So, a clean slate, and today is October 1st... for ME, personally, the first day of Fall. Nature was right on schedule this AM, greeting me with 46ºF on the mercury, and northern breezes. Sweet! Long pants, long sleeves, ears covered... maybe a bit much, but, hey... last week, today's HIGH forecast is cooler than the LOW had been. That's a bit outside the normal 20-degree swing that most folks can handle without it feeling especially cold/hot. Great morning for a commute... birds, some deer, and practically no dog walkers or joggers. Ahhh... nice!
Back on August 24th, a Monday, a few of us local KC boys headed out onto the (ye olde?) Border Patrol route. Terry B. came down from St. Joseph, Gary D. rode to the ride from near State Line, Josh came in from Lees Summit, and then little old me, performing the gargantuan task of riding to the ride from about 3/4th of a mile away. Don't hurt yourself, dude.
A quick couple of activities inside, and the ride was ON... nothing new to report here, except for what happened almost precisely 45 seconds into the day.
Under the otherworldly orange glow of sodium vapor incandescence, the grim grey of pavement became broken as a lone shadow upon a bicycle burst forth from the shadows of a side street, ran his stop-sign, and merged directly into my line. It was close enough, unexpected enough, a touch of brakes came almost involuntarily, and behind it frustration at my own reaction.
"..what the....," came near involuntary, too, as I took in the view ahead, this specter of the pre-dawn road; helmet-less, sneakers, t-shirt, baggy gym shorts, road bicycle of indeterminate make, model or vintage, and nothing more to mark his existence than the rhythmic oscillation of amber pedal reflectors this person proceeded to raise his pace in an effort to outrun my shout of protest against his scoff-law ninja-biking.
"yeah, that isn't gonna work, pal," I muttered while reaching down to grab the next gear in my cluster to give chase. Things like bicycle, clothing, heck - even helmet or no helmet doesn't bother me all that much anymore; but, being cut off in the face of a group of four riders' blazing LED headlights, not so much as a wave of apology or a middle-finger of disdain accompanying it? This is a clear indication, most likely, why I don't like who I am behind the wheel of a car... and I was letting myself slip into that vindictive, vigilante, ego-driven and maniacal revenge-glutton persona while on the bike. Call it racer-rage or whatever... there was no way this guy was going to break free. Not today, not like this, and not in my neighborhood... lest ANY of us wonder why that minivan, contractor pickup, or business-class sedan driver LOATHE cyclists so much, to witness such an example of the very root of the problem materialize right before me and not react? Damn the engines, full-speed-ahead!
Muscles firing with the flow of rage pulsing and turning pedals, I had his wheel in no-time, and settled in to allow him the consideration of his own shadow cast from my headlight beam mere feet from his rear tire. Let's see what you got. Juvenile, indeed; I didn't care. Our speed pulsated up another mile-per-hour as we approached the traffic signal at 159th Street... which was red. Instinctively, I slowed - and watched as my adversary refused to. Our steel weapons paused above the Hall effect sensors just long enough to swap the opposing lights to yellow, he rolled through without breaking cadence an iota. I followed on the green, and wound him back up into the glare of my LED beam whilst the road pitched upward and begged more. The crescendo and the curve beyond, and my fitness gave way to my opponent's relentless escape.
No, dude.... no....
Another gear, another dig into the pit of pain ... not warmed up, not in shape, not ready to lay it all on the line in the first three miles of a 214km ride, and to let this person put a gap on the road. Did he even know I was there? How could he not have? Two miles now, staring at his own shadow - but never once had I found a twitch, a glance, any acknowledgement of my presence, perhaps he'd already cast his own actions, and me, aside. On principle, I pushed, and pushed, and pushed to regain his wheel before the roundabout - where again, not even a marginally detectable sideways glance saw him enter and exit around the bend and back onto the southbound road. Granted, no cars, no joggers... but, really? Glancing backwards, I half-expected at least Gary to have been planted firmly on my rear quarter, enjoying the brisk pace, yet I'd ... we'd ... done the damage. No headlight beams. Nothing. My shadowy counterpart lifted the pace once more only to be answered.
