Monday, September 7, 2015

Crushing Gravel Part 11: The Night Bison Gravel Nocturne (riding in darkness to lift a darkness)

This past week I've been in a strange place.  No, not physically, but mentally.  I've been questioning my place on earth, who I am, who others think I am, and what I want to become.  All of this thinking nonsense had put me into a strange state of being.  Too heady.  Too emotional.  Not a place to be for the final hurrah of summer.  This, after all, is supposed to be a hedonistic time.  A time to rejoice everything earthy from the bountiful harvest to the sound of cicadas.  A time to feel each drop of sweat roll down the body, gather at the end of a limb or at the tip of the nose and fall effortlessly to the ground.

Yesterday morning I woke frustrated with myself.  I wanted to shake all these thoughts out of my head and just feel.  Bring myself back to the bare bones if you will.  I didn't want to have to wait 13 long hours to mount my gravel steed (evening events make me extremely squirrely since my favorite time to ride is at dawn).  Stupid as it may sound, I chose to shake the cobwebs loose by going on a 23 mile urban ride prior to a 56 mile gravel ride.  I had to do it.  I was acting like a caged animal and none of my friends should have to see me like that.

Loading up
At 4:15pm, the troops converged at my place.  Plan was to caravan down to Dekalb, IL in two carloads and ride the entire Night Bison together.  My guess is we were all a bit slap happy since the drive consisted of flipping each other off and trying to figure out how to pay the toll booth attendants.  This specific group hadn't ridden together since Riverwest24 (we were only missing one of our beloved teammates due to an earlier bike accident--we missed you Harald!) and it just felt kinda like going home.  The summer air was thick (just how I like it) and a mix of Built to Spill and Son Volt was blaring through the car speakers.  Thoughts began to change in my head from "the meaning of life" to "how will I survive without summer?"  The change was happening as we rolled at 70mph down I-90.  I was becoming more present...more in my skin.

As we pulled into the parking lot near North Central Cyclery, a sharp pang hit me.  NCC was essentially no longer.  The doors were locked, the former owner, Tobie DePauw, was handling waivers vs. running the cash register, and no one really knew the future for this marvelous bike shop which started Axletree and a string of some of my favorite bike events.  Although I didn't use NCC as my bike store since it is 2 hours from Madison, I felt a bit sad because it was a second home to several friends, and a place to spur the cycling addiction for so many people in Illinois.  I had only heard positive things about the shop and staff and it made me want to live closer to it.  But as Tobie said about bike events in an interview I did about the shop and Axletree for Silent Sports, "all events should have a shelf life"--I guess the same could/should be said for retail businesses and the staff who work there.  Change is not only unstoppable but it is often times also what's needed.

Watching the sun set from the NCC parking lot

The one thing I am extremely grateful for is that Axletree, although connected to NCC, was and is its own identity.  Run as an advocacy group and as a non-profit, it didn't go anywhere when the changes occurred with NCC.  Because of this, the Night Bison was still put on--thanks to all the amazing volunteers--and will go down in my books as one of the best gravel events I've ever done.  No, there weren't grand climbs and descents.  The views consisted largely of the riders ass in front of me, the hazy red lights up ahead obscured by the gravel dust, the corn running along the gravel roads which make me think of the movie Children of the Corn, and the farm roads lined with old oaks forming an eerie canopy which casted long shadows.  Time seemed to stand still.  My computer decided to quit working so I had no clue how far we had gone.  The miles ticked by, the slight rises and falls gave way to short bursts of power and feelings of feelings of flying.  A not so brief stop at a convenience store led to laughter since a group of 25-30 riders couldn't figure out how to get back on course, so we stood around drinking beer and eating candy until a few brave souls led us out.  Silence fell over our group as we dropped into a paceline trying to push through the last 27 miles.  And then, out of nowhere, came the oasis.  For those of you who don't partake in gravel events, these little surprises usually come at the best time.  Gravel events by nature are completely self supported, but once in awhile, the organizers set up tables of sugar and salt along with coolers of beer.  They are a place to not only refuel but laugh and celebrate why we're all really out there.  It was at the oasis that I got to also see Chad, one of the former staff members of NCC, and the organizer for Ten Thousand, who I thought was up in Madison for the weekend.  Getting a cold beer and clinking bottles with my team was great, but it was even better seeing a person who has put so much energy into keeping the soul of gravel events alive.

Let air out of my tires (something no one EVER sees me do)
photo by Dijon

gathering up on the gravel
photo by Stu Garwick

My partners in crime for both RW24 and the Night Bison

One of the few sections of pavement

Our group split up a bit for the last 5-10 miles.  I think we were all in our own little world--but all happy to be out under the stars.  We rolled up to the parking lot covered from head to toe in a fine gravel dust--our pearly whites shining under the parking lot lamps.  It was surreal driving back to Madison on narrow country roads--not really knowing where we were but following the cues from a smart phone.  Hitting I-90 once again was a bit of a shock to the system but it also meant a comfy bed (and more importantly a pee break) was near by.  We were treated to a lightening show followed by a deluge which surprisingly didn't clean much of the gravel dust off our bikes (it just turned it into gravel cement) and everything in my world seemed to make sense again.  I was too tired to be in my head.  My body felt exhausted in the best possible way.  I had spent an evening with loving friends on my bike and I was quite certain I knew who I was once again.

Me and Dijon post ride--matching shoes, squirrel socks and grave grime!
photo by Dijon

Enormous thanks go out to the Axletree crew and to my Madison friends who chose to come along for the ride!

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