The time is just a few minutes after 3:00 am. John is already up and carbo loading on a breakfast of pancakes and syrup. In a little more than an hour he will be starting off on what will be a 240-mile trek by bike across Wisconsin. The ride will start here in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and work its way southeast across the state eventually ending on the waterfront in downtown Milwaukee. He will be accompanied by 700 fellow bike riders, some as lone riders like John while others will ride for teams of several riders. The trek will take them through nearly 70 miles of gravel trail and tunnels, with another 170 miles on backroads as they rise and fall over 6500 feet of total elevation. While the ride starts with hundreds of riders, only about 160 will cover the entire 240 miles in a single day. John has trained all year for this ride, but today will be his distance record as he joins the group to cover it in a single day.
I will be driving the sag wagon for John’s trip, accompanied by my daughter Bailey who is John’s spouse. Our job will be to meet him at the designated checkpoints along the way where we will refresh his water bottles and provide him with the snacks and food he has planned out for each stop. This honor had fallen to my younger daughter, Kathryn, last year, but is mine to experience this year. I am honored to be on his sag crew and a part of his journey.
It is now 4:30 am and we are with John as he awaits the start and continues to check and recheck everything on his bike. The start is only minutes away now and bikers are coming from every direction to find their starting positions. The start area is marked off in intervals that closely mimic the starting paces the riders intend to keep. The faster pace riders are placed near the beginning, while slower starters will take up positions further back in line. The last thing any rider wants is to be involved in a collision within the first mile of the ride due to an uneven start. John will take a position in the top third of the riders with a chosen pace around 15 mph. My first impression is of how focused John is. If he is to be successful, he must maintain a sustainable pace, pay attention to his times as he has planned them out, and be able to break the ride into segments. He will likely be on the bike for up to 17 hours and he has to find ways of avoiding thinking about how much he still has left, as opposed to focusing on the segments as he finishes one and begins the next. Only if he thinks of them as a bunch of shorter trips, will the totality of the trip not take its toll on his emotional energy.
It’s 5:00 am, the start! John gives us a cursory glance and a wave, and he is off into the dark. By the time Bailey and I have made our way back to the hotel, the app on her phone shows John already 6 miles out. Sparta is our first check point some 30 miles away. We decide we better forego breakfast and get on the road to meet him. It’s amazing how this feels like a sacrifice for us and then we remember, John’s on the bike, we are in a car. Way too easy to lose perspective. We vow to toughen up, but not without a cup of coffee to go.
The weather last night was dotted with torrential downpours. We are worried as John approaches the Sparta Elroy trail, as to the condition of the gravel bed. How messed up will the tunnel surfaces be. One of those tunnels is nearly a mile in length and there are no lights. The riders will depend on the collective light cast by their bike lights. As John prepares to leave this first pit stop, he expresses concerns about switching from pavement to the gravel trails but grabs fresh water and a couple bananas and heads back out. He will repeat this action up to ten more times throughout the day. At least the rain, forecast to be off and on all day, has so far held off. We pick John up as the trail crosses through the next three villages. He does not stop at any of these, but I can feel the relief in Bailey as she waves him through. Each crossing shows he is riding strong and has chopped off another ten miles here and another fifteen miles there. His next planned stop will be Elroy.
We are there waiting in Elroy. It is amazingly only 9:45 in the morning. It seems so much later but then we remind ourselves that John has now been riding for almost five hours. Again, with the perspective! This is the point where he will switch from the Sparta Elroy trail to the 400 Trail as it winds its way down to Reedsburg. As it turns out, we were able to pass John a slice of pizza and pudding cup at the old train depot in Kendall. He warned us that he may not stop at Elroy and as he approaches us on the trail, he gives a thumbs up and rides straight through. I guess we catch him at Reedsburg.