"Oh, I'm still back here buddy..." I muttered to myself, collecting my breathing and doing my best not to let on the agony growing in my quads. This was going to be yet another example of stupidity, surely, in only eight short hours - long after this guy would be wherever it was he was to be later that day, and this - all of this - forgotten. For naught. For what?
Before I knew it, 175th street and the next stop sign loomed ahead of us, and for once I watched as a face turned my way - only for a blink - and being on his left flank, there was no way he hadn't seen me, then. With a twist, and a flick, suddenly his entire mass crossed the road in front of me in a calculated u-turn - mere feet between us, this time, I didn't pull the brakes at all. I didn't care -- I became him, and I became ashamed of not being able to just let it slide. Not even enough time to allow his face to be burned into my minds eye, he remained only a shadow with no name, no face, and no merit; his morning workout had reached its halfway, and - honestly - I had been bested, both metaphorically and physically. Behind me, still no sign of my companions, his shadow blended with the dull gray of the pavement and the blackness of the predawn morning until he vanished like smoke.
As I crossed carefully onto 175th street heading to points east, I never once lifted my pace. I hadn't uncorked like I had that morning in years. Screw the reserves, the worry, the potential for absolute slog-mode later in the day - I had to get the rest of the adrenaline - if that's what it was - out of my system or I'd spend the rest of the day grumpy. With that, I broke a PR climbing the hill on Antioch, ate up 199th street, then Metcalf came... the bridge (with a sign announcing construction was to begin later that day)
|um, wait... that's today...
|Sunrise from somewhere along Metcalf near 223th St.
...and the cross streets fell like dominoes. 223rd... 247th... 279th... and the BP station, often a guaranteed stop on this route despite not being a control, which was no different today. I paused for a moment or so, considered refilling one of my bottles and slugged it dry for good measure. No sense getting dehydrated after that little fit. No headlights... hmmm... The pause grew longer, but, I'd really no idea how far along they'd come, and any illusion of speed I'd thrown down was likely to be answered in much the same way it's been for the last few years, anyways: feeling good, strong, and confident - only to turn around and find my pursuers still lingering within a half-mile of my tail, and usually there at a comfortable pace... not "pursuing" me at all. Today, however, was different. As I squinted north along the length of pavement I could see, I didn't even see automobile headlights approaching. Bicycle lights often stand out far better under such circumstances, but there were none to be seen. I clicked in and proceeded to pick up where I'd left off. Cool down now, and the first nail would be in my coffin, surely.
From the southern edge of Louisburg come the hills of old Metcalf leading into the undulating valley of Middle Creek and other various tributaries. Past the giant pipeline installation, past the bridges with their pitted and tortured bumps and dips, to stand and climb and relish in the morning air.
Air? What's that squishy feeling? Ugh... there's no mistaking it. The rear tire, having picked up who-knows-what, had gone soft. Rolling carefully downhill, rear wheel unweighted as best I could, I took one more rise to get beyond 295th Street, where I'd remembered wider shoulders and a fairly new, and paved, driveway. That was my preferred spot. Bottles out, helmet off, pump, spare tube out of the saddlebag... no sense rushing, after all. Happy as I was with myself and eager to try for more, the fact remained that I'd started the ride with good friends - and trying to go for a solo effort seemed... well, wrong. But, if I'm honest, I'd really wanted to make it clear to La Cygne and the first control to wait out my efforts with some coffee and a donut. This would do, I suppose. Sweaty from effort, even my sunglasses felt as if they were keeping in too much heat as I flipped the bike and released the rear wheel to examine the tire.
Ugh... mystery flat... "Hate" is too strong a word here, but that notion that there is potentially something else afoot besides a telltale tack, thorn or hunk of glass can sit on my head like a house-fly. Sure, it only weighs a fraction of a gram - but, you can feel it, and it's annoying - and, that's assuming it doesn't decide to bite.
Another swipe of the inside of the tire with my thumb yields nothing... maybe I just brushed it away already, or it fell out.
