Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Israel 1200k: Goliath Slays David

The decision to ride the Israel 1200k in 2018 was not based on hours of detailed research or years of daydreaming about riding in the desert. Instead, it came about in a brief moment of mindless spontaneity. Spencer Klaassen and I had been tentatively planning to ride Perth-Albany-Perth this fall. On New Years Eve, I got a text from Spencer suggesting we should ride in Israel instead. With all of the deep contemplation you would expect half way through a New Years Eve celebration, I responded with “I’m in if you are.” By the next morning we were both signed up. I later found out that Spencer was just screwing around and didn’t really have an interest in riding in Israel. Jerry Christensen had also been planning to do P-A-P. A couple texts to him and he was on board as well.

We arrived in Tel Aviv a couple of nights prior to the start. Vinny Muoneke met us at the airport in Tel Aviv and we all took a large taxi van to our apartment in a really fun neighborhood in Tel Aviv. I was surprised by how busy the area was with pedestrians, car, motorized scooters and e-bikes. The neighborhood was dotted with fun looking restaurants, bars and small shops. Our group did our best to scout out a lot of them.

The ride started at 10:00pm on October 23. We left our apartment and rode the bike trail which runs the length of the beach along the Mediterrean Sea. Ride organizer, Tal had organized a pre-ride dinner at a restaurant about 100 yards from the start.

Tal excitedly got the ride started precisely at 10 and we wound for several miles through a network of bike trails before emerging onto the still bustling streets of Tel Aviv. 

Within the first couple of kilometers I realized that my front handlebars were loose, causing them to turn about 25 degrees to the left. I didn’t want to lose the group this early so I kept rolling while gently holding the bars and re-aligning them at each stoplight. The field largely stayed in two pack as we rode through the city streets. Eventually, we left the outskirts of Tel Aviv and entered more rural areas. I was surprised that we rode through a number of Arab neighborhoods or communities as we left the City. I didn’t realize that there were numerous Arab settlements within Israel. Eventually, I realized that almost all of the road signs had wording in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

The first control was at Caesarea, approximately 80 kilometers into the ride. Tal had chosen a small park next to an ancient Roman Coliseum for the control. 

I was finally able to take a couple of minutes and properly tighten my handlebar bolts. Tal stamped our cards, filled our water bottles and we were off, largely retracing our steps back towards Tel Aviv. The first night of this ride was beautiful. It stayed warm overnight and the traffic finally lightened up. Our group consisted of me, Spencer, Jerry, Matt Levy from the Quad Cities, and Canadian, Marty Cooper. We rode efficiently though the overnight, not working too hard and keeping up a reasonable pace. Somewhere around 150 kilometers into the ride we spotted a gas station and decided on a refueling stop. Walking into an Israeli convenience store was a bit overwhelming at first. None of the products were labeled in English so a fair amount of guesswork was involved. I ended up with a large bowl of noodles.

All of the convenience stores we stopped in had a couple of items that would be big hits for American randonneurs. The first was the large containers of Raman type noodles. When you picked out the one you liked, the cashier would open it and add hot water from the espresso machine for an instant hot meal. The other was sandwiches that were packaged in a colored bag. You’d pick one out based on the picture on the bag and the clerk would heat it in some kind of little oven. Throughout the ride, I had mixed luck with this as I could not get the hang of what kind of sandwich I was getting. The first time, I ended up a cheese and green olive sandwich. The second time was some kind of breaded meat (maybe lamb or veal) that I really couldn’t stomach.

Shortly after leaving the convenience store, we passed through the eastern edge of the Tel Aviv metro area. To say there was a lot of traffic would be an understatement. This stretch had more traffic than any road I can remember riding on during a brevet. However, I never really felt unsafe. There seemed to be a decent shoulder and other than some honking, none of the cars came particularly close. We were rewarded with a beautiful sight of the full moon setting behind the tall buildings of Tel Aviv just before sunrise. 

We stopped for a second time at a convenience store near a well-know tank museum. The store was quite crowded with tourists. I encountered my first experience with young Israelis in uniform with machine guns over their shoulder just casually shopping in the convenience store. This would become a very common sight. 

