BRAG 2015: Final reflections

Here, much delayed, are (more than) a few final thoughts on BRAG 2015 and BRAG in general.

  1. I’m very thankful John Tsao came and stuck with me. It was great to get to know him better and I enjoyed riding and hanging out with him. I think it would have been a lonely ride and maybe a lonely week without him. Thanks, John! I hope you enjoyed riding with me as much as I enjoyed riding with you.
  2. Which leads me to this observation: On BRAG, people ride with and hang out with the people they came with. It’s not like the Athens-Savannah ride, where there seems to be more interaction and group camaraderie. Maybe it’s because BRAG doesn’t do a mass start each morning (for obvious reasons when you think about the impact on weekday rush-hour traffic of having 650 cyclists departing en masse). With the “start when you feel like it” strategy, it takes coordination and communication to spend your day riding with another person, much less a group, and that’s best done with people you already know.
  3. So, if you’re going to ride with someone, or even get together after the day’s ride, it’s vital to either (a) exchange phone numbers, or (b) set a time and place to meet. As John and I found out as we looked for M.C. on Thursday and Friday, it can be surprisingly hard to chance upon a particular person on the road or in camp.
  4. I had thought mealtimes would be a good opportunity to meet people, and, indeed, John and I did meet some folks at dinner. But, it’s surprising how few BRAG riders buy the meal plan. Most are going to restaurants with the people they came with. So meal-plan meal-times are not great times to meet people. It helps to be an extrovert like John. While I’m fairly outgoing, I have a hard time approaching a group of strangers and asking if I can join them. It’s a good skill to have if you’re riding BRAG without a group of friends. (By the same token, if you ARE BRAG-ing with a group, please invite the lost-looking stranger to join you.)
  5. Related: Breakfast on the meal plan was a disappointment. Very few riders bought it, the caterers ran out of food on Tuesday morning before the stated closing time, and the quality and variety of food was poor, except at the LaGrange College dining hall. A couple of riders told me they just skipped breakfast and ate heavily at the first SAG stop. That strategy worked well for me the morning the caterers closed early. Next time, I’ll probably start with a bagel or granola while breaking camp and not bother with the meal plan breakfast. That might even leave time to stop by the coffee vendor’s tent, which John did but I didn’t.
  6. Related: Dinner on the meal plan was quite good and well worth the price. It’s simple and convenient and has the advantage of walk-up service, avoiding the long waits typical when dining in town. The downside is that portions are limited, so John and I sometimes left hungry, but seconds were a possibility toward the end of serving hours, and we could always get snacks and dessert later in town. Highly recommended.
  7. Related: there is no lunch plan option, and I didn’t miss it. In fact, the only days when I ate lunch were layover Wednesday, when I got back to camp early and bought a burger and chips from the school science club, and Saturday, when we were all treated to the End-of-the-Road barbeque. The other days, I had eaten well enough at SAG stops that I wasn’t hungry until dinner time. This might be different if I had been getting back to camp earlier.
  8. Speaking of food: fresh peaches at SAG stops were a real treat. But the best treat of all was the ice-cold watermelon waiting for us at ride’s end in Carrolton. Great city.
  9. I thought I would be unable to sleep in the gym and opted for a tent. When my tent pole broke, I discovered that I was much more comfortable in the gym than I had been in my tent. This feels like a betrayal of my backpacking roots. However, camping on the edge of a ball field in the middle of a city is nothing like camping in the deep woods: dogs bark, trucks engine-brake, motorcycles roar, trains thunder, tricked-out cars boom and street lights shine. Next time, I won’t bother with a tent at all.
  10. More about sleeping: It got chilly just before dawn on the two mornings I camped out, and it was downright cold in the air-conditioned school building Thursday and Friday nights. I was very grateful for my fleece sleeping bag liner. By the same token, it was hotter than hell in the tent and the Newnan gym at bedtime. My battery-powered fan made both locations bearable.
  11. Related: By the time John and I got there, the main gym in LaGrange was packed to the gills, but the overflow rooms in the nearby elementary school were nearly empty. One rider told us he always uses the overflow area if one is available. Seems like a good strategy, especially for those of us who tend to start late and finish late.
  12. Speaking of starting late, on my next BRAG, I would like to try starting at 7 a.m. By 8 a.m., when John and I usually got rolling, nearly everyone was already on the road. I’m wondering if BRAG is a more social experience for those who start earlier. Plus, we had nearly constant low-level anxiety that the SAG stops would close before we reached them, and with so few stores directly on the route, converting to self-supporting is harder than one might expect.
  13. BRAG advises that you must get your gear on the gear truck by 9 a.m., so I interpreted 9 a.m. as the latest time to leave camp. Wrong. If you leave at 9 a.m., you will be riding an hour behind the second-to-last person and you will miss every SAG stop on the route. The actual latest time to hit the road is about 8.
  14. The gear truck. On BRAG, you don’t have to carry your own gear. Instead, you load it onto a truck every morning and retrieve it every afternoon. BRAG organizers position the truck about halfway between the gym and the camping area, which means its placement is fair but not convenient. Plan on lugging your gear a quarter of a mile or more. Also, the first riders to reach camp unload the truck, so if your stuff isn’t in waterproof bags, it will get wet if rain rolls through while you are on the road. We got lucky: our gear never got rained on while it sat outside the truck. Next time, I don’t think I will count on luck.
  15. A note about gear. It drove me nuts trying to deal with grubby, sweaty, wet clothes. I didn’t have a good way to segregate the dirty stuff from the clean stuff. The trouble is that the space taken up by dirty clothes expands while the space taken up by clean clothes shrinks. If you are using a bag with a fixed divider (such as my backpack), every evening involves shuffling clothes and repacking. There’s got to be a better way.
  16. If one rides an unusual bike, make sure all the unusual parts on said unusual bike are in good working order and, if not, replace them before the ride. I thought to bring extra tires because I figured 20×1.5-inch tires wouldn’t be in the supporting cycle shop’s inventory. I didn’t think to check my chain idlers, which they also don’t stock. Had my weakened idler broken, my ride would have been over.
  17. I figured the first few days I would feel tired and my performance would decline. From what I had read and heard from others, I hoped my body would get used to the riding and stabilize after that. As expected, Monday was hard and Tuesday was harder. I did not expect the dramatic improvement in the way I felt after my 44-mile, easy-paced Wednesday ride. I didn’t get faster (I settled into a 13-point-something average on Day 1 and stayed there the entire week), but Thursday, Friday and Saturday my legs actually felt progressively better.
  18. Training is vital. I saw lots of people walking up hills, and many “sagged out” out after 30-40 miles because they came into it without the stamina and endurance to get through the climbs. The best training I did was over the Memorial Day weekend, when I rode four 50-mile days back-to-back in the hills around Athens.
  19. Dovetailing into the above thought: I think it’s pretty neat that people who have to walk up the steep climbs are just as welcome as people who blast up them at 10 mph. Folks from Florida (or even Savannah) don’t have much opportunity to train on hills. It’s great that BRAG accommodates riders of all ages and abilities.
  20. The staff felt distant. They were pleasant enough when I asked questions, but they didn’t exactly reach out to interact with riders or engage newbies in conversations. As folks in the tourism business will tell you, we Boomers like to feel important, and younger people quickly switch their attention to devices if not actively engaged. More personal “customer service” would make riders feel valued and would help bring people back. Which brings me to this:
  21. Years ago, BRAG would attract 1,000-1,500 riders each year. This year, we maxed out at about 675. My understanding is that cross-state rides are shrinking and the average age of riders is rising, and that’s sad. Even at half its maximum historical size, BRAG brought tremendous energy, enthusiasm and cycling awareness to the communities we visited (as well as money from the many riders who stayed in motels and ate in town). I would love to see it grow. And that brings me to one final thought:
  22. Would I do it again? Yes! I would like to try it with a group of friends, but even if I were solo, I think it would be worth it. Next year’s route is Atlanta to Savannah, which is not as appealing to me as this year’s multi-loop ride in a part of the state that was new to me. Finances may also be an issue next summer. I’ll have to see how it plays out, but I would love to do it again. Anyone up for organizing a group?
BRAG 2015 004 mr

