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Monday, June 30, 2014

Prairie Spirit Fail with Tattoo Barbie

I wanted to do a training ride since I signed up for a gravel grinder. I had originally thought to sign up for next year's Dirty Kanza, but in the meantime I got in on the Pony Express Gravel Dash in Marysville this September. Only 120 miles.

Only. My personal record, mileage in one day, is 109.87 miles. That was on paved roads and I only averaged 9.6 miles per hour. It was in town, too, so I wasn't touring fully loaded or anything like that. I had bad cramps and almost couldn't finish, plus that was a year before I got split open for double bypass surgery. My personal mileage record since that was in the fifties. So signing up for a 120 mile 'dash' on any surface is a bit of a stretch for me.

And it's on gravel. Gravel roads, which I have historically dismissed as being made out of the shit they're supposed to sweep off a proper road. I can't say I've ever been a fan of grinding out miles on gravel, but I guess I want a challenge.

Which brings us to today. I got up at 3:30 in the morning in hopes of being at the trailhead by sunrise. The Prairie Spirit Trail goes from Ottawa to Iola, Kansas. It's a rails-to-trails deal, so no big hills and it's a fine, crushed stone so I figured it'd actually be a little bit easier miles than the Pony Express promises to be, but the round trip would be right around a Century so I figured at least I'd know if I had 100 miles in my legs these days and get some practice riding on a non-asphalt surface.

For a traveling companion, I had a Barbie doll my daughter had decorated that I wanted to photograph. Em appointed her with tattoos and piercings and her shirt reads 'FUCK THIS SOCIETY.' I thought of her as Barbie Suicide, thinking she looked like the models on the Suicide Girls site who all seem to have the surname 'Suicide' but I'm told that's not enough of a household name for people to get it, so it just seems like I'm being a dick about actual suicide victims and survivors. So I guess she's Tattoo Barbie, or Rebel Barbie or Biker Bar Barbie or something like that. I strapped her to the top of my pannier for the ride, which I think in hindsight might have caused more strange looks than I normally get with just my pink helmet mohawk.

When I got to the trailhead, there were some dejected guys loading mountain bikes and camping gear into a car with Nebraska plates. They told me the trail wasn't in good shape, maybe hadn't been maintained. A mile in, they said, huge cobblestones they had trouble riding on at any speed. Trees over the trail, cobwebs, etc. They got off the trail and took gravel roads, and every time they tried to remount the trail it was the same. They camped in a train storm at a Methodist campground and got up in the middle of the night and rode back to their car.

Sounds challenging. But my friend Phil had been singing the praises of the Prairie Spirit trail and he's not a masochist, so I figured I'd give it a go. About a mile into the trail, I crossed a bridge with no railings on it (it's wide enough but felt creepy), and on the other side of that I went off a pretty big drop off into some gravel so huge and loose I could barely ride forward. My wheels sunk a couple inches into it and my tires spun out. I walked the bike a bit and tried again. By the fourth or fifth try, I was like This is getting old.

As far as I could tell, it was the same story for miles to come, and I could see why these guys weren't thrilled with the trail. You could probably ride on this shit with a Pugsley or a Krampus, but they'd struggled with mountain bikes and it wasn't happening at all with my Long Haul Trucker. I probably weigh half again what either of these guys do plus my 700x35 tires are skinnier and more prone to sink in.

I headed back the way I came, rode the levee a bit, then decided to explore Ottawa preparatory to gravel grinding some gravel roads around the area since I'd come this far. I stumbled on the actual Prairie Spirit Trail, which is not connected to the Prairie Spirit Trailhead, but is on the other side of downtown Ottawa. I think the trail the Nebraska boys were frustrated with is the Flint Hills Trail, and I suspect it's under construction: it would explain the lack of railings on that bridge and the drop off into the huge, loose rocks. That's probably the foundation for a layer of crushed stone.

Sorry those guys had such a rough go of it, I guess their perseverance didn't pay good dividends, if they'd given up a little easier they might have found the trail they sought.

So I was off, and it was a fine day for it even if it was almost two hours after I meant to be pointed toward Iola. I have a bad track record of heading out on epics late in the day: my first Century I didn't even get on the bike until something like 10:30 in the morning. I did Critical Mass the night before my first interstate tour, overslept and rode 108 miles with a mild hangover that didn't finish until ten at night. Really, the fact that I got up at 3:30 a.m., had the bike under me around 6:45, and had backtracked from the first trail, ridden a bit of levee and gotten on the trail to Iola around 8:00, that's remarkably early for me. Pretty sure it's the earliest start I've made without an organized event or being on time for work to prompt me.

Hydration is so important on these things, and I had two quarts of G2 Gatorade and two water bottles filled with homemade gatoradeish stuff (I used the salts from an isotonic saline nasal rinse with vitamin C chewables and a bit of evaporated cane juice) when I left. I picked up two more Gatorades at Princeton, had a big glass of water with my Chinese buffet lunch in Garnett (where I hit the watermelon and pineapple heavily), then grabbed two more Gatorades and a liter of Diet Coke on my way back through Princeton. I hoped I wouldn't cramp that night. It would be nice to not cramp after an 80 mile ride.

The Chinese joint in Garnett didn't have a bike rack, but you can always count on the gas company. They install more bike racks than any advocacy group or department of transportation ever thought about.

I did worry about Barbie's t-shirt causing an uproar with the locals, so I stuffed her in my pannier when I went in to eat. I didn't think of this at the gas stations, so if someone walked by my bike with a kid of the right age, well, sorry.

Did I say I rode only 80 miles? Yeah, I was going for a Century, but the further south I got the slower it got. There were stiff headwinds, but I figured those would even out on the return. The problem was I was riding through an area that had almost two inches of rain the night before. I kept thinking I was getting a flat, only to realize it was more loose, muddy stuff. About two hours after I thought I'd have hit Iola, I was only a bit past Welda, going downhill and working to make five miles per hour. I thought I probably had the stamina to make Iola and back, but I figured I'd get to the car around midnight and have to work the next day.

Turning around, the tailwind didn't help as much as the headwind seemed to hinder, but that's always the way it goes. I ground out the miles, getting a bit hypnotized by the trail I guess. It's pretty monotonous. Pretty, to be sure, and I saw lots of cool wildlife as it scurried out of my way. I saw a badger, some sort of rat-like thing, a red squirrel, a great blue heron, two turtles, several snakes, and shit-eating butterflies galore. No kidding, I'm guessing from the size it was deer scat, but there was a swarm of butterflies fluttering away from every turd I passed.

About five miles from my car, I was crossing a road and when I looked to my left I thought I saw cyclists coming. I did a double-take, and no, it was a couple of dogs in the road, when BAM!

There's not much in the way of hazards to navigation on the trail. It's pretty wide open. The trees form a canopy over much of it, and the tunnel is, like I say, a bit hypnotic. I managed to get distracted at the perfect moment to collide with the concrete filled post that's used to keep cars off the trail. My leg started swelling immediately but seemed to functional to be broken. My bike frame, I figured I'd fucked up another one of those, but I couldn't find any wrinkle in the tubes or fork, so I figured I'd managed to get off with just a contusion on my shin and an embarrassing moment. Tattooed Barbie thought it was hilarious.

Then I put a foot to the pedal to take off down the trail and the crank arm snapped clean off. I guess given the injury to my leg, probably the crank arm took the impact. Ever try to ride a bicycle with one pedal? It's pretty ugly even if you don't have a child's doll taunting you. I'm mostly grateful that I was five miles away from my car instead of 40. And that a crank is way, way cheaper than a frame. I learned that one the hard way.

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