Leaving this needed stop we began climbing through a wooded, low mountainous area. I even caught sight of a fast-moving mountain stream that would have seemed natural in Colorado or New Mexico.  This section featured a couple of long, gradual climbs and an encounter with some kind of organized cycling tour. It didn’t seem like they were too happy with us for sharing their roads. We eventually parted ways right before the second control in HaEla. This convenience store overlooked the Valley of Elah, the location of the historic battle between David and Goliath.

The next section featured very beautiful and relatively quiet roads. We passed through varying terrain. An earlier section reminded me of some areas of the Desert Southwest, with low desert shrubs, cactus and rocky hills. Within a few miles, we were passing large fields of orange and citrus trees. The day heated up dramatically, so we decided to make another unscheduled stop for fluids and a snack. By mid- afternoon, we were approaching Urim. The road into town was lined with a 5 foot tall “fence” of oversized prickly pear cactuses. 

Approaching the control, a large installation of radar towers dominated one side of the road. I assumed the radar units had to do with the town being less than 5 miles from the Gaza Strip.

The effects of the heat and the mounting miles led to a pretty long stop here. After I had finished eating and thinking I was good, one of the non-English speaking Russian riders offered me a cannister of noodles he had purchased and didn’t need. After first refusing because I thought I was full, I reconsidered and ate the whole thing. So apparently, I wasn’t as full as I thought.
The miles after Urim were truly enjoyable. The sun was lowering in the sky and we were riding through a relatively quiet area. For at least twenty miles, the land on both sides of the road was obviously a military training facility. We would periodically hear machine gun fire or loud percussions from tanks or other heavy arms, but it was generally low traffic and quiet riding.  We took one more quick stop near Tlalim Junction before the final 20 kilometers of climbing before arriving at the overnight at Sde Boker around 7:40 pm. For the first leg, we covered 243 miles.
The overnights were arranged at a Kibbutz in central Israel. Basically, it was a sprawling communal living space with lots of housing, and other businesses. The kibbutz at Sde Boker had a hostel type space to rent out to travelers. We had a large courtyard and several rooms full of bunk beds and a bathroom/shower. I ate a quick supper, showered and was in bed within a half hour. Unfortunately, I did not sleep well. No one in our pod could figure out the air conditioner so it was hot in the room. After about 45 minutes of tossing and turning, I wet down a bath towel and draped it over my back. This helped a lot and I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep.

The second day was billed as shorter but harder with lots of climbing including the big climb out of the Dead Sea. Jerry, Spencer, Vinny and I left Sde Boker just before midnight. 
We rolled about 3 kilometers to the first gas station to get breakfast. The store was open but because of the hour, we had to order and pay though a locked gate. This should have been routine but the clerk didn’t know English and we didn’t know Hebrew. What should have been a relatively easy process was anything but. Instead of a full breakfast to get the day started, I was able to get a croissant type pastry and a Coke. That was enough to get us to the first open store, 35 kilometers later.

The highlight of the day was definitely the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at approximately 1400 feet below sea level. The pre-dawn hours were dominated by the 20-ish kilometers of steep hairpins descending towards the Dead Sea. The temperature rose steadily as we descended. Well before sunrise, Spencer’s GPS showed a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100° F) at the bottom. We rode along the Dead Sea for several miles. It’s not everyday that your GPS shows your elevation as a negative number. As we came to an area of hotels, we decided to stop for fluids and food instead of continuing to the control at Masada. It’s good that we did, because the store at Masada had not yet opened when we arrived.

Masada is very sacred site to Israeli Jews. It is located on top of a large flat mountain. Around 75 AD, Masada was the last Jewish hold in the First Jewish-Roman war. After a lengthy siege, the Romans finally broke through only to find that the Jews had killed themselves rather than become slaves to the Romans. Apparently, all modern-day Israeli service members are sworn in at the site.

Without services, Jerry, Spencer and I backtracked along the shores of the Dead Sea. 

