Trying to beat the cold front: Clinton to Havana
Wednesday April 17, 2013, 73 miles (118 km) – Total so far: 174 miles (280 km)
Today is a race. And I will lose.
There is a strong cold front advancing toward Illinois today. Strong storms are forecast with its arrival. However, it should not arrive until the evening, and I should have good southeasterly tailwinds until it hits. My choice today is: go long to Havana (71 miles) or go short to Lincoln (34 miles). There is really nothing in between. So I take up the challenge and decide to go long.
I zip out of Clinton with a 15+ mph tailwind. I fly along and it finally feels super fun!! I get to Lincoln in record time for an unfit person. I do 28 miles in less than 1.5 hours. Contrast this to 2010 when I fought headwinds between these two towns and it took me all day to cover the same distance!
I head to the info centre in Lincoln and ask the lady there if she could look up the radar, thinking this will save me time and a trip to McDonalds. However, as friendly as she is, she is not all that helpful and can’t find a radar webpage. She does find something that says the rain is not expected in Lincoln until 5 pm. The time I waste in here is probably equivalent to the time I spend getting absolutely soaked by a thunderstorm at the end of the day. DOH!!
So I end up at McDonalds using the wifi. There is lots of yellow, orange and red hovering just at the edge of the radar screen to the northwest of Havana, but it still seems possible to do the 40-some miles with the good tailwind. So off we go.
The landscape begins to get more hilly, particularly after Mason City. I’m moving along pretty well, about 15 mph, knowing I need to push it hard to get to Havana before the storms. Even with the tailwind, it’s going to be close.
So up and down the hills and across the valleys I go, the landscape so glacially sculpted I try to imagine this all being carved out by glacial streams heading into the ancestral Illinois River. Finally, at mile 56, I stop for a quick break, my first stop in 30 miles. I stop next to a cemetery. I notice the flag is looking lazy in its slow and limp movement. My good tailwind has drastically dropped in the last 15-20 minutes.
Then, as I push off and cross over a hill, my great day literally does a 180. The road surface turns to crap – a rough, big-rock, chip-seal. And the wind flips northwest. No easing through the cardinal directions in a clock-wise manner, just a complete shift in the opposite direction. Just like that. I can’t believe it for a moment. What? It can’t be. Oh, yes it can! The sky begins to brood, growing dark and misty to the northwest. The trees in the distance begin to disappear into a foggy mist, indicating I’m going to get wet soon, too.
In under 3 minutes, I go from doing 14 mph to less than 8 mph. Within 3 miles (I have 12 to go), the wind is gusting out of the NNW at 15mph, and the drizzle has begun. The wind drives the drizzle into my face in sheet after sheet of mist. Everything gets wet quite quickly, but I keep pushing as hard as I can. I plod along at 5 mph into the wind. When going west, I can get up to 9 mph.
I finally get some better pavement and feel very appreciative for it. I also keep repeating over and over, “Thank you – no thunderstorms til Havana”. I head north again, but there are some trees to break the gusty headwind which keeps growing stronger. I am thankful for those trees, too. It is still slow going, and the driving drizzle is COLD. I go so slow in the final section of northbound travel, I could have just walked. I take a picture here because I really need a break at this point, especially after I see the hilly westbound road I need to use up ahead. The first rumbles of thunder push me on, though.
Up and down the hilly terrain we go – absolutely exhausted at this point. I’m tired and done! As I crest the final hill between two tall cell phone towers, there’s a lightning flash and an immediate crash of thunder. Shit! Then, as I roll down to Hwy 67, it starts to absolutely pour. In the low visibility, I can see a McDonald’s sign in the distance, less than a mile away, to the north. I ride into the wind and pouring rain, water dripping off my helmet, my nose, my… everything.
I throw the bike up against a railing, grab my handlebar bag and dash into the safety of the Golden Arches. I head straight to the toilet. I peel down my clothes like a wet swimsuit, use the bathroom, try to make myself presentable (not really possible) and go order some hot food. I’m not hungry, but anything hot sounds fine right now.
I sit there watching it bucket down outside. The sky gets a bit lighter about 15 minutes later, but it doesn’t stop raining. The sky is incredibly angry-looking to the west, though. Then, it gets so dark, it is like night, and I go out and lock the bike to the railing in case the wind goes crazy.
As the next storm pummels Havana, everyone in the store is talking about the weather and each person entering the store has a story about torrential rain, or tree branches down, or flooded roads, or stuck tractors, etc. It’s so nasty out there, I even move away from the big plate-glass window… just in case. As I listen to the conversations about storm damage, I look up motels on the internet and see that the one just across the street gets absolutely horrid reviews. The one out near the supermarket has good reviews. I ring there, and they have rooms.
When the radar and the sky outside indicate a brief let-up between big storms, I make a break for it. Off I go through the rain and massive puddles – rear blinkie light flashing. The Indian couple at the motel are very nice and are very interested in my trip. They invite me to come back and talk cricket and bicycles after I’ve gotten warmed up and dried out.
The storms go nuts outside again, deeply shaking the building and roaring like a tempest. There are thunderstorm and tornado warnings being issued all over the place. Later on, there is a tornado warning declared for Havana. The warning sirens go off outside. I gather up Verne, Kermit, my passports and all my valuables and put them next to the bath tub, in case we need to shelter there. Luckily, nothing eventuates, and the rest of the night is just full of brilliant flashes of lightning and long, reverberating rolls and rumbles of thunder.
The adrenalin wears off and I slump into the bed full of fatigue. This has certainly not been an ideal start to a bike tour. And today, even though I rode as hard and fast as I could, I still lost the race to Havana.