We are in The Coffee House in Lincoln Nebraska in our kit. It’s 6:30am and still dark outside. It’s also just begun to rain, harder. We rest over mediocre coffee and bagels, which we cherish because mediocre or not, this is that last quiet predawn moment before the storm. Quietly and cheerily we talk with our co-hosts Kevin Wilkins and Matt Wills, Skip (our Michigan host), and with Nate, co-owner of Monkey Wrench Cycles, and Rapha Continental riders, Aaron, Tony and Piers, generally avoiding any mention of the 14 hour, 155 mile unpaved ride to Ponca we’ve scheduled to commence in less than ten minutes.
Gravel roads are a Continental predilection but not a requirement. We stress this because for over a month now our hosts (our friends) have adroitly thrown a seemingly endless myriad of seriously unpaved roads before us. Stand-outs include Mississippi Delta’s 12-mile gravel-topped levee, exposed and on display before the otherwise unchallenged and unbroken Gulf headwinds, and later that day the 23-mile river bed-like back road which wends snakily, bumpily, brokenly and rockily through a swampy forest on the northern edge of Helena, Arkansas. And of course there was North Carolina’s seven mile unpaved ascent of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Craggy Gardens, which found four of the best climbers we know nearly prostrated on the first patch of pavement at the top, proclaiming, between ragged breaths, it to be the most difficult climb yet. Maybe ever. And Rouge Roubaix, and Jay Maglia’s Lost River Barn loop and countless other rides and sections of rides. For the most part we have enjoyed every minute and mile of it. We’ve relished the hard packed dirt that goes as fast if not faster than pavement and done our best to handle with style and speed the all loose, deep and rocky sections. But with our tour nearly over and after a month of eating twice, three maybe four times as much gravel as normal, the prospect of this morning’s century-and-a-half of unimproved surfaces just seems cruel.
Nebraska is not flat. If you never leave Interstate 80, it’s flat, but between Lincoln and Ponca the state rolls, and rolls. Like waves in the middle of an ocean which from a short distance or height appears dead flat (sea level), Nebraska’s hills represent thousands of square miles of peaks, troughs and faces. On top of one of these rollers, not 15-miles into the day on an unimaginably straight hilltop road with a view of dozens of hills behind us and hundreds ahead, covered with mud and sweat and spokes deep in dirt and soft mud, with the van sliding and fishtailing nearly off the road, our continued progress would appear questionable. Morale is questionable.
But over time and after a breakfast 50-miles in, in the town of North Bend, with the sun out and everything drying and cracking through the muck, things begin to look really very good. We still encounter challenges like the distance itself and a robust and at times ceaseless headwind. And we still hit sections of momentum sucking sand and newly graded gravel. But this ride has slowly and surely gone from death march – for the time being at least – to an epic pilgrimage.
Kevin and Matt (Nate had to turn around and head to work) are gracious and inspirational hosts. They are funny and knowledgeable and exude the kind of spirit, resilience, and subtle pleasantness that the Midwest is famous for. Using every second of daylight they lead us zigging and zagging ever north through a part of the world where the distance between 15th Street and 16th Street is literally 23 miles. By late afternoon the wind sits to a lonely rustle, the overhead sun sinks to a cinematic muted evening glow and the hills keep coming though now steeper and with twists and tight turns. When it finally gets dark, like pitch black and absolute, with five miles to go before Ponca, the van drives behind the group and lights our way because nobody is not going to finish one of the best and longest rides of the tour.