The road goes ever on and on…

 

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BRAG Day 6: the end of the road

I think I’m a reasonably bright person, and fancy that I’m good at logistics. But this morning, the morning after the deluge, the last morning of the trip, I got humbled.

I tried to pack fast, but with so much wet stuff spread all over the place, I get bogged down.  Eventually I just start stuffing everything wherever it would fit, wet things with dry, dirty with clean.  It was going to be a long, long walk to the gear truck with a water-weighted pack on my back and my duffle bag on my bike seat. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Hey, just heard some good news,” John says. “The shuttle is going to swing by and take our stuff to the truck. It should be here in about 5 minutes.”

Five minutes later, I’m not ready.  John asks the driver to wait a bit.  I hustle to finish up, feeling stressed. At last I haul my backpack and duffle bag up the narrow steps into the bus and toss them into an empty seat. There are plenty of those as there is only gear aboard. Where is everybody? I sit down to wait.

“You staying on the bus?” the driver asks after a minute or so.  “Everyone else is riding their bikes down to meet me there.”

Oh.  Well, that makes sense.  I thank him, get off the bus and bicycle the half-mile to the gear truck. The bus and John are already there, so I get my things off the bus, put them in the truck, and alternately laugh at and fuss at myself as John and I ride to the dining hall for breakfast.

After that, maybe I had something to prove; I don’t know. But when we get to the steep pitch below the dining hall, I don’t dismount. Like the rider the day before, I drop into my lowest gear and mash like hell. Unable to stand on a recumbent, all I can put into it is whatever my legs can provide — after 300-plus miles of riding over the past week.  And the road is so steep, if I slow to the point I can’t balance, I won’t have time to put a foot down before I go over. Halfway up, I realize I’m either going to make it to the top or take a fall.

I don’t fall.

But boy, do my legs hurt.  They are still hurting as John and I park our bikes and go inside in to eat.  But by the time we sit down for a filling breakfast and good conversation with a well-traveled minister from Arizona and his even more-traveled friend, I’m feeling fine. As we leave, I fill a water bottle with Powerade from the dining hall fountain dispenser; the other I leave empty: I can fill it with water at the first rest stop, 11 miles up the road. For once, we leave camp with a number of other riders.

Farewell, LaGrange. Nice town.

It’s taken me a long time to write this blog; I’m posting this on August 1, more than six weeks after the last day of BRAG. The last day’s ride is now a blur: fields and forests, hills and valleys, homes and horses and cattle and little country churches. I have no recollection of the first rest stop at all, Louise United Methodist Church on Hines Road, except being surprised at all the bicyclists still there. I also remember John and I searched for M.C., but to no avail. Maybe she was ahead of us?  Behind us?  Maybe she wasn’t able to get back to the ride after her day-trip to Athens on Wednesday?  We pedaled on.

Left onto Alverson Road, which becomes Wilbur Keith Road at the Meriwether County line. Pass the Little Brown Jug House on the right. Onto shake-and-bake at mile 20.3.  I don’t remember any of this, but the cue sheet does. Somewhere along the way we catch up to, briefly ride with, and then pass three guys on recumbents. John gets a picture or two; my camera stays in my saddle bag. It’s too cumbersome to ride with draped around my neck, and it takes too long to stop and dig it out.

The next rest stop is more memorable: tiny Oakridge CME Church set well back from the road at the end of a gravel drive. There are bikes strewn in the grass, people walking their bikes down the drive, and a few hardy souls actually riding to and from the church. John and I brave it. Fortunately the gravel is well compacted so the drive is rough but possible. More good snacks and conversations follow, plus dousing our heads with cool well-water; the day is utterly cloudless and the temperature is soaring.  Twenty-two miles down. That means only 30 miles left of BRAG 2015. The realization brings both joy and melancholy.

Riding on, we talk about the ride.  Had we enjoyed it?  Yes.  Would we do it again?  Maybe. I had expected it to be more like Ken Sherman’s Athens-to-Savannah Ride, with riders of similar abilities forming groups, sticking together, building bonds. Perhaps that kind of camaraderie developed for other BRAG riders, but John and I remained a paceline of two. Everyone was friendly and we did get to know a few people, but when it came time to ride, it seemed people broke into the little groups they came with, or rode solo.  Day after day, John and I pass or are passed by these groups, saying hello, having short conversations, but never sticking with them for more than a mile or so.

We reach the well-named town of Lone Oak and then cross Georgia 54.  Three miles later, we cross I-85. I remember looking down at the interstate’s shoulder with the lines of trucks and cars streaming by and being very grateful I’m up here, on this quiet little two-lane. And then we are back in Grantville, the zombie town. It looks very different today than it did on Wednesday, when we were among the last riders in and the skies were leaden and dreary. Now, downtown is packed with cyclists in brightly colored kits, all talking and laughing under stunning blue skies and a broiling white sun. I feel a little braver with my camera than I did before. Meanwhile, John is threatened with a rotten orange by everyone’s favorite zombie shop-keeper. A few minutes later, we watch an unbelievably patient dad coax two small daughters into a “tail-dragger” and ride away. He’s so strong that even with his kids in tow, we never catch up with him.

More water goes on us than in us as the heat keeps cranking. The next – and last – rest stop is 16 miles ahead, and from where we are at mile 32, the elevation profile shows a big climb, a deep valley, and then a long ascent over some 9 miles, taking us from about 460 feet to more than 900. Mind you, that’s not a steady, gradual climb; that’s one roller after another – climb 100 feet, drop 90. Repeat. It’s noon now; the road is shade-less. As we climb, I dribble water through the air holes in my helmet. John chews a few Rolaids, not for indigestion but for the magnesium they contain, which helps prevent cramps.

The final rest stop – a Coweta County fire station at mile 48.4 – comes into view. Even though it’s only 3.9 miles to the finish, we pull in to get snacks and – most importantly – cool drinks. As has been my practice, I turn off the power on my computer to save the battery while we’re not in motion. Refreshed and ready to roll, I power up my computer. Within a few yards I see that something is wrong: it shows my speed, but all other functions have ceased, and they stay ceased for the remainder of BRAG. I blame it on the full memory; later, at home, I discover that all I had to do was tap the power button again.

