There is some symbolism that I began my cycling journey over the length of Missouri’s Katy Trail during the first week of the epic Tour de France. Those great riders that dig deep to give their all during their three-week battle throughout France long have amazed me. I knew I would have to do some of the same on my four-day personal tour of 244 miles.
That I was even clicking my foot into a pedal at the western-most trailhead in Clinton, Missouri, was a shock. I had long stated that I had no interest in riding hour after hour piling up huge mileage totals the way many of my friends do regularly. I love riding a bicycle, but my cycling needs can be met in shorter, more intense rides that keep me fit for my work and the rest of my activities.
Yet, there I was riding away on Wednesday, July 9th with the goodbye kiss from my wife lingering on my lips as I offered up a prayer of hope for the journey whose inspiration came from friend, Jody Grober. For longer than I can remember, my purchases of camera gear have been through Robert’s Camera in Indianapolis where Grober handles professional sales. Laura’s and my friendship with Grober grows greater every summer during the week of the Sports Photography Workshop where Grober brings a wealth of equipment for students to use or purchase.
When all of his office hours and gourmet cooking began to catch up with him, Grober bought a bicycle. Soon, with far too few miles of training in his legs, Grober rode the width of his home state in one day in 2011 during the annual Ride Across Indiana (RAIN). While Grober completed the 162 miles, he suffered for weeks afterward, even as he began to plan a team ride that would deliver him and his other cycling photographer friends to the finish line in style. This summer was to be the year, and, shockingly, I was the first to commit.
That commitment stemmed from the fact that I needed micro-fracture knee surgery in October, which touched off back issues that often left me crumbled in the most severe pain of my life. After consulting with a variety of orthopedic surgeons, spinal specialists, chiropractors, shamans and witch doctors, I was left with a wide variety of opinions on my future. There were those who believed that with time the inflamed nerve running down my left leg would calm. Others proposed a series of anti-inflammatory epidural injections. Then, there were others who felt I was one bad lift, run or ride from being a near cripple. One went so far as to suggest I consider retiring from my photographic work filled with an array of contortions to get pictures. I know they are not always good for a back that has some degenerative issues in the fourth and fifth vertebrae, but I am not close to retiring.
I moped for a day over the grim evaluation then took the series of injections, stopped running and lifting temporarily, and climbed onto my bike and rode. Slowly things began to improve. That is when I proposed to Laura that we ride the Katy Trail together as a RAIN training ride in one of the last weeks of June. The idea was to leave a car at a trailhead, ride the distance and take an Amtrak train back to our car. She knew what this meant to me and soon agreed to the adventure.
The only problem was that others in Team Grober began to drop out for various health issues and work conflicts just as I began to improve. Even Laura came up lame with a knee that required an MRI this week and upcoming meniscus surgery. Finally, illness overcame Grober, and RAIN would not fall for another year. Funny how the oldest rider by far was the only one ready to ride. I was not going to waste my fitness. I was 63 with an aging back from all my crazy exploits. I needed to do the Katy Trail ride even if it meant doing so alone. I threw a leg over my bike in Clinton to ride off into what for me was the unknown.
Stage One: Clinton to Boonville – 74 miles, 5:40
My gracious wife drove to me to Clinton, 90 minutes southeast of Kansas City. We said our goodbyes with the promise she would pick me up in St. Charles on Saturday. While I was nervous over what I feared were far too few miles in my legs with all the work travels of the late spring, and that I am far from as fast as I would like to be on a bicycle, Laura worried about me being alone and her disappointment over not getting to ride together. Little did we know, but we would be seeing each other sooner than planned.
Happily, I settled into a good rhythm at a strong, steady pace. The sweet sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from their newly released 1974 live concerts were taking me back to younger years. Soon I was closing in on Sedalia, 35 miles into the ride, and I planned a brief stop for water and maybe a snack. That is when a very sick feeling overcame me.
A phone call to Laura only confirmed my fear. My small wallet with cash, identification, and two credit cards was still in the shorts I stripped off at the trailhead. Laughing over our stupidity, Laura immediately began to make plans to meet me in Boonville to save my journey and prove again the Lord blessed me with an angel. God’s blessing through Laura helped quell my terrible guilt eventually.
With only water bottles refilled in Sedalia, it took me a while to regain my focus even though there were more than enough energy bars, fruit squeezes and chews to get me through the day. There was time now to truly consider The Katy Trail.
The Katy Trail is the longest developed rail-to-trail in the country. Following the path of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the Trail promised to take me past some of Missouri’s most scenic sections with long portions along the Missouri River. In place of the ties and rails, the railroad path is now covered in packed dirt with a crushed ash surface. The trail is well maintained though the ash surface slows any bike rolling along the trail. Its width varies. The widest sections, where two bikes can be turned to the side to span the distance, scale down to three-quarters a bike’s width in other sections.
