On Day 5 of the 2021 summer Big BAM ride, the WashMoBros enjoy their water stop at Crown Valley Brewing & Distilling Co. in Coffman, Mo., St. Genevieve County. Left to right: Mark, Pat, Tim, and John Zoellner.

The Show-Me State cross-state trek lures riders back.

Cyclist Mark Zoellner chronicles his experience from the 2021 summer edition of Big BAM in southeast Missouri.

We can’t get Missouri out of our systems, it seems. Two of my brothers and I have long lived out West, but the call of the Show-Me State, where we were born and raised, has always beckoned us to return when we can. I’ve gone back with John and Tim frequently in autumn to visit our aging mother, a native and life-long resident of Washington, Mo. In recent years, though, some other urge to go back has gained steam.  

The real motivation came via Big BAM. When we first became aware of the organized Bicycle Across Missouri rides that Missouri Life magazine sponsors, it was through one of our sisters-in-law who rode the full length of the popular Katy Trail ride in October 2018. Online investigating revealed Big BAM’s other event, the annual multi-day ride that explores different regions of the state every summer. First proposed for 2020 and cancelled because of COVID-19, the 2021 ride promised a mid-June tour of southeastern Missouri. It was certainly a desire to ride through the state’s green and rolling-hill countryside in summertime that attracted us. Maybe there was a pain component, too, that was curiously, if a little perversely, compelling – confronting the dreaded beast that is humidity in Missouri’s hottest months. 

The Zoellner brothers—the Flag Boys—take a quick break.

We engaged a fourth brother, Pat, of Labadie, Mo., to take on Big BAM as a quartet and commenced to handling the logistics. For men now in their fifties and sixties, we initially questioned the wisdom of grappling with the ride—and then just as quickly scoffed at our hesitancy regarding the age factor. We’re athletes, we said, or we once were, and the prospect of riding the nearly 300 miles over five days as old men—with wonky knees and less than grueling training regimens – was not going to deter us. 

The most pressing issue was procuring bikes for the ride and ensuring that we got our own saddles and clipless pedals on those bikes. John, who’s been in the Phoenix area for decades, found his steed in the garage of an old high school friend. Tim, living in San Diego, and I, a Salt Lake City resident, were in luck to have a neighbor of our mother’s loan us two road bikes for the event. 

Apart from finding suitable road rides, perhaps the biggest initial obstacle was convincing our sister, Nancy, and our mother and that we were physically up to the challenge of the multi-day event. Phone calls to Missouri from Arizona, California and Utah ensued.

“Oh, honey, I’ve talked to people, and they all say there’s no way your backsides can take all that sitting on those narrow bike seats,” our 89-year-old Mom said to me.

I assured her we had cream for that.

Nancy took brother Tim aside for consultation: “Tim, I know you haven’t had as much time to train as these other guys. Maybe you could just stay and visit with Mom during that week while they ride.” 

“But Nancy, I’m an athlete!” was his immediate rejoinder. Tim was not going to not go just because the trip promised a measure of hardship. In that moment, truth, irritation and ego – not to mention the possibility of missing out on a bloody good adventure – spoke. We were gonna do this together. We’re athletes, dammit! 

All in the family

We flew into St. Louis on Friday, reconnoitered at Mom’s to discuss further our gear preparation and training, and gathered the following morning at Revolution Cycles, Pat’s local bike shop in Washington. Blaise Haberberger, the resident technician, got the mechanics nailed down for our borrowed bikes. Pedals dialed in, saddle heights adjusted, brake pads and cables checked. 

On Sunday morning, we loaded bicycles and bags in Pat’s truck and kissed Mom and Nancy goodbye. The WashMoBros, plus Pat’s wife, Janice (the Katy Trail veteran), acting as chauffeur and conscientious gear consultant, headed down I-55, bound for Poplar Bluff, Mo. 

After registering at Ray Clinton Park in Poplar Bluff in the late afternoon of Sunday, June 13, we assessed the infrastructure that Missouri Life and Pork Belly Ventures had assembled for BAM. The Pork Belly Ventures (PBV) team, old hands in handling organized bike treks throughout the Midwest, are a Council Bluffs, Iowa-based outfit that began this kind of work in tandem with assisting the famous RAGBRAI ride that began in the mid-197Os. Pete Phillips and his sister, Tammy Pavich, still direct PBV, and RAGBRAI, still going strong, attracts some ten to fifteen thousand riders annually in July to bicycle across the state of Iowa, west to east. Small towns vie for the honor of playing one of the host cities during the week-long trek. 

