Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ghosttowns and Ghosts -- The Colorado Last Chance by Jerry Phelps

Boulder and points east.


Thirty-eight hardy randonneurs lined up at 0300 on Wednesday, September 10th for the Last Chance 1200. We were an international field of riders from Italy, Canada, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the US. Many of the riders were experienced randonneurs; several had ridden Last Chance before. But there were a fair number of people taking on their first 1200 as well. Among them was JoAnn Fafrowicz from Durham. We were the sole representatives of the NC Randonneurs.

The ride is named for the small town of the same name that the course passes through. At one time, Last Chance was supposedly the only opportunity to buy gas and food for many miles in any direction. Today it appears to be almost a ghost town.

JoAnn and the Front Range west of Boulder

JoAnn and I spent a pleasant Tuesday driving into the hills west of Boulder on Baseline Drive. We saw the famous Flatirons—steep and slick rock formations that are revered by free climbers. We also saw lots of cyclists making the 5½ mile ride that ascends 3,000+ ft up to Flagstaff Park. We were treated to great views of Boulder and the vast plain to the east we would be riding through.

John Lee Ellis and the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club (RMCC) President Charlie Henderson gave us a brief description of the course at that wee hour on Wednesday. They warned us that altitude, and climbing were not what we should fear at Last Chance—the real challenge would be the ever-present wind. But at the time, the wind was really mild.

The pack headed out and immediately splintered into small groups of 3 to 4 riders. There were several riders using Last Chance as an opportunity to qualify for the Race Across America (RAAM) so I didn’t see them again until they were on their return trips the next morning.

I hooked up quickly with Bill and Mark Olsen, affectionately dubbed the Olsen twins. Mary Kate and Ashley they aren’t—these guys are tough. How tough you ask? Taking a page from my upcoming book, “And You Think I’m Crazy?”, they have ridden four 1200km events each – since JUNE—Shenandoah, Cascade, Rocky Mountain, and now Last Chance. Oh, and Bill managed to squeeze in a 1000km brevet in Pennsylvania during that time. That’s 5,800km since June 4th in just 5 events. By the way, I won’t make 5,800km for the YEAR.

Al (Alan) Becke from Holland, Michigan
Robert Sauve of Lakewood, CO

We rode together until the sun rose while we were heading due south into the first of several mean headwinds on the way to Strasburg. In Byers, the first controle at mile 75, I made a quick stop and had a real breakfast of eggs and potatoes. The morning was cool and clear and I was beginning to see the beauty of this land. After the controle I rode with Robert Sauve, a rookie at 1200s, and Al Becke a veteran of the rainfest known as PBP 2007. Al had back luck at PBP and had to quit around Loudeac on the way back, but he was back to try to bag a 1200.

Eric Simmons of the RMCC

Just east of Last Chance at about mile 110, Eric Simmons of the RMCC was on the side of the road offering pasta salad, homemade oatmeal cookies, and cold cokes. His support during the ride was much appreciated by all of us. This section is marked by a series of pretty nice rollers—not steep, but long—12-14 mph up and 26-30 down. A little while later we joined Beth and Brent Myers riding a sweet DaVinci tandem. The five of us stayed close for the next 70 or 80 miles.
Brent and Beth Myers from Denver


The first day ended in Atwood, Kansas at mile 252 around 8:30 PM—17.5 hours for 400km—not too shabby. After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I ate just about a whole pizza, complements of Charlie and another RMCC volunteer, Dan Shields. JoAnn came in soon after and we decided to share a room. OK, stop thinking what you’re thinking! We had a huge room with a half wall between the two double beds. Hell, I shared a room and a bed with Paul and Branson once, so why not see how the other half lives? Besides, my wife trusts me. Beth knows I’m too damn tired in these events for well . . . . whatever.

An early wakeup call and I was back on the road a little after 3 AM. The goal for the second day was to make it to Kensington, the turn-around point, and back to Atwood—about 220 miles. Beth, Brent, Al and I were on US 36, which makes up about 590 miles of the 752. The day started clear but became completely overcast while Al and I were eating breakfast in Oberlin.

Traffic on 36 in Kansas is BAD—no other word for it. It seems every other vehicle is a semi. A “Yellow Brick Road” it ain’t.

Enough complaining. . . . I made it to Kensington after joining a group of 4 Canadians. One, Peter, was originally from Germany and he was a diesel in the class of Jan Ullrich. This guy turned big gears pretty effortlessly, and seemed to enjoy every minute of the ride. Always smiling – he got really annoying at times (just kidding Peter).

