looking around for.  Whoof... thank goodness for Glen and Terry, or it would have become a bonus-miles kinda day.

A bit later, the tiny print of a roadside confirmed the turn east off the highway, and we rejoined Glen stopping for a break and recording the information to certify our passing.  So began the long, long section of Northeast Kansas county roads.

At first it didn't seem so terrible, but the glass-smooth pavement of the first 77 miles became a distant memory within only a few hundred yards as we rode east on 330th Road in rural Brown county (uhh, okay - ALL of Brown Co., KS is rural), and climbed the first of many deceptively steep hills.  It wasn't gravel, but it wasn't quite the groomed and pressed residential chip-seal I think about when I hear the term.  This stuff was more like don't-have-to-repave-for-20-years weapons-grade chipseal, and as Spencer would indicate later in the evening, it slowed us right down.  We rolled along amid an endless parade of fields, and quiet roads, finally seeing one car after about an hour... but that would be the only sign of life until we'd reach Morrill, KS.  As we approached Morrill, KS. from the north, riding three-wide on the desolate near-gravel surface, Terry quipped we three looked like drifters riding into town after a long stint on the trail, and my mind flew backwards in time 120 years in an instant... it was a brilliant moment!  We reached the slightly-smoother pavement of town, and rolled past a couple road workers who paused to consider us, one commenting on my "Randonneurs USA" jersey as I rolled past with an affirming nod: "team USA, yeah, man!" in the gruff and hardened growl of a worker who'd spent a lot of time out in the Kansas dust and wind.  In a day like ours, broken by so few human encounters, he looked genuinely happy to see us come by, if only for that fleeting opportunity to talk with someone besides himself and the stubborn pavement he'd been attending to.

Morrill, KS.  Home of a pop-machine, and a curious city engineer/dispatcher/manager/book-keeper/clerk/registrar who wandered outside to chat with us while we paused and I begrudgingly sucked down a Pepsi.  Apparently, there is no Coke distribution in NE KS., darn-it... within the swirling compendium of ways to define and segregate the human race, it must be admitted that yes, I am a Coke person.  Despite the "hey-you-forgot-the-carbonation" and awkward taste, it held some calories - and was had for a crisp dollar... I hadn't paid that little for a 20 oz. soft-drink in ages!

After mailing our info-control postcard and noting we hadn't seen a single car come through town off of K-246, the eastern terminus of which Morrill rests upon, we headed back out onto the county roads towards Reserve, KS., the next control, where we arrived maybe 45 minutes later - and, thankfully, a real c-store of some kind.  It hadn't really been too long in the "no services" section, yet, I still felt somewhat restored hopping off the bike and heading indoors for a spell.  A lot of mental math floated around in the room while the three of us prepared for the next section, and the push east to reach White Cloud... which would represent the longest "no services" section yet, though we'd pass through many towns along the way...eventually.

The stint from Reserve, KS. to White Cloud became another hard section, for me, mentally - it wasn't that far, yet it seemed as such.  Still low on push, I lagged behind my two companions for a short spell - once to answer a phone call, which was strange... I must've passed close to the one cell tower serving my carrier at about mile 105, and realized there I'd been riding in a coverage dead-zone for many, many miles.  I took the opportunity to check in with the wife, just long enough to see Glen riding backwards to find me on the other side of a hill.  It was nice to see him - but, I'd remain dangling off the back for the next seven miles, until - at long last - we reached the river again at White Cloud, and the smoothest, cleanest pavement I'd ever seen before.... K-7, in all its majesty.  YES!  

Looking left at K-7 and "Main" in White Cloud, KS., at river-level.  In the shadow of the surrounding bluffs already, the sun is dipping quickly.  As we paused here to add back a layer or two before the clear skies would steal the daylight's warmth, we watched a local in a pickup truck dragging a 25-foot long hunk of dead tree down the highway.  This is rural Kansas!  With hopes high, we pointed our wheels south into a dying breeze and onto glass-smooth pavement, for the beginning of the final leg.  We'd hit 200km before even getting off this road.

At last, the monster chipseal would become a memory.  Gloves were put back on, a jacket or two zipped up, and lights lit... we'd soon be cloaked in darkness, but I began to smile again.  Just in time for the last 38 miles and the improved riding surface, I could start to feel my energy levels rise... maybe it was mental, maybe I was smelling the barn early, but the Hammer Gel and continued intake of "mix", sans protein, seemed to be returning a positive effect.  Glen had definitely been the diesel, all day - but, I buckled down to help repay the debt of some wheel sucking and pokey-ness earlier on by taking the first leg of K-7 from White Cloud to Iowa Point.  I went into "single-speed mode", picked a low-cadence gear, and mashed out some tempo.  It wasn't rocketship fast, but it sure felt faster than the previous 40 miles!  We danced with some ambitious twilight deer just before reaching the edge of the next ghost town, and then again near Sparks, KS. - one deer running right in front of us as we each took long turns pulling the train home.  