And then we’re riding familiar roads near Newnan High School. A few minutes later, we pull up to the front of the school for the last time. Right behind us comes the Dream Team, riding in a single group, shouting out a victory chant in unison. We join a round of applause and cheering with three or four dozen other cyclists in the area. Pretty cool.

The end of the ride comes with a fantastic, catered End-of-the-Ride barbecue lunch. While waiting in line, we encounter M.C. She DID make it back from Athens to ride on Thursday, Friday and today, but somehow we missed each other until this moment. She proudly collects the completion medal for riders 65 and over handed out by Franklin, who is taking the reins of BRAG after the retirement of its founder. Belatedly, we exchange phone numbers with M.C. and promise to stay in touch.

And then it’s all over. The gear truck is gone; our bags and a few others remain where it had been. John gets his car, we load up our stuff and the bikes, and drive home. BRAG 2015 is in the books.

I feel like there ought to be something profound to say at this point, something life-affirming or life-changing. Perhaps if I had done BRAG when I was 18 and afflicted with insecurity and self-doubt, it would have been a transformational event like Governor’s Honors, falling in love, tagging sea turtles. But at this stage of life, it was smaller, quieter. It was 369.1 miles of bicycling in six days, the most ever for me in that span of time. It was a great vacation, a wonderful break from work and responsibilities. It was a chance to share a beer with John, meet new folks, see new scenery. At times it was fun. At times it was challenging. It was always an adventure.

And despite what Bilbo Baggins says, this adventure never made me late for dinner.

Next time: a few final thoughts.

Ivy-covered silos between LaGrange and Newnan

Ivy-covered silos between LaGrange and Newnan

Approaching the rest stop  at Oakridge CME Church

Approaching the rest stop at Oakridge CME Church

Yours truly, getting ready to pick up my bike and start riding

Yours truly, getting ready to head to the snack table

A great view of a typical BRAG rest stop snack table

A great view of a typical BRAG rest stop snack table

John sets out

John sets out

Arriving in Grantville, the zombie capital of Georgia

Arriving in Grantville, the zombie capital of Georgia

Zombie store owner in a friendly-type mood

Zombie store owner in a friendly-type mood

So much for being friendly. John uses his phone to fend off a zombie orange

So much for being friendly. John uses his phone to fend off a zombie orange

The world's most patient bicycling dad slowly coaxes his kids into their seats in their "tail-dragger"

The world’s most patient bicycling dad slowly coaxes his kids into their seats in their “tail-dragger”

John grabbed this photo of a rare recumbent gathering on the road to Newnan

John grabbed this photo of a rare recumbent gathering on the road to Newnan

Back at Newnan High School. We never did find out who the alien bikers were, but they had an RV with a larger version of this little guy hanging from a flagpole.

Back at Newnan High School. We never did find out who the alien bikers were, but they had an RV with a larger version of this little guy hanging from a flagpole.

M.C. shows off her "You did it!" award at the end of the ride

M.C. shows off her “You did it!” award at the end of the ride

BRAG Day 5 – Moonbase, interrupted

I’m at the Carnegie pool after 70 miles of riding, and I would really like to take a cool swim. But after dumping rain twice earlier today, the clouds are threatening again. Still, I don’t hear any thunder, so I go inside the facility to shower off. When I get back to the poolside, the clouds have parted and the sun is intense. With my super-sun-sensitive skin, I swim for a only a few minutes, then rinse off the chlorine, find a deck chair in the shade, and dry off. Then it’s back to the Special Ed room – finishing with 70.6 miles on the day, my best of the week – to set my sweaty clothes, soggy shoes and damp bike in the sun to dry, after which John and I walk up the hill to the dining hall. Tonight’s fare is nothing like last night’s – two thirds of the stations are closed – but it’s more than adequate. Then we catch a shuttle into downtown and enjoy a beer and some good conversations at the Battle of the Bands. We bump into Douglas, a rider from Athens who did the Firefly ride in March, and we get to talking about the trail. I tell him my concerns about opposition in Oglethorpe County.

“Sounds like you need to make some friends down there,” he says. “Have you tried doing rides where you make it a point to stop at stores or get something to eat in a restaurant? It might help if they start to see bicyclists as an economic asset, instead of outsiders who clog up the roads.”

Brilliant! I start drawing maps in my head.

It’s 9 p.m. and darkness is near. Back on campus, Moonbase – whatever it is – is beginning.  We catch a shuttle to the gym and then walk toward the lawn behind the natatorium, along with several others who are equally curious. I’m glad to see there are no children walking with us, just in case Moonbase is about *that* kind of full moon.

There’s a crowd of people, silhouettes in the darkness, gathered around a screen about 20 feet tall that looks like it’s made of bed sheets and tent poles. As (if I remember right) “Also Sprach Zarathustra” plays over a sound system, a disco ball slowly rises above a bed where people are gently placing stuffed animals, one by one, to sleep. When the ball reaches the top, lights flash, the music swells and ends, and everyone cheers.

A light breeze makes the muggy night more comfortable. The screen wobbles. There’s a moment of silence, and then Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” begins. The lights on the disco ball are replaced by a strobe as a man, using bold, full-arm strokes, draws a moon on the screen; each time the strobe goes out, the paint fluoresces green. The moon becomes a smiley face as the wind picks up, distorting the screen.

I’m distracted by another man moving through the crowd, making some kind of announcement. When he gets close to us, I hear him:

“There’s bad weather headed our way. We’re going to finish the performance, but y’all might want to get indoors.”

On cue, I feel a fine spray of wind-blown rain on the back of my neck. The screen twists and waves in the sudden gust.

“I’d like to see the rest of this, but I’d rather not get wet again,” I say to John.

“Me either,” he says, and we start walking back to the bus stop near the gym.

Halfway there, the spray becomes a sprinkle. We walk faster. The sprinkle becomes a light shower, blowing sideways. We start jogging. The gym’s back door is still several dozen yards away. The shower intensifies. Lightning flashes; in the burst of light, I’m glad to see the grass ahead is smooth, level and free of obstacles. It’s an all-out run now as the storm opens. We make it to the awning just ahead of the downpour, damp but not drenched.

The same cannot be said for my bike, helmet, bike shoes, towel and riding clothes way over at the elementary school. Oh well. Can’t do anything about that now.

Damn, it’s raining hard. It’s blowing so fiercely, we decide to wait all the way inside. How on earth are we going to get back to the elementary school in this mess?

A woman walks up.  “Is there somewhere else to sleep?” she asks. “My husband snores really badly and there’s no way he can stay over here. He’d keep everyone in the place awake.”

We tell her about the elementary school, including a number of empty offices we found, and the custodian we met who said, “Y’all are welcome to stay anywhere that’s not locked up.”

“Perfect!” she says. “Let me tell him! Can you show us where it is? Our car is right outside. We’ll give you a lift.”

I promise, I’m not making this up.

