Sunday, August 28, 2011

The end and the beginning

Jon's post does a terrific job of capturing the last ride of the "From Hell and Back Tour".  None of us realized how beat we were until we reached the 78 mile rest stop.  Walking through I saw the army cots laid out and I thought, "Wow, how nice of them to give us a place to lay down and rest."  I was about to take advantage when I saw the IV bags strung out across a clothesline, M*A*S*H style - all that was missing was Hawkeye and Hotlips.  This was the tipping point for the ride.  Only 22 miles left, but heat stroke was close for us all and made it feel like 40 miles.

We stopped at the 97 mile break, too weary to realize the 98 mile free beer stop was just down the hill.  Much to Jason's disappointment, we skipped the free beer this year.  What most people don't realize is the ride is actually about 103 miles, so free beer at mile 98 means 5 miles of foam in your gut as you push through the 106* heat.  Add the obligatory brat and baked beans to that and you get the picture.  Besides, better beer and food was waiting for us just up the road at the finish line.

The last beer stop on the FHAB Tour
I've ridden close to 2,900 miles in the last year, over 1,300 which were for the tour (the rest were a culmination of shorter training rides, rides with the kids, commuting to work, etc. - surprising how fast 25 mile rides add up).  The list on the right captures all the rides and the people joined in on the way.  In the Century Club Jon picked up 7 rides and 700+ miles, Jason 4 rides and 400+ miles.  

Jon and I struck out on this deranged journey together.  It started on a training ride around White Rock last year when the cracked idea popped in my head that if you end capped something with the HH100 on either side it would be "from hell and back".  It had such a nice ring to it!  Then I thought, "Hey, we could ride a century every month in between.  It would be difficult, but we could do it!"  Certainly dehydration and mild heat exhaustion were taking their effects at this point - I hadn't ridden a single century in my life but I was already thinking of riding 13 more.

Lying on the picnic tables at the White Rock trail head, I tried to sell my idea around.  Jon was the only one that bit, saying, "This sounds like a really bad idea... let's do it!"  Everyone else thought it was insanity, which proved it was probably the best idea ever!  With everything based on a cool idea for a name and absolutely no planning, we agreed to go for it.  

Jon didn't complete the FHAB Tour, but he made an impressive showing.  Foot surgery in the fall put him out for a while, then we both got off track between bad weather, family obligations, and the like.  It was hard as hell for me to get caught back up, leading to one stretch of 4 centuries 4 weeks in a row.  Brutal.

It's the end of the FHAB Tour, but not the end of Thirteen Centuries for us.  We've tossed some ideas around like a heading up a school bike club or a charity bike garage to fix up and donate bikes to folks that can't afford ones.  What will come of it?  Too soon to tell just yet, but we'll certainly come up with a challenge that will be hard as hell with an uncertain outcome.

Meanwhile, I'm going to spend more time riding with my own kids.  Aiden rode his first organized ride, stomping down 25 miles of the HH100 with Josh and Dad.  Kellan is not far behind, he rode 16 miles a few weeks ago, and Azure is doing great learning to ride without training wheels.  

Aiden's first organized ride, 25 miles at the Hotter  'N Hell
Thirteen Centuries rolls onward, more to come.

Back to Hell

We took off in to the morning darkness with wheels whirring softly on the pavement.  The lights on our bikes did little to illuminate our way and we picked our path by feel and avoidance of the specter outlines of people and bikes and road.  The Hotter N Hell started at 6am this year, an hour earlier than normal, which was probably the saving grace for hundreds of riders, ourselves included. By the time we got to the start line the riders were already passing through and we joined in to the mass of wheels and gears.

The beginning of the ride was a dream world.  Hundreds of blinking and flashing red lights stretched to the horizon like a bizarre Christmas parade.  The mass of riders moved in disjointed harmony, moving in the same direction yet unsynchronized, an amateur ballet, a flock of birds that knew the rules but couldn't react in time, complete with otherworldly calls in the darkness of "CARRUP!" and "SLOWI-SLO-OH-OWING!" echoing back down the line and barely audible "onyerleft".  It was harrowing, yet magical.  Perhaps the real magic of the morning was the 75*F temperature, a purely blissful twist against the typically blistering days.  But dreams always end and fade away.

