Monday, September 14, 2009

Party on the Plains

Reader note: If you are seeking an epic tale of rando suffering, you'll need to look elsewhere. Looking for a story of one lonely randonneur fighting time cutoffs, sleep deprivation, relentless hills, and epic weather? Move along.

"You're going to Colorado for a 1200k? Wow. That will be scenic. And difficult."

"Well, actually we're starting east of the mountains and heading further east into the plains."

"Oh. [Long pause]. Um, why?"

"Because I've never been to Kansas?"

In truth, Kansas never exerted much of a pull. I'm just drawn moth-like to the flames of these 1200k events. Each brings some unique adventure and a group of old and new friends with whom to share it. Colorado's Rocky Mountain Cycling Club's Last Chance 1200k would be my eighth different 1200. Even the repeated 1200s have offered a different experience each time. Variations in the scenery, in the terrain, in the local culture, in the rider field, in my fitness, in the weather, in my approach, and in a multitude of other factors yield vastly different stories for each 1200.

For me, the theme of the 2009 Last Chance 1200 would be to relax and enjoy the party. With relatively friendly terrain, the event is only as difficult as the weather makes it. I had heard stories of riders seeking shelter from near-tornado conditions, of soaking rains, and of wicked winds. The possibility of high temperatures frightened me as well; as I was reminded on John Kramer's XTR 600k earlier this year, heat is not my friend. But the weather gods would smile benignly on my ride. Temperatures ranged from upper 40s to 80 (F), well within the comfort range of my SIR blue wool jerseys. Rain fell only on part of the last day of my ride and was relatively light - more Seattle misting than diluvian soaking. Winds blew weakly when head-on and from the sides when strong.

Wednesday - 250 miles to Atwood

At an astonishingly early time of 3AM, 36 riders headed off in the dark towards Kansas. About half that group held together to the first control in Byers, Colorado. In contrast to the confusing cue sheet of my last 1200 in Scandinavia, the Last Chance cue sheet was a model of simplicity. Only the first 70 miles and the last 100 miles had turns. The 580 miles in between were a giant out-and-back on US-36. The only good opportunity to get lost and accrue bonus miles came in the dark on the first day on the way to Byers. As a result, many of us saw the wisdom in staying with a big group that included the ride organizer, John Lee Ellis.

I worked harder than planned to stay with this well-guided group and dropped off the back just before Byers as the sun came up. Super-volunteer Eric Simmons had brought a truckful of breakfast burritos for the riders.

The remaining 180 miles of the first day passed uneventfully. I rode with a shifting group of riders in about the third quartile of the field, sticking to my plan to stop at every possible source of nourishment from Colorado into Kansas and to enjoy the scenery(?).

Along the way, Paul Rozelle was corrupted by the ride-for-fun posse and abandoned his plan to qualify for RAAM (again, but this time on fixed gear). Sharon and Vickie from Texas were incorruptible and did ultimately qualify for RAAM. I rolled into Atwood with Paul, Bill Olsen (on his 4th 1200 of 2009), the Florida tandem of Alain Abbate and Viktoriya Shundrovskaya, and their fellow Floridian Hamid Akbarian. Setting a tone for the rest of the ride, Paul, Bill, and I stopped first at the convenience store for some tall cans of 3.2 beer.

Charlie Henderson (RUSA #6) and Jim Kraychy manned the Atwood control and doled out pizza and room assignments. The no-rush plan firmly established, we opted for a 7+ hour stop and a 3AM departure.

Thursday - 220 miles to Kensington and back

Bill, Hamid, the two Pauls (Paul Rozelle was joined by Paul Shapiro), and I rode into the pre-dawn fog with a morning plan that would repeat itself for the rest of the ride. Pre-departure snack, ride to sit-down breakfast in next town, arrive in next town to find eatery closed, curse and grumble, ride on to next town, and finally enjoy a wonderful breakfast in the second town. On Thursday, we landed in the Town & Country Kitchen in Norton, Kansas, where a kindly waitress brought piles of food, pitchers of water, and bottomless coffee cups.

Riding 60 miles before breakfast put us more than halfway to the turnaround point of the ride in Kensington, Kansas. With one relatively brief stop in Phillipsburg, we arrived at Kensington just after noon. It was 11:20 by my watch, so I was disappointed to discover that the post office was closed for lunch. I would have to deposit the ceremonial postcard in the mailbox rather than handing it to postmistress Beverly. Absent any spatial navigation challenges in the Kansas part of the ride, we contented ourselves with temporal confusion arising from keeping official "ride time" (Mountain) on our watches, while the locals went about their business on Central time.

A nice surprise offset the disappointment of the closed post office. As we rolled down the main street of Kensington, I spied a familiar looking flash of blue. A pedestrian sporting a blue wool Seattle Randonneurs jersey? How was that possible? Well, SIR's own Guy Oldfield has a place in the next county and came out to man a table covered with pie and other goodies. A welcome sight.

Heading back west, the morning's light headwind became a happy tailwind blowing us quickly to lunch back in Phillipsburg. At the town's fine sandwich establishment, a Subway, we fueled up for the 90-odd mile return trip to Atwood. Also patronizing the Subway were SIR's Ian Shopland and the Colorado tandem team of Beth and Brent Myers. Our six single bikes and two tandems would ride most of the way back to Atwood more or less together, interrupted by stops in Norton and Oberlin.

