Bike Rack: Cyclists ride wind in one-day journey from Red River to Kansas
The casual observer might look at U.S. Highway 81 as a relatively unremarkable stretch of highway across Oklahoma’s western prairie, but there is nothing ordinary about it.
This 218-mile swath of Oklahoma blacktop commemorates the Chisholm Trail, a centerpiece of Oklahoma history where cowboys drove more than 5 million cattle from Texas to Kansas.
The cattle have been gone for more than 130 years, but the route continues to be extraordinary for a different reason.
An obscure and unsung cadre of cyclists have identified U.S. 81 as the ultimate venue for pulling off an achievement few would even dream of attempting. They ride their bicycles from the Red River to the Kansas border in a single day.
To a world-class bicycle racer, 218 miles is just a long day in the saddle, but for people with kids and mortgages, 218 miles is about 118 miles past the point of reason.
But that’s why U.S. 81 is so special. The highway’s straight, flat and windy attributes make the unthinkable not only thinkable, but doable.
Bicycle League of Norman President Ron Ponder, 62, led a small group on a successful crossing in June. Daphne Summers, 53, Matt Schullman, 34, Jeff Hauser, 52, and Ponder pulled away from the Red River bridge near Waurika about 6:15 a.m., heading up U.S. 81 with a strong tail wind. Ten hours later, they were gliding across the Kansas line into Caldwell.
Ponder said the ride was a lot harder than it might sound. The heat was considerable, and even though they had the wind at their backs, they were still on their bikes for 10 hours, which takes its toll.
He said there were a variety physical and psychological annoyances along the way: sore wrists, leg cramps, hot feet, self-doubt and a variety of other miseries.
Aside from the pain and fatigue, Ponder said there was a joy to blasting down the road at 25 mph, watching the scenery unfold as if he were riding in a car. Friends in a couple of vehicles supported the group along the way, and the riders stopped from time to time for food and drink.
The menu was broad, varied and relatively ordinary.
Ponder said he and the others ate everything from fruit and energy bars for breakfast to bacon cheeseburgers for lunch. They drank water, Gatorade and even Coca-Cola. A calorie is a calorie when you’re riding 200 miles in the heat, and Ponder said they were not all that particular about where their energy came from.
Ponder said the group split up, with Summers and Schullman riding ahead while he and Hauser took it a little slower, averaging 21 mph while Summers and Schullman, both of Norman, averaged nearly 23.
There was a 10-mile stretch north of Enid where Ponder averaged a 29-mph pace, proving to himself that, at 62, it could still be done.
Meanwhile, Hauser was doing something equally notable. Before June 11, the Chickasha resident had never ridden more than 100 miles at a time, so for him, much of the road north of El Reno was littered with self-doubt and uncertainty.
Amazingly, Ponder’s June 11 ride was his second crossing in a month. The first was a solo effort in May that started out as a reconnaissance ride he planned to cut short around El Reno. He said the wind was blowing so hard, and he was having so much fun that he ended up riding all the way into Kansas.
Like Sir Edmund Hillary and Mount Everest, Ponder said he did the ride because it was there, and it was just within the boundary of what he was physically capable of doing. Even though they were painful, he said both rides were fun and he takes great satisfaction in the accomplishment, but he doesn’t anticipate ever doing it again.
But that doesn’t mean U.S. 81 wasn’t special.
“At some point in the ride, you might not be having much fun,” Ponder said, “but by the end of the day, you will have the satisfaction of having just ridden across the state.”
Maybe that’s how the cowboys felt more than a century ago. And, so it goes on the modern-day Chisholm Trail.