As a matter of backstory, I was pushing my luck with that rear tire. For years now, I've run the venerable (well, maybe among commuters and randonneurs) Panaracer Pasela TourGuard... now called the Pasela "PT" to designate a revamped approach to flat protection. These tires have always been terrific, no complaints, and good for a solid 4,000 miles rotated front to back at roughly half that. OF course, we all know that the dude gets bored and starts believing everything he reads, so I've recently (has it been a year?) switched to the Grand Bois 'Cerf' model; which is effectively the "same tire", insomuch that Panaracer produces it for Cycles Grand Bois and has their markings on the sidewalls - which are the trademark tan I've come to love. The tread compound and casing differences aside (and elsewhere in these pages), the end result in my experience has been a smoother ride and - as they're about a full millimeter thicker than the Pasela's - longer lasting. BUT.
Keen to find out about HOW much longer lasting, again, I'd been pushing my luck with this one. After 2,000 on the front wheel and having since been moved to the back, this tire was riddled with small cuts and holes where various things had entered and left the tire or otherwise chafed the rubber, so finding today's proved impossible. With almost 6,000 miles logged (I'll have to look for the exact total), it was remarkable that I hadn't flatted sooner, as the 5mm of fresh tread had been slowly eaten down to about one. Velodrome tires, anyone? Yeesh.
A quick over-inflate of the tire-less tube produced the tiniest of pinholes through which a gentle hiss of air escaped. HA! A quick patch from my fave Park Tool SuperPatch kit, and back into the tire and onto the waiting wheel.
Pump Pump Pump Pump ... check pressure... repeat... wait, huh?
The tire had seated, but little else - whatever hole I'd found and patched clearly wasn't the sole culprit here. Grrrrrrrrr.....
Off the rim, and out of the tire... did I miss it? Crud, who cares? New tube time!
Resorting to defeat and cursing my inner Poirot, I grabbed a fresh tube and called it "good enough", the flatted tube (already home to three patches before I'd begun, so maybe that was the problem?) deposited into the home-owner's rubbish bin at the end of their driveway-turned-service-shop.
Right about then, the unmistakable clack of a pedal unclipping followed by another, as Gary and Josh arrived on the scene. Beginning to wonder if they'd ever see me again that day, after what - to me - seemed like at least a five minute gap, smiles and relief came to my face. As much as I'd liked to have turned the morning into my own time trial, the frustration of a flat is far easier to shake when one has company. We all chatted, talked about the morning, cycling caps, and the promise of the day at hand. Within a few minutes, Terry arrived as well and we were a group once more.
...If only briefly. It's a given, the impossibility of keeping a group of cyclists together on the road. Each set in their own way, pace, mood, bicycle weight, climbing ability, all conspire to separate us. It's a metaphor for life, as much of cycling is. I won't bust out the doctoral stuff here... not today.
Terry had already pulled away while I kept at packing back up from the flat change, and half clipped in, Josh and Gary were itching to get back into action again. Before I knew it, I was alone again - but not in the way as before. Right after the driveway, a brief downhill and then the next climb began. I caught back up by the time 311th street came into view and we made our way the remaining distance to La Cygne, and the new Casey's - which I hadn't visited since it'd been rebuilt - nice place! As an added bonus, it's now on the east side of the railroad tracks, which really only matters on the way out.
|Josh, atop a new steel steed from the archives. Celeste... need one say more? Classic Bianchi, up to the task like it was made for it. Gary on point at the helm of his new classic, setting a solid tempo as always.
Once again, the concept of the quick in-and-out control completely escapes us. We loiter, consider things like the restroom, and enjoy our drinks and snacks with feet firmly planted underneath us. Oh well... this is probably the best part of the whole ride process, honestly - regroup, discuss, plan, laugh.
