Monday, March 5, 2012

Ridin' The Storm Out (May 2011)

Sometimes even the most mundane rides can turn into an adventure.

The Weather Channel promised us fog, temperatures in the upper 60′s, and a reprieve from thunderstorms until 11am on the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend.  Starting at 8am, we would be back in our cars with at least thirty miles on the odometer before the first raindrop fell.

We had contemplated driving downtown for the annual Bike The Drive ride on Lake Shore Drive.  With the Drive closed to vehicle traffic, it’s the very best way to see Chicago’s iconic skyline up close and personal – if your idea of personal includes 19,999 other riders, that is.  This May’s volatile and unpredictable weather made it a safe bet to opt out.  I felt somewhat better about my decision when I awoke to fog.  It’s hard to appreciate the Second City’s storied architecture when you can’t see ten feet in front of you.

This Sunday would mark the first official ride of the season for our informal group of recreational riders.  We don’t really have a name, but I’m leaning toward the Fox River Social Club as we usually default to riding the two trails that run along the Fox River (Fox River Trail, Prairie Trail).  We seem to spend as much time eating and taking restroom breaks as we do bicycling.  Our inaugural ride of 2011 was no exception.

Our group could have affectionately been called four and a half men.  Our half man was neither pudgy nor annoying and neither of his accompanying adults had sipped tiger blood for breakfast.  Our Jake is a very affable and athletic seven year-old capable of powering his dad up rolling hills from the back of his tag-along bike – when he’s not snacking or watering the grass.

The four men consisted of me, Jake’s dad Javier, Eric, and Josh.  Javier suffered a spectacular crash navigating the twisting turns and steep hills of Veteran Acres Park the last time the four of us rode together.  The initial stretch of this ride featured an eerily similar set of curvy rollers with a thick cover of trees to keep the trail unpredictably moist.  Take the first ride of the season, add a seven year-old on a tag-along, start them off on some slippery hills and if nothing tragic happens within the first five minutes, you still have some great foreshadowing.

By the time we all got rolling at 8:30, the fog had already lifted.  That should have been our first clue that TWC had just gotten lazy with the copy and paste buttons for their hourly forecasts.

Rerouting on local roads to avoid two closed sections of the path, we still managed to make pretty good time until we approached the long, gradual hill that leads up to Tekakwitha Woods just south of the bridge in Valley View.  None of us expected Javier and Jake to pedal up it effortlessly.  We were all winded by the time we reached the top.  Waiting for the two of them to dismount and walk was no inconvenience, it was a needed break.

The number one rule of the Social Club is to leave no man behind.  Despite Javier’s insistence that the rest of us ride ahead, one of us always stayed with the two of them.  Pay attention to this foreshadowing…

We suffered a host of delays as we arrived in St. Charles.  Eric had to change a flat tire.  We were forced to dismount and walk our bikes through a tent city housing local artists.  We stopped to realign the tag-along after it developed the unibody drift synonymous with the 1970′s Chevy Nova.  Add in Jake’s ecological commitment to spur vegetation growth along the trail and we were about 45 minutes behind when we reached our turnaround destination.  We had traveled thirteen and a half miles in one and a half hours.

After the four and a half of us used the makeshift facilities in Batavia, I stated the obvious; the temperature had yet to rise to the 67 degrees forecast by TWC.  With two out of three predictions already blown, we should have anticipated the rain arriving ahead of schedule.

We made it nearly four miles before the sky suddenly darkened.  We all picked up the pace for the next half mile, negotiating the twisting turns of the trail despite limited visibility.  Just north of Geneva the trail is forced to cross Route 25 for a stretch that is barely a block long.  As soon as we crossed, Jake apparently became concerned that the rain might miss a specific section of bushes on the east side of the trail.  I took advantage of his sprinkling session to grab a jacket from my trunk bag.  Back on the trail for less than thirty seconds, the rain began.

At first it seemed like a gentle summer rain.  That feeling lasted all of another thirty seconds.  There was a loud thunderclap and the skies let loose.  As Javier and Jake sped downhill toward the crossing at Route 25, I could see that they would have trouble braking on the wet pavement.  Lightning lit up the sky and Javier’s deft maneuvering appeared in front of me like a dancer in a strobe light.  It was a series of still shots projected from a slide carousel.  Each fishtail of the tag-along was caught in a separate frame.  The whole scene played out in slow motion.

Javier managed to bring his runaway train to a stop in the grass just off the trail, well shy of the street crossing.  After a few tense moments waiting to cross Route 25, we continued north to the Prairie Street bridge.  We crossed the bridge in search of shelter.  We spied a gazebo in Mount Saint Mary Park, just south of our sidewalk.  With no direct route connecting the sidewalk to the walking path below, Javier took to the grass.  Sliding to safety on the walking path, Jake had had enough of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  He leaped from the tag-along and made a bee-line directly for the shelter, easily beating the four cyclists who were forced to follow the walking path.

