This year we based our operations out of Yankee Springs Recreation Area on Gun Lake. It was a very busy campsite, people packed in and lots of activity, dogs barking, children crying, cornhole beanbags being slammed on boards. Ugh. Not exactly a place to go if you want to "get away". However, the location was super-premium for what turned out to be around 5000' of elevation gain through the night on gravel roads in Barry County. (And I will admit a shower after the ride was a HUGE bonus that we usually don't have.) Much of the course would follow the famed Barry-Roubaix route, which brings in a range of Pros to amateurs from the across the country to race on gravel, snow and ice every March.
Most people started rolling in to camp on Friday afternoon - near 5pm. Our family had been camping since Wednesday afternoon, which I enjoyed more than staying for days after the ride instead. (for days after the ride, you're still a little mushy and disoriented due to lack of sleep and physical exertion. So this was more fun for playing with the kids and exploring a little with them before the festivities.)
The usual hustle and bustle of planning gear, prepping our wheels and nutrition was happening for an hour or two leading up to 8pm, official start time. We ended up starting thirteen minutes late as Rick had some tubless-goop related tire seal issues with his cross bike before we left. Once he got that fixed, we continued with the start of the ride. Awesomely, that turned out to be the only mechanical of the evening.
(from left to right: Rick, Doug, Mark, Matt R, Me, Chuck, Allison, Judy, Matt L, George, Patti, Laura, John and Crankwagen)
Our pace for the first 24 miles to the first SAG stop seemed really fast. It always seems like you're going faster than you really are in the darkness, but I swear for a casual group ride, we were still cruising around 18mph. And, as (most of us) are just regular guys, barely able to keep up with life let alone some sort of regular riding schedule, that's pretty fast. The first SAG stop was a good one, at an old school house - apparently at a rather busy intersection for 10:30 pm. Lots of cars were slowing down and checking on us with all our blinky lights and beams shining everywhere.
This next segment wasn't unlike the first with some nice rolling hills, but nothing really to mention too much about. SAG2 would be in Nashville (thankfully in Michigan, not Tennessee). It was surprisingly well lit up. What a nice little town. The Shell station there was really clean and had great bathrooms. The girl working the counter didn't seem to care we were using their parking lot and street at almost 1:00 am. Now about half way done with the ride, a few of us were beginning to feel the pain. This was where I slammed a Redbull.
This would be where we were pick up the three ladies that wanted to ride one segment. Everything up to this point had been very hilly up and down. I was nervous about not really knowing what to expect out of this third segment for the sake of the ladies, but it turned out to be perfect for them, and maybe perfect for us husbands who might have needed a bit of a break too. I was hoping their first experience wouldn't be a deal breaker to having them potentially ride another Night Shift. Both Laura and Patti are relatively new to riding bikes altogether, let alone riding on dirt. Oh yeah, and in the dark. Between 1 and 3am. So otherwise, no big deal, I guess, right? ha
Laura had nice fat tires to roll on, Patti had her cross/city bike. She did great climbing any inclines, but was really hesitant to let herself coast full speed on the downs with her skinny tires. We spent most of the time riding together in the peace of the dark, dark night. Finding ourselves spending this time like we do when we're traveling in a car...just sitting there, not talking. Minding our own business. I guess we each enjoy the peace and quiet of not having kids continuously asking us questions and asking us to "lookit, lookit". This segment turned out to be just right for the newbies, (as far as I know) they enjoyed their time with us trying something new. 17 miles, boom. No tears. No fights. No anger. Can't get much better than that, right?
Inside the Crankwagen (SAG)
Since Patti and I were the latecomers to the party at SAG3, I tried to refill my bottles and jam a Subway sandwich segment in my face before we quickly took off. I didn't want to hold anyone up. So we bolted pretty quickly. There were more hills on this fourth segment, although not too terrible and it would only be 12 miles till the the single track, then a few more till the SAG anyways. Totally easy if you break it down in your head just right.
