April 5, 2013

Snowpocalypse 2013 - A 200k Tale

   I struggled coming to the keyboard for this latest ride report, for the March 2013 brevet - the first in the KC Ultra-Cycling Spring series.  Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my long-suffering perspective towards weather conditions and how they affect my ride when I find myself out in the elements.  It's taken the better part of a decade to reach a point where things like wind direction, temperature, and precipitation chance no longer hold the importance they once did.  It has been a roller coaster, year over year, on what I've been willing to endure.  Statements like "I've already done that ride this year" when it comes to 10 hours of rain and wind can often be heard as I prepare for the coming weekend, watching the forecast notes with the eye of a frustrated editor - looking for any error, mis-step, or subtext of doubt in the forecaster's tone.  This latest ride would be a true test of all these things; yet, as I sit here and write this I hold only positive memories about what SHOULD have turned into a 12,000-word epic story of suffering and trial-by-nature.  My, how things have changed.

In the month leading up to KCUC's first 200km it appeared that the "Bob Burns curse" would rear up it's mighty head once again, as it had in 2009: with a steady string of 200k's under my belt from 2008, resulting in my first R-12, I found myself motivated to continue that streak, especially  after a particularly trying 200k that February.  Unfortunately, March in Kansas City is something of a dice-roll when it comes to weather.  One year in particular, the March ride started with 27ºF on the thermometer, and cloudy misery.... but two weeks later, at the 300k, it was a near-record 90ºF.  The first couple KCUC rides often become exercises in rapid acclimation and clothing sorting.  This February the area had already seen near-record snowfall.  Almost two feet of snow in as many weeks made me thankful I'd already checked off February early that month.... but, the March ride was near the end of the month...  would it be a repeat of 2009, where 8"+ of snow cancelled the 200k, and put my supposed 2nd-R-12 in the dust bin?  March 23rd loomed... but, more than that it was the realization that only eight days remained in the month, and in the balance lay the fate of my current streak.  The forecast began to look sour, unpredictable, nasty - as the 72-hour window of probability closed on forecast confidence, even the forecasters were puzzled. Quite literally, the sun went down on Friday night, March 22nd, with too many question-marks, too much doubt.  I didn't sleep well.

Lying awake at 4:00am, steadily hitting the refresh button on the browser in hopes of the latest forecast notes, I didn't need my alarm to wake me for ride-morning.  In the pale glow of the computer monitor, I ate breakfast as if I were going riding, drank my coffee, and took comfort in what I'd read: the coming snow storm which had prompted the Winter Storm Watch for the entire riding area had been upgraded to a Winter Storm Warning, but, storm timing confidence had improved in our favor, but only just: it looked like the panic was for nothing!  Despite the storm still on-track to impact the area, the precipitation would start as rain and continue until sundown before changing to snow... long after we'd all be off the roads, and at home enjoying a well-deserved hot-shower.  Worries began to fade...but, I'd wait until I'd see the parking lot.  "If nobody shows, I'll wait to continue my streak next week."  I slugged down the last of my coffee, and got dressed.  So much for a nice, sunny and mild brevet... after February's wash-out and headwind battle with Terry, I needed a break from "weather"... but, at least I'd be used to the conditions.  Looking back, it occurred to me that I hadn't ridden with exposed fingers or knees since September.  Even the August 2012 ride started in almost record cold.  Weird year... I'd completely forgotten what sunscreen smelled like, and how my bar-tape felt.  Looked like I'd be waiting until April for that.

I'd get no free pass at the ride start.  I figured for a low turn-out, but I'd been wrong:  a throng of randonneurs occupied a complete row of parking spaces at the start line, so I queued up and visited Bob at the "registration desk" (Bob's van).  At least there would be more company!  I don't grow tired of repeating this:  I'm personally proud of what I've accomplished on the bike, considering many of my R-12 rides have been completed solo, with the exception of the last 12 or so... and it's these last 12 that stand out:  riding with company is very fulfilling, makes the miles pass easier, and - somehow - makes it easier to complete the journey.  The only problem with too large a group is missing the opportunity to chat with everyone in attendance as the miles inevitably put distance between groups - but, I'll still take it over solo-riding, any day.  With all the familiar faces in attendance, and several new ones (always great to see!), I'd be spoiled for choice on ride partners... on the assumption I could keep up with ANYone:  I still hadn't ridden but twice since the last permanent, so in addition to the weather concerns I remained mildly concerned about my own fitness.  Unpacked, suited-up, and ready to roll... I made one last restroom stop, and then lined up with the others for Bob's announcements and start.

