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September 2, 2003

After two months of drought this summer, it finally rained.  And rained.  And rained.  Several inches of rain, as luck would have it, over the Labor Day weekend.  The last big outdoor weekend of the summer was quite unmercifully rained out.  It’s hard to complain, since this summer has brought many days of 100 degree plus weather, with the obligatory high humidity.  To make matters worse, many afternoons have brought very widely scattered thundershowers – none of which have seen fit to drop any rain near MY house.  The clouds seem to bring nothing but a taunting threat of rain, without ever delivering. 

The sudden change of weather has been invigorating.  This morning, the skies had the overcast look of fall, with an unbroken layer of low-lying grey.  For THIS bike ride, the sun and the heat will not be my enemy.  This time around, it’s the risk of cold and rain I must consider while planning my adventure.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though.  First, I need to tell you about the water lady. 


July, 1981

I can’t remember exactly how I heard about the bike tour.  I was fifteen years old, and my Sears Free Spirit bicycle was my sole mode of transportation.  I had always been enamored with the idea of a long bicycle tour, and had made numerous day trips of 30 or 40 miles.  I can’t say how I came to conclude that this experience qualified me for a four day, 280 mile bike tour!  The tour was sponsored by the Marillac Center for Children, an organization which provides residential care for children and adolescents with emotional, behavorial, and family problems.  It is, in essence, an orphanage.  There were no monetary sponsorships; the sole purpose of the ride was to generate publicity for the Marillac center, with the hope of bringing corporate and private contributions. 

This was an “unburdened” ride.  Your camping gear was packed up and transported by truck to the next stop, so you could ride all day with only minimal encumbrance.  The tour also provided a “SAG wagon”.  If you just couldn’t go any farther, you could throw your bike on the SAG wagon and ride on in to the next overnight stop.  If I remember correctly, the planned route took us 60 miles the first day, 100 miles the second, 70 miles the third, and 50 miles the fourth and final day.  I should emphasize the word “planned”, as each day the route was changed as last-minute issues arose.  The route would take us from Kansas City, to Holden, Missouri on the first day.  The second day ran from Holden to Lawson, Missouri… and the third day took us to Leavenworth, Kansas.  The fourth day was a relatively easy ride back into Kansas City. 

Our send-off included much media fanfare, as we stowed our gear on the truck, and “saddled up” in a huge cluster, waiting for the “GO!” call.  Registration had recorded more than 400 riders for the trip.  As I looked around at the expensive racing and touring bikes, it became very apparent that I was definitely going to be the only idiot sporting a very heavy Sears Free Spirit bike for this trip!  As the local TV stations recorded footage, it began to rain lightly.  By our scheduled departure time, it was raining steadily and insistently.  Flags waved, a starting gun sounded, and we were off.  Coasting joyously down the first big hill in a soaking rain shower, I delighted the waiting news cameras by dramatically wiping out in the curve at the bottom.  Fortunately, only my pride was bruised – both my tush and my bicycle were still intact. 

Later in the day, as I was setting a new personal record for riding distance, I had yet another unfortunate mishap.  I’m pleased to advise that THIS event was not my fault.  Another rider, while passing, hit a pothole and careened into my rear wheel.  This was a remarkable feat, since we were the only two riders in sight at the time.  After profuse (and unnecessary) apologies, we set about trying to figure out what to do next.  Unlike me, the poster boy for poor planning, this gentlemen had packed a formidable tool kit.  But alas, my damaged spokes were beyond repair, and neither of us had spares.  My luck turned when the Midwest Cyclery truck seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was soon back on my way. 

The end of the long ride came in mid-afternoon.  For many, it had come in the early afternoon, since most riders were fit, well-equipped, and experienced.  I was pleased, however, to see that I was certainly not the last rider to arrive at camp.  The local Kiwanis served us a nice meal for a few bucks, and after dinner I pitched my tent and unrolled my sleeping bag.  The tent was interesting:  a huge army surplus tent, big enough to accommodate about eight people.  It was the only tent I had been able to borrow. 

The next day was to be a huge challenge.  This was the day we would ride “The Century”… one hundred miles in one day.  The planned route was 101 miles.  I packed up early and shoveled down the Kiwanis’ breakfast after tossing my gear on the truck.  As I set off on my day’s ride, I realized that about half of the group had already departed, having skipped breakfast.  I had no idea that my breakfast decision would be significant as the day wore on. 

By midday, I was tired, sunburned, dirty, and my tush was so sore I could not bear to sit on the saddle.  I’d stopped at a small town feed store (sort of a nowheresville pre-cursor to your local convenience store) and picked up a delicious junk food lunch, and I was back on the road and peddling hard.  I spotted the sag wagon coming up from behind in my mirror.  This was odd, since it was still a bit early for throwing in the towel.  The truck stopped ahead of me, and someone jumped out long enough to hand me a new photocopied map.  The route had been changed. 

Seems that the Missouri State Highway Patrol had reacted with great displeasure when the first round of cyclists traversed a certain highway (this group would be the insanely fit crowd on the Motobecanes and the Takaras, who were seemingly incapable of telling the difference between a bike tour, and a bike race).  The Patrol had insisted that cyclists NOT use the pre-determined route.  The alternate route took us far out of the way, via county roads.  The 101 mile trip was now planned at 110 miles.  Oy. 

