A lot of people ride their bikes through Boonville on the Katy Trail, headed to Pilot Grove, Sedalia, Rocheport or St. Charles.
Benjamin Colwill and Darren Gilmore didn’t look out of the ordinary Friday afternoon zipping through Boonville on their bikes, but their destination was more common for people coming through the Boonslick 200 years ago – Santa Fe.
Colwill has been bikepacking for about a decade, and was looking for a new challenge, so he mapped out a 1,111 mile course from New Franklin, through the Kansas plains and Rocky Mountains, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
He and Darren Gilmore, the only two taking on the race this year, set off from a marker on the Katy Trail that commemorates the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail, a 19th-century trade route connecting Missouri with the southwest and Mexico.
The two left New Franklin at 2 p.m. Friday. By noon Sunday, they were near McPherson, Kansas, about 350 miles into the route, with Colwill 25 miles ahead of Gilmore. They track their progress on a website Colwill made for the race.
Colwill is from Portland, a long way from Santa Fe and New Franklin, but the trail was a unique challenge, and there’s a lot of history along the route, he said. Compared to Colwill, Gilmore is pretty new to bikepacking. He’s backpacked for years, but only has been on one 700-mile bike trip through the Rocky Mountains. He thinks this course should be a little easier, even though it’s 400 miles longer.
Spending the first few days going through western Missouri and Kansas, there isn’t as much climbing as his Rocky Mountain excursion, he said. Living in Springfield, he mainly rides in the Ozarks, so he’s excited to ride through places he’s never seen before, he said.
“I think there’ll be a lot of beauty along the way,” he said. “I really like to see parts of the country that don’t get seen much, which is why I enjoy traveling smaller roads.”
The trail Colwill came up with is an approximation of the Santa Fe Trail. He follows the Katy Trail for as long as possible, and runs through gravel roads in Kansas and through the Rocky Mountains in the southeastern corner of Colorado.
Last October, when Colwill held the race for the first time, heavy rains turned those roads into thick mud. The race started with seven people, but only two made it through the mud and got to Santa Fe, Colwill said.
“That mud just keeps building up around the tire, you keep pulling it up and it’ll get jammed up between the forks,” Colwill said.
Colwill biked the route in reverse to Boonville before meeting up with Gilmore to start the race, so he has three runs under his belt. In good conditions, the course should take four or five days, he said. With bad weather, it takes about nine days, he said.
“Last year, we got to Colorado and it was snowing,” Colwill said. “Anything can happen in October.”
Changing road surfaces are another challenge along the way. There’s a stretch in Kansas where the cyclists ride over sand. You have to drop your tire pressure to get through, Colwill said. In New Mexico, the roads are red clay, slick and sticky when wet.
“It’s like a melted Snickers with peanuts in it, because of the rocks,” he said. “You’ve gotta scrape it out of everything, and when that stuff dries, it’s like cement. I think I had a chunk of it on my bike for like a month after last year.”
The racers have different strategies. Colwill will ride 24/7 until he can’t keep going, stop and nap for a few hours, and get back on the bike. For the ride up, he packed a tent and air mattress, but sent those home before leaving New Franklin so he could be 5 pounds lighter for the race, he said. He’ll try to shower in a motel after a few days, but the rest of the time, he’ll just take power naps where he can, he said.
Gilmore prefers to stick to a schedule. He plans to progress for about 16 hours a day and to stop and sleep for five or six hours each night, he said.
Colwill says his mind is mainly concentrated on the road while he’s on the course, making sure he doesn’t run into a rock or a hole. He listens to upbeat, electronic music to help keep him motivated. He has some Beethoven on his playlist, but usually skips through it.
“You could probably learn a language on the way,” he said.
Gilmore’s thoughts are all over the place when he’s riding alone. He finds himself thinking about mundane things, like a leaky faucet he needs to fix at home, or deeper things like pondering life, he said. For the most part, he tries to stay focused on his goal.
“Sometimes you’ll get a particularly strong headwind, and that can be a pretty soul-sucking thing,” he said. “At those points, you just draw on previous races and rides, and the difficulties I’ve had, and just put your head down and motor on to the goal.”