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.