Just before the climb out the basin, we spotted the golden arches above a building in an obviously tourist location. The building was completely round and we had a hard time figuring out how to get into it. We asked different people how to get into the McDonald’s but were met with confused expressions. We finally found a way into what was an almost deserted tiny mall. All of the stores were closed except a Bulgarian bakery. I ordered two Bulgarian cheese pastries. It was so rich and odd flavored that I could only eat one. But it was some serious calories and we were able to fill our bottles and use the bathroom.  With that we were off to tackle the monster climb out of the Dead Sea.

The climb immediately started in earnest. 

2 or 3 miles up the climb, Tal was parked along the side of the road at an overlook. As I approached, he ran along besides me, yelling “go, Dan” like a fan at the Tour de France. It was pretty hard not to laugh. I pulled over at his van and topped off my bottles and talked a little bit. At this point, I was feeling really good and in good spirits. I continued climbing for several miles. As I tend to climb a little faster than Jerry and Spencer, I wasn’t surprised to have not seen them in a while. When I reached what I thought was the top I pulled over to sip some water and wait for them. After about 20 minutes and as I was starting to get worried, I got a text from Spencer saying that he was throwing up and DNF’ing.  I waited a bit longer for Jerry but then decided to roll on. Tal had described a place to get water about 20km down the road so I decided to go there.  That’s when my ride took a turn.

Within couple of miles of restarting, the wind started to pick up dramatically. At one point, it was so strong that I had to ride my brakes down a descent to keep control in the heavy crosswind. As I reached the bottom, someone in a pickup truck pulled next to me and started yelling in Hebrew. It didn’t seem like angry yelling, more like he was trying to warn me of something. He kept trying to show me his phone but I couldn’t tell what he was trying to say. He seemed satisfied when I pulled out my phone and demonstrated that I would look at it. Unfortunately, my phone was dead so I didn’t learn anything. I really didn’t have much of an option at the point, so I decided to try and push forward for the 10-12 miles to the water stop where I assumed there would be shelter. About this time, I looked to my right and spotted a herd of camels. I had planned to stop and watch if I ever saw camels on this ride, but I only had time to snap a quick photo.
The wind continued to increase and sand started blowing. Soon semi trucks heading towards me started honking and gesturing to me. I assumed they were trying to warn me to take shelter but I didn’t really have anywhere to go so I kept moving forward the best I could. At one point the blowing sand got bad enough that I didn’t feel it was safe to keep riding so I got off my bike and started walking. My knowledge of sandstorm survival techniques is pretty limited but I assumed a big danger was getting totally disoriented and walking off the road. So I decided to walk with my right shoe directly on the divide between the pavement and gravel shoulder. I figured that if the visibility went away completely, I could still feel that. After about a half mile, the blowing seemed to die down just enough that I thought I could ride again, so I climbed back on and slowly rode towards the water stop. I finally got there and found the water stop about a kilometer off the route and was able to refill my bottles. There really wasn’t much for shelter. I was able to huddle behind a low stone wall long enough to recharge my phone and send a text to Spencer, who I assumed was with Tal. I asked what the knew about the storm and whether it was likely to continue. They didn’t have much information either. I rode back to the course and took shelter on the leeward side of a tree to try and figure out what to do. I had about 60 kilometers to go, generally into the wind and no idea how long the storm was forecast to go on.

At that point, I decided to hang it up. I sent a text to Spencer and Tal and they showed up a few minutes later. I had a discussion with Tal and he thought that if I could make it just a little further, I would be dropping into a large crater where the weather might be different. Thinking I had new life, I decided to try and took off for an 8 mile stretch straight into the wind.  I was able to cover the 8 miles in around a mile and turned right for the 9 mile gradual descent into the crater. I went about a half mile in that direction, which turned out to be even more directly into the wind before deciding to quit for the second time. I decided I would try to get back to the main road and another half mile or so to get past the military “no stopping” zone to text Tal. When I got there, I couldn’t get through to Tal right away and when I did, he asked if I could try to get a ride to the town of Dimona. I wasn’t really sure how far that was but knew how to get there as we had passed the same way that morning.

