Redbud Ride was equal parts misery and luxury

By Captain

Those cyclists who signed up for the annual Redbud Ride’s 100 miles, come hell or high water, were deterred by neither. And they had both.

When, around 9 a.m., a hellish rain began with a drizzle, then let up with a feint to something better, only to deteriorate into something worse, the century riders rode on. With perhaps 70 miles to go,  they must have wondered: Will this ever end?

Though riding a shorter route, we asked that same question about the rain – and about the ride. Would either ever end? The answer, mercifully, was that both ended, one with sunshine and the other with, glory hallelujah, a massage.

The short story here is that April 25th was a good day for the Patio Boys. We came, we rode, we celebrated. Along the way, we experienced the incredible hospitality of the Historic Green Mountain Diner, which appeared on our horizons at a particularly desperate time. Outside, it was wet and cold. Inside, the coffee was hot and the space heater hotter. Hot enough, in fact, to melt one of John Hennessey’s polypropylene cycling socks, which he’d placed on the heater to dry. He would have to finish the ride with one sock and a partially melted shoelace. Oh the hardship!

This was the third year that John Curtin and I have ridden the Redbud. That first year the two of us on a mission of discovery. What we found was that the Redbud is surely one of the most beautiful rides going, passing through the rolling foothills of the Appalachians after leaving the charming confines of downtown London, Ky., population 8,092. It is, by trademark, “The Cycling Capital of Kentucky” – a bit boastful but why not?

Soon out of London, cyclists are on a slow downhill with pastures on either side and cows mooing and making methane. In time, the route veers through spring forests and along a small river. The ride is named "Redbud"  because this signature tree of the mountains is just coming into bloom about this time, and its bright, purplish pink light up the woods. The ride might just as easily have been called the Dogwood Ride, as those gorgeous trees are blooming, too, perhaps even more abudantly than the redbuds.

We returned in 2014 with more Patio Boys in tow – Dave Heidrich, John Hennessey and Paul Guenthner. Both years, we made a weekend of it, coming down with spouses on Friday night and staying at the Boone Tavern in Berea, with dinner at the “So Amazing” Papaleno's Restaurant. I’m quoting a Yelp review there, but it's amazingly accurate. A Papaleno’s pizza is almost worth the trip south itself, especially with friends.

This year, we changed the game plan a bit, driving to London on Saturday morning to register and ride. We still booked ourselves at the Boone Tavern, but this year for Saturday night after the ride. And we still dined at Papaleno’s.

This trip was iffy all week, given a forecast of unrelenting rain. We are not fond of cancelling things based on a forecast; nor are we fond of getting stuck in the rain. So we kept an eye on things, ready go or stay, depending on the latest from NOAA. Come Saturday morning, it was not raining and radar suggested it might not rain at all in southeas Kentucky's midsection. Indeed, we arrived in London under cloudy skies but on dry pavement, registered for the 70-mile route, had a pancake and sausage at the starting gate tent, and took off – John Curtin, John Hennessey and me. Not far behind us and planning to ride half as far and more casually were Bob and Brenda Pauly and Bill and Jan Ankenbauer.

The temperature was comfortable in the 50s, and since the ride begins downhill for several miles it as a relatively easy start, though someone mentioned being a little sore from a 22-mile warmup ride earlier in the week. We haven't ridden much this season, so we aren't yet saddle-tough. But on a longer ride, that goes away after a little time or at least goes unnoticed.

What didn’t go unnoticed were the clouds. By mile 10, they were doing what clouds do: precipitating. At first, it was just a drizzle. Tolerable if a nuisance. With riding spectacles on, the rain obscured the lenses. With riding specs off, you had to squint to see. Speed had to be adjusted down. Our 70-mile ride might take a long longer or become shorter.

