By John Lee Ellis
On a summery, moonless night, fourteen Last Chance riders headed out from Boulder for an adventure on the vast plains. They came from far and wide—three-quarters of riders are non-local—from Virginia, Eastern Kansas, Texas, Florida, California, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan (the terrain closest in character to the Last Chance's).
Weather was pretty much par for the course: balmy breezes off the Rockies wafting the riders out, then stiff crosswinds on the plains of Colorado and Kansas. Arid, sunny conditions during the day; thunderstorms, tumbleweeds, large hail, and a tornado threat in the evening. Highs in the 90's under cloudless skies; lows dropping into the 30's the final night in Colorado.
As in years past, riders praised the smooth, quiet roads; the friendly drivers and local residents. This helps to balance out the challenging nature of the event— the winds, the storm possibilities, and the treeless expanse.
The course starts at the edge of the Rocky Mountains but soon reaches the prairie landscape of rolling hills and few trees. From Byers to Last Chance, CO riders face a series of rollers: from the top of each, one can see twenty miles of them marching to the horizon like large ocean swells on the sea of prairie. There is a net 400 ft. elevation loss to Last Chance, but accumulated climbing of 2,000 ft. on the way back, which just adds to the fun for tired legs.
Along about Last Chance, the downslope tailwinds shifted in a flash over to stiff NE winds. By St. Francis, KS, temps were in the low 90's. As riders transited Bird City, KS the first evening, they faced a looming thunderhead to the east, orange in the sunset. Tuesday, the headwinds were no more than a steady presence … as they diminished and nearly died (of course!) just as riders reached the turnaround point in Phillipsburg, KS.
The hazy, cloudless afternoon skies belied a storm front bearing down from Colorado—bringing dust, skittering tumbleweeds, and warnings of baseball-sized hail. The main violence missed the course, but a second wave did succeed in dousing more than one randonneur.
Tuesday night's storm was in advance of a cold front. So riders who had faced a stiff NE and SE headwind going out, were now faced with an even stiffer NW headwind on the return, at least for a while. More than one rider who had left raingear and warm clothing behind at the Atwood bagdrop got wet and then cold. Todd Kalchbrenner found shelter in an open school bus. Mark Metcalfe holed up for a few hours with a rancher family. He had brought along Albertson supermarket grocery bags, and now used them to warm his legs, and the right (north-facing) side of his face from the cold wind.
By Wednesday night, temperatures in Colorado dropped into the 30's. Those farthest up the course were riding through those temps. John and Nancy Guth pulled into a 24-hour truckstop (judiciously included on the official route) and bought garbage bags. The clerk helped them cut them up and don them as arm and leg warmers.
The home-stretch checkpoint—a service station and store in Kersey—lured more than one rider to stay longer, with the fragrance of homemade burritos.
This year saw our first tandem—Mike and Nancy Myers from Kansas. Touted as a tandem-friendly course, Mike and Nancy agree … partially, but say that the tandem, with its larger surface area, put up quite a fight in the strong crosswinds. In fact as Tuesday night's storm blew in, Mike says he was hard-pressed to keep the tandem in lane (not just the bike lane but the right side of the road!).
Three riders finished in RAAM-qualifying time—Todd Kalchbrenner, Mark Metcalfe, and Nancy Guth. All of these riders rode unsupported. Making the qualifying limits means riding beyond the "recommended stages" and bagdrops—given the limited food and shelter on the course, they had to ride strongly and budget their time well.
The original ride concept for the Last Chance was suggested by multi- time RAAM winner Bob Fourney, who used this route as a training ride. Ever the enthusiast, he came out to Kansas to cheer the riders on.
Big thanks to Dave Buzzee, former Ohio RBA, who came all the way from Ohio to help staff the Byers bagdrop, and John Hughes, former Utah RBA, who came from north Boulder County to manage the ride start and dropbags. Above all, we owe a great deal to Charlie Henderson—Rocky Mountain Cycling Club president and RUSA member #6—for the bagdrop setup, the encyclopedia of services, his rancher ambience, and the essential motivation behind this ride!
The consensus for the Last Chance is "that there is no such thing as an easy 1200k"—certainly not this one. Riders really did find it an adventure on the prairie and a true randonneuring experience, as you are left to your own wits. Last Chance 2005 will reprise the same route, but who knows what the winds will have in store!
John Lee Ellis is RUSA's Colorado RBA and the Last Chance organizer.
1200km Randonnée Colorado "Last Chance" 13-16 September
RUSA# Orig. Time Rider 1349 CA 86:40 Berg, Bruce 894 BC 71:58 Bonner, Ken** 153 CO DNF Ellis, John Lee 1060 CO DNF Grealish, Chris 787 VA 73:28 Guth, John 933 VA 73:28 Guth, Nancy* 1003 CO 86:40 Higgins, Kerry*** 1852 TX 64:10 Kalchbrenner, Todd* 1131 CA 84:11 Knutson, Ken SK 85:27 McLeod, Grant** 1589 TX 63:41 Metcalfe, Mark* 413 KS 83:42 Myers, Mike 414 KS 83:42 Myers, Nancy 1555 FL DNF Wallace, Dan
* RAAM Qual. Time! ** 2002 Veteran! *** First 1200k!