Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Flying On Plains
I was still in the mountains, technically, for the first half of the day. All I had to do was follow a river downstream. No climbing, and no downhills good enough to coast, either. Simply an easy ride along a river, often my favorite kind of riding, and the kind of place where, when on family road trips, my brother would keep looking out the window, exclaiming, "That looks like a great spot to fish!"
For the most part, that's how Colorado goes. The roads either follow rivers or train tracks as they cut level paths between the mountains. In the southwest, what rivers? You get dry canyons and lots of cliffs, and one way or another, you gotta get past them. Colorado's hills may be bigger, but it's an easier place to ride a bike.
It was over 150 km to get to Pueblo, and I was halfway there well before noon. Thankfully, got a chance to turn off the main highway, too cluttered with big trucks and rafting groups. All throughout the day, advertisements everywhere, for adventure trips and "rugged" mountain lodge resorts for tourists. I always laugh at those. Little in Colorado is rugged. For the most part, it's upscale.
The second half of the day was drastically different from the first. Wide-open space, lots of rolling hills, and a stiff headwind. There wasn't anywhere of interest to stop, nor any shade, so for the most part, I kept plugging and got it done. Not easy.
I had a WarmShowers host in Pueblo, close to the center of town, and literally half a block off the Trans-Am route, which I'd latched onto halfway through the day. Michael had only done some bike touring, but had an apt bike for it and was eager to do some more. He spent a little time picking my brain about my setup , which he described as one of the lighter ones he's seen.
Only about an hour later, Michael asked if I wanted to go see one of the Trans-Am racers, as he'd be passing through in only a few minutes. We bike out the half-blood to the route, and moments later, there he was.
The Trans-Am is a popular coast-to-coast bike route, and each year, there's a self-supported race on it. Over 6,000 km, on your own. The clock is ticking at all times. The ones who win average 20 km/h. Around-the-clock, that is. That includes eating, sleeping, showering, etc. At any moment you're not riding, someone could pass you. That means they cover ~300 km per day and only sleep for about four hours. For almost three weeks.
Duncan, currently in 4th place, looked physically beat, but managed to crack a smile and make a joke here and there. Michael asked if he wanted to eat while he was in Pueblo, as it was about dinnertime, and led Duncan to a Mexican place that was on the route. As Duncan wolfed down an enchilada plate, an a la carte taco, and downed two large glasses of Mountain Dew, I asked a few questions about what racing the Trans-Am is like. They don't carry a tent, for one thing. The conditions they ride through are often brutal, considering they continue through the night, even where it gets cold, but don't carry the gear for it. My setup gets frequent comments on how light it is, but Duncan was carrying a third of what I have, if that.
Duncan decided to get a hotel for the evening. He'd been burned out trying to catch up with the leaders after mechanical issues set him back a devastating four days. Since then, he'd been trying to makes up the distance, and it had caught up to him. He needed the rest.
I'd be royally pissed if I had a mechanical issue cause a four-day delay, and I'm not even racing. Luckily, Valeria is built with reliability in mind and has had virtually no mechanical issues in her 30,000 km history. I started to wonder what bike and what setup I'd use if I was racing, and if I had an ideal setup with an unlimited budget, how would I do? I wouldn't be a threat to win; I've never been fast. But I'm persistent, and that's what this race is about. With an unlimited budget, I wouldn't finish last.
Michael and I then checked out downtown Pueblo, which has a mini Riverwalk with an amphitheatre for outdoor concerts. Not as cool as the one in San Antonio, but cool nonetheless.
Michael got up about the same time I did in the morning, and after checking on his computer, told me that the tracker indicated that Duncan was already long gone.
It was to be a long day, the 2nd-longest of the tour, and perhaps the first hot day, reaching the upper 30s C. Could be tough. But at least it'd be flat.
