Biking (Halfway) Across Kansas

Submitted by Ben on Tue, 07/10/2012 - 13:20

It's been over a month now since I joined 800 other people in Biking Across Kansas.  This was my first "supported ride," meaning that I was not carrying my own gear but only responsible for bicycling to each day's destination.  It's taken me this long to blog about the experience because, well, I didn't have a great time, and I quit halfway through, and I needed some time to put a positive spin on the experience.

This article makes reference to photos that were formerly embedded in the page. They can now be found in this album.


The BAK FAQs advised me to be prepared to ride up to 75 miles in a day before the ride began.  I decided I would start training at 10 miles and increase my mileage by 10% per day (a doubling time of 7 days).  I was able to keep this up -- with the welcome company of my friend Brian -- until we got to about 40 miles per day.  Above that, it was difficult to plan rides because there aren't a lot of destinations between 20 and 40 miles from Emporia, and because biking more than 50 miles takes a lot of time that we didn't really have to spare.  So I was confident I could do 50 miles, but beyond that I figured I would just take it easy and slow.

The daily notes below were written in the evenings, so "today" and "tomorrow" are relative to the days in question.

View BAK 2012 Route in a larger map

Friday, June 8

I caught a ride to the Colorado border with our neighbors James and Angie Davis and their toddler Ellie.  We got on the road around 11:30 and arrived in Sharon Springs about 6 hours later.  After checking in at the school and staking out sleeping spots on the gym floor, we drove to the border 17 miles west of Sharon Springs (photo below), and James and I biked back to town while Angie and Ellie detoured to Mount Sunflower, the official highest point in Kansas.

This part of the state is godforsakenly flat, and today at least it was also unrelentingly sunny and windy.  Tomorrow we have 58 miles to ride.  I'm trying to think of the trip as a sort of cruise, only pedal powered and in Kansas.  The port towns are likely to be quaint, with poor data reception and poor quality food, but I have to remember that's not what I'm here for.  I'm officially on vacation, and if Web sites that are normally my responsibility break while I'm on vacation, that's not my responsibility because I'm on vacation!

The housing situation was described in our pre-trip emails as alternating indoor (gym floors) and outdoor (tenting).  I had assumed that meant that no gym floors would be available on tenting nights, but apparently each of us chooses which nights to sleep indoors and which to sleep outdoors.  It seems that quite a lot of the riders are here with large groups, and their tents are set up for them regimental fashion by their own private crews (photo at left), complete with inflated beds and their own gear inside waiting for them, enhancing the cruise metaphor.  Or maybe it's more like a safari.

So far James is the only rider I've really had a chance to talk with.  Maybe I'll meet some more people tomorrow.


Saturday, June 9

We rode 53 miles today and had a headwind most of the way, so that my average speed was around 16 mph.  There were a variety of options for breakfast, but everyone lined up for the biscuits and gravy, so that that ran out and I got pastries and a smoothie that tasted like salmon.  But the day's ride went so fast that I had lunch (in Winona, photo at right) at 9:30 and arrived in Oakley at 12:30.  I went swimming and had pie and read through a draft of Jessie's chapter and had an excellent chef salad and ice cream at the Neighborhood Nook and bought some Kirk's Coco Castille soap at the grocery store, which was also excellent, and checked out Buffalo Bill Days.  I'm camped in the lee of the school building (photo below), so my tent is well sheltered from the wind.

Sunday, June 10

I was expecting today to be an easy day -- only 43 miles!  And for the people who left at the break of dawn, it was, because they got a tailwind the whole way.  But those of us who left just a little later got a powerful headwind (30mph steady with 50mph gusts) for the first half of the ride, shifting to a crosswind when we turned east.  Many people gave up and got rides as far as the turn or all the way into Hoxie.  This is officially discouraged unless you're injured or have had a breakdown, but in practice it seems many people get rides in just because they're tired.

On my way out of Oakley I stopped at the prairie dog town, which had opened at 5:30 in hopes of catching a lot of us cyclists, but I was only the 7th to stop.  The owner was getting cranky watching hundreds of cyclists pass him by.  I felt bad and paid $6 to see the animals, which was really only about 15 minutes' worth of entertainment, but I talked it up to the cyclists who had congregated outside a nearby convenience store.  In hindsight, if they took my advice, it probably cost them an hour or more of hard riding into the wind!

At the high school in Hoxie, I'm camping on the football field (photo below).  The bathrooms in the stadium have not been unlocked, so it'll be a hike if I need to use a restroom in the night.  There are very nice meals being served at the 4-H building, with a free shuttle to and from.  Some old ladies in the shuttle got a good laugh out of my appearance because they said I had dust from the ride all over my face, but when I got to the bathroom mirror, it was new freckles!  Thanks, ladies.

Monday, June 11

We were told we had 63 miles from Hoxie to Logan, but including our lunch stop in Lenora stretched it to closer to 67.  We had a headwind of some 20 mph for the first stretch, and the ride took me a little over 7 hours.  My sunburn is getting really uncomfortable -- I bought some new sunblock and will apply it liberally!  The route today was much hillier than farther west, and I really used all my gears.

Three different community groups in Lenora served lunch for us in their locations.  Logan really rolled out the red carpet with a festival in the park and grant-funded free meals for riders in a variety of locations near the park.  I enjoyed a dip in the pool.  Some other riders commented that we should be reciprocating the hospitality by showing the locals our bikes, since most of them have not seen such a variety of unusual bikes.

Jessie's relatives who are astonished to hear I'm doing this ride would be surprised at the wide variety of people who do: age 5 to 85+, male and female, special ed. to post-doc, scrawny to obese, missing arms or legs.  About a quarter to a third have never done a tour this length before, but the rest are returning for their second or twenty-second time -- this is BAK's 38th year!