Even the 5-second dash to the minivan from the gym leaves us dripping. With the windshield wipers barely keeping up at heir highest setting, I can only imagine how wet John and I would have been if we had walked to the school. The rain goes on and on. We direct our saviors to the bus drop-off with the awning that leads to the door right outside our bedroom. As we dash to the school beneath the partially effective awning, we meet one of our roommates. He is sitting on a chair outside the door, mostly dry, enjoying the cool, damp air thanks to the protection of the awning and a protruding corner of the building.

“Hey, you made it back!” he says. “We brought in as much of your stuff as we could. Sorry we didn’t get it all. It just dumped, man.”

I’m really grateful. Most importantly, they brought in both of our bikes, now dripping in the hall. They were also able to get to most of the clothes John and I had out on the line. They missed (or couldn’t get to) my cycling shoes, a jersey, a pair of riding gloves and some socks that blew off the clothesline.

All-in-all, a lot better than it could have been and much better than I had any hope for. Thanks, gentlemen.

There are about 10 rolls of paper hand towels in our bathroom. I grab one and start by mopping up the water under my bike so that the hall floor won’t be slippery. I then stuff wadded-up towels into my shoes and set them near my bike. Finally, I lay out my wet clothes in a well-lit corner of the hall. It’s about 11:30 p.m. and the lights are off when I make it into the Special Ed room and lie down.  Everyone else is asleep or trying to be; I put in my ear plugs and settle in. Tomorrow is the last day. Has it really been a whole week? I am aware of the empty place beside me that Lila has filled almost every night since we married in 1980. Suddenly I feel the weight not just of the nearly 340 miles I’ve ridden, but of the days and hours and minutes I’ve been away from home.

I can’t say my dreams were lonely; I don’t remember them at all. I can say my night was very short. At 5:30 a.m., the People of BRAG were starting to pack, me among them.

One last time.

John got this shot of the Battle of the Bands in downtown LaGrange

John got this shot of the Battle of the Bands in downtown LaGrange

Battle of the Bands as seen by my Blackberry

Battle of the Bands as seen by my Blackberry

The disco moon rises over the teddy bear bed at Moonbase. Photo by John

The disco moon rises over the teddy bear bed at Moonbase. Photo by John

More or less the same moment via Blackberry

More or less the same moment via Blackberry

BRAG Day 5 – Part 1: West Point Lake Loops

Back from the adventure on the bus, it’s time for some sleep. In the Special Ed room, creating darkness turns out to be relatively easy, thanks to one of our tall roommates, who stands on a chair and loosens the bulbs in the always-on emergency light (don’t worry, he tightened them again before we left). But creating silence is a challenge. There are no big fans creating a wall of white noise in the smallish, air-conditioned room, and there is no shortage of snoring as my roommates drop off to sleep. I’m lying in bed, tired as hell, and completely unable to sleep.

And then I remember: I still have some foam ear plugs in my backpack that I brought for an occasion like this. They aren’t very comfortable, but as soon as they expand into place, the sounds of snoring vanish.

It turns out to be a delightfully cool and restful night. At 5:30, the room starts stirring, me along with the others. Since today is a loop day, the only things we need to pack are the things we are taking on our bikes. Hallelujah! We take our time and then ride up to breakfast under cloudy, muggy skies, walking the incredibly steep final pitch to the dining hall. Another rider powers by us, but misses the turn and ends up at the dining hall a few seconds after we slowpokes get there on foot.

Inside, even though it’s barely after 7, Penny and company are just finishing. She shakes her head as we sit down and laughs. “You guys,” she says, and the women from Iowa head off for a day of exploring the town. John and I want something more ambitious. The hammerhead option of 88 miles seems too much and the 44-mile option too little, so we opt for the 66-miler.

The course out of town involves riding through some industrial areas that have seen better days. We briefly team up with four men who are riding together and a woman who is riding alone. It helps to be in a group on these busy, narrow roads. One of the men is pretty heavy and climbs even more slowly than I do on my recumbent, but he is strong and easily overtakes me on the flats. Soon we are on lightly-used country roads. The woman drops behind. The other men surge ahead; we are just in time to see them take the turn for the 88-mile option. A few miles later, John and I pull into the first rest stop, the first I have seen set up in a convenience store parking lot. Here we meet a few members of the Dream Team, a dozen or so African-American young teens from inner cities around Georgia who are doing BRAG side-by-side with experienced adults. Yesterday, if I remember right, they were riding tandems. Today they are on individual road bikes, each pair going their own pace.

About 2.5 miles after the rest stop, we enter Alabama on a narrow but car-free bridge over West Point Lake.  The clouds darken as we pass through Lime community on shake-and-bake pavement, but at least it’s not 90 degrees. At the left turn onto Alabama Highway 22, the clouds unleash a deluge of fat, cold raindrops. John doesn’t want to ride in the rain and takes shelter under a discarded campaign sign at the edge of a patch of woods. I’m soaking wet, but to stay warm I pull on an el-cheapo plastic rain jacket, which does the job nicely. The woman we rode with before passes us. “There’s no way to stay dry,” she says, “so I just keep riding.” Reluctantly, John agrees, and we set off again.

A mile or so later, as we exit the village of Rock Mill, we also exit the storm. As we pedal through open farmland we can see spotty showers here and there around us, sheets of grey connecting the rolling hills to the underside of uneven clouds. I get hot and take off my rain jacket. I also check the cue sheet I had shoved into my bike bag when the deluge began. Wet, of course. For the past few days, I’ve been the direction-spotter, keeping the day’s cue sheet in close view and watching for pavement markings. Now, not only is my cue sheet useless, I can’t see the pavement markings. Today’s color is red, which I don’t see well. Back when the pavement was dry I had a hard time spotting them. Here, where the asphalt is sopping wet, they disappear entirely. Fortunately, John can see them with no trouble and settles into the role of navigator flawlessly.

We roll through the metropolis of Bacon Level, into Chambers County, and thence into Standing Rock. Here, as the name promises, a sharp-topped rock about four feet tall stands in a vacant lot. Nearby are a couple of dark, two-story commercial buildings and some scattered sheds and homes. The stone and the town look tired and forlorn. I hate to see our small towns drying up.

At mile 35, as the clouds open up again, we pull into the second rest stop, also set in a convenience store parking lot. The take-down crew in their big white truck has nearly finished, but they pull out trays of goodies so that we can get what we need, plus extras to carry with us. They have already dumped the Powerade, so John buys a bottle from the store and splits it with me. Did I mention that he’s a great guy? The woman who passed us near Rock Mill tells the take-down crew not to wait for her; she will ride store-to-store from now on. John asks a crew member if the next rest stop – 12.6 miles away – will still be open when we arrive.

“Only if we haven’t left before you get there,” he responds. And then they close up the truck, collect the orange cones marking the stop, and drive away.

