April 18, 2014

Solid Oak - the 2014 300k Report

   The Oak Grove 300k is in the books -- and while things genuinely seemed FAR better than last year's 'gale-force' edition, with winds likely 10-15 MPH less intense, it's still a brute of a route.  After a brilliant opening 27-miles (gee, Dude... repeat yourself much?), things began to settle -- but I didn't really want to let things go.  The recent weight loss, the cross-training, I felt amazing -- but, I really need to exercise these "uncorking" sessions for shorter, solo training rides, or a club ride perhaps - to help build a different kind of base for maintaining more speed for longer periods:  develop on that stamina, and perhaps a touch of self-control and smarter or riding.  It's still fascinating to me that riders like Gary D., Rod -- heck, nearly everyone else in the pack -- can maintain such a high pace:  a performance that feels EPIC to me is their version of "being sensible during a long ride."  I know I'm hard on myself, but I still have that desire to hang-in as long as possible.  I have no problems at all where or whom I end up with at the end of the day, to be clear -- these are personal goals, brewing at a slow simmer inside the soul or someone never quite satisfied with himself.  I, like other matters I've worked to set right, either need to start doing intervals and speed work, or just decide that where I am is where I am... and it's fine!  Because, really - aside from personal goals, everything IS fine

I have goals, not complaints. 

Del, Steven, Gary D., Jack, Rod, Spencer, Joe, Kier, David M., Josh, Mark, Paul.... It was a great day, but, I think everyone would agree, it was tough.  The section from Fayette back to Slater on the return was just as rough as before.  I only remember ONE year

where that section was actually tolerable! 

 Last year as a whole made us stronger -- and, honestly, I don't give our group as much credit as I should here, after thinking about it a bit on the drive home.  Last year we limped in at 1:20AM.  That was after a punishing return leg in single-digit speeds, and an hour-long rest in Fayette, and again at Slater, and yet another long rest in Marshall... heck, we rested nearly everywhere we thought we could get away with it, watching the clock constantly.  THIS year, by contrast, we finished at 1:01AM...which initially felt disappointing.  Yet, we knocked out the first half in under 7-hours with stops included, enjoyed a sit-down at Fayette - about the same amount of time as last year, but, un-rushed.  Almost "fresh" feeling.  The leg back to Slater - punishing as it had been this time, wasn't nearly as bad as 2013.  Even when I fell off the pace of Del and Josh - the day's strongmen among us - I was able to maintain double-digit speeds on the flat in that wind, solo.  Earlier in the day on the long section of MO-20, compared to last year, I fell off the main group on-purpose (as opposed to absolutely dying on the road) to try and keep the back of the pack in contact with some bridging assistance.  It never occurred to me that they'd been totally OK with being off the pace and riding their own ride.  Ahhh, dude.... watch too many stage race videos lately?  :)

So, the eventual depletion of my reserves came not from under-training, but instead from feeling pretty awesome and putting myself out of drafting position too many times - ultimately melting my own candle.  On the way back, it was all fatigue;  but, I felt good, because I knew I'd worked.  I just need MORE of that same training on shorter rides.  In other words - the weight loss is only the start:  I still need to work for it, if I want it.  No problem.

The sky lightens as the pack zips along the highway, one of the few sections we'd get to enjoy the benefits of the strengthening south winds.  Headlight beams, birds in song, the air thick with conversations and jokes -- best part of the ride, I think.  My attempts to hang in, later, stem primarily from THIS sensation... not the urge of competition or ego:  staying with a fun bunch as long as possible is the prime objective, and it forestalls what John Hughes calls "the ugly middle" of the ride.

Courtesy Paul T., this great group shot along as the sun inches closer to peeking over the horizon.  Tiny packs are already itching to get down the road before the wind picks up too much - a great morning on tap.  Finally - some green in the fields!

Along Highway FF heading east toward Higginsville, MO. as the day breaks.  This is a shot one can only get when conditions are just-so:  there is a mid-layer of humid air (which storms will fire-off from about 24 hours from when the shot had been taken) and the first rays of the sun create a giant "cone" of light refracting through the atmosphere - one of those hard-to-explain instances wherein we can see the sunrise before it actually happens.  I find myself staring in awe at the resulting scene -- amazing morning.

