What on earth were we about to do!?
During Fall 2011, Matt Longest, Matt Remus and I casually discussed doing our own self-supported century road ride at our own leisure. Just to do it. Friends on a mission to explore Michigan...somewhere. That discussion led to "but we never have time to set aside for something like this", which led to let's ride at night. How about just up the rail trail (35 miles) to Big Rapids, belly up to a college bar, have some drinks and party it up? Nah, not long enough. Which then led to how about a night century? Which sounded super-dangerous to me...so we somehow ended up concocting this crazy idea of a 100 mile off-road night century. This was going to be too fun to not invite anyone else. Night Shift was born.
Planning the Route:
Matt Remus and I kind of determined an end point for the ride. It was up to me to plan backwards from there 100+ miles to find our starting point. I scoured Google Satellite Maps to see which roads were (likely) dirt and I highlighted all of them on my 1997 Michigan Atlas. This took months. My computer was old, slow and small...I quickly lost interest. I later got a new computer and progress was speeding along. I connected the dots from back to front, plotted the course via Garmin Connect. Matt Longest and I drove the course in April 2013 (the first rough draft), then again in May. There were some disasterous roads that had to be re-routed, which were confirmed much better. The 2013 course was set in stone (or electronified (yup, a new word, you have my permission to borrow it)).
Plenty were interested. Maybe up to 16 or so to begin with. About a month out, people realized they had other things going on, injuries, or just I'm sure some sensibilities came about them. Numbers dwindled down to 6 the week before, then 2 more joined last minute. Eight hardy souls, aboard their iron horses. (or in Howard City called, "Amish Motorcycles" - more on that later) Four counties. Two calendar days. We watched the sun set and rise again. Ate some bugs, swore a little, walked a bit, froze until our teeth chattered, saw some of the most spectacular starry skies EVER, listened to the bug zapping sound of electricity flowing through power lines, laughed, shouted, ate, drank (water) and were merry. All aboard bicycles. What is it about these simple machines that brings people together? Strangers in our own, friends together pedaling at speeds ranging from 3mph up to 34+. I can't think of anything more fun, exciting, challenging and character forming.
Day of departure: June 7
I will admit. I was nervous. A little hesitant. Would someone get hurt? Would anyone not enjoy themselves? Would they not enjoy or understand the challenge of doing something so outrageous that "common folk" would not understand (I think cyclists will agree, there is something about us that is not "normal"). I loaded up my bike with way more supplies than needed, but even though I planned and drove the route (twice) I still had no idea what was going to happen in the dead of night. I must have checked, double and triple-checked everything twice or three times over (get out your calculators) all afternoon. My plans to take a 4 hour nap turned into 1.5. Too damn excited to sleep! Let's get rolling!!
Myself, Matt R, Matt L, Matt U, Joel, Susanne, Bob and Jason met at the Methodist Church in Courtland Township, MI. SAG drivers John & Judy along with Dawn and Lindsay watched in anticipation as we rolled out at 7:46pm. (SAG is a widely-used term in the cycling world and usually refers to a stationary vehicle or location that provides support for passing riders. While there are several theories as to what it stands for, most likely it's an acronym for: "Support And Gear.") Our trek began immediately with a short ride across the street through the cemetery to ward off any evil spirits that wanted to tag along. Better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to that, I figure.
Segment 1: Miles 1-27 - Destination: Howard City
The mostly flat route on paved roads and gravel led us clipping along between 16-18mph right out of the gates. I knew it would happen. Excited souls on a mission to speed down the road to see what adventures lie ahead. At mile 9.25 we almost lost Bob right away. Apparently shouting "LEFT" wasn't enough for him, so he turned right (his OTHER left). We all laughed and I thought to myself "this is going to be outstanding". We soon found ourselves swerving around a ROAD CLOSED barricade and just continued on like there was nothing there. No stupid wood and metal sign was going to stop this group! It turned out it was a bridge out, but we could get around it easily. We ran up on some ladies riding horses, then their boyfriend counterparts also on horses, who were more skittish. We exchanged some pleasantries, and were off. Joel dropped his single-speed chain only miles later. We made our way over to the Fred Meijer White Pine rail trail north of Sand Lake just as dusk was setting. There were a ton of bugs hanging out there. In people's eyes, mouths, sticking to jerseys. Some turned their headlights on at this point. It was beginning to get dark. Our first planned stop was the BP gas station in Howard City, mile 27. Immediately rolling into the lot, we were greeted by drunk man #1 of the evening who stopped chatting with his lady friend in order to say "Hey! Look at these guys on Amish Motorcycles!" This led to Mr Friendly Drunk having several conversations about how our "$5,000 bikes must go up to 40mph because we had so many gears". We refueled, took bathroom breaks and warmed up a bit inside the station. Eventually our drunk friend left...ironic that he had arrived via bicycle. Of which he said "it's a Next. One step up from a Huffy!" Then he proceeded to grind and pop gears on his way out of the lot. Yeah, uh huh, later dude.
