Pedal mettle

Contemplating the afterlife during the Flinthills Death Ride

Continental Airlines (7/30/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Why do I keep putting myself in these situations? My best answer is that my rationale falls into the same category as the old joke about the guy banging his head on the wall. "'Cause it feels so good when I stop!" This abbreviated version of my race account appeared in Continental Airlines.'

Feature article:

So this is what it's like inside a skillet on full burn. After pushing the pedals of my mountain bike for almost five hours under a withering sun in eastern Kansas, I'm cooked. And cold. This is not good. The mercury has reached triple digits, and I've got goose bumps and chills a sure sign of dehydration. Even more distressing is the fact that I'm still six miles from the finish line.

I knew this was going to be a very long, very uncomfortable day in the saddle. If nothing else, the Flinthills Death Ride originally dubbed the Matfield Green 100 passes the "truth in advertising" test. Beforehand, organizer John Hobbs warned me that at least 60 percent of the riders wouldn't finish. "No one has ever died," he said. "Some came close, a few thought they were gonna die, but they were weenies."

The vast Kansas landscape, with its rocky soils and tall prairie grass, has a larger-than-life quality that, in the right light, is nothing short of radiant. Unless, of course, you're on a mountain bike riding a metric century roughly 70 miles, from Madison to Matfield Green and back along old gravel and dirt stagecoach roads through rugged countryside and ghost towns. Still, the words "mountain bike" and "Kansas" linked in the same phrase might seem the ultimate oxymoron. The Flinthills Death Ride quickly dispels that notion.

"We've noticed a curious tendency of those who come to this ride to underestimate it," says Hobbs, a bike shop proprietor, ride promoter and stand-up comic. "We got tired of reading how truly epic rides were only in places like California and Colorado. So we set up a ride that we knew that even under good conditions would test you, and under bad conditions would be nearly impossible."

Being a thick-headed Bostonian, I accepted the dare.

***

The most promising aspect of the Death Ride is it starts at 8 a.m. sharp, before the sun begins to bake your skin a dark shade of medium well-done. I, of course, missed the start. Before I could change into my riding gear, Hobbs sent off the 450 riders, separating me from my support vehicle. I quickly wriggled into my riding outfit and rode off in hopes of catching the stampede of rubber and Lycra.

A mile into the race, in Madison's quaint downtown, I couldn't make heads or tails of the directions. Worse, there wasn't another cyclist in sight. I was dead last and lost. Playing a hunch, I followed two pick-up trucks down a side street. Luckily, I soon caught up with the rear of the pack. I put my head down and started to hammer out a strong, steady pace, accompanied by the droning power-line buzz of countless locust.

I breathed a sigh of relief after finding a huge collection of riders at the mile 21 water stop, and smiled. The group resembled a soup kitchen in the middle of a dust bowl. Scantily clad riders, their faces and clothes covered with grime kicked up from hundreds of knobby tires, stood single file. Bikes were strewn about like broken-down farm equipment. The only difference from this scene and those captured in the sepia-toned Grapes of Wrath photographs was the lack of forlorn faces. These folks were having a grand time. With a full complement of water, I cut the line, grabbed a banana, and split. Moments later, I rode smack into what Hobbs refers to solemnly as The Wind. With an average speed of more than 14 miles an hour, and gusts of up to 35, the wind rumbling through these hardscrabble hills punished my mind and body, eroding my willpower.

After a rider surged past me, my competitive gene kicked in. I accelerated, and caught my newfound rabbit. Just in front of us, about a half-mile away, a band of turkey vultures circled lazily in the pale blue sky. "I sure hope we're not heading that way," the rabbit said flatly.

***

At the five-hour mark, I'm delusional. I pass a sign advertising Texas Longhorns, and remember Hobbs' caveat about spooking cows. They roam free on these hills, and they don't always take kindly to bike-riding strangers. Yet they're the least of my concerns. The rippled backcountry roads and the wind have taken their toll. My arms feel like blown shock absorbers. The body/bike partnership that felt like a finely tuned Formula One racing machine earlier in the day is reduced to a broken-down jalopy. Sixty miles in, my mind diverts into dangerous territory. I realize I'm humming the theme song from Barney "I love you, you love me ..." the mental equivalent of bamboo shoots under my fingernails.

I press on. My pedaling assumes a metronome quality, one leg, then the next, over and over. I'm devoid of thought. Finally, I catch a glimpse of the water tower in Madison, and I know the journey's end is close. Still, there's no flood of energy to my legs, no endorphin rush. I just keep grinding.

On wobbly legs, I round the last corner into the high school. My wife, bless her, is running toward me, camera in hand. I finish about 1:40 in the afternoon - or about 5 1/2 hours after I first spun out of Madison. I'm greeted by a race volunteer, who congratulates me on my Top 50 placing. I wrap my fatigued fingers around an appropriately named Lost Trail root beer, and slump onto the soft grass. "Life is nothing more than the pursuit of stories worth telling to children," Hobbs had told me. I can't wait to tell mine how I survived the Death Ride.

To learn more about the Flinthills Death Ride, visit www2.southwind.net/~gpbbike/death.htm, or call SEP USA at 785.331.4502.

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