I will not be cowed, the Adventures of the Dark Chocolate Cow
First off, this was an outlandish ride even for me - and that is saying something. It was a pre-ride of a 1000k new route in areas that, while scoped by car the previous fall, had never been ridden for brevets. The route was called Million Meters 2: The Dark Chocolate Cow.
I'd come up with the idea while simultaneously pondering a 1000k route for 2019 and watching Batman: The Dark Knight. A vision of a cow super hero on a bike who made chocolate milk instead of white had come in a flash of inspiration. I'd planned the route with Paul and Jennifer Danhaus who had both become friends over the past year.
I was riding this ride because I really wanted to see it by bike. It honestly had nothing to do with mileage or fitness or RUSA or anything else. When you love your bike, very little really phases you on it.
It has been an excessively rainy spring/summer which has thrown construction, planting and every other schedule off the rails. Pre-rides face a route in its most raw state – so many things can require on-the-fly adjustments. Notes must be taken which slow progress and closures can lead to the whole thing turning into a route-scouting adventure by bicycle while on the clock.
That said, I love pre-rides. Typically, they are audax style and I'm careful about who I pick to do them. There is a freedom from knowing that absolutely no one else is on the road with you, particularly when things go absolutely pear-shaped and adjustments have to be made on the fly. And I've tended to vastly prefer a very small riding group or solo riding.
This pre-ride wound up with only 2 riders, a bit less than I would have liked. Vickie Backman of San Luis Obispo Randonneurs was going to be touring and though she would do the 1000k pre-ride and volunteer for the event. I have massive respect for her as a rider and an organizer. So that was all good. She flew to Minneapolis and we packed everything into a Uhaul for both the pre-ride and the actual ride. I'd just rented a hotel room for 10 days since the finish of the pre-ride was only 3 days from the actual ride check in. No sense driving back and forth for 1 day.
In the last 4 years, I've found that flexibility of mind in this sport is really important – much more so than most people might think. The night before the ride, Vickie and I had a discussion about pace. Apparently, I was probably going to be faster. "Don't lose sleep over me," was her statement. I took that to heart. She's a super experienced tourer as well as a randonneuse and I had no problem with varying our paces. I figured we would catch up at the overnights.
I watched weather like a hawk and have done a lot of research into the models that are using for predicting it. The pre-ride weather was all over the place. None of the models were coming into a good alignment. Fronts might or might not show up – no consensus on where the line might be or how fast they would be moving. One thing was for sure – Day 1 (Friday) would be a VERY hot day with very high humidity.
We started out with already warm temperatures from the Downtown Green Bay Quality Inn in the wee hours of the morning. This may be my very favorite start spot - the people there are just awesome and I had a room with a kitchen. The first control on Chicken Shack Road was about 30 miles away. We would have the sunrise on our right for most of the ride. Skies were clear and though it was sticky, it was a beautiful morning.
From the git go, our pace was indeed different. The first 30 miles were very laid back for me. Ultimately, I think this might have actually been a very wise thing. Blasting out of the gate on a 1000k in the heat is not a wise thing to do. We dallied a little more at the control since Vickie hadn't had the large breakfast that I had back before the start.
The heat started increasing immediately and by 7 am it was already hot. There were a number of stops to take notes. Many counties in Wisconsin are in the process of changing road names and re-signing for emergency medical services - that means a lot of cue sheet changes. The area is largely light rollers and is very forested as it winds through the Menomonie Reservation. These are spectacular roads and the trees provided a respite from the heat of the now burning sun. I realized that gradually, I was floating ahead of Vickie, but with the notes it appeared to balance out for a while.
At Keshena (100k), the BP station of last fall was now a Shell. I took more notes as I downed food and ice cream. The clerk told me that California had been wrecked by an earthquake. That turned out to not be quite true, but I had to check anyway. The heat was burning. Vickie pulled in about 10 minutes after I did. We were meeting Paul at the staffed control at Dells of Eau Claire about 50 miles down the road. In the sun, my thermometer was soaring past 100. When I stopped, the sweat poured off of me from the humidity.