And flat it was! Of Valeria's 14 gears, I was in the double-digits 90% of the time. The road was straight, the land was flat, the wind was dead. The extra oxygen at this altitude made me feel like Superman. Movin' easy.
Early on, I passed through a small town with an inviting city park. Trash cans, benches, thick cool grass, and lots of shade. Perfect plan r to throw away the bottle I'd picked up (I pick up at least one piece of highway trash every day), then sit down and put on sunscreen.
In the time it took to throw away the bottle, I must've gotten over a dozen mosquito bites. Most likely, the damp grass is the most moisture they can find, so the park is their breeding ground. I got outta there and put on sunscreen one block away, where I saw one mosquito.
Shortly afterwards, I ran into a group of nine riders and two guides doing the Trans-Am route. The first riders I'd see on this popular coast-to-coast ride. They were supported, but were carrying more than I'd expect. Most of them had a large handlebar bag, and some of them also had an oversized seat bag. Almost as much as Duncan was carrying, and he's self-supported.
A moderate tailwind picked up, and combined with the flat terrain and higher level of oxygen at this altitude meant making good time. I was halfway to my destination before noon, and it was supposed to be a 180 km day.
I bumped into a few more riders going west, including a father-in-law team going from Cincinnati to L.A. Alyssa had just graduated college with a degree in biomedical engineering, but was applying for computer science jobs, having taught herself that skill. Holy crap...
Another guy gave me a valuable tip: in Sheridan Lake, 50 km past Eads (my intended destination), there's a church that lets cyclists stay indoors. It was a hot day. Air conditioning instead of camping in a city park sounded nice. But after 180 km, would I have the legs for it?
I got to Eads just before 4:00 and still felt great. So why not? Before leaving, I found another rider chilling out in the rest area, going the same direction as me. Today was her birthday! We talked for a while, I told her about the church, and told her I was gonna a go for it. So was she, but in a minute - she needed to put her bike shorts on after taking them off for a long lunch break.
Eager to finish a long day, I left before she did. Halfway there, the tailwind gave out. Suddenly, the distance had to be earned, over 200 km into a day's ride. Then the road surface deteriorated to crappy chip seal. Then, 3 km from town, a fierce headwind kicked into full gear.
Oh no, Jessica's back there...
I powered ahead into town, found the church, and let myself in. It was clean and cool and had a large kitchen. I helped myself to a sink shower, then rinsed and wrung my clothes. Then went ahead and ate. Jessica still didn't show up for another hour. She had to fight the wind for a long time.
In the morning, I left before Jessica did again and didn't see her at all that day. Crossed into Kansas after only about 20 km. Four states down, four to go!
Like yesterday, a steady tailwind and flat land made for easy riding. A new element was flies. Who knew houseflies can bite? Out here, they do, and it's worse than mosquitoes. What's more, you only have to hold still for two seconds before they're all over you.
I met a few more Trans-Am riders, one from Belgium, one from Tennessee, one from West Virginia. All of them warned me about the smell coming from a stockyard up ahead. I asked how long the flies had been bad. 2-3 days, according to all of them. Not enough to make me buy bug spray.
I had hoped that the roads would be quieter now that truck engines wouldn't have to roar at full throttle to push up a hill, nor would they use the engine brake while going downhill (which should qualify as both a noise complaint and disturbing the peace, with a minimum $1,000 fine). And that may be true, but the roads have gotten louder because there are more big rigs than ever. I liked it more when it was mostly RVs and motorcycles.
Strangely enough, the train tracks next to the road have abandoned train cars sitting on them, stretching miles at a time. According to the locals, the train companies leave them there, sometimes for years,because it's cheaper than storage.
Now if there were only a way to move all these goods without using so many trucks, so the road stays clearer. Maybe something that can pull dozens of loads with only two or three engines, and on a path separate from other traffic. And if only there were some way to put these train cars to good use. Hmmm....
It was finally a hot day, over 35 C, but luckily I managed to finish the day's ride by 2:00. Nice when you're finishing up just as the heat of the day sets in.
