Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Dirty Kanza 2016: Pushing the Limits




DK200 would test everyone's limit this year
Several factors make the Dirty Kanza 200 tough: the length, the terrain, the harsh gravel, but most of all the weather. Kansas is notorious for violent weather. I grew up just 80 miles from Emporia. I've seen my share of sudden thunderstorms, knock you over gales, and heat waves. In my three prior Kanza's I was fortunate. The weather had been either temperate or cool & damp. I had yet to race a Kanza in classic Kansas summer conditions: hot, bright, & windy

On Friday the weather forecast for race day was fair: 83F and 11-14 mph winds. A steady headwind would be a factor in the second half, but not like a 20+ mph wind day. I went to sleep comfortable with the idea of racing in these conditions. The theme of the Kanza this year was "Find Your Limit". Turns out the Kanza likes to surprise racers to make sure we do.


Section #1: A Muddy Reprise

"with a hammer & nails & a fear of failure we are building a shed..."

When John & I rolled out of the motel the streets of Emporia were wet. A thunderstorm had dumped an inch of rain at 3 a.m. Instead of the dry dusty & fast track we had previewed on Friday the initial dirt roads would be different, oh so different.

John & I lined up in the 12 hour group, about 3 rows back from the front. Neither of us felt confident in starting at the blistering pace of the leaders. But I would at least be in a position to try if my legs were good. 5:59 a.m. the call ups were done & the neutral start down Commercial Street began. 200 riders in the front group made for the typical start/stop anxious roll out. Once we got to a mile from the first turn onto gravel the pace picked up. My road racing instincts kicked in as I threaded my way further up in the group. I spotted April Morgan on the right side and worked up to her to say hello. I passed April just as we made the hard right turn onto the first dirt road, expecting that the front group would hit warp speed. But no, the bunch came almost to a standstill in an inch of standing water on the road. Surprise of the day #1, many more to come.


Plowing through standing water at Mile 3
photo by Jayson O'Mahoney aka Gravel Cyclist
As soon as we cleared the standing water, a mile long section of peanut butter thick mud lay ahead. I saw racers suddenly either dismounting or scattering to the side. It was a frightful reminder of the prior year, complete with mud clods clogging drive trains. I witnessed 2 different men toss their broken bikes into the weeds. Several other racers stood over their bikes fumbling with broken chains or twisted derailleurs. I trotted for several meters then plowed through the remaining glop. My cassette collected enough mud to skip like a 3rd grader with a new jump rope. At mile 7 John Bayley caught up to me. He complained that his chain was skipping too. I followed his wheel for a mile until he upped the tempo beyond my all day pace.

After John sped away, I sat up to clean my glasses from the film of mud coating them. My legs did not feel opened up yet. I resolved to ride an all day pace rather than force my effort this early on. At mile 10 I put my earbuds in & started my DK200 playlist. If I was going to ride solo tempo I may as well take Yuri Hauswald's advice & motivate myself with music. The rest of the section passed quickly. I climbed up Twin Towers at a steady rate. I rode through the cattle pens & descended the back side with confidence. A front flat stopped me, but it was only for a minute or two.

mile 30, still riding high tempo
photo by Matt Fowler Gravel Guru
The new wrinkle in the course was a short out & back into the 1st Madison check point. I hesitated for a moment thinking I had made a wrong turn with a mile to go. I called out to one of the lead group who confirmed I was going the right way. Then I passed John a 1/2 mile out of the check point. He had a 4 minute lead on me. Not so bad for 50 miles in with one flat tire. Pamela was waiting just past the turn around. I swapped Camelbak's, took water bottles & restocked food in seconds. It was the fastest check point stop I've ever done thanks to Pamela's efficiency. On my way out I passed April Morgan about 4-5 minutes behind me. I felt good, this was going to be a strong ride, or so I thought.

Section #2 Gravel Paradise

"...I want to take you through, a wasteland I like to call my home, welcome to paradise..."
Welcome to Paradise - Greenday


Midway in the first section I saw Amanda Nauman, the reigning women's champion, stopped with a flat tire. She had 2 guys with her, presumably to help pace her through the first 100 miles. I was still clipping along at my all day pace when Amanda & the Panda Train, as I nicknamed them, caught me at mile 65. In addition to her team mates Garth Prosser & none other than Dan Hughes were in the pace line. Immediately I jumped in. I had never ridden with Dan so deep into the race. This was getting very good.