Huddled amidst the rows of picnic tables beneath the roof of the open gazebo, we took stock of our situation.  Javier grabbed Jake’s jacket from his handlebar bag and Jake immediately pulled it over his soaked t-shirt.  Josh stood shivering in a jersey and shorts, wondering why he left the house that morning without his bike trunk and a jacket.  Eric, clad in tights and two top layers, was wet but not saturated.  My cycling jacket had zero rain repellant features.  My mountain bike shorts and jacket combined must have retained five pounds of rainwater.

The lightning that spooked Jake and forced us to take shelter subsided quickly enough.  The storm appeared to be moving off to the west of us.  Only nine miles separated the four and a half men from their two minivans.  The rain showed no sign of stopping.  The vans weren’t going to drive themselves down to pick us up.  I transferred my phone and wallet from my soaking shorts pocket to my trunk bag and slid on the reflective rain cover.  I clipped my flashing red light back on and switched on my headlight.  I knew what I had to do.

Both Eric and Josh offered to ride back with me.  There was no point in all three of us getting wet, so we left Josh to accompany Javier and Jake.  Remember, we couldn’t leave a man behind.

Eric and I had but one mutual goal as we headed north; ride safely.

It took awhile to cross Main Street in St. Charles.  As we followed the on-street route to the bike path, I remained behind with my flashing red taillight.  My sport hybrid was no match for Eric’s road bike as we sprinted toward the trail.  Once on the trail, however, my wider tires and straight handlebar offered greater maneuverability each time we encountered a washed out stretch of crushed limestone.

Our skills were complementary as we forged on through the steady rain.  Eric pulled and set the pace on the street sections.  I cleaned the lines through the washouts.  Aside from Eric dropping his chain in one sketchy section, we made seven miles without incident, weathering some pretty heavy downpours along the way.

As we prepared for our final two mile stretch, another cloudburst sent us scrambling for cover.  We took shelter beneath a canopy outside a liquor store in South Elgin.  Each lightning flash featured a simultaneous thunderclap.  The storm had moved back east as we had headed north.  It was now directly upon us.

The storm was extremely violent for about ten minutes.  Sirens from the fire department just west of us wailed on several separate occasions.  Unfazed, we waited patiently, talking about his family’s farm near the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wisconsin.  A tornado had touched down the previous week and his folks were finding pieces of the neighbor’s barn in their fields.  We were silently grateful that all we had to deal with was a little rain and some lightning.

When my astute powers of observation deemed that the lighting storm had passed, we took to the street en route to the last section of trail.  We could make it to our vehicles in less than eight minutes.

We hit the trail fast and hard.  The trail paralleled the railroad tracks as it snaked up and down rolling hills, twisting toward the river and back to the tracks.  With a mile left to go we encountered a tree branch blocking the trail.  This branch wasn’t on the trail when we passed through a few hours earlier.  It had recently snapped from its tree, breaking in a 70/30 manner with about six inches of clearance between the two pieces.  I pointed out the hazard and weaved through the break without incident.  Eric was about twenty feet behind when he made his attempt.

Zap!  A lightning bolt shot to the ground no more than 100 feet in front of me!  There was no thunderclap, only the amplified sizzle of a fly being electrocuted by a giant bug zapper.  The ringing in my left ear momentarily deafened me.  I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes – I heard it!

Stunned, I turned back to check on Eric.  He had barely cleared the branch when the bolt had assailed his eardrums, but he was still upright.  We were sitting ducks on the bike path.  Surrounded by trees halfway between our last shelter and our vehicles, we had no choice but to keep moving forward.  Another blinding flash about one hundred yards ahead made me second guess the wisdom of that decision.

The next four minutes were extremely tense as we pedaled onward to the parking area.  There were no further lightning strikes by the time we finally reached the two minivans.  I yanked open the sliding door, rolled my bike inside, and climbed in after it.  I stripped off my soaking jacket and jersey and toweled myself off with a rag from my tool kit.  Once dry and back in the driver’s seat, I pulled on a track jacket, started the van, and led Eric to St. Charles to retrieve our remaining two and a half men.

Freeing my phone from the trunk bag, I discovered a text message from Javier.  We would find the three of them taking shelter in the men’s room.  Not only did this provide four enclosed walls for the three of them and their bikes, it gave Jake a great sense of relief.  At least twice, I’m told…

Despite having to sit in soaking wet shorts, we kept our tradition of a post ride breakfast at Ray’s Family Restaurant in Elgin.  It’s the very rare occasion when I allow myself to deviate from my nutrition regimen and indulge in a plate of gyros and eggs.  It also gave us all the chance to rehash the day’s adventure with the usual embellishments that turn an unfortunate incident into an epic adventure.

At least in our minds…

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