I spent last week riding a bicycle across the wonderful Sunflower State as part of Bicycling Across Kansas. Now, many people have stopped me on the street, in stores and just about everywhere else and asked me to describe that experience. I say it was both excruciating and exhilarating.
Tough to put into words. A ride like this is as much mental and spiritual as it is physical.
But, let’s start with a few numbers:
• 900 cyclists
• 100-plus supporting volunteers
• A caravan of support vehicles
• Nearly 600 miles
• Five states
• Eight days
Logistically, it is a massive undertaking and and requires scores of dedicated individuals.
Imagine a swarm of ravenous locusts (albeit a friendly and appreciative swarm of locusts, but a swarm none the less), leap-frogging from small town to small town from border to border. Picture this swarm devouring every pulled-pork sandwich, hamburger, veggie burger, home-made baked item and breakfast burrito in its path.
This invasion drained water towers (an exaggeration) and kegs of beer (not an exaggeration).
The average age of the cyclists was 54. I am 50.
The oldest rider was 89. His kids took his car keys away when he was 80 and started cycling. Now he spends his time going from ride to ride.
The youngest rider was six. He rode with his parents on a tandem bike, specially equipped with wooden blocks on the rear pedals so he could reach them.
There was even a guy who pulled his two dogs across the state in a bike cart.
Riders came from all four corners of Kansas and around the country. There were also riders from Ireland, Australia and Canada.
This marked the 40th anniversary of BAK. Born around a campfire by a bunch of friends and cycling enthusiasts in 1974, it started in 1975 as a test route for the cross-county American Bicentennial bike ride the following year.
However, it took on a life of its own and grew, starting with a handful of riders to a few dozen to hundreds. There was even a spell when there were multiple routes.
The route this year of 555 miles was the longest ever. It ran diagonally from Elkart (a stone’s throw from Colorado and literally on the Oklahoma border) in the southwest corner to White Cloud (about two miles from Nebraska and literally on the Missouri River) in the northeast corner. The official end was in Highland.
My bike tires touched Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas (a lot, obviously) and Nebraska, as well as being dipped in the might Missouri. Pretty cool.
We spent the night in Elkart, Satanta, Spearville, Ellinwood, Salina, Wamego, Oskaloosa and Hiawatha. Daily rides ranged from 35 to 88 miles (that was the Salina to Wamego leg so many of us went ahead and rode 12 more miles for a century, or 100 miles).
But, we passed through and stopped in countless towns in between. And, that is the purpose of BAK – get off the Interstate and take the winding back roads that connect these fascinating little, yet resilient, communities.
You talk to locals, hear their stories and learn about the real Kansas.
This is more or less the BAK mission statement: “Biking Across Kansas promotes health and wellness through bicycling, the history and beauty of the Kansas landscape, and the warm hospitality of the Kansas towns and people.”
I mean seriously, these towns opened their arms and hearts to us. We sometimes doubled the population of a stop-over community, but the residents went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
There were concerts, displays and food vendors planned to entertain and feed us.
One of the mayors made an interesting comment. He said just as BAK challenges the riders to stretch their physical limits, hosting BAK challenges a community to stretch its limits.
That about sums it up.
The mere statistics, don’t tell the story.
We all share tales of aching muscles, sore nether regions, crisp tan lines formed where spandex ended and bare skin began, and stories of the infamous monsoon-drenched ride to Ellinwood in the rain, wind and, I am convinced, hail. There were seemingly endless hills (Kansas is not flat, if you think so, ride across it on a bike) and brutal headwinds (we all know about Kansas and the wind) that kept the speeds down in the single digits.
Of course, there were also hard gym floors, flat tires, slipped chains and burning lungs. You ride 80 miles, shower, eat, crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep some, get up, slip on sweaty, smelly bike gear, eat, click in and ride another 80 miles.
We did eat well along the way, from the SAG stops en route to the breakfasts and evening meals. I am now convinced that everything tastes good with Nutella and/or peanut butter. Despite my efforts to the contrary, however, I lost four or five pounds.
When we arrived in a community, we stretched out into a tent city and crowded gym floor like a rolling spring break. Spandex and towels were draped to dry just about everywhere. Bikes, hundreds of bikes, leaned on every available outdoor surface (we never had to lock them).
But, there are even more tales of the amazing scenery and vivid blue skies that unrolled before our front wheels, tail winds that pushed us down hills at nearly 40 miles per hour, the incredible Kansans with incredible stories of their own we met along the way, cool little eateries and shops, and the camaraderie that only comes from being around 900 like-minded folks.
Home-made cobbler outside Claflin, a much needed mocha at a coffee shop in Abilene, church group fundraisers, a beer at 10 a.m. in Effingham and the world’s largest baseball (the steel top off of an old water tower) in Muscotah, birthplace of turn-of-the-century baseball legend and hall of famer Joe Tinker.
Every day, we came in with a back jersey pocket stuffed with granola bars, protein goo, bananas and more memories.
This marked my first BAK and it was indeed life changing. I will be back again.
So, as the riders would say to each other as they departed each morning “see you down the road.”
Dale Hogg is the managing editor of the Great Bend Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.