We rode together for several miles. The pace line was tight for a gravel race, everyone taking short pulls at steady tempo. A few other guys joined the pace line adding their efforts as they could. At the start of Texaco Hill Dan called out "Alright, tall skinny guys to the front!" I replied "that leaves some of us out." In mock anger he said "Are you calling me fat, Carl!" I said "I respect you too much to say that Dan, but it won't keep me from out sprinting you at the next town line". We both laughed. Garth & I lead over the top of Texaco Hill. We gained a gap by speeding down the backside. To my surprise I was descending a bit faster than the bunch on several long declines. I decided to make the most of this, which turned out to be a mistake.
Dan Hughes riding steady & commanding the pace line
photo by Matt Fowler Gravel Guru

I used  my descending skill to earn free speed ahead of the pace line then soft pedal for a minute while they overtook me. At mile 80 I found that limit as I flatted the rear tire at the bottom of a steep hill. I pulled over to fix it. I waved farewell to Dan, Garth, & the Panda Train, it was nice riding with you. I changed the tube, used a C02 cartridge, and took advantage of the stop for a nature break. I have always had good luck with tires at the Kanza, but my luck was running out. A few miles outside of Eureka I noticed that my front tire was going soft. I filled it with CO2 and trusted it would hold to the checkpoint.

At Eureka Pamela again had everything organized in perfect arrangement. Better yet, a guy with mechanic skills volunteered to help us. He lubed my chain which had been squeaking like a rusty door hinge. As he swapped the front wheel for my spare I reloaded my seat pack with tubes. I ate a few pickles then drank a Red Bull. Pamela handed me new bottles & a full Camelbak. I was ready to tackle what is typically the hardest part of the Kanza: the third section.
feeling strong coming out of Eureka
photo by Roger Harrison

Section #3: Loneliness & Despair

"In the afterlife, you could be headed for the serious strife,
now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there'll be Hell to pay.."

I left Eureka knowing that John Bayley was about 15 minutes ahead of me, Dan Hughes a little less. I hoped I could close that gap by riding hard for the first half of this section. I wanted to be in a pace line again when the course turned north into a headwind. I spent the next hour riding entirely alone. I saw no one either ahead of me or behind me until after mile 120. My legs felt very good so I figured I would catch someone eventually. I switched screens on my Garmin to see the temperature read 90F. It didn't feel that hot, the north cross wind helped me feel cool.

As the course hit some punchy rolling hills a younger racer (Matt Rossi) caught me. He was tall, skinny, & climbing at a good clip. I tried to match his pace but immediately felt a flutter of cramps in my legs. I took a swig from my pickle juice flask. As we crested a longer hill I felt my rear tire go flat again. I was getting tired & frustrated. I concentrated on changing the tube carefully to avoid mistakes in my depleted state. I decided to use my pump instead of the CO2. I realized that the latex tubes were likely leaking CO2 at a fast rate. It was a slow tire change so I took another nature break.
Struggling past the Dr. Pepper Ranch
photo by Linda Guerrette

When I got back on the bike I checked the temperature again. 93F, 10 degrees hotter than the forecast. No wonder I was beginning to feel empty. I tried to stay positive, I told myself to just keep pedaling, that it would get better. But my body was beginning to shutdown. I had a hard time swallowing food, even gels. I told myself to just keep drinking, to eat what I could, even though that meant breaking my 30 minute feed schedule. I was falling into a very dark place physically and mentally.

I had another flat, this time the front, only 4 miles further up the road. Again I focused to avoid any time wasting mistakes. Again it was a slow change. Several racers passed me while I fixed the flat. Shortly after this my friend April Morgan caught up to me. She was riding steady with a couple of guys. She called out "Hey Carl, jump on!" I pulled out my earbuds & replied, "I'm cracked, ...in a dark place, I didn't think it could be harder than last year..." She gave me a stunned look & said "It will get better. You can do this". I tried to hold her wheel, but as I pushed my body rebelled. My legs were empty, my energy level at bottom. She quickly pulled away with the other guys. I fell into despair.
April cruising past the ranch, close to her limit
photo by Linda Guerrette

As I slowly pedaled the Demon called DNF began to pursue me. "You could end all your suffering with a DNF" it whispered. I could hear the demon's leathery wings flap behind me. "Just pull out your cell phone, call Pamela" No, she won't come get me unless either my bike or my body is broken beyond repair. "Then quit at the check point, 160 miles is enough. Sit down there & have a beer" it hissed. I began to get angry. I did not ride 3,000 miles in training, give up beer for the last 3 weeks, just to Quit! Be Gone Demon, Shoo!

Last year I read Thich Nhat Hanh's lastest book "No Mud, No Lotus" before the Kanza. I found plenty of mud & my lotus at the finish during the 2015 race. This winter I revisited Master Hanh's earlier work "Peace is Every Step" about achieving mindfulness in daily life. I revised this at mile 145 to "Peace is Every Pedal Stroke". This thought helped me stay calm & pedal on for a while.

