(pauses from blogging to scour the basement for those goggles he thought he still had)
December proved difficult. Sure, our group of riders waited until practically the last possible minute to get the December edition of our collective streaks in before we ran out of month - but, it wasn't for lack of trying. With a DNF in the group on December 8th caused by slick ice and snow on top with gusty winds -- a ride that wasn't deemed improbable until perhaps mile 35, it should be noted in this specific case the bravery of the rider, as I repeat... with 17ºF at the start, wind, falling snow, and already ice on the roads, this ride was NOT a DNS...it was a DNF. Getting moving is the hardest part... and, yet, he started anyways. For me, I watched the forecast and made my plans... and then watched them fall apart with each passing weather system rendering the local roads treacherous at best, and impassible by bicycle in most cases. It was beginning to look like my streak would end with "R-30." ...and I was beginning to be okay with that fact.
(I'm not a fan of asterisks, but... can I call this R-42 yet? If I include the R-12 run of 2008-09, then it's R-42... if I include the half-run/do-over run of 2010, then it's R-48... errr.... whatever. Crud, between RUSA and the ACP, have I really ridden 65 of these things since 2002? Yes, apparently I have. For now, I guess I might as well shoot for 100... contiguous or not.)
Sitting in the driver's seat, watching as the dark
highway passed underneath the event-horizon of the bonnet's leading edge.... white line.... white line.... white line....
No radio. Pointless, really... the only soundtrack, the north wind: I could hear it in my head anyways, as it pawed angrily at the edges of the windshield and tugged at the steering. Drowning it out with the radio wouldn't change anything.
I pulled into the parking lot at the start, and swinging the car toward the usual parking places I eyed Glen, his reflective vest flapping in the cold gale as he readied his rack trunk and bottles. As I parked in front of him, he paused to dive back into his car - a brief break from the cold.
"This is nuts." I thought.
I started searching through my head for the usual rando-mantra quotes, but didn't find them where I'd left them the night before. The wind's muffled howls had taken their place, somehow, as I sat in the dark and debated on whether or not to exchange any words with my riding counterpart before the start time would arrive. Anything resembling "calling it off", "warm food", "waiting until Tuesday".... whatever: I was game for anything.
As Glen and I tossed the notion of simply moving on with life and "living to ride another day," Steven pulled up. As Glen and I sat in the warmth of the car, Steven - looking invigorated and focused - began to unpack his bike from his car rack. He didn't even make eye contact. Perhaps he knew how damaging that could be... hard to tell.
"We really gonna do this?" Glen chimed from a rolled down window.
I can't even remember Steven's exact reply, but, basically, "yeah...why wouldn't we?"
Glen and I parted ways, and began to unload our bicycles, too. I, for one, was showing my age - at least my internal age: pathetically, I extracted my bike from the warmth of the car's interior, dropped in the water bottles, and shrugged-on my last few layers - like a kid that'd been told by his father, "you're going to do this, and you're gonna LIKE it."
Father of two teens now, I'm pretty familiar with this little routine anyhow; but I was having trouble mustering the enthusiasm. For the time being, it was simply time to "do." I could think about it later.
Still, my feelings weren't personal toward either of my ride partners... they were strictly internal. Lest I forget to say it later, thank goodness for Steven.... otherwise, I'd be writing a completely different story here today, probably lamenting yet another broken streak.
No foolin' around -- the iPod goes in, first thing. I seemed to be needing all the mental crutches I could muster, despite being well-dressed and well-equipped... a LOT of times for me, lately, my situations have been strictly mental. Arriving at the 7-Eleven c-store start-line, we three darted inside, glasses instantly fogging over from the stark temperature difference compared to the outside. Met with the usual stares of disbelief from the staff, we proceeded with the usual routine and got our receipts and signatures in order. 6:08am on the clock before we got moving -- normal... but, would this become a day where we'd really WANT those 8 minutes back? Yikes... at least, heading out into the snow, wind, and cold - the wind ended up being at our backs for the first leg. We were taking ANY good news we could get.
Headed off into the dark, winter air... thoughts of icy, slick spots filled my head. The day before the temperatures had nearly reached 60ºF in parts of the metro area, and the snow-melt from the previous week's storm had been streaking from curb to curb in a wet, salty mess... a mess that I knew, in my mind's eye, would be an icy sheet waiting to pounce.