We mailed our postcards (part of the checkpoint mechanism) in Kensington and headed back. As soon as we turned off Main Street and back onto 36, a wicked headwind greeted us. And there is nothing to block the wind out there. As my friend Chuck Lathe told me before I left, trees blow away on the plains. Here’s part of a message Chuck sent me before I left:

"For a wind gauge, they hang a piece of 3/4" chain from a pole -- and when the chain blows out horizontally, they figure it's windy. Trucks laying on their sides on the Interstate are another good wind speed indicator."


I laughed when I read that on my comfortable couch—I wasn’t laughing while I was struggling into the wind at 12mph. Eventually, the wind shifted out of the northeast making for a slight tailwind and I cruised back to Atwood pulling in at 7:59 PM.

The next morning there was some confusion about our wakeup time. Maybe it had to do with the difference between the Central Time Zone in Kansas and the Mountain Time Zone (which is what our watches were still set on), but regardless, Dan woke JoAnn and me up at 4 AM MDT instead of 3. My plan for the day was to ride back to Byers, CO (180 miles) and depending on what time I arrived, I would then decide whether to continue on for the 102 miles to the finish. Getting started an hour late didn’t fit into that plan—neither did the cold rain that was falling. Oh well; that’s randonneuring.

I dressed quickly, snarfed down half a bagel and a banana and washed it down with OJ and coffee. I started alone in an annoying drizzle, but caught up with Brent and Beth in Bird City named for Benjamin Bird, President of the Northwestern Land Cattle Company in the 1880s (Wikipedia is amazing). We left together and soon were slogging through pouring rain on our way to St. Francis, KS. We crossed back into CO and “rowed” (pun only slightly intended) onto Idalia where heaven was waiting in the form of a clothes dryer, hot food, and a warm blanket. Robert and his support crew Susan were there too. After being inside for a few minutes, our waitress offered to dry some of our wet clothes. We quickly stripped down to a reasonable level of modesty and she took our sopping clothes to a back room and returned with towels and a blanket for a shivering Jerry. As she was draping the blanket around my shoulders, I looked her in the eyes and sincerely tongue-in-cheek asked if she would marry me. I’m still waiting for her answer.

About that time Charlie showed up for lunch. He had our Atwood dropbags in his truck. He brought me mine, and then I was in great shape. Completely dry clothes, including a wool undershirt, long jacket, plastic bags over dry socks—life was good! The rain even let up while we were eating.

But it came back about 10 miles further down the road. A few miles later I had my only flat of the trip, which was caused by a goathead thorn—a plains menace. A quick fix and I was rolling again, but now alone. In a little community called Joe’s, named for, uh some guy named Joe obviously, there was actually dry pavement. The town is famous for its small high school winning the 1929 Colorado State Basketball Championship with a 10-man team that represented half of the male student body. Since the rain was stopping, I almost took off my raincoat. Hah, what folly—the rain continued for another 11 miles to Cope. I caught up with Robert here and we stopped for hot soup and drinks.

The next 20 miles represented what Charlie had warned us about on the first day. Robert and I made a slight left turn after leaving the relative safety of Cope and were smacked in the face by the highest winds of the entire ride. If I had to guess, I’d say the wind was blowing a minimum of 30 mph and gusting to 40. The course angles to the northwest in this section on the way to Anton and the wind was straight out of the northwest. Robert and I were separated after he pulled over for a brief rest and I continued on. At one point, about 13 miles from Cope, I could see a clump of trees on the horizon that I was pretty sure were Anton. I kept focusing on those trees, but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Maybe that was because my top speed in this section was 6 mph—the final 7 miles took an hour and 10 minutes.

I arrived in Anton and was greeted by Eric and Brent and Beth. The tandem couple called it a day and found a small hotel to hole up in until the wind and rain let up. Eric was serving hot Italian wedding soup from a small gas stove—IT WAS AWESOME!! I went into the small grocery store that marked the checkpoint, ate my soup and some bananas and drank warm chocolate milk. While in the store, I could see that the sky was getting brighter and as I walked out, there was the biggest rainbow in the sky I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’d ever seen one that stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. The rain had stopped and the wind had died considerably—the prospects for the 55-mile leg to Byers were greatly improved.

So I threw my leg over the saddle and started on down the road. Well back into Colorado now, the traffic on 36 was pretty sparse. And with the abated wind, the quietness of the landscape was astounding. For miles at a time, all I could hear were the soft hiss of my tires on the smooth pavement, crickets, and the evening songs of the small birds. There were few signs of civilization, and with the darkening sky, here I found the beauty of this ride and why this land was valued so much by both the Native Americans and by the western “settlers.”

