Words and photos: Chris Reichel
Originally published in Issue #41
I had decided to do something I had dreamed about since I was a kid: to ride across the United States. I already had a habit of turning simple ride ideas into what I like to call “great bad ideas” and this particular bad idea has been a long time in the making. I now have a full-fledged mountain bike addiction, so why not tow a trailer with a mountain bike on it, stopping at great trails along the way? I called it the Ultimate Ride to the Ride.
I never once thought eastern Colorado and Kansas would be easy. I have heard enough stories from other riders to respect the difficulty of the prairie. But I had no idea just how much it would try to destroy me.
Most of my suffering was my fault. I came into this ride completely underprepared and out of shape. I could only laugh at the fact that while I was spending so much time arranging my life to exit society and live on my bicycle, that I had no time to actually ride. As I rode away from Longmont, Colorado, to start the trip, I hit the eastern Colorado prairie like it was training camp. There is no better way to get into riding shape than to ride all day, every day.
Day three of any tour is the hardest. It is the physical and mental barrier that will bring down even the strongest of riders. By this point soreness has caught up with you and the realization that you have a long way to go finally sets in. I have lived through it dozens of times before and this time was no different. I punched through and by day six I was in Kansas. My mileage was steadily increasing and by day 10 I was in full touring mode. Training camp over. Time to really ride.
Hitting my stride at that point, I was having a blast. I rolled into the town of Hill City with 70 miles behind me and feeling great. This was already my biggest day of the trip and I didn’t see any reason to stop now. I was stuffing my face with ice cream in a gas station parking lot when a man stopped to talk to me. He introduced himself as Jeramy and said he was a cyclist too. I told him my planned route for the rest of the evening but he recommended a better way, a way that had less traffic and no gravel roads. I thanked him and decided to take his advice.
Sure enough, he was right. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside at sunset. I had just pulled over to switch on my lights when a truck slowly pulled up along side me. It was Jeramy and a buddy. They thought I could use a beer so they drove out to find me. We hung out in a cornfield talking bikes and beer until nearly midnight.
My riding was obviously done for the day and I decided to camp right where we were standing. It was a 5-star day of bike touring. I woke up suddenly at 4 a.m. to my phone ringing. I was a little foggy listening to the voicemail, but it was Jeramy and he sounded serious. “Man, there is a really bad storm coming your way. It’s on my house right now or else I’d come get ya. Please find shelter. It’s REALLY bad!”
It was a little breezy around me, and I could hear some thunder in the distance, but nothing seemed very serious. I started to pull up the weather radar on my phone when, all of the sudden, I lost service. Just like that, the wind picked up and the thunder was right on top of me. There were some culverts near by, but how bad could it be? It was a beautiful night when I went to sleep.
I made the decision to stay in the tent with all of my belongings. I put my back to the wind and braced the side of my tent. I spread my legs as wide as I could to secure the corners of the tent and I held the crossbar in the tent’s ceiling. The wind was getting ferocious and with a single gust all of the stakes ripped from the ground. The rainfly started whipping me in the back so hard that I felt the zipper break the skin.
Then the rain came like a wave and I was instantly sitting in two inches of water. When the lightning flashed I could see the water rushing into all of my dry bags that I had poorly sealed before falling asleep. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t let go of the tent. This was starting to get serious. The wind speed continued to increase and I was now getting hit with debris. A few gusts were so strong that they caught the tent just right and started to lift me off the ground.
Then I heard a sound that I will never forget. Imagine standing next to a freight train. Now turn that sound up to 11 and mix in the demons of hell. It sounded like pure evil. It was so loud that at one point I let out a scream just see if I could hear it, and I couldn’t.
At that moment the tent poles finally broke and I instinctively rolled myself up like a burrito in the rain fly. Funny thing is that I remember being so calm, that I actually wondered why I was so calm. All I could think to myself was “Is this really a tornado in Kansas? How cliché.”
The noise passed as fast as it came and by the time the rain stopped it was dawn. I assessed the damage and it wasn’t pretty. My tent was flattened, all of my possessions were soaked and my cameras were under water. My bike rig had been moved about 15 feet downwind and my helmet was nowhere to be seen.
I busied myself with spreading my gear out to dry. Jeramy drove out to see if I was okay and handed me a beer to calm my nerves. I guess I looked a little shaken up. He informed me that the news reported a tornado touched down “just over there” and pointed at a field close to where we were standing. That was heavy news to hear. I just rode out a tornado. In my tent.
Suddenly I wasn’t so upset about my ruined camera gear. I was just happy to be breathing. At that moment I was done. Get me out of here and take me home now. If there was a big red button that I could press to end the trip I would have pressed it. Transport me back to the comfort of my home trails and my neighborhood pub. Back to my comfortable little house and my mediocre job.
But I didn’t set out on this trip to be comfortable. I did it to ride bikes and have unique experiences. I have to chalk up that crazy night to another experience and move on down the road. Plus, after 400 miles, I am almost to the singletrack. I can’t quit now, I have worked so hard to get this far. So I sucked it up and pedaled on down the road. Like a moth to a flame, I went to the trails.
Read More! Check out the seven-part series about this trip that Reichel wrote for our sister magazine, Dirt Rag.