I found myself standing in front of the Granada in not yet sunny downtown Emporia, KS, with a thousand other cyclists. After a brief pit stop, I saw Dan Hughes. He looked like it was any other day; he was ready for a normal ride in the countryside. We wished each other luck; as he wandered off to find a spot to start. I walked past the front of the pack, the leaders and those who could not stand to see saddles before them, these men and women looked hard. The atmosphere around them did not seem to sink in, the rest of us mortals were enjoying the pre-adventure buzz. The lead pack was ready to push as hard as they could, as long as they could, until there was nothing left. This might be a good point to note my friend Roger, in the front of the pack; First wheel dead center. My good morning fist bump wasn’t really noticed, he had apparently set his mind to the task at hand. A quick picture and I shuffled off so he could concentrate on his fight. The beautiful L and I began to look around for Lawrence Mountain Bike Club members. I hoped they were under the time I hoped to come across the finish line many hours from now. Chuck, Craig, and Rod appeared, and we all relaxed under the veil of a 16-hour finish. Chuck fired off mass start advice; perhaps fueled by the nutrient Goo. He advised me to watch for pile-ups, it wouldn’t take much to cause a heap of cyclists early on. Either way, I figured I had fat tires and would just ride over any heaps of cycle and lycra, should they crash in front of me. It’s not nice, but I had no intent of falling down in Emporia. One last check of everything and the spectators began to shuffle out of the way. It was time to take that first pedal stroke.
At the stroke of six, nearly 1,000 cyclists rolled forward en mass, dutifully following their police escort down Commercial Street to the edge of town. I wouldn’t say we were going fast, but it was definitely the leader’s pace, something I didn’t expect to hold for long. I did notice a few confused faces as the pack rolled through stoplights. When we turned onto gravel, the group bunched up again. I had to track stand to keep from mowing over a few smaller rigs. On the gravel the pace lines extended for what seemed like two miles. It was early and the riders consumed the gravel. We were now moving fast, much faster than the pace I had mentally set, but it was calm, the road felt like it was going downhill, and 500 bikes were sucking me along. Eh, roll with it I thought. I figured everyone would calm down. I figured the club would drop off the speed and go back to conserving energy looking for the long finish. I was using the wrong math. After ten fast miles, I decided I would not be able to hold this pace forever and I dropped off to race against myself. Now this isn't to say that I dropped all the way to the back, pulling the rear. I was still passing people without much effort and I still rolled fast and comfortably. My big tires, wide range of gears, and comfort atop my bike allowed me to take crappier lines, out climb, and out descend a lot of lightly laden bikes. I owe someone at Salsa a Christmas card for the el Mariachi. I was drafting people when I could, trying to make friends, and trying to pick out a group that could run to the end. Strangely most people seemed really irritated that a dude in a mountain bike jersey had ran them down carrying at least twice as much crap as they seemed to be. Eh, probably all in my head.
The miles were turning over quickly, and with the ticker the landscape thinned of the marks of civilization. One climb would be followed by a descent, one turn followed by a climb. How dry the gravel looked surprised me; most of Kansas had received five inches of rain over the last four days, and I was expected flooded roads. No time like the present to eat my words, so imagine my surprise when right about mile 17, a nice climb and a left hand turn revealed a ¼ mile mud bog. Guess it had rained here after all. The cross guys were dismounting and tiptoeing around the edges of the pits, I thought, I could just skirt across a ridge and roll the bike over the crust. Yeah, not so much. I quickly accumulated enough mud in the fork that I couldn’t roll the bike. A drag or two later and I was back on solid(ish) ground, quickly pulling wads of mud off my frame to free the wheels and shifters. Mental note, just follow the little bikes. I rode a few hundred yards, and had to dismount again to skirt an equally deep bog. Another muck clean and off we went, throwing flint and mud everywhere. I’m sorry if you were behind me. I would have chance to clear more of my tires after a brief climb, and the first of many big downhill sections. We had reached Teapot Mound Road, the first of the stunning valley views we would have over the next 200 miles. Climbing turns and sweeping downhills defined the roads now. Cows were now freely roaming, and more than once I would rocket down a hill, just to see a small water crossing at the foot of the hill. If I was lucky I got to see someone ride through; If not, I pulled back on the bars and hoped for the best. I started to feel the remote feeling of the open range. I was losing my self in my thoughts when I woke up suddenly. A woman in a cut off t-shirt standing by the one of the rescue Jeeps told me I had to dismount. I asked why, slowing to hear her answer, the next water crossing was under water. Actually, a river had sprung up in the middle of the course, fueled by a week of rain. As I heaved my bike onto my shoulder, I briefly regretted carrying all of my gear on a steel bike. 200 feet later, with extra wet feet, I was done with the race’s big water crossing. Climbing the mud soaked hill, I passed several riders who had stopped to mend a tube or dry their feet. I didn’t want to stop, so I elected to push on until I could make the first stop in Madison. I hoped my shoes would drain enough to put dry socks in them. The riding was fast and the weather was perfect. I didn’t realize that the wind had picked up, but I knew I as moving faster than anticipated. Maybe I just felt really good? Suddenly, almost too soon, pavement appeared and I raced into Madison hot behind a pack of riders. I cruised into the heart of town to check in. I had my second map! It was time to find L and reload fuel and water. L looked startled when I had appeared in just three hours thirty minutes. I didn’t believe it myself. While she set to drying my shoes and reloading my gear I enjoyed an egg sandwich and some chocolate milk. I didn’t realize it until too late, that I had been sitting for 45 minutes.