Monday, May 5, 2008

Altus Wine Tour - The Sign That Wasn't There

There were no takers for this past weekend's offering of the Road I class, so I tool a bet mid-week and signed up for the Altus Wine Tour ride on Saturday. I'd heard good reports about last year's ride, and the event t-shirt (the fluorescently-colored logo on a black tee) looked really cool. While I'm getting better, I'm still pretty much a weenie on hills -- especially the kind like they have up there in the Ozarks -- and the 17-mile "fun ride" promised a champagne brunch and winery tour at the end. All event amenities shut off at 2:00 p.m., so that meant there wouldn't be much of anything for the century riders, and even those doing the metric (62-mile) loop would have to hustle to get back in time for any goodies. So, with a bunch of miles on the meter this week already, I signed up for the 17-miler, anticipating a leisurely cruise with a bunch of leisurely cyclists.


ABC contingent at Altus… Brad Joseph, Jim Britt, Tom E., Janice Peters, Jenny Rainwater at the Post Familie winery

Most of the ABC contingent headed out Friday afternoon for a stay in the local hostels. Me, I rolled out at 4:15, showered, put my team gear on, fed and walked Sam, then was on the road at a quarter of 5, and on I-40 in cruise control by the 5 o'clock morning news. Dawn crept up just a hair past Russellville, when I noticed the pine trees and bushes by the roadside bowed over by a wicked west wind. Temperatures were dropping, too.. what was a balmy 65 when I left the Toltec rural limits was now around 50 or so; reminding me that I had left my thermal tights back in the dresser drawer at home. Got to Clarksville about good daylight, and stopped at a truck stop for a bottle of citrus Gatorade and a couple of Little Debbie oatmeal sandwich cookies to fuel the ride, having ignored not only Biker Rule # 1 ("Be prepared...") but Biker Rule # 2 ("Eat before you're hungry..." in the hasty early dawn departure. Altus proved to be a little bitty town about 15 miles up the local highway from Clarksville, and at this early hour (a little before 7:00) the ride volunteers were just showing up and setting up. I was about the 4th person to check in (though the line quickly lengthened. Check-in was simple, as they crossed my name off the pre-registration list, handed me a t-shirt (this year's was gray), offered me a banana, and reminded me of the start time at 8:00 sharp. It was derned cold, down to 48 degrees, still with the brutal wind. I had my commuter jacket under the back seat, so I bundled up in that, ran through the ABC-quick-check on the Onix, wiped her down with a damp cloth to get off the road dust, and put a light coat of Rock & Roll on the chain.

The rest of ABC's folks started showing up about this time, Janice Peters, Mike Heck, Sandy Grayson, Holly Hope, John Linck, Betty Danielson, Jenny & Bill Rainwater, Jim Britt and Brad Joseph. Turns out that everyone except Bill and I had signed up for the 60-miler, and the routes split off in different directions at the beginning: century riders and the 17-milers would head west to Ozark before taking to the hills, the metric riders headed east back to Clarksville and on down to Dardanelle before looping back through Paris and Ozark and taking on the last set of big hills.

The event leader gave a long lecture about the course direction signs, (more later), and the need to follow them, and warned that there was "a little construction" out on the course route. Then we were off at a minute or two past 8 a.m.

All together it looked like there were a little more than a hundred riders, with a little more than a dozen or so doing the hundred, most going for 60, and about two dozen or more of us 17-mile weenies. The start was staged about two minutes apart, but still by the time we pulled onto the road and headed west, the century riders were disappearing over the horizon, not to be seen again. I was up toward the front of the pack, found a nice shoulder, hunkered into the wind, and started to spin and warm up. One girl in a lavender jersey boomed past me and disappeared over the next hill, and it looked like the pack was just a little ways behind. I settled into cruise control at about 16, and motored on up the road. Checking back, Bill was just a little way behind me, but I motored on into Ozark alone, with just a glimpse of the purple jersey lady as she made the right turn in the center of town at the first turn sign. Bill was way behind me, so I eased up a bit, made the right turns onto Philpot Road, and started the leg back south. This was rolling hills, so there was a lot of up and down, and I lost sight of all the other riders... just way out there in the wind by myself. Not having seen any signs in a while, or any other riders or signs of life, I stopped at the top of one of the taller hills to look back and see if anyone was behind me... maybe I had missed a sign somewhere. In a couple of minutes, Bill rounded a corner and came into sight, so I pushed off again and kept going. After a few miles, I came to a T intersection where there was a paved road (Highway 186) to the right, and the road ahead turned sharply uphill, and to gravel. Around this point I was reminding myself of having violated Biker Rule # 3 by leaving the route map I had printed off the internet the night before in my briefcase back in the truck.

