Biking Across Kansas: Where the rubber meets the road

By Jim Mason

Editor’s note: Jim Mason wrote about preparing for his first BAK in the June issue of the active age. In this article, he tells what it was really like.

A truck filled with bicycles and a bus loaded with bicycle riders left Wichita on June 7 at 8:00 a.m. headed for Goodland. A similar convoy left Kansas City. Scores of other participants also converged on Goodland, gathering to begin the 2019 Biking Across Kansas (BAK), an annual organized bicycle ride across the state.

For this 45th annual version of BAK, 825 riders signed up, three-fourths of them Kansans. Riders also came from 30 other states. Men outnumbered women two to one. The age range was 7 to 80-plus, with the most common decade being those in their 60s, like me. 

Despite what you might expect, not all the riders looked like Mia Hamm or Lance Armstrong! While there were definitely some chiseled leg muscles on view, there was a wide range of body types. And the array of bicycles was bewildering.

This being my first BAK, most participants were strangers to me, but gradually I made new acquaintances. BAK’ers are a friendly, helpful bunch. Any time I stopped by myself to rest and rehydrate, passing bikers would always ask if I was okay.

Upon arrival in Goodland, many rode to the Colorado border, so they could truthfully say they had ridden the entire distance. I was one of them, pedaling 40 miles out and back in the middle of the afternoon on a warm day with a stiff south crosswind that wore me out. On my return, about seven miles from Goodland, I was running out of water. One of those helpful fellow riders gave me a bottle to get me back. I was most grateful.

Kansas’ weather can be a harsh companion for someone on the open road. Blessedly, this year, there were no days in the 90s, but one day began in the upper 40s with light rain. We had storms menace us in camp on two evenings but suffered no direct hits and never had to ride in anything more than light rain. Overall, the weather was glorious, with temperatures mostly in the 60s-70s and only a few miles into headwinds.

The uphill rides were often grueling. I had to get off and walk a couple times because my old 10-speed didn’t have enough low gear options. Every uphill had a downhill on the other side though, and those were a blast. Rides varied from 40 to 85 miles per day. I was glad I had trained as much as I did.

As a biologist, my senses were in overload listening to the birds, observing and sometimes smelling the wildflowers and taking in the ever-changing landscape. This year’s rains made Kansas lush and green everywhere.

Each night the group resided at the host city’s major school. Many slept inside and others, myself included, camped in tents outside. Each city went to great effort to welcome us. More than 800 hungry, thirsty people showing up at once made for a big boost to their economies. Meals were usually a benefit for local charitable causes.

My BAK came to a temporary halt after 285 miles when a spoke snapped on my rear wheel, which instantly warped and became unuseable. Fortunately this happened at a BAK rest stop and someone was there to bring me and my crippled steed into town. Employees of a bike shop travel with BAK to provide repair service, but they had not brought the particular tool needed to work on my 48 year-old bike. I missed the next day and most of the following one before I was able to get the bike fixed at a shop in Manhattan. I rejoined the ride at Onaga at noon on Friday the 14th and rode on to Holton, a city north of Topeka, which really pulled out the stops to welcome us. People cheered our arrival from porches and yards. Some rang cowbells. Old, gaily-adorned bicycles were set up along the way as decorations, and they had a rousing block party on the town square that evening.

I was very glad to ride the final day, from Holton to Atchison, because I was keen to participate in the BAK tradition of dipping your front tire in the Missouri River at ride’s end. 

Cheers and more cowbells greeted me as I rode through downtown and on to the river, where I joined a long line of riders waiting to get wet at the boat ramp. A volunteer took my cell phone and recorded the ceremonial end of my ride as I dipped my bike a high school graduation present in the mighty Missouri. 

Jim Mason can be reached at jemason53@gmail.com

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