I won't deceive you, dear reader. I did not complete the 3rd section in a state of enlightened bliss. Soon my legs threatened to cramp again. I finished my pickle juice flask. The heat & stiff headwind continued to make me miserable. My shoulders ached, my feet were sore. Even the music that had propelled me for the past 140 miles began to annoy me instead. I pulled the earbuds out with 6 miles to go to Madison. All I could do was grit my teeth & grind away to the oasis ahead.

before a sip of Red Bull, completely cracked
photo by Pamela Blalock
I coasted slowly into the check point. Pamela immediately said "sit down, here is a bottle of seltzer, can you eat anything?" Having seen John's ragged condition an hour before, she anticipated how worn out I would be. "I'm so cracked" I feebly replied. I stumbled to the chair in the shade of the van. She put an ice sock around my neck and gave me more drinks. Pamela looked me in the eyes and said resolutely "You're not getting in the van, you can & will finish this race." I downed a can of V8 & ate a banana. "I could use a Red Bull" I bleated. It did indeed give me much needed wings. We turned our attention to my bike. We talked about putting my lights on the handlebar. I aired up the tires to 5 psi more pressure than I had at the start. I did not want a 5th pinch flat. My down tube bottle cage was loose so we tightened the bolts. I refilled my pickle juice flask & grabbed a few gels. Pamela put fresh tubes in my saddle bag then sent me off. She was magical in her response to my shattered state. All I had to do was keep pedaling. Only 45 miles to go.

After a Red Bull, ready to go
Photo by Pamela Blalock
Section #4: Chasing Away the Darkness

"Sunset lights the sky, and there's a shadow over me,
black clouds in the east, and there's a twister underneath..."

I left the last check point at a little past 6 p.m. I had hoped to have done so 2 hours earlier at the start of the day. But now I just wanted to finish at all. I gave myself little chance of beating the sun considering I had been riding a 12 mph average the prior 30 miles. But I hoped with the wind calming down and the temperature dropping I might pick up my pace. I still felt dehydrated so I sucked at my Camelbak confident that I would have enough water in this short section.

Only 15 minutes out of Madison I had a terrible realization. I forgot to attach my lights. I would need to finish before dark or I would be sunk. I figured that sunset at 8:45 gave me an absolute curfew to be in Emporia by 9:00 p.m. Suddenly I was engulfed in what Chris Case named the algebra of the Kanza. A 12 mph pace would not do. I needed to maintain a 15+ mph average to finish at all now. I contemplated going back for my lights but understood that Pamela was likely gone.  Nothing sharpens the mind to a task like a desperate situation.

Dexter Pham earlier in the race
photo by Matt Fowler - Gravel Guru
I took a swig of pickle juice & upped my tempo. I hung my arms narrow over the bars any time the road was smooth enough to allow it. I put my earbuds back in. I caught & passed a few other racers. I was playing leap frog with a pair of guys for several miles. One was a stocky sprinter in a plain black kit, the other one of the many Chamois Butt'r riders. I would learn at the finish that the sprinter is Dexter Pham & the Chamois Butt'r rider Elliot Rodda. I would pass them at my tempo pace then fall back when my legs started to fade.

South of Olpe I passed a farm house with a couple of boys handing up water. I took a bottle. I poured half of it on my aching feet & down my neck. I drank the rest. I was able to eat regularly again. I took a gel & a few dried apricots. Soon I spotted a familiar black & blue jersey up the road. I bridged up. It was Amber Auer. I did not know when she had passed me but it did not matter. I tapped her on the shoulder as I passed. Then I slowed and gestured that we should work together. A half mile later Dexter & Elliot caught up to us. I pulled out my earbuds & said "Let's start a rotation". Dexter was taking long strong pulls at the front. I matched him as best I could. We picked up a couple more guys who did their share too.
Amber Auer
photo by Linda Guerrette
About a mile before the Murder Ordained bridge my legs started to cramp again. I pulled out of the pace line & said to Amber "I'm hurting, go on ahead". I soft pedaled for a moment then drained my pickle juice. I wanted to approach the bridge alone anyway. The descent to it was loose, the bridge crossing risky. I could see the group 20 seconds ahead of me. We were all stopped at the mile 199 rail crossing by a freight train. A few more joined us before we could cross the tracks. Once we did the bunch had swelled to a dozen.

After passing the highway and turning west to Emporia I moved up next to Amber. I asked her when she was going to attack the group. She replied with a chuckle that she didn't have any strength for an attack. I was glad I had previewed this part of the course. I punched over a little rise before the s-curve descent past Camp Alexander. At the bottom I saw Dexter & Elliot closing on my wheel. We turned onto Rd 175 together to pace line into Emporia. I turned on my sole light, my helmet blinky. I realized that Dexter was both without lights and that Elliot was providing his navigation. This is likely why they had stuck together for the last 30 some miles. 