Spencer, Karen and Greg on the tandem, Gary D., Glen R., Steven W., Rod G., Jack and many others whose names escape me - or whom I hadn't yet met - gathered for the send-off, and soon we poured out onto the route with just a faint glimmer of grey-purple in the morning sky. At least for the first section, the wind would help us along and keep the chills at bay in the moist air, holding just above freezing.  The climb over Renner Pass (above I-435) took care of the rest of the warming-up.  Glen and I paired up (no Terry this time - the smarter of our usual trio checked off March when it'd been slightly warmer and drier earlier in the month), and made our way down 87/83rd street toward the eastern edge of Desoto, KS., zig-zagging back and forth between clumps of riders, with "mornings" and "how-ya-beens" echoing up and down the packs.  I love the group ride feeling!

With roads mostly dry, we descended safely into the Cedar Creek valley and enjoyed the scenery and quiet country road feel, navigating along old K-10 and over the old Cedar Creek truss bridge toward the next couple of decent hills.  Gary D. and I paired up for a bit and grunted out the early climbs, steel-vs-steel, and then Rodney G. and I chatted for a few miles on ultra-racing in Texas.  The pack ebbed and flowed, and old K-10 soothed us toward Eudora, and the first control.  

This is the part where the pack begins to really spread out.  Differing control routines, timing for grabbing that strangely suddenly-needed restroom break, comfort-levels surrounding eating on the fly vs. eating in the c-store; amid a flurry of ballpoint clerk signatures and the rustling of plastic baggies the well-oiled machine of Spencer and the tandem pack is back on the road in a flash, as I gulp-down the last of my orange juice and watch them disappear over the K-10 overpass heading south.  I have been careful, cautious, patient... I know my fitness level isn't there yet, and I'm not going to try and prove anything.  The entire opening 40 miles would be an exercise in restraint... I know I *could* catch them... but I most definitely SHOULDN'T.  Not today.  

Glen and I paired up and hit the road with at least one other rider in tow, and started chipping away at the Douglas county road system leading toward Baldwin City - only 16 miles away.  I welcomed the tailwind, but I could already feel that *really* old 30-35 mile warm-up mini-wall coming into my legs, as I finally switch gears from commute-distance mode, to rando-distance mode.   Hard to explain for the non-distance rider, but these physiological milestones sometimes cause more problems than others.  Once past this one, it would be smooth sailing to the halfway mark - I hoped.  I still had the 75-85 mile wall to look forward to, and the unknown impacts of a very, very lazy winter cycling season.  The pack fully thinned out now, thanks to the first control, it would turn into a semi-solo effort as traffic often dictated a single-file approach to riding until we'd turn west toward Vinland.  The weather was cooperating - not even a hint of the coming storm lay visible to the west, and a gracious tailwind for this normally-challenging section of exposed country road.  I made my own predictions, aloud, about another 12-hour day.... not frustratingly so, as I'd often done in the past, but more of a personal acceptance that no matter how long it would take, it would be a finish.  Stay positive...  I reminded myself of how lucky we'd ended up, collectively... the remnants of "Snowpocalyse" 1 and 2 remained visible in low ditches and culverts which had remained shielded from the sun for weeks, but the roads were dry and clear, save for random patches of sand and salt.

Baldwin Pass... whatever name one wants to give it ...another worthy climb leading up and into Baldwin City, KS, and another control.  Despite having very little saddle time over the winter, a steady stream of cross-training has come to yield unexpected benefits.  The high-intensity training that I pretty much never get in the saddle comes on heavy and thick during kickboxing classes, and the cardio benefits have helped my riding stay out of the redline, with more control over breathing and heart-rate.  Granted, I'm still careful to leave enough in the bank for the remaining 100 miles or so after the early hills had come and gone - but I'm quickly feeling a return to the days when I didn't have to worry quite so much about maintaining reserves.  Still, Glen - despite having a similar winter, saddle-time wise - proves strong and consistent and leads the climb with ease.  Baldwin City control - on fresh pavement:  time for a quick in-n-out.

