By Spencer Klaassen
The alarm goes off and I quickly dress, check out of the hotel and start riding toward the capital in Des Moines, IA. The golden dome is lit up and the flags are limp as there is no wind. I soon get to a convenience store a few blocks away from the peaceful capital building and it is still bustling with the late night/early morning crowd. I get my brevet card signed and am handed a receipt from a clerk. He gives me an indifferent look, which causes me to think he must have seen about everything working this job. I am quickly on the road heading north into the night.
Riding through Des Moines at night is quick as I silently slice through the darkness with minimal automotive traffic. I eventually get a few miles up the road to Ankeny and find a construction zone but I pedal on through since it has a gravel base. Near the end of the area the gravel stops but I keep moving however it feels like my brakes are on. I shoulder my bike and walk the rest of the way. When I get under a streetlight I notice that the wheels are jammed with mud. I find a nice stick and clear out enough of the mud so that the wheels will turn again. I get quickly on the road but that is when the two hours of sleep and the darkness start making me feel quite sleepy. I am really feeling bad and lonely and wondering, "Why I am doing this ride by myself?" I try to envision better times like touring through Chile. I can still remember the clear skies as we climbed the Andes mountains that are surrounded by vineyards. This was also the place that Diane talked me into trying a brevet ride.
After a couple of testing hours of riding it starts to rain as I enter Ames, IA. I take refuge in a convenience store where I get some caffeine and good conversation. The lights of the store and the nice clerk help wake me up. When he commented on my mode of transportation and dress, I reluctantly tell him my plan to ride to St. Paul, MN. He gives me a stare of disbelief and it is soon time to hit the road before I am taken away to the local insane asylum.
I head back into the darkness and the sleepiness hits me even harder this time. The first few hours of a brevet is usually the time that the chatter from other riders keeps me going. The stories about other rides, bikes, plans, hopes and dreams keeps me awake. Without the other riders, I turn on my mp3 player. Although it has three days of music, its rechargeable batteries last only eight hours. I will need to use it only during times of despair to conserve the batteries.
Within an hour the sun is starting to come up and the music is helping me feel a little more awake. My body still feels sluggish and my mind is cloudy despite bathing the neurons with caffeine. I struggle down the road thinking of what my 6 year old son tells his sister on some rides: "You only get closer each time you pedal." This is especially wonderful advice when riding a fixed gear.
I later cross Highway 20 and stop outside the deserted Silver Dollar Saloon for a break. I drink a 20-ounce cola and finally start to feel a lot better. It is amazing what power the sun has when a rider is feeling down, but a little old school punk music never hurts either. As the spirits start to rise, I start counting my blessings: I have a nice mild tailwind; the temperatures are cool for this time of year (59°F at the start); I have the time and health to ride; and my favorite bicycle (Steady Eddy) is working well. I had wanted to ride a folding bike (Dahon Speed Pro) that was recently converted to a fixed gear to avoid paying extra fees at the airport. Despite all the extra work that Tim, at Ride Bicycle Shop, did to build the rear wheel, I couldn't get the brakes ready and the gearing was not quite right. I just didn't feel comfortable taking out a bike that I have not road tested on at least a century ride.
I get back on the road and pass through a group of charity riders near Belmond, IA. I am amazed to see all of the gears on the mountain and road bikes who are cruising down the road. The biggest hill in many miles is an overpass. The amount of gear options in this flat area really strikes me as very peculiar.
I pull into Forest City, IA around lunch time and find an al-you-can- eat pizza special. As luck would have it, I can't eat much pizza and soon felt very sleepy. I spy a cemetery across the road in which I am able to take a nice short peaceful nap. I wake up very refreshed and energized. Thanks for the tip, Joe Kurmaskie (Metal Cowboy)! I packed away the mp3 player and headout into the cool day. Wearing a wool jersey was a good call this morning because it was still only 69°F.
