Kevin and Barbara showed up to collect me at 5.45 am sharp on Sunday morning
and we headed off down I-10 in the mist. Traffic was moving pretty well all the way to the turn-off for LaGrange but we saw plenty of other riders and were prepared to stop short and unload if necessary. In fact we found our way to the BHP team start with no problems at all.
By that time the sun had come up on a beautiful late spring morning in Central Texas. We gathered with the team for a few group shots and then headed off to the start outside the court
house, a typically impressive, sandstone edifice.
We got rolling en masse at about 8.20am. Less than a mile down the road, a rider from another team went down, at pretty low speed so he probably wasn't hurt - but was this a taste of things to come? The route took us past the Fayette County fairgrounds (where we normally camp overnight) and we could see the flooding from the road, as well as several tents that had blown down. The head wind started to kick in and the group began to spread out along the course as the weaker riders struggled. Kevin and I kept pace for quite a while but at some point we separated. I learned later that his riding partner, Tom, had a major mechanical that took two hours to fix - they wouldn't get in to Austin until nearly 4.00pm.
The road was fairly familiar and I soon recognised the approach to the dreaded hill outside Smithville. This is a long, steep drop that is often the site of nasty crashes. Kevin had a bad experience on the hill some years back and now has his brakes on all the way. I usually let my bike go but this would be the first time on the Plahstic Fantahstic. Oh well, here we go - she
takes off like a rocket and I begin to bleed off speed with the back brake when another rider goes flying by. I catch him on the flat and ask him how fast he was going - apparently he hit 43 mph, so I must have been close to 40 myself. We're now only three miles from the Parks, the biggest physical challenge of the tour, with a succession of very sharp climbs and down-hills.
There's a rest stop one mile in and it's time for a drink and a pee.
Off we go into the Park proper, then - hoping for a better experience this year, with a light bike and lots of gears that I can readily access. On the very first big climb I'm out of the saddle, grunting out each rev of the pedals, side by side with a girl who looks to be about fifteen. We crest the climb together and both let out a big sigh, then exchange grins of relief. Seven more miles to go. I start to hit the downhills pretty hard, mainly to get into a higher gear so that I have more to work with on the way up the climb. Does that make sense? I found
myself in my granny ring on a few of the climbs, and in my lowest gear on that ring once or twice - nowhere to go after that, but get off and walk. Anyway, as a friend would say, I had my big girl pants on and made it through in good order. I even skipped the second rest stop in the Park, where I've always stopped in previous years. Out of the Park and onto Highway 71 for the short run into Bastrop and lunch.
One Subway turkey sandwich and a bag of chips later (really, that's what we get every year), I'm back in the saddle for the last 20 miles, which are usually pretty anti-climactic after the big scary hill and the Park. Not this year! The trees lining the route through the Park were not only beautiful, they broke the head wind. Once west of Bastrop we were in open country (like riding around Katy) and completely exposed. A lot of the riders began to struggle and I spent most of the time on the drops, in a low gear, remembering my spin class lessons and keeping a good, high cadence. About ten miles in a pace line went past with two BHP riders. On the next descent I pssed them, only to have them catch me on the flat. this went on for a while and then I decided to drop into the line and draft for a while. This worked pretty well but too my shame I didn't take a turn at the front. The group made good time and we soon got to the second rest stop where we took a brake. I chatted with the BHP riders and realised it was Brooke and her friend, who I'd met last year. We went our separate ways but I'm very grateful to them for helping me through a tough section of the ride.
This stop (in Webberville, I think) had clearly seen a lot of rain in the last few days. The road was flooded so the riders had to exit by walking across a muddy sports field. I didn't think this was a problem until I tried to clip in to my pedals - the left cleat was clogged and wouldn't engage fully. With less than ten miles to go I decided not to bother with trying to clear it. Just outside Webberville there was a small country church by the road (there are lots of these humble structures on the back roads between Houston and Austin) with a marquee showing the unforgettable legend "God answers kneemail". That little chuckle got me a few more miles down the road, where we finally saw the Austin city limit sign (followed by a very unnecessary "historical markers in city" sign).
Sadly, there are five very hilly miles between the city limit and the finish line. Fortunately, one half of the right lane was coned off for us by the Police, so we're out of the traffic, but of course that means that all the riders are jammed in together. By this time the field has thinned out quite a bit so it's safe enough. I'm starting to recognise the terrain and then we're on a long descent into downtown Austin and crowds are forming along the barriers. The noise level ramps up and I cruise along close enough to the barrier to high-five the kids, which gets me a big cheer. A sharp left turn and we go under the finish sign, and another one is over.
I find some BHP volunteers who point me to the tent, where to my surprise I'm one of the first riders in. I expected to arrive before Kevin but not before Dave and Phil. Anyway, I grab a cold Shiner beer and sit down for a chat with my team-mates, before heading off for a shower. The lines at the shower trucks are very short and I'm under a good stream of hot water pretty quickly. Back at the tent and some of the other riders are trickling in. Phil, Dave and Kenny roll up - they've had a torrid time, with lots of flats (making it a pretty tough weekend in all - see Phils' blog).
Phil and I get photographed together (Phil in cycling gear, me in my glow-in-the-dark Camembert Electrique t-shirt)
by the official BHP photographer, and Phil tells me that everyone will see the shot and think it's Paddy.
I want to wait for Kevin but it's getting late and I'm getting fried, so I pick up the bus back to Houston. There's a nasty wreck on I-10 that slows us down but we get back at about 6.30. I walk down to the high school where Mary-Claire is waiting for me in my car.
Overall it was quite an anti-climactic ride, despite the tough conditions - I guess I'm used to doing two days now. But my fund-raising will be close to my target of $5,000, and BHP will match every cent -