Terry rolls on early while the rest of us three finish our individual control voodoo and saddle back up. Eventually we've turned onto one of my favorite county highways, Linn County 1055. This meandering ribbon of pavement contains three challenging hills and a lot of great scenery, including an old schoolhouse and the site of a long-gone Kansas town. Along the way, the conversation flows nicely as the miles pass effortlessly under our tires. We revel in the high speed of the first long downhill, without any thoughts about needing to climb it later on. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy this route, despite having ridden it so much over the years. It had been long enough, though, that I'd forgotten about the hills and their length.... still, I ended up pleased with myself on both the outbound and inbound legs and the triple-threat of grunt-inducing climbs.
|Gary and I stop briefly at Linn COunty highways 548 and 1055, soaking up the awesome weather, and making some slight adjustments before the final six miles to Pleasanton.
Being the halfway, an extended break at Pleasanton seemed like a great idea. Sitting down in the miniature booths lined up along the front window we filled bottles and mouths with good stuff to fuel our return, and I enojyed a cheese-filled soft and hot pretzel rod.... which is probably going to be on the menu for me the next time I'm down this way. WOW, what a flavor punch, and HOT... something I don't take near-enough advantage of, considering that nearly every c-store I've ever visited seems to have a microwave on site. Man, if I can find (or pack) a couple of heat-n-eat sandwiches, dude, bet on it!
Fueled, packed and clipped in, we polished off the trip back in short order, playing speed-tuck on the first giant downhill; payback for the arduous climb up on the trip out. We teased each other on our ability to let gravity do all the work, and for how long we could hold onto the rollout afterwards as we leveled out and ate up pavement at 23mph on flat ground. The day was perfect... I can't recall temperatures, nor wind... that's all the qualification for perfect I require anymore. If I don't notice the conditions after a few miles, yeah.... excellent day!
We passed the time chatting about commuting, Josh being the latest to take up the torch having started only a couple weeks prior. Baggy shorts, things to pack, things to leave at the office, etc. While there are many randonneuring parallels, it certainly brings up some unique problems for everyone at some point or another. I still highly recommend it, despite having been witness to some personally disturbing changes over the past few years.
I suppose it is all relative to what one considers normal, which is always at risk of becoming defined strictly by the past. The new normal involves smart-phones, and the coming principle that the smartness of one's phone tends to inversely affect the intelligence of its human user. Mix this with the responsibilities of the average automobile operator, and, well - yeah, that whole overused (justifiably) buzzword plaguing the developed world these days. One of these days, possibly in my lifetime, technology will catch up and help render the scourge of distracted driving a thing of the past. Perhaps it is a generational problem, in much the same way that seat belts are still not compulsory for a large majority of Americans; the very existence of this problem I still can't quite grasp. Hadn't we solved that one? Anyhow, getting back to local concerns, and how I've watched traffic increase as the population outpace the roadway development needed to support it. Yes, "normal" is simply the state of existence right at this particular moment in time; not the baseline past of any one individual.
Trying to keep that in mind is one thing, commuting is probably no more dangerous than it had been the first time I rode to work out of necessity nearly two decades ago. The state of today's concerns, however, are not the same. More and more commuters are taking to recording their rides, often with two cameras. Some motorists, armed with their device's cameras have sought out creative new ways to gain YouTube notoriety by physically assaulting cyclists in various ways from their cars. Other drivers are so distracted, they likely don't even see most cyclists - until they accidentally strike one.
I have lost friends and fellow riders this way. The myopic American consumer has demographically proved that petroleum availability and environmental responsibility are only popular topics when it affects ones cash flow, so ever larger SUVs and Pickup trucks have begun to pour back onto roadways nearly as fast as they can be built: when not so long ago, vehicles like the Hummer H2 had bore the brunt of so much criticism it'd been rendered almost worthless on the used market, and vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt came from concept to road - and, as tends to happen, absolute power corrupts, no matter its form or scale. Give 'em an inch, and their vehicle becomes an extension of ones own self-entitled ego. Add a lift kit and large tires, and then place a cyclist in the flow of traffic with them. It is - clearly - a point of frustration for any cyclist, and in some places like Australia (if the news is accurate) riding a bicycle tends to make one a target; sometimes in the literal sense. It becomes tougher and tougher each year to proffer advice on commuting to work when I myself inch ever closer to admitting how ill-advised and risky it has become.