We picked up another racer as we approached the outskirts of ESU's campus. After coming through the tunnel at 2 miles to go I asked everyone's age. Dexter, Elliot, & I were in different age groups. The new racer tagging along was in Dexter's. He quickly volunteered "I'm not sprinting, I have nothing left" Elliot echoed his sentiment. Dexter stayed silent. We started up the final hill past Wilson Park. Dexter surged forward and I followed. The others were immediately gaped. A course volunteer directed us to the right hand turn at the top of the hill. Dexter looked around not knowing where the next turn was. I told him to look for the white signs with black arrows. I sped down the hill into campus. Dexter came around me and made a small attack. I was able to follow again.

Approaching Commercial Street it was clear we were going to sprint, regardless of our age groups. Dexter led across the intersection. He hesitated for a moment entering the finish straight. I started to come around him. Immediately we both downshifted 3 then 4 cogs. He kicked into his sprint. I stood up to match him but couldn't squeeze anything more out of my legs. I sat up and slapped high fives with some kids at the barriers. As I crossed the line I applauded for Dexter, and the crowd, and the Kanza. I had finished. It was 8:58 p.m.

Kristi Mohn telling me congratulations, you finished
photo by TBL Photography


Afterwards: My Limits Extended

"All of us lonely, it ain't a sin,
to want something better than the shape you're in,
the rain came at the break of day...
...It's a hard earned victory
the life that came from you to me, can never be wrong"

Kristi Mohn gave me a hug as I hung over my handlebars. I was elated and exhausted at the same time. I gave everything I had to make the finish before dark. I mumbled incoherently to Jim Cummins & LeLan Dains about spotting me 10 minutes as I passed through the exit chute. I was done with Kanza math for the year. I gave Dexter a fist bump. He said "dude, you were pulling us so steady, that was great." Immediately I saw April & Tom Morgan sitting with an open box of pizza. April beamed her million watt smile at me. "You made it!" she cried. I staggered forward and lay down on the pavement next to her. "That hurt so very very much" I replied. "I knew you would finish somehow" she said. Shortly after that Pamela came up to me. She told me that I had finished 90th. I was stunned. I couldn't believe that with all the time I had lost in the 3rd section I had such a high placing. I was stunned again to learn I was 11th in my age group. My stretch goal for the race was top 10 in the 45-49 group. I was more than happy with that result.

Done
photo by Tom Morgan
John had finished almost an hour ahead of me. He was equally surprised to learn he had finished 5th in our age group, good enough for a place on the podium. I was happy to learn that Amber Auer had finished 5th overall and 2nd in her age group. For the second year in a row I had helped a friend earn a podium spot. I was proud to play a small part in her result.

John, Pamela & I went back to the motel. After we cleaned up we went next door for a late dinner. Both John and I had trouble eating. Our bodies were still queasy from the heat and the effort. But somehow we had little trouble sharing a bottle of Boulevard Brewing's finest Quad for dessert.

Boulevard Bourbon Barrel Quad in a finishers glass for my 4th Kanza
Ever since I first planned to race the Kanza I wondered how I would fare in hot windy Kansas summer weather. I suffered heat stroke more than once as a boy just from playing outside on July afternoons. This year the heat & the wind caught us by surprise. The wind was 5 mph stronger and the temperature 7-10 degrees hotter than the weather forecast. Yet I found a way to push through it. Each racer I spoke to, including those who made the podium, fought through the same darkness that I fell into. Last year I wrote that the price of finishing the Kanza is humility, fortitude, & faith. This year the race required a double share of each to complete the course. But now I know that I can. So what does the Kanza have in store for me, for all of us, next? Well, there's only one way to find out.

*I could not tell this story as well without the excellent photos taken by the professionals on course. Please visit their other work at the links below:

Linda Guerette

Jason Ebberts TBL Photography

Matt Fowler Gravel Guru

Jayson O'Mahoney Gravel Cyclist

notes: all the lyrics/songs in italics were part of my DK200 playlist. Turns out that an 8.5 hour playlist was a couple hours too short. 

I rode the Kanza with a Camelbak and with music for the first time based on Yuri Hauswald's advice. Both saved me. 

I owe thanks to my parents for operating as service course for John & I. Pamela Blalock for providing outstanding crew support. The staff of Dirty Kanza Promotions: Jim Cummins, LeLan Dains, & Kristi Mohn for putting on this spectacular event. Most of all to my ever patient wife Suzanne who endures my hours of training each spring with understanding & encouragement.