I continued slow moving in the direction of Dimona when a couple huge blasts of sand kicked up again. I finally put my back to the wind and hunkered down waiting for it to let up. 
I think I stood like that for about 90 minutes before deciding I had to try something. I noticed a small pickup truck had approached the other side of the highway. I was able to get the attention of the young guy in the truck who waited for me to cross the highway. When I got there, it was obvious he didn’t speak English. Through some really interesting negotiating, I was somehow able to get across that I needed a ride to Dimona and that I would pay him 100 shekels. ($35-$40). We loaded the bike into the back of the truck and I climbed in. Before I could get the seatbelt on, he started asking me what I assumed was where did I want to get dropped off. I looked up and saw we were already in town. The whole trip was less than 2 miles. I had him drop me off at the gas station we had breakfast in that morning. I then walked next door to a fast food restaurant and had the best hamburger I’ve had in years. After just enough time to pick up a couple of beers and bottle of water, Tal picked me up and gave me a ride back to Sde Boker.

After drinking my two beers, I showered and slept for 11 hours. A handful of others who had DNF’d had decided to catch a bus with their bikes to Be’er Sheva where we could catch a train to Tel Aviv.
After an hour or so waiting at the bus top with drivers saying they couldn’t take our bikes today, Spencer, Jerry and I decided to ride our bikes to Be’er Sheva. Different people said it was either 50 or 80 kilometers away and we didn’t have a real map. But we still decided it sounded like more fun than hanging around Sde Boker all day. So we took off carrying our drop bags.
It turned out to be a really enjoyable ride. The terrain was moderate, we found a gas station in a genuine oasis, and high-fived some over-excited Bedouin kids along the side of the highway.

A few strained minute trying to figure out how to navigate the train system led to a relaxing train ride and we were back in our apartment in Tel Aviv.

In my rash decision to ride the Israel 1200k, I was intrigued by riding in such an exotic location and truly wanted an adventure. The ride delivered on that completely. The scenery in Israel was otherworldly and spectacular. The place has a sense of history that is hard to explain. There was considerably more traffic than I was expecting but I never felt unsafe.

This was my first DNF since I started randonneuring in 2007. The DNF is especially frustrating because I really felt good throughout the ride. For now, I’m chalking it up to a freak storm that I really didn’t have a way to deal with. I have wondered a few times what would have happened if I had continued into the crater. The storm raged on for several more hours, so I think it would have been a really hard slog to Sde Boker. If I would have made it, it would have taken a pretty serious recovery to be able to go again the next day. Of the 27 riders who started the event, only 10 finished. Almost all of them were well ahead of me so they were closer to the overnight when the storm hit.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Great Southern Randonnee: My ride report from Down Under

The Great Southern Randonnee is a grand experience as much as a grand randonnee.  Audax Australia organizes this ride as a fully supported ride with the intent of attracting international randonneurs to Australia. They go full out to provide a great experience for riders who make the trip to Australia.

The relative isolation of Melbourne provided a unique lead up to the ride. Almost all Americans flying to Melbourne had to fly through Los Angeles and many of us happened to choose the same day to travel. So the Rolling Stone Bar and Grill in Terminal 7 at LAX became a gathering place for randonneurs from all across the US to tell stories and share a beer or two while waiting for our flights across the Pacific.  The camaraderie continued on our arrival in Melbourne. Peter Donnan, ride organizer, was there to personally welcome us and assist us with transport to our local hosts. Myself, Joe Edwards and Rod and Sue Geisert were taken to Charlie and Clare Cooke’s home in the Surrey Hills suburb of Melbourne. The Cookes would be amazing hosts for our stay and their home was our base for the Melbourne portion of our stay.

Audax Australia had added a 100k brevet to their ride schedule for the day after our arrival to give international riders a chance to test ride our reassembled bikes and get used to riding on the “proper side” of the rode. The route was a fantastic assortment of urban trails leading to Southbank, in the heart of downtown Melbourne and then south along the Ocean to Black Rock. While others were eating lunch at the turnaround, Spencer Klaassen, Rod, Joe, Mark Thomas, and I snuck across the street to a microbrewery for a quick beer.

 Festivities continued after the ride with a cookout at Peter Donnan’s home with many of the international randonneurs and several of the Australians.
The next day was moving day, as we moved bikes and other gear to the ride headquarters in Anglesea. Our group was lodged in a 3 bedroom cabin unit at the Big 4 Holiday Park. The evening ended with dinner and kangaroo watching at the Anglesea Golf Course.