BUT, I doubt I'll ever stop' and - in reality, and NOT in the paranoid overthought of my mind, commuting to work is no more dangerous than it was when I first started. It is just different, and the dangers that are inherent in ANY outdoor activity on or near roadways still exist. Is it worth the risks? Yes. Every time.
Josh, then, takes up the torch and disproves me, an ever-more-crotchety old man in the making: I finally begin to see what H.G. Wells was on about, that despite all evidence to the contrary, someone younger than myself has chosen to take up bicycling - not only long distances, but as transportation. I see this, and I, like Wells, no longer despair for the human race. All is not lost. In the same way fairness lapses the instant someone from the U.S. arrives in a part of the world not to their exact standards and declares it "primitive", I can't fairly judge the conditions of the present strictly by comparing them to my own past. Billy Joel probably said it better: "the good ole days weren't always good, and tomorrow's not as bad as it seems." Keep the faith, dude. Guys like Josh are evidence that we really ARE probably gonna be fine, and "the kids are (indeed) alright."
As the Casey's in La Cygne fell into the background again as our caravan made its way to the east and north once more, we once again spread out. Gary, on a mission, began his characteristic advance up Jingo Rdrenaissancehe distance. Terry had taken off as well, as far as I can remember - mentally, at this writing, I'd lost track of him, for, advancing onto US-69 for the quick three miles north, that funny feeling came back once more. That squishy feeling. Crap.
Once again, I quick peek down and back confirmed the rear tire had let go of its air once more.
"geeez, not now..." I muttered half to myself. While it likely would have been just fine, the thought of fixing a flat along the side of 69 highway and its 75mph traffic whizzing by didn't seem like a terrific idea. I considered the ditch beyond the wide shoulder - and the ticks and such I'd likely endure from an extended, crouched-down visit. Goody.... no, that's not going to work, either. Enjoying a brief renaissance of speed, I'd pulled ahead of Josh, who then caught me as I slowed to a crawl while the ever flatter tire began to roll and mush along underneath the rim.
"I'm waiting until I get off of here before I do anything." I proclaimed as he passed by with concern in his voice. Continuing on, I began to wonder how much more gambling I was willing to do with this tire, and I started remembering all of the talk about packing a spare tire and how little weight and space something takes up when you really, really need it. Unfortunately, since this was "only" a 200k, yeah - I hadn't packed it. Terrific, dude... just great. Well, have at least four feet of duct tape, will travel. Worst case, I can roll home on ANYthing... as much as I kick myself about not packing a spare, I remember Ort or Texas' successful finish on a destroyed tire that he patched up with duct tape, electrical tape, tenacity, and a sprinkle of hope and crossed fingers. I got this.
I sure as heck wasn't going to waste any time alongside this highway. Tire flat, tube empty, and rim barely protected from the pavement by the mushy and lumpy mass of tube and tire bumping along underneath me. This is where some of the bike handling skills I've absorbed from extra gravel miles seems to have come in handy - the bike wanting to dart all sorts of directions..., the tire rolling left and right, and skating each time I tried to change direction. Finally reaching the top of the exit ramp at 335th street, I stopped and planted both feet. Thank goodness that was over... time to change this dang tube again. My only hope was that I hadn't utterly ruined the sidewalls with the two miles of run-flat.
|Old barn and buildings near 247th and Metcalf (IIRC)
Upon dismount, I looked up the road toward Metcalf and started eyeing the shoulders for some shade - when my eyes met with Josh's lone figure in the shade of a tall spruce tree. Nice! Fixing a flat is almost always a one-person job, but, morale support - right then - was appreciated on a scale I'm not sure Josh understood at the time. Kicked back in the shade, relaxed as always, just taking in the day as I rolled up.
The tire had somehow remained in surprisingly good shape - so the panic was unwarranted; though, to be honest I'd not like to repeat that maneuver anytime soon. Flatting on a busy road stinks. New tube in place, and the number of spares dwindling, we packed up and headed in to Louisburg for the obligatory in-n-out control routine... which would still take the better part of 20 minutes. It happens. Sun high, humidity present - but not horrid - it was warm enough to give us reason for a pause in the shade...so we took it.