Later I notice the terrain has changed to rolling hills. I soon make it to Howard, MN. Besides having some trouble with the seat stem slipping with the combination of the saddlebag and my weight, I notice I am getting a painful saddle sore where the seam on the chamois is tearing into my right buttock. The new bib shorts and my bottom are not agreeing with each other and I have a feeling that things are beginning to get interesting. I am now forced to stop at 10-mile intervals to take the pressure off of my sore behind. This is teaching me to never go out on a long ride without road testing all my gear. I will now wear my trusty 15-year-old bib shorts until they fall apart, but until the next ride, I will have to accept the pain and learn yet another lesson.
The mind works to begin to think of things other than my pain and increasing fatigue. I think about Benjamin Hoff's wonderful books on Taoism using the characters in Winnie the Pooh. I think about how cycling has helped me break down some of my difficulties. I don't have nearly as much loneliness knowing my friend and spiritual advisor, Joe, and other biking friends. I don't feel as much personal weakness when I can ride a long brevet. I don't have spiritual emptiness because long distance cycling helps reunite me with the natural world. I don't have feelings that the world is such a dangerous place because I am forced to interact with people and things in my path. All this helps me to keep moving down the road when I notice the sun going down, the increase in trees, and the rolling wooded hills outside St. Paul. I again count my blessings because I am able to get out of the saddle to climb since this gives my backside some relief.
I enter St. Paul and make my way to the capital building in the early evening. I cross a river and make my way through downtown. I am really enjoying the traffic and the people because a lot of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota is sparsely populated. Although my body may be tired and hurting, my spirit rises when I see the capital building of Minnesota lit up in the darkness of early evening. What a beautiful sight and a wonderful climax to the day's adventure. I dismount and ask people if there are any businesses open. Unfortunately, nothing except bars are now open. Although a cool Belgian beer would taste great, I might never make it to my morning flight. I finally find an ATM about 30 minutes later and get the final date and time stamp for the brevet. I choose and play "Sunday Morning Coming Down" by Johnny Cash on the mp3 player. I feel it was important as a tribute to Gary and other friends in Team DieHard who used this as their theme for RAGBRAI. My eyes tear up as I ponder what life would be like if Gary had not been steadfast in encouraging me to get back into cycling.
Now that I have a bunch of time to kill until my flight leaves at 7:30 the next morning, I walk around and find a hotel and I am soon inside sound asleep. Before I know it, it is morning and I repack my saddlebag and am off to the airport. As I cruise the bike paths and roads to the airport, I begin to think of the notable things about the free-route permanent brevet. I loved the challenge of doing this without support and working out the logistics of the route and getting back home. I would have rather ridden back to Des Moines and then to my home in St. Joseph on my bike but I had already used all my vacation for the year with other rides. The very best feeling was seeing both capitals in a single day and traveling the miles under my own power.
While waiting in line to check in at the airport, a young woman commented on my bike. We talked and I tried to explain what I had ridden. She commented on my pinkish Eddy Merckx fixed gear and told me that she felt someone who rode so much would do so on a 27 gear "super bike." She seemed to struggle to understand why I would strip an old 1985 bike down to a minimum of parts and ride it all over the Midwest. As I tried to explain to her why I do it this way, I began to understand myself a little more. I feel it really doesn't matter a whole lot about the bike as long as it gets you down the road. I know from this and other trips that a "super bike" does me no good if I can't fix it on the roadside in the dark. In this complex consumer society of infinite choices, I prefer the choice of a single fixed gear.
POSTSCRIPT: While I was writing this report my son Henry came up to me to ask to go on a bike ride. He seemed a little down and he told me that he just had a lot on his mind. I can rarely turn down my kids when they want to ride and thought it would be a good time to pick up a few things at the grocery store. We were soon out the door into a cool rainy evening. When we returned he thanked me and told me that he just needed to get out of the house for a while to take his mind off of the world. I thought just how right he is. Sometimes we just need a bike as a way to get out of the house to cleanse our mind and spirit.
Spencer Klaassen, RUSA Member # 1989, is from Saint Joseph, Missouri.