Almost all of the Americans, including me, opted for the Sunday evening start. I chose the evening start because in past years, it had been the only option, and I liked the idea of sticking with the traditional GSR experience. The evening start begins with a 200km loop east of Anglesea on the Bellarine Peninsula and the west side of Port Phillip Bay before returning to Anglesea and heading out onto the Great Ocean Road.  Additionally, a night start lets you ride through the first night and day without sleep which should let you get ahead of the clock giving you more flexibility later in the ride. At least, that’s the theory. 

Most of Sunday was spent packing and repacking drop bags and nervously checking weather forecasts. The forecasts were calling for STRONG south west winds throughout Sunday evening and Monday.  At 6pm, we headed out on the Bellarine Peninsula loop. As tailwinds pushed us eastward, the pace was moderate and the mood was light. At various times, we rode along the Ocean and Port Phillip Bay. Everyone was definitely aware that the free ride wasn’t going to last and our tailwind wasn’t going to last very long.  The expected headwinds appeared as we were leaving Portarlington toward Geelong. By this point, our group for the ride had formed. I was riding with Rod, Joe, Spencer and our Australian friend, Leigh Paterson. We rode through the night rather uneventfully, despite the headwinds and arrived back in Anglesea just over 10 hours into the ride. With time in hand, we decided to take a short 1 hour nap in our cabin before tackling the 300km of headwinds towards Port Fairy.

We left Anglesea in morning twilight. The first 30k of the day was along the Great Ocean Road within sight of the Southern Ocean. 

The section featured the worst winds of the day and, although we made slow progress, we eventually made it to Lorne. Historically, GSR remained on the Great Ocean Road at this point. However, spring rains had led to sporadic road closures so GSR organizers had developed an alternative inland route. So at Lorne, we left the Great Ocean Road and climbed 10km into the Otway Mountains. After the initial 10km climb, the route meandered over rolling terrain to the town of Forrest. The control in Forrest was a combination bike shop/café. Apparently, Forrest is a major mountain biking destination.  GSR organizers had pre-purchased a sandwich for every rider at the café.

Leaving Forrest took us further into the Otways and we soon came to Turton’s Track. The Track was one of the more memorable roads of the ride. It was signed as unsuitable for busses and campers. 

The bike path width road wound through the mountainous rain forest with several miles of tight, twisting corners. Following the track a stair step climb brought us to Laver’s Hill for a pre-purchased muffin and lunch. A long decent brought us back to the Great Ocean Road near the 12 Apostles landmark. Although the scenery was spectacular, I was really dragging as we passed several scenic overlooks and into Port Campbell.

The control at Port Campbell was at a hostel and was fully staffed by GSR volunteers. The volunteers were great and rushed to fill water bottles and take meal orders. I had heard Spencer talking up Ronnie’s shepherd’s pie so I ordered a bowl. A couple bowls later I was feeling a lot better and ready to go. 

We rolled out together and headed towards the control at Wangoom, which was a local hall where a local organization was selling food and drinks. At this point, our group split up as Spencer decided to take a nap on the wood floor while the rest of us decided to finish the 44km to the overnight at Port Fairy.  Despite the promise of an evening start, we dragged into the Port Fairy overnight at 12:55am, leaving only about an hour for sleep. I tried to make my way quietly through the dormitory room at the hostel but I’m sure I made quite a bit of noise. I wasn’t much better an hour later trying to get dressed in the dark, but it seemed that almost everyone in the dorm had a very similar wakeup call.

The 50 or so miles from Port Fairy to Hamilton was lightly rolling. A large group of riders formed and much of this section was spent in a group of 12-18 riders. After leaving a food stop in Macarthur, we saw a koala bear hop out of a tree and bound along the road towards another tree. Coming into the Hamilton control gave me a good lift.  Charlie and Clare Cooke were two of the volunteers playing major roles at the control. Charlie promised to have a bottle of Cooper’s Stout ready for me when we returned for the overnight, so I had something to look forward to for the rest of the day. The run up to Dunkeld was pretty flat and we rolled along pretty well.  Joe snapped a shifter cable and Leigh saved the day by pulling one out of his bag that he didn’t even know he had.