The race is on. By BRAG rules, vehicles associated with BRAG have to stay off the roads that we stay on. If we’re lucky, that will add several miles and significant time to their trip. The rain ends as we start riding. I’m pushing hard, which means I’m averaging 13.5 mph instead of 13.2, and my legs are burning. Even though we’re in a hurry, when we reach the dam that creates West Point Lake  at mile 46 we stop to take photos. As we approach the spillway, a horn sounds. A moment later, a small wave of rising water begins crawling down the Chattahoochee below the dam. We are the only riders who get to see the opening of the gate.

The clouds threaten but don’t attack as we ride the remaining mile into Georgia and to the next rest stop, situated in a pavilion overlooking the lake. The take-down crew is still there, and they haven’t even dumped the Powerade yet. We refill our bottles and eat our fill of pickles and PBJs while they dismantle the hand-washing station and finish packing. We leave at the same time they do.

“We’ll leave some stuff for you at the next stop,” they assure us. No racing this time. My legs are thankful.

We ride pretty roads through Glabbettville, past the road to the Kia plant, and have a long stretch on Lower Glass Bridge Road. Presumably “Glass” was someone’s name, but I enjoy a few moments imagining the colors, reflections, and distortions of a bridge made of glass. I’m distracted by something dangling from my left shoe. It’s foam rubber. The wet padding around the top of the heel has completely failed, and the right shoe is not far behind. I wind up tearing off strips of foam rubber and stuffing them in a jersey pocket so that they don’t fall off. Without the cushioning, I can feel my heels rubbing. If it gets bad, I have some Band-aids that might get me back to camp without blisters. I have no idea what I’ll do tomorrow, but I’ll find a way to finish BRAG. Maybe toilet paper padding held on with packing tape?

More trouble: my Cateye Evo computer begins flashing “MEM FULL.” I have no idea what to do about it: I knew I should have spent more time studying the manual, all 33 pages of it. However, the computer is still showing the speed, average and elapsed time information I want to see, so maybe “Memory full” is something I don’t need to worry about.

At mile 57 we see the white truck and the take-down collecting the cones from the final rest stop. The crew smiles, waves, and directs us to a pavilion where they have left a few bags of chips and individually wrapped cookies. No Powerade now, but we can fill our bottles with cold well water from the sink in the restrooms.

There’s a woman resting here. We strike up a conversation. She brightens when she learns we’re from Athens.

“I did the Athens-to-Savannah ride with Ken Sherman this year,” she says. “Tell him Margaret says hello!”

Margaret set out at daybreak and wants to continue taking her time, so we bid farewell and head out again for the final 9 miles back to LaGrange. Meeting Margaret makes us wonder why we haven’t seen M.C. since Tuesday. She had to make a quick trip back to Athens on Wednesday, but was scheduled to rejoin BRAG on Thursday morning. We can only hope everything is OK.

The sun breaks through and with the high humidity, the afternoon becomes miserably hot; I would actually welcome some rain now, but no such luck. Water from my water bottle dribbled over my head and arms helps. So do the spots of shade we still find here and there. Being out of the direct sun for even a few seconds makes a difference. I wonder how Carol Myers is coping with the utterly shade-less high plains on her cross-country ride.

Our route returns us to town along many of the same roads we used this morning, even busier now. Safely back at camp, I eat some of my leftover snacks for lunch. A shower and a swim sound like a perfect way to end the day, so while John heads to yoga, I head to the pool. On the way, I notice my odometer reads 68 miles, almost as much as yesterday and within easy striking distance of 70. Suddenly I’m seized by a desire to round it up. Under looming skies, I make a lap around campus, arriving at the natatorium just after I pass the desired mileage.

Yay! A personal best for BRAG. All-in-all, a good day.

But it’s not over yet.

Heavy clouds threaten as we approach West Point Dam

Heavy clouds threaten as we approach West Point Dam

John gets a photo

John gets a photo

Turnabout is fair play. John gets a photo of me getting a photo of...

Turnabout is fair play. John gets a photo of me getting a photo of…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

… a family of geese…

...and nesting predatory birds. I suspect osprey.

…and nesting predatory birds. I suspect osprey.

A broader view of the nest site

A broader view of the nest site

Following the opening of a gate in the dam, a wave of water begins moving down the Chattahoochee. Somehow, I expected it to be a little more impressive, but it was still pretty cool.

Following the opening of a gate in the dam, a wave of water begins moving down the Chattahoochee. Somehow, I expected it to be a little more impressive, but it was still pretty cool.

One of many clusters of tents at LaGrange College. Just to the right of the photo: a busy rail line.

One of many clusters of tents at LaGrange College. Just to the right of the photo: a busy rail line.

BRAG Day 4: Newnan to LaGrange – Part 2

(Warning: strong language)

We have ended today’s ride too soon. The actual end of the route is another tenth of a mile down Forrest Avenue, on the other side of the gym the kids just came from. But the gear truck is in this pullout with the shaved ice truck, so it kind of makes sense to stop here. As we wait for our shaved ice, I wonder if the presence of all these kids means the gym is in use and not yet available for us to set camp. John’s not worried; he can set up his tent anytime. We passed several clusters of tents on our way in, all beside playing fields and on more-or-less level ground around trees or near the gym.

And all, it turns out, within a hundred yards or so of the rail line that bisects campus.

The busy rail line that bisects campus.

The busy rail line with an at-grade crossing right beside campus.

The first train to come through blasts its horn so loudly and so long we have to stop talking, and then the rumble and rattle of its passage requires us nearly to shout to be heard. John looks worried. A few minutes later, another train barrels through. John shakes his head.

“I can sleep through just about anything, but I don’t think I can sleep through that,” he says. “Let’s check out the gym.”

We walk through a sun-drenched field and come to the gym’s back door. Several riders are standing in the shade.

“It’s pretty full,” one says. “You might be able to squeeze in.”

We go in to see (and to enjoy the air conditioning, if nothing else). The rider is right: there might be enough space for us to wedge in by asking other people to tighten up their already tight camps, but it would be a squeeze. With no idea what to do, we head to the headquarters tent.

“Oh yeah, it’s full,” Vicki says. “There was a little misunderstanding about booking the gym so we’ve got half the space we thought we’d have. You’re welcome to stay in our overflow area, though; it’s in the elementary school you passed on the way in. We’re having to divert all our late riders up there, but It’s closer to the dining hall, and the shuttles will stop there.”

We decide to check it out, grab our gear, and catch a shuttle bus, which first runs by the natatorium (“This is where yoga is held and you can also swim here for free,” the driver says.). He explains the history of the natatorium, how it was built with money from the Carnegies, and mentions that Moonbase will be held behind it tomorrow night.

“What’s Moonbase?” another passenger asks.

“No idea,” he says.

He lets us off at the elementary school, a full half-mile up Forrest Avenue from the gym. Here we discover that being late hath its advantages: there are maybe 10 people in an air-conditioned gym that could comfortably hold 100. Better yet, there are only four folks in the other space open to us: a carpeted room at the back of the school with a private bathroom and its own AC controls. It appears to be the Special Education room (there’s a good bit of adaptive equipment pushed up against the walls, much of it labeled with things like, “Simon’s walker”). We decide to settle here.