Searching around, there was no sign of a route marker, so I dropped a couple of gears into the small chain ring, and started up. About halfway, the road was rough enough and the gravel loose enough it was hard to keep traction, so I stopped, shouldered the bike, and hiked up to the top. Way behind I could still see Bill as he topped the next hill back. Saying a few things about the ride organizers, I remembered his warning of "a little construction" on this route, and wondered a little profanely about just what he might consider minor repairs. This hill proved to be a false summit, as there was another climb just behind it, and as I pedaled up there, it dropped off to a long graveled descent. As I gingerly picked a line to dodge most of the rocks, thinking of the Gavia hill climb in the Giro d'Italia, I wondered a little more about this being one of the few times I was tempted to hike-a-bike down a hill. After about two miles, I picked up a stretch of pavement again, and was so overjoyed that I dropped my chain shifting back into the big ring. Another mile or so, and we had another one of those same sorts of intersections, this time with the pavement veering left, and the other roads fading into cattle paths. And another one off down the next mile.

By now, I was pretty sure I was off course. I pulled out the little card with the emergency and information numbers they had handed out on the start line, only to see a flickering "No Service" indicator on the cell phone. So I decided to ride back at least until I ran into another rider, or found whatever sign it was that I had missed. Two-thirds of the way back up that long gravel hill I met the spitting image of that Rottweiler dog from the Over The Hedge movie, and he was in a mood to play. He hesitantly obeyed a warned growl, Bad Dog! Go Home!, but I still went back up the rest of that hill a whole lot faster than I had come down it.

Arriving back at the fateful Highway 186 intersection, I laid down the bike and searched the fence corners for any sort or trace of a sign, when a young boy in a blue shirt popped up, and said "Those other riders, they went that-a-way."

"Thanks, partner..." I replied; unspoken was "where were you when I came through?"

At least it was pavement again, though within the next mile I started grinding up the big monster hill of the whole ride, complete with another false summit. I had passed a hobo walking on the other side of the road as I started the climb, but about three-quarters of the way up when I was reaching for the bottom of the gears and cramping, he caught up with me. I went back to the hike-a-bike mode at least up to the first summit, then pushed off again. Up on top, it was pretty pleasant. The wind was now at least a quartering tail wind, and the chipseal road wound through grape fields and pasture land. I spun past the Aux Arc and Wiederkehr wineries, and caught up with this fellow on a recumbent, which was comforting since it was the first fellow cyclist I had really seen since leaving the start line. We rode in together down this long winding switchback with a pickup truck just off our rear blinkie lights, and pulled in at the Post Familie winery at the foot of the hill and the edge of Altus. Checking the computer readout, my 17 mile tour wound up just a hair short of 27 miles.

Leaning the bike against a picnic table and stripping off my sweaty commuter jacket, I clip-clopped into the winery, where I found Bill celebrating his survival, and a glass of Brut champagne and a fruit cup to wash the taste of the Gavia hill climb out of my tonsils...


A little utility cycling, trucking the spoils of the winery tour back to the wagons…

For a long while out there, I wasn’t a happy rider. This was apparently the 6th iteration of the Tour, according to the printing on my T-shirt, and folks setting off on the Tour need to be prepared to put in some notable hills, as well as be prepared to spend some time alone out there on the road. Rest stops are few and far between; for example, there were no stops or other amenities on the 17-mile course until the final stop back in Altus. Over on the 60-miler, the stops ranged from 16 to 20 miles apart, and were pretty sparse as to what they had on hand. Course marking was sporadic, and apparently I wasn’t the only one to miss a sign that wasn’t there, and go off exploring on his/her own. The ABC group missed the signs coming back thru Ozark, and headed off into the hills several miles before figuring they too were off-course, and retracing their way back into town and navigating by the street signs. And they’re serious about the 2 p.m. cut-off time for amenities and anything else, though the Post folks were very welcoming to late-arriving riders showing up at the winery stop. The Post facility is the main thing that makes this ride an attraction, and is even worth the shorter ride to spend a little time there.

I won’t say anything about the post-ride meal at Kelt’s, on the Altus town square. We’ve seen bad service at a number of places, but that one really set a record. Nice d├ęcor, though.

We’ll have to think about this one before riding it again. But Altus is a pretty little touristy town, and as I said, the wine part of the Tour is hard to beat. It's not everywhere where you can go pedaling around with a couple bottles of red wine tucked in your jersey pockets, and you can fit another one in the down tube bottle cage. Bill and I recommended the Ives Noir...