The sun broke against the sky and dispelled the tranquility of coolness.  It stayed reasonable while the sun stayed low.  We divined the time as much from the position of the sun as from the jetsam on the road:  at first there were the lights that had rattled loose from handlebars and shone like beacons on the still dark road; then we crunched over sunglasses that had slipped from sweaty hands as the dawn gave way to daylight; and the innumerable water bottles that counted away the miles, many at first and then lessening through out the day.

That relentless sun soon turned our dream world in to a convection oven.  There is no escaping the heat.  The road simultaneously absorbs and radiates the energy back on to all who dare traverse it.  The breeze blows hot on overheated faces and offers no relief.  At best, standing quietly under a shady grove of trees will minimize the rate of heat exhaustion but even that is still borrowed time.  The organizers of this year's ride wisely had triage units at the rest stops ready to recuperate those who lost the battle against the sun.  Arrays of cots rested below clothes lines that supported chilled intravenous bags and weary riders waited as the fluids worked in to their bodies.

We passed through Hell's Gate at 10am with the temperature already climbing to the triple digits.  Riding in these circumstances requires a careful compromise, riding on a razor's edge between an aggressive pace that will bring on dangerous exhaustion versus an easy pace that lets the body bake for too long.  Merely being present means that the riders are continuously heating up and losing moisture at an unrecoverable rate and the only way to finish is to find that balance of effort versus ease.  In some ways it is harder than a steep climb up a mountain because there a rider can rest and then resume the climb when a little energy has returned to legs and lungs.  In the cruel heat of the day, there is no recovery and the countdown clock to heat stroke is always ticking.

We kept the pace and eventually crossed the finish line.  To minimize our total time, we skipped rest stops unless we were out of liquids, which happened several times during the day. Consider that we all carry three liter hydration bags in addition to water bottles and that gives an idea of the heat.  We saw trailer loads of bikes and riders who had been picked up from the side of the road where they'd given up hope of finishing under their own power.  Hell is always open and it had claimed those souls.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chaparral Trail

The morning after my aborted attempt I decided to try a route from Plano out to Farmersville.  I started near Collin Creek Mall at about 4:30 in the morning.  This time I borrowed Jon's powerful headlight that straps to your helmet.  It was a good thing to, it kept me upright at least once.  On the Chisholm Trail a section floods during storms and gets coated with a thick layer of mud - something I would have missed with out a strong headlight.  Luckily I caught sight of it just before and was able to maintain my track without a spill.  It would have been a mess for sure, 2 inches of Texas clay silt.

A short while after getting into Lucas I started looking for the sun to rise in front of me... but I realized dawn was coming up to my left, which made no sense since my route was due east.  A quick check of the GPS showed me  coming into Murphy, about 6 miles south of where I wanted to be.  The road in Lucas curved south, I should have made a left on to stay on Lucas Rd., a fact that isn't apparent unless you zoom in on the intersection.  I turned back around and made it to Lake Lavon just in time for the actual sunrise.

Sunrise, Lake Lavon at Lucas Rd.
The route to Farmersville took me on a section of 380, which is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.  First, highways tend to be hillier with long loping rises.  Second, traffic in general is less forgiving.  Thankfully, the shoulder was pretty clean and smooth, not a lot of debris and road trash.  Nails and glass are always the biggest concern.  

The first few miles of the Chaparral Trail are paved, which was very nice.  It does, however, come to an abrupt end, turning to crushed gravel.  The sites I read before hand described it as crushed stone, which I equated to the crushed limestone similar to the Lake Mineral Wells and Trinity trailways.  It's actually more jeep trail with some construction grade crushed stone and a mix of whatever the bulldozer churned up.  After about 3 miles of that I turned back on the outskirts of Merit.  The skinny tires on the cross bike give me a little better traction than a road bike, but no cushion, so it was a fun yet exhausting part of the trip.  I was a good thing I took the wrong turn in Lucas since I was cutting the trail portion short.  

The trail itself was pleasant.  Very good tree cover, lots of shade, some interesting architecture in a few old bridges.  Absolutely a mountain bike trail though.  Something to try again at a later date.

Coming back in the daylight brought much heavier traffic.  It also let me see the rolling hills I rode on the way out.  Funny that seeing them makes it much worse.  Cranking up them in the dark you can't see the very far ahead, in the daylight you can watch that hill stretch on forever into the horizon.  Defeats you before it's even started.