More of the same vista, only a minute later as we prepare to cross MO-131 - the first of three landmark stop-signs helping to punctuate the long, 26-mile stretch of Hwy FF.  Barely noticeable on the trip east, they become essential mental markers on the final leg of the journey - for me and a handful of others, still 16 hours distant.

"St. Joe" Joe, up the road and looking strong as always, flushes a lone deer out of the brush north of the road, and we all watch as it attempts to flee into a stand of trees across the highway, only to run in a large arc, which eventually has it crossing the road again - only a dozen yards in front of Joe - before disappearing into the trees at left.  Climbing up a big ridge here, we sorta get to see the sun rise twice!

Courtesy Steven W., over-the-shoulder shot of the pack in triple-wide, zero-traffic bliss.  From left-to-right, behind Steven, yours truly (sporting another in my prized collection of REALLY horrid jerseys, which now all fit again!), new-to-the-distance Josh (who never should have been worried about the distance), .... unfortunately, even the giant-sized version got pixelated on my screen, so, I'll try:  Paul T. (I think), Spencer K. in foreground next to me, and then... crud:  the cut-in-half guy just barely out of frame... I want to say is David M., because of the RUSA jersey... but, the bike doesn't look right, somehow.   I almost know who it ISN'T, more than I know who it is.  This is a terrific shot... sorta has a fish-eye effect, without being distorted.

Jack warned me to be careful.  Rod G. sure knows how to butter up a guy.  He started out indicating he hadn't recognized me, which is a huge complement - then went on about how fit I was becoming.  LOL.... well, I suppose that may be true for the first 30 miles or so... after that, reality sets-in pretty darn quick.  I may have dropped more than two stone, and counting, but - the bursts of speed I'm enjoying are simply due to the mismatch in power-to-weight ratio.  Climbing is FUN again... and descents, I fall behind.  I freakin' LOVE that:  I can't lie - I miss being able to descend like a bomb from a plane... but, I suppose I COULD start pedaling to maintain speed.  There's a thought.  (doy, Dude)  But, the climbing... can't lie about that, either.  Even at my heaviest, I still enjoyed climbing... but really wished for more gears.  It's the form I never should have lost, but that's in the past - where it belongs.  The hard work is worth it - and it was not easy, no sir.  Anyone can do it, yes, the losing weight part... but, from someone who definitely handles stress by throwing bags of chips and donuts at it, I understand - the willpower part is tough:  but, it's only the first ten days that will test a person.  Get past those, and you can sail toward a goal.  Now, the trick is keeping it going, now that the workplace competition is behind me.  Without the weekly weigh-in and accountability, well -- it's already too easy to slip.  Gotta nip that... and stay focused.  

Res Firma Mitescere Nescit

The sunrise over with, and the pack stretching its legs a bit, the first of the challenging hills came up - requiring a healthy, high-cadence kill.  Another arrow in my quiver, after much deliberation I'd finally decided to point my cash smartly toward new chain-rings, instead of a whole-new compact crank-set and bottom-bracket.  Quite a bit of savings, and I get to keep my fave 9-spd Ultegra cranks.... no, not classic, but darn sexy.  Most compact cranks, further, dump one down to 36, perhaps 34 teeth.... which, yeah, I know:  one simply ends up closer to one end of the cassette, rather than the other.  However, I've enjoyed the way I usually find myself smack in the middle of my rear cluster, and haven't been keen to change having access to several gears on either side of the cruising-cogs.  If I keep the cranks, I keep the 130mm bolt-circle, so, I find a 38-tooth ring - the smallest I can fit on that pattern.  For the large ring - though it hasn't arrived yet, will be a 50-tooth... not too big, but not too small, either:  and the 12-tooth difference provides a closer gear-ratio between big and small rings, allowing the rider to establish small-ring-up / big-ring-down gear change rhythms on rolling terrain.  The stock 14-tooth difference (53x39 gearing) is fine... but a mite tall for my legs, yet, the old-school 10-tooth (52x42 gearing) is a bit short not to require a tweak on the cassette between shifts up front.  So, in theory, I've got my own custom drive-train in the making.  

