Cyclists are robust, hearty individuals. We push the boundaries of comfort almost to the levels of suffering just to see what the open road has in store for us as we meander from point “A” to point “B.” We ride through the scorching summers, frigid winters, the dark hours of the night, rain, sleet, chockablock city traffic, howling headwinds, and never ending uphill climbs. We seek adventure, discovery, a wee departure from our daily lives, at times camaraderie and other times solitude, always welcome that little push from the tailwinds and thoroughly enjoy the speedometer crushing descents.
In the heart of December, I became reminiscent of many significant winter cycling milestones. My first day as a bicycle messenger December 21st, the winter solstice. A Christmas bicycle tour of Scotland west coast. The first frame I built, December 2006. And when the snow on the side of the road had cleared enough, I rode in 5 degrees F in the depth of a bleak Swedish winter, having to periodically stop to make sure I still had testicles as the arctic temperatures had turned them into ice cubes.
My mileage had been down for the year as I was more focused on doing an ultra-marathon trail run in September. I was really missing my bike, but with winter rolling in it was hard to get motivated to start up again. Fortunately, I was duly inspired by reading my friend Roberto’s story of riding in the Alps and by Jan Heine’s story of his “Last Big Ride of the Year” in the snowy Cascade Mountains found in the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly. Roberto emailed me that the below freezing temps hadn’t kept him from riding. I had no excuse, this is Texas after all, our winters last about 10 days, and our mild weather is conducive to year-round cycling.
I was also craving a bit of adventure. It didn’t matter that I’d completed a Super Randonneur series, rode 500 miles in a weekend, and done a hand full of ultra-marathons in the mountains. That was back in spring and summer, distant memories now. I needed one last thrill to top off 2012. With my brother studying in London, and my Dad showing that being home for the holidays weren’t of much concern as he had pushed off at Thanksgiving, Christmas looked like a better time than any other to go on a short bike tour. With good friends in Austin, it was a great destination for a bike tour and a fine place to spend the holiday.
I pieced together a route based off of a few randonneur routes. Time was limited, so it was more about covering big miles each day than a slower paced sightseeing trip. This also meant that I opted to stay in a hotel for a night on the way down, saving weight forgoing camping equipment and a rear rack. Before leaving I had also convinced myself in trying to make the return journey in under 24 hours.
I had a late start the morning of my departure, but I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere, no need to be home for dinner and no prior engagements. It was vacation, by bike. I took familiar back roads out of Fort Worth and was in Cleburne by late morning. I made it to Rio Vista by lunch, one of the last developed outposts before sparsely populated prairie, and stopped at Boney Joe’s Convenience Store-and-Subway shop, a regular check point on brevets.
The temperatures were in the mid 60’s, with a few thin clouds streaked across the otherwise sunny sky. It did not seem like the end of December. The landscape was unrelentingly flat and mundane, far from the awe inspiring, jaw-dropping scenery of the Glens and Bens of Scotland, yet I found my mind occupied by what roadside offerings were on hand.
Simple, repetitive, nearly monotonous, I was slowly being hypnotized. I did not resist. Instead I relished in this transcendence. Take me away, Texas, let me escape a little. Rusty barbed-wire fences, patches of cacti, old shacks and houses standing in ruins never seemed to get dull and instead let my mind wander, imagining what this land might have been privy to over the years. My senses were alight. The evergreen of the cedar brush stood in such contrast to the soft December light and wintery decay that it appeared to glow, as if it was electric and somehow plugged in.
Occasionally these scenes would be broken up by unusual sights or visual landmarks. The narrow Whitney Dam offered great views of the lake. A bend in the road brought me up close to a camel farm. The camels looked just as puzzled to see me as I was to see them. And the camel dog (is that what you would call it?) gave me a good chase when I tried to snap a picture.
The sun was setting as I rolled into Valley Mills. I still had 30 miles to Gatesville, where I would stay the night. I turned onto a quiet ranch road and it was getting dark as I started to hit the first hills of the ride. At their crest I got a glimpse of lights and thought it was the town’s glow. But as I approached the city limits, it became obvious that these were not
from homes and business but floodlights from prison complexes lining Gatesville’s outskirts. I rolled passed these dreary, inhumane looking buildings, promising myself that I will never do anything to end up behind those walls.
It was a little after 7:30 p.m. when I found my hotel. The clerk, also a vegetarian, told me my best bet for food was an Italian restaurant a few blocks away. After 115 miles, I was both pleased to finally sit down and eat. The waitress, all country smiles, brought out a huge plate of pasta, bread and salad. All was quickly devoured. The waitress blushed and agreed when I told her I had found the best restaurant in Gatesville. Belly more than satisfied, I headed back to the hotel. I showered and then channel hopped for a little while, but it did not take long before I was sound asleep.
I had every intention of getting up really early and being out on the road by sunrise, but when the alarm clock went off, I decided I needed to get my money’s worth out of the hotel bed and slept a couple more hours. I was out the door by 8 a.m. and really excited about the day’s ride as I would now be on new roads and the hills would start in earnest. Gatesville is located near the northwestern corner of Fort Hood. As I left town, I rode down the western edge of the base, hoping to hear artillery fire or see some kind of training exercise, but there was hardly a sign it was even a base, let alone one of the largest in the country.
The undulating road pushed me to Copperas Cove, a small community nestled in a group of three or four white hills dotted with green shrubs. It looked like a small mining town you would see out in Nevada or California. As I left, I began to climb. It was a gradual climb, so nothing testing. Eventually the road flattened out and I was expecting a downhill at any minute but it never came. The horizon looked strangely convex, the air felt a little different. Eventually I realized that I must be riding on higher ground.
