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The First Ten Miles by David Serrins

The First Ten Miles of the 2013 Spring Shiner Double

As cyclists in central Texas, we know that the prevailing winds in our area come from the south year-round except during a few days of winter and with the arrival of a cold front. North wind hangs around for a day or two and then swings back around to the south.

Additionally, we cyclists like to get out into the countryside to avoid traffic with the understanding that the wind will be stronger out there than in the city. Wind stories are the fish stories of cyclists. Whether we ride a loop, out-and-back, or some squiggly hybrid of the two, on a windy day we will suffer headwind and crosswind for part of the ride but enjoy a tailwind at some point along the way. We often deliberately route our rides to fight the wind during the first part of the ride and glide back home with a tailwind. Everyone has legendary stories about windy days.

For the now-annual spring edition of the Shiner Double, we hope—and almost assume—tailwind on Friday when the ride goes from Shiner to Austin. In my six years of organizing and participating in the spring Shiner Double, tailwind for Friday’s leg is assumed and usually reliable. I recall only one instance where we didn’t have a tailwind on Friday. The first year that I rode the Friday leg, a cold front blew in as we approached the mid-point of the ride in McMahan. The wind swung around from the north and the temperature dropped by at least 10 degrees with a few minutes. With only five riders on the ride, the headwind trip from McMahan to Austin became a bit of a grind, but we had a great time nonetheless. But usually we catch a tailwind of ten or more miles and hour out of Shiner and cruise comfortably in the 20s most of the way home to Austin. I recall several spring Shiner Fridays where the group was downright giddy while cruising along, taking effortless pulls, and basking in a perfect day of hooky.

With a week left before this year’s ride, the forecast called for a strong north wind. I spent the week hoping for a change in the forecast as predicting weather in Texas in the spring is dicey at best and I was hoping we would get lucky. The only change during the week was an increase in expected wind. What was expected to be a north wind in the teens grew each day to be a north wind in the 20s. A big arctic front roared through Colorado early in the week, dropping snow in May after everything was supposed to be melted and muddy. Central Texas felt the front hit on Wednesday. The temperature dropped into the 30s and 40s overnight and the wind on Thursday was huge with scary gusts of 30-40 miles an hour. Thursday wasn’t a proper day to be on a bike, and Friday looked like it would be an epic day to be on a bike heading northward. The forecast was for 15-20 miles an hour north wind in Austin in the morning and 20-25 miles an hour in Shiner.

Eighteen riders gathered at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner to ride between 90 and 120 miles—depending on the final destination—from the brewery to their hotels, homes, or waiting cars in Austin. The temperature was unseasonable cold in 40s and everyone could feel that wind as they kitted up for the ride. We’d felt the power of the wind moving the car around on the road as we drove crosswind from Gonzalez to Shiner. We knew it was going to be a really tough day on the bike. We stopped in front of the brewery for a group photo, then Alex Rodriguez and I led the group out of the parking lot and onto Texas Highway 95.

For those unfamiliar with 95, it starts in Yoakum, just south of Shiner, going northward through one Texas railroad town after another, including Moulton, Flatonia, Smithville, Bastrop, Elgin, Coupland, Taylor, Granger, Bartlett, Holland, and Little River-Academy before its termination in Temple. The Bagel Ride crosses 95 every week, and cyclists in our area are familiar with the towns that it connects. 95 is a two-lane rural highway with 8 to 10 feet of shoulder on both sides. Huge cracks litter the shoulder of 95 like most rural highway shoulders in Texas nowadays. Semi truck traffic on 95 is much heavier these days than in the past because of all of the fracking happening in the area.

Alex and I didn’t notice that no one was behind us as we got onto the highway. We tried to soft-pedaled to warm up for a minute or so. As we pedaled, the highway bent from a northeast trajectory to north and we started to really feel the full force of the wind in our faces. We couldn’t soft-pedal at all. Once Alex and I noticed that no one was behind us, we decided to duck onto a side street to wait for everyone to catch up.

The group passed a minute later, and we tagged onto the back. Directions for the first 10 miles of the route are easy—go north up 95—so I didn’t worry about not being at the front to call out the turns.