Saturday we learned that Muhammad had died. Six years ago I would have said that finishing the Dirty Kanza 200 was impossible for me. Although this quote is mis-attributed to Ali, I will always hear his voice saying it in my mind:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Dirty Kanza week 2016: saddle up partners

This year was my fourth Dirty Kanza 200. The week before the race was so packed with events that it deserves a write up of it's own. So here goes.
John & Pamela at a cafe getting ready to ride bikes, imagine that.
photo by Angie Jones Baker
As I've written before, preparing for the Dirty Kanza is no small task. Add to the normal enormity of preparation for a 205 mile gravel grinder a family visit, a cycling homecoming, & combining resources with an equally ambitious fellow racer one gets stressful days. John Bayley & Pamela Blalock shared a room & their van with me for the Kanza. Pamela would be crew support for both John & me. That meant we had several bikes to build & supplies for 2 racers to organize. Short story is that we did a ton in the span of 2 1/2 days ahead of the race.
Dan Hughes & I get reacquainted

I got to Lawrence, KS late on Wednesday and enjoyed a quick visit with my parents. Thursday started with the usual bike build & gear sorting chores. John & Pamela arrived on Thursday at noon. The immediate problem was that John's rear brake was not full strength. He thought it just needed an emergency bleed. A quick call down to Sunflower Bike later led to more stress. The shop was jammed with pre Kanza work so they could not do a bleed that afternoon. However the shop in Emporia would be able to bleed the brake on Friday morning. With that crisis under control the three of us got some lunch at Merchants Pub and kitted up for the Sunflower Bike shakedown ride.


Rolling with Kings & the Queen


The King of the Kanza surveys his domain
One of the Kanza events I look forward to most is the Sunflower Bike shakedown ride. Lawrence is my hometown. Sunflower Outdoor shop is the place that kindled my passion for hiking & cycling when I was a boy. I have plenty of fond memories of that shop from the years I lived in Larryville. This year the ride was extra special since it was being co-lead by New England's favorite pro roadie, my friend Ted King. Considering the ride was lead by the King of the Kanza: Dan Hughes, Ted King, & The Queen of Pain: Rebecca Rusch I figured we had a decent poker hand at 2 Kings & a Queen.

Ian, his friend Carly & me on the shakedown ride
More over a long lost friend was in town for his first Dirty Kanza, Ian Penner. We hadn't been in the same zip code since our freshman year of high school. We were some of the few boys in our school who shared a passion for cycling, a passion that has only grown over the decades. I was delighted to catch up with Ian as we rolled easy tempo for the first few miles. But Ian was not my only friend on the ride.


Kris & Amber Auer waiting for the train to pass
Kris & Amber Auer also stopped in Lawrence on their way to Emporia. Those two had saved me after the Kanza last year by hauling my ragged carcass back to my motel. I returned the favor by helping them find last minute crew support this year. The Kanza forges bonds of friendship that way.

Ted King & I leading the bunch back to town
photo by Ian Penner
The ride itself was a pleasant 20 some mile ramble north of Lawrence. The bunch numbered 30+. The pace did not seemed hard to me, but then again when we reached some rolling hills the leaders hit them hard enough. The pace was quick enough that the group split up. A freight train conveniently stopped the leaders to allow the tail end of the group to catch back on. Dan drifted back to help the stragglers find their way around the route. It was a beautiful blue bird day but hotter than what I expected. This would be a regular occurrence in the days ahead.
John relaxing in the shade on a 85 degree day

John discovered that his front brake was fading badly too. When we got back to the shop brake fluid was leaking out of a cracked lever. Rather than a simple brake bleed he would require a whole new set of calipers & levers. Fortunately that was something Sunflower had available & could install immediately. We ran a quick errand & got a coffee while the mechanics worked at John's bike. After catching the first half of Ted & Rebecca's talk we shared a table next to the Auer's at Zen Zero for a delicious dinner. When we arrived in Emporia it was already past my bedtime. But I was happy to have enjoyed a good visit in Lawrence & that John had a fully functional bike.

Home on the Range

Friday was to be our race prep day. We still had not bought provisions or re-packed our gear for the race. The course this year had an entirely different finish than the prior 3 editions. I planned to ride the first 15-20 miles to check conditions then head east to pick up the end of the course south of Olpe. I estimate that this would be a 45-50 mile total ride & planned for 3 hours. John & Pamela planned to ride as well but discussed taking a shorter route.

Fueling up at the Gravel City Roasters/Java Cat Cafe
photo by Angie Jones Baker
We kitted up and rode into Emporia in search of good coffee. Of course we were not alone in this thought. Commercial Street was packed with cyclists gearing up for the Kanza. At Gravel City Roaster's I spotted 2015 Kanza champion Juri Hauswald. We shared a quick hello before John, Pamela & I headed south to the course.

