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Nebraska Bike Trip10/09/2017

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Ever since I bought my first legit bike my freshman year of college (2002; rehab from a stress fracture, duh), I’ve had the idea to ride my bike from the Front Range to my childhood home in Nebraska and back. I even got so far 15 years ago as to purchase a rear rack and some generic REI panniers. Thank goodness I’ve learned a few things in the intervening time—one of which is that panniers are ridiculous. Since my achilles flared back up again in August—precluding running, scrambling, and even climbing, sadly—now seemed as good a time as any to see what it’s like to log big (ish), self-supported miles day after day. In summary, it was great.

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The whole loop.

Boulder, CO to Julesburg, CO: 197mi
On day one (9/11), I was surprised at how quickly the miles rolled by. I had an ever-so-slight crosswind out of the north, but I think the net downhill coming from 5400′ in Boulder to 3400′ in Julesburg in the extreme northeast corner of the state contributed to the day’s general ease. I had originally planned on only riding the 135 miles to Sterling, CO on the first day, but it was only 3:oopm when I got there, so after a chicken sandwich and a milkshake at Sonic, I committed to the extra 60mi to Julesburg.

This section of highway along the South Platte River turned out to be pleasantly rural and only very lightly trafficked. Each micro-community between Sterling and Julesburg—Illif, Crook, Sedgwick, Ovid—has its own water tower that is visible four or five miles out and gave me nice intermediate goals for cranking through the day’s mileage. With a couple hours left I was bonking physically and mentally, but a Snickers bar and some Death Grips in my ear buds—my first non-podcast audio of the day—had me feeling incredible on the last 30mi into Julesburg.

It had been a hot day in the +90s F, and the long shadows and cooler temps of the setting sun gave me energy. One of my favorite things is having a long day outside extend into nightfall. Something about turning on the headlamp and continuing to charge into the calm darkness. Sleep wasn’t the best in the warm night with some annoying bugs, but I was psyched to have ridden 197mi in <11hr of pedaling—my second-highest total in a day ever—and to have had it all come so easily.

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Sunrise from my campsite on the banks of the South Platte River, Julesburg, CO.

Julesburg, CO to Mullen, NE: 141mi
Day two was a big letdown, mentally. I typically thrive on early morning energy and motivation, but even the first 32 miles into Ogallala, NE for breakfast felt like a grind. I stopped here for a full hour to gorge on coffee and donuts; I was mostly procrastinating about continuing to ride, even though from Ogallala I would be embarking on what was my  most anticipated portion of the trip—Nebraska’s Sandhills.

The whole stretch from Ogallala—past Lake McConaughay and through the tiny town of Arthur to the corner truck stop just outside of Hyannis—was tough. This section of highway is completely exposed—no shade—and nearly deserted. And it was hot. In anticipation, I’d strapped an extra water bottle to my aerobars as I left Ogallala, and I was glad I did as temps climbed into the upper +90s F again. All day I was making internal compromises about distances and stopping points, but after a pair of mid-afternoon candy bars and an hour lingering in the shade drinking water, I decided I had it in me to push out the next 40mi stretch east over to Mullen. The mid-afternoon break had helped my psyche a lot and this final stretch was much better.

I’d originally planned on riding unpaved, truly remote sections of road through the Sandhills, but as I left Lake McConaughay it immediately became apparent that my 4omm tires were not up for the job and that plus-sized tires would be needed to make the miles even remotely efficient over the sandy soil. This ended up not being a bummer at all, actually, as the paved roads were so little-trafficked that the experience wasn’t at all compromised.

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Sandhills splendor north of Mullen, NE.

Mullen, NE to Springview, NE: 126mi
Day three was the highlight of the entire trip. I woke early, hoping to bank a lot of miles in the cooler morning, anticipating the day’s forecasted high of +96F. The 75 miles from Mullen north to Valentine were quintessential Sandhills—relentlessly rolling through the grass-covered dunes, climbing up prominent ridges and descending into lush, sub-irrigated valleys (the expansive Ogallala Aquifer sits just beneath the surface). The golden morning light threw the dunes into gorgeous high contrast. This experience was exactly the reason I’d decided to pedal through this portion of the state. It is idyllic.