Control routines sometimes get the better of me, but with people pouring in and out of the c-store and the sight of bikes leaving the parking lot and heading out, I'm focused - yet calm.  I know the lead bunch will remain out of reach until I build up the cruising speed I'd enjoyed last summer -- that tentative secondary goal of an R-12 average speed of 16.0 or greater (rolling average) is a distant memory at this stage -- but, I'm wary of standing around too long.  As quickly as possible, Glen and I are back on the road.  This is one department where a handlebar bag solution might come in especially handy - a benefit I hadn't considered, it might afford faster controls by simply allowing one to "dump and go" - adding nutrition and supplies back to their appropriate pockets while rolling along a straight section of road, instead of having to carefully insert things back into pockets and having to fuss with tight seatbag zippers while standing still... and not moving forward along the route.  If I can get my latest handlebar bag mounting brackets repaired, it might be a welcome addition on the coming 300k... but, I'd still really prefer more of a front-rack set-up and a "real" handlebar bag.  I keep flip-flopping on this subject:  I love the clean, minimalist look of an unladen lugged-steel bike, but I can't deny that stuffing everything into a large seatbag sometimes takes more time than it should.  Any semblance of weight-consciousness or aerodynamic efficiency is surely lost by the time I figure out "okay, which pocket can I stuff this extra layer into??"  I'd be willing to bet against myself:  my finishing times wouldn't suffer from having a big, boxy handlebar bag.  They might even improve.  Still, I wait.  I'm a bit of an OCD-ist...(noooo, really??)...so, right now, it's cost standing in my way.  A good front rack - purposely for a fork like mine which lacks the appropriate eyelets or braze-ons, relocation of the headlight, extending and re-stringing the taillight wire, rerouting the bar-end shifter cables (or switching to downtube shifters), picking the right bag, arranging a decalleur:  doing up a front baggage set-up, for me, becomes nearly a full front-end rebuild and would approach $400, all told.  For now, I'm good... and for the longer rides I'll likely just use one of my commuting rear panniers for extra clothing, etc. -- but, when it comes time to refresh the headset and shifter cable housing, I'll probably take the opportunity to go to a "real" rando frontbag setup, and upgrade the headlight in the process.  Aside from this truly accessory concern, I have no complaints - but, perhaps midway through a possible R-12 #4, I'll have a chance to see if it really makes a difference, instead of just wondering.

Onward to Ottawa.  

Glen and I mounted up and rolled out onto the main drag which continues south out of Ottawa across the elevated plains - the road I happened to be embarking upon the last time the clouds opened up with unexpected precipitation.  Today, dry with a nice tailwind helping us along, and slightly warmer temperatures than the previous hour.  Not bad.  Although, things could have been better as we rounded over one of the many rollers along the way, as some model or another of silver Buick crossover SUV, sitting at a cross street, decided not to look to their right to see us coming along the otherwise empty country road.  Out she pulled, Glen hard on the brakes, and me aiming for my portion of the road where the SUV and I would ultimately intersect... had she not seen me at the last second, that is.  Direct eye contact seemed to get my message across, although, as she proceeded to slow down to a near stop behind me, blocking Glen's path again, I'm not certain she got the message.  She then advanced up the road perhaps a 1/2 mile, and turned quickly into a driveway - where a waiting garage swallowed her up, the door dropping to conceal her license plate before we roll within eyeball-range again.  Ah well... we still know where she lives, I suppose... but, no harm, no foul.  Sometimes these things happen... however, I'm still a bit puzzled, as Glen and I had been both wearing the new, bright orange and reflective RUSA vest, ankle bands, and my headlight was still switched in the "on" position.  Strange... although, I probably deal with this scenario more often on commutes than I realize.  Of course, those aren't empty country roads.  Drivers out here often fall victim to the "there's-never-anyone-out-here" effect... all the more reason they should look twice, for the sake of anyone, not just bicyclists - but motorcyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers.