My first day’s surprise was how alone I was on the trail. Even though small whistle-stop towns dotted the Trail with signs of life, I saw virtually no one else using the trail throughout the first day until I closed in on Boonville. A thick tree canopy draped major portions of the trail. The foliage helped cool me and diminish the wind while the open sections afforded me sun and the diversions of crops and cattle. Sunlight dappled the road and on one stop my odometer. A box turtle received a quick lift across the path. I love turtles. I have dodged traffic roaring along interstates to save box turtles. I will stop just about anywhere to save one, so a stop along the trail was only natural.
As I passed the 50-mile mark feeling strong, the path began to creep ever so gently, but ever so steadily, up. Brett Dufur’s thorough Katy Trail Guidebook warned me the first section to Boonville would climb upward until reaching the Missouri River. By the end of the day, I was closing in on the longest ride since my triathlon days in the 1980’s. The steady uphill began to take its toll, and then my front tire went flat.
I changed the tire at Pilot Grove just 11.5 miles from the Boonville trailhead and the end of a 74 mile ride. Along the route, many towns featured large covered benches that mimic train station platforms of old along with restrooms and water. A few offered a work station with tools and a floor pump for personal repairs. With a new tube inflated, the rest of the ride became sadly slow. My quads ached and my focus was less on pedaling and more on Laura having to make another long drive. Thankfully, I arrived at the hotel ahead of Laura. Since I paid in advance, and Laura warned them of my lack of identification, I was able to get my room, shower and pull myself together. We enjoyed a great dinner at D.W.’s in a converted Boonville home, but before I knew it, Laura was gone from me again. I joked that I would see her the next night in Jefferson City. She did not smile.
Stage Two: Boonville to Jefferson City – 55 miles, 2:53
Surprisingly, the next morning I felt stronger than expected. I took my time cleaning up and eating breakfast before retracing the three miles from the hotel to the trailhead where I reset my odometer. The short trip stretched out my quads and the aged broken parts of my body. I climbed up and over the Missouri River. The “wide Missouri” would keep me company on my right for most of the trip now and the state’s rocky bluffs would flank me on the left.
The day’s ride would take me to familiar territory. I spent three days in Jefferson City in May. KU’s softball team played in the NCAA Championship’s first rounds in Columbia. Because of graduation on the Missouri campus, the three visiting teams stayed at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in the state’s capital city. During that stay, I rode portions of the Katy Trail, amping up my interest in tackling the full length.
Just 11.5 miles out of Boonville, I closed in on Rocheport, but not before riding through a spectacular stone tunnel. I purposely creeped along looking at the solid rock that must have required massive efforts to drill through for the railroad to pass. On the other side I met a couple that drove from Boonville to walk along the trail and tunnel. When I told them I was riding the full distance they told me their home was right beside the trail at a section being restored. It surprised me that I remembered their home.
From Rocheport, the river streamed along beside me for miles before it turned west, away from my southeasterly route. I was alone again. I cued up all my new favorite alternative music from artists like the Mowgli’s, Good Old War, Imagine Dragons, The Lumineers, The 1975 and others and sang along. Unfortunately, the monotony of an endlessly straight ash path covered in trees was wearing on me. I decided I needed to do intervals to keep focused. I would crank up the bike well into the upper 20’s and sprint from shaded portions of the Trail along sunlit stretches before entering the trees again. I did this as long as I could endure and ended each interval with arms extended, as though I was finishing a stage of the Tour de France.
Eventually, that morphed into seeing how far I could ride with my hands off the handlebars, back arched, arms stretched out and my head tilted back in a classic finish line pose. Summer storms littered portions of the trail with small branches and leaves and the surface was never pavement smooth. On my third attempt, I managed a stretch just short of a half mile.
Satisfied, I stopped more than I should have to take photographs as I closed in on Jefferson City. I still felt good and was riding well, but my left tricep began to ache and a pain in my crotch was now searing. This was not a saddle sore that often haunts riders. There is no delicate way to say that I rubbed raw a spot on the upper side of my scrotum. I never could decide whether this was from the chamois in my cycling bibs or from skin-on-tender skin contact. All I knew was that I was hurting. I put my head down and powered along in pain. I wanted to get to the hotel quickly.