Good luck getting THAT out of your head, dude...
Conversation came and went as we spun the pedals toward 87th Street on Renner, after climbing the terrific hill that I call "Renner Pass." It's awesome, this route, the Princeton Roundabout, for chilly starts - as the hill comprises mile #1 of the route, it's a great warm-up...better than coffee! 87th Street came, and a long, dark downhill dropped us to creek-level near the northwestern edge of Shawnee Mission Park - reminding us of the cold. Yikes... and the wind. At first I thought my brakes had been dragging, but it was the wind gusts loading up the spokes of my wheels and slowing me down.
I pulled my "Buff" wool neck gaiter up over my nose for a mile or so, to stave off the chill of the descent. Feeling cocooned inside my layers, darkness all around, and the suffocating cold air - it felt surreal, pedaling along in the darkness. Even the wide beam of my headlight seemed compressed. I could see the pavement passing underneath my front tire - but time, space, location... all seemed foggy. A yawn, and longer-than-safe blink... tired? really? now?
I don't remember the sun rising... but, clearly, it had. The black yielded to purple-grey... no idea of direction... the mind began to wander. I can't tell you about what I'd been thinking; occasional movie or TV-show quotes... the simpler parts of my brain, desperate for entertainment, distraction. But, still... strangely warm. Only getting moving had proved difficult. The miles fell, and we eventually found ourselves climbing through Clearview City on the west side of DeSoto... although, I don't remember seeing the iconic water-towers this time, nor the town. I barely remember passing the old brick house along the old alignment of K-10 as we approached the county line and Eudora... the first control.
Control cards out, bottles frozen nearly solid - it occurred to all of us that we hadn't been drinking enough, if at all. When the time came, it proved impossible anyways. Somewhere along old K-10 I'd stuffed the bottle that actually seemed to yield to my squeezes a bit more than the other into my windvest, and zipped up tight. Five miles, not a drop resulted... guess I should have STARTED with it inside my layers. Oh well. At Eudora, warm inside the QuikShop, the hot coffee machines dispensed hot water into cold bottles... crack, clink, pop... ice, back to water. the lukewarm liquid went down smooth and soothing. Extra electrolytes for this next batch, and maybe only half-full this time. The cap of my Camelbak podium insulated bottles seems to be the only weak point... the liquid freezing into a donut-shaped outline of the cap's inner workings... freezing from the top down and locking out anything liquid below. We'd have to modify our drinking approach, that's all. These bottles are made for hot weather, anyhow... who can complain?
We shouldn't be out here.
I don't remember how long we stayed, but moving again was an exercise in grunts, groans, and shivers. Gloves on, helmets tight atop layers, zippers pulled high, we hit the county road for a nice trek south - with a ripping tailwind pushing us along. Despite the north wind at 15-20 MPH, it seemed like I couldn't push that hard, couldn't produce a "summertime" speed even with the help. With all the extra layers, maybe a hydration deficit, and certainly the affect of the cold on leg muscles and joints, the extra help and time-in-the-bank I'd hoped for when looking down to check my speed wasn't there. Yeesh... it was going to be a long, long day.
A whistle and a rush... "car back!".... nope, false alarm. It is only the wind whipping through the roadside powerlines.
Baldwin Pass, after a pause for a drink at Vinland -- the motorists are especially friendly today, in all seriousness: a gentleman in a Chevy sedan rolls down his window to check on us, and, elsewhere along the day, wide berths are given during passing, long stares with half-grins of amazement and disbelief, and the occasional wave. Most of my long-distance riding for the year having been done on weekdays, this weekend ride shaped up to be a very nice change.
Baldwin City, we three huddled around a pre-paid cell-phone display while we ate and drank various things from the c-store. The usual long stares outside only revealed evidence of the strong wind, the blowing flurries of snow, and two bank time/temperature displays - one reading 17ºF, the other reading 12ºF... it felt a lot more like the latter.
Once again, out. Getting ready to roll quickly enough to prevent the knees from beginning to quake became a game. Maybe cold weather riding is the key to faster control times? Mmmm, I take that back... once again, completely unsure how much time we'd spent inside at Baldwin City, but, we were moving once again - back out on the county roads, headed south with the terrific tailwind. Eventually, however, we'd get a taste of what lay ahead.