Yuri Hauswald needs his coffee too
photo by Angie Jones Baker
We rode the first few miles at a casual pace. We stopped to help a painted turtle cross the gravel road. After 5 miles or so John & I met up with Tim Ahern from Connecticut. He was showing the ropes to a couple of first time Kanza races from New England. Pamela continued ahead while Tim, John & I chatted. At mile 10 it was time for me to start putting in some effort to open up my legs. My first acceleration put me ahead of Tim & his buddies. Shortly afterward John & I caught up to Pamela. She encouraged me to go ahead solo while they took the shorter route.
Home, home on the range...


I went through my warm up until the top of the Twin Towers climb. This is the first truly open range section of the course. From the top you can look south and east to see the prairie unfold. It was stunning as ever on such a bright day. After a few more miles I turned off course to head east toward Olpe. As I rode along I spotted a herd of deer at the edge of a pasture. They raced ahead of me for the next half mile to a line of trees. It was a beautiful site watching them bound away. I passed by several old farms with equipment parked in their yards. On a fence post I spotted a welcome reminder to enjoy the ride.


Inspiring things you find on Kansas farms
As the miles ticked by I realized that this was going to be a longer transfer than I had thought. I double checked the map and decided to head north to use the paved road into Olpe. I had never visited this little town before. It had a typical Kansas brick store front Main Street and a large ornate church across the green. To my distress the thermometer outside the post office read 88 degrees. I was glad I had brought my Camelbak but concerned that it was already past 1 p.m.

A hot south wind pushed me out of Olpe
Still I had a plan to follow. I was back on track at the mile 188 of the course. I studied the terrain and turns as I headed north to Emporia. This section looked fairly easy, though the tailwind aided in that impression. The first tricky bit was the downhill approach to the "Murder Ordained" bridge at mile 195. After the bridge I noticed a very loose section of gravel in a hard right turn. Once over the rail road tracks & past the highway the route turned west into Emporia proper. I made note of the fast twisting descent past a summer camp, the numerous random potholes on the run in to campus, and the sharp final climb past Wilson Park. It could be a tough final few miles in a group.


The Emporia State Hornet with timely advice at 2 miles to go
By the time I rolled onto Commercial Street it was past 2 p.m. I had ridden 62 miles in 3:45 moving time, way beyond what I had planned. I looked for some lunch & drinks near the rider expo. Everything had been picked over by the hundreds of cyclists who had been there earlier. I filled my water bottle, grabbed a granola bar, & raced back to the motel. I had told Pamela I would meet her there at 3 so we could shop for race provisions. When I got back John & Pamela were not at the room. They had been similarly delayed on their ride & thwarted in finding lunch in town. Both John & I still needed to register as well. More stress. We ate a quick late lunch. Pamela went to get race food & supplies while John & I returned to the Granada Theater for registration. At the downtown grocery buying cold drinks we spotted Lyne Bessette. We chatted & confirmed that Lynne was there to go for the win. I wouldn't expect anything less from such a great athlete.

A great little tavern in Strong City
Since the restaurants in Emporia all looked packed John & Pamela decided to head out of town for dinner. They remembered a nice little place near Cottonwood Falls from 3 years prior. As we drove past the Flint Hills Rodeo we saw a promising little tavern. I suggested we try it. It happened to be named the Ad Astra and is located in Strong City: a perfect serendipity if ever there was one. I explained to my friends that "Ad Astra per Aspera" is the Kansas state motto: "to the stars through difficulties". Nothing could describe racing the Kanza better in my opinion. To top it all off the food was great. The people watching as the rodeo let out & spectators wandered over to the tavern was perhaps better.

We headed back to Emporia to finish race prep chores. Our bikes cleaned & lubed, food packed, & race clothes laid out. All that was left to do was pedal. Yet we had no idea how hard a day we had ahead.







Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Vive le Grand Tour! the best annual group ride that almost didn't happen 2016

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Grand Tour is an annual tradition in the little cycling community I call home. It has happened every Sunday after Mother's Day for decades. When the weather is fair I've seen 70 or more cyclists on the route. The riders come on a wide range of bikes & travel at equally divergent pace. In the best years we enjoy a group of a couple dozen sharing the work on the flat stretches. But this was not a fair weather year. Since Mother's Day was early this year, Sunday May 15th was the regular date. But with a forecast of 45F & 15 mph winds, the ride was postponed until May 22nd. Several of the regulars on the Wednesday night road ride were eager for the new date. Other cyclists who come up just for the ride called the shop to confirm the date in the week ahead. But the forecast for that Sunday got more dismal as the week dragged on. As all great traditions go, it can only be maintained by someone keeping it up.

