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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Maiden Voyage

Okay, I'd wanted to get into touring and commuting by bike before I met Corinna, but I hadn't quite got my mind around the logistics.

So I guess when I met her, I found my Round Tuit for that stuff. I've been commuting as often as possible from her pad (my house to office poses a distance problem, as I can't really feature six or seven hours in the saddle wrapped around an eight hour workday; I could do part of the trip but I so far haven't).

I should find a place in Olathe or Overland Park where I can leave my car on the way home from work, ride back to Gardner and then be boxed in to getting up in time to ride back to the car in the morning. More or less like how I handle commuting from the Poet Laureate's place, often as not I leave my car at work and ride to her house. Knowing I can't speed my way out of trouble makes it easier to obey at 4:45 a.m. alarm.

But this is not a post about my commuting by bike. I'm enjoying the hell out of that, and there's tons of stories to tell about it, but this is about me getting my tippy-toes wet in the touring world.

From the start, when I signed up for BikeMS a couple years ago and bought this old bike from a friend for $50, I've been fascinated with the touring thing.

A BikeMS teammate my first year was a regular commuter and had also toured from somewhere in Alaska to San Diego on his bike. Loaded up for the trip, he said his bike weighed 96 pounds, something which didn't trouble him in the slightest.

A jarring shock for someone who had mainly been exposed to Johnson County roadie culture, where people spend serious money for a carbon fiber bottle cage to shave eight grams (or whatever) off their rolling weight.

There are, by the way, 453 of those grams to a pound, so if you're the last one up the hill it's probably not your bottle cage that slowed you down.

Anyway, by my second BikeMS I had seen more transportational cyclists, though not a lot more. It's such an aberrant behavior, you really have to have your radar on.

The things I thought I'd never do. Kind of like with commuting, where I learned I would indeed ride to work when it was a mere 2ºF, when discussing with Corinna how unpleasant a cold, rainy ride would be, she predicted that eventually I'd set out on a ride when it was already raining, knowing it might rain the whole way.

As if, right?

The original plan was to camp in Lawrence after judging at Holyfield.

When I told my fellow homebrewers I planed to ride 18 miles in to judge on Saturday and then ride another 30 or so to camp, they all looked at me like maybe I'd been judging beer a bit injudiciously. It might rain, dude. It's cold. Chilly at least. It's February for crying out loud.

That's not what sunk the plan to make that my first touring adventure. A Monday-Friday setting on Corinna's alarm clock did that. I was so excited about the trip I had trouble falling asleep Friday night; then I had a nightmare that actually woke me up, in which I didn't wake up until 8:30 when I should already be at Holyfield.

The dream didn't quite come true, but it was the millstone or be a no-show for the morning flight, which wasn't an option for me.

So after judging (and me turning down a chance to judge Best of Show, speaking of things I never thought I'd do), we loaded up and despite the threatening clouds, off we rode.

I wasn't unprepared, I had borrowed Brian's spare rain suit, a Gordman's Fisherman job. There's Gor-Tex, there's the treated nylon Corinna has, then there's this.

The choice is be hot and wet or cold and wet. You'll sweat the thing up and be hot and wet, which is only preferable if you'll get hypothermia from being cold and wet. It's not sexy, it's not comfy, but it will keep you alive.

Before we even made Washington Avenue the rain started up and the temperature dropped. We stopped and added a layer of wool but not the rain gear.

Three blocks later, we added the rain gear. Well, I only did the coat, my legs didn't feel that bad.

By North Kansas City when we met up with Brian, we shed the rain gear and did the rest of the trip to Smithville, our alternate destination, without. The roads were wet some of the way, and I got a bit of road bidet action, but that coat was freakin' hot.

North Kansas City, by the way, has some hills. I thought West Shawnee was hilly, but they're nothing like north of the river.

Smithville is a short hop unless you're not on the road until dinnertime. I learned that I need brighter lights, my lights are better than they used to be but not bright enough for the country at night. Corinna and I were riding parallel down a steep hill near Smithville and I commented that Brian was completely fearless (as he charged ahead down the hill).

As if to prove my point, I heard him howling with delight as he rounded the bend at the bottom. He couldn't see any more than I could, but Brian is fearless.

The bob-trailer behind his 1980s Schwinn Voyager probably alerts a casual observer that Brian is out there. Seeing him ride up Wornall Road in his Gordman's Fisherman getup during a downpour told me the same. But it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Easy to figure why Corinna likes touring with him. He can fix anything, including popped spokes, by the side of the road. And he has the knack of being happy no matter what happens.

He's an accomplished woodsman as well, which is handy when you ride into Smithville in the dark and can't find a legal campsite. In town, we got directions, food, and booze. This last was an impulse stoked by my beer breakfast. I didn't really drink much while judging, even with the beer I had with lunch, perhaps three full beers spread out over two meals and half a day.

