I’ve done dumber things on a whim, but this one might take the cake for the dumbest thing I’ve done on a dare put forth by someone else. When one of my longtime riding buddies, Steve Briley, said “I’ll sign up for it if you sign up for it,” this is precisely the sort of behavior we often lecture our kids about NOT doing. Caving in to peer pressure. But at our ages, we’re not peers so much as a couple of underpaid, overtrained, old farts. Still, on a Saturday morning in early February of 2017, I found myself saddled up to the computer, logged in to the registration site, with my credit card propped up so I could speed-read the digits, expiration date, and CVV code, ready to see if I could finish at the front of the pack of the thousands of others who would be vying for an entry. How many times had I thought about “forgetting” this appointment didn’t really matter, since Briley texted me a reminder the night the before, and bright and early the morning of. It’s GO TIME, Peckerwood. We’re actually going to do this. Well, shit no. Once I had a coveted entry to the Dirty Kanza 200, there would still be months of excuse making, as well as a sanctioned exchange to sell off and transfer my entry to someone who actually wanted to do this. I was committed to nothing.
That all changed when I was offered a spot on a “Gravel Team” being put together by Assos and Open Cycles. While the details of this adventure took a while to come together, I was outfitted with a new limited edition Assos-branded Open U.P.P.E.R. and top shelf component build, and after some confidence-inspired testing of the bike with 27.5 wheels and 2.1 width mountain bike tires, I felt emboldened to give the DK a real effort. But there was still that issue of the training.
Let the Strava record reflect the fact that I did not actually put in more time riding than last year as preparation for DK. An easy explanation for this: the winter of 2016 was a mild one, and I started riding my bike outside much earlier and with more consistency than in 2017. In 2017, we had a much better snow year, so the nordic skiing lasted longer into the spring. Even with volume down a bit, the difference in 2017 was definitely in the kinds of rides I did to prep for DK200. Rides like doing the White Rim through Canyonlands National Park in a day on a mountain bike. I did that only once, and prior to the actual DK race, it was my longest days in the saddle, 100 miles in just under 8 hours. My Strava profile doesn’t lie: before we packed up Steve-O’s truck full of bikes, and bags, and coolers, and a whole bunch of bike gypsy crap, I was actually behind last year’s pace for accumulating my yearly mileage total, which has been the same for the last few years, a little over 6,000 miles for the calendar year.
The day before the longest day I have ever spent on a bicycle was pretty routine, except we were in Emporia, Kansas, staying at a house of a local family who had welcomed us into their home in a way that I have not seen previously in over 30 years of traveling around the country racing bikes. They literally gave us the keys and left. They stocked the fridge with local “Dirty Kanza” commemorative beer. That morning I woke up and straightened the Spider Man bedspread I had been sleeping on. I drank coffee. I ate breakfast. I was in a stranger’s home in a strange town, contemplating how I was going to get through the very strange act of racing a bicycles for over 10 hours, navigating via a GPS file on a little handlebar-mounted Garmin that may or may not have enough battery strength to make it through the whole thing.
“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”–Mike Tyson
Despite the words of Iron Mike being fresh in my head, the truth is I never had a plan. Seriously. I had an understanding of what everyone else’s plan was, and by learning what their plans were, I had a loose set of viable solutions to problems that had not happened yet. It is in my personality to do a series of small mathematical equations over and over in my head, and we are talking about 3rd or 4th grade level mathematical equations here, as a substitute for actual planning. Let me give you some examples: a package of GU is one serving and has about 100 calories. So therefore, a 15 serving screw top bulk pouch of GU has 15 servings, or about 1,500 calories without all the messy packets, but they are too large to fit in a pocket. A refillable soft GU squeeze bottle solves this problem and allegedly holds (5) servings. I’ve been using these for awhile in races like Crusher in the Tushar, and Rebecca’s Private Idaho. The math is not so complicated, should be able to fill (3) of them and start with one in my pocket, and put the other 2 in drop bags for Checkpoints 2 and 3. I fill the first one, and can barely fill the second one by absolutely flatting the 15 serving pack out and manhandling it until it is just a flat flap of foil. The math is wrong. I still have an empty 5 serving soft bottle with nothing in it. Trust me, it keeps me up at night.