This ride, I was experimenting with retraining my brain to eat on the bike. There is a lot more multitasking than you would think doing this. Pedaling while chewing has been problematic and led to me chewing up my tongue or choking. I was following my friend Julie's recommendation to try dried apricots as easy to eat. That turned into a big success! Go brain! Thank you Julie!
I took pictures of all sorts and stopped partway under a tree to eat a small turkey wrap I had brought. I was making good time even with a more sedate pace, the heat, and a small headwind. The course imperceptibly ascends to the Dells of Eau Claire the flattens and descends for the last 100 miles. But Day 1 is LONG – 271 miles.
I finally made it to the Dells with the heat in full swing at noon. Paul was there with a huge spread and a sub which I inhaled - the man has done a lot of rider support and it really shows. I set an ice sock on my head as we chatted under the shelter. Florida-like heat was not what I was really accustomed to. But it does make my joints happy!
I waited a good bit of time for Vickie but finally remembered her words and departed a bit before 2. She wound up pulling in as I pulled out. It was on to Steven's Point!
This was a bit more open than the previous miles on the reservation. I kept my pace very steady and the increasing headwind from the south was actually somewhat of a relief. I ran out of water on this section and that was a note for riders. There was very little for 37 miles to the Info Control at St Xavier's Church. The 4 hours to Steven's Point were an exercise in balance to avoid getting heat-knackered.
I love the route through Steven's Point, but I'd surveyed it in the near winter and it looks totally different in the summer. I wound up finding out that during my scouting, I actually driven the wrong way on a one-way street. I spent a bit of time re-routing for the actually ride to find a more legal way through the town without traffic (that's a serious trick in Steven's Point – it's busy).
At the control, I had a Freal milkshake, potato chips, V8 and every hot weather fix-it possible. Sitting in the shade it was about 6 pm and I took some time to cool. At least the hottest part of the day was over. I checked the weather since I had a signal and it was all clear to Green Bay. I got to Iola around 8:30 and with 70 miles left and figured my hope of getting back to Green Bay by 2 am was definitely in the cards. I had a bit of a tail wind, though it was dying and it was a gorgeous route. No traffic roads through rollers and old well-kept farms were awesome to pass the time as sunset came on. I was feeling great!
This was the weekend after the 4thof July and fireworks festivities were still going on. I got treated to several very nice private displays and I made my way to Clintonville. I started seeing flashes on the horizon and attributed them to fireworks or heat lightning.
After an hour or so as the light died, it was obvious that it wasn't heat lightning I was seeing but a storm slowly making its way in from the northwest. I picked up the pace considerably to make it to Clintonville before it got to me. The wind started spluttering and gusting – not a good sign.
At about 10:00 pm, I was about 2 miles outside Clintonville (50 miles from Green Bay). All of the sudden, the wind just stopped and it felt like some giant deity was taking a huge breath in. The pressure dropped like a rock and the temperature plummeted. Suddenly a HUGE blast of cold wind came in and drops the size of pails started up. Sirens started screaming and suddenly hail the size of marbles and golf balls started hammering my back.I absolutely had to be off the road RIGHT NOW.
There was a single set of lights not far away. I dismounted and ran with the bike – you can't ride on hail. I stumbled through the front lawn onto the tiny porch using the constant lightning to make my way. The porch had a pile of blankets with a rather miffed looking feral cat on it who gave me a serious evil eye.
The porch was only about 3'x8' and all the lights in the house were on. There were definitely people inside and there was no way to just stand there and not knock. I was trespassing in a big way. So, I knocked to ask permission to stay on the porch or sit in the barn (if there was on).
No one answered for a few minutes and I knocked several times thinking the noise of the hail might be making it hard to distinguish the sound. The storm showed no signs of letting up and seemed to get worse.
Finally, the door cracked open and a set of eyes peered out at me.I tried to look less outlandish than I was and asked permission to stay on the porch for the storm. The door closed and then reopened to several people. "Okay, you can come in". So, I did – it wasn't like I could go anywhere else. I had a flash recall of something our senior VP, Beth, told me at our first meeting, "Always assume good intentions".
The first thing I had to notice was that everyone there was absolutely wired and hyper. They talked very quickly. I explained I was riding 600 miles on my bike. They were very impressed - I got some fist bumps. "We are pounding beers, you pound some water?". Sure, I can pound water.