I wasn't going to ride the Grand Tour this year. I planned to race the Eastern Grind on May 15th instead. But when the date was changed I thought, maybe I can do the short route of 80-90 miles. The Grand Tour is hard to resist when a good group makes for a fun day in the saddle. Then when the weather forecast shifted to rain in the afternoon I thought, perhaps I'll ride from home and stop at North Woodstock for 105 miles. That was the plan at least, ride hard for 5+ hours and finish by lunch time. That was the plan

I got up early Sunday morning and spotted a sheen of over night rain on the road. The forecast had improved a bit, but the sky was still overcast. I packed a rain jacket, booties, & extra chamois cream in the large saddle bag before heading out. I was 3 miles from home when I realized I forgot my phone & money. CRAP! I was beginning the day with a chase to catch the group that left from the bike shop with a 10 minute lead. Most years the group pace from the shop up to the North Woodstock parking lot is leisurely. But as the miles ticked by up Route 3 I was concerned that I saw no other cyclists. I upped my tempo, anxious I would miss the group entirely.

Thom took the first town line of the day
I rolled into the parking lot in North Woodstock just past 8:15. I was thrilled to see my team mates Jordan & Ryanne at their car. But no other cars with bike racks were in the lot and only 2 other cyclists near by. This was it? Where were the dozens of other riders who usually show up? From the lack of cars I could tell no one had likely started early either. The other 2 were Andy Havey & Thom Mitchel who had come up from Plymouth 10 minutes ahead of me. They too were surprised to be the only cyclists at the bike shop that morning. But the Grand Tour must go on, so we committed to stay together as a tight knit group.
Ryanne still all smiles after the first climb

We started through Lincoln to the Kancamagus Highway at a casual pace. At some point near the hair pin curve, 3 miles before the top, Thom & I separated from the others. We each started climbing a little harder to test our legs. With about a mile to go Thom upped the pace to one I could not match if I was going to ride another 90+ miles. He took the first town line of the day at the crest of the Kanc. We stopped at the look out to zip up our vests & wait for Andy, Jordan & Ryanne. The clouds began to break allowing some sky to peak through. It was gorgeous as always.
the view from the top of the Kanc

Like most years we ripped the descent down the east side of the Kanc, going over 40 mph in the straight stretches. After grouping up at the bottom of Bear Notch we began an equally casual pace up this climb as out of Lincoln. After I took the town line 1.5 miles up, Andy & Thom pulled away to climb at their quick rate. Down the back side of Bear Notch Andy spotted a black bear crossing the road, imagine the serendipity.

Following the well established pattern, we stopped to refuel at Bart's Deli in Bartlett. The giant pickle jar & breakfast sandwiches are institutions for New Hampshire cyclists. As we filled our bottles & sat in the parking lot an older gentleman asked how far we were riding. He was driving a car with Ontario plates & 2 little old ladies in the back seat. When we told him our route he replied in a thick English accent "well, that sounds brilliant, but you're quite mad. Yes absolutley mad." I took that as a high compliment.
Still feeling good at our first food stop in Bartlett

We resumed a steady pace out of Bartlett heading up to Crawford Notch. This stretch always feels longer than the 14 miles it measures. A little tailwind helped ease the strain of the constant upward tilt of the road. My problem was that my legs were flat. This was my last day of a hard 3 week training block. I did not have much power left at all. But I thought that once we got a little further up the road I might recover. Jordan kindly held back & pulled me to last roller before the start of Crawford Notch proper. Andy & Thom lit up the steep final pitch to the top of the Notch. I crawled my way up, it was one of my weakest rides up Crawford. We grouped up again past the AMC Highland center for the fast downhill stretch to Bretton Woods.
cycling to the top of Crawford Notch: photo by Nick Czerula
Andy after taking the sprint on Crawford Notch
The real attraction of the Grand Tour is the route. The views from the top of the Kanc are great & the site of Cannon & Mt Lafayette are beautiful. My favorite stretch though is coming up through Crawford notch. On a clear day traveling the at bicycle pace I have a chance to enjoy all the vistas along this 12 mile stretch: Arethusa Falls, Willey's Slide, the Cog railway meandering below Mt. Field, Elephant Head Rock, and all the peaks of the southern Presidentials. A bicycle is a much better way to take in these sights than from behind a windshield at 50 mph. I was a little jealous of the loaded touring cyclists we passed going half our pace up this beautiful road. Our small group meant we could see more of the views rather than concentrating on the pace line. Despite the weather forecast, this was turning out to be a good day.