The setting sun was gorgeous, painting the skies a brilliant orange/pink hue, the deep, steely tones of night coloring the skies above the river to our left as, one by one, the stars popped out, and a crescent moon worked its way to the western horizon amid the final calls of darting birds headed home, like us, as Glen set a relentless pace.  I'd been pulling from the reserve tank for miles - but managed to hang in thanks to his generous pulls.  

For the first time in a dozen miles, I began to feel more confident about the day.  I knew I'd finish, but the looped route always takes more of a mental toll for me, making it harder to gauge progress after the halfway marker.  Upon reaching White Cloud, I knew I'd finish the day...but, it'd become more a question of when.  Driven by the desire to try and make a date-night with the wife (an opportunity that had popped up in the days leading up to the ride) but frustrated by the NE KS section having taken so long, I re-ran the clock in my head more than a few times, which helped keep me latched to Glen's wheel.  No promises had been made, and there wouldn't have been any hard feelings (one of her girlfriends would have taken the movie ticket and accompanied her), but I still wanted to have my ride and enjoy a date, too.  I was thankful to be among friends here - had I been solo, I would have easily tacked on another hour of slog before reaching the finish.

Fanning, KS. found us taking a quick pitstop, more layers added, and a nature break.  I'd figured on a quick drink refill here, but the pop machine didn't have bottled water so I pressed on.  Even though it was a quick stop, I'd turned into a clock-watcher - yet, I knew somehow everything was going to work out...and managed a smile and a chuckle.  US-36 was next - dreaded, but manageable - and more unexpected speed.  A few final hills, and at least the highway section here was generally downhill, all the way in to to river crossing at Elwood.  

We traversed old K-7, and hit US-36 - another nature break and a check-in with Spencer, and we hit the highway shoulder for the dash to Wathena, KS.  This portion felt like riding in a bubble, of sorts -- Glen took point, and though I couldn't see my cyclo-puter clearly, it felt like we were flying!  I took the reigns somewhere around Blair, MO. - maybe a bit east of there - and tried to pay back the stellar pull until we reached Wathena, and a Casey's.  I hated to stop again... but I'd sucked down the last drops of fluid nearly a mile earlier, and knew myself --- once the wick is dry, it's all over... I didn't want to limp it in on this one.  Not after the hard work of K-7 and 36... it was only 9 miles until the finish, but I needed to top off the bottle, one last time, to make sure that final-mile bonk didn't happen.  Restroom sink, a quick mix and shake, right as Terry pulled up -- time to move!

Thank goodness for Terry, again!  The last few backroad turns past the Casey's were familiar from August - but not in the dark, and Terry led us down the right roads... back on home turf.  We popped onto old-36, drifted through Elwood, and started the climb over the bridge into Missouri.  With all the interstates and exit ramps coming together on the river's eastern banks, we all switched to urban-riding mode and started negotiating red lights and stop-signs, zig-zagging toward the finish at Pappy's bar and grill.  I could almost smell it.  The last two miles seemed to take an eternity... and my phone started to ring with texts... the decision point for the 2nd movie ticket was at hand, and I sat only a block away from the car!  Whooo!!!

Finished!... and lemme tell ya... it was VERY difficult to walk away from an inviting table and a cold beer with friends.  After checking in with a waiting Spencer, I begrudgingly left Pappy's, rushed to the car, packed up, and hit the highway for home - I owe the gents a cold beer for the pulls and the patience... but my evening had become managed to the minute.  Committed now, I made the driveway in record time, showered, and made the date night with 15 minutes to spare... and thank the maker for the fancy movie theater!!!  Beer, food, push-button service, and a thick, comfy chair... YES!  Recovery food, AND a show?  Check.  Though, honestly, next time - I'd prefer not to be in such a big hurry on a ride day.

This was a tough one... the next ride is a question mark on weather, and distance goals... but, I think speed goals of any kind are out the window.  Nobody's watching, and - yeah, perhaps I give up too easily - but, seems to me that trying to rush all the time sorta defeats the mental reset these rides are supposed to provide me in an otherwise VERY busy life.  Time to hold onto that notion... the next ride, I might even leave the cyclo-puter at home.  

Songs in my head:

Uhhh..... not many.  
I put in the earpiece after Falls City, and that seemed to help during the rough spots... but the brain was otherwise occupied, it seems.  

Stay tuned... and, as always, as this webpage sails past the 100,000 hits mark, THANK YOU VERY MUCH for reading!


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