I did stop at the North Jefferson trailhead to answer a wave of questions from a father finishing his short ride with his daughter and son. While they all seemed interested in the idea of a long ride, the 14-year-old daughter kept asking questions. I could see in her eyes an excitement that made me feel it would not be many more years before she would be tackling the ride herself. That pleased me as did the 55 miles in 3:52 for my day’s total. I rode the four miles to the night’s hotel for a little self-examination.
Amazingly, the nice Capitol Plaza Hotel, offered a great rate, the cheapest of the three hotels and by far the best. An American Legion convention was checking in as I arrived. Drenched in sweat and stinking, I looked about as out-of-place as anyone can amongst a group of Legionnaires in their pin-covered caps. Amid the throng, a young woman stood next to her kneeling massage chair. The hotel paid her to offer complimentary massages for the convention. Despite the rush, business was slow. She kindly offered me a back massage, but I needed to first strip off my gear, jump in the shower and let out a bit of a scream as the warm water found the delicate spot.
Things were not good in the hinterlands. I cleaned everything and pulled on the lone pair of boxers, walking shorts and t-shirt I squeezed into my minimal bike bag. I way over-tipped for the massage, but it felt so good even if it only worked my upper back and shoulders. Soothed, I rode first to Walgreens, then a laundromat and finally to Chipotle. I dressed the raw section and bandaged the tender skin as well as possible in such a delicate area before rolling into bed with a clean cycling kit ready for the morning.
Stage Three: Jefferson City to Hermann – 46.5 miles, 3:30
Sure I was going to awaken primed for a short but quick ride, my stomach immediately told me “not so fast.” That Chipotle burrito sounded so good and tasted so good. Rice and a tortilla for carbohydrates, beans, chicken and cheese for protein. Guacamole for vitamins and good fat and lettuce for roughage. How could I go wrong? Probably with all the hot sauce that coated the goodness. My stomach ached and breakfast did not sit well on my touchy stomach.
The humidity was rising rapidly which seemed to help sweat out my stomach bug. Sadly, my left tricep began to ache from the moment I hit the trail. Holding the handlebar was difficult in any position and kept me from settling into a good pace. This was going to be a long day. For the second day, I was fighting a head wind. In the summer, winds are rarely out of the east, but now they were picking up speed.
Grinding along, I nearly missed seeing the large crevasse left by the spring’s rain runoff that crossed the trail at the intersection with a farm road. I had just a second to save the trip. I managed to bunny-hop the entire section even with my heavy bike bag on the back. The large crack would surely have thrown me off my bike and easily could have ruined a rim. I offered up one of my many prayers of thanks.
Fortunately, the best side story of the trip lay ahead. Portions of the old railroad bridges remain along the trail. Carefully constructed wooden sections line the bridges keeping the older metal supports safely at distance. That is except for the young man I came upon early in the ride.
I saw his pickup truck and thought he was stretching for a run, then I saw him start to climb up onto the bridge. I worried for a brief second that this young man might be trying to jump from the bridge. Fortunately, I saw his hunting bow quickly. I stopped to find him taking aim at an Asian Flying Carp. Not indigenous to the Americas, these fish are now viewed as obnoxious pests that can be eliminated by any means.
Excited by passing boats, the carp that can grow easily to four feet literally fly out of the water. Boaters suffer cuts, bruises and serious injuries from the fish. Others told me of boats filled with hunters shooting the flying fish in a controlled skeet shooting exercise. When I told Laura, she refused to believe me until hundreds of pictures and stories on the internet confirmed the myth.
The young bow fisherman used polarized sunglasses to spot the carp. A barbed arrow-head and a thin rope-like line attached arrow to bow . A bow-specific reel wound the line neatly back into its container for the next shot. While the shooter missed the three fish he shot at during my time with him, I later came across him at another bridge with a carp still flopping on the wood planking.
There were numerous sites to stop and photograph along the route, and I needed them. This was not a good day on bike. The bandage I used did not last long. Fortunately, I decided to test a new product called Kryoskinz. These large bandages taped across the shoulders bore a large gel patch made up almost entirely of water. The company promised the water gel would keep me cooler for up to 12 hours. On the first day, I felt they proved to be effective. Now they were going to get a new test.
Since the Trail remained relatively empty unless I was close to a populous area, I pulled over and dropped my bibs and taped the long strip to protect the delicate area. Save for a few adjustments over the last two days of the ride, Kryoskinz did just that.
Sadly, I could find no immediate solution to the aching tricep. I limped into Hermann, the wine capital of a state booming with vineyards, to finish my only bad day on the bike in 3:30. I stopped at a convenience store to get a chocolate milk, Coke and to call Laura. A man immediately asked whether I had a room. He owned one of the many bed & breakfasts in the area. A room for a night was way out of my price range. I told him I was staying at the Hermann Hotel. He told me he was sorry.
