It’s the end of February in the Midwest. After an unseasonably warm week of temperatures into the seventies it seems Mother Nature has settled back to reality with a more typical forecast for the upcoming weekend. Highs will be in the mid forties and lows in the mid twenties. Winds will be up to thirty miles an hour and precipitation should come in the form of rain, sleet and snow. What could possibly be better than going out and riding bicycles three hundred miles in this climate? Nothing specific comes to mind.
Mike and I have been training for a 5100 mile self supported race across the United States. Self supported basically means we carry everything on our bikes. We will sleep outside as much as possible. We will be responsible for maintaining our bikes during our adventure. With this in mind we know the more practice we have, the more prepared we will be for the obstacles we’ll face on our journey.
It’s seven p.m. on Friday night. It’s raining and there is a slight chill in the air. I meet Mike down at Plan for Adventure in downtown Moline. The parking lots are packed. It’s everyone’s weekend and good times and libations are about to ensue. Not for Mike and I though. We have a different idea of what good times are. We hustle over to Jimmy John’s to stock up on sandwiches. “Hell yeah” says Mike, “This is like 4000 calories of food”. Six months ago this would have meant nothing to me. Now it means everything from energy and warmth to possibly survival. I’ve loaded my bag with all sorts of goodies. What you ask? Let me tell you. I have packed 12 sticks of string cheese, 8 homemade energy bars, 4 pre thawed out burritos, 6 peeled hard boiled eggs, 1 lb. of dried apricots, chocolate covered espresso beans, one 16 oz. can of cold brewed coffee, and 3 liters of water.
We take off and make our way towards the bike path which runs along the Mississippi River. Everything has a light glowing effect from the street lamps and the constant drizzle of rain. I find it to be quite calming. “How’s your brake?” Mike asks. He asks this because I only have a front brake working due to an error on my part. He and I actually finished putting my bike back together a few hours before our departure. “I’m not too worried about it. The first thing I did was go down the biggest hill I could find to make sure it would stop me.” I say. We pedal on making small chat along the way. We continue on down the bike path and the weather is still agreeable. We stop a few times for water and food. Mmm mmm, one burrito down, three to go.
After about an hour and a half of riding we come to the Hennepin Canal bike path. This means we won’t have to deal with traffic for a long while. I’ve never been on this bike path before and I’m somewhat excited. I notice my light is already showing red for the battery status. Not good but I brought a back up headlamp just in case. Mike has his K-lite running off of his dynamo hub on his front rim. It’s about as bright as a car. He takes a slight lead for most of the way which is helpful for me. It’s getting colder but I don’t know it yet because we are pedaling at a constant pace. The path has a few obstacles for us including fallen branches, pot holes, and sides of the path that suddenly disappear into the canal.
I notice that I’m starting to bounce on my seat. I get in front of Mike so he can look at my tire. I have a flat. No problem. I get the repair kit out of my dry bag and flip my bike over. I manage to get the flat tube out and replace it with a new one. I grab my pump out of my frame bag and a few other things fall out with it. I’m trying to work the tire back on to the rim and I’m having some trouble. I ask Mike for advice and he shows me the proper way to do it. That was easy enough. I start pumping away and feeling good. Problem solved. I flip my bike over and after remounting the wheel we are off. It’s about 10:30 at this point.
I start thinking maybe I didn’t do all of that correctly. “Hey Mike, should I flip my bike over like that? Probably not, huh, I have a lot stuff mounted on my handle bars.” I learned that I shouldn’t. I also learned to get all my tools our first so when I start on the repair I can stay focused on the task. Mike asks if I found any causes for the leak with tire. I told him swept it with my hand but I didn’t find anything. I then learned that you should immediately trace the leak back to the tire so you know precisely which area to check instead of vaguely checking the whole tire. But we’re back on our bikes and everything is better when you’re on your bike.