Crossing the Niobrara River at mile 65 signified that I was close to Valentine, where I would get some brunch after riding all morning on nothing but water (nothing was open in Mullen when I rolled out a bit after 6am). From Valentine I opted for a section of gravel through the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge and pedaled through the Niobrara River Canyon at the historic Berry Bridge.

The rest of the afternoon was spent cranking another 40ish miles into the town of Springview, NE where I was pleasantly surprised to find a more than adequate campground on the outskirts of town replete with water hydrants, a coin-operated shower (!), and picnic tables. Perfect.

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Not a bad scene for a little basketball.

Springview, NE to Niobrara, NE: 111mi
With the switch from Mountain to Central time and the knowledge that I had a comparatively short ride separating me from my final destination, I slept in a bit on day four.  The campground (of which I had been the sole occupant) was directly adjacent to the Keya Paha County consolidated high school. As I was packing up my bike and drinking hot tap water instant coffee, a trio of middle school-aged kids engaged in a lively session of sunrise hoops on an outdoor basketball court. The tall(er) girl visibly dominated the pair of clearly prepubescent boys.

They were obviously just killing time before heading into class but I had this random glimmer of inspiration at: A) the display of youthful vigor at dawn, a time of day where motivation is typically low; B) the fact that they weren’t just sitting around idly scrolling their smartphones—a much more common, contemporary mode of time-killing; and C) the aggressively banal yet no less powerful realization that kids are the future. That they possess so much energy and potential, even in a random very small town in a very rural part of the Great Plains where prospects are, quite honestly, very low. (Springview is very similar to Niobrara, the town I grew up in; they’re a member of the Niobrara Valley Conference, so we would compete against Keya Paha County in sports and extracurricular activities.)

Buoyed by this small scene and the gorgeous sunrise over the misty river valleys, I had a mentally easy ride home to my family’s farm, arriving mid-afternoon. The next two and a half days at home I let my body recover with a couple of short hikes and plenty of time visiting with my parents.

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Sunrise inversion leaving my family’s farm.

Niobrara, NE to Merna, NE: 177mi
The weather shifted from summer to fall while I was at home, with this day dawning chilly and foggy. As such I was able to make quick work of the first half of the day (not needing to stop for water), rolling 87mi before making my first stop in Bartlett for a bag of Peanut M&M’s. Super healthy lunch. The afternoon was a bit tougher with a significant headwind the last 10 miles into Merna putting an emphatic punctuation on the day’s effort. It seemed like I could actually feel the net uphill that would characterize the profile leading me back to Colorado’s mountains. Merna is almost not a town—population has to be <100; I supped at the local gas station—but I still had a lovely picnic shelter to sleep under for the night, for which I was very grateful when it started raining at 1:30am. Though a cement slab sans sleeping pad is not ideal, of course.

The major gear changes I would’ve made for this trip would’ve been to swap my sleeping bag for a puffy vest, my emergency bivy sack for one of the new Ultimate Direction FK Bivy’s (bug netting), and I would’ve included a sleeping pad. This wasn’t bikepack racing—I wasn’t so tired at the end of every day that the comfort of a sleeping pad went unnoticed.

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Life on the road: getting out of the sun, sipping a Big Gulp, charging electronics.

Merna, NE to Ogallala, NE: 122mi
Hardest day of the whole trip. The first 65mi to North Platte were slowed considerably by a crosswind and consistently rolling climbs. In the afternoon, the posterior tibialis in my lower, right leg started acting up and I had to baby it considerably, soft-pedaling the final 50mi into Ogallala while worrying that maybe my trip had finally hit a significant speed-bump and I wouldn’t make it back to Colorado until much later in the week. Compounding things, of course, were a headwind and the ever-so-slight uphill grade of following the Platte upriver. It was frustrating to not put in as many miles as my legs and head wanted to, but it was also a good reminder that the second day always seems to be the crux as the body settles into handling the onslaught of miles; you just listen carefully and do whatever is allowed. A grassy ballfield on the edge of town provided the night’s mattress.