For my next trick, I'm seriously considering a move toward a non-Shimano cassette - something like Miche, where one is able to create a custom cassette...more importantly, where someone (once the system is adopted) would be able to replace ONE worn cog, rather than needing to replace the entire assembly.  After recently finishing my son's ground-up road bike, which is setup with 8-speed out-back, I became aware that the 8 and 9 speed cogs themselves are essentially identical:  only the width of the spacers between them had changed with the addition of the 9th cog.  So, using a mish-mash of leftover SRAM and Shimano clusters, I created a nice, tall cassette with a "Juniors" or "U21"-approved 14t cog as the smallest (combined with a 52t largest ring on his triple-crankset)   It's sometimes difficult to find a specific, 14t finishing cog sometimes - but, I happened to have one.  So, if he decides to try his hand at "CAT-J" this summer, he's inspection-ready.  The whole process really got me thinking about how many near-new cassettes I have in the garage which have worn-out 16,17,18t cogs... but are otherwise still fully-functional.  Shimano has a nasty habit of (for good reason) riveting the tallest three cogs of their 9spd clusters together, to better spread the higher loads over the cassette body - but the remaining cogs are loose.  I could slowly replace them - one at a time if needed - with the equivalent Miche cogs, or buy a cheaper 8-speed cassette and simply reuse the 9spd spacers with it.  The risk is slightly sloppier shifting - but I'm not typically in a hurry to shift anyways.  After all, I've got bar-ends ... I can't be in much of a hurry to begin with.  It seems odd to nit-pick about this after discussing the finer points of $60 tires a few posts back, but, sustainability and low-cost running remain important.  My preferred 12-27 Ultegra cluster is still north of $100 retail - and, I still prefer my bike to be equipped as-lightly as feasible while still being durable.  If I'm willing to put some weight back on the bike, however, I can get rolling for 1/3rd less coin with a 12-27 HG-50... or, I can start rolling-my-own.  Time will tell - but, the mileage is creeping up on the current cassette, so it will be time to make a move soon enough.  
My rather circular point: after all these reviews, personal tests, component discussions and general weight-weeniness, randonneuring CAN be expensive, but it certainly doesn't need be.  Case in point - Gary D.  He has a well-earned custom rando-machine on its way to his anticipating hands; but this comes after almost three years (if estimates serve me) on a 35-year-old bicycle he purchased at a garage-sale for $75.00; and, he's been riding it as-is, with the original 5-speed freewheel, and 52/42 crankset.  And while there is something to be said for mental approach, fitness, and the patience that comes with about ten more years of living, I have not been able to hold his wheel for probably 6 months now.  Like, not even a little -- he's just plain gone, over the horizon, home in bed before I finish.  It's remarkable - and it's a perspective that will likely make it perfectly okay to run that $30 cassette; because anything lighter and more expensive will not make a dang-bit-a difference.  He is a good barometer to have.  It's also, still, notable that my fastest ride times remain associated with my single-cog days:  so, the solution is simple:  stop niggling the details, and just ride harder.  the cassette is the least of my worries. 

For that matter, so may be gears in general.  It may be the challenge I've been looking for:  Spencer will laugh, rightly-so; but, for me, coddled by gears now for the last decade since re-mounting the derailleurs, it would indeed prove challenging to build-up that old Trek (which has the correct dropouts) and start my 5th R-12 run with one gear under me.  I think swapping now, only a week from the 400k, would be a mistake... yet, it's not too hilly a route, either.  It may boil down to how much spare garage time I end up with this week.  I still have a big parts list to check off before the Trek would be ready, honestly --- best not to rush these things.

Unless of course I can interest anyone local in some bartering so I might procure a silver 27.2mm Thomson Elite zero-setback seatpost, and a Silver 32h Surly 130mm O.L.D. track-nut threaded flip-flop rear hub and 17t fixed cog w/ lockring (preferably with the Phil Wood 7901 bearing swap), hand-built with Wheelsmith DB14 stainless spokes to a silver Open Pro rim.
and another GB saddle...
and another rear rack...
and generator taillight... 
and and....

Not that I'm picky or anything.   Ri-iiight

Past the first control, which I actually managed to depart from BEFORE everyone else had left - yet, I was caught in short order.  The pack, together again, heads for points east as the sun climbs higher behind the Higginsville water-tower -- short sleeves come out to play, and fingers press into bar-tape for the first time in months, it seems.

Over my shoulder, same 'water tower' shot, but reversed; Steven and Josh chat it up as Higginsville begins to shrink behind us.  The countryside opens wide in just a few short miles, a carnival of rolling hills on highway-AA awaits us.