Turning west on Shawnee Road, headed into Ottawa from the northeast, it became apparent how hard the wind had been blowing, and how much cold air had been spilling into the region. Similar to how I'd held my head cocked to one side to keep my cycling cap's brim angled correctly a few years back, to keep stinging snow out of my eyes, this time it served to block the icy wind's relentless attack against the moisture in my eyes.
We made our way west, then south - carving the backroads and reveling in the shelter afforded by roadside stands of trees. A staggered nature break, I end up alone on a ridge overlooking the long sweep of US-59 as it passes and angles around Ottawa - the new bypass. A train rolled west in the distance, barely heard. A hawk cried out from above, the wind tearing at the trees behind me.... standing numb in the elements, still cradled in a cushion of self-manufactured heat, head buzzing from the constant roar in my ears... I straddled the bike, stone-still, amazed at the silence, and my stare grew longer and longer. Snapped-to by Glen's approach, it was again time to move on. Ottawa, warmth, food. Go.
Overall, the smiles remained wide - somehow. Steven and Glen chatted, then we'd rotate - but, more often than not I'd find myself without much to say, drawn inward... but, then I'd laugh for no good reason, head full of something I'd heard or read. We'd made the rough crossing, the 4-way stop, and continued north and uphill toward K-68 and "town," and I found a rare burst of push coming from within, ultimately snuffed by a string of red traffic lights as we attempted to make it through Ottawa and stop briefly at McDonald's for a bite, as opposed to staying too long at Princeton, the official "halfway", only six miles to the south. To my disappointment, and concern, we made it to the restaurant too late for breakfast.... and, yet, for some reason I had been having trouble trying to figure out -- all morning -- if our arrival times at each check were in line with "normal", or not. Perhaps I was out of sorts, or perhaps I was preparing myself for none of the day's riding to count. Concerned as I became, I never felt it necessary to pull out the route card and actually check... as if I'd been saving the bad news for a later time.
Fries and a coke, I was satisfied - and snarfed the food down quickly, still practicing to shed my "eats-too-slow" nickname at controls. Glen sat in with a full meal, and made quick work - as did Steven. Layers off, long stares on our faces, and blind to the spectacle we'd created as we chatted, checked phones and temperatures and wind-speed forecasts. Thankfully, finally some good news - the wind was forecast to die down... unfortunately, it wouldn't until well after we'd be within a few miles of finishing. Ugh... oh well... at least, outside, it appeared that the sun might come out! Layered up again, we set off toward Princeton - maybe to enjoy one last tailwind push before paying it all back. The strong wind still wasn't allowing us to break any records - but, the going could have been far worse, and we were -- in Steven's words -- quickly reaching the point in the ride where it would no longer make sense to quit. That, strangely, was good news... and, yet, quitting had never even come up... not in my mind anyhow, and certainly not from anyone's lips. We were earning our reputation.
Acclimation... I can't remember who said it to me now, but it's so true: I'll take sunny and 10ºF over cloudy and 40ºF ANY day. As the sun finally punched through the thick layer of parting clouds as we ate up the miles along US-59 toward Princeton, zippers came down.... "Ahhhhhhh..." It felt terrific, but, sadly, it wouldn't last too long. I, however, was soaking it up while it lasted, and -- dare I say it -- almost became HOT for a mile or so, as Glen and I chatted and pedaled. This, for me, became the highlight of the day... no matter what had befallen us earlier on, moments like this are where the magic lives. A couple friends, some pavement, and a distant destination, the frosty air cut with laughter and smiles against improbable odds. Long live bicycling.
The usually tedious run to Princeton over with in surprisingly short order, we three steadily made our ways inside and had our cards signed. What should have been a quick in-n-out, however, the toll of the morning and the first half of the ride was beginning to show. Helmets came off again, only briefly - and, for me, more calories. I hadn't been eating much ON the bike, albeit I hadn't felt the need to, thankfully - but, the certainly mounting hydration deficit, and the knowledge that exercise in cold weather crushes calories far quicker than it does in warm weather, well, I wasn't taking chances with the dreaded "John Brown Bonk"... which has befallen me several times across the vast expanse of the John Brown Highway between Princeton and Osawatomie, KS. To match the McDonald's fries from Ottawa, I added a blueberry Danish pastry-thing and another Coke. With the carry-along food in my front bag having been reduced to mildly-flavored ice-cubes, this was probably all I was going to get until the next store anyhow.
