A month or so ago, my friend Mickey decided it would be a fun training day to bike the Katy Trail from St. Charles to Hermann for lunch. Knowing I’d ridden that stretch before, he asked how far it was and I guessed around 50 miles. It’s actually 63, which was only the first sign (for this trip) that I don’t really know anything.
He created a Facebook event for the ride and invited a bunch of people. There were a few yeses and several maybes, and as the ride got closer I started to worry a little about being able to keep up with a new group of people. I mean, typically I can’t keep up with my teammates, either, but we’ve ridden enough together that I know how that’s going to go. Mentioning to Mickey that I was nervous about keeping up, he joked that they could tow me.
As it turned out, he wasn’t the only one to have that idea. My friend Dave was thinking along the same lines.
As the ride date got close enough to fall into the 10-day forecast range, I did my usual weather stalking and was pleased to see unseasonably warm temperatures. I was less excited about the increasing chances of first rain and then, as the week went on, storms. Yet another weather worry surfaced on Saturday, which was super windy. How had I forgotten to worry about the wind?! I quickly checked my weather app and was dismayed to see the prediction.
In the end, I was more nervous about this ride than probably any recreational ride I’ve done. I was worried about keeping up, about storms, and about the distance, which at ~120 miles would be my long ride for the year and 70 miles longer than anything I’ve done since June. Still, my FOMO is strong, and I knew if I backed out I’d be thinking all day about where the group was, what they were doing, and how lame I felt for sitting at home.
In the end Sunday morning saw 4 of us committed to the ride and me headed to St. Charles with plans to roll out at 7 (which, I was informed, meant “don’t show up at 7 and still need to get all your stuff together”). I met Dave V and Mickey there, and we did indeed roll out at 7.
After asking if I was serious about the towing thing (Answer: “Sort of…maybe…” I was torn between really not wanting to be dragging far behind everyone and somewhat embarrassed at the idea of needing to be towed on a flat trail) Dave had researched and put together a towing system for his bike with the understanding that it might or might not be used.
As an aside, I recently did that “Random facts about me” meme that’s been floating around Facebook lately. My #9 fact was “I’m almost always the slowest on in any group I’m in, which just tells you what awesome friends I have to still invite me along.” This ride was a textbook example of that. Not only to invite me along, but also to take the time and effort to put together something to possibly drag me along, too… I’m not sure how I got so lucky, but I’m pretty much surrounded by really great friends.
Despite the towing system attached to Dave’s bike, I was still under the illusion that I’d manage on my own. We made good time on our way from St. Charles to the Weldon Spring trailhead where we were meeting Dave B (yeah, I know…a total of three other people on this ride and two of them have the same name. That should make for interesting reading.). We were all in good spirits, hoping for good weather but feeling prepared for whatever Mother Nature brought us, and as the wind gusted in our faces we mentioned a time or seventy, “Well, at least it isn’t windy out.”
I managed to keep up ok for the first 16 miles, but by the time we met up with Dave B. I was feeling the effects of the wind (and, I’m sure, the pace) as well as the fact that my bike seat had gradually sunk to its lowest position. As much as I’d like to pretend that I only took advantage of the tow because Dave V had gone to the trouble to make it, the fact is that it was a huge help and was probably the only thing that allowed me to stay part of the group without even more waiting on their part.
Being towed helps in a few ways. First, of course, is the fact that you’re getting an assist from the tow-er. Just as important in my case were the other facets. I’m pretty chicken when it comes to drafting. Being up too close to the person ahead of me makes me nervous and I tend to hang back, which lessens the benefit of their draft. The tow also makes me work harder to keep up than I probably would under my own power; not wanting to see that rope stretch and make the lead do more work is a powerful incentive to pedal harder. Finally, being connected to another rider makes the places where I slow down way more than than my partner (crossing roads, crossing bridges, etc) very obvious.
It also requires a degree of trust. There’s plenty of room to pass between the Katy Trail gates, but it was a very different experience to come through them with the limited sight lines that come from being right behind someone else. Road crossings were a leap of faith, too, and one of those places where I clearly slowed down much more than Dave did (and because of my wide swing to get a better look at the road swung around like a slaloming waterskiier a time or two).
We made a brief stop at the 30-mile mark so the guys could use the bathroom. You can see in the picture how pretty the day was; we were congratulating ourselves a little that we hadn’t let the forecast scare us off. While we were there, Mickey adjusted my saddle, and I felt 100% better when we got rolling again!