Glen and I shook off the encounter after another mile or so, and got back to work on the long stretch of Shawnee Road, and Montana road which followed.  The rare treat of a double train fly-by at the crossing south of US-59 highway gave us the opportunity to rest for a few moments, as we made our way over the industrial chip-seal on the outskirts of Ottawa, KS.  Soon, we were making our way through downtown Ottawa with one other rider in tow, whom I didn't get a chance to meet officially.  The lead group having stopped at the McDonald's in town, Glen, our mystery guest, and me briefly managed to get ahead of the pack - save for one, lone green hammer off the front... assuming I hadn't lost track of him.    For once, with the favorable wind, the US-59 section didn't feel quite like a suffer-fest - although, it was still largely uphill to Princeton and the halfway point.  With Glen and mystery-guest making good time, I settled into my solo pace and enjoyed the scenery - the fields were finally taking on a greenish cast, the first hint of Spring!  

Double container-train fly-by north of Ottawa, KS., captured by Glen R. -- this is a good "before" shot.
Dry pavement... just another nice day on the bike.

Princeton, KS.: the halfway.  I ended up ordering a cheese pizza, which - by way of mis-communication ended up being a giant-sized to-go pizza, and not the mini-personal size I'd anticipated.  The fast crowd from McDonald's caught up in rapid style, and was in and out before I could blink, and everyone else had quietly slipped away to the open road, so I donated the leftovers to the c-store staff after taking a few slices for myself.  They help us out every time we come through town, so why not?  Control duties taken care of, bottles and stomach filled, Glen and I found ourselves alone, saddling up for the second half of the 200km... the much-dreaded second half, where the payoff of the tailwind would be paid back.

The interesting bit...

As Glen and I saddled up... after finding myself immersed in the usual, relaxed, heel-dragging  control routine ...we rolled out from under the shelter of the c-store complex, and back onto the shoulder of US-59 for the 1/8th mile-or-so segue to John Brown Highway.  As soon as we cleared the northern edge of the building, we were greeted by a stiff northeast gust, requiring a little redirection from the handlebars.  Glen let out a bellowed laugh in reluctant confirmation of what we'd both had in the back of our minds for 60+ miles:  the second half of this ride would indeed be interesting.  

Already prepared for some mental toil, I'd popped the earbud of my mini music player into my right ear at a volume barely perceptible over the now-constant wind noise, and as we turned east for Osawatomie, I bid Glen a farewell and good luck:  I knew his pace would out-step mine in a hurry, and the noise rendered conversation nearly pointless.  It was time for 17 miles of heads-down slog on the John Brown's elevated, exposed, tree-less expanse.  I'd begun to wish I'd had the foresight to mask my bike computer's speed readout with a square of electrical tape - so, instead, I just ignored it.  

"Just remember to take a drink once in a while, and you'll be there in less than a full bottle," I thought to myself, but quickly realized that somehow - mentally - this section has turned into a real favorite.  Only one stop sign breaks pace about 3/5th of the way across the east-west stretch, but John Brown is an otherwise smooth cruise across the plains - at times reminiscent of the expanses of the Flint Hills byway, only with more driveways and cross-streets.  After discovering a mild dehydration headache at Princeton, I turned up the frequency of sips from my bottles, and began to feel refreshed - finally.  Typical of a tailwind-assisted cruise with a group, I'd slipped behind on hydration at some point - easy to do, also, on such a cool day.  Without even a hint of protest from the legs, however, I pushed along in an efficient gear ratio and took the opportunity to gaze at the open fields to the south, and the rows of curious livestock to the north.  Just another day in the saddle...

The task of pushing the pedals paused by the approaching stop sign, and the appearance of Bob Burns over my left shoulder in his van, checking on riders as they worked the route.  A thumbs-up, and a few words while I put a foot down briefly.  I'm in limbo between riders - another solo mission with which I'm intimately familiar:  no longer afraid of what my own, restless mind will sometimes do to unravel a well-laid plan.  It's taken years to hone this edge, and though it can sometimes still be dull and rusty - depending on the week I've had - removing the surface corrosion is usually quick work.  I've lost track of how many miles it has taken to achieve this level of personal comfort and composure; but, I'm proud of myself:  the mere thought of which would have previously been subject to instant dismissal.  I still have so much to learn - but less of it is about myself now.  Granted, I've only been truly tested a handful of times - and much of it has indeed been bicycle-related - but, being able to go through self-inflicted hell and emerge on the other side with a smile has come to better define the fabric from which I'm woven.  Though I could push harder to catch Glen (yeah, right), or relax a bit and wait for the folks following me to catch up (more likely), I am content to continue alone in my own, silent bubble.  I'll eventually, no matter what it takes, get where I'm headed.

