First, the basics for those who might be interested in the story but not so interested that they’d entertain the notion of getting on a bicycle themselves for three or four days and pedaling from long before dawn to well after dark: The Colorado Last Chance Randonée is a 1,200-kilometer ride from the Boulder, Colorado, area to north-central Kansas and back; the event has a 90-hour limit, meaning you have to finish the 750 miles in six hours less than four days to have your result recognized by the people who recognize such things. What that boils down to is the necessity to ride 200 miles a day, on average, day after day after day after day. And you do it because? Because it’s a challenge to get it done and I’m not doing other challenging things like — well, you can fill in the blank.
As I explained earlier, I was riding the event in a two-part formal: a 1,000-kilometer (623-mile) portion that would allow me to qualify for a long-distance cycling award, and a finishing 200-kilometer portion. For whatever reason, my left Achilles tendon became very painful about 40 miles from the end of the 1,000; I managed to finish that, but didn’t do the final 200. I finished riding Friday, September 15; I went to the Last Chance dinner in greater Boulder on Saturday, the 16th; I flew home to Berkeley on Sunday, the 17th; on Saturday, the 23rd, I took my bike out of its case and put it back together and went for a ride, wanting to see how the Achilles is doing. Still hurts. It might be a while before I do another long ride. We’ll see.
Anyway, here (follow the link) is the rest of the Last Chance story, all however-many episodes.
Before the Start
We were scheduled to start at 3 a.m. from the parking lot of the Comfort Inn in Louisville—that’s LEWISville, not LOUIEviille—Colorado. “We” were 34 Last Chance starters; 31 signed up for the 1,200-kilometer ride, with a 90-hour limit; three—a woman from Colorado; Veronica Tunucci, a Bay Area cyclist I’ve ridden with often during the past year; and me—for the 1,000 plus 200 option. Before departing, riders left duffle bags with changes of clothing, extra food and spare gear that would be driven out to motels in Atwood, Kansas, and Byers, Colorado. The Comfort Inn people opened their breakfast area early, so everyone could get coffee and juice and cereal and pastries and hard-boiled eggs into their system before heading out. I had to walk my duffles over at 2 a.m. from a motel about a quarter-mile from the start; I saw a couple cars on the street, and realized I was probably seeing people going home for the night, not getting up to start the day. What a time to be going for a ride. The weather: Clear and cool: about 50 degrees. It would get colder once we were on the road.
John Hughes, an ultramarathon cyclist, randonneur, and coach, was the official starter. He sent us out at 3:01 a.m., by my watch. The first few miles of the course are rolling and suburban. Following my plan of not having a plan, I stayed about 100 to 200 yards behind a lead group of about eight riders. With a target distance of 250 miles on Day 1 and 750 miles to go for the whole course, I didn’t want to ride too hard too early. The leaders—in the dark, I couldn’t really tell who anyone was beyond the one recumbent rider, Larry Graham—were slowed down by a couple traffic lights in the first five miles, though, so I stayed with them.
Tète de Course
The route takes several steps north as it heads east from the Boulder area. On our first long eastbound leg—Baseline Road and Highway 7—maybe 10 miles out, I found myself at the back of the front pack and riding easily. The road was flat and maybe trending into a descent. I accelerated and moved up on the shoulder along the right side of the group into the front position in the paceline. I thought to myself, “Well, now I can say I was at the head of the pack on this ride.” I knew I wouldn’t be there long, though, and after just a minute or two we hit a little rise. The others instantly passed me, and I decided not to invest any real effort to hang on as I watched their taillights move away.
Then I rode alone for 10 or 15 minutes. I could see the group in front going farther away. Behind me, I could see a clutch of headlights and occasionally hear voices. Another group was catching me. They overtook me at a pace I thought I could hold, so I jumped on the back. I wound up riding with this crowd, which grew to seven or eight riders as we picked up other castoffs from the lead group, for a good 60 miles, all the way to the first control point in Byers.
The 60-mile stint with the group came to a little more than three hours of riding time, long enough that I got to know who most of the other people were: John and Nancy Guth, veteran randonneurs from Virginia; Val and Robin Phelps from Durango, Colorado, obviously strong riders doing their first 1,200; Henk Bouhuyzen, a rider from Toronto who it turned out is semi-legendary for his perseverance in the face of injuries, illness and obstacles of all sorts; there were a couple of other folks there, but I didn’t get their names.