The afternoon is getting late. After waiting 10 minutes in the sun for a shuttle, we make the long, hot trek to get our bikes by the gear truck and then pedal back to the school. John wants to do yoga at 4. I don’t (I’m worried about injuring my back with an unaccustomed activity), but going for a swim sounds wonderful. He has a deadline, so he straps his yoga mat to his handlebar bag and heads off. I take my time, hang up a clothes line outside, set some damp stuff out to dry, and then find my bathing suit, towel and shower soap. Everything fits on and/or in my seat bag, so I’m able to ride to the natatorium. On the way I explore a little, finding roughly where the dining hall is located (on top of a steep-sided hill at the north end of campus; I don’t brave the ridiculous slope), before heading for the pool. I finish showering, swimming (yes, wonderful) and showering again about the same time John finishes yoga, so we ride back to camp together. I end the day with 69.5 miles, my best of the trip so far.

When we’re ready to head to dinner, there’s no shuttle bus to be seen, so we walk. It’s a hot climb, but we’re rewarded with an all-you-can-eat feast including our choice of hot veggies, salad bar, pasta, hamburgers, fresh fruit, even make-your-own s’mores. We eat with Penny and the ladies from Iowa and talk a great deal about RAGBAI, the bicycle ride across their home state. At 6:30, the BRAG folks come through and ask all riders to leave so that the college can use the dining hall for orientation, so we catch a shuttle downtown for the band Doublewide Revival. They’re OK, but neither of us is interested in Movie in the Park afterwards – “Space Jam”. As the band ends and darkness falls, John decides he would like another beer and sets out for an appealing pizza place on the edge of downtown. I’m tired and decide to catch the bus back to camp.

It should be a five-minute trip, 10 if he’s taking someone to a motel. Instead, we take the long route. The really, really, really long route. With a guy in the back grumbling that he needs to go to the bathroom, the driver takes us deep into the countryside. It’s fully dark now, and we’re way past the motel district. There’s a great discussion about the science of global warming going on behind me, but eventually it peters out. We’re still racing along dark roads miles from town.

“Is he kidnapping us?” someone asks quietly.

“Where are you taking us?” someone else asks more loudly.

“I’ve got a pick-up at the school,” he replies.

“Is the school in Alabama?” someone mutters.

Miles out of town, he pulls into an empty school parking lot and comes to a stop under a street light. He opens the door. No one gets in. No one says anything.

After a minute, the driver picks up his radio. “Nobody’s here,” he says, and then he closes the door and returns to the road. Mile by mile, turn by turn, we get closer to town. The guy in back grumbles more. One of his companions urges him to ask the driver to stop at one of the many stores or fast-food places we pass. He doesn’t.

And then, 30, maybe 40 minutes after boarding, we are back – not at the gym, but exactly where we started in downtown LaGrange. Suddenly a man runs forward from the back of the bus.

“Don’t you move this bus until you let me off!” he bellows. “I’ve got to piss and I’ve got to shit and you’re going to let me off this bus right now! Open the damn door! I’ve got your number. I’m reporting you!”

The visibly perplexed driver slowly opens the door and the desperate man runs off to find a bathroom.

“Why didn’t he ask me to stop? I’d have stopped,” the driver asks. We don’t have an answer.

About 15 people climb on board. One of them is John. He sits down next to me, looking confused.

“I thought you went back to camp.”

“Well, I tried. Haven’t been there yet.” And I tell him about the Bus Ride to Nowhere.

“Should’ve come with me after all,” he says.

Nah. John got a beer. I got a story.

Inside the gym at LaGrange College, where latecomers could camp if they brought a shoehorn.

Inside the gym at LaGrange College, where latecomers could camp if they brought a shoehorn.

BRAG Day 4: Newnan to LaGrange

It’s 4:45 a.m. and in the darkness of the Newnan High School gym, my neighbors are stirring. I turn over and try to go back to sleep. The next time I check my phone, it’s almost 5:15, then 5:25, then 5:30, and I realize I’m not obligated to force myself to stay in bed until 6. It’s not that the activity is keeping me awake; it’s more that I’m just ready to get up. It’s strange, since normally I cling to those last precious minutes of sleep before the alarm goes off.

With an extra half hour, packing is stress-free. Why haven’t I been doing this all week? Oh, well. I’m doing it now, and since I left my TARDIS at home, I can’t go back in time to share my new insight with myself.

I head to the cafeteria to meet John. He’s not there, so I wait. And wait.  I decide to go ahead and get breakfast, the usual oatmeal with honey and grits with butter, warmed in the microwave, plus milk, OJ and coffee, all hosted by the same friendly BRAG rider/volunteer whose name I have now forgotten. Vicki, one of the BRAG leaders, comes in and has a hushed conversation with the volunteer which I take is about the caterers just dropping off the food and leaving. A few minutes later, I have a brief conversation with her, including this:

Me: “What’s this ‘Moonbase’ thing tomorrow night?”

Vicki, with a mischievous smile: “I can’t explain it. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.”

Oooo-kay. BRAG is a family-friendly event (and, in fact, there are several families with small children riding this year), so surely they don’t mean that kind of moon, the full moon that teenage boys and drunk golfers have been known to show. But the smile, the evasive answer…. Curious.

John arrives, apologizing for sleeping late. I have a second helping of oatmeal while he hurries through his breakfast. As we eat, we look at the cue sheet. BRAG creates wonderfully detailed, two-sided, full-color tri-folds, with incremental and cumulative mileages to turns, landmarks and SAG stops, breakout directions for the longer “hammerhead” options, and labeled satellite images of the places we are staying overnight. Today’s base ride is 51 miles from Newnan to LaGrange. The elevation profile looks like a series of ragged, sloping molars, all essentially the same size, but each a little lower than the one before. We start at 950 feet above sea level; we end at 700. Plus we’ll have a tailwind. Plus, my legs feel better this morning than they have since the middle of Day 1.

We decide 51 miles is not enough. Today we’ll be hammerheads and stretch the ride to 62.4 miles.

Which means we’d better get started, or we’ll miss the SAG stops that come after the hammerhead loop. We could convert to self-supporting, but that’s actually not so easy: BRAG does a great job of staying on small country roads, and most stores are located on highways.

We blaze out of Newnan on the now-familiar Corinth Road at a blistering 30 mph (downhill, that is; 9 uphill) with maybe 20 people in camp behind us. The first rest stop is at mile 9.3 and we pass a dozen or more other folks on our way, so we’re in plenty of time. We fill our bottles, eat lightly, pick up extra snacks, then head to the hammerhead turn off. On this extra 11-mile loop, BRAG has painted its standard pavement markings (a circle with a line pointing the way to go – today’s color is blue), but they haven’t put up roadside signs and don’t have SAG vehicles patrolling. No problem, so long as my idler holds out. We see only one or two other riders. The loop is the typical rollers through beautiful green countryside. It’s a nice ride with lots of shade.

We rejoin the main route at its 10.4-mile mark, though we now have 21.8 behind us. The next rest stop is almost 20 miles ahead, making 31 between rest stops for us. Good thing we stocked up at the first rest stop. We ride under I-85; the sound of traffic is audible for a good half-mile before and after. Allen Road leads to Bo Bo Banks Road (I am not making this up) which leads to Eddie Lee Allen Road. The miles tick by. The day heats up. According to the cue sheet, the next rest stop is 6 miles ahead. Its advertised closing time is 10:30, five minutes from now.