The Boneyard, north of Corder, MO. at Route V and MO-20.  There may not be anything in this vast junkyard newer than 1975... and I still may be off by as much as a decade.  I can see, just in a quick glance across the front two rows of these rusting hulks, Edsel, Pontiac, possibly a Studebaker, but can't be sure.  In trim pieces alone, it's a gold mine.  I'd love to spend a few hours just walking up and down the rows of old Detroit.  A different kind of car show.  May have to take a trip back out here one of these days when the clock isn't running.

The faster pack begins to make some headway as we roll over the top of the ridge near Blackburn, MO., while I drop back to attempt a hook-on capture of the folks behind me.  Suddenly being alone in the south cross-wind makes for great training... but it's tough on the reserve tank, for sure.  I manage to, three-times, get the riders behind me hooked up - and then slowly open the taps to a closing speed.  Ultimately, though I would get within shouting distance of the leading pack, I couldn't make the moves stick for everyone involved.  On a final attempt, right before the first of two curves leading into Marshall, MO., I managed to get Josh glued to my wheel, and we successfully bridged-up, just in time for the city-limit sign.  I was happy with the effort, but I knew I'd begin paying for it before too long.  Almost time to take on more fuel, as Casey's rolls into view once more!

Compared to 12-months ago, I arrived at the Marshall, MO. Casey's with a broad smile across my face.  8,765 hours have passed since I'd arrived frustrated, sore, tired, and ready to quit.  I still - quietly - thank Glen and Steven for having been there that day; had they not pulled up, I would have pulled out my phone.  Nearly sure of it.  Today, instead, I hopped off the bike, grabbed something tasty, refilled my bottles, and hopped back on - ready to get to my second-favorite road of the route, Hwy O.  Rolling hills, great scenery and solitude, and railroad tracks.  Bring it!  Perspective and attitude - it changes everything.  

Another quote from the annals of Ultra-Cycling - and I can almost hear Ort saying it outloud, somewhere north of Liberty, MO...

If whatever you're feeling will heal in two weeks, keep going.

And, one of my other go-to's:  not having fun?  wait fifteen minutes.  Fifteen minutes can sometimes change everything.  Even reading some notes from social media written by some of my riding partners this time out confirm what I often ignore; one in particular, upon arriving at Blackburn on the return trip (mind you, this guy had been soloing off the front, and arrived there when the sun had still been up!) had expected to see services -- maybe he was mentally early on arrival at the new c-store near MO-20 and MO-23 -- when he didn't, despite the "risk" of stopping  (yeah, this still isn't a race - but sometimes one is racing against oneself)  he instead stopped, dismounted, sat down in the grass, and had a picnic.  Smart man.  If I get tired, I usually keep rolling - and suffer for it.  I can burn that extra time ON the bike, or OFF, but I'd bet the ETA would round-out from being rested balanced against "keep moving" while the fatigue builds and the speed drops.  Last year, neither of these things had been on my mind.  I just didn't want to ride anymore - but, somehow, I still finished.  Still glad I had.

Today, finishing was almost a non-issue.  With time in the bank at the halfway, my brain was clear and empty.  No worries.  I had even been looking forward to finishing in the rain!

Josh (orange) hooked up with our group after the stop in Marshall, and really rounded out our pack well.  Viking beard, lightning-fast wit, and strong legs - he and Del continued to prove how good of a day they'd been having, yet, with a relaxed sort of air, somehow:  knowing that one can hammer out a monster pace, but, being cognizant enough of the surrounding scenery and company to avoid being in TOO much of a hurry - a great combo.  Here, Hwy O stretches out ahead of us - another of the short sections where the monster south wind actually HELPED our pace.  Tires singing, smiles wide, we ate up the countryside.  So drunk on speed, I didn't want to slow down - not even for railroad tracks; pulling off my favorite Hwy O trick from last year, a full rail-width bunny hop of the crossing at the bottom of a big hill.  Good fun.

Man in motion - Steven W. on the case, Hwy O - somewhere between Marshall and Slater, MO.  The thickening clouds seem to confirm forecast rumours which had been brewing all week long... but no matter.  The tailwind excitement made us all feel invincible - if only for a few short miles.  These were the sort of sections which elevated the day from a mere ride, to a full-on fun-fest.

