The Mother Road: MS Ride 2010

N. and I spent the weekend in Oklahoma on the MS Ride, "Great Mother Road" edition. The ride starts in Tulsa and finishes in Oklahoma City, covering 138.8 miles of Historic Route 66, mostly smooth gray road with wide shoulders. N. and I had never spent this much time on bikes together. We've left the house together on bike rides, but I am usually looking at N. as a sliver of man and bike receding in the distance.

It was our first bike vacation. Or, as N. put it, "Two days of 70 miles uphill into headwinds." Potato, potahto.

The money we helped raise goes toward research that is aggressively improving the quality of life and longevity for people who live with multiple sclerosis. If you ever have the chance to do the MS ride, do it; if you can, donate. It immediately helps people who are toughing out much harder rides in life.

I'm not sure what there is to say about the ride itself. 1000 riders, more than half in teams; extremely well-marked route, a small army of volunteers standing at 138.8 miles of turns; well-stocked rest stops staffed by seemingly tireless people; police presence at intersections in the larger towns.

The route is flat. There were things we called hills but "gradient" is probably a closer word. Long slight inclines, mostly, as the elevation gradually rises from Tulsa to OKC; a set of rollers each day bookending the overnight stop in Chandler. The Oklahoma MS ride is 3 to 5 hours, depending on your power, of steady high-cadence pedaling, plus rest stops.

What's to say? You spin. You breathe fresh air, punctuated not too often by farm odors. You look over rolling, lush, rugged prairie; into ranchland dotted with black cattle that look like boxcars; through thick post oak woods; down into creeks and rivers lined with rock and trees. Elsewhere there are scenic views more majestic. But Oklahoma has beautiful land. Calming, quiet, untamed land, stretching out to the horizon. The gray road cuts through it. Land, sky, bicycle. You spin and keep spinning.

If you are fortunate, then like me you will roll up on someone who is not only riding at your pace but who is wonderful company for 100 miles. In my case, this is Judi, on MTB and road bikes for 16 years, loving everything about cycling. She rides in a much hillier part of the state and does bike tours in utterly fantastic places around the world. She powered past me on downhills like she was on greased rails, and I feathered past her on the climbs. On the flats, we told stories and laughed. Spinning spinning spinning.

N. took off on day 1 after Judi and I hooked up, but not before saying one of the most romantic and magical things of our entire marriage. We were rolling along side by side and the Palace Cafe team was about 200 yards ahead, working together really well. N. turns to me and says, "Let's go catch those guys."

Some of you will not see the big deal there. Some of you will completely understand.

We caught them.

On day 2, N. rode with me and Judi most of the way. I don't really know how or why he did this; it's difficult to ride slower than your pace. For FOUR HOURS. Wow. My favorite part of the ride from both days was a long false flat where Judi and I were lined up behind N., both of us silent and pedaling all out to hang onto wheels, working our tiny pace line for a half hour. Judi and I laughed at the rest stop; we were both a little tender and had wanted to stretch off the saddle but neither of us was willing to lose N.'s engine pulling our combined 300 pounds of women and bikes across the great state of Oklahoma.

You wouldn't think "windbreak" to look at him. And on day 2, wow, was there wind. The temperature had dropped 30 degrees overnight, plus another 10 of wind chill. At 2 AM, we'd woken up with our tent rattling in a whistling wind, clouds streaming across a full moon which was centered, Apollo-13 style, in the tent's triangle window. Both of us thought it and neither of us said it: CRAP. We have to ride in that in the morning. And it just kept getting colder and colder.

We hadn't brought jackets or arm warmers. We shook like chihuahuas from the time we got up until about an hour into the ride. N. has fewer insulating properties than I do. I was pedaling a lot less quickly than he was. The first hour was a painful slog, north over rollers into a frigid north wind under overcast skies and over pavement that was cratered so badly (in two cases, an entire lane carved like the Pacific Basin) that someone, not the MS Ride crew, had spray-painted, "Fuck this road! This is shit road!" on the remaining road surface.

Finally we turned south; the sun came out and the sky cleared and the variable wind swirled around us the rest of the day. Crosswinds and pavement cracks but nothing to curse at. It's Oklahoma; once it was sunny, the wind felt homelike; I've leaned into that wind walking; I've stood up against that wind. This was a moderate version of the wind I knew. We caught tailwind enough times to feel really lucky.

It was cool to ride a bicycle over the miles of road I've driven so often that I already had pet names for some of my favorite curves and stretches. It was SUPER cool to do it without legs screaming for mercy. It was cool to ride into Oklahoma City, my city, past the zoo and museums, through neighborhoods I knew. It was cool to make the last turn onto the grand boulevard, the capitol building and dome looming square and center, and ride in with bands playing and people clapping.

N. braked and held up at the very last second so he and I could ride over the finish line side by side. Big smile.

Would I do it again? You bet. But I'd do it with a team. And if you're considering the MS Ride as your first long ride and live in the Midwest, consider Oklahoma. The weather can bite you, but the route is friendly to any cyclist and the people even friendlier.