The landscape is starkly beautiful in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon as the low sun enhances the subtle differences in the earth tones of the crops, freshly harvested wheat, and newly plowed soil. I had never been to this part of the US so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Along the route, I saw buffalo (residents of CO consume more bison per capita than any other state), lots of cows, 8 or 10 mule deer, 3 skunks (dead), 4 coyotes (2 dead), 3 rattlesnakes (2 dead and 1 very much alive and pissed off), another snake (live) of an undetermined genus (i.e., I wasn’t going to get close enough to find out), lots of hawks and countless song birds.

I borrowed a great light set up from my friend Mike Dayton before the ride which illuminated the entire road about as well as car headlights. I was almost back to Byers when I heard a loud “huff” close by on the side of the road. It scared the bejezzes out of me, but not so much that my curiosity didn’t make me stop to see what it was. I turned the bike around and aimed the light off to the side and was eye-to-eye with a huge, un-amused mule deer about 20 yards from the road. I quickly said goodnight and turned around.

I arrived in Byers at 8:45 PM to great hospitality by Eric and Leslie Sutton, another RMCC volunteer. I checked into my room and rushed to the restaurant which closed at 9:00. Later, I asked Eric to wake me at 12:30 AM. A shower and a short nap followed by freshly brewed coffee from Eric and a piece of cherry pie left over from the restaurant and I was ready, well about as ready as I could get, to finish with only 102 miles back to Louisville.

The early morning was cool and clear with a south wind. The stars were so numerous and bright I had a hard time picking out the few constellations I know, but it was easy to find the North Star as I made my way alternatively west and then north. I rode 26 miles before I saw the first car. At one point, I was cold and wanted to get off the bike for a few minutes to rest and try to warm up. It was still way too early for any stores to be open so I just kept turning them over. Finally as I made a turn to the west, there on the side of the road was a backhoe, with an enclosed cabin. Yep, you guessed it. I climbed in and shut the door. It wasn’t really warm inside, but at least it was out of the wind, and the seat was a lot more comfortable than a Brooks B-17. I leaned my head against the window and took a short nap.

I woke up after about 15 minutes and decided to get moving again. I only had about 8 miles to the checkpoint in Platteville and about 45 miles total left in the ride. The sun was already waking up the eastern sky as I headed west on County Road 32. As I climbed over a short rise, I saw something white in the distance on the horizon – more clouds I thought. But after a second look, I realized it was the Front Range and the white was fresh snow from the day before. I can’t describe the beauty and pictures wouldn’t do it justice, but I was in awe of their magnificence.

A few miles later in Platteville, I had a breakfast of steak and eggs, and pancakes at the Doubletree Restaurant (if it had two trees, I didn’t see them), a rancher hangout. The folks in there were curious about the boy in the fancy pants and finally one young man asked me how far I was riding. I gave him the highlights of the trip to that point, and in a typical understated cowboy way, he said “750 miles—That’s a long way to ride a bicycle.” Yep—can’t say I disagree with him.

John Lee Ellis rode out to find me and we met up about 5 miles from his house, which is the official finish of the Last Chance. Thanks to a few timely pulls from him, I was able to squeak in under 79 hours—78:59 to be exact. I talked to him for a few minutes, met his dog Buster, signed my brevet card, and he hung my medal around my neck. All of the folks I rode with finished and I’m proud of all of us. JoAnn finished in 82 hours and change--a great time for her first 1200. I'm sure there will be others in her future.

Time for a cold beer and a long nap.

I received lots of help and kindness on the ride—from fellow riders, RMCC volunteers, and strangers. I never do these rides completely alone because there’s always a crew of people rooting for me and I really appreciate that. This time though I had some special help. My dad died a couple of years ago and I don’t think he ever completely understood why I ride such long distances. I felt his presence many times over the 752 miles—now I think he understands. Dad would have been 76 on Saturday the 13th--maybe that's why he felt so close. I dedicate this ride to him.

5 comments:

Bob O. said...

Nicely done Jerry!

Felkerino said...

Jerry, great ride and great story. I'll link to it at The Daily Randonneurs. Congratulations!

Ed Felker

dean furbish said...

Congratulations, Jerry! At the MS ride this past weekend, you were a constant source of inspiration to us randonneurs. Mike O'Connor mentioned your name when the topic of fast centuries arose. We kept monitoring yours and JoAnn's progress on-line when we had the chance.

Dean/Raleigh

Mark Norman Vickers said...

Jerry, Congrats!! What a great ride and a great write up. I've been longing to do Last Chance for a long time. John Lee has been a friend of mine since the old Charlotte days. I appreciate your stories and your perspectives!! You are my riding hero!

Mark

Charles Lathe said...

I'm impressed with all of you, Jerry. I'll vote with the cowboy, 750 miles is a long way to ride a bicycle; especially in that windy country.

Chuck, Franklinville