… Has Its Privileges
The obvious advantage of riding in a group is that you share the effort of maintaining a pace by drafting, riding in other cyclists’ slipstreams, and taking an occasional turn at the front, pulling the group. Part of riding in a group, too, is getting a feel for everyone else’s riding style: how steady their pace is, how well they keep a line, how consistent they are about pointing out road hazards, whether they’ll talk about the moves they want to make. I hooked up with this group when John Guth was in the midst of a marathon pull; I decided to resist my impulse to go to the front to take some of the load and just sit in and see how everyone was working. John gave up the lead after about half an hour, I’d say; then Henk took a turn. Eventually I did, too, three or four times.
On the way to Byers, John Guth was given to announcing our progress this way: At mile 30, he announced : “Hey, we’re 4 percent done with this thing!” At mile 37.5, the figure was 5 percent. And so on. I wonder how long he kept that up.
The sky was clear. As we pedaled east I could see the stars of Orion and, closer to the horizon, Sirius. Then, nearly due east, I could see a bright light rising. Venus? But it was moving, and I realized it was an early-morning flight headed to Denver International, a few miles south. It was followed by another jet, then another and another, all on final approach, all loud in the absolute silence on the edge of the Plains. <
One guy I didn’t see in this early part of the ride was Jim Aldeman, a rider from Schaumburg, Illinois, whom I met during a memorable and uncompleted 600-kilometer brevet in Wisconsin in 2005. He had a goal of finishing the 750 miles in 70 hours or less, a time that would give him an age-group (50-plus) qualification for the Race Across America. I assumed he was with the fast guys in the first group.
Much too early, my little but mighty LED headlight signaled it was running out of juice. It figured: I hadn’t put in fresh batteries before the start, thinking I had about four hours left on the ones I was using. As the night wore on, the light grew dimmer and dimmer. I could swap it out for a spare headlight I was carrying, or I could do a battery change. But the group wasn’t stopping longer than it took for the guys to quickly relieve themselvves. I decided not to fiddle with the light unless it went absolutely dark. Finally, the sky began to lighten in the east; some color appeared, and the real Venus showed itself. Just as we hit U.S. 36, in Strasburg about 5 miles east of Byers, the sun came up.
Just before sunup, we rolled into Strasburg on Strasburg Road. From the brief look we got, I’d call it a farm/ranch town that’s transitioning into bedroom suburb. We came to a crossroads—U.S. 36—and hung a left into the sunrise. Now navigation was simplified: All we needed to do for the next 290 miles or so was go east on 36. Then turn around and go west on 36 for 290 miles. (Found on the Web: Madison, Wisconsin, photographer Dave Nance has a long-term fascination with U.S. 36 across Kansas and Colorado and has created an online photo essay on the route.)
The first few miles of 36 rolled out to the little ranch town of Byers. The Guth group speeded up after turning east, and I dropped off the back. On one hand, it would be nice to stay with a group of fast and personable riders; on the other, we were only 15 or 20 minutes from the first control—a required stop to get our brevet cards filled out with the time and the store clerk’s initials—and I needed to try to ride with a view to the long haul. The Guths were still at the control, a Sinclair station, when I got there at 6:48 a.m. I took all of 12 minutes to get my card taken care of and buy some water and powdered mini donuts that I would not eat, go to the bathroom and head out again, but they were a couple minutes ahead of me. For most of the next two hours, I’d see them ahead of me, getting farther and farther away on the rolling hills.
When I figured I was about 100 miles out, I started to think about stopping for a breather. Just at what I figured was the 100-mile mark, or milepost 130 on U.S. 36, I saw a roadside table. Perfect. I rode in and passed a car that was parked across the lane; the driver, a middle-aged-looking blond woman, didn’t look up. I ate one of my smushed up powdered donuts, drank a little, took off and stowed my cool-weather gear (arm warmers, knee warmers and wind vest, and took a few pictures of riders coming by. Two riders came by alone, less than five minutes apart; I didn’t know them. Then a pair of riders approached, Veronica Tunucci, like me a member of Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak Cyclists, and John Lee Ellis, the founder and organizer of the Last Chance. Everyone who passed looked relaxed, unhurried and smooth, not at all how I felt when I was riding. I rolled again after speaking briefly to the woman with whom I’d been sharing the rest area. She was the aunt of one of the riders, a guy she said suffered from severe diabetes and was riding his first 1,200. “Someone needs to be out here to keep an eye on him,” she said. (Later, I learned that the rider was Russell Seaton and this was his Aunt Roselea.)
I saw Veronica and John Lee pass, and when I was back on the road, I knew they had to be somewhere ahead. But I couldn’t see them. Now I was experiencing what I’ll call “riding behind”; it’s sort of a vacuum in which you know how fast you’re going but have lost your bearings relative to other riders. When I lose sight of the riders ahead, especially when I’ve been dropped, the gap between me and them goes from the visible and palpable—100 yards, a quarter-mile, a mile—to the indefinite and infinite—I’m out here by myself, a hundred miles from anywhere and anybody. The surprise is rounding a corner and finding the up-the-road riders just getting off their bikes at a stop. Infinity turns out to be a few hundred yards or a couple miles, a handful of minutes.
At mile 100, I realized I had probably ridden my fastest century ever: About 5 hours and 35 minutes. And the rest of the day—because of favorable or at least non-opposing winds, because of the fact we were gradually descending, and most of all because I spent so much time with riders who maintained a good pace—was the same. I rode my fastest: 200 kilometers: 7:30 or so previous best 7:54)
300 kilometers: about 11:30; ((previous: 14 hours
200 miles: 12:30: (previous: 13:40)
400 kilometers: 15:58; (previous: 20:15)
Last Chance, Dairy King, Anton
About five or six miles after my beautiful roadside table, I passed a crossroads that on the way east I didn’t recognize as Last Chance, Colorado. The only feature that arrested my attention was the obviously shut down Dairy King restaurant with its hand-painted sign (my dad, a confirmed Dairy Queen fanatic, would have loved to have come across this place in the middle of nowhere). After the crossroads—Colorado 71—a sign said the next town was Anton. After 20 rolling miles, I arrived at the grain elevator and Co-Op gas station and clutch of houses that marked Anton; just as I was about to ride out onto the prairie, I saw a store, and two riders stopped there: Veronica and John Lee. They were eating and drinking I don’t know what, but I said, “Man, that looks good.” I asked them to wait a minute, just a minute while I got something so that I could ride out with them. It took more than a minute, but wait they did. I was happy and relieved to have a couple people to ride with, including someone I knew well from home.
John Lee Ellis
I thought it was a coup for Veronica, doing her first 1,200, to ride with John Lee Ellis. He practically personifies the Last Chance; if you have any questions about the route or what you’ll find along the way, he has the answers if anyone does. Veronica said he’d made it easy to navigate the first part of the course. He’s also a cheerful and hardy and very steady rider; this was his second 1,200 in less than a month (he did Boston-Montreal-Boston in August). In addition to all that, he had a pretty good sense of humor. We stopped once so Veronica could try to fix a balky seat bag. John Lee said, “In just a mile or so up the road, we’re going to have a little excitement.” “Excitement?” “Yes—the road angles to the southeast for a bit.” For the rest of the day, whenever we saw a bend in the road, we’d call out, “Angle!”
Maybe you have to have been there.
Twenty miles after Anton, we hit Cope (population 75; Last Chance mile 146.5), where we stopped at the town service station, just up the street from the steakhouse, for our second control. Veronica got a piece of string to fix her seat bag. It was midday now and nearing 90 degrees, and I had a couple Mountain Dews. John Lee headed out five or 10 minutes ahead of us. From Cope, we passed through Joes, another town of maybe 100 or so. We caught up to John Lee a few miles later and approached Idalia, which from a distance was just an elevator and a grove of shelter-belt trees. Closer in, we found Carpenter’s Mini Mall, a tiny grocery and bar/liquor store. We also found Henk, who said he’d bonked after his exertions of the early morning with Group Guth but added that he felt he was closing in on them again; he rode out ahead of us. After downing most of a half-gallon of orange juice among us and refilling water bottles, we headed out, too.
According to U.S. Geological Survey maps, our start point in Louisville, Colorado, was about 5,300 feet above sea level. The town is spread across the low foothills that heave up just below the dramatic slabs of the Flatiron Range. To the east, the Plains tilt down from west to east. Even though we crossed long stretches of rolling country that gave the impression of rising, we were slowly descending on an infinite series of stair steps: We’d ride up a rise, then descend into a trough, then pedal up the next slope, then roll down again; but the top of each rise was generally a little lower than the last. From the Geological Survey numbers, here are the elevations of some of the places we passed on the way to the turnaround:
St. Francis, Kansas
What the numbers don’t show is the constant up and down of this flat-looking terrain (and it does look flat in contrast to what I’m used to: From my house in Berkeley, I’ve got a 1,700-foot climb, from about 100 feet above sea level to about 1,800, in a six-and-half-mile route right out my front door, and that’s not unusual for the Bay Area). For instance, it looks like the ride from St. Francis, Kansas, to McDonald, 24 miles east, is all but flat. But the numbers hide the wrinkles in the landscape: St. Francis is built in the narrow little valley of the South Fork of the Republican River. To get there, you descend a couple hundred feet, then climb a couple hundred feet as you head east. The same is true of Oberlin, Kansas, built in the valley of Sappa Creek; the town is virtually hidden as you approach from the east; suddenly, there it is, a hundred and fifty vertical feet below you. All that up and down along the route eventually added up to something like 16,000 feet of ascent in the 635 miles or so I rode.
I grew up about 35 miles south of Chicago and about 12 or 15 miles west of the Illinois-Indiana state line. When I was 14 or 15, my brother John and I had a brainstorm to ride our single-speed Sears bikes across the state line. It was a destination, but it also seemed like a big deal to go from the Prairie State/Land of Lincoln all the way to the Hoosier State. We made it all the way into alien territory, rode a few miles north, then headed back to our home state. It took most of a late summer afternoon, but I still remember the sense of adventure and accomplishment.
Leaving Idalia, our next benchmark was the Colorado-Kansas line, 195 miles out from Louisville. I made John and Veronica stop so I could memorialize the moment with a snapshot. For the next 330 miles, we would be riding in the Sunflower State and the Central Time zone.<
John Lee Ellis indicated the highlight of the next control town—St. Francis, Kansas, 209 miles out—was a gas station mini-mart offering mini-pizzas to discerning palates. After 14 or 15 hours on the road, my palate was not all that discerning but I was ready to have a sit-down meal of some kind. Just outside of town, as U.S. 36 descended into the shallow valley of the South Fork of the Republican River, we caught up again with Henk. We rode along 36 through town—I noted the presence of another Dairy King, and this one was open and very tempting— until we got to the famous pizza-serving market. The pizzas were premade and overdone looking, so I opted for a cheeseburger that was also also premade and overdone. I guzzled whatever soda and water and a canned Starbuck’s drink, and by the time I was done with that, everyone else was ready to go. Henk commented that John, Veronica and I seemed to be riding reasonably fast together; “I think you’re able to hide a little from the wind,” he said; he planned to ride with us to the last control of the day, Atwood. But John and Veronica seemed to be gone when I went out to get on my bike; I followed Henk out of the parking lot, but he stopped about 100 yards down the street with a flat. Then Veronica and John appeared from behind; they had been inspecting a motel across the street to see if it had a sufficiently low seediness factor to consider as auxiliary lodging on the return trip to Louisville. I asked how the place was, and John said, “The kidney-shaped pool was nice.” We passed Henk; we didn’t stop, as everyone was kind of eager to make tracks to Atwood.
With the wind staying favorable, we were still rolling at a good clip, 18 to 20 mph. As much as I had a goal for the first day of the ride, it was to get to Atwood in one piece and to do it before dark. Having crossed into Central Time, the sun would set sometime around 7:45 p.m. Getting in before dark meant finishing Day 1’s 251-mile “stage” in no longer than 17 hours. Sitting at a computer and thinking about it, it had seemed like a pretty reasonable target; riding is another thing, though, and fatigue and all the unseen factors that can come up on a rider (weather, road conditions, mechanical problems, you name it) often combine to slow you down. But not on this day. Leaving St. Francis, making the gentle climb out of the Republican valley, then heading into a long flat stretch, it looked like we had plenty of daylight to get in before dark./p>
After about 15 miles, John said something to Veronica, and Veronica called over her shoulder that we’d “stop at Macdonald’s for a stretch.” Or that’s what I thought she said. I started fantasizing about milkshakes&mmdash;a frequent obsession after riding so long. Then I started to think about the towns I’d seen for the last 150 miles and the deserted prairie around us. How could there be a Macdonald’s out here? It slowly dawned on me that we were going to take a stretch in McDonald, a town about 18 miles short of Atwood. It sounded good to me.
We passed Bird City, then saw the grain elevator that marked McDonald. I was rolling in last and followed Veronica and John over to a white-painted cinder-block restaurant/bar. “Want a beer?” Veronica asked. John didn’t. I did. The bartender, an older woman named Rita, opened two bottles of Coors Light, and we tried to explain to her and a couple of other McDonaldites what we were doing. Like just about all the people we met along the route, they expressed amazement at the scale of the undertaking while politely asking some variation on the question, “Are you nuts?”
John left McDonald ahead of us. The last 18 miles into Atwood was rolling, with a couple of climbs that lasted a half-mile or more. At one point, I seemed to be within a couple hundred yards of catching John, but he pulled away on the uphill. Eventually, Veronica caught and passed me. I knew we’d make it to Atwood by nightfall, so as the sun set, I took it easy and followed the two of them into town. At the beginning of the three- or four-block stretch up Grant Street (U.S. 36 in Atwood) that led up to the Crest Motel, where we were stopping for the evening, I saw a sign for a historical marker. I went a short block to the north and found the marker, which mostly talked about set-tos between the Army, Indians, travelers, and settlers in the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s. Then I climbed on my bike and rode to the motel to sign in.
To be continued. …<