6 bottles of water later, I was sloshing, and it was like they hadn't drunk a thing! They offered me some ramen and just handed me a brick of it. I very politely asked to have it with water, this seemed a bit of a new concept to them. Ramen is definitely better with water. The storm continued to rage. Radar indicated that the cell had essentially stalled on top of us. As odd as this was, it was safer than being in an electrical storm. It turned out they were a friendly sort. They even offered to be a control for others on future rides.
"Friend, we'll feel better if you sleep here a couple hours while this storm goes through – there's a couch in the basement, but I keep my porn there so we'll put you in the kids room". Great! As I ascended the stairs, I noticed holes in floorboards, insulation was peeling off walls whose drywall had long rotted away. "We're remodeling", said my host.
The room was interesting. I realized I had decisions to make. The Clintonville control closed at about 4:00 am.It was only a mile and half.It was now midnight. The storm still raged. All estimates said that it would end at 2. If I wanted to finish, I was either going to get some sleep here, or probably not at all. I texted Paul and several other friends, including Vickie who had stopped behind the storm at a motel, to let them know my situation and exactly where I was. I propped myself on a rotten mattress and did my best to "sleep" with one eye open. I did doze off a few times. Several times, the door opened and someone would look at me. There were some very odd insects in the place that ran across the phone screen when I checked the weather. Then my roaming data plan ended - no more weather and no more texting – crap.
At 3:30 it was still pouring rain, but the lightning had stopped. It was either now or never.I walked down the stairs, left them a $20 for their kindness – the party had moved to the basement. You can't judge people based on looks, it is their actions that count. These people saved my ride.For that I owe them quite a bit.
The mile and a half to Kwik Trip was super wet. At one point, I was in foot deep water that appeared out of nowhere and nearly knocked me over. I barely managed to unclip and save a fall, then sloshed my way about 30 ft until a little roller started and the water receded. Flash flooding had been warned – check!
At the Kwik Trip all I wanted was something hot to eat and to sit down and stretch. I fractured my hip about 2 months ago along with damaging my adductors. The high top chairs were not an option and the cold and wet had me achy. Unfortunately, it appears that even at 3:30 am in a storm, it's against policy to sit on the floor and stretch. They kicked me out and I pedaled off into the pouring rain. At least it saved time.
It was at least getting light when I closed in on Seymour (22 miles from Green Bay).Before me stretched a recently grated road with chunky gravel and a CLOSED sign. Well rats! Always in the worst place.I was riding a bike with 38mm tires. How bad could it be? Alright, it stunk. A steep descent with flooding on a grated road is both slow and unpleasant. And more notes! Can't have that for the riders coming in 5 days. At least the rain had decreased to a drizzle.
At Seymour, I finally had a signal and I called Paul to tell him my data plan was shot and I couldn't text. He'd spent a near sleepless night wondering if he should drive the 2 hours and pick me up where I was. "There is another big cell headed your way and will be crossing Door County". Well I guess I won't stay here for long. I grabbed quick calories and caffeine and took off as fast as I could despite being at a near bonk. The road was blissfully flat to downhill for the next 22 miles.
I pulled into Green Bay at about 8:30 am, an hour before control close.I took a quick shower, shoveled food down my throat and lamented that taking a nap here would be a mistake. I had plenty of time to get to the next control at 100k but with the weather, I needed a buffer.
I took off around 9:30 for Door County. It was fine at first and I sped along nearly as fast as I had the previous day, but within about 10 miles, I climbed up onto the ridge and the storm caught up to me again. The forecasted 20 mph headwind was waiting for me along with torrential rain. The saving grace was that no one else was on the road.
The 45 miles to Sturgeon Bay were an exercise in patience. I'd normally be cramming time in the bank but it was all I could do to make 10 mph in the headwind going generally uphill.I stopped for about 5 minutes at a gas station and drained 4 Starbucks double shot energy drinks. I also stopped at Renard's Cheese which was a crowded mess to use their free Wifi. "The sun is shining in Wausau," was Paul's update. At least better weather was coming.