The Grampians section following Dunkeld was stunning. The section featured two major climbs and about 70km of riding through undeveloped, wild countryside.  Although we didn’t see much wildlife on this section, the woods were full of the sounds of wild birds.

 Eventually we crossed over the Great Dividing Range and dropped for about 10km into Hall’s Gap for another controlled staffed with helpful volunteers. Hall’s Gap was teeming with wild parrots and other kinds of birds. After a short stop at Hall’s Gap, we had a short, flat 70km loop to Stawell and back before backtracking through the Grampians. I found facing the 70km section back through the Grampians to be a little intimidating in the late afternoon. The section started with about a 10km climb and then another 60km through some pretty wild country. I had mentioned that I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen any wild kangaroos since leaving Anglesea. As we left Hall’s Gap just before sunset, they were everywhere. It seemed that every vacant lot, yard or park had its own herd. Just as we were leaving town, I noticed a field that had several kangaroos and three emus. I definitely wasn’t expecting to that.

For most of the trek through the Grampians I rode with Rod, telling stories and keeping ourselves distracted from the miles to go. Shortly after dark, we were treated to the rising of the so-called Supermoon and the emergence of a beautiful night sky. The final decent back into Dunkeld was highlighted by Rob nearly missing a kangaroo crossing the road and me having a wallaby cross the road in front of me. The final section from Dunkeld back to Hamilton was pretty easy riding but the temperature dropped dramatically to the point that I was shivering violently and in a pretty grumpy mood by the time we got to the overnight in Hamilton at 12:30am. Luckily, Charlie was looking after me and produced the long awaited bottle of Stout. After a good meal, and another Stout begged from Clare, we were shown to our cabin for a quick shower and just over 3 hours of sleep.

Historically, GSR riders have faced headwinds on the first couple of days and tailwinds as they return to Anglesea. We would not be so fortunate. After battling 20+ mph headwinds on the first day, the winds shifted to be in our face for the return trip as well. For most of the day, the winds weren’t quite as strong as we had faced earlier in the ride but they were enough to really slow us down. However, some of the worst headwinds of the entire ride hit us as we passed through the Warrnambool area and worked back towards Port Campbell.  The portion of the Great Ocean Road passing several scenic pullouts should have been a glorious and beautiful ride. Instead it was a slow, frustrating 9 mph slog. We did stop for a couple of quick photos before eventually limping into Port Campbell for some more shepherd’s pie. 

Throughout the day, I had been looking forward to stopping at the 12 Apostles viewpoint following Port Campbell but our slow afternoon slog made me give up on getting there before sunset. At the control, however, Joe and Rod suggested we give it a shot and see if we could get there before dark. As we left, the winds seemed to let up. As we approached the pullout, I saw Bob Booth, who had DNF’d the ride earlier, standing by the side of the road waving us in. He had been following our progress on Facebook and wanted to make sure we stopped for the view. He escorted us out the walkway and to the best viewing spot, just as the light hit the magical time for photos. Bob said something like “this is the light people have been waiting all day for”. We walked up, took a couple pictures and were back on our bikes within about 15 minutes.  

We were expecting a lot of traffic after sunset when the crowds from the 12 Apostles viewpoint left. However, they must have found a different route to their hotels because we were only passed by about 5 cars over the next couple of hours. The climb up Laver’s Hill was a long, slow grind but it was made better by an amazing view of the Southern Cross followed by the rise of the Supermoon. Shortly after that, we came around a corner on the climb to see a koala bear sitting in the road. Despite several of us milling around the bear, it didn’t move for several minutes. It finally got annoyed and slowly walked into the woods at the side of the road.

The control at Laver’s Hill was a welcome sight. We had a quick meal while debating whether to sleep there for a bit or to move on to the next stop at Forrest. Eventually, we decided to sleep for an hour before leaving. Several other riders had the same thought and we left in a much larger group than we arrived with. The ride through Turton’s Track was less fun in the dark as the slow, winding route seemed to take forever. Sunrise came shortly after another food stop in Forrest. The tough climb to Benwerrin was made easier knowing that it was the last serious obstacle on the route. I followed Wolfgang down the 10km descent, leaving only 18 miles to the finish.  As we parked our bikes at the bottom to wait for our groups to reform, Wolfgang looked at me with a big smile and summed up my thoughts perfectly by exclaiming with a thick German accent, “What a fucking ride”.