There are also a few ways in which the group is not diverse.  I'd say they're about 97% white and liberal, from what I can tell.  If there are any gay people here, they're keeping it quiet due to the shared shower situation, but I don't see the straights hitting on anyone either -- who has the energy?  At 10 years old and $700 off the rack, my bike is one of the oldest and least expensive ones here, as well as one of the highest-mileage.

And while there's a great variety of bike designs to be seen (various types of recumbent bikes and trikes, a folder, a hand-cranked trike for the paraplegic), I have some of the widest tires here, and although some of the recumbents have rear suspension, very few bikes of any type have a front shock.  I may have the only bike here that's gone 50 miles on gravel, whether at the DK-Lite or cumulatively.  And when I bring up the Dirty Kanza, people here who would think nothing of riding a "century" on pavement (and go out of their way to complete centuries multiple times during the week while the rest of us are going 60+ miles) think those DK riders are crazy!

Tuesday, June 12

This is the day that broke me.  I could handle another day of hills; I could handle another day of headwind; I could handle another day of relentless sun; I could handle another day of mind-numbing boredom, but not all of the above.  Also my bike started making a troubling squeaking noise which the shop that follows our caravan was unable to diagnose.  So even if tomorrow had prospects of being any of flat, calm, cloudy or interesting -- which alas it doesn't -- I would still face the likelihood of my bike breaking down on the side of the road or at the very least getting embarrassingly squeaky.

Part of the problem was the lunch stop.  People who left early (by 6) this morning and didn't stop for "lunch" before 9:00 got into Downs around noon.  But those of us who stopped for lunch between 9 and 11 found an incredibly long, slow line.  There were about four ladies serving lunch, and they were taking orders at a counter instead of serving in a line, and they were very disorganized and in no hurry.  I was in line for an hour before I got my food.  By the time I left, the wind had shifted against us so that it took me another 5 hours to get to Downs!

So I've made plans to return to Emporia with Angie and her four daughters, who came up today to support James and visit Angie's parents.  They won't be headed home until tomorrow evening, so I'll have a day to kill in Downs, or I may substitute for a SAG driver and meet up with Angie in Clyde.

There were two highlights today.  One was that I saw a dust devil form on the left side of the road, and as I watched it it flew right over me!  The buffeting wind was exhilerating.  The other was that I had dinner with a grandfather and grandson who have been doing rides like this together for three years, starting when the boy was 10.  They had never done any unsupported touring, though, so they asked me lots of questions and I gave them my card so they can follow up and possibly read my book.  They're both really neat people and are lucky to have each other!

The nightly meeting was downright demoralizing.  After a day like today we really needed a pep talk, but the organizers couldn't seem to find anything to tell us besides that tomorrow will be worse in every way, so we should "be ready."  Gee, thanks.

Wednesday, June 13

If I hadn't already decided to go home today, waking up with a migraine would have done the trick.  I can't seem to get my brain working.  I had a leisurely breakfast, put my bags on the truck to Clyde, and helped clean up the school before heading into town to kill time.  I spent most of the day in a park gazebo, since it had an outlet and wi-fi from somewhere.  I had lunch at the one restaurant in town and chatted with the waitress, in her early 20s and pregnant with her second child, who along with the night waitress had worked all day yesterday serving the hundreds of cyclists and their support crews.  But it was all right, she said, because "we each got $100 in tips!"

Angie and the girls picked me up at 4 and we drove to Clyde along the BAK route.  The first half of the way, I thought I might have made a mistake, since there were lots of neat little towns, notably Cawker City, home of the world's largest ball of twine (photo at right).  But the second half of the ride would have been just miserable.  We got to Clyde just after James, and he confirmed that the second half was pretty miserable.  He had trouble choking down his dinner, even after a shower.  We said goodbye to him at 7 and headed home by way of Manhattan.

Looking back

For the rest of the week, I followed along on Facebook as James and others posted photos and updates from the road, and I pondered why I had felt I couldn't complete the ride when so many other people -- evidently in worse shape than I -- were able to complete it.  The best answer I've come up with is that it just wasn't my kind of ride.  Since I wasn't doing it for a cause, and I had nothing to prove to myself or others, my only reasons for doing the ride were to see western Kansas (a part of the country I had not previously seen) and to have fun.  Once I had seen what there was to see and I wasn't having fun anymore, I had no reason to continue.  My strong sense of frugality didn't object because although I had pre-paid for the other half of the trip, that didn't include all the fundraiser meals and snacks we were expected to contribute to, which effectively double the price of the trip.

Biking Across Kansas may be for you if:

  • You just want to ride your bicycle all day long without the distraction of having to choose where to go, sleep, or eat.
  • You are into pain and/or achieving arbitrary goals.
  • You have a group of friends or family who will ride with you and keep you company, or you are so extraverted that you can make friends in the least interactive circumstances.
  • Your response to inclement weather is to battle your way through it instead of waiting for it to pass, or you are willing to get up at 4:30 to catch a favorable wind.
  • You have family, friends, or a paid service to pick you up and carry you the rest of the day's ride when you get tired, or you don't mind abusing the official SAG vehicles after being repeatedly told they are only for emergencies.
  • You just can't get enough of the Kansas landscape.  The wheat fields and the cornfields, they call out to your soul.  The sun and the wind, they complete you.

More power to you, I say!  For myself, the appeal of bicycle touring has always been the freedom of being self-contained and self-supporting, choosing my own route and my own destinations and my own pace.  I should have known this would be a bad fit, but I gave it a good try, and now I know.  Happy trails to you, whatever your style of touring!