The pavement smooths slightly, announcing arrival in Miami County... a few steps closer to the next Casey's.  No-one behind me, no-one in front of me - that I could see, anyways - I make my way over the last couple hills and past the eastern terminus of the Flint Hills Nature Trail, and into Osawatomie, KS.  Zig-zags and a stop-light later, I'm at the c-store, Glen close by, and another threesome of riders packing up and preparing to roll out again. What had been driving the main pack of the tandem and Spencer started to gain more attention from the scattered riders behind them: namely us:  despite having enjoyed dry roads and fairly mild temperatures, the stiff northeast wind was feeding SOMEthing to our west.  Mutterings and rumors had been rustling backward through the thinly-stretched peloton of randonneurs concerning where, when and how much for a couple hours now.  Fleeting radar images on electronic devices followed by eyes training along the western sky - looking for clues... that Winter Storm Warning was still out there, and it felt like we'd been getting away with petty larceny all day.  It was nearly 2:00pm... thoughts of false alarms and needlessly packed rain jackets started to edge closer to reality.  If I had a dime for every time I'd needlessly taken my rain jacket along for a 200km ride...

"They were saying on the radio that it wouldn't really start until around 5:00pm," came the herald.  

A passer-by walking inside the Casey's to pay for her petrol repeating a recent forecast she'd heard gave the departing threesome comfort, and was answered with near dismissal - rightly so:  we'd all be finished riding and packing the cars for home by five!  No worries... we'd have all pulled off the perfect crime.  I tumbled inside for a quick restroom break and bottle refill for the leg to Paola, and the final control.  Maybe this one was in the bag after all?

The more interesting bit...

Timing is everything, sometimes.  No sooner than the lady with the weather report had bid us farewell and Glen and I (er, Glen waits on the Dude to hurry the freak up), began to prepare to roll out did both Glen and I witness what appeared to be a raindrop splotch on the pavement near our feet.  Moments later, I'd have sworn that something wet hit me on the nose, then the glasses...  Hmm... precursory rain?  The splotches became more numerous... then became noticeable in the air, on our faces, on my bike saddle and computer display.  Uhhh.... what did that lady just say??  It seems everyone within earshot got a shock, as the "rain" began to immediately take on a more solid feel, and the unmistakable sound of sleet began to tip-tap on the surface of our reflective vests, and against the window of the Casey's.  

Glen and I began to roll out of the Casey's, again with the nervous chuckle of a cyclist slowly realizing that his luck had run out.  I let out some sort of misguided curse in the direction of Gary Lezak (a local weather forecaster) as we emerged out onto 6th street heading northeast.  The sleet slowly intensified, but, Glen and I had both had far worse.  With zippers pulled higher, caps lower, we pedaled along the railroad track and tree-lined county road, headed for Paola.... wondering how the other three that had left only minutes earlier were thinking.  It was 2:00pm.  The precipitation had arrived not only early, but in frozen - instead of liquid - form.  Something in the forecast must have changed, but there was little to be done about it - and, with road surface temperatures well above freezing, the precipitation was merely a nuisance, and melted on contact.  All in all, it was just another rainy ride - with perhaps a little bit bigger teeth.  Fenders, wool, rain jacket now justified... we just had roughly 50 miles to go.  Heads down, into the strengthening headwind, Glen and I soldiered onward.  

As we emerged from the tree-lined section of 6th street, which begins to slope uphill and curve toward more to the east, the strength of the wind and the ferocity of the falling sleet literally surprised Glen and I both.  As I naturally slowed down during the steady climb, Glen pulled out from behind and began to eat up the pavement ahead of us, gunning for Paola - and shelter.  If we could just get the last control, there would be a little time to wait things out... but, then again, this was the very beginnings of a winter storm - the entire metro area under a warning, with most of the warning's wording focused on travel hazards unfolding as the afternoon would yield to evening.  Clearly the timing had changed ... and it crossed my mind that the arrival of sleet, instead of rain, meant a colder layer of air had moved into position sooner than expected.  The only choice was to move ever closer to the finish, before something else surprised us.

