Unbeknownst to me, I had chosen to ride a route that contained a Strava segment called “meth teeth” in southern Missouri. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?! I was coming off of a great 115 mile ride earlier in the week and felt invincible.
A Plan is Forming
My boyfriend Lee and I were headed south for vacation. We were drawn to the “middle of nowhere” southern Missouri by it’s inexpensive but brand new hotel, miles of gravel, the fact that it was anywhere but here. As a bonus, I could consume some of my favorite things — pizza, beef, and beer. Having come off of a spectacular 115 mile ride on Monday, I decided my body was up for some gravel.
We meandered south through the state of Missouri, stopping at Route 66 Bicycles in Rolla on our way. We make it a habit to tour local bike shops whenever we’re out of town, talking to employees and buying little objects or something with the shop logo. It’s a vacation tradition now.
During our conversation with the shop owner, we started talking gravel. We said where we were staying, and he mentioned he had ridden a great gravel loop out of the town where our hotel would be. It was gorgeous route running through protected forest, contained a wicked descent deep into a valley with a spring running through it, and then punished you with a jagged climb out.
Always one for an adventure, especially on mysterious unpaved roads, I decided that was the route we should absolutely ride. I had originally designed something to take us from our hotel into Arkansas just so I could say I had crossed the state border on a bike, but riding a route that had been ridden by an actual human being seemed promising.
After a large lunch of pizza and beer on Friday afternoon, we were off on our adventure. I haven’t ridden a ton of gravel since spine surgery, but I have done rides up to about 40 miles. My body had been feeling SOLID this spring. I was on my normal post-surgery drop bar bike and I was itching to ride on deserted roads away from traffic. I was feeling cocky and overconfident after Monday’s ride. What could go wrong?
The gravel started out a little swimmy, but I was used to that on this bike. Slowly it transitioned to large chunks of rock over bedrock, arguably gravel but much rougher in consistency. The roads twisted and turned, winding through the countryside. Occasionally I’d get a taste of what I consider “normal” gravel, pulverized limestone dust littered with rocks, and then we’d turn another corner and I’d be back on the rocky washboard. Oh fuck.
I quickly realized that Missouri gravel was nothing to mess around with. I had brought a proverbial knife to a gun fight, riding a beefed up road bike with 28 mm slicks with a hair of siping on the edges. We knew the roads had looked rocky from our hike the previous day, so the tire pressure was jacked up to avoid pinch flats.
I rode slowly, trying to calm myself down and reaquaint myself with the feel of gravel. I had trouble staying loose, clenching the bars in a death grip and braking hard on descents. My core wasn’t doing much of anything to support me, so my hands and arms were starting to tingle from the pressure and weight of my torso.
We biked on, me still slowly pedaling, averaging around 11 mph. Suddenly there was a field of horses, and a few trotted towards the fence. I rode up to the access gate and called them over. I was ELATED!! PONIES!!! I spent way too long scratching their noses and talking to them while Lee waited quietly. It was a welcome distraction from my gravel anxiety.
Hints of Disaster
I got ready to remount my bike, and Lee asked if I could pick up the pace a little. He explained that it would help dampen the bumps more AND it was going to take us all evening at this pace. Sighing, I relented and said I’d try. Rattled, cautious, and slow, I gritted my teeth and did my very best. I could tell he was patiently waiting on me at every turn.
We briefly turned onto pavement and it felt like absolute heaven. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized just how badly I was starting to hurt. I’m great at compartmentalizing pain signals, shoving them away to the back of my brain and pedaling on. On a fast section the bike felt a little squirrely so I looked down and saw a flat. The first thing we found was a pinch flat, and that was odd as I had been carefully avoiding rocks and craters in the road for some time. If you’re biking at 11 mph you have that luxury. 😉 Our troubleshooting revealed I had a small puncture caused by a thorn or needle, which probably led to slightly lower tire pressure and resulted in the pinch flat.
We had some time to talk while fixing the flat, and I began to pay even better attention to the signals my body was sending. I debated heading back, unsure of what route I would take. Lee reminded me that we were headed into the most scenic section of the route, the part I was the most excited about. Lest you think he’s a dick, you should know I’m EXCELLENT at hiding my pain. I can hide it from myself well, and hide it from others even better. I told him we’d continue — we were near the halfway point and I really wanted to see the most beautiful section of the route.
We soon hit a wild descent into a large valley, a combination of two separate hills over the bumpiest of roads. The climb had been described to us as “a big one, one you can’t see the top of for a long time”. Game on. I hate climbing and am at least 20 pounds overweight from where I’d like to be, but I knew my bike was geared for easy spinning up climbs. I ambled up and down the first climb, took pictures of the valley, and then slowly climbed out. My tires slipped and spun out a few times, which is to be expected with skinny slicks, but nothing terrible happened. I stopped to take pictures and enjoy the views.
After we climbed out, we turned back nearly straight east towards town. The roads were massively bumpy rollers, and I noticed I was gritting my teeth to get up and down each set. I can tune out pain fairly well, but I had an increasing sensation that my body was ANGRY. My arms kept going numb now from the weight of my torso. I realized my core was giving out, my back wasn’t supporting me, and I was unable to get out of the saddle to unweight myself for bumps.