Prepping the Bike
Should I bring 1 tube or 2? CO2 cartridges or pump? Both? This one was tough. I had planned on bringing (2) tubes minimum based on what I had heard previously about people flatting, for example, Ted King flatting 3 times and still pulling off the win in 2016. But when I chose to ride the 27.5 mountain bike tires, the decision was made for me since I only brought (1) 27.5 tube. I also figured a pump would be slower, but could generate as much air as my little twigs could pump, whereas CO2 cartridges don’t refill themselves once the gas leaves the cylinder.
What about lights? I brought a light. You are supposed to have lights (I think…as I said, I didn’t have a plan, and I sure as shit didn’t read the racer’s handbook). But I don’t want to carry the extra weight if I’m not going to need it. Here’s the deal, if I am going to need a light, I am not going to be very happy about it. Instead I did something that makes no sense at all. I put the light mount on my handlebars, but left the light back at the house. I’m doing this damn thing before the sun goes down.
What should I put in my drop bags for the feed zones?
The Night Before
What should I eat for dinner? Going with the flow and playing off the planning of others had served me well in this regard. We all enjoyed an excellent home-cooked pasta dinner by Chef Shamy (that’s a composite of Shane and Amy), and while I had nothing to do with it except for buttering some bread and jamming out to some tunes while doing dishes, it was delicious and my belly was full with healthy food.
How many beers am I going to drink? This is a mathematical equation that no 3rd or 4th grader should ever be doing in their head, so I just went by feel. I lost track after 1, but it was probably less than 3.
How do I keep myself from fiddling with my bike in the garage, not actually figuring anything definitive out, just fiddling? Failed on this one. Can’t win them all.
The Morning Routine
What time should we get up in the morning? I set my alarm for 4:30 AM, but never heard it. I probably got up and started the business of getting ready at about 4:45 AM.
What should I eat? Shamy had a big container of white rice that was cooked in chicken broth from a previous night’s meal. I was able to scramble up a big batch of eggs to mix with the rice, and there was plenty to go around for myself, Steve, and a few of the others. Still, I wasn’t able to eat any more than I would normally eat before a 30 mile ride. I wasn’t exactly confident this pre-race meal was going to offer much in the way of substance for later on down the road.
How many cups of coffee should I have? As many as possible, which given the time, was about a cup and a half. Weak.
What if we get to the start late and the start area is all filled up with racers who got their before us?
What if, because I got up too early in order to mitigate the problem above, I don’t get a chance to take a proper dump before leaving the house, and nature calls while I am holding my spot on the start line? What happens if I have my Assos bib shorts down around my ankles, trapped in a polyethylene prison cell made for one when the starter’s gun goes off?
Assuming the above scenario doesn’t happen, what the actual hell happens when the gun goes off? Should I stay at the front and risk getting caught up in going to hard to soon, or just ride my own pace no matter what?
These are just a few of those scenarios that occupied the mind before we even rolled out of Emporia at 6:00 AM, on the morning of Saturday, June 3rd. You’ll have to wait for the next installment to see how things unfolded…and to see how many times I got punched in the mouth.
I love bikes. Almost any bike. You have probably figured that out by now. Which is why I am having such a hard time getting over my relationship with my fat bike. I’m just not giving it the love it needs, nor the respect it deserves. I think the real struggle is that while I love popping out on the neighborhood groomed trails when none of my friends can see me, mostly in disguise, I enjoy nordic skiing so much more. 99 times out of 100, I would rather be on skis if the conditions allow. When I am nordic skiing on groomed corduroy and I am confronted with riders on fat bikes leaving 3″ snake trails right down the middle, it really makes my blood boil. Sometimes I wish they never had been invented. Not the bikes, but the people who ride them.
Actually what I am doing is blaming a poor management plan of our local multi-use trail system, and then projecting that onto someone else. The truth is we have no management plan, it’s a work in progress, an experiment if you will. I call it a “Not-working In Progress.”