Fueled, layered once again - it was time to face the music. Outside, people getting gas in their cars darted about, trying to stay warm - and parking lot flags flapped furiously as the wind continued to yawn in great gales down the open plains surrounding us. As Glen, Steven and I made our way out toward the highway shoulder once again - this time facing north - the difficulty awaiting us for the second half of our ride became instantly apparent.
Not only did the usual whooosh of wind hit us each full in the face, the affect of the temperature drop was remarkable. We "climbed" north for the short 1/4 mile back to the turn, and then angled east onto the John Brown highway, thankful there remained a western component to the frigid wind. At least we'd enjoy SOMEthing resembling a push, but, collars were pulled higher as the sun played tag with passing clouds remnant of the departed front, and any inkling of warmth was soon gone with the memory of our shadows. Heads down, we plunged back into the grey.
John Brown is a tough run, usually the "great decider" among roads - loaded with long steady climbs and false flats, and cursed with little shelter from prevailing winds and weather. I've traversed this stretch many times now (not sure, never counted) and I've learned only one way to tackle it: treat it like a time-trial, a favorite section, an old friend. No matter what, I have my own personal conversation every time I turn east, and - genuinely - I do enjoy this road now. I would love, someday, to see a legitimate time-trial take place here, somehow. Granted, it's doubtful I'd win anything - but, it would be neat to see the KC-area's athletic elite take a stab at this as a closed course.
As we crossed the bridge, I mentally bid farewell to things, focused getting to the stop sign marking the turn to Lane, KS. I remember Glen passing me at one point. There were songs playing in my right ear, I talked to some cows, and I lost count of passing cars at seven. I kept track of Glen as he advanced up the road, occasionally, but waited to pay attention to things again for when I'd see the sign welcoming me to Miami County - marked by a clear pavement change. I took notice of the pavement change, then watched the old school house drift past. Soon, the new intersection, the old railroad crossing marking the Flint Hills Nature Trail, and I then knew Osawatomie was close... I peered to the horizon, but no Glen... he'd already made the turn up ahead, which jogs through town. Another trick I've been practicing for longer rides, the old unplug-and-pedal (or, "The Dan Jordan"), seems to be coming along. A stop sign, railroad crossing, a traffic light, and the Casey's -- the next stop, unofficial, but necessary.
Things were slow-going. Despite the mental de-tune, the speed simply wasn't there for the taking. Another marks against me for December, I'd not hardly ridden much since the November ride in Peculiar, and despite being able to keep up the calories and a steady stroke, there wasn't much behind it. Add fatigue and the sapping conditions - well, far from top form on tap. So be it... the day grew longer and longer, and the clock marched ever forward. Minutes later Steven pulled in, as Glen and I continued mawing on this and that, hovering our faces above hot cups of coffee. We peered thoughtfully at racks of winter hats and gloves, wondering if anything additional would prove valuable before the inevitable turn north toward Paola. All we knew, however, we had to keep moving. No-one was anxious to do the math.
This would normally be where I'd put the earbud in for the journey home. Even during the summertime with the chance of a tailwind, the push from Osawatomie seems more like the REAL halfway point, despite being far beyond it. As we mounted up again and pointed the bicycles into the wind, for good this time, it became more difficult to smile. Each time I mentally started to check off the roads marking each remaining mile, I had to start over - confused, frustrated, the math not working in our favor - I began to resort myself to figuring out if I could find one of the next two days to take off work, or to just scrap it altogether. Would there be solace enough in the notion that we'd tried? I didn't know at the time...
"just pedal... what ELSE you gonna do? Let's get these guys home, eh?"
Taking point, I decided to try and get something resembling a paceline started - this was not the time to leave anyone out in the breeze. I set a sensible, sustainable pace and locked in the cruise control: a blistering 12-MPH through the tunnel of wind of 6th street, heading north out of town.