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Ogallala, NE to Ft. Morgan, CO: 140mi
Such a weird day of biking. I started tentatively in the morning, and while my post-tib initially seemed somewhat improved it soon developed into a nag that didn’t preclude all pedaling but did require frequent stops and a very easy (slow) effort. It felt like it was taking me forever to make any progress, but I finally rolled into Sterling, CO (91mi for the day) mid-afternoon, relieved to have made it a reasonable distance without my leg completely rebelling.

A late lunch at McDonald’s offered an hour-plus of spectation of seemingly the entire spectrum of humanity. The main problem with McDonald’s is that it tastes so good. Supercharged with an unexpectedly decent McMericano the next 50 miles to the western reaches of Ft. Morgan were among the best of the entire trip. A very slight cross-tail-breeze had me feeling like a hero and my post-tib seemed almost miraculously healed by the full day of soft pedaling I’d already logged. For whatever reason, I charged along the Platte River bottom at full throttle in my biggest gear, getting out of the saddle to aggressively mash the pedals whenever there was a slight rise, ignoring my ragged breathing. Sometimes it just feels good to go hard. The last 15mi or so were hindered by a hurricane crosswind out of the north as a cold front blew in that left me caked in grime and dust. With no immediately apparent comfy bivy spots in the raging wind it was an easy choice to rent a room for the last night—I was excited to ice and elevate my leg anyhow, not to mention wash off all the salt and dirt and sleep in some clean sheets.

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Oops.

Ft. Morgan, CO to Boulder, CO: 24mi
I woke up psyched. A night’s rest in a real bed after a real shower, plus it was the last day! I only had about 80mi to get back to Boulder, but I also needed to get there in time to rig the Third Flatiron with four rappel ropes for that evening’s Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club’s race. The morning was a crisp one at +39F but my post-tib was feeling good and I was definitely smelling the barn. After only about 90min of riding, though, it all came crashing to an immediate and unexpected end when I absent-mindedly rolled over a random coil of wire on the highway shoulder. In an instant the wire wound itself around my cassette, tightened a loop around the back of the wheel, and immediately snapped the rim. Crazy.

I took a second to consider my options, but happily accepted an offer of a rescue from my buddy Joe. I was about 50mi from town and was super grateful for him taking his whole morning to come pick me up. I shouldered the rig and began walking down the highway, figuring the least I could do was get to a more convenient pick up spot when within a few minutes a long haul trucker pulled over and offered to give me a ride. He explained he had an empty trailer and I clearly needed a lift. In the 20mi of interstate to get to the Boulder exit we had a humorously lively discussion about smoking—the merits of cigarettes vs. vaping, the taste and quality differences amongst brands, etc, etc. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and don’t have any plans to start, but I still found it interesting and definitely entertaining. Humans are basically good.

All in all, it was a minorly anti-climactic end to the trip, but overall this ride definitely showed me the appeal of bikepacking. It’s immensely satisfying to look at your stripped down, basic material needs all strapped to your self-powered mode of transportation and realize an intoxicating sense of freedom. Bikes are a very efficient way to cover a lot of country while still experiencing intimately the landscapes and communities you encounter along the way. I’m definitely inspired to do more in the future.

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All I need.

18 responses to “Nebraska Bike Trip”

  1. Eric Adams says:

    So, you relied solely on food from stops on the road? Nothing packed?

    • anton says:

      Correct. Daily schedule became something like: get up at dawn and ride a few hours without eating, stopping late morning for a brunch/lunch. Hit a mid-afternoon snack. Eat dinner wherever I was sleeping for the night. Grocery stores and gas stations figured prominently.

  2. Munkaye says:

    Man! You’re trip totally inspired me. I took a 5 day bike packing trip around the Bay Area camping out along the way! I brought panniers though because I decided to pack my own food. Really liked your set up though. V inspiring! Hope you’re recovering well!

  3. Doc Roulston says:

    Awesome read, and journey Anton. Do you mind listing that gear you brought with?