The section out to Slater behind us, we stopped in for another break at the new Casey's there, reminiscing about the cozy table we'd sat down at a year before, watching the flags being destroyed by the gale-force winds, while watching the clock continue to deliver bad news.  It felt really good to arrive there with time to spare, and far calmer winds... if you can call 15-25mph with gusts "calm." 

Del proved to be quite the rabbit, feeling awesome and smiling all the way, we departed Slater and headed east along the levee wall separating MO-240 from the Missouri River just to our north.  Along the big, wide flood plain, the wind did its worst ... but I could only smile, knowing how much worse it could be.  What a stellar day!

I still miss the old bridge structure over the Missouri River here... 

Note to self to ride the White Cloud route again ... soon.

As the day grew longer, the usual pace drop occurred, yet it was received well - and opportunity to rest after a day's work.  Kier, proving solid and strong all day, had made a lot of headway on the road to Slater - and we'd be playing catch-up for the rest of the afternoon and early evening.  Strong rider!  Jack, sadly, succumbed to a nasty stomach malady and had to hang it up at Marshall - so, we limped him back as best we could, offering help along the way - all politely refused.  He's a strong rider, too - but, sometimes, for any of us, the cards aren't there.  I wish him a speedy recovery, and good luck for the next ride on his list!  Rod, Paul, Spencer, Gary D., all the rest of the faster pack - nothing but a memory, tales of "another group came through about 45 minutes ago" from various C-store clerks is all we knew of them.  This is rando... mingle, shake some hands, work the parking lot, and try to hang in to the first control --- for a lot of us, that's all the time we get with some of the faster bunch - but it's always a great time.  Next year, I'll hang-in just a little bit longer, eh?  If I can turn down that burner a bit for the first 25 miles, maybe, just maybe, I can finish alongside Gary D. again... here's hopin', just as a personal goal.

We didn't quite make it back to Higginsville before dark, but no matter:  the shakes were cold, and the fries were dropped fresh as we pulled in, our group of five - soon to become six, as we catch up to a resting David M., who'd been waiting for us to arrive for a group to accompany to the finish.  We enjoyed a good sit-down and some hot food, and the mood was reserved - due to the effort and the toll of the day - yet, spirited, as jokes and smiles echoed across the table.  Business attended to, and full stomachs, we emerged into the night air and formed-up the late train across highway FF, back to the finish.

Distant, silent signal tower lights blinking slowly, a jetliner passing overhead, a distant train horn, and good conversation wrapped up the miles.  My iPod had come out, but had spent the last few hours turned off, earbud dangling... not really sure I need this thing anymore, but keeping it in the bag - just in case.  Ultimately, our pack splinters again with Josh, David and Del making headway, while Steven and I mosey along the highway -- no traffic... like, none I can remember, most of the remaining 30 miles back in to the finish .... my favorite part about riding out here on this long 300k - it really is quiet.  With thunderstorm tops visible WAY off over the horizon, flashing brilliantly, we made it back to the "T" marking one of the last turns home.  Some winding turns and hills, and something resembling a tailwind???  Wow.... bonus!  Finally, a few random sprinkles - just enough to cool the skin and feel amazing after a day full of sweat and sunscreen.  Steven and I finally make the hotel parking lot, just a mite past 1:00am.  Perfect day!

The drive home, almost alone on the interstate at such an hour --- I partly wish I'd ridden to the ride, instead of having driven the car.  I pause for a moment, and ponder the possibilities of apologizing to the wife after sunrise when she'd find me missing, as I pass the highway exit marking the start location for the Super Big Gulp 200k route.  

Hmmmmm.....   with lightning in the distance, and the winds finally gone... what's another 200k?

Nah.... let's go home, kid.   Save it for the 400.

You know I had to.  Much later in the day, based on my choice of head-cover I'm guessing this is highway O on the return leg, but, I can't be sure.  Photo activity dropped off drastically after the halfway mark, as I'd neglected to put my phone into airplane-mode to prevent fruitless, battery-sucking signal-searching out in the barrens of Missouri.  No cell signal?  Mission accomplished --- I love it out here!  Granted, these rides seldom exceed day-trip length for me, but, it always makes for a terrific vacation.  

Thanks for reading!

The 400 is coming next... stay hungry, rando-readers... see you out there.

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