With the northeast headwind gusting above 25MPH and the sleet intensifying enough to reduce visibility, I reached back and switched on my foul-weather strobe (a tiny, but bright, Road ID "Firefly") to supplement my taillight and reflective gear.  The precip was coming straight into our faces along this stretch of road, and even with the cycling cap in place I found it necessary to use one of my fingers to clear my lenses as I rode... thank goodness I'm a glasses-wearer anyways!  Exposed skin began to chill as frozen precip made stinging contact at high speed, and then melted.  Awesome...

Clearing the railroad crossing on Hospital Road, the last couple miles came into view and we arrived at Paola in short order.  The bikes of the previous threesome leaned against the windows under the overhang, and images of cyclists warming up indoors invited me to take a break.  This is a big c-store, but I can never seem to find what I want in Paola, food-wise.  Rain is usually no big thing, and everyone remained in good spirits.  Despite the frozen precip, it seemed that temperatures had been holding - but being damp brought a chill to the air, and the wind certainly didn't help.  My thoughts turned to the riders ahead of us... wondering where they were, what they were seeing... how they felt.  I then thought of the scattering of riders behind us... ugh.  Unfair.  The brave riders that had come out for their first-ever brevet... this wasn't typical.  Finally I settle on a 4-pack Mounds candy bar --- which I never remember, but always seems to work well.  To keep windburn and biting sleet at bay, I smear a finger-full of lip-balm over my cheeks in a thin layer, right below my glasses-line and around my chapped nostrils - the result of hours of sniffle-wipe-repeat.  35 miles, maybe, remained.  Steven W., another local R-12 chaser looking for his first award, and Omar and Del, both on their first brevet (Del, an experience cyclo-tourist, this was nothing new, aside from the time-windows and brevet card routine, and Omar:  his longest ride ever was in-progress, having passed his personal-longest at the 62-mile marker back in Princeton!)  The sleet began to mix with snow, but appeared to be thinning out already -- maybe we'd still get lucky.  Hints of shivers entering my knees, we agreed to stick together as a group for the last segment, and mounted up.  Here we go...

Grimaces turn upward, somewhere on Old KC Road.  Amid our new group of five, conversation takes the edge off the weather happening around us... the miles pass quickly...

We put the illusion of thinning snowfall into the "ok-nevermind" folder as we approached Hillsdale, KS., in heavy snowfall.  The entire landscape began to change... the greenish-brown shoulder growth, now brilliant white, and fenders worked overtime as the instant-melt snowfall on the road started to lean toward slush.  We all began to notice that the wet streets had begun to show the faint outline of tire rows leftover from passing car traffic.  Not a good sign.  We could only guess about the temperature, but I'd begun to feel an unfamiliar tightness and numbness in my fingers - a feeling that wool gloves normally banish to impossibility; yet, in the constant onslaught of falling snow, which would melt on my glove liners and seep through the seams into my woolen fingers, the temperature of the moisture on my hands was overcoming the wool's insulation capability.  Either I wasn't working hard enough to get warm blood out to my fingers, or it was beginning to approach the freezing mark:  another milestone the forecasters had apparently gotten wrong.  It's possible my wool gloves, which I'd purchased in 2004, had perhaps reached their end... although I'm not sure what I'm basing that upon:  I know that washing them in the wrong detergent can strip off the oils and lanolin that give wool it's unique properties, but, since the original purchase I've been using the "correct" detergent for all my cycling gear, wool or otherwise.  Maybe that bought me a few extra years of use - but, they're still old gloves.  As long as it's above freezing, I've had zero complaints... but I was quickly reaching a point where dry gloves would have felt fantastic.  Freezing cold water won't feel great, no matter what - but I certainly hadn't ridden to this point before.  My feet, on the other hand (no pun intended), felt fine, reinforcing my old wool vs. new wool theory.  I know things could have been worse -- but, still, for me -- if it's wet, it's wool!

(new military surplus wool glove order placed...might as well update them every 9 years, eh?  Not bad for $5.00 a pair.)

"This is actually kinda cool", I thought, as we continued north toward Spring Hill, KS on the old alignment of US-169, but, as we turned east again and emerged from the old-growth tree corridor, the snow seemed to increase in intensity, the wind had extra bite, and the shoulder of the road began to confirm that Glen had been here only moments before... uh, the snow is not supposed to stick to the roads until after sundown, right???   oh, man...