With Gary long gone, and Terry slipping past us while we rested or hung around inside the c-store, we two hit the road again without knowing where we were in relation to the others. The only bogey now was that potentially closed bridge near 207th street on the return leg. Time passed, distance grew between Josh and I ; just pacing perhaps, but, I would soon come to miss his straight-forward approach to construction and detours. Looking back, not seeing him at 223rd, nor at 215th, I figured I'd be on my own for this one - so, the detour I had in my head would have to do.
Construction here over the last year or so has altered the way traffic deals with local railroad traffic if they plan to head east on 207th street. Where in the past motorists would negotiate a level-crossing, the resulting traffic backing up onto Metcalf proved problematic at certain times of the day; especially when it involved an especially long train which had been instructed to stop before the nearby switch off the mainline. To mitigate this, the level crossing had been removed, and a spur road reconnected 207th to the east by first crossing over the tracks on the bridge passing over them on Metcalf itself. In my mind's eye I had envisioned this spur simply producing a longer waiting-pad for motorists, and the level crossing being moved a bit farther away from the main road above. Of course, I had never before seen the results of the construction with my own eyes; so it was quite a surprise when I turned right onto 207th street just before the road closed signage signalling the bridge work to see it extending AWAY from the railroad tracks in the opposite direction and not crossing them at all. Uhhhh.... huh?
Not terribly anxious to bother any construction workers with my nuisance of asking for a pass -- fully expecting the standard "if it says closed, it's closed" speech, to which they're absolutely entitled -- I neglected to retreat and instead looked to my left, found a quick pull-out and stared across the rails to examine my options. The underbrush isn't that tall. Hefting the bike, I crossed over the double tracks and shaky ballast to find the remains of the previous section of 207th still accessible, still leading up to Metcalf. Back on course! Little did I realize that Josh, definitely the bolder of us that day, had simply asked for permission and rode across the completely open and passable bridge, which was only undergoing joint filler replacement.
Convinced I'd remain solo for the rest of the ride, I pedaled on toward 199th and made the turn west for the final 12 miles or so. At that point I reached the gas station near the highway, against which leaned a familiar-looking machine... Terry's bike!
It was not catching someone that did it, it was the confirmation that everyone (as far as I knew anyhow) had made it past the bridge construction without any mishap. Terry had indeed passed us back in Louisburg, but had started to feel zapped - he's usually not one to stop at a random gas station so close to the finish. We chatted for a bit, and I was perfectly happy to hang out for a bit and just chill. Our mistake came while waiting for Josh.
I can't remember which one of us made the decision, but it was clear he had taken an alternate route or had been through dozens of minutes beforehand, unseen; so, we carried on. Gary? He was probably home and showered by then!
Along the road toward 199th street, another cyclist appeared on Antioch from the south - which also marked our turn north toward 175th street again. Josh? That was my first thought, but the silhouette and color of the bike weren't right - just another rider out enjoying the day. As I turned, he crossed and followed - eventually catching up and passing me. Despite my greetings, there were no words - which became an unofficial invitation for me to let him get up the road a bit before chasing him down again - repeat. Training? Maybe... I was happy to have had the legs to continue the same buffoonery that'd started the day, albeit decidedly more slowly in the afternoon. We both descended the monster hill on Antioch, enjoyed a few moments north of 40mph, and then stopped for the traffic snarl that was 175th/179th streets near Antioch. Ugh.
"Oh, how I hate this road..." I offered to my un-named fellow cyclist. There was a mutter of agreement as we waited for an opening.
While I don't like constantly touching and tweaking routes to meet the conditions of the day, this road may prove an exception eventually. Similar to K-68 highway as it used to relate to some of the routes out to and through Ottawa, KS., 179th Street has been witness to dramatic traffic volume increases in the last two years. The BNSF intermodal facility to the west in Gardner, the near-continuous home construction which has now crept into this part of the county, the traffic from the massive Blue Valley middle & high school complex, and the expected addition of retail and business developments - well, this isn't the quiet country byway it was even as recently as three years ago. It's, frankly, nuts, and the discussion post-ride seemed to indicate I wasn't alone in this thinking. I dunno.... will have to see.