Reality Sinks In
I rolled up to my boyfriend, waiting for me at the crest of another hill. Suddenly, I was holding back tears. He could tell and quickly asked if I had enough food? Nope, that’s not it, I had been eating a ton. I know to eat when I feel sad or upset on the bike, as sometimes a quick hit of sugar will turn my mood right around. My caffeinated gels weren’t snapping me out of it.
I told him that we didn’t have any turns on the map for miles. How about he ride ahead, and roll the rollers on his 1x without me and I’d eventually catch up.
I fell behind, and since I suddenly wasn’t worried about holding him up, I was able to more thoroughly focus on my symptoms and how my body felt. Arms, in a ton of pain. Hands, going numb. Holy shit, my lower back and spine were searing. I biked on and began to actually feel how each gravel bump felt. I steeled my resolve and kept pedaling, more slowly now. It was too much to take and the tears started to flow, at first quietly down my cheeks and then faster. I crested the next roller and BF was no where in sight.
There was a series of massive rollers stretched out before me. I skidded to a stop, hung my head, and bawled out amongst the cows grazing near me. I cried for so long that a few farm dogs confusedly came out of their yard at the bottom the hill, saw me, gave a few half assed warning barks and then retreated back to their yard. Clearly I was not a threat to their property in my current state.
I gasped for air, crying more loudly. My body was wracked with pain from my neck down to my extreme lower back. I had deep pain from the core of my being — my spine was mechanically and surgically braced from both the front and back at the lowest levels, right where you’d normally hinge when reaching for handlebars and I HURT.
I caught my breath, tears still streaming down my face, and began slowly coasting and braking down the hill. I knew I should let the speed of the rollers help carry me up the next hill, but the bumps were too much. Too exhausted to unweight myself and hover over the saddle to ease the bumpiness, I just took my beating and cried. Up the next hill, down another and up the next. I met up with Lee again and started crying once more.
We had a quick talk about what my options were, but knew I shouldn’t stay here out near the segment called “meth teeth” where I had no cell phone signal. Moving forward could include finishing the 7 miles left, or just getting back to a pavement junction and awaiting rescue. I chose the rescue option.
I rolled on, still gritting my teeth and wincing in pain, but stopping to take more pictures and talk to more cows. Do you talk to the livestock? I recommend it. Every strange truck that rolled by had me wondering — could I safely hitchhike with them back to the road? I was hoping for a minivan driven by a local mom, someone who looked benign and safe. Nope, no dice, everyone looked too risky. I kept rolling with no cell signal to save me, thankful for the offline maps I had downloaded because I could feel secure in where I was.
I FINALLY hit pavement, and thought, heck, this feels ok, I can keep rolling. Picking up speed and rolling smoothly, I headed towards the crest of a hill when a truck careened over the hill. He was driving well over the center line and towards my lane while he looked down at a cell phone. NOPE. I needed to take shelter and avoid unnecessary risk. Unfortunately for Lee, had had ridden this road for miles back into town.
I rolled up to an elementary school, feeling like a creeper in spandex. The parking lot contained multiple signs declaring that teachers were armed and they would shoot trespassers. Shit. Lucky for me, there was a lot of activity at the school as some sort of event must have been happening. I tentatively approached a gentleman that had gone in and out a few times, and asked, could I get water inside? I was empty and parched. He escorted me in and warily watched me as I filled one bottle. I thought to myself — dude, I’m wearing all skintight clothing. There are no weapons I could be smuggling that you wouldn’t already know about, so chill out.
I went outside to wait again, watching Lee’s location on my cell phone. He scooped me up in the car, I quickly swallowed a few prescription painkillers I had brought along on vacation “just in case”, and slowly started to feel more human.
It has been a week and a half since my stupid ride. I made dumb bike choices, but mostly because I only wanted to take one on vacation. That’s how I ended up on the 28 mm slicks and zero cush or suspension. I have one drop bar bike set up for road and gravel, and I think I need to change that. I either need to look into another bike, or figure out if I can ride my regular road bike so I can modify this “comfy” bike for gravel. My dad gifted me a stash of suspension seat posts since the incident and am eyeing wider tires.
Yes, I know I was dumb, I don’t need to be chastised as I’m being hard enough on myself already. I should have known… I could have tried to finish out the gravel route but didn’t, so that’s good, right?! I feel like I can get a few “points” for being rational on that part??
Pavement rides in the interim have been ok, so it seems I’ll be sticking to those for a while. I’m scared and afraid that gravel is out this year. This makes me understand why my spine doc said “nothing stupid for a year” in reference to my Lutsen 99er shirt. All I can do is focus on daily incremental progress and try not to freak out.
After the dust had settled on the ride, I received a random email from the shop owner. He noted that he had bent a rim on that rocky route on his more capable bike. Uhhh, thanks for the warning?! Ha! Perhaps I oversold my gravel pedigree or didn’t adequately explain that I was on a road bike. 😉 Live and learn!