Things began to come together. Sure, it sorta happened in slow motion, and in reverse, but, one at a time Glen, Steven and I traded varied pulls as we advanced uphill and out of the valley toward Paola along 327th street, then under US-169. For me, the short section from US-169 up to Hospital road, for whatever reason, became very, very hard to pedal. I locked sights onto a rear wheel, tried to hold, and failed - dropping fast. Only the quick downhill to the next intersection saved me, and then, along Hospital Road itself... salvation... a passing train... a chance to stop... rest... stretch. Everything felt tight, compressed by extra layers and hours of use. My neck and shoulders ached terribly. I coaxed a few squirts of water from my half-frozen bottles again, the crossing gates lifted, and we three began to move up the road again. Receipts and time checks would later confirm - the section from Princeton to Paola proved the hardest of the day for all of us; for Glen, I was unable to tell - yet, Steven told a tale of issues on John Brown, and my own mini-bonk came with Paola only an arms-reach away. The day was taking its toll, and whatever time we'd put in the bank during the tailwind sections had evaporated inside a scant ten miles. None of us uttered a word of "quit"... but, we all knew, taking the essential, much-needed rest at Paola, that each passing minute rested represented a minute we'd desperately want back. I thought about those eight minutes from the start. Gads... it shouldn't even enter into the equation... but, could that be the difference?
Paola. No time to lose, but there was no rushing. We were tired. Beat up. The wind had made its point. Still, we somehow managed to crack a joke here and there. The mood was not somber, just, reserved. Purposeful, somehow... but, realistic. 30 miles, roughly, to the barn.
The time sat at 3:40pm... Route cut-off, with our 6:00AM start: 7:24PM. 30 miles required in under 4 hours. Okay, NORMALLY, with the last control then in the bag, this would be a cake-walk. It should have been. With the wind, however, the dipping sun, and the temperatures all taking their toll -- and the last section coming in well underneath that kind of average speed, things did not look great for us. The only thing we could do was either get busy, or make a phone call. Nah... let's get busy.
We needed to be frugal, realistic, tactical -- but, there was no time to discuss at rest. We packed up and left Paola with signatures barely dry, and started the last of the long march north. A frustrating array of traffic lights and turns sat ahead of us, so we needed a touch of luck, too. What we needed was no bad luck. We crossed the last set of railroad tracks leading out of Paola, thankfully, (weird to say) without a train encounter. Traffic was easy at K-68, and I was repaid with a treat as I pulled the group along Old KC Road: coming up along the "new" Hillsdale bridge, a BNSF train got the green signal off the siding, and began to spin-up its engines. Diesels in full thunder, it approached the overpass just about in-step with us, as we began climbing the bridge up and over the tracks north of Ten Mile Creek -- and he must have seen us, tossing out three short hornblasts. I answered with an extended arm, and a big smile... another terrific moment in what was becoming -- honestly, even with the time crunch -- a terrific ride. I watched as the train passed underneath us while we made the last of the bridge gradient, and then descended into Hillsdale. Another 4-way stop, and the pull-duty changed hands again, to Glen. Again, the duty of pulling had taken its toll - something that had dogged me since the early days: if I can just pull myself down maybe 3%, I could latch back onto the caboose, and stay in contact... but, just in time for the long climb up Old KC Road: pow. I watched as Glen and Steven made headway, but then I somehow managed to get back in the hunt... thanks, boys, for easin' up! Soon, we got back into a good rhythm, and made Spring Hill in short order... 12 down... 18 to go, roughly.... but, that ole Casey's called up. Nature, water, some final calories... goodness knows the clock was unforgiving enough, but to run out of fuel now would prove disastrous.
5:18pm... barely over two hours remaining, and 18 miles... we all scoffed... "heck, if we can't handle 9 MPH, we're.... oh, wait.... " Realizing our average hadn't been much more impressive than that all day long with stops included, uh, yeah.... food was handled in large mouthfuls, hot drinks topped off and slugged down. Time to move.
Webster Road... the final miles and turns would get checked off in short order, or so we'd thought. Sun dipping fast, and darkness again creeping across the landscape, headlights blinked into life, and so began again the cat-n-mouse game of "is-it-road-salt-or-is-it-ice?", while tired eyes tried to decipher variations in the headlight-illuminated pavement colors at speed. We formed-up and traded pulls, feeling around in the dark for indications that the wind had indeed been fading... no such luck, it seemed, but perhaps the previous hours had dulled our senses. I can't recall exactly where I'd happened to catch my bike computer readout under a streetlight reading exactly 6:00pm, but, I called it out ... if we wanted a nice buffer, we had an hour to make the barn. Twelve hours in the teens(F), with a nearly constant north-northwest fury blowing. This easily earned my coldest RUSA event ever, personally. Senses dulled, indeed.
