Over Christmas break, I’ve been happily knee-deep in one of my presents from Beth and the kids: Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard. It’s a history of the Tour de France through the lens of its last-place finishers—known as red lanterns—an honorific of fluctuating sincerity referencing the light hanging off the back end of a train. (I’ll assume my family chose this gift for me thanks to my interest in cycling as opposed to my status as a racing loser. But either shoe fits fine.)
I’ve never ridden a stage race. (We have jobs…) But Leonard’s descriptions of the early Tours remind me of gravel ultras in their ruggedness and odd codes of respect. He described the Tour’s return after the First World War. “There was … a ‘cult of survival’ around these terribly tough races. If … you showed you had a certain self-sufficiency and ability to suffer, you’d be celebrated no matter what place you occupied in the standings, cheered on for your attitude, dignity and determination in the face of terrible challenges.”
Now, I don’t know anybody who rides to be celebrated, but I do ride to celebrate—and explore in myself—those same things. Leonard quoted a 1955 piece in Cycling, after the failure of an early British national team, “[B]y hard and painful ways a tremendous and valuable experience had been gained.”
Jacques Pfister (left) carries his red lantern with Pierre Claes in 1927. (photo credit, Offside)
Those 61-year-old words were still wrapped under the tree when I needed them in icy Wilber, Neb., the Friday before Christmas. Addison, Marty and I had seen ice fluctuate between sleet and snow. We were at our coldest as it “warmed” to full-on rain outside Wilber. And we were only halfway done.
I’m the reason the three of us were chasing a ridiculous 100 miles in obscene winter conditions. It’s because the previous January, I set myself a silly goal. I was dialing up my training for 2016 Dirty Kanza, and I spent the last day of January clinging to Marty’s back wheel for an ugly hundred. Afterwards, I told myself that if I could get a century ride done in January, there was no reason in the world I couldn’t do one every month of the year.
Fast-forward through November, and wouldn’t you know it? My streak stood at 11 centuries in 11 months. An arctic cold front ate away the middle of December, and my window to get that last 100-mile ride was sliding shut. So I circled that Friday, took a vacation day and said weather be damned. I’m going.
The Drs. Killeen had the day off too, and, being bat shit crazy themselves, volunteered to join. Injury and family obligations had broken their streaks earlier in the year, but they were invested enough to help me see mine through. Even Eric Vacek—an Ironman with nothing whatsoever to prove to anybody—had time enough to come along for the first 40 or so.
It was windy and stupid brutal, and as the day warmed, the roads just got sloppier, and we just got wetter and colder. After a while, my drivetrain started to sound like a man chewing his way through a milky bowlful of sand.
It was silly to go, but how could we not? How could we leave a goal 11/12ths complete? We couldn’t. That’s how.
The conditions slowed us—a lot. And we were running up against our wifely cut-off time. So we pitched east on a paved county road to make up time and hightailed it north for Lincoln on Highway 77. I’ve been trying to drop some weight for this year’s Dirty Kanza, and I was a little underfed for this last push. I paid, and when we reached home, the odometers read 91 miles. The clock kept Marty and Addison from adding the necessary nine. (When you have uncounted dozens of centuries under your belt, the drive to make one more official can sort of lose its edge.) And I was too hungry to do any more.
Ninety-one miles in this shit? We’d round up.
I showered, ate a tuna sandwich and accompanied the kids to a movie feeling generally positive about things. The movie was good enough to keep me awake, but not good enough to distract my mind’s accountant. That was a solid ride in unfavorable conditions, the accountant said. You’re right to feel good about that. It lifted its strip of tickertape and continued. But 91 isn’t quite 100, is it? You made it 1,191 miles to your 1,200-mile goal. Then it says here that you stopped—99.25 percent complete. Or, if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of guy (like me), you’re 0.75% incomplete.
Hold on, though. I told the accountant I was actually way over 1,200 miles in century rides. Gravel Worlds in August was 150. And DK was 206. Hell, I even biked to Kansas this year, twice. You’re giving me crap about nine lousy miles? What’s nine miles?
The accountant looked down at the paper. It’s the distance between you and your goal, the accountant said.
Back home, Beth and I put the kids to bed. She turned in, too, after a while. I set up the trainer in the basement. I turned on the TV and tapped out 10 extra miles.
I finished and nobody cheered. There was nobody to high-five. Nobody to applaud what Max Leonard might call my “attitude, dignity and determination in the face of terrible challenges.” The spindle stopped and my sleepy house was just quiet. I liked that. It was the satisfying sound of my mind, shutting the hell up about it.
In researching the successes of the Tour’s biggest losers, Leonard finds himself at a café in Le Mont-Dore, as it happens, along the last half-kilometer of a third-category road race. He watches a local racer suffer a mechanical on his third-to-last lap. He needs a new wheel, which is slow in coming. His chances turn to dust.
“Nevertheless, he gets back on his bike and I see him come round two more times on his own, doggedly making it to the finish, where nobody much even cares,” Leonard wrote.
“And really, that’s the point, I think. You just have to get to the damned end.”
A Strava-powered Self-indulgent Look Back at a Dozen 2016 Century Rides
- January 31
I remember cold. I remember wet. I remember my desperate grip on Marty’s back wheel. I remember thinking, “This is the bottom. From here, I get stronger.”
- February 20
“The Weimaraner 100”
This was a group ride with all the Abrahams present, save Mike. Looking back, our speed isn’t impressive. But, at the time, this ride sent me a big message that my training was paying off—that I could hang on with these new friends longer than I could the season before. If that didn’t make me feel like a superhero, then running square into and over an angry Weimaraner without crashing sure did.
- March 28
“Reach Out, Touch Kansas”
I took advantage of a rare Monday off to burn away a huge Easter dinner at my aunt’s. I have to tip my hat to myself on this one; 140 miles alone is nothing to shake a stick at. Neither is a dirt and gravel 16 mph. My DNF at Gravel Worlds the previous August stuck in my craw. Evidently, I was pretty serious about improving.
- April 3
“Vacek’s Riding His Aero Bars through a Cornfield!”
Maybe my all-time favorite Abrahams training ride—complete with culvert stunts. And County Road BB is southeast Nebraska’s best dirt stretch. (Don’t ever go there. It’s mine.)
- May 20
Addison joined me for this last major tune-up before Dirty Kanza. What did we find at the Kansas border? Wheat. What else?
- June 4
I thought I knew what “gravel” meant. I was wrong. In the Flint Hills, “gravel” means “assorted arrowheads suspended in peanut butter.” With life-support from Addison and others, I somehow finished this beast. Next year will be better!
- July 9
“My Poor Little Teapot”
I’m prone to heat exhaustion, but am managing it better with improved fitness and smarter choices with fluids and effort. This was really the only ride in 2016 where I boiled over.
- August 21
“GW 2016: Operation Eagle Escort”
I avenged my 2015 Gravel Worlds DNF and spent the day with my best man. Hot damn, what a day!
- September 18
“Drs. Killeen Patented Hangover Cure, dose #1”
“Dose Numero Dos”
I imagine my hangover had something to do with Husker football. And judging by our speed through the first 80, I must have been joshing. Took an intermission to catch my son’s fall league baseball game.
- October 23
With the sun rising later and later, we were to the Platte by dawn.
- November 26
“Happy Feet Hundie”
This title’s a damned lie. My feet were painful cold.
- December 23
“Trainer Clean up”
Cold, wet success!