Entering Hogansville, we pass an older female rider who looks pretty well toasted. A few moments later, we pass Mike, the 85-year-old retired pilot. He asks us to tell the rest stop folks to save something for him.

The cue sheet says the rest stop is in a pavilion on the left. I see a pavilion, it’s on the left, and it’s empty. John, an engineer by trade, compares our mileage with the cue sheet, doing the math faster than I can, and says he thinks our rest stop is at least half a mile further on. We ride on. Sure enough, there’s a second pavilion a little ways ahead, marked not only by BRAG’s pavement markings but by a blue porta-potty set up beside it. There’s also a big white truck there, and the take-down crew is loading up.

We tell them about the riders behind us as we fill our bottles and snack on the goodies they urge upon us. Mike pulls in and decides to take a SAG vehicle to the next stop. A message comes in that the woman we passed 3 miles back has decided to SAG out entirely. The rest stop volunteers take down the hand-washing station and dump out the remaining Powerade, but leave behind some bananas, bags of potato chips and wrapped cookies for anyone who might be behind us.

This means John and I are the last supported riders on today’s route. I hurriedly slather more sunblock on my defenseless Northern European skin and we hit the road. Next rest stop: Yellowjacket Creek Recreation Area: 15.3 miles away. We have settled into our long-distance pace – about 13.2 mph on average. We talk about work, family, the numbness in John’s hands, my herniated disk. Often we don’t talk at all, just soak up the scenery and listen to the rush of the wind in our ears.

Yellowjacket Creek is a steam no more, long since drowned by the waters of West Point Lake. But the Corps of Engineers recreation area named for the submerged creek is a treat. Our SAG stop tent and hand-washing station is set in the shade at the edge of a wide, sandy beach, which shines brilliant white in the afternoon sun. I wade into the lake wearing my full cycling kit (less shoes and socks, of course). The water is cool and green and absolutely wonderful. I haven’t been swimming since my girls were teen-agers. I quickly discover that I miss it. John swims out, too. When I get out, the sun starts drying my spandex almost immediately. We rinse the sand off our feet, slide our wet feet into our shoes, and hit the road for the final 5.7 miles to LaGrange College.

The hills have been easy for the last 20 miles or so, but now geology throws us a curveball. With only 2 miles to go, we find ourselves climbing a leg-burning monster, ascending 200 feet through a beautiful neighborhood of well-kept, historic homes. And then we’re at LaGrange College, our home for tonight and tomorrow night. We stop for shaved ice just ahead of 30 camp kids running over from the gym. It’s the first of our many LaGrange adventures.

And Moonbase, whatever that is.

One of many welcoming messages along our route. Thanks,y'all.

One of many welcoming messages along our route. Thanks,y’all.

BRAG Day 3: The Zombie Loops

It’s Wednesday, day 3, and the gym is alive with voices and flashlights. It’s only 5:30 a.m.  I try to sleep another half hour, but give up after 20 minutes and start packing. The amount of stuff – and the decisions I have to make about each and every item – is overwhelming. Is my towel dry enough to pack?  How about these shorts?  Should I roll up the Thermarest to get it out of the way or leave it out to make sure it’s fully dry?  Oh, gotta take my morning meds.  Where did I put my water bottle?  It seems endless. When the lights come on at 6, the gym is already half empty, and I’m still fussing around.  I use a different f-word in my internal monologue.  Thank God it’s a layover day.

Every year on BRAG, Wednesday is a day of options with no city-to-city travel. Many participants choose to do no riding at all. Others explore the town. Most choose one of three supported rides, this year including short and medium options (38 and 64 miles, respectively) and a full century. All go south from Newnan and are designed as a series of interlocking loops to simplify SAG support.

The question is: will my idler allow me to ride any of them? Will my legs?

Since I don’t have to pack my gear for transport to another city, I just leave it as is, sprawled across the gym floor. I do collect my dirty/damp/wet clothes and bag them: there’s a laundry service today, and even though I brought enough clothes for the entire trip, getting the dirty stuff cleaned will make my life better and save some expensive jerseys and shorts from potentially permanent polecatification.

John texts me that he’s on his way to breakfast, so I drop off my laundry ($12 up front, please) and meet him for more cold oatmeal, cold grits and a cold breakfast burrito I can’t eat (to be fair, there’s plenty of orange juice and milk). The caterers are nowhere to be seen, but one of the riders is volunteering in their stead. He has brewed coffee and points out a microwave, which vastly improves the appeal of the meal. Hunger sated and thirst quenched, we fill our water bottles and start planning.

John has never done a 100-miler. He’s tempted by this one. I know my legs won’t hold out for 100 miles in the summer heat (even though I’ve done 5 cool-weather centuries, I conked out with heat exhaustion after 79 miles in last September’s 95-degree Teardrop Century), and I’m worried that my bike can’t handle the distance, either. We head to Cycle Works to find out.

Mark, the owner, has indeed thought through some options overnight. First he rotates the mostly stuck idler 180 degrees to the unworn side and has me ride around the parking lot.

“That’s what I thought,” he says when I pull back in (or something like that; I didn’t actually record the conversation). “It just rotated back to where it was. Here’s the other thing we could try: We could cut an inner tube into strips, wrap them around the middle of the idler, and zip tie them in place. There’s a risk this would actually make things worse. The increased thickness could force the chain against the outside of the idler, which is already weak, and break it. Or the chain could snag on the zip ties. If either of those things happens, your ride is probably over. The other alternative is you can keep riding it as is, and if it breaks, catch a SAG vehicle back to camp and we can try the inner tube thing. It looks to me like this hasn’t happened overnight; I think you’ve been wearing this groove into the idler for months. Maybe you could go on it for months more. Maybe not. Your choice.”

“If I leave it as is, is there something I could do to put less pressure on the idler?”

“It might help if you didn’t use the two outside gears on your cassette. Use your front gearing to try to keep the chain in the middle gears in back.”

“I think I’ll just ride it as is, and if it fails, then we can try the inner-tube thing. I don’t use those gears much anyway, just when I’m pushing downhill.”

Shows how much I know about the way I actually ride.

John and I set off, once again among the last to leave camp. He’s still debating about 100 vs. 64. I’m thinking about the nearly 200 miles I need to coax out of my bike Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and about the enormous job of drying and putting away all my stuff for tomorrow’s stage to LaGrange. The worrying is sapping all the joy out of riding. I decide to compromise: I’ll do the 38-mile option today to minimize damage to my idler and give me time to deal with my stuff. Meanwhile, I’m discovering that I use those outer gears a lot more than I thought, and not just on steep downhills. Now, I’m maxxing out my spin rate at about 23 mph, which means I’m coasting down a lot of moderate slopes that I would otherwise pedal down. I’m constantly having to remind myself not to shift. I’m also finding my legs are feeling a lot better.