In the afternoon, the terrain turned more hilly, and the sun seemed hotter and harsher.  At this point, you barely notice that you HAVE legs, let alone that they hurt and respond like soggy macaroni.  My water bottles had been filled for the fourth or fifth time already, yet I was running dangerously low.  It had been a long while since I had passed the last obvious place to fill up on water.  I began searching for a friendly-looking farmhouse.  As another hour passed, I began to develop a very healthy sense of … PANIC. 

Here’s where it gets surreal.  The terrain began a generally upward trend, and the sun seemed hotter than ever.  Perhaps dehydration leads to dementia…  but I swear this story is quite true.  As I crested a long and difficult hill, I encountered a middle-aged woman, standing at the edge of road at the end of a long gravel driveway.  The driveway led to a nice little house, set far back from the road behind a neatly cut, rich green lawn.  Next to the woman was a large bucket.  She was holding a large metal ladle.  Halfway across the lawn from the house, a young girl was wrangling with a smaller bucket of water, which she eventually dumped into the larger bucket beside her mother. 

As I rode up, the woman said, “Need water?”.  I don’t think I even spoke… I simply held out my water bottle, which she swiftly filled to the brim.  As I drank, she offered me a bunch of grapes.  Yes, grapes.  Seems they had a vineyard over the hill, beyond the well where the young girl was retrieving the cold and delicious water.  I would assert that it was the best-tasting water I ever drank.  Blame it on dehydration and exhaustion. 

The woman explained that she had been standing there for about an hour, as a steady stream of cyclists had come by for a fill and a snack.  Apparently, an earlier rider had knocked on her door, asking if there was some place nearby to fill a water bottle.  When she heard that hundreds more riders were behind him, she decided to make an afternoon of it, I suppose.  Did I mention that it was the best water I ever tasted? 

I don’t remember filling my bottles again that day.  I suppose that as the sun sank lower, my body was demanding less water.  At about 80 miles, I began seeing the sag wagon quite regularly.  Each time it passed, and I waved it on, I would see a gaggle of riders and bikes in the open back of the truck.  I rationalized that there probably wasn’t room for me on the truck, anyway.  I think that sheer stupidity starts to set in around 80 or 90 miles.  You can’t help but think that you’re “almost there”, so why give up now?  I would have ridden myself beyond exhaustion to complete the leg.  In fact, I did so.  The last pass of the sag wagon was after dark; I waved them on. 

Fortunately, the last 15 miles or so was more downhill than uphill, including one stretch of downhill that lasted for two or three miles.  The cool rushing air was refreshing and invigorating, despite the occasional bug in the teeth.  When I finally rolled into camp, my bike odometer showed 114 miles.  It was nearly 10 P.M., and I had been on the bike for about fourteen hours, minus rest stops.  The tour organizers were aghast when I rolled into camp.  They thought that all the riders had long been accounted for.  What they thought to be the last rider had been in camp since about 8:00. 

The local VFW had long since packed up the barbecue dinner, and there was no food in sight.  Somehow, someone came up with a couple of chicken legs and a soda.  Lucky for me, a couple of young guys I had met the previous night at camp had graciously set up my tent and stowed my gear.  We worked out a deal to share the big tent, and put our bikes in their smaller tent.  This would save us the trouble of wiping the morning dew the next day.  I was so horribly sunburned, I thought I’d never sleep.  But of course, I did.  

After conquering the big Century, and then some, the remainder of the ride would seem like a spin around the block. 

The next morning – day three – I related the water lady story over breakfast.  I was puzzled when not one of the dozen or so people who listened had actually encountered the water lady at the vineyard.  The tour organizers announced that of the original 400 plus riders, fewer than one hundred now remained.  I’m pretty sure they killed the other 300… though I suppose it’s possible that they simply packed up and went home.  Or perhaps never intended to participate for more than a day.  With only ninety-some riders to poll, I decided to see if I could find SOMEONE who had met the water lady, so I could confirm that I was not insane. 

I am dismayed to tell you that not one person I spoke to had any idea what I was talking about.  While I certainly can’t debunk the theory that I had suffered from some sort of elaborate hallucination, I did manage to come up with a pretty plausible explanation.  It would seem that I was pretty much DEAD LAST in the tour, throughout the latter part of the day.  Those who were ever behind me simply never finished.  It seems quite possible that the water lady serviced only the tail end of the pack.  This would mean that of all the water bottles she filled, mine were the only bottles to eventually make camp at Lawson.  For the record, my bottles arrived at camp still partially full; clearly, I DID fill my bottles SOMEWHERE!

I remember very little about the remainder of the trip.  Everything seemed to be pretty much downhill after day two (pardon the pun).  I remember arriving at the Kansas City Star building downtown on the final day.  There was a large barbecue, local celebrities, TV cameras, and – joy of all joys – there was ICE.  

A couple of months later, I got my driver’s license.  I need not explain how many bicycle miles I logged after THAT important event.



Copyright 2009 Brian A. Moffet