Delicious looking sign at the Howard City BP Station.
Segment 2: Miles 28-44 - Destination: Hardy Dam
We rode back out to the unpaved rail trail, only to discover that my Garmin was already acting up. It wanted us to take some different roads. Glad I had a paper map back-up. However, it was hard to determine what the cross streets were, so at the next road intersection we stopped, I pulled off to the side, which must have confused Bob, who couldn't clip out and fell over like one of those feinting goats. BAM! No one was able to snap a picture quick enough. Our ride out to the Hardy Dam was pretty uneventful. Saw some shady hillbillies hanging out around their truck in the dark, sort of sneaky looking. Approaching the Hardy Dam...it was so calm and still. Cruising across at near midnight on one of the darkest evenings of the year, showed stars, reflecting off the Muskegon River. Beautiful. I don't think anyone made a sound, we rode in silence, awe. Across the dam would be our first sights of the SAG vehicles for the evening. Thankfully they were there, the BP station was closed. SAG had water and magical Subway sandwiches (more on that later). My favorite part was over-hearing people suggest that we'd roll into camp maybe as soon as 4-5am since we had gone almost half way in only 4 hours. Little did they know how the terrain would change dramatically. (I was maniacally laughing inside my head.) I donned my UnderArmor compression long sleeve shirt as a baselayer to attempt to warm up a bit. After 15 minutes or so to get refreshments, rest and socialize, we were off again.
Segment 3: Miles 45-58 - Destination: Woodville
This section was almost straight north the entire ride. And all on gravel roads with some sandy mix. Everything was starting to blur together. As Susanne said "there is hard beige, and soft beige". You could be cruising along at 16mph, then almost slam to a crawl in some sand, fish-tailing along trying not to fall or crash into the rider next to you. We briefly conversed with drunk men #2 and #3 of the evening - like King of the Hill, drinking beers at the end of their dirt driveway. Hanging out. First brief conversation: "Holy cow! We though you guys were aliens err, sumtheeng. We saw lights, but there was NO sound!" Next conversation: "Hey were you guys headed?" "Straight ahead." "You ain't gonna make it through there!" That was fact and was anticipated by myself and Longest, but we also didn't realize HOW bad it would be. It was a definite Hike-a-Bike section. DEEP sand up a large embankment. And we walked on and off for the next mile or so until our next sighting of the SAG vehicles. Lots of people crashed. There was also lots of laughing. I had to stop at one point because I was laughing too hard at witnessing a Bob high-speed fish-tail completely across one side of the road to the other, then a tip over in the sand. He was like an upside-down cat. Once down, he bolted out from under his bike - he must have been anticipating someone running him over. After resting at the Woodville Party Store a bit, we noticed it was getting colder and pretty quickly. We needed to keep moving.
Segment 4: Miles 59-85 - Destination: Nirvana, MI
This would prove to be the most brutal, lengthy and at the same time beautiful parts of the route. We left the party store and headed down Hardwick Road...which someone thought was a road straight into a field and another thought it was someone's driveway - it was so obscure. Our next "Seasonal Road" (aka: sand so thick, you'll be walking unless you're driving a 4WD) came immediately. This one was long and angered many riders, including myself. I had to stop several times to empty sand from my right shoe. (Only my right shoe for some reason - it must have been coming in through the cleat holes.) The pushing and trudging through the sand was worse than riding. It was a full-body workout. I had saddle-bags on my bike that I had loaded with probably 25lbs of gear and tools. Everything was getting heavy and quick. The walking and pushing made you sweat buckets, then getting back on the bike, the 40 degree breeze would freeze you solid. We regrouped a few times at intersections and turned off our headlights to just stand there, look up and stare at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. One of the darkest areas of Michigan on one of the darkest days of the month. Simply amazing. There were "stars between the stars". So many, I had no idea the sky could be that populated with them and I grew up in the country while as a kid I would stare at them night after night.