Big BAM is a decidedly smaller affair. Somewhere around 150 riders have registered for the nearly 300-mile event, and many of them, we find out, have ridden in previous years. Earlier BAM tours have included the northeastern section of Missouri, as well as routes that traveled from St. Joseph to Hannibal, Weston to Louisiana, Joplin to Eureka (get your kicks on a portion of Route 66!), and a loop route in 2019 that began and ended in Columbia. (COVID-19 called a halt to the 2020 edition, so event organizers postponed the southeastern Missouri edition until this summer.) The PBV crew, with whom Missouri Life has contracted chief responsibilities for logistical operations, has on-site a scaled down version of the kinds of mobile services they’ll provide at other larger events. 

It’s all about SAG (Support and Gear)

A 26-ft Enterprise box truck will haul our gear (tents and clothing) after this first night in Poplar Bluff to Sikeston initially, and then on successive days to Cape Girardeau, Perryville, Farmington, and Ste. Genevieve. We are responsible for making and breaking camp each day and hauling our goods to and from the truck. PBV provides its own tent concierge service for riders who pay extra, and they’ll place those customers’ gear bags in their tents free of charge. (Read: bicyclists not having to hustle to the next day’s city park to snatch bags from the truck and disperse quickly to grab the closest shade for tents!) Additionally, PBV provides a truck, the Wallow Inn, that gives a small percentage of bikers with serious discretionary funds a different tier of service entirely: air-conditioned, hotel-room-like spaces. These folks, along with a contingent of riders who will spend each evening in hotels, choose to forego the tent experience entirely. 

In addition to the bustle and whirr of its generators, and the coolers of cold beverages on hand at every city park evening stop and at rest stops along the route, Missouri Life has arranged SAG wagons that regularly ply the roads to assist those with physical ailments or bike issues – mechanical problems, flat tires, etc. 

Maybe the most enjoyable PBV perk we’ll experience on the trip is the mobile shower truck – six showers each for men and women. At day’s end, alone in the stall and basking under the nozzle, we savor that brief respite from the heat.

So began the ritual we’d follow for the next week: pitching our tents amidst the other cyclists hunkered down in that city’s park; shuffling into town on a shuttle bus for an evening meal and shuttling back to our campsite; chit-chatting with other trekkers about the routes that face us the next morning; and crashing relatively late in the evening when the thermometer and barometer readings are a little less oppressive. 

Somewhere between Poplar Bluff and Cape Girardeau. Mark, John, Pat, and Tim Zoellner.

Day 1, Monday, June 14
Poplar Bluff to Sikeston: 69 miles, 780 feet of climbing
[2.7% uphill grade; 3.4% downhill grade]

Day 1 takes us on a series of Butler County roads southeast and eventually northeast to Sikeston. We get started later than we’d like, sometime after 7:30 a.m., and the initial miles find us navigating dense stretches of corn and soybean and winter wheat fields. Irrigation ditches, flush with fetid water, line these narrow country roads without appreciable shoulders. I’d guess that all of us at times wonder how it would be to lose our focus and be pitched helmet-first into this stagnant stew of organic material and pesticides. 

Mostly, we’re glad to get this first day’s ride under our belts without facing serious hills. It gives us a chance to get comfortable with our borrowed bikes (Pat being the only one of us riding his own rig). We enjoy a good cycling pace in this flat terrain, testing our gear shifting and monitoring our brakes and chain rings in these initial miles. Red-wing blackbirds flit overhead, joined occasionally by the graceful swoop and soar of hawks. Everywhere lining the roads are the dusky-orange tiger lilies that add a festiveness to the scene.

We were gonna do this together. We’re athletes, dammit! 

It’s a grand feeling, on this first day, not encountering a steady stream of motorists, but instead looking back with regularity and accommodating the occasional passing car or truck. Our brotherly quartet glides along, mostly as twosomes. Riding four abreast across single-lane traffic in each direction inconveniences these cars and trucks, most of whom seem largely uninterested at the sight of cyclists in boldly designed jerseys commanding space on their roads