I had a WarmShowers host for the evening, and while he didn't get off work until 5:00, he lives across the street from his work, so he was able to simply walk over and let me in. Turns out he manages the local airport, and he's younger than I am! Got a chance to shower and cool off while he was out, and even finished watching "High Noon" on my phone.
Later, Ben, his girlfriend, her dad, her brother, and I all went out to dinner, at what Ben described as "a crappy little place", then backpedaled and said it was good. I liked the asada burrito, anyway. Ben's girlfriend's (Brenda, I think?) dad asked a lot of questions about how a bike tour works. I'm always happy to answer questions, but after a while, I always wonder if it sounds like all I do is talk about myself.
The rest of the evening consisted of whiskey gingers and a game of cribbage. I hadn't played in years, since I only ever played it with my grandma. I wound up skunking Brenda, and Ben escaped getting skunked by a single point. Either my grandma turned me into a good player, or more likely, I got dealt some good hands.
Another day of flat land, another moderate tailwind, another day in Kansas.
Met a couple more westbound Trans-Am riders, one from State College, PA, and the other from NYC. Yes, he referred to it as N-Y-C, which makes you 20% cooler. Predictably, he was carrying a large load, including a camera the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. He wanted a picture of me, during which he walked all over the place, studying the slope of the ground like a golfer, and made me turn a few times for proper lighting. By comparison to his load, he thought I was in the race.
He complained a lot about Kansas; it's too hot, it's all the same, it's nothing but agriculture, there are too many white people, he misses NYC. I suppose it's not as trendy as NYC, but I hope at some point he acquires an appreciation for the men and women that live out here, work outside all day, make a third of what an average New Yorker does, and grow his food for him.
Halfway through the day, I met up with another eastbound rider. His name was Jules. He was from Vancouver. He was riding a fixed-gear bike. Not a single-speed, a fixed-gear. It didn't even have brakes.
We would up riding together for the next 50 km. It seemed like longer, not because it was a drag, but because we remained engrossed in conversation the whole way. Which both helped pass the time and made it feel like a lot more went on than normally does in 50 km. Not once did I have to slow down for him on his fixie. Dang.
We eventually arrived in Rush Center, where I had intended to stay the night, and also where my route would split off the Trans-Am. It was only 3:00. Great Bend was another 50 km. I had tailwind, and there was a WarmShowers host in Great Bend. I was going for it.
Heat became a factor, but not a big one. Not long past Rush Center, a van passed me and pulled over. A woman named Ana, wearing a Relay for Life shirt, hopped out, handed me a peach mango drink, and offered a place to stay in Great Bend. If I didn't already have one, I would've taken it!
While I was heading into Great Bend, I started to wonder if I should change the plan to ride back to Texas and ride to the east coast instead. St. Louis can't be that much closer to Texas than it is to the Atlantic. Why not go coast-to-coast in one shot and then fly home?
I later got a chance to look at a map and reminded myself why that was never the plan. It was too far. About the earliest I could reasonably hope to finish would be July 16, less than a week before I need to be back for work. That could only happen if I kept up the pace I was holding now. And that's not even accounting for travel days, which is often two full days when you're on a bike (boxing a bike, then getting a ride to the airport, is an ordeal, and requires help). I quickly dashed the thought.
Tired, I rolled into town just after 6:00 and found the home of John, who had a meeting to go to shortly, regarding the drum circles he organizes. Got a chance to shower, do laundry, drink beer, and eat yogurt, in that order. Just about then, John made it home and we talked about things like headwind and music. Awesome of him to take me in on only six hours of notice.
West Kansas's winds are notoriously strong, but their direction is inconsistent. Since I kept getting tailwind, it made sense to overshoot my destination half the time. At this point, even my longest day remaining should be under 150 km, when I've had seven such days already. Good that the longest days are behind just as the heat is kicking in.
from Western States