Don's Bike Across America
Astoria, Oregon to Portsmouth, New Hampshire
June 19 to August 7, 2006

Don’s Blog: July 19: Thunder Road

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What are the odds that during the course of more than a full month in traveling across the United Sates during the summertime, you would not encounter a single thunderstorm? Pretty small odds, one would think. But that is exactly what had happened in our bike trek this summer─until today, that is. And the thunderstorms we encountered today more than made up for what we had been missing!

Many in the group pay close attention to the weather, and with ready access to the Internet and cable television, it does not take long for weather reports to circulate among the group. Thus, predictions of strong thunderstorms during the ride Wednesday were known by most everyone before starting out from the town of Mankato. In addition, we faced another strong headwind right away, and to top it off a steep climb in the very first mile exiting the town. It was a challenging start to the second straight 100-mile day. Nonetheless, Ted, Steven, and I pressed on, trying to establish a decent cadence. But even that fell apart when we were detoured onto a terrible dug-up dirt and gravel road for a few miles. An hour into the ride we had barely covered 10 miles!

The skies looked threatening, but no rain was imminent. Still, it felt as if we were in a race with the weather. After getting back onto pavement, the three of us worked hard into the wind, digging in to average a steady 14 miles per hour. We reached the first sag stop at 32 miles and felt like we were finally getting somewhere. After a short visit at the sag, we were back on our bikes and soon were being pushed along by a huge tailwind. At just about the 40-mile mark however, the skies turned an ominous color; it seemed almost like nighttime. A driver warned us to get off the road immediately. Virtually out in the middle of nowhere, there was a house with a barn. We ran the front door and knocked. A man came to the door, and I explained our dilemma, asking if we could use his barn for shelter. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied, “You might smoke in there.” Smoke? I don’t think so! We begged and pleaded and he reluctantly agreed. By that time we had been joined by a few more members of our bike group and we all made a beeline for the barn. Just seconds later the skies all but exploded with lightning, thunder, and torrential rain. At least we were dry. But what would we do? The answer was not much; just sit and wait.

So we did, for more than an hour. We chatted and tried to be comfortable in the dingy, dusty barn, but really we wanted to get back on our bikes, as soon as possible. We had 60 miles left to ride, if we hoped to complete the day’s distance. A few in the group used their cell phones to call family or friends to have them check the Internet for a weather report from satellite photos. The forecast was not good; the system had overspread the entire region.

After more waiting, the rain seemed to let up. Could make a go of it? We all decided to try, and started pedaling up the road. But a heart-stopping lightning strike not far away soon had us scurrying for shelter again. This time we found more receptive hosts. A husband and wife gladly invited us into their garage. After learning of our plight, they brought out water and chairs and even displayed their collection of animals: newborn puppies and chinchillas, small furry rodents. That helped pass the time, but we were all wet, cold, and tired. The more we waited the more tired I became. The thought of starting up again on the ride seemed unappealing. But I had pedaled every inch of the way so far in the trek, more than 2,200 miles. I did not want to be picked up by the van and get sagged to the finish line. So we continued to wait. After a while the rain let up and we gave it another shot. Ted, Steven, and I pulled away from the other riders and began to crank out the miles in a light rain. Passing the halfway mark, we saw the van, all full of riders, their bikes on top, done for the day. As the van pulled into a warm McDonalds, we continued to ride.

But once again we were thwarted. The skies opened up and it was soon pouring buckets of rain again. For a third time we sought shelter, in yet another garage. I was ready to fall asleep at that point, and was extremely hungry. We all were. The novelty of it had worn off. We waited until the rain let up some, by then almost 1:30 p.m. We still had well over 40 miles left to go.

Almost immediately after starting to cycle again, I knew I was not right. My arms were tired and just doing 11 miles per hour was tough. I was truly bonking, for the first time in the tour. The sag stop was 13 miles away; I could only hope to grind it out until that point. Talking with the others helped, but each mile passed slowly. Finally, we got there. Just past the sag stop I saw a burger stand; I bypassed the sag and headed straight for it, ordering a burger and onion rings. When the order finally came it was heavenly; just what I needed. I was still wet and cold, but somewhat refueled. I had a hot coffee and after a short rest we set out on the final 30 miles. Although the rain let up after another hour, the headwinds were as strong as ever. Along with some tough climbs, it made those miles drag by.

At mile 87 however, I got a neat surprise. I had been trying to connect with my ultra running friend Danny Ripka, who lives in the Twin Cities, about an hour from Rochester. As it turns out he was driving home from Louisiana. We had planned to rendezvous at the hotel in the early afternoon, when I originally expected to finish, before the storm derailed those plans. I had been unable to reach Danny, so I figured the plans for meeting had gone by the boards. But lo and behold, there he was, driving the other way at mile 87. He had gone to the motel, and asking around and not finding me there, took a bike cue sheet and followed it backwards in his car until he found me. What a guy! I stopped and we chatted for a few minutes. It was great to see him again. He was due back in the Twin Cities so could not stay, but his visit lifted my spirits on a tough day.

We battled the wind all the way into Rochester, then for one final coup de gras, rush hour traffic through the city, to finally arrive at the motel at 5:30 p.m. some 11 hours after we had set out from Mankato. No one said this trek was going to be easy; and days such as this prove that is very true. A late arrival means a short night; it is back on the road tomorrow for another 90 miles, out of Minnesota and into Wisconsin.