We were welcomed back in Anglesea by a large group of other riders and volunteers assembled to cheer finishers. Our finishing time of 88 hours and 25 minutes was not particularly impressive, but we had a great ride.

I absolutely loved the Great Southern Randonnee.  The scenery, organization, and volunteer support were amazing.  The 2016 version of the Great Southern Randonnee had three distinct areas, each of which was as scenically spectacular as anyplace I have ever ridden. The 12 Apostles and Scenic Oceanfront, the Otways with Turton’s Track, and the Grampians were each uniquely beautiful. Basing a ride around any one of them would be worth the trip to Australia. Including all 3 took the ride to an entirely different level.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Testing to see if I can remember how to post from my phone. 10 Days until I leave for Australia.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Nebraska Sandhills 1000K: "Say Your Prayers and Pack a Water Bottle"

For each of the past few years I have travelled to Nebraska or Kansas City to ride a brevet with my buddy, Spencer Klaassen. At some point on each of those rides, Spencer would start bragging about the great riding in the Nebraska Sandhills. Although my usual thought was something along the lines of, “it’s Nebraska, it can’t be that great”, I was intrigued when Spencer scheduled a 1000K Sandhills brevet for Memorial Day weekend.  After a few weeks of sporadic emails and text messages, I decided to sign up and see what the Sandhills are all about.

My spring seemed really busy this year so I didn’t have time for my normal studying of the route and planning out all of the logistics. My first real sense that riding in the Sandhills would be a little different came at the pre-ride cookout in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Upon arriving at the gathering, Dan Driscoll immediately approached Spencer and asked if the distances between controls were really as far as the cue sheet suggested. Spencer just sort of shrugged and replied with something like “well, it’s the Sandhills. There’s not much out there.”  Eventually, I would figure out what he meant.

Spencer managed to entice an extremely experienced collection of randonneurs to Nebraska. Besides myself, the group included Spencer, John Ende from North Carolina, Rod Geisert from Missouri, Dan Driscoll from Texas, Robert Sexton from San Francisco, Mike Fox from Iowa, Ron Hillberg, from South Dakota.  Rick Dockhorn from Lincoln, Nebraska also started and rode a big chunk of the ride before volunteering to join the support crew.  At some point during the morning, I started pondering the number of RUSA kilometers represented in the group. After the ride, I looked it up, and learned that the 7 finishers had accumulated over 450,000 kilometers in RUSA events!

The 53 miles to the first control passed quickly amid lots of stories and good-natured banter. We rode on deserted highways through green, rolling hills devoid of trees or buildings.

 Cap’n Ende remarked that it looked like we were riding through the set of the TeleTubbies TV show! That thought would keep coming back to me throughout the ride.  For most of the segment we rolled along in a loose herd of riders taking up the whole lane. 

Cars or trucks were so infrequent that we often didn’t even bother to move into a single file line when one would come up behind us. 

After a quick stop in Stapleton, we embarked on the 61 miles to the second control. We had hoped to stop in the tiny town of Tryon 25 miles into this section for water and a snack. However, the town didn’t have any open services. Fortunately, a gentleman standing in his front yard let us into his house to fill our water bottles and use his bathroom.

The group split up on a couple of serious climbs over the remaining 35 miles to the next control in Mullen. While eating lunch at Paul’s Liquor and Drive-In, Spencer, Rod, John and I had an interesting conversation with a waitress. We were a little worried about the next 74 mile segment. So Spencer asked her if there were any services. Her response became a theme for the ride. “Nope. Nothing up there at all. Say your Prayers and pack a water bottle!”

The long segment provided lots more rugged scenery and quiet roads.  Spencer had arranged to have volunteers set up a stop for food and water in the middle of the 74 mile segment. Rick and Debe were great and seeing them gave us a big lift. 