There were a couple funny things at this stop. First was a sign on the bridge where we were stopped that instructed trail users to keep their pets on a leash, and it made me laugh because the dog leash in the picture totally looked like the bike tow. Then Dave B. told me I was better to draft behind than another friend of his because I’m big. I’m sure that, as he explained when I looked at him in dismay, he meant because I’m TALL, but I totally flashed back to a similar comment on one of my first organized rides.
Dave B opted to try being towed for a while here, so I kept up as best I could until it was my turn again. Almost as soon as we’d started up again I regretted not using the bathroom myself, so I was very glad for another stop in Marthasville (~ mile 38) until realizing that the trailhead bathrooms were closed for the winter. It’s not like I can’t go on the side of the trail, but it’s nice not to have to. Looking at the nasty cloud over us, Dave B. took the time to put his electronics in baggies.
Despite bright sun, we hadn’t been riding more than a few miles when it began to sprinkle. The rain was so light that at first I thought Dave’s camelbak valve was dripping and being blown back at me. Mickey slowed and asked, “Do you think we want to put our rain jackets on before we get all wet?”
“No,” I replied, “Mine really doesn’t breathe, so I’ll get all sweaty in it anyway. It’s warm out…the rain will feel good.”
Everybody else was OK with this logic, so we continued on without adding a layer. Within minutes, the sky darkened, the temperature dropped, and rain fell like a million icy, wet needles being blasted at us. It wasn’t just soaking us; it hurt. Pretty quickly, we were all pulled over digging out our rain jackets, and once again we had learned the lesson not to listen to me. Honestly, though, my biggest regret is that I didn’t have a waterproof camera so that I could videotape the storm. It was raining so hard…all you could do was laugh, wipe your glasses, and try to see where you were going through the deluge.
The storm only lasted 5-10 minutes before blowing over. It luckily hadn’t produced enough rain to soften the trail, so we cruised along like before. I jumped back on tow, and we spent pretty much the rest of the ride riding around and over debris left by storms and wind.
During one such stretch, Mickey was in the lead with Dave and I behind him and then Dave B. Looking past Dave’s shoulder, I noticed a tree across the trail. Expecting the guys to slow for it, I was a little surprised when they kept their pace. OK…I thought…I guess they can see more than I can and we’re going over/through it.
Actually, neither of the guys noticed the tree until the last minute. Both of them hit the brakes. Caught off guard, I didn’t stop fast enough, ran into Dave’s bike, and uttering the girliest cry ever, hit the ground.
Having dropped my chain in the crash I played the “I’m hurt, will you fix it?” card, then shook it off and got back on tow. As crashes went, it was a good one. Of course, I do have to live down the shame of having crashed on the Katy Trail, which is slightly less technical than riding down a sidewalk.
The tree was a bit of a wake-up call though. Before the ride, I’d worried about lightning and storms and rain and riding against the wind. I hadn’t considered wind knocking over trees. Dragging our bikes over downed trees wasn’t a big deal, but having one land on our heads would have been another story.
We hit one more decent rainstorm on the way to Hermann, this one leaving the trail much wetter and coating our bikes (and legs) in a layer of gray grit. The bigger story, though, was the wind. I don’t know what the speed was, but it was brutal. It was easily as bad as the wind in this year’s Dirty Kanza, if not worse. At least in Kansas the uphills gave us some shelter from the headwind. Out on the flat Katy, we were completely exposed.
I spent a large portion of this windy/rainy stretch off tow. Even with the help I was struggling to keep up against the wind and didn’t want Dave to actually be dragging me along. Riding in my granny gear and in the drops, I struggled to make headway. Seeing my pace in the single digits was beyond demoralizing, but I just pushed on, watching as the mileage crept up on my Garmin. At a couple of points a crosswind hit me so hard it almost knocked me over and I just put down a foot for a moment. One or two other times I just stopped for a moment and stretched my back. The brief breaks made fighting the wind a little easier.
Seeing the McKittrick trailhead and knowing I’d finally reached the turn for Hermann was something like reaching the promised land. Just a couple of paved miles separated us from lunch, and I was ready to have one of everything on the menu. First, though, we had to get across the bridge.
We zipped down the pavement (and by “we” I mean the guys because I “stopped on the bridge to take a picture” and then caught up with them in town where they were waiting at the intersection. That restaurant sign was a glorious (my most overused adjective) sight.
Wings A Blazin (where, funny enough, is where I ate the last time I rode my bike to Hermann) has a covered patio around back, and the waitress told us we could put our bikes back there. That’s what we did, and we ended up having the entire patio area to ourselves. As bedraggled as we were, all covered in trail grime and me with blood dried on my elbow and knee, maybe that was their plan. Separate the riff-raff! As we were wheeling our bikes in, the waitress noticed Dave’s towing system and asked if it was a leash for his dog.