In the dark on the final stretch, the unintelligible but unmistakably angry screams of a parked eastbound trucker interrupted the night's stillness. We shrugged it off and continued back to Atwood. Paul, Paul, and Bill stopped off at the convenience store for more yummy 3.2 beer, a somewhat inopportune mission, as they were greeted by the local sheriff investigating a 911 complaint of cyclists all over the road. Our 18-wheeler driving friend was apparently quite unhappy to share the relatively deserted road with any 2-wheelers, even those traveling the other way. With two lawyers among the three riders in the store, not much happened and we were soon again enjoying pizza and beer and the luxury of 12 hours "in the bank" (up from 10 when we arrived in Atwood the previous evening). We made a plan for another 3AM departure and headed off to bed.

Friday - 180 miles from Atwood to Byers

Deja vu all over again. Although the cook could be seen in the window, the diner in Bird City was still closed when we arrived for breakfast. So, on to St. Francis, another 15 miles. A desperate inquiry in the local convenience store yields a recommendation that we stop for breakfast at the bowling alley, of all places. To our surprise and delight, breakfast was delicious. Closed lanes squelched the thought of a bowling a frame or two for dessert.

Soon we were back in Colorado and greeted by brisk winds. Happily, they were mostly crosswinds. Spreading across the road in semi-organized echelons with the strongest riders on the wind side, we made good progress through the winds. Too much fun at ever more frequent stops proved the more serious impediment to forward progress. Stop 14 miles past St Francis at state line for photos? Check. Stop 14 miles later at Idalia control for snacks and ice and nice conversation with the friendly store clerk? Check. Stop 24 miles later in the town of Joes for photos and to make "eat-at-joes" jokes? Check. Stop 11 miles later in Cope for soup and sandwiches in the nice little cafe in the store? Check. Stop 20 miles later at the Anton store control for refreshments including beer? Check.

The group of riders with which I would finish the ride had coalesced by now. Hamid, Ian, the two Pauls, and I proved to be quite compatible. With some trepidation we left the Anton store for the 55 miles leading to the third overnight. Our sense of dread about the rollers and net elevation gain between Anton and Byers (back up to 5000ft) proved unwarranted as we powered through this section feeling great. Along the way, I noted a comment posted online by Amy Pieper back home - "Where is the suffering?" Apparently it would have to wait for another day.

Arriving in the daylight a bit after 7pm meant that we had nearly 26 hours to ride the last 100 miles to the finish. Many riders saw personal best times in reach or were simple eager to get the ride done; they planned short sleeps and early departures. We had other ideas. Over a delicious dinner of corn chowder, grilled sandwiches, pasta salad, cold beer, and other goodies served up by Eric Simmons and Bobbe Foliart, we argued and negotiated over just how late in the morning we could leave. The compromise reached was not to wait for breakfast to open in Byers, but instead to leave at 5am and seek breakfast 34 miles up the road in Prospect Valley. Surely we could get enough sleep with a 9+ hour overnight stop, a luxury previously unknown to me in my 12 years of riding brevets.

Saturday - 100 miles to the finish

Groundhog Day! We reached the Sodbuster Cafe in Prospect Valley only to be greeted by a sign: "6am - 2pm Mon-Friday - Weekend open soon." Aaargh! Off we rode to the next town, but only eight miles this day. In Keenesburg, we found yet another wonderful breakfast at the Korner Kitchen restaurant.

Just out of town after breakfast we rode headlong into the first real drama of the ride. All pretty experienced riders, we would know better than to say "wow, no flats" and thus taunt the tire gods. A reasonable corollary rule would be to avoid any statement like the previous night's "Sure we can spend 9 hours at the overnight. We'll have 16 hours to ride the last 100 miles. It would take a catastophic failure for that to be a problem." A mile past Keenesburg we noticed Ian's wheel out of true. An experienced bike mechanic, Ian found some loose spokes and looked for a broken one or other signs of damage. Instead we spotted this:

Uh-oh. Cracked hub?!? We could feel pretty foolish now for tempting "catastrophic failure," but putting our ride-fried heads together we formulated a plan. First, we added the ziptie seen in the picture in hopes of retarding the progress of the crack. Then we called ride central back in Louisville to inform them of our trouble and to beg for some help. John Lee Ellis, who had finished much earlier (around midnight), offered to bring a replacement rear wheel to the next control in Platteville. Ian rode as gingerly as possible towards Platteville to meet him.

Outside of Platteville we encountered rain that would stay with us for the rest of the ride. Not particularly substantial, it did give me an excuse to put on a few extra items that I had carried unused for 700 miles - wool headband, toe covers, overmitts, etc. (I did keep the raincoat safe and dry in my bag.) The rain also gave us an excuse for a long lunch stop at the cafe in the control. Finally at 2:45pm, barely the worse for wear, we showed up at the finish at John Lee's house. Not the most scenic or challenging 1200 I'd ever done, but certainly one of the most fun.

Paul Shapiro, Ian Shopland, me, Hamid Akbarian, Paul Rozelle

Postscript: My ride wouldn't be complete without a nerdy time-motion study courtesy of my Garmin 705 GPS. The GPS was aided on the Last Chance by my latest gizmo, the V4 power pack and universal cable from PedalPower+ in Australia. Using the PedalPower+ stuff, I ran the GPS continuously for 84 hours. Attaching the cable (with appropriate adapter tip) between my hub and the GPS charged the GPS during the day. At night the generator powered my light and the GPS ran off its internal battery. The cable could also charge the power pack allowing the stored energy also to be used to recharge a phone etc. Very nice setup.

More photos from the ride are here.


jle said...

Congratulations, Mark, on surmounting the hurdles of balmy tailwinds, mild temps, mostly dry weather, and rancher breakfasts, to cross the finish line in good form.

Yours is one of the most intelligent approaches I've seen to riding the Last Chance! Thanks for coming down for a pleasant time.

-john lee

P.S. There used to be town line signs for Last Chance on US-36 - glad you found them on the side road.

Chris_Farrington said...

Congratulations :)