At mile 18, the Crossroads Fire Station appeared, the first rest stop and an oasis to be sure. We pulled in, happy to take a little shelter and partake of the snacks. Peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, brownies, granola bars. No wonder another rider who pulled in said, “This is the only ride on which I gain weight.” Later stops had chicken salad, pimento salad, more Papa John’s pizza than a Papa John's, chips, pretzels and little chocolate cake balls that were about as decadent as food can be. The hostesses at this stop dress up according to a theme each year. One year it was a pajama party, so they all looked as if they hadn't bothered to dress after getting up. This year, it was country music, so they played some and wore cowgirl stuff. They were having a good time, even if the riders were not. And they weren't. Most pulled into this first SAG – as the rest stops are called – dispirited and questioning the wisdom of spending this particular Saturday out in the elements.

To make matters worse, the temperature began to drop,  maybe as much as 10 degrees. A white board by the food tables had a forecast written in Dry Erase marker: “Continued rain.”  Cell phone service was one bar, so we were not able to check the radar for specifics. Bob, Bill, Jan and Brenda had gone a different route from ours, so we weren’t sure how they were doing – except to assume that anyone out in this would rather be home worming the dog. Later, Brenda would admit, “I almost didn’t go.” It was already raining when they were leaving London, a few minutes behind us.

We have a saying in the Patio Boys: “Be firm but flexible.” For a hike, that means we make a plan and stick to it – unless, of course, we do not. We have famously discarded plans on a whim to ill effect. But we’ve revised plans rationally to good effect. For the spring 2015, hike, for example, we planned four days in the Smoky Mountains. But the forecast was unambiguous in promising serious rain, at least by Sunday morning. Too many times we have had to slog out of the Smokies a day early and then suffer through the five or six hours of driving home, windshield wipers keeping time for what feels long one long dirge. Misery. So, instead of the Smokies, Bob Pauly found us an easy hike in the Red River Gorge. If the deluge came, we could hustle out and home, which is what we did on Sunday morning as woods turned unequivocally wet.

That trip, just a week earlier, was in our minds on this ride. It might be time to be more flexible than firm. John Hennessey and I were already shivering, and when you shiver on an 18-pound, carbon fiber road bike, the whole bike shivers with you. A shivering bike doesn’t feel very stable going over country pavement. We pulled off to assess along U.S. 25 (I think) in front of a ranch home with a white Mercedes under the carport and a women getting in.

“How far to London?” we called out.

“Nine miles straight up the highway. I know. I drive it all the time,” she replied.

“Not bad,” we replied.

“If I had to ride a bike nine miles, I’d go right back inside and go to bed!” she said emphatically.

We joked about what a good idea that seemed – but couldn’t help think about the discrepancy in how she viewed nine miles and how we did. For us, nine miles seemed close. Maybe we should just go back to London and call it a day.

Or maybe not. I was in the lead and about a quarter mile down the road the choice was go straight and go home, or turn left and stick with the ride a little more. We might get 50 miles in at least. I turned left. Hennessey and Curtin followed.

The shivering stopped, or nearly did, but it remained miserable. What wasn’t miserable was the view from the saddle. All around the Appalachian spring was a wonder. The woods were starting to fill out, unlike the thin, post-winder, pre-spring woods of the Red River Gorge just one week earlier. The dogwoods added a touch of class. And the timeless beauty of these foothills was around every turn.

And there was entertainment. Every few miles, there would be spray-painted on the road in big white letters the word “DOG” and an arrow pointing to some nearby yard as a warning. No dogs every materialized, except one on a chain now and then.

This route is really something to enjoy. It had steep hills now and then, but is mostly rolling until the end – and the landscape varies between forest and farm, with enough variety to keep things interesting. Outside of London, you never go through a town – though maybe a settlement or two. There’s one major hill, Tousy, that tests you; but we were not routed toward it any longer because at the firehouse we had decided 50 miles would be our max, not 70.

By now, we were soaked. Dry socks would be worth a million bucks. Mine were bunching up and uncomfortable in that manner in addition providing no warmth. As we came down a steep hill, the Green Mountain Diner appeared in front of us, and a woman was in the doorway, drinking a hot cup of coffee. “How’s a cup of coffee sound?” I asked Hennessey, to which he replied without hesitation or equivocation, “That sounds great.”

