By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
OSWEGO, Kan. —
Kansas, according to a few of the 800 cyclists who just spent the last eight days crossing it, is not flat.
“Get on a bicycle, and you’ll see,” advised Rick Younger, a 55-year-old Pittsburg native who now lives in Wichita.
Younger, who was drenched in sweat Friday at noon as the mercury climbed toward 90 degrees, stopped for water at a welcome station manned by community volunteers at the west edge of Oswego. Having gotten on his bicycle at dawn, he had just pedaled 82 miles from Sedan, Kan.
Earlier in the week, he came through the Gypsum Hills, where a 42-mile scenic byway takes travelers past mesas, deep canyons, sharp high hills, red soils and caprock formations.
“It used to be I was all about wanting to leave Kansas, to get out,” said Younger, who is a volleyball coach at Butler Community College. “But there is more to it than people think.”
That’s the idea at the heart of Bike Across Kansas, which for 39 years has been taking cyclists of all ages and abilities on an approximately 500-mile ride from the state’s western border to eastern border.
According to Stefanie Weaver, executive director, stops are made each night of the eight-day trip in equally-spaced towns along the route.
It takes meticulous planning and support, including several Penske trucks that staff members use to haul the cyclists’ gear from town to town.
Residents in each town also get into the act, arranging weeks in advance for welcoming stations with refreshments, and opening schools so riders can sleep on gym floors or take showers in locker rooms.
In Oswego, chamber President Cindy Dean greeted riders not only with water, but with a detailed, four-page handout that included a list of local civic and youth organizations providing support — from the Oswego High School cheerleaders providing Gatorade and soda to local churches providing evening meals. The city opened the public pool to the cyclists, and planned a concert for them at the Labette County fairgrounds.
“We also included a list of what they can do in our town,” Dean said, “like the golf course, the library, that sort of thing. We really want to make them feel welcome. It’s exciting to have them come through.”
Galena is making similar preparations for today, as it will be the last stop on the route.
Resident Sheryll Vogel said volunteers will welcome cyclists to Pappy Litch Park in the center of town, and will be shutting down Main Street in order to set up 60 tables and chairs. Lunch will be served by Moe’s Southwest Grill from Joplin, and a committee of volunteers is providing all of their beverages.
“We’re excited,” Vogel said. “It’s a way to showcase our town, a way to let people from all over see what’s going on in Galena, to see it’s a destination they can come and enjoy.”
The earliest, fastest cyclists likely will begin arriving in Galena about mid-morning, with the rest of the cyclists continuing to trickle in individually and in small groups through early afternoon.
The cyclists range from the very young, like Weaver’s son, Ashton, 11, of Olathe, Kan., who is riding for the fourth year along with his dad, John Weaver, to the old, like 87-year-old John Bergey, of Hesston, Kan.
“This is the first year for me to do it on my own bike,” Ashton said during his stop in Oswego. “I’m free.”
The youngster said he put in a few weeks of training before the ride, usually about 15 miles each day.
“I’ll definitely keep doing it,” he said. “The best part of it is being able to go to towns and see cool parks and museums, and all the scenic areas.”
For some riders, it’s a family thing. Siblings Kreg Mebust, a 49-year-old teacher from Reno, Nev., and Kevin Mebust, a 52-year-old teacher from Denver, Colo., and Kari Clark, a 48-year-old graphic designer from Olathe, decided to meet at the Kansas-Colorado border and ride it together for the first time.
For Milt Allen, a 52-year-old band director who grew up in Salina and now lives in Columbus, Ohio, the ride was a chance to challenge himself and other band directors. He issued the challenge through his Facebook page to “get up off the couch this summer and do something.”
“To add to the challenge, I did the Deer Creek (Ohio) Triathlon before BAK started, and Saturday I’ll do the Topeka Tinman Triathlon,” Allen said.
One of the trip’s unexpected highlights for him, he said, was directing a few tunes with the Arkansas City Community Band on a stop-over there. Another, he said, was the camaraderie riders develop with one another.
“You all wear Spandex for eight days and you become close,” he laughed. “We’re bonded.”
Younger said several of the cyclists he knows pick different states in which to ride long-distance tours each year.
“But I think I’ll keep riding Kansas,” he said. “It’s an adventure.”
Riders also made overnight stops in Sublette, Dodge City, Coldwater, Anthony, Arkansas City and Sedan, and passed through numerous other Kansas towns along the route including Independence, Cherryvale and Columbus. While many of the riders are from Kansas, they also are from 27 other states, as well as Ireland and Honduras.