Nebraska Bike Trip10/09/2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.