And so we pulled in, dismounted our bikes, and went inside to what is surely, by nightfall, a mountain honky-tonk. A red drum set awaiting the band, but by day this was a diner as advertised – with burgers and sodas. The ladies of the Green Mountain had a pot of Folger’s going, and were anxious to offer it for free. We three must have seemed exotic, weird and downright unnecessary to the human race to our hostesses, who aren’t accustomed to men wearing spandex and entertaining themselves by riding bicycles in the rain for fun, at least not past the age of 13. But there was no denying the novelty of us, and they enjoyed that. They also decided we needed mothering, so they turned on the space heaters and made a fresh pot of coffee and told us to warm up.

And we did.

First things first: Off with the bike shoes and soaked socks. The space heater’s warmth was immediate. “Look,” said one of them about one of us. “That one has his shoes off!” And she laughed with delight. Spotting another of us shoeless, feet propped on a chair beside the space heater, she commented further, “And that one’s toes is blue.” We might just as well have been zoo animals and they the zoo’s very appreciative patrons. But if being a spectacle to the spectators was part of the price of admission to warmth and dry socks, we were game. For the next hour or so, we whiled away our time in sweet comfort. Someone should get a new trail name out of this: That One.

Back on the road, the weather began improving with incredible speed. The rain dwindled, then stopped. The sun came up. Hennessey’s odometer also has a thermometer on it – inexplicitly reading distance in kilometers and temperature in Fahrenheit, which is the sort of thing that amuses those who are easily amused, i.e., us.  Out of the 50s, the temperature rose into the 60s and then the 70s. In short order, we were shedding layers.

A ride that had started in misery was quickly becoming unrealistically pleasant. We were off route – returning the way we started, then veering off to catch a piece of another loop, so as to find 50 miles total versus 36 miles if we had just retraced our out route. What that did, quite unexpectedly, was compress the distance between support stops. Now, it seemed, we were hitting one every five miles, including big one: lunch. No longer in a hurry, given the improved weather and the reduced distance, from 70 miles planned to 50 miles now, we lingered over lunch, discussing with fellow rides the upcoming hills. At the next rest stop, a church, the service was especially choice. A boy greeted every cyclist with an urgent, immediate, “Do you need a refill?” And if the answer was yes, he was off to the Gatorade cooler with the rider’s water bottle. Once again, we elected to sit a spell and discuss the day and the next hill, an especially nasty one. It rises steeply, flattens, then rises again – setting the stage for the final 20 or so miles of this route, which is mostly uphill, though never again as steep as this stretch unless you count the final quarter mile into town.

For all of this, we took our time, waiting on one another if someone fell behind; that is, until Hennessey could feel the finish with about 10 miles to go and so headed off alone to the burgers, beans and a massage. As for the massage, a state association of massage therapists had set up four beds and a table, offering their services for $1 a minute. John Curtin treated us to 10 minutes each. We each had some area in special need – a neck, a back, a calf. Not since the Green Mountain Diner’s space heaters and coffee had this ride provided so much luxury.

By now, our cell phones were full of missed calls and texts, most of which involved asking our whereabouts. The rest of crew, the Ankenbauers, the Paulys, our wives and the Heidrichs, Dave and Paula, were in Berea at the Historic Boone Tavern, our Saturday night destination. The Heidrichs were scheduled to ride, but Dave was barely back from mission trip to South Africa, and between the jetlag and the weather forecast, decided to invoke the flexible over the firm. He would come down for the post-ride socializing but no way would he be riding. Good call.

 “We’d be there shortly,” we promised, by which we meant in a couple of hours. Massages first.