So after we bought food and got directions, I expressed doubts as to whether any of the groceries would fit on my bike and ducked into the beer store. I emerged to find that they'd put all the groceries on my bike.

Lesson learned.

The campground we were directed to was locked, but the power outlets worked and since I have to sleep with a CPAP and we couldn't see in the dark to effectively explore further, we set up in the back of the camping area.

Which meant no fire that night, which would have ruined my dinner if it wasn't a wrap from the deli case. And should have ruined Brian's, which was baked beans. I'd have to be really hungry to eat baked beans at all, but to eat them cold out of the can I'd have to be a walk-on for one of Sally Struthers' pagan babies commercials.

But nothing ruins anything for Brian.

And he tells the best camp stories. I won't recount them here, but they start with sentences such as, 'The first time I got run over was by my Mom when I was eight...with a bicycle.' And they end with nuggets like, 'And that was the best concussion I ever had.'

I told Brian he wasn't, maybe, the weirdest guy I'd ever known but he was definitely top-three.

"Thank you!" he said.

I was surprisingly comfortable in my (also borrowed from Brian) mummy bag. It wasn't super cold outside, but if it had been, there were all sorts of ways to cinch it up. There were also all sorts of ways to vent it. And Corinna and Brian turned me on to the trick of putting your shoes down in the bag so they're not cold in the morning.

In the morning we were able to do a fire (we were on the way out anyway). Actually instead of park rangers, we got visited by the Army Corps, a couple of guys bringing in gravel for a project. I explained that we needed electricity and had to chance it, and learned that there were legal sites we could have camped at if we'd been able to see.

But as long as we were just passing through and obviously packing up, they weren't interested in making things hard on us. We rode in on bicycles in February, so we were obviously Amish or something. I was glad we hadn't pitched our tent one slot over, we'd have been in their way and then I bet he'd have decided to call the law on us.

Back in town to resupply we had our bikes lined up in front of the Casey's. While I was watching our mounts, an old redneck walking in to pay for his gas muttered at me, 'Let's clog up the fucking sidewalks why don't we?'

The hatred in his voice was pure and incomprehensible. Lucky for him, we touring cyclists aren't the sort of outlaw bikers who'd activate an old man's dental plan for saying such a rude thing. And it's not like anyone was walking down the 'sidewalk' in question. He didn't even have to step sideways to get around us.

And since Smithville's top three industries are (1) Tourism, (2) Tourism, and (3) Tourism, it's hard to figure why off-season tourists would be such a blight on his world. It was my favorite kind of harassment: the kind that's so ridiculous it constitutes entertainment.

Maybe his mother ran over him with a bicycle when he was growing up or something.

And it wasn't like we set out to camp illegally. I'd have gladly paid the fee if someone had been there to collect it, but the gates were locked and the collector was off duty. For that matter, I need my CPAP badly enough I'd have paid a fine if someone had ticketed me for it, just hoping the fine would be less than a motel.

And we did buy stuff. Probably almost thirty bucks contributed to the local economy. It's not much, but it's thirty bucks more than we'd have spent in Smithville if we'd taken our little gypsy caravan to Lawrence instead.

As far as tourist draws, Smithville has, besides a lake, the Apollo House. I stopped to take pics on the way out of town.

I thought it was fitting since Apollo is the baby-father of the Olympics in a way, and Corinna is an Olympian besides being the Sherpa that's teaching me the touring thing.

We took a bit of a different course coming back. It didn't mean we avoided a half mile or so of 92 (which doesn't need those sleepy-driver bumps because the drunken rednecks who drive it will hear the sound of discarded beer cans being crushed by their tires if they get drowsy). It did mean we had a different set of hills to climb, and besides my Granny Gear I think I needed an I Want My Mommy Gear.

Also on our way back, we stopped at a historic recreation site at a park in NKC. And there, in the park, what did we see but half a millstone.

I had my dash-cam going when we were on the way back and I came to the top of a hill, last place as usual and Brian and Corinna were sharing a snack.

Found art is one thing, but a found brownie is another.

Still in its wrapper, it had to be from last season. I naively took a bite and after exclaiming that it tasted like ass, Brian and Corinna started laughing as hard as they had when they loaded all the groceries on my bike.

You might be a chocolate addict if you'll try a rancid brownie you find in the street just because it's still in its wrapper.

But even as I got chased by a farm dog, which got me to ride faster than I thought possible, even though the dog looked like he might be friendly, I had nothing but fun.

As we got close to town, Corinna was late for a conference call. After showing me the park where she came to her senses, an off-the-beaten-track foundation to a water tower with some really interesting graffiti, she sprinted for home while Brian hung back with me, the Slow Kid.

Of course, Brian was infinitely amused by my company, especially when I begged him to take the Heart of America (the bridge I was seeking when I met Corinna last October) instead of the newly rebuilt Chateau.

