Fellow MS-riders will know that the Park (as it's called, actually it's two parks, Buescher and Bastrop) are the biggest physical challenge of the Houston-Austin ride. You get there on the Sunday, in my case already worn down by 40-plus miles over reasonably lumpy terrain, including the dreaded descent of the Smithville hill. By that time you've got pretty tired of riding rollers - long, not too steep descents and ascents - but the Park kicks it up a notch, with a series of much sharper, if shorter, hills, with a couple of real killers thrown in for good measure.
The Park is memorable not just for the physical toll it takes but also for the scenery. It's in the Lost Pines region of Texas, 6,000 acres of pine forest in the middle of rolling pasture, an offshoot of the Piney Woods that used to cover much of the central and eastern part of the state but is now confined to the Louisiana border. Apparently some kind of geological fluke kept the pines alive here when they died almost everywhere else. Sadly though a few years back a wild fire broke out and destroyed 4,000 acres, and now big sections look like a moonscape, a very sad sight from the bike. The State has funded some reforestation work and the MS group was one of many that volunteered time to help out.
Lee and I got our allotment of pine saplings, picked up a dibbler (I kid you not) and hiked a mile into the wasteland with the rest of the group. The Park Ranger leading the effort showed us how to plant and then let us loose. Lee and I got into a good rhythm pretty quickly - he dibbled, I planted - and we had 75 trees into the ground in a couple of hours.
Into an immaculate shower and toilet block to put on our cycling togs and we were off, planning to ride back to the entrance to Buescher and then turn around and do it in reverse.
The very first climb took the wind out of my sails, and after that it was a matter of hanging on for dear life on the descents, before shifting into the granny ring and grinding out the climbs. Lee described a couple of them as "ramps", they were certainly quite a challenge for me. We arrived at the entrance with a light ran starting to fall, and I suggested to Lee that rather than take the climbs on again, we could ride the "Lunch Express" route - straight up route 71. This made sense to him and off we rolled.
This route has the same elevation changes as the Park, but the grades are gentler and the surface much smoother. We also had a following wind, but it was still tough going. I'd expected the ride to be easier, because we've trained hard this year and it's only 25 miles or so, but I hadn't factored in the effort it takes to hike a mile or two over rough ground and plant trees. We got our reward though - we stopped for lunch at Mikeska's BBQ in Columbus and did some serious damage to the all-you-can eat buffet (that brisket, those ribs, mmm). BJ was feeling better by then, and I needed to recoup some husband brownie points after being gone all day Sunday, so we both picked up a few pounds of meat to go. The rest of the weekend passed in a smoked-meat semi-coma.
The Awesome Threesome were reunited next Saturday. Kevin was hankerin' for the hills, but the wind was in the wrong direction for Sealy and the forecast threatened rain anyway, so we opted for good ol' Zube. I tried to set the tone for the day with a suitably relaxing ear-worm in the form of Gong's "Master Builder", from their 1974 release "You", and predictably enough got a good ribbing from Kevin. Who cares, the riff lodged nicely in my cranium and got me up a few climbs.
Kevin called for an audible at the gas station - longer or shorter route - and got us to pose in a state of indecision for this fine snap. I think Lee didn't quite get the idea though. I was feeling reasonably OK and opted for the longer course. We managed pretty well, but I was glad to see the flag flying over the Soap Box Derby track. When you see the flag you know there's only a few miles left to run and it's definitely a welcome sight for me. On this occasion I was moved to call out "the flag, the flag!" to Lee, reminding him of Tattoo's catchphrase "Look Boss, the plane, the plane" from Fantasy Island.
Back at Zube and it was time for chocolate milk and an attempt by Lee and I to explain cricket to Kevin (the Cricket World Cup is in full swing and England just won a match). Apparently his initial introduction to the game was over a few (sounds like quite a few) beers in a bar in Trinidad, and it didn't seem to take. He certainly wasn't at all clear on the difference between a googly and a chinaman. Maybe next time I'll bring my bat and a ball and we can have a quick knock-around after the ride.