We finished the section as darkness was falling with lightning visible off the west. The storm hit just as we were getting ready to leave. Riding in rain is just part of being a randonneur. Riding in a Nebraska thunderstorm is not. Strong winds, heavy rain and lightning kept us sitting in the McDonalds for a couple hours before the storm blew through. 

When we were finally able to leave, the 51 miles to the overnight rolled by fairly uneventfully. We arrived at the overnight around 4:45 am.

The first overnight is a story in itself. A few weeks before the ride, Spencer and I were talking about the difficulty he was having finding a place to sleep for the first overnight. Out of desperation we came up with the idea of cold calling the local bank and asking for suggestions from whoever answered the phone. In a weird twist, the lady who answered the phone said she would see if we could rent her parents’ house. A couple of days later it was worked out. We had a house to rent plus they insisted on cooking us a breakfast! 

After a short couple hours of sleep, we dove into day 2. Although I felt really good rolling out of town, things quickly went downhill for me. Within a few miles, I was fading off the back of the group. The stomach problems that almost derailed my Taste of Carolina 1200K last fall returned.  I was also having some serious ITB pain in my left knee.  Within about 35 miles, I was convinced that my ride was likely over. I took an unscheduled stop in Rushville.  A couple of Advils and some food helped enough to get me to Chadron where I caught up with Spencer, John and Rod. The next segment was only 25 miles but I was really dragging when I pulled into the control. For the second time that day, I was convinced my ride was over. Intending to quit, I walked up to Debe who was providing support and told her I was done. She looked me in the eye, said “have some sugar”, got into the RV and left. I guess I didn’t have much choice but to ride on.

Spencer described the next segment as “we just go over this little ridge, then we have a screaming descent out onto the prairie.” He seriously understated the climb. It looked way more like Colorado than Nebraska. Complete with sweeping corners and large pine trees. I stopped to take a picture but in my exhausted state I apparently couldn’t properly operate a camera. After descending onto the prairie, I crawled along convinced that I was done the next time I saw the RV. Fortunately, by the time I saw it again, I had turned east, picked up a huge tailwind and pulled to within 25 miles of the final control of the day. By that point, I was determined to find a way to limp into the overnight. My spirits really climbed when I arrived in Alliance and realized that I had caught up to Spencer, Rod and John.  Rod was kind enough to ride the last 60 miles of the day with me, arriving at the overnight around 4:00am.

All of the field, except Ron, left the overnight and headed across town for a randonneur breakfast at the local gas station, convenience store and diner. It was the first time I can remember eating biscuits and gravy at a gas station. 

The next 35 miles was both the best and worst time of the ride for me. The scenery was spectacular, but we were riding into a 25ish mph headwind. Within a few miles, I was off the back again and fading fast. However, there was no way I was quitting on the last day. My bad mood continued when we rolled into Arthur, the control town, and discovered that the only restaurant in town was closed because it was Memorial Day. A Coke and a snack from Rick and Debe combined with a half hour or so sitting in the shade helped enough to get us back on the road.

At Tryon, 40 miles later, we took a short break in the town park to take advantage of a water pump and port-o-potties.  The group rolled ahead while I prepared to finish the ride alone. Surprisingly, when I rolled into the final control, 24 miles later, the gang was still there. For the second time on the ride, concerned locals talked us out of leaving because a major storm was moving through. A few minutes later, the storm hit with extremely strong winds and heavy rains. 

Within an hour or so, the storm moved past. As we left, the magical light of sunset was shared with a beautiful rainbow.

The remaining 53 mile passed fairly uneventfully. Mike Fox and Cap’n Ende were nice enough to back off and ride in with me. The good natured conversation helped the miles pass quickly. Nine miles from the finish, we turned a corner and were blessed with a strong tailwind that pushed us back to Broken Bow.

We tried to have an impromptu celebration in the lobby. But we made a pretty worn out looking group sitting there with our beer and pizza.

All in all, I had a great experience in Nebraska. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that all of Nebraska is flat and not good for cycling. For three days, we experienced beautiful scenery, quiet roads and friendly people.  I see now what Spencer has been crowing about all of these years.  Spencer did a great job putting together and extremely unique and challenging event.