This was a hotel straight out of the 1960’s. A key, yes a key, with a plastic triangle tag bearing the room number opened the door. The window air conditioner roared, and the shower was so small I could barely turn around. The sheet and bedspread both were paper-thin and quite old. The TV was an old tube model. Yet, after a safe spaghetti dinner and some relaxation in another laundromat where I kept stretching my tricep throughout the wash and drying cycles, I began to feel better. That night I slept soundly and better than in any other hotel.
Stage Four: Hermann to St. Charles – 66.64 miles, 4:22
The plan was to leave early Saturday since Laura continued to provide her yeoman help by driving to the St. Louis area to pick me up. Heat was to climb, along with humidity, and rain was a chance throughout the day. On other mornings, I lingered at the hotel not wanting to get to the next stop to find my night’s hotel room not ready. There were no such restrictions now.
I woke early feeling refreshed. There was a real purpose to my actions on Saturday. I was heading to the finish, and at that finish would be Laura. The eggs and pancakes at Lyndee’s, along with the friendly chatter between four early birds and the waitress, kept me entertained. They lifted their coffee cups to honor me as I left. I packed my small bag one last time and then kneeled in prayer asking the Lord to carry me one more day. I pedaled through Hermann and noticed all of the German names on the shops. It was easy to guess which team the citizenry would be cheering for in the World Cup Final.
Arriving at the trailhead, I cued up Marvin Gaye’s phenomenal Star Spangled Banner from the 1983 NBA All-Star game to set a patriotic yet soulful tone for this last day. Then I put the hammer down. There were no plans to dig the iPhone out for photographs. I wanted to see how I could ride when I focused on riding alone. I tilted the small bike computer down out of my sight. It was nearly three hours before I stopped to quickly fill my bottles, and I was well past half-way.
Since I was growing ever closer to the St. Louis area, the traffic on the trail picked up. I continued to wave to every person I passed and ask whether help was needed to anyone stopped. One lone rider heading west did need help. After offering up a tube and CO2 inflator, I found myself flatting just a few miles further down the trail. Sadly, as I worked quickly to change the tube and inflate the tire, not one person that passed asked whether I needed any help. That proved to be the perfect incentive to continue to hammer the ride, though I only waved hello to all as I caught many that could not take a moment to care. The now narrow trail grew clogged with riders, runners and walkers. Many riders approached me side-by-side and often refused to yield to the oncoming traffic.
I tried to think of all the good people I saw along the ride. It was a delight to see so many women and elderly riding bikes for fitness while enjoying the great resources the Katy Trail provides. I remembered the lone rider I came across on my second day. The young man’s touring bike overflowed with stuffed panniers front and back, and he was pedaling very, very slowly. Fifteen days out of Chicago, he told me he was bound for Oregon. Solar panels covered his rear panniers and his head tube featured USB ports which helped power his iPad while he listened to music and even tried to read books. His smile showed how happy he was to talk with another rider. As we parted, I pondered the immensity of his journey and wished him the Lord’s blessings.
There were riders happily touring with no shirts and one pretty young woman with just a bandeau for her top, all smiling and enjoying the trail in the quiet peace most of the trail offered. They always made me smile as we exchanged waves.
Little aches and pains troubled me, but my legs never balked. The pedals kept circling with no knee or back pain. I was happy to finish and did so with pride. While riding, no one ever passed me, making me feel I gave the journey my best efforts. I covered the miles in 16 hours and 25 minutes of riding time. Stunningly, I was not really sore in the days that followed.
I had to time to ponder many things during the ride. My children, my grandson, my work, my future. All received their moments of introspection.
Yet, my thoughts always came back to Laura. I missed her on the ride, but in a very special way – that goes far beyond the drives she made for me – Laura was always there with me and I with her through our love for each other. Comforting is the best way I can describe the feeling.
To do all this, I kept my Savior closest to my heart throughout the ride. I truly believe that as Paul wrote in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Certainly, I called on Him often and raised my thanks just as often. Praise be to my Savior for a ride well rode.
My journey was completed on a Specialized Crux Cyclocross bike with Shimano 105 groupset and FSA crank. I upgraded the wheels to Bontrager RXL rims with 33c Tracer Pro tires. Specialized Bar Phat was added to the handlebars along with Bontrager Buzz Kill end caps which greatly reduced the vibrations from the trail surface. A Topeak MTX BeamRack clamped to my seatpost with a MTX TrunkBag DX attached gave me 12.3 L of space for a change of clothes, toiletries, rain jacket, spare tubes and food. The bag can expand with pannier racks added, but I wanted to keep weight to a minimum.