We seemed to get to the single track section at Hammond Hill outside of Hastings pretty quickly, although once we reached the staging area, we had a hard time figuring out where to start. We all had some hesitation on who was going to lead us out. Doug stepped up and took the lead. What a BLAST! Wow. This was perfect for riding at 4am, with increasingly weak and uncoordinated bodies (read that as: a need for an increased degree of sloppy bike handling skills). The trail in many spots was nearly 2-3 feet wide and was extremely "flowy". Ups and downs with good rhythm, high embankments in the turns with fast, turning descents. If you knew what you were doing and carried some speed you might be able to catch some air and rail over a few burms at a time. But that wasn't happening for us. There wasn't much to stand up and pedal for even on my cross bike. So that was sweet too. It was just what we needed to spark some adrenaline at such an early hour.
Once finished with the single track, we were only two miles away from SAG4, our final official break. Now around 70 miles in, John and Judy's parking lot "Gravel Jacks" sandwiches (special mix and take on "Sloppy Joes") were delicious morsels much needed. I wasn't sure I could even eat mine, but before I knew it, it was gone. And I burned my mouth they were so hot and I was so hungry. After laying flat in the parking lot to stretch out a bit, I loaded up on some short-wave sugary snacks (a baby-sized Mountain Dew and a PayDay), took a stroll to the bathrooms at the Family Fare and we were off!
This last segment was the Boss Hogg of the entire route as far as hills go. Much of this is the opening 10-15 or so miles of the Barry-Roubaix race. We quickly got crushed down by the three sisters (those whores!, and honestly I think I counted eight of them) and there was just more coming after them. Hill after hill after hill. Approaching 90 miles, it was getting brutal. Near the end of the route we had a choice: turn right on some beautiful pavement for our last few miles, or continue on the planned route straight ahead on a sandy two-track, which dumps us out to the same pavement anyways - just later. Judging by seeing Allison with her head in her hands across her bars, I asked everyone if the pavement was just fine enough. (because I was feeling just like Allison and I gathered that from a few others in the group too.) Then Rick chimes in. (the guy doesn't talk hardly at all.) "Hey, I thought this was was a dirt ride!?" Okay, lay the guilt trip on me. So we made choices of compromise. If we take the pavement, we have to hit Yankee Springs trail. If we take the sandy two-track, we get to skip Yankee. So, that's what we did. Bring on the sand. Oh how I hate the sand.
No major incidences and now leaving the dirt behind us for the balance of the route, I felt myself becoming complacent even with 7 or so miles to go. I was riding at the back of the pack, just chatting with Rick. Then I remember how fast and long the hills are leading back to camp. I want the ride over so fast. Three words came to my head: Done. Fast. Destroy. So on the next downhill, I slammed into top gear like a Ferrari (bam, bam, bam, bam) and just took off. Pedaled my ass off for the last few miles up and down hills going as fast as I could. At one point reaching 33 mph, about the max for my cross bike with knobbies. Rick was with me most of the way, he with around 3,000 riding miles this year, me with 350. I think he was still chatting and cruising along side me as I tried not to vomit. After pedaling and pedaling and pedaling and being as "aero" as a 200 lb man wearing spandex with hairy legs can be, I decide to look behind to see where everyone was. I only saw two more riders; Chuck (which I pictured as coasting, eating a piece of pizza and sipping a martini as I abused my legs) and Doug.
The four of us rolled into the entrance to camp, and waited for the rest of the crew (only 30 seconds behind), then coasted into camp together. Victory! 7:20 am. Hmm. No one is up. Surprise, surprise. Get me into a shower and bed ASAP. In all, it was a very successful ride. I think Chuck and Jen will be back next year (I hope anyways) and Allison not only became the first female to ride and finish the ENTIRE ride, she also accomplished her first century ride ever. Congrats Allison!! You're a strong rider, hope you can also come back and bring some friends!
The rest of Saturday and Sunday was filled with great visits with friends and families, a giant group coordinated breakfast, then a group coordinated Mexican dinner complete with authentic (Pandora) mexican music by a campfire and stories shared by all. By 9pm our site was vacant of all visitors, we stayed up for a bit till the mosquitoes forced us in the camper.
Some ideas are already flowing for Night Shift 2018. Hope to see you all there. We will try and keep it more local like this year as that seemed to be a good option for many and makes it easier for camping and travel.
See you in 357 days!
(let's be clear, this was BEFORE the ride, NOT after!)