Wrapping up ye olde 175th street time-trial Worlds, however, is still a treat. It's a deceptively gentle climb but it never seems to quit gaining altitude - and, my companion on the road for a short while at Antioch - who had departed across the intersection prior to me - had become a target. I just had to see, after the entirety of the day, if the spark remained alive somewhere down in my gut.
Game on, I slowly ramped up the cadence and proceeded my attempt at reeling him back in. By the time I'd reached Quivira, I had managed to close the gap enough to pick out the details on his bike - barely. By Pflumm, I could start to better resolve his jersey details. Right about here, the road pitches up again for a final bump to Lackman - I flagged a little, but then started to realize how little road I'd left remaining ahead of me. If I was to catch this guy, I'd have to move soon. All the while, he's got no idea I'm back here using him for motivation... but, I continue to treat him as the ever-out-of-reach adversary... Hinault to my LeMond... There would be no photographs, no distractions, as I took another gulp from my remaining fluids, shifted back onto the big ring, and began to shove like I hadn't before... well, apart from that morning, of course. The distance between us... 1/8th of a mile now, since I'd slipped off? Who knows... too far. Too far... I banished the impossible, and pushed again. Eating up the shoulder of 175th, dodging debris, hurling globs of bodily protest from my maw when the timing of my breath allowed it. I'm sure I looked like a snarling dog chasing down a would-be thief, or perhaps a week-overdue dinner in the form of a rabbit or squirrel. I sucked in air and spit it out again, 200 feet.... 150.... 125..... I could hear his chain at 75.... 50 feet..... 25 I felt like I could reach out and grab his wheel.... 20 feet.... dammit! MurLen!! I have to turn!!
Forever slave to the cue sheet, I SHOULD have taken the time to continue the chance for another mile, JUST to have successfully pulled into his draft to say "hey, whassup?" as collectively as possible before peeling off again and finally gasping for recovery. But, not today... time shortened, respite waited at the 7-Eleven... not on the wheel of an unknown cyclist headed who-knows-where. The snarling dog, hearing its master's call, returns to the course without so much as a passing thought or attempt at reason. Randonneuring is obedience, sometimes.
The final three miles saw my smile increase slowly -- what a remarkable day this had been! Final box checked, final receipt gathered, I joined Josh in the shade of a large Oak in the abandoned parking lot of the shuttered grocery store across the street from our final control. Cool breezes licking away the day's sweat, the soft ground easing any discomfort gathered along the way...
This is living.
Summer may have gone according to the calendar, but days like these? These are the gifts that summer's long hard tasks had wrought. These are the day when we randonneurs rise above the populous; the masses teeming in rivers of traffic, going everywhere and nowhere at once, bereft of the joy that 125+ miles of labor and toil somehow bring to the soul of those willing to accept sacrifice in the face of a society bent on ever-more indulgent laziness. We are the last gasps of humanity, in my tiny mind's eye... not taskmasters or overlords - just quiet rebels enjoying the fruits of a tree that grows out of sight of the rest of the world, tucked between two crowded buildings and hidden from view by the glare of smart-device screens and the distraction of honking horns and waving fists.
Who knows how many countless hundreds endlessly passed along the road just meters behind our reclined bodies as we sat under that shade tree; but I wonder more of the small number of eyes who'd seen us... not as cyclists, not as humans strangely-dressed and perpetually "in the way;" but who'd seen what we are, and who'd felt a twinge of envy and desire, a twinkle of understanding. They'd give a quiet head nod to the scene because they somehow know, and know better, and dare to question and wonder their place beyond the shoreline of the road that traps them. Get them a bike. Let them see. Let them talk, and dream of a time when these rivers run dry and we all sit and revel in the places our simpler machines take us - physically and spiritually. Let those times come. Sit with us, covered in salt and grime, and take a long, slow pull from a tall, cold beer. Pause and absorb these slow moments, and slow down these times with us. The times when the season is always "summertime", and where the livin' is oh, so easy.