The Boone Tavern, like the Green Mountain Diner, has “Historic” in the title. The two places have little else in common, however, the Boone Tavern being the sort of place Rhett Butler would stay on his way south to Atlanta and the Green Mountain Diner being the sort of place he would avoid or at least not mention to Scarlett. On this particular evening, the Boone Tavern was hosting weddings and some proms. Apparently, high schools deeper in the mountains bus their juniors and seniors to Berea for prom – and parents spent the night at the Boone Tavern. I guess it’s a nice way to class up senior prom if your high school is tucked into some little burg in the heart of the coalfields. There was a stream of limos and family cars dropping off girls in drop-dead prom attire, some of it a little risqué, in the opinion of a father of three daughters, that is, me. The boys were typical prom dates. By that, I mean a typical array. Most were content in a tux, making the frame around a work of art – the art being their date, the girl. But some needed the attention for themselves, so there was the obligatory peacock in his white tail and top hat and another boy in a tux and Chuck Taylors. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m not sure why, but all of these kids, dressed for making whoopee, paraded across the street to have their pictures taken on the steps of a local church. Their parents seemed oblivious to the irony.

We watched all of this from the veranda of the Boone Tavern, sublimely succored by libations imported from our homes plus an assortment of cheeses and antipasti that the ever-gracious Jackie Hennessey brought along. We discussed all of the world’s important issues, including whether or not Paula Heidrich should buy the old Ford truck she’d seen coming into Berea for $1,500. Seemed like a lot, until Bob Pauly asked: “How many people here spend more than $1,500 on a bicycle.” He did not. But Bobby wouldn’t spend $1,500 for floor seats a University of Kentucky basketball game, the one thing he wants most out of life. However, others of us did spend that much or more on our bikes – so an old truck began to seem fairly priced.

It during this respite that my brother, David Neikirk, happened by. Now a resident of Berea, he was on his way to a local medical center, where is mother-in-law, Sassy, was resting and rehabilitating. He promised to join us later at Papaleno’s, though foul weather would disrupt that plan.

Foul weather? Yes, the rain returned, this time with a vengeance. “I don’t think it could rain any harder,” someone said, correctly. It looked as if the clouds had descended to within a few feet of Berea’s streets and just emptied themselves of all their rain, as if dumping buckets of water. Everyone’s phone alerts buzzed at once. A tornado warning. Take cover! “I will, but not before my pizza comes,” said Bill Ankenbauer, who, being in TV news, had paid attention to tornado warnings a few times in life without abandoning his station. The rational and nervous Maryann Curtin kept reminding us, “This place is all glass. We need to go somewhere safe.” Bill stepped in at this point with a very precise weather app that informed him that any tornado was perhaps 30 miles off, but hail would begin soon. His sentence was no sooner out that hail began. Though mostly pea-sized, a few marbles of hail also fell for about five minutes. So now, after a morning of hell and high water, we had hail and high water. Maybe because ice had been in short supply from the Papaleno’s ice machine, Bob Pauly requisitioned some appropriately sized hail for his Heaven Hill. So he had Heaven and hail.

The pizza came, we dined, the rain tapered off, and we went back to the Boone Tavern, which had prudently evacuated its guests to the basement during the tornado warning. Satiated with food and drink, there was time for us to review the day, and for the two separate cycling groups to compare notes. Were you cold, too? OMG! Freezing. Did you have hills? Too many. Did your dress right for the weather? No. Got soaked. Did you have a good time? Absolutely. What’s SAG stand for? That question was particularly pertinent because an official Redbud Ride magnetic SAG sign had been mysteriously placed on the door of Hennessey’s Ford Edge, giving it an official look.

Being lifelong movie buffs, we know SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild, though probably not in a cycling context. “Stop and Go,” I suggested, but no one was buying that. “Support and something,” came another unhelpful guess. “Support and gear” was also suggested. Brenda Pauly thought it stood for nothing. It was just a word written in all caps to identify the vehicles that lag, or sag, behind to support those riders lagging and sagging. Hennessey, his vehicle now unofficially tagged to sag, felt he had the authority to settle this. “Support and grub” was his answer, since on the Redbud Ride the food stops were call SAG stops. He added, “All I can say is that my SAG wagon is trashed after consecutive weekends of hiking and biking.” Hmm. Maybe SAG stands for “Sorry About Going.”

And there you have it. The 2015 Redbud Ride, equal parts misery and luxury. We’ll be back.