It’s just past midnight and we are both starting to yawn. We’ve both been up since 5 a.m. The wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped. It’s time to start looking for shelter. And then it starts happening again. I’m bobbing up and down on my seat. Crap, another flat. Same tire. I immediately regret not checking the tire better. We go on a ways until I can’t keep calm anymore. I tell him I have to fix my flat and I’ll catch up with him. I kept thinking I would ruin my tire and then I’d really be S.O.L. In hindsight I should have kept pumping up my tire until we found shelter from the elements. Mike goes on ahead to look for a suitable resting spot. My tires are wet, cold, and caked with sandy mud. I take my gloves off and work bare handed. It’s windy and cold and sleeting. I take a breath. I remember my meditation and I remember to be mindful. These things happen, let’s just get it fixed. My hands aren’t working very well but I manage to get the tube out. I put some air in and start to look for the leak. With the wind I can’t hear anything. Water, I need water. I put some in my hand and start to check the tube. It’s not really working. Think, think. My hands are cold and I’m somehow ten times more exhausted than I was before. But I’m a genius and I walk my tire to the canal. I feel so smart when I see the air bubbles coming up from the leak. I line it up with the tire to look for the culprit. I can’t find anything though. I flip the tube thinking I had it reversed. I can’t find anything on the other side either. All this is eating up valuable time and starting to piss me off. Breathe, just breathe. I get it patched and I take the other tube out so I can patch it as well. I come back up from the canal with the hole spotted by my finger. It’s the same location as the other one. So I line it up with the tire and still nothing. WTF? I remove the tire from the rim completely and turn it inside out. I’ll find this culprit once and for all. But it’s sleeting, my hands are cold, and I’m not thinking clearly. I’m costing myself more valuable warmth and energy. I don’t find anything so I start to mount it back on the rim. It’s resisting my every move to get it back on. Things are taking way to long. I hear Mike give the classic “Kah Kah”. He’s not too far away and it looks like he found some shelter. I “Kah” back to let him know I’m alright. But I’m not alright. I can’t get the tire to mount on the rim, not the way he just showed me anyways. My hands are too cold. I try warming them up but they have no strength. I get out the tire lever and with all my might I finally get the tire to pop on. Hell yeah, “I’m the shit” I tell myself. I start to pump it up and nothing happens. What, What, What, What? I double check everything and it’s not doing anything. It won’t hold any air. I’m done. I have to give up and tackle this problem in the morning. Its 12:30 and I’ve spent a half hour exposed to the elements. I look up and Mike is walking towards me. “You okay Indy?” he asks. I mumble a few things back to him and tell him I’ll be over shortly. I mount my flat rim on my bike and walk over to the camp spot feeling somewhat defeated. But I’ll be sleeping soon and I can fix this in the morning.
Mike picked out a great spot. We have a nice burm to block us from the wind. And considering the terrain we are not exposed very much. But we soon find out we do not have the right gear to be out in the dropping temperatures. I have my sleeping pad and summer sleeping bag inside of my paper thin bivvy sack. Everything is synched up mummy style. I’m warm for a little while. The wind is howling and I can’t get to sleep. I’m exhausted but I keep rolling around in my bivvy sack. It’s snowing and sleeting at the same time. I have my little air hole to breathe through but the elements keep finding their way onto my face. My feet are pressed near the bottom of the sack and are starting to get cold. I dose off and wake up even more cold. I check my watch 2:30. It’s only been 2 hours! It’s going to be a long night. Shortly after Mike asks me how I’m feeling. “Cold” I tell him. “Me too”, he says. “Let’s pack up and find better shelter.” I agree.
The wind is relentless. My best guess is that it is now barely above 0 degrees with the wind chill. Our bikes are covered in snow and light ice. I get up and look at my tire. I hope I get this right this time. I struggle with it. I struggle with it some more. My hands are getting cold again and the tire is freezing. I hear the glorious “ping” sound as I finally get the tire to roll onto the rim. I hold my breath as I start to pump it up. I exhale. It’s holding air. It’s a small victory for me. I look over to see how Mike is doing. His Salsa anything straps have frozen in the same shape that he left them in. That’s not going to work. His hands are super cold and he’s already layered up with his mittens. He looks at my bare hands and just shakes his head. We rearrange his gear and check to see if we left anything on the ground. We take a moment to discuss if we want to go on or turn around. We’re both fairly certain we could continue our journey, but at what expense? We didn’t pack the right gear. We decide to head back in the direction of home. Live to ride another day
We find shelter at an underpass and set up our sleeping gear. I ate burrito number 2 out of 4. It was delicious. We slept for around 4 hours. We woke up and took some pictures of our hobo camp and started off in the direction of the nearest gas station. The rest of the day was met with strong head winds and cold temperatures. We took our time as we had no hurry to be anywhere. The bike path next to the canal is really quite pretty and it reminded me of when I was hiking along the River Shannon in Ireland. We turned up in Rock Island around 2 p.m. on Saturday having ridden around 100 miles.
For both of us it was a very important 100 miles. Mike and I met on the following day to discuss what we did right, and what we did wrong. I found some serious flaws in my mechanical abilities as well as what I packed for the trip. I definitely need to limit my exposure when I’m working on flats. I also need to continue to work on my flexibility if my back is going to last during the whole race. Its experiences like these that will greatly improve our chances of completing The American Trail Race. We have a lot more over night adventures planned in the future and I hope I continue to run into problems. It’s simply the best way to learn how to handle these types of situations.