I recently got back from a trip to Jackson, WY and explored a multi-use U.S. Forest Service trail called Cache Creek. From the trailhead, it goes steadily uphill for a few miles, cat-groomed wide enough for skate skiing, with a classic track set on the side. Someone wiser than myself said recently in a discussion about nordic skier vs fat biker conflicts: if the folks who maintain our multi-use trails are not intentionally grooming for the nordic ski crowd, then why would they use a $100k snow cat with grooming implements that leaves a swath of corduroy and a classic track set on the side? Think about it. But I digress. Back to Cache Creek. There is a main artery of a trail that is shareable, for skaters, classic skiers, snowshoers, hikers, wolves chasing isolated elk, you name it. But off to the sides, there are clearly marked singletrack trails groomed for fat bikes. There are sticks with reflectors at intervals, presumably so you could navigate the trail at night with a good set of lights, but I wouldn’t because, you know, wolves. The point is, the dedicated trails looked awesome, mainly because they were intentional, and obviously managed. I would have ridden them if I had brought my fat bike, but I was on skis. In my mind that is the solution. In a way it is a not so much trail segregation, but trail specialization. What do you think?
As Yogi Berra famously said, if you get to a fork in the road, take it.
My fork in the road came when a riding buddy hatched a weekend plot to fly into Atlanta, Georgia, rent a few bikes from Eaglerider, and tackle the Tail of the Dragon. So I took it.
Geographically speaking, the Tail of the Dragon is the name given by motor heads of all types and wheel configurations for Deals Gap, North Carolina and Tennessee. Route US 129 is a mountain pass that runs along the North Carolina-Tennessee state line and bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Allegedly, there are 318 curves in 11 miles. While connected with our two-way Scala headsets, I started counting them up while riding in front of Darth Nater: 1…2…3…4…before I got to double digits, Darth protested that this could become exceedingly annoying, which of course made me even more committed to get all the way to 318, but the attention required to navigate the corners soon broke my resolve. It wasn’t long after that point when the one-armed rider we saw at the Dragon sculpture went ripping around me on his super motard bike. I imagined that guy must have been some sort of local legend.
It would be a mistake to call this Mecca for motorcyclists. There was nothing spiritual, religious, or holy about it. In fact once it was done it was done, and we were not in the least bit compelled to go ride it again. The reason being, there were so many other great back roads to ride. Take the Cherohala Skyway, for example. A 43 mile National Scenic Byway that seemed almost engineered specifically for cruising on two-wheels. We took this from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to an opportune stop to check our maps in the shade of the long driveway to the Snowbird Mountain Lodge, in Robbinsville, North Carolina. We had originally planned to make it to Bryson City where we already had a motel reservation, but the sun was setting, our tummies were grumbling, and there seemed to be a magnetism pulling us up the driveway of the Snowbird Mountain Lodge.
We climbed the steep driveway through the canopy of trees and well-kept grounds, and ended up in front of a classic mountain lodge built in the early 1940s. The voices in my head were saying stay, and before Glen came out to say they had a few rooms available, it seemed like Darth and I were already pulling changes of clothes from our panniers. Once those bikes go up on the center stands,the decision is more or less final.
Although I regret not making it to Bryson City, which by all measures of inter web searching, seemed like a funky cool little Durango-type town, no tears of regret fell into our deliciously prepared local trout dinners, nor our tumblers of local Defiant whiskey that were suckled and nursed in the confines of the dimly lit rustic bar. I imagined this would have been the way the railroad barons primed themselves for a deep night’s slumber. The Snowbird Mountain Lodge is the type of place you could disappear to for awhile. We enjoyed early morning coffee on the deck literally perched over the mountains, filled up on a hearty country breakfast of eggs, country ham, and blueberry pancakes. They even prepared sack lunches for us, our names on the bags, to be grabbed on our way out the door of this lovely country inn.
The rest of this story is best told through a collection of pictures we took along the way, which I will be uploading soon. Yes, we all three slayed the dragon in our own way, and left us plotting the next fork in the road.
Deal O’ The Day
Words I’ve Heard
"I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man." --Jay-Z
"The only thing keeping us from going is leaving." --Ewan Mcgregor
"Adventures suck, when you're having them." -- Anonymous Rally Car Driver
"It is, absolutely, without question, unequivocally, about the bike. Anyone who says otherwise is obviously a twatwaffle."--RULE #4, Velominati.com
"Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake."--W.C. Fields