The miles blurred. Again, I tried to count off the roads (acting as mileposts) to try and determine how many miles we really had left... or, at least, how many more traffic lights. It seemed we would catch every last one...but, in a few cases, the dice fell in our favor -- perfection, intersection after intersection - barely time to unclip from the pedals! We were being WILLED along! 159th... 151st... the roundabouts at 143rd, strangely quiet.... the magic of the weekend ride again! 135th we caught the green light, and then again at Kansas City Road. 127th wasn't so kind... or short.... then came 119th and Renner.... Ahhh... RENNER, the last turn! There was no sense trying to figure or count anymore... 6 miles, 5 miles... it didn't matter... but, at every streetlight, the clock never went unchecked. I don't remember where we were when 7:00pm rolled up on the display... but, we certainly weren't finished. Lights at College Blvd, then the interstate ramps at I-435, then 95th street, then 87th!.... Lenexa's traffic signals were fully unkind... and the seconds began to add in. Steven and I, separated from Glen by a rogue traffic light timer, were not going to lose "December" on a technicality... we're obeying EVERY law, but these confounded lights! Finally free to fly after 87th street, no more lights, and only a mile and a 1/4 to the finish -- nothing left in the legs for a sprint, but no traffic lights remained for a time-check! Was it enough? Did Glen make it?? My only plan was to fly into the lot, dismount, run inside, grab the first thing I could see at the register and get .... that..... receipt!
7:15pm reads the stamp. It's official, and it counts. WHOOOOF that was close!
|Plenty of time, and a finish is always a finish! With a scant 9 minutes to spare on the clock, and only two days left in the month, we finished the December ride! It counts, and the streak is alive!
|Phased-out, sitting in the car, waiting for the magic of internal combustion to yield heat into the cabin, and into 13-hour chilled muscles and bones. Eyes stinging from the headwind's fury, this is one tired and cold Kansas boy - ready for home.
I've since heard questions and such about HOW we pulled this off, how we managed to fight off the bitter cold, etc. Really, like any ride, only the first few miles after leaving a control posed problems and challenges. We, I feel, had been extremely lucky in one, specific way: none of us suffered anything technical. Had we, well... I'd rather not think about that. I know I felt really cozy WHILE riding... but, it didn't escape my attention that I'd often developed a good sweat inside my layers... and, foolishly perhaps, I never dropped my zippers or opened any vents to allow that moisture to evaporate. It would have resulted in cold chills, and I didn't want ANY part of feeling cold... therefore, by the time I'd realize that I'd become TOO warm, it was too late. The byproduct of this foolishness, had anything happened, I would have essentially been standing on the roadside, in the wind, in the cold... and wet. Hypothermia, worse? I'm glad none of us endured anything like that. The Princeton Roundabout route is brilliant: plenty of stops, and the longest leg between such stops is "only" 17 miles, equating to - effectively - 8.5 miles being the farthest away from "help" we'd be.... but....
That's still 8.5 miles. THAT , without a working bike or a warm place to shelter in, is a LONG WAY.
In short... while I offer this blog as potential inspiration for the cycling world at large, I can't always recommend the actions I take. I'm not the brightest bulb in the box sometimes, so - officially - don't try this at home. Otherwise, be smart, dress right, and try not to get as wet as I allowed myself to get. I'm still looking for that magic formula between being comfortable and too wet. As is usually the case in the central plains during winter, I'll probably have it nailed in late March... just in time to swap everything out for short sleeves again. ((dude, WRITE IT DOWN this year. LOL))
Now, "fun" is relative. While conversing in the parking lot prior to the ride, my fun meter was about as close to zero as it can get. There were times when it dipped during the ride, but it never bottomed out. With the right gear, anything is possible, but - as I mentioned - know yourself, your surroundings, your options, your friends, and your gear - and don't ride solo when it's like this if you can help it. After all, it's just a bike ride, right? And, above all - if it isn't fun, for goodness sake, don't go! Did we have fun? Mmmmm, yeah... yeah, we did. Strange, ain't it??
Well, okay... sometimes I'm not so sure either.
Stay tuned for the January ride.... and thanks for reading!