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Krisis in Kansas

June 13 2012

Everyone, and I mean literally everyone, I have met on the road has told me to avoid Kansas. “It’s awful, a shit hole!” one cyclist screamed at me as he flew down a mountain I was grinding my way up. Even Zac and Jackie, my wonderful Bamboo Bicycle Club, had nothing positive to say about the state – they were even going to the lengths of taking the Amtrak from Denver to Chicago (hence our parting) to avoid the mind-numbing horrors of The Plains.

I was interested though. Why should I avoid Kansas just because it doesn’t have the intriguing and charismatic landscapes of states the other side of the Rockies? Surely it is just as much as part of America as the Grand Canyon, New York City, or, for all its misdemeanours, Vegas? Everybody derides it as a flat, never ending farmland with a ridiculous gridded road map providing the corn that finds its way, via high fructose syrup, into every item on the supermarket’s shelves; but this is what excites me. I wanted to see ‘Real America’ and what could be more real than the state that basically feeds the country?

So despite all the warnings, I was relishing the challenge of Kansas. I didn’t expect, however, for it to be the toughest challenge of the trip.

I saw the flat roads as an opportunity to set new records for distance; breaking the 107 mile epic The Bambooists and I had achieved flying into Moab. I was thinking that I could cross the state in four or five days, knocking out back-to-back centuries, maybe pushing 150, or even 200 miles in a day if the wind was with me.

It was not.

Instead, I spent eight days battling brutal head and cross winds struggling to get out of the bottom chain ring. Dreams of cruising along at 20 miles an hour were shattered into the realisation that I would be lucky to grind out ten! I’d established that from Pueblo, CO I had 42 days to reach New York, which meant a not overwhelming target of 65 miles a day. Wanting some time off in Washington DC and Lexington KY, I pushed this up to 75 miles each day. When struggling to average 10mph, it takes pretty much all day to ride 75 miles. Luckily, there were no tourist attractions to distract me so I just spent all day in the saddle.

The wind didn’t just slow me down, it actually made things very uncomfortable as I couldn’t relieve pressure on my seat bones by standing up on the pedals, and had to continuously grip the handlebar firmly to prevent the wind sideswiping me into the truck traffic. I ended each day sore from head to toe, dehydrated and frustrated. It was a real battle.

I did everything in my power to ease the pain of the developing saddle sores: doubling up on the bike shorts, smothering the area in chamois cream, getting off the bike every half hour. I am glad that I wasn’t too stubborn to break up my day like this, else I may have been writing this post from the Amtrak. To deal with the repetitive landscape, and distinct lack of corn (!), I popped in the headphones and listened to the audiobooks of the Bourne and Harry Potter Series. Kudos to my brother, Bob, for providing me with these, and the iPod – certainly enabled me to keep going.

The landscape was as expected: stunningly flat with views of hundreds of miles in every direction. It amazed me, to start with, but after a couple of days I grew tired of seeing nothing, yet everything, and my frustration began boiling under the intense heat of the sun.

Thankfully, the Trans-America route that I was following has been superbly mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association, so I knew where my next services were and could plan my water consumption around them. The longest stretch between supplies was 68 miles. Can you imagine? That would never happen in England. I just made sure I had two gallons of water on me and set off early to avoid the heat of the day. I saw a few cars, some trucks and a handful of abandoned farms, but I really was on my own. For the first time I was feeling a bit lonely on this trip. If only I’d had Bamboo Bicycle Club, or Kate, or Ron, Will or Lou to distract my focus from the endless road to nowhere. I wouldn’t even have minded having my Mum along at this point – she had suggested it before I started!

I could feel myself losing the battle now. Not even riding through the namesake town of Alexander could lift my spirits. I was waning badly, the focus was slipping and defeat seemed a day, if not an hour, away. Without cell reception to tweet my family or friends, with no internet to get on Facebook or Skype, I felt lost and alone. But that was what I needed. It just left me with my thoughts to figure it out and get through. I was forced to be honest with myself and face the harsh reality that if I didn’t sort myself out I would be throwing the towel in and hitching a ride to Washington.

I had time, and nothing else to do but, to reflect on my journey. I thought back, all the way back, to pre-departure and the series of events that ended with my on-a-whim booking a round-the-world ticket, to arrival in a chaotic Beijing, and then travelling on into Vietnam and Cambodia. And I remembered why I’m doing this.

I remembered how fortunate I am to be able to travel the world, to be able to experience different cultures and challenge myself as much as I want. I remembered how I felt when I realised that it’s sheer dumb luck in the genetic lottery of life that has made me who I am, with the opportunities that brings. I remembered how the people I am riding for - the child soldiers, the cancer victims, the depressed - didn’t choose to be in the hardships they find themselves in. But I did. I chose to be in the middle of Kansas, under a hot sun with nothing but miles to cover.  I chose to ride a bicycle across America. I chose this path. And this path will be done in a couple of months’ time, leaving me free to watch TV, write a book or, more likely, find a job. Those I ride for are in their hardships for life.

Without meaning to overstate or oversimplify the significance of those thoughts, they were the elixir, the rocket fuel, the banana and the spinach that saw me out of Kansas and onwards to new adventures and New York. Since that realisation everything has been different, and the task of getting to the finish line felt like a breeze. It felt like the challenge was already complete, mentally I had made it and now my body just needs to go through the motions to catch up.


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