The better weather arrived at Sturgeon Bay and for the rest of the day it was beautiful. I crammed my sodden raincoat into my bag so that my clothes could dry. I rolled into Egg Harbor and had an ice cream at the Chocolate Chicken. I was back up to speed. There were cars and traffic everywhere.I made copious notes and took off for Ellison Bay.
Door County is an amazing place.It's a little like Disneyland or Solvang with lawn gnomes. Fast food and gas stations are not a part of it either. Traffic was everywhere. Tourists streamed in and out of the roads. But most of the route was on quiet lanes with nothing but old cottages. I stopped and had a chat with the rangers at Peninsula State Park about the ride to make sure I didn't need to buy passes for riders and headed on - gorgeous park and a gorgeous afternoon.
The 40 odd miles to Ellison Bay were some favorites.Winding lanes and well-kept homes and farms were everywhere. I got to the Pioneer Storm with a couple of hours in the bank, all accrued in 40 miles. It was the second weekend of the 4th of July holiday and the Pioneer Store was picked clean.No bottled water at all and they were almost out of soda. More notes.
I made it to the Northport Pier and got approval to bring an info control sign there for the actual ride. Always asking permission is key to having a good relationship with the locals. The light started fading and I got to Baileys Harbor as it got dark with a bunch of time in the bank and 70 miles back to Green Bay. Knowing that resources were very limited and that I was low on sleep, I stopped at the local bar to get coffee in both water bottles. They had to brew me a pot and stopping brought on a bought of fatigue. I'd ridden about 400 miles with essentially no sleep and the temps had plummeted with the sun. It was now about 45 degrees and I had a wet raincoat.
"You look much worse than all these drunks," the bartender told me as she handed me the coffee pot. "I think you should go home with the cook". Wow, what a pickup line. Maybe it was my state of mind, maybe I was just that tired, maybe the idea of just going home with some random cook just wasn't seeming too dangerous after a night in a meth house. And bar close was in a few minutes. All those drunks were about to hit the road. "Sure, why not".
It turned out the cook owned a small motel/B&B. I spent the night in a very nice room with all the amenities that Door County could offer – clothes came off to dry.5 hours of very good sleep does wonders. I pulled out of there with dry clothes and ate the rest of the food out of my bag before departing at about 3:30 am.
The sun rose over Lake Michigan at Cave Point Park which ranks high on the MOST beautiful sights I have ever seen. Though it was cold, this may have been the most spectacular time to see this part of Door County. All the trials of weather put me into the perfect spot at the perfect time. That entire stretch from Bailey's Harbor to Sturgeon Bay at dawn will be a memory high on my list of greats. Because of my odd schedule, I got to see something that no one else on the ride ever would.
I got to Sturgeon Bay, tanked up at the Shell Station and made a beeline back to Green Bay. County Road DK was much more pleasant, and I had a bit of tailwind too. I got to Green Bay at about 9:30 with time in the bank and still refreshed. I showered, changed clothes and ate a ton of food before taking an hour-long nap. I left at noon with plenty of time, but now with a return to the heat of the first day.
The first part of the day was on the Fox River Trail. This was super fun and I made time while waving to half of Green Bay, also on the trail for a Sunday morning. Then at 10 miles, the ROAD CLOSED sign showed up. I tried pulling out my phone, but there was no cover and the glare made reading tiny lines on google next to impossible. Perhaps it wasn't really "closed"? I followed the route descending down along the Fox River – a stunning road. Then I found out that the road was not only closed, it was missing - washed away in the flooding.
I backtracked to find another route to Wrightsville. Up and down the bluff I went trying road after road that would ascend into small wealthy neighborhoods and then dead end. I spent a long time milling around and finally found streets to Wrightsville. My estimation was that I did about 20 bonus miles. But it was worth it, the real ride would have a better way to go.
There was a small tailwind and it did absolutely nothing but bake me as I made my way to High Cliff State Park. At the ranger station, I filled water and sat in the air conditioning chatting with the rangers about my info control sign for the next week. I wanted to be topped off and comfortable – the next 46 miles to Two Rivers were devoid of services.