Those roads are maybe two miles apart north of the river where we had to make the decision but the east/west travel on the south side is way further.

And while our trip was maybe half an honest day's 'touring,' the headwinds we had coming back where epic and exhausting.

Me and Brian stopped at a QT and somehow the discussion got to that old folk tale about how Hostess Twinkies can last 25 years or whatever. I didn't believe it but I remembered liking Twinkies.

Hadn't had one since I was 18 that I can remember, though. We split a pack, and I have to say, they were so much better in my memory I should have left them alone. They might have lasted in my memory as a thing worth consuming for 25 years if I'd avoided that.

Anyway, It's been almost two weeks since my maiden voyage. I get behind on blogging these days because I have a life. You know how it is when you fall in love.

Or do you?

I'm certain some of my friends, especially the atheistic ones, thought I was punch drunk when I told them God talked to me after I met this woman. I understand, because I'd think the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot.

But when my friend and band-mate talked me out of going to Acme Bicycles to seek an old bike, the bike he sold me turned out to have a touring frame. And despite over a year of feedback from JoCo riders that I needed to ditch that whole bike for a 'road bike' it was still what I chose to spend the day on a few bachelor weekends ago when I met Corinna. And while I couldn't remember where I parked my car after I ate that grate in the River Market, I do remember exclaiming to this new group of friends a few hours later that I love this bike.

Of course, Acme (Sara and Christy) are who Corinna has gotten most of her bike shit from...

Friday, February 25, 2011


Okay, it's that time of year again. That time of year when I get to trot out my credentials as a BJCP National Rank beer judge.

It's probably a lot like judging barbecue competitions from what I hear: anyone can eat burnt ends and say whether they like them or not; anyone can tell you what their favorite sauce is or whether they want it on the side.

"I'm going to judge a few beers this weekend," a coworker once said to me. "And I know what score I'm going to give them."

It's not about what you like, it's about whether the brewer hit his target. Characteristics that are desirable in a Trappist ale would be reason to dump a batch of Pils. The color of a stout is all well and good, but not in a Kolsh.

In fact, if you're a good beer judge, you should be able to give a very high score to a beer you hate, provided that beer is an excellent example of the style it was entered in (assuming, of course, that you detest the style in question).

While the styles generally have commercial examples to relate to, i.e. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for an 'American Pale Ale,' the commercial brewer cares less about style than whether you want another beer.

In any case, since these are homebrewers, the judge's first job is to provide feedback that can help the brewer improve. A flawed beer may have been entered specifically because the brewer wondered what might have gone wrong.

That was truer when I started judging back in 1996. There was a bit of a homebrew fad going, and dilettantes were everywhere, even Drew Carey's fictional character.

These days, some categories are scary in how well made a lot of the entries are. I judged English Bitters on Friday night and the low score was, if memory serves, in the high 20s (on a 50 point scale). And this was with a gusher in the flight.

See also the Brown Ales on Saturday morning prior to the flight of my pet, Cider.

And this also provided an opportunity for me to introduce Corinna to some of my oldest and favoritest friends.

And she seemed to hit it off with them just fine.

Originally, me and the Poet Laureate where supposed to ride from her house to the competition at Holyfield and then tour on to Lawrence to camp.

That plan relied on a 4:45 a.m. alarm that turned out to have a union contract for Monday through Friday only. We woke up in time to get to Holyfield via millstone, but not to ride.

Which is how we ended up going to Smithville...

Rolling on the River

When she described a 'bike and hike' trail, I pictured something actually developed for biking and hiking. Like those asphalt sidewalks that run along a lot of the creeks in Johnson County.

Sort of, but this was a different kind of government make-work project, a levy on the Kansas River.

Gravel sucks as a riding surface almost as bad as ice or snow except you can't melt or evaporate gravel with weather. It's always shitty. Plus, with all the snow melt that had just happened, where the gravel gave way it was muddy.

There's all this cool graffiti art that's tagged up for people passing on the highway. I've seen some of these pieces from afar that way, but you can't appreciate the scale. Some of these letters are 20 feet high. These tags are not spray paint, someone with ladders, rollers, and a posse of apprentices did this stuff.There are cool shots of Downtown you'd never get from another vantage point.

I got a bit stressed out, I admit. This is my second Levy Adventure, and the first one I really failed to enjoy. I really dig paved roads when it comes to cycling, and maybe I expected too much for this to be a cycling adventure. Really, the 'hike' segments where you go under bridges or around gates, a bicycle, especially one loaded with all your winter gear, a change of clothes and a CPAP, is a hindrance.

But the things you see, there's no other way to see them.


The War of Fog

The other morning it was so foggy I took pictures.

I know, I'm a shutterbug, so me deciding to snap a pic is not really the acid test of what is newsworthy, but damn. When I finally got to work, I said, "If it's going to take me an hour and a half to get to work, I need to be on a bicycle."

At least that way I get to work in a good mood.