We wait at the depot in Reedsburg and eventually we start seeing riders we know have been coming through the previous checkpoints around the same time as John. Bailey’s app says that he is about 2 miles out and so we wait. Then suddenly we see him making the corner leading into town and the end of the 400 Trail. He reaches the depot covered in mud, gravel, and grease. His black bike is barely recognizable, but John just wants a quick refuel on some snacks and heads back out. We will meet him in Wisconsin Dells where he will take ten minutes to wolf down a burger and fries that we are to pick up while we wait. The good news, he is off the gravel trails for the next few hours and the sun is out. The bad news, the Baraboo Ridge lies dead ahead and that means the hills have begun.
The stop in Wisconsin Dells goes well and Bailey and I hide our shame as we finish off our McDonalds burger, fries, and a shake, oh the humanity! John wants to get right back out so his hamburger will wait. Fries and a pudding cup are all he takes time for, and he is off for the climb over the ridge. Once he clears the ridge, it will be mostly downhill to the ferry crossing at Merrimac. As Wisconsin Dells was designated as the halfway point, over 400 riders have now disappeared from the ride. But John and about 160 others will trek on. As we wait for the ferry to complete its trip across and back on the river, John gets a well-deserved half hour rest. But time can become his enemy if he is to finish by 10:00 pm in Milwaukee. The ferry barely drops the gate and John and about 30 riders are headed down the road.
As nice as the sunshine was at the ferry crossing, the blackening skies on the other side of the river bode nothing but bad news. John had barely reached the next village at Lodi when the skies let loose. The rain came in torrents. Bailey and I are on the road when the storm hit and are barely able to keep driving. We catch ourselves complaining about the rain when the reality hits us that John is somehow continuing to ride in this. We know that because we are tracking his progress on the app. He has slowed considerably but he is still moving south. We stop complaining and once again regain the perspective. We say a silent prayer and wish him God speed.
We reach the next checkpoint at Bristol where a group of friends and family will await John’s pass through at the Sassy Cow Creamery. John is looking forward to seeing his children at this stop. Jackson and Adela have made posters and will be there to cheer him on to the finish some 90 miles ahead. This will be his encouragement for the final push. The problem is the rain. It is coming down so hard that we can barely see across the street. But then we all catch a break. The rain lets up just long enough for us to spot John’s light blinking through the gloom. It is around 3:30 as he crests the hill and we all clang bells and rush out to welcome him to this briefest of stops. Hugs from Jackson and Adela, encouragement from the friends and family that are there, and John gets back on the bike and heads on down the road. As the rain starts back up, we can just catch a glimpse of the red light on the back of his bike fading into the distance. I will forever hold that image of that solitary rider disappearing into the gloom.
This is where I left the sag wagon. I needed to drive my wife and our grandkids to the hotel in Milwaukee where we would wait for John to finish the ride. Bailey would see him through the next two stops at Waterloo and Lake Mills. At Lake Mills she would wave John through as he had to enter gravel trails once more for 25 more miles on the Glacial Drumlin trail to Milwaukee. The next time she would see him would be the finish line in Milwaukee. As we found out later, this was one of the worst legs of the trip if not thee worst. The trail was littered with tree branches and water running in the ruts. This leg alone would do in the casual rider, but John must push through this ever mindful of the distance remaining and the approaching darkness.
The call came in from Bailey at 9:30. She was at the finish line and John was 9 miles out. The goal of finishing before 10:00 was in jeopardy but he was pushing as hard as he could. As the minutes ticked down, we waited at the finish line, Jackson and Adela with their posters, and the rest of us with fingers crossed. At 10:00 the app said 1 mile out. At 10:05 we saw bike lights crossing the avenue three blocks down and at 10:06, to the screams of “you made it”, and 17 hours after leaving Lacrosse, John finished the ride. I should add this note. At that 1 mile out mark, John had called Bailey and said I need a hamburger when I come in. My wife immediately headed to the restaurant only to find out the grill had been shut down for the night. Upon hearing the story and seeing John’s children waiting, the chef said I am going to fire up the grill and make him the perfect hamburger, which in John’s case is plain, no condiments just the meat. The least we can do after 240 miles.
I would never have fully understood this ride or my sons-in-law’s obsession had I not been able to be even a small part of it on his sag crew. My deep respect for what he accomplished goes without saying. You are the toughest guy I know. Now get on that bike and start training for next year.