Again, at times, there was silence among us. Tiny beings on an adventure that no one else even knew was happening. So small in our universe. It was mind-blowingly beautiful. Remus began to have chain issues before Hungerford Lake Recreation Area, which had to be fixed with a chain tool. We arrived at the trail-head and Susanne and Joel aboard cross-bikes chose to take the gravel road to the end and begin their trek down 12 Mile Road which was also 100% sand. (as Susanne says "That stupid road doesn't deserve a name like 12 mile road, it's hardly a road!!") For the rest of us, the ride though the dark on the trails was the highlight of the entire ride. How fantastic! Bob must have fell down 3 times, hitting stumps all along the way. Swerving in and out of trees, crossing downed logs, searching for the trail, trying to see through the ferns. Amazing! I must poach a trial and do that again. Once we trudged through another 1.5 miles of thick sand, riding, then off again I learned that Susanne and Joel had had enough of the 40 degree weather and called for SAG help. Susanne's friend Brad was coming to pick them up - they got in a hardy 72 miles. At this point several of us at camp the next night would tell our version of what we saw out there. Was it a party van? Did it have a disco ball in it? It had neon lights under the running boards! Was it a stretch Hummer? We all heard the jamming tunes bumping. What the hell was that!? We were all tired and sugar deprived. It was Brad's Disco SAG waiting for Susanne and Joel.
Something about Hillbilly Second Grade humor got me going at 4am. Open to PUBIC.
I don't remember anything else outstanding happening during this stretch, except condensation in my goatee dripping down my shirt. Pumping my burning legs in circles in the granny-gear...maxing out at 3mph at times, wondering when it would all be over. Pain. Depression. My stomach rumbling. Trying to rationalize this ride. Head down, watching the dirt and stones slowly pass underneath me. Bob blew apart his rear derailleur, (luckily) only one mile from our last SAG. This stop was by far the coldest. Longest and I warmed up in John and Judy's truck for awhile, then had to force ourselves back outside into the cold. I snagged a Subway sandwich segment and a caffeine infused gel.
Final Segment: Miles 86-106 - Destination: Silver Creek Campground, Luther, MI
With the sun now coming up, Joel had decided to rejoin us. He had the chance to warm up again and the sun would help. Awesome! Back to 7 cowboys on steel horses. It was freezing cold, however the sun would be bring welcome sights of landscape, trees, chirping birds and green foliage - of which was all black and silent to us just hours before. Ripping down a dirt road, I hit a large pot hole, lost a water bottle and jammed both of my wrists. They hurt bad. The pounding was now getting to me. I had to walk one hill here, way too steep. However, the Subway sandwich segment that I ate was starting to fuel me to levels I had not felt in a long while. It turns out that Matt Upton and I were the only ones to have some of the sandwiches at the last stop, which brought us back from the depths of hell. Matt says they were "magical", I say they were filled with some sort of EPO (Lance Armstrong injected hormone which increases your red blood count and enhances the blood's ability to absorb oxygen and fuel muscles). I was flooring it for miles on end. I could see the lead 3 ahead of me. Remus turns around to see me coming for them. I can tell he says something to Longest. He also turns around. Within minutes they were within my grasp. I pass them and Joel, ripping up and down hills in the big ring, feeling no pain. I recall telling Longest "I feel like I could kill somebody!" Was it the rising sun? The magical sandwich? My numbness to the pain? I was happy to be back to riding my best 10 hours after first lifting my leg over the top tube 90 miles to the southeast. We reached the end of the gravel for the ride. Sad that the dirt portion was over, but happy we were almost done. Remus and I pace-lined ourselves on the paved roads into Luther where we waited for the other riders to catch up.
We regrouped again at the top of the last hill so we could roll into camp together. A band of brothers. Dirty. Worn. Happy. Physically and mentally drained. We did it. No one got hurt. No one got lost. No run-ins with the law or shot-gun wielding Darryl's in no-man's land.
The word "Epic" get's thrown around a lot lately. However, this ride was truly "Epic". Paved roads. Dirt Roads. Sand. Single-track. Sundown to Sunup. Warm to freezing to warm. Hungry. Uneasy at times, you could puke. Figgin' cowbell yielding SAG support, for cryin' out loud! Epic? Yes. This was a ride I will cherish for the rest of my life. By far, one of the craziest, challenging, most fun, fulfilling events I've ever done. And...I can't wait to do it again. How can it be better? What changes can I make? The ideas are already flowing. It's going to be even more fun and memory creating.
Night Shift, version 2.0. Coming in 2015.