A predetermined target of the Casey's on the north end of town is set, and with Glen on a mission to finish NOW, our group fell to four riders.  The c-store's open arms and indoor warmth breathed life back into numb limbs.  Chemical warmers came out, extra gloves were pulled from bags, and store pegs.  I squeezed mine out with rolls of newspaper and napkins, knowing it wouldn't last - but it would help for a little while.  Outside, the grey of the pavement began to take on a distinct white.  20 miles-to-go.  I'd ridden in snow before.... on a Redline Monocog mountain bike equipped with Nokian studded tires set to a low pressure.  I'd even brevet'd in snow and sleet... but only in 10 mile bursts, and never when it stuck to the road.  This was new. This was potentially dangerous.  The snow continued to fall hard and fast, and a trip to the restroom confirmed how much of the wet, heavy, clinging midwestern-style snow I'd been carrying in my helmet, on my cap's brim, on my sleeves and legs and shoes.  

Snow-hat!  Inside the Casey's in Spring Hill, KS., the remains of small icicles
on my facial hair confirms it must have been slightly below freezing at this point.

Our group remained up-beat.  Quitting was never muttered aloud.  No-one complained.  No-one dared invite the domino-effect of negative brainwaves to begin chipping away at bravery, courage, and the will to finish.  So far, even with my better judgement beginning to tap me on the shoulder, it wasn't THAT bad.  Narrow tires still managed to find pavement, and even out-of-the-saddle climbing had been forgiven.  The farther north we'd ride, the farther into the suburban grid we'd get... onto streets still dusted with the remains of road salt and grit from previous snow events.  We'd be fine... once we get off the country roads, smooth sailing.  
Laughing at ourselves, we walked back outside, brushed the 1/2" of snow off our saddles, and mounted up.  

The white shoulder line was invisible now, the curb barely perceptible.  Taking the lane.... assuming I knew where it was... our foursome advanced to 199th Street, taking each curve with increasing caution, as little hints of fleeting grip began to remind me of my limits.  Cutting through the sloppy slush and snow now covering the roadway, spirits remained high -- but the pace, though still slowed by fatigue, the wind, and the conditions, remained consistent.  We were riding on borrowed time - must... get... to Shawnee...

It was time to check off the remaining turns along the way... within 17 miles.... 16..... 175th Street approached, marking our entry into Olathe, KS... another milestone on the march to the finish line.  But, Del's rear tire sliding around wasn't because of the snow... it had lost pressure.  The dreaded flat!  As he flipped his gorgeous Soma steed upside down to free the rear wheel, he waved us ahead - but, it wasn't happening.  Not today.  Heck, I don't like leaving a rider alone on a hot summer's afternoon, much less during an honest-to-goodness snowstorm.  It was break-time... and the cameras came out for a few minutes to capture what I would shake my head in disbelief at the next day.  

175th and Ridgeview Road, if you had told me this is how
things would have looked at 7:00am, I would have gone home.
I'm infinitely glad I hadn't!  Note; the road conditions had improved slightly
just north of 175th, as we began to see the benefits of residual road
treatments from previous weeks, but, the snow was quickly overcoming them.
The trees in the background indicate the visibility and intensity of the snowfall,
which was bucketing down in large, wet clumps - sticking to headlights, water bottles, and
everything else.  A crazy way to end a "spring" ride!

After a undetermined amount of time - because strangely none of us were in a terrible hurry, despite the worsening conditions, Del's flat was fixed, and we were in motion once again.  The snow was heavy and wet enough to clog my SPD cleats momentarily as I remounted, attempted to get traction, and roll forward to clip in.  I love SPDs -- it didn't take much to get clipped back in - just like thick mud would behave, the snow just sorta moves out of the way, and the pedal engages.  Our tires, however, were beginning to struggle for grip in sections - and the only real solution, strangely, was to throw more speed and momentum into the mix.  Though slow by normal bicycling standards, our group remained consistent and focused, and soon Ridgeview opened up to four lanes, the pavement improved, and so did the density of leftover ice-melting salts.  Still, the snowfall rates were downright record-breaking, as I'd read the following day, and despite the treatments, the pavement was simply too cold now, and the snow too fast and heavy.  Aside from tracks left by cars.... and what appeared to be the fleeting ghost of bicycle tracks left by Glen, way ahead of us at this point, the pavement was otherwise stark white.  Passing traffic was more than kind to us --- something I consistently find whenever conditions get really nasty.  They probably thought we were insane, or just really unfortunate, everyone giving us a wide berth, and the same, open-mouthed, wide-eyes, "are-you-freakin-nuts?!" look.
We may have created as many memories for them as we had for ourselves!