We usually leave Shiner in a non-rotating double paceline and cruise northward with the tailwind to Moulton without issue. It’s always exciting to get on the road out of Shiner, looking forward to a great day on the bike. The mood in the group is always light and fun, with those in front taking long and comfortable pulls. The ride up 95 is usually our chance to warm up.

But this ride was different. The group wasn’t forming into a double paceline at all. Instead, the group was singled-up and struggling already. From the get-go, the wind wreaked havoc. I could see from body language that some people were going into survival mode. Losing the wheel meant being dispatched from the group immediately. For those who know the terrain up 95 from Shiner, the big rollers weren’t helping. At 15 miles an hour, we trudged up 95. There was no way to take it easy and warm up comfortably in these conditions. It was an assault from the start and we were the ones being assaulted. Bundled up for cold temps in knee warmers, a heavy long sleeve base layer, toe covers, and ear covers, the effort required to push into the wind had me sweating underneath my layers within the first two miles.

Knowing the route as well as I know the way between Shiner and Austin can be both a blessing and a curse. I don’t need a map. I know every turn, town name, store stop, what to expect at various intersections, and more. I know when to expect the tough stretches. I know where we usually start dropping people so I know where we need to be attentive to look after each other. I know that we ride exactly 10 miles along 95 before we get off the highway in Moulton to get onto back roads.

10 miles. Exactly.

And knowing that we needed to go 10 miles turned into the worst thing in the world for me. I kept looking at my odometer to see how far we’d gone, and to calculate how much more of this purgatory we had remaining. I knew we’d be better once we were off 95. Maybe that was an advantage in a way, because others less familiar with the route might have thought that the entire ride would be done in these conditions. I wanted us to get off 95 so badly.

Conversations hardly existed within the group. Everyone had his or her head down, digging deep, working hard to stay on the wheel. Our heros at the front were wasting themselves to lead and offer a little draft in a situation where no one really had shelter. It wasn’t their fault. The wind was cocked slightly to the left. The draft wasn’t there. I tried to shingle off to the right in the shoulder a bit, but the combination of road cracks and being on the wheel of riders struggling to hold their line in huge gusts made the right a dangerous place to be.

If you’re still reading at this point, you’re possibly thinking, “Is he still describing the first ten miles of a friendly group ride?” Yes. And if you’ve ever found yourself out there, in the wide open on your bike on an impossibly windy day, you know that every moment and pedal stroke is considered even on a friendly group ride.

At fourteen miles an hour, twice as many semis came around us as usual. Semis passed and threw more crazy wind at us. Those coming from the opposite direction really blew us around as they stopped the headwind for a moment to throw bursts of wind at us from the front and side. Those changes in wind caused little blips of chaos in the our line. A few passing vehicles honked, which didn’t help the stress level in the group.

Every time we started and climbed a hill, the wind subsided a bit. As we crested the hill, the wind hit us full-on and then got weird as it twisted and turned across the naked hills. The wide open rolling farmland around Henkhaus intensified the severity of the wind. Downhill stretches of little relief as they meant we’d be rolling faster but the wind would be coming at us from varying directions and degrees across the exposed countryside.

And I kept looking at my odometer. It was taking forever to tick up to 10. More than once I thought, “If we turned around now, we could ride the tailwind back to the cars and head back to Austin.” No way. Later in the day, numerous riders told me that they’d had the same thoughts as we slogged up 95. I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one.

People were asking me how long we’d be on 95. They wanted to know when the torture would end. I kept telling people that the turn would be at 10 miles and to keep up the good work. We all offered thanks and cheers of “good pull” or “good work” to riders as they dropped back from taking a pull. Too bad there wasn’t a lot of relief at the back. Of course, it was better than being at the front, but with 18 riders one would usually expect real shelter from the wind. No one really had shelter as we crawled northward. It was a test of will and we were all in it together.

Little by little, we progressed and got to the last little hill into Moulton. The leader of the paceline dropped back and the new leader hit the gas. A gap opened and Alex took off to have a word with the rider who surged ahead with only two or three riders on his wheel. I am not sure what Alex told him, but his message must have been to take it easy and keep the group together for the rest of the day because—except for one rider taking a flyer on the way into Elroy later in the ride—we kept everyone together and looked after each other for the rest of the day.