My route and John’s will stay together to mile 14.6, about 2 miles past the first SAG stop: Grantville, Ga., population 1,309 living.  The undead aren’t counted.

It’s the zombie rest stop.

The tent is set on a grassy hill on one side of the main street, between a couple of classic 1930s storefronts and the railroad tracks. On the other side of the street is a line of about 10 shops, most occupied, also dating to 30s or 40s. Beside the field and its white gazebo is the Zombie Store. And staffing the rest stop with other people from the town is the Zombie Store’s owner: a woman with a delightful Welch accent and the kind of figure that gets a casting director’s attention. She is wearing full zombie make-up.  From time to time she picks up a dismembered leg and menaces someone with it while the would-be victim’s friend gets a photo. There’s a life-size cardboard cutout of her from an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, messily devouring part of someone. And that’s the connection: AMC filmed several episodes of its popular zombie apocalypse TV series here.  While she banters with riders and makes PBJs, she’s telling about the town’s role in the series: Across the street is the building they used for the hero’s apartment. Up by the tracks is where the zombie hoard lurched into town. And across the tracks is the empty façade where scores of zombies were put to the torch.

JoCo’s zombie song, “Re: Your Brains”, starts running through my mind, but I don’t quite have the nerve to start singing. However, I mention it to our macabre hostess.

“Heard it,” she says. “I’ve heard them all. PBJ?”

As I’m leaving, a middle-aged man approaches her. “Lady,” he says, “if all zombies looked as good as you, I’d let them infect me.”

I bet she’s heard that before, too.

We ride out. Under leaden skies, even the Methodist Church looks like it was built to be a TV set, with a wide threadbare lawn, stark brick walls, and desultory pseudo-Gothic design elements suggesting flying buttresses. A mile out of town, as we pass a beautiful rolling pasture, I remember I have my camera in my bike bag. Too late now, damn it. Two and a half miles out of town, John continues straight for the 64/100 mile options and I turn left for the 38. Then I turn back and retrace the hilly 2.5 miles to Grantville. This is my ride, and if I want to circle back and get photos, why not? Time to stop being scared my bike will fail. Time to stop worrying about stuff. Time to have fun.

Most of the riders have gone and the SAG stop is winding down, so it’s not as much fun as it was 20 minutes ago, but I still get several shots of the town, picking out the things I think a location scout for a zombie apocalypse TV show would salivate over.  And then I ride the big hills back to the 38-mile split and resume my route, getting over the Grantville tracks just before a slow-moving freight train shuts down the crossing for God-only-knows how long.

The rest of the ride is a meditation on solo cycling.  My mind slides into the rhythm of my pedals. A tune gets stuck in my head. I sing on the downhills, let the tune play silently on the climbs. Woods and fields flow past, a green blur. My tires hum over the pavement; the wind roars in my ears as I drop into tree-filled valleys, whispers when I power back up the other side. I pass a few cyclists, exchange smiles and well-wishes. A few cyclists pass me, especially after my route merges with the latter miles of the long loops, and again we exchange smiles and well-wishes. The sun comes out. The heat cranks up. As late as it is and as hot as it is, I hope John decides against the Century option.

There’s a cool rest stop set up in a pavilion in downtown Luthersville. After taking off my gloves and washing my hands (mandatory before approaching the food), I douse my head and arms in the cold well water flowing from the spigot.

Ahh. Better.

PBJs, Fig Newtons, oranges, peaches and pickles taste great – sequentially, if not together. I refill my bottles (cherry Powerade, my least favorite), douse my head again, and head for Newnan, 18 miles away. On the way toward town, I catch up with a rider on the only other Rans Rocket I have ever seen. We match paces pretty well for several miles, enjoy talking about our bikes, run over the same black rat snake (alas!), and then drift apart as traffic increases. I don’t think I ever saw him again, but it was good riding with him while we had the chance.  The western sky becomes a hazy, humid white.

Back at the high school, the science club is selling burgers, chips and a drink for $5, so I make a contribution to the cause. My clean laundry is ready and the sun has dried the rest of the damp things I had set out.  With no time pressure, I’m able to get my mess under control without feeling panicky.  Still no sign of John; maybe he did the 100 after all. So I go to deal with my tent.

The sun has dried it, too. Almost. The floor and ground cloth are still damp, so I set the tent on its side while I hang the rain fly and ground cloth over a line I had strung up on the baseball field fence.

Snap.

It’s not a loud sound, but it sure gets my attention. I turn around in time to see the flexible pole that keeps my tent at full width buckle. The inserting end of one segment has split right through the side of the segment it was inserted into. The pole is useless. The tent will not stand.

It’s dead, Jim.

I hang the various pieces of fabric up to fully dry, even more glad the gym is an option. I’ll decide at home whether the tent can be salvaged, but right now, spreading the nylon along the rope and wiping sweat out of my eyes, I suspect it’s landfill-bound.

John pulls in as I’m finishing up. He did, indeed, decide on the 64-mile option, figuring it was too hot and he was too far behind the main group of century riders to get to the rest stops before they closed.  We get cleaned up, I put away the remains of my tent, and we catch a bus into downtown for River Fest, including a great dinner at Rednexican Restaurant, listening to a couple of pretty solid local bands, and watching canoe tugs-of-war in a big, shallow pool set up near the square. We have a great conversation with Penny and her friends from Iowa. We drop in on the Apollo, an in-town theater that has been converted into a bar and restaurant, but also still shows movies. Tonight’s feature: bombing Utah’s biggest mountain bike trails. Later, while waiting for the bus back to camp, we meet Mike, a salty 85-year-old retired pilot who is doing a combination of riding with his son and volunteering at the SAG stops. There’s never a shortage of characters on BRAG.

The gym is the same as last night, but by lights-out, my camp is smaller, cleaner, drier and mostly packed. My legs barely hurt, even while climbing the stairs. With the lights out, the whoosh of the fans lulls me to sleep in no time.

Ahh, again. Much better.

If you were a location scout for a TV show about zombies, would this house catch your eye?

If you were a location scout for a TV show about zombies, would this house catch your eye?

The zombie rest stop on the grassy hill in the center of downtown Grantville

The zombie rest stop on the grassy hill in the center of downtown Grantville

Bikes wait for their riders in front of Grantville's Zombie Store. But will they ever return?

Bikes wait for their riders in front of Grantville’s Zombie Store. But will they ever return?

A break from the zombie stuff -- I'm a fan of restored depots, and Grantville did a great job with this one.

A break from the zombie stuff — I’m a fan of restored depots, and Grantville did a great job with this one.

A BRAG rider cycles past the empty facade in which scores of zombies were torched in an episode of "The Walking Dead"

A BRAG rider cycles past the empty facade in which scores of zombies were torched in an episode of “The Walking Dead”

Under grey skies, even the church seems to be auditioning for a part.

Under grey skies, even the church seems to be auditioning for a part.

An example of the beautiful countryside between Grantville and Luthersville.

An example of the beautiful countryside between Grantville and Luthersville.

Rest stop in a very nice pavilion a few steps away from downtown Luthersville.

Rest stop in a very nice pavilion a few steps away from downtown Luthersville.