At one point, Steven W. and I rode along in the white-out conditions, side-by-side on a quiet road, the sounds around us muted by the snow-filled air, washed over by a certain sense of calm.  I wasn't sure if I'd dare use the cliched term or not, but it seemed - even beyond the variations in personal relevance - that we had achieved "epic."  

I checked my theory with Steven...   "yep.  I think we're there."


The hopes of clearer pavement in the residential grid never really panned out, but we all managed to stay upright and incident-free.  The only negative outcome of traffic's kindness toward us came in giant waves of slush and snow thrown by tires drifting out of their lanes and into the deeper snow at the center of the road... hopefully not intentional ...but thank goodness for the cycling cap, again... and remembering to keep my mouth closed when cars would pass.  As we continued northward toward the 10-mile marker, Bob's van once again showed up over my left shoulder, with the window down -- looking for the usual thumbs-up in these weird circumstances.  He had some riders already piled inside the passenger seats, likely the riders that had been behind us on the route, where conditions had certainly worsened far quicker than expected, to the point of being unsafe.  My hat goes off to these riders - many who had been on their first-ever brevet:  simply showing up at the start line, with a winter storm warning flown and an uncertain forecast, displays a tremendous amount of bravery, the kind that defines randonneuring spirit.  I hope they return, with heads high, because I think I speak for everyone:  nobody thinks poorly of those that DNF.  We've ALL been there, and a quick scan of these pages will prove that for me, as well.   I can only hope they are rewarded with the next ride having superb weather, and clear roads!
Cheers, to all of you that came out - finish, or no finish... 85% of the residents of the metro area didn't even want to go out and DRIVE A CAR in that stuff... and still, we rode as far as we did.

As Omar, Del, Steven and I continued along Kansas City Road, and ultimately made the last turn on Renner, marking six miles to go, it became nearly comical.  I would flip-flop between focused, heads-down pedaling, to moments of laughter and self-disbelief.  The strange thing is, for me, as poor as the conditions had become, they completely distracted me from "problems" I seem to suffer at the tail end of every ride -- and, specifically, "problems" I have in the last 15 miles of THIS route.  My saddle felt terrific.  My legs felt strong.  I was climbing out of the saddle at mile 100, mile 110, 120, and 123.  I wore a smile, to the point my face hurt (or was that the sleet?).  Hydration?  Perfect.  Nutrition?  Perfect.  I can't really explain it... but I do know, as if there were any doubts, that when things are "perfect", weather-wise, I think too much about things I shouldn't be thinking about.  It was a great, great ride... and its taught me a few things about myself, that when things really ARE bleak - and not self-manufactured or amplified - I still manage to come out with a smile, and a completely whacked sense of humor - just for good measure.  It's been a long time since I've enjoyed such personal clarity at the end of a long ride.  I mean to say, quite seriously, I still get quite a lot of satisfaction from each and every permanent or brevet I finish.  I can recall moments from almost all of them -- but, this one will remain special, above the rest.

Needless to say, my tone in these closing sections would likely be different had we not finished - but, a few minutes before 7:00pm, after a challenging final five miles as everyone began to find their limits, and the pure act of pedaling for nearly 12 hours began to sink in, we finished.  As we all, as Bob had cautioned us, white-knuckled the rear brake lever on the normally 40+MPH final descent down Renner Pass, trying to stay loose and stay upright, as the final gusts of wind and snow-in-the-face yielded to the warm comfort of the final c-store lobby, I was nearly overcome with emotion and had to squelch myself to avoid letting out a primal bellow of achievement and scaring the customers.  It was "only" a 200k - but, man, was it something else.  

Seriously, though.  If it's not above 45ºF and bone-dry during the April 300k, I'm going home.  

Congrats to ALL riders that started this truly epic journey!
I think we might have made a little local history - and I won't be surprised to find this story falling out of my mouth in 10 years time, while we pass the miles along some other road somewhere.  I look forward to that.  

Thanks for reading...
...and to Glen, Steven, Omar and Del, thanks for sharing the miles!

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