Foster's Store our second food stop
Rolling out for the final 50 miles
Another advantage of a small group is that we could pick our stops instead of following the bunch to every store. We jetted by Fabian's Station, waving a greeting to the bikers parked at the Mount Washington hotel look out. We continued on to Twin Mountain. Thom pounded out 30 mph pulls that I felt compelled to match. Ryanne may or may not have expressed her discomfort at the pace with a finger gesture. We were all ready for another refuel stop at Foster's Corner. For a moment I worried that it had closed for business like so many of my favorite north country stores. But instead new owners are renovating the funky old spot, the debris of the construction was merely piled outside. While we sat at one end of the porch sharing a large bag of Cape Cod chips, a local elder gentleman was sitting in the rocking chair at the other end. He quizzed Jordan about our route & club kit. He had the thickest Yankee accent I've heard in years. He seemed much more accepting of our cycling exploits than the Canadian tourist at our first food stop.
Franconia Bike Path, narrow & slick with leaves

We resumed a steady pace up Route 3 to Franconia Notch. I had planned to head down to Easton Road and go over Kinsman Notch but the sky to the west looked stormy. We decided to follow the traditional route and ride down the Franconia Bike Path. I dislike the Franconia Bike Path. It is narrow, lumpy, frequently slick with wet leaves, & on many weekends littered with gawking tourists, who often serve as human pylons. Speeding down this treacherous strip of pavement is risky at best. But with rain in Kinsman Notch it was clear that this was the better choice. Despite the risks, we had a great time on the bike path. In a small group we could control our speed and until we reached the Basin passed only a few walkers. I admit, I had fun speeding down Franconia Notch for the first time in several years.

We might have broken the Bike Path speed limit (oops)
Thom & Jordan exit the Bike Path and enter the rain
The only poor weather we faced all day was 5 minutes of rain from the end of the bike path until we reached the North Woodstock town line. In truth that little burst of rain was refreshing. We were all wearied by the miles at that point. Once we reached the Cascade CafĂ© each of us ordered a coffee & some pastry. We sat enjoying this stop longer than I expected, longer than any of us thought we would. Jordan & Ryanne had finished their ride so wished us farewell.

Coffee break in North Woodstock, we are much less perky than in Bartlett
Thom, Andy, & I slowly got back up to speed for the final stretch down Route 3. Andy reminded us of the Grand Master's refrain for this stretch of the Grand Tour: only 7 hills back to Plymouth. This was a welcome thought since we were all suffering from fatigue. Our pulls each got shorter. Thom no longer hit the front so hard. We had a tail wind to help us along, but somehow it did not seem as much help as the one at Bartlett 60 miles earlier. But each mile brought us closer to home. So we pedaled as hard as we could sustain. We rotated a steady pace line & pushed each other up the last couple of hills. After taking the final town line (old habits die hard) Andy & Thom returned to the bike shop while I turned down Fairgrounds Road. Only 5 easy miles remained in my ride, but into a headwind. It was a slow spin home.



This ended up one of my favorite Grand Tours. The small group was very good company. The weather was far better than the forecast. The mountain views were as beautiful as ever. I'm certain this event will continue as long as people ride road bikes in central New Hampshire. The Grand Tour lives on, Vive le Grand Tour!




Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Donkey Ride: some days speak for themselves

Dirty cyclists in New England had plenty of options last weekend. There was the Rhodekill Spring Classic on Saturday, both the inaugural Plymouth Gravel Grinder & the Dirt Roller Coaster in Vermont on Sunday, and just a bit further up I-89 was also the Kenda Cup Eastern Grind XC race. If you desired to ride the entire weekend Overland Base threw it's second Maneha, a 2 day 250 mile mixed terrain bike camping adventure. Lots of ways to run your knobbies on May 14th-15th


But I was having none of those. With 3 weeks left until the Dirty Kanza, fair weather forecast for Saturday, & a family day planned on Sunday, I chose to do my own thing. So I put together a pair of big dirt road loops on some favorite local terrain. I rode the first loop solo, the second with one team mate, Kat Zalenski. She noticed so many burrows out grazing at farms we passed that this became The Donkey Ride.



I could say many things about such a long day in the saddle, but I think these pictures say enough.

ready to roll for a 10 hour day in the saddle

some creative wood stacking on Atwell Hill
old barn in Piermont 



the view from the top of Indian Pond Road



cows will be watching me on the prairie too
grand old house on Canaan Lake, a place I should ride by more often

a beautiful farm house getting restored on Jersusalem Road

Huckleberry Hill, almost at the top


Kat Zalenski rode with me for the 2nd half

Roads like these, all day long

Hatch Pond


Mile 105, along way from home

Roxbury Road will wait for another day


Carleton Road, taking a rest before the last tough climb of the day

Kat & I saw donkey's at 4 different farms, not these donkeys, but the name stuck.

across Blair Bridge means I'm almost home.