This was confirmed when I made it to Bertram and a sign informed me I was at 1300 feet elevation. Nothing spectacular, but not exactly sea level either. I stopped for a quick lunch, sitting on a bench at the town’s out-of-service, single platform train station. A few miles later, I finally was given the glorious descent that being at 1300 feet had promised. It brought me into the confines of the Balcones Wildlife Refuge. I did not know what to expect from the refuge, but had purposely routed myself through it, hoping that a giant green block on the map might contain some scenic vistas and low traffic levels.
With the hills of the Balcones Canyon Lands growing closer, I knew all of my wishes were about to come true when I turned onto Ranch Road 328. The smile across my face was almost as wide as the single lane road. No climbs, but plenty of twists and turns as the road cut in and out of the canyons. I was trying my best to soak in as much of the beauty as I could. As all great things, it felt fleeting. These rocks might be here forever, but I wouldn’t, I was just a casual observer, passing through. I stopped to shoot some photos, and even took a few while riding to maybe get some “action” shots.
On one occasion when I stopped and got off my bike to take a picture, the first car I had seen since turning onto 328 approached. It stopped and the driver rolled down the window. I looked over and saw an extremely pretty girl. With pig tails.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Not sharp enough to fake an injury or mechanical, and too honest, I simply pointed up at the canyon wall, holding my drug store disposable camera and responded, “Oh, I’m fine, just taking a picture.” She smiled, rolled up her window and drove away.
Is Heaven a magical place in the middle of Texas, laid out among canyons and lazy single lane roads, where the only cars that pass are driven by pretty girls only there to offer cyclists support? I think so.
I began to ride even slower. I did not want to leave this road. Eventually I got to the end of Heaven and was forced to turn left, back to the harsh realities of Life on Earth, or as the Texas Department of Transportation had christened it, Farm Road 1431. No longer in amid a wildlife refuge, all serenity vanished as the first car zoomed passed at 70 M.P.H., hand on horn. If that wasn’t enough to make their presence known, it swerved while passing me and moved onto the miniscule shoulder to exert its vehicular dominance.
I passed this off as an isolated incident. Surely a narrow, twisty, hilly Farm Road still 40 miles outside Austin would be low, low traffic. I tried to enjoy the climbs and the views, it was a fun road. But then the next car behaved as the first. And then the one after that. Then they started to come in packs of three and four. I tried to keep my cool. Not wanting to escalate the motorist vs. cyclist conflict, I kept my middle finger close to the other four, waving at the drivers amicably. If they honked I would blow them kisses. But peace and love did not achieve a damn thing.
Oh, 1431, I wish it hadn’t been like this. You could have been the one. You had everything I ever wanted in a road; the hills, the curves, the views. We could have pedaled off into the sunset, danced in the moonlight. But you were always in such a hurry. So flighty. Where were you in such a rush to go? To hang your laundry? Go to the grocery store? You were cold hearted and mean spirited. I would have given you space, but you didn’t give me any, not even a little shoulder; you had me pushed up against the guard rail. Oh well, maybe one day you will change your ways and see what could have been. But I ain’t stickin’ around. I’m heading back to 328. She might not have had the hills, but she had everything else.
This went on for a couple of hours as it was the road that would take me to the outskirts of Austin. I sighed with relief when I turned onto a quiet residential street, lit up with holiday lights. It was Christmas Eve after all. But the joy was short lived as I found myself lost and somehow on the Mopac Frontage Road. After a few frantic minutes , I eventually found a road listed in my cue sheet. Soon I was turning onto Shoal Creek Boulevard, one of Austin’s original bicycle thoroughfares, and familiar territory. “Ah, the home stretch,” I thought. From here I could easily make it to my friends’ house in South Austin. I rode along the well-marked bike lanes.
Then, for some reason, it abruptly ended and was closed off by a series of reflective pylons. I pulled out into the car lane to try and skirt around them. While doing so, the only car I had seen on Shoal Creek sped dangerously close, nearly forcing me back into the pylons.
After two hours of holding on for dear life on 1431, followed by getting lost, my inner Buddha had checked out a long time ago. My only reaction at this point was to yell, “You f*&#ing dick!!” and flip him off. I instantly regretted this outburst. As I said before, I don’t want to provoke further tensions between cars and bikes; it could have been an honest mistake on their part. I tried to calm down. I was nearly at the end of Shoal Creek, and could see that the car was stopped at the traffic light. I knew I had to say something to the driver.
As I approached the car, it became apparent that the driver wanted to chat too. His window was already rolled down. I thought it was a bit odd that he was gripping one of those giant Maglites, as I ever so calmly said to him, “Hey man, did you not see me? You nearly ran me into those pylons.”
“Oh? Did I? I’m sorry,” he responded with a snide chuckle.
“Yeah man, you gotta look out. I got lights on, I even have a reflective vest…”
He cut me off in mid sentence and said, “Look, the lights turned green, so how ’bout you head off.”
“What?” I said, still not grasping the situation.
“Look, you keep talkin’, and I’m gonna get out of this car.”
“Dude, really?” I tried to continue to speak of proper road etiquette, but the guy was obviously not wanting to listen. He began to get out of the car. After a 130 miles, I knew I wouldn’t have much strength to put up any kind of fight nor did I care to find out what a Maglite to the face could possibly feel like, especially on Christmas Eve, so I dashed off.
Thoroughly exhausted from two days on the road, I simply did not have the energy to be even slightly fazed by this last incident. I shrugged it off and was soon back to enjoying the last few miles along eerily quiet Austin streets. I crossed the river, road up Lamar, and was soon knocking on my friends’ door. I made it.
Check back soon for Part II: The Return Journey. In which Jeremy attempts to ride from Austin to Fort Worth in under 24 hours. Will his randonneuiring skills and endurance prevail or will Old Man Winter and a poorly written cue sheet have other plans?