Know Thy City

The thing I love about endurance sports is how doing well in them hinges on how well you know yourself. You can’t tick along at a high level as an endurance athlete without knowing what makes you tick.

Asked to sum up all of philosophy in a single pithy statement, Socrates said, “Know thyself.”

And in gravel racing, where two win and hundreds lose, one of the things thou better knowest about thyself is how you intend to measure success. Because the vast majority of us aren’t chasing wins.

Ask us what we are chasing and you’ll get all kinds of answers, like simple finishes, or personal bests or new adventures. We’re chasing our ways into close-knit and supportive cycling communities. We’re chasing better health, powerful experiences with our friends, and, yeah, a little bit more of that hard-won know-thyself stuff.

You tell her this isn’t winning. (Photo, Zach Schuster, Cyclocross Magazine)

This year, the biggest finish I’m chasing happens to be the longest event I’ve attempted by far. Training for the Pirate Cycling League’s 300-mile Long Voyage is taking me farther and farther away from Dirt Tan Bike Club’s homey corporate headquarters here in Lincoln, Neb. And it struck me recently that I’ve spent more time at gas stations in Beatrice, Cortland, Malcolm and Unadilla than I have in the one just two blocks from my house.

I’m happy to know my way around Hallam and Ruby and Roca. But my declining familiarity with my home city just hasn’t felt very know-thy-selfish to me.

So I was delighted last Sunday when two bike-things happened that helped me to see my home city in a whole new way.

First: It rained.

Now, normally, a little mud wouldn’t keep my friends and me from tackling a training ride to Tecumseh. But the pandemic-related global shortage on bike parts has left us gun shy. We can’t finish the Long Voyage in August if we bust a part in muddy April that we can’t get replaced until November. So to avoid the risk of a muddy mechanical, Marty suggested we fold our next long ride entirely within Lincoln’s city limits. I liked that idea.

We started with some predawn laps inside Pioneers Park. Like most Lincoln cyclists, we know Pioneers Park like we know our own homes. We don’t need the help of daylight to move around inside it.

This bronze buffalo guards the Bison Trail entrance to Lincoln’s grandest park. (Photo, lincoln.ne.gov)

There was no new territory for us to discover inside our familiar park. But by taking a dozen 3.85-mile laps inside it as the sun slowly colored the horizon, it was as if we could see the park stretch itself awake, shake the fog off its ponds and start breakfast for its cranky geese.

Our rear lights blinked the park awake. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

In those first laps, darkness hid everything. We couldn’t even see the fog we rode through near the old schoolhouse. But then the park gave up details a few at a time. There was the fog. There were the soft outlines of all that the fog fogged. There was the high big game fence; the low small pond; the elm and the elk beneath it.

I didn’t say it, because I’m always scared in the moment that I’ll sound like a snob. But revisiting these same stretches lap-by-lap as dawn unfolded made me think of Claude Monet painting the same scenes again and again in changing light. And I was relieved when Addison saw it, too, and mentioned Monet. Because his work is exactly what those quiet laps felt like.

Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” 1890-91

Then, once the sun had thoroughly risen, we abandoned the park and rode northeast across the city. And the second bike-thing happened. We connected with about a dozen friends for an unusual tour of Lincoln’s oldest neighborhoods.

Chris Baum is a local cyclist and a 30-year coaching veteran of one of the most successful track & field programs in NCAA III. Last spring, with Nebraska Wesleyan University’s track season erased and UCI World Tour bike races canceled, Baum felt the sting.

He especially missed Paris-Roubaix, “the Hell of the North.” This infamous one-day spring classic takes racers down ancient cobblestone stretches from Paris to Roubaix on the Belgium border. Paris-Roubaix’s ungodly roughness makes it gravel cycling’s favorite World Tour road race.

The pros take their punishment. (Photo, capovelo.com)
In one interview, Dutch pro Theo de Rooy once called Paris-Roubaix both “a piece of shit” and “the most beautiful race in the world.” To gravel folks, these are not contradictory statements.

The pandemic punched a hole in Baum’s sports-loving life—a gap he couldn’t fill just by changing the channel. So he turned to a DIY solution and set out to create a Paris-Roubaix of his own.

“Lincoln doesn’t have cobbles,” he told me. “But we do still have brick streets.”

Thus began Baum’s home-cooked “Lincoln Redbrick Roubaix.”

Coach Baum & family (Photo, Chris Baum)

Lincoln’s redbrick streets have grown more fragmented and scattered as neighborhoods developed and slowly paved them over. But the last remnants are still out there. And Baum used his spare shutdown time to uncover them. He reached out to city transportation officials for information and identified Lincoln’s last 28 surviving stretches.

“Lincoln’s endangered redbrick streets are quickly becoming a relic of the past,” he said. “Many of them are at least 100 years old and only constitute 0.25% of the streets in Lincoln,” he said, or about 6.6 miles of Lincoln’s 2,600 miles of streets.

To ride them all is to literally feel vibrations of the city’s past. In fact, many of the brick sections we rode in northeast Lincoln go back to before Lincoln’s existence there.

Lincoln’s bricked Havelock neighborhood was once an independent town of its own with a busy train station. We rode the brick loop on the northernmost end of Touzalin Avenue, where its gaping green median meets the railroad tracks. That wide median exists because of the trolley line that once connected Havelock to its neighbor, University Place. University Place was established in the 1880s as a distinct Methodist enclave between Havelock and Lincoln. It was there to support the young Nebraska Wesleyan University (where Baum now coaches track and I write ad copy).

The brickways of both these towns would have to wait decades for the larger city to spill over them before anyone would have called them Lincoln streets.

It’s not a street, but Old Main’s historic red bricks are kind of a big deal at NWU. (Photo, nebrwesleyan.edu)

Coach Baum’s course then wound us through Wyuka Cemetery, which features Lincoln’s longest (and gnarliest) remaining brick roads. Established in 1869, the cemetery’s pathways wind and roll gorgeously, taking us past the graves of many Civil War veterans.

If it weren’t such hallowed ground, Wyuka Cemetery would be a rad place to race bikes. (Photo, wyuka.com)

We also rode the last remaining brick stretch on development-happy UNL’s downtown campus near Cook Pavilion. Then we arrived at Lincoln’s most visited bricks, the Haymarket’s popular 7th Street loop.

God help us if we ever pave this over. Lincoln’s downtown farmers’ market (Photo, downtownlincoln.org)

Then the course wrapped up with a final push past my very own house. Our home-base roll-by did a lot to tie Lincoln’s past more closely to my present. Chris Baum’s Redbrick Robaix has taught me to pay mind to that familiar redbrick rattle at the end of my ride home from work every day—to feel it as the direct reverberation of another Lincolnite’s workday some 100 years ago.

If I live to push 100 years old, I can only hope I still work as well as my street does. (Photo, DTBC HQ, spring 2021)

Now sure, every foot of black asphalt is just as connected to a human being’s effort as the bricks that touch my driveway. But there’s something particularly particular about the one-at-a-time nature of a street made of bricks. It’s a hundred thousand heavy little things, clay shaped then baked in the kiln and put together by hand to create for us a way forward.

This is the original way they gave us. It may not be smooth, but it’s lasting.


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