  4. Jeff Valliere says:

    Awesome, this seems very fitting for you! I have witnessed many rim catastrophes, but this one really cracks me up ;). Maybe consider a set of Santa Cruz Danny MacAskill specials?

    https://youtu.be/VfjjiHGuHoc

    • anton says:

      Such a freak thing, Jeff! Joe put these same model of rims (Stan’s Crest) through MUCH MUCH more abuse than I ever will when he raced the CT with them on his rigid Sams Pants a couple years ago…they’re definitely on the lighter side for a mountain bike rim but he made it through that without a single issue, so I’m just going to write this off as a crazy anomaly.

  5. Rennur says:

    Super interesting to read your write up, Anton. Thanks for sharing.

    You mentioned Posterior tib tend problems…I have the same thing going on in my right lower leg/foot. Started years ago when running….I frequently had episodes of tendinitis in my ankle/inner arch area…had some rehab done on it…yet, since sustaining injury to the area, I haven’t been able to run with any consistency….roughly six years have passed, and I still can’t run (have pretty much accepted that I’ll never be able to run again)…I’m thinking I must have experienced some partial tear to the tendon that may have healed incorrectly or something. Just wondering if you experienced something similar…I’m amazed at how much you were able to bike/grind down on the pedals, etc., despite the post tib acting up….anything in particular that you’ve found helps to rehab it? Do you get frequent post tib tendon pain or do you think it was just the amount of miles you long for this trip??

    • anton says:

      I’ve also had issues with my right post-tib for six years now. Honestly, it’s the main injury that has kept me from competing consistently these past years (apart from last year’s extended bout of ITB issues). Typically manifests at the attachment to the tibia, but this summer I had a brief aggravation in the arch area and then this latest little flare-up on the bike, right behind the ankle. It’s basically never an issue on the bike for me and the niggle on this trip was super flashy—after a day of easy pedaling it was mostly better—but I still don’t have a consistent plan of attack for it while running other than trying not to run on consecutive days too often, paying attention to my mechanics/footplant, and consistent stretching of the soleus and gastrocnemus so as to not overstress the post-tib. Good luck!

      • Rennur says:

        Thanks for the reply. Hope your post tib and achilles (they often seemed to be linked) issues clear up soon!

  6. Russ C says:

    I’m from Swanton, NE same end of the state almost straight south of Niobrara. Like you I’ve always wanted to do this ride and have just never gotten around to it. Your story has given me the fire back. Thanks for the story and inspiration!

  7. Frederic says:

    Nice backpacking trip But what’s wrong with that honestly ? “one of which is that panniers are ridiculous”

    • anton says:

      Nothing, really. Just personal preference. I find panniers to be awkward and unwieldy, esp in bike handling and crosswinds and only practical on, say, a utility bike or maybe for bike commuting where you don’t want to carry a backpack and get your back all sweaty on the way to work. Touring is a whole lot more fun the less stuff you carry with you on the bike, so limiting oneself to sleek, soft-sided bags just makes sense.

      • Frederic says:

        That makes sense, I can understand that it could hinder the riding in such conditions. I haven’t tried without them yet but I guess that would also force one to be as minimal as possible (8lbs total, impressive!), I’ll definitely consider trying that.
        Not sure that you mentioned your drivetrain specs but isn’t it too limiting to have 1 chainring only on this type of “flat” ride (I only saw one on the photo)?

        *I meant bikepacking/touring but typed too fast *

  8. What an awesome read! It was great to keep track of you on instalive, and your written words added so much more color. I agree that humans are basically good and good friends are irreplaceable. Hope you get healed up soon and back at it!

  9. Gary Gellin says:

    Holy shit, in decades of cycling I’ve never seen a wheel that mangled on my own bike or anyone else’s. Bravo!

  10. Russell L says:

    Great writing. Inspiring adventure!

  11. Ewen T says:

    Hey Anton,
    such a sick ride! I’m about 3 weeks into recovering from a stress fracture. I have been out on the bike as much as possible, do you find cycling big miles slows or effects the healing process? any advice?
    Cheers! :)

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