I stopped on top of the big climb out of the park to see the Redbird statue. There is a stunning view of Lake Winnebago up there. What I saw on the sunny, hot day was …. nothing. It was a hazy beige cloud instead. Canadian forest fires were pushing smoke over the entire area, the new warm front had caused an inversion sealing the smoke close to the ground. I immediately used my inhaler. This means danger for people with asthma.
I found out the next week that the 46 miles are really very pretty. But this day, it looked like a hazy industrial pit. Smoke was everywhere. Mud was all over the roads. Large factory dairy farms replaced the charming family farms of the previous day. It was oppressively hot and the wind shifted to the southeast giving me a stiff headwind which was at least refreshing. I also realized I forgot my phone charging cable. I'd have to be very careful.
I was super happy to pull into northern Manitowoc and hit the Mariners Trail.It brings back memories of the Mac & Cheese 1200k. I rolled into Two Rivers for dinner and hit McDonalds. Serious calories there – and a convenient chart for picking the highest possible ones too. Two Rivers is the birthplace of the chocolate sundae. Quick change for the real ride, we would have sundaes for the finish!
I wisely stopped at the Kwik Trip to buy a ridiculously expensive phone charging cable and plugged in my dying phone. I love the trip up the coast and it was as nice as ever. This time, I had a stop to make at the Nuclear Power Plant. Previously, I'd been able to get permission to use their private road and avoid US 42 but they had not responded to emails and calls this time. I did a few bonus miles to go and talk to them directly (they are always there). Bummer, change in policy. That was not going to fly. However, they did give me permission to ride it that night since I'd blown an hour finding and taking time to talk to them. Very sad, that road is only two miles long, is super pretty and avoids a horrible stretch of 42.
Temps dropped like crazy after I left the plant at dusk. The fog rolled in off Lake Michigan and I was freezing once more – even with extra clothes. I kept myself awake in pea soup fog by attempting to sing the minimalist German hit "Da Da Da Da" by Trio. Turns out German minimalist rock from the 80s is not good for this purpose.
I finally got to Algoma and the last control at about 11:00 pm both sleepy and kind of weird in the head (either from cold and fog, from signing German minimalist rock, or from almost 600 miles of solo pedaling). I sent a text with my picture to my friend Lisa in San Diego. I figured with the time change, she'd at least be awake.
"You look like crap", was the response. Why is it that everyone except meth heads think I look like crap? Besides, I work hard to look this crappy. But it made me smile nonetheless - perhaps it's a randonneuring badge of honor to look like crap. I had some gas station hot chocolate with a bunch of extra sugar and some V8 to cool it off. Lack of taste makes for better efficiency at controls. The JP Express was hopping since it was the only 24 hour thing in town. The clerk kindly let me sit on the floor to stretch and a truck driver offered me a lift to Dyckesville. I had a chuckle and declined, as apropos as it might be.
With 36 miles left in the cold, I added a few plastic bags under my shorts and jacket and a wool hat. There is quite a bit of climbing and I left at midnight on the dot expecting a long haul. I took my phone and flipped it upside down in my front bag to point the speaker upwards and turned on my favorite playlist (which does not have any German minimalist rock).
As I got a couple of miles from the coast, it warmed up and got much dryer. I remembered that these same roads had been on the Mac & Cheese pre-ride which ranks high on my list of stellar rides. I imagined my friends Jenn, Julie and Lisa there with me again and suddenly after all those days of being alone, I wasn't anymore. Suddenly I had a ton of energy. I charged up hills – I was unstoppable. This was a far more pleasant and motivating hallucination that the previous dodo bird I'd seen on the SART back on my spring 600k! The industrial dairies were lit like day and the terrain was surreal. Cows mooed – I mooed. I was like Charlize Theron in that Mad Max movie – with cows.
I got to the top and enjoyed the 10-mile descent to Green Bay. Not a car in sight for all 36 miles. I landed my foot in the Quality Inn for the 3rd and final time precisely 71 hours from when I'd started.
Taped to the hotel room door was a note from Vickie, who had valiantly tried to finish but stopped for safety after riding Door County all through the night.
"You go girl! Welcome back to reality"
How right she was.
I am the Dark Chocolate Cow!