It was pretty great to get to sit down and eat. I enjoyed every bite of my hamburger and ridiculously large order of onion rings, but the salad I’d ordered (because having fries and onion rings just seemed silly) didn’t do a lot for me. As hungry as I was, I think I was one of the last ones to finish eating because…um…I might have been talking a lot.
I charged my phone and hung my long-sleeved shirt in the sun to dry while we ate. I’d changed out of it way back at Weldon Spring, but it had gotten soaked during the deluge. We filled our camelbaks in the very small bathroom sink and then, somewhat reluctantly on my part, got back on our bikes for the return trip.
After re-crossing the still-windy bridge and making a quick stop for Dave to get some chain lube (he’s a stickler for bike maintenance, bless his heart), we were back on the trail and finally had the wind at our backs. It was a pretty glorious (there’s that word again) change, but unfortunately the tailwind was not pedaling my bike for me. When I caught up, Dave, who’d tied up the tow strap in anticipation of not needing to play engine for the next 60 miles, had it back out and ready for use. I have to say, despite the fact that I was the slowest, weakest one of the group, none of the guys ever made me feel bad about needing help or making them wait for me to catch up. Any eye rolling they might have done was out of my sight.
Within the first 10 miles of our return trip, Mickey got a flat. Definitely the fastest rider in our group, he sent us on ahead and would catch up once he had his tire fixed (twice, as it turned out). Knowing he could make up plenty of time on us, I grabbed onto the tow and we cruised down the Katy, talking training and Strava and whatever else you talk about when you’re on a long ride with a captive audience.
Mickey caught up with us before mile 90. I think maybe I’d gotten off the tow while we were riding along waiting for him, and maybe Dave B. got on around this point? It’s all kind of a blur. I caught up with the guys in Marthasville (~38 miles back to where we’d started now) and then we pushed on again. We had to lift our bikes over/around downed trees in several spots, trees that were definitely not down on our morning trip. The damage just reinforced how lucky we were with our timing to have missed the most dangerous parts of the storm.
I had fallen behind the guys, but then weirdly had my fastest 5 miles of the day as we pushed towards Augusta. At one point, I looked down at my Garmin and it was reading in the 20’s. My back was hurting, so I’d get down in the drops to make it feel better and then remember, oh crap…sit up tall and catch the wind!
The closer we got towards home, the darker it got. I had my headlamp in my pack but didn’t want to mess with it until I had to. I was hoping to catch up with the guys again before full dark, if only because then they wouldn’t be putting further distance on me while I messed with my headlamp. Looking at the very pretty sunset (and thinking that I’d seen the sunrise on my way there), I thought how surprisingly dark it was for around 5. I know the days are getting shorter, but wow.
And then I realized it. Yes, I was still wearing my sunglasses. Taking them off bought me almost 30 minutes more daylight, and by the time I caught up with the guys where they were waiting after Klondike Park, it was definitely time for the headlamp. Everybody had way better lights than I did, so with Mickey ahead of me and the Daves to my left it was almost like driving with headlights. They easily could have dropped me at this point but instead stuck near me, which was really nice, especially because the trail was absolutely littered with debris. Sticks and branches were all over, some of them good-sized, and the biggest fallen tree yet blocked the trail near Matson Park.
I really wanted to finish the whole ride, and I also really wanted to be off my bike. I’d been quietly considering asking Dave B., who was parked 16 miles closer than I was, if I could have a ride back to my car. Not wanting to wimp out or put him out, though, I didn’t say anything and decided I’d see how I felt at the trailhead. When he offered me a ride, though, it didn’t take much thinking on it to make my decision.
I’d like to say that I took the ride so that Mickey and Dave could get back sooner, knowing they could ride far faster without me holding them back, and that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was sore and tired and really didn’t want to ride that last 16 miles. That’s not particularly mentally tough, which is annoying. You’d think I’m humbled so often on the bike that what I can’t do wouldn’t surprise me, but I must have amnesia, because I keep getting re-humbled. 🙂
All in all, it was a great day. In retrospect, probably not the smartest decision to go, but it’s a fine line between epic and stupid, and you miss out on a lot of cool stuff if you worry too much about where the line is. I’m happy with the shared memory of dragging on jackets in the pouring rain and war stories of 35 mph headwinds. Shoot, I even came home with some battle scars. 🙂