The end brought breakfast at Poor Richards.  Three eggs, 2 orders of hash, chicken fried chicken, and biscuits and gravy.  A good end to a good ride.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Century Aborted

The forecast pretty much sums it up.  Rode almost to the White Rock trail head before I turned back.  I thought I could out run some, rain was pretty light at first, but then lightning started flashing on all sides.  That, and hearing cars spinning their tires on the slick pavement, clinched it for me.  Rain really opened up the last 3 miles back and it is still pouring.  Maybe tomorrow - back to bed for now.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Night Rider

I don't typically advocate riding at night, though I've found myself out in the wee hours of the morning quite often.  At 4 or 5 am Sunday morning, traffic is almost non-existent, and I am pretty confident my blinky lights are very visible from a distance.  Traffic, however, isn't the only concern in the lack of light.

This little obstacle looked quite different at 4:40am and nearly wrecked my ride only 10 minutes in.
Just 10 minutes in to my ride, at 4:40 am, I almost ate it when I tried to divert around what looked like a box on the trail.  The 4 inch black water pipe was invisible until I was right on it - I went off trail to the right (left in the photo since I was going the other way) and luckily didn't ditch.  Not 5 minutes after that a rabbit tried to attack my bike.  He was on the road side of the trail hanging out and heard me approaching.  His little ears went alert and his head twitched.  I thought he was going to tough it out, but right when I cut him off from the woods he lunged for safety directly into my front wheel.  Poor little guy bounced up into my pedal before somehow launching himself between my wheels and skittering to woods.

Another interesting sighting came near the tail end of Gateway Park in Fort Worth.  Something giant cut out a few feet in front of me and ran across the field on the west end of the park.  (Well, at least giant for 5:30 in the morning...)  Based on it's size and speed, I can only assume it was a bobcat since they are often sighted in the area.

Bobcat in the wild at River Legacy Park, not far from where I spotted one (photo from
Creatures and critters are out hunting and doing their thing and aren't prepared for you to come up that fast and they startle easily, usually when you are right on top of them, creating a problem for rider and critter alike.  This trip I counted 2 possum, 1 raccoon, 1 bobcat, 5 or 6 or more rabbits, and countless other things at I heard rushing into the brush unseen.

Another problem with trails at night is just general visibility.  Even familiar trails can present dangers like the hydrant hose above, but get on an unfamiliar trail and it is down right dangerous.  River Legacy, Quanah, and Gateway park all had winding trails through the woods with dense tree cover not even letting the starlight through.  My headlight is average and mounts to my bike, so it is difficult to anticipate a turn since your wheel isn't pointed that direction yet.  Coming into a corner you get a great shot of the trees straight ahead but nothing of the trail itself.  I found myself wagging my handle bars to get a glimpse of the the curves before it was too late.  Parts of Gateway Park trail were under construction and I nearly ran into a fence blocking it off.  I came around a corner pretty fast and as my light caught up to the trail the fence jumped right out at me.

The main river trail was very nice.  There is a paved trail that runs the full length on one side and a crushed limestone trail that parallels on both sides of the river.  That was nice since many of the runners chose the crushed limestone, it helped break up the traffic some.  I took an unpaved leg up to the Naval Air Station.  The crushed limestone rides nice, not bumpy or jittery.  It is messy, though, my water bottles were covered in a layer of grit.  I had to spit water from my Camelbak onto one to down some Cytomax with getting a mouthful of chalky mess.  It wouldn't have been pleasant if I hadn't had something to rinse them with first.  Regardless, I'd take the crushed limestone over Texas highway chip-seal any day!

Chipseal vs. crushed limestone

Natural falls near the Naval Air Station
I stopped for sunrise at 6:15 and had a nice juxtaposition of downtown FW to the west and river wilderness to the east.

Sunrise on the Trinity.

Downtown Fort Worth
What you can't see in the photo is the other side of the river is paved.  I missed the first dam bridge and ended up riding the crushed limestone side for several miles right from the start.  Not having been on the trail before, I just assumed parts of it would be unpaved so I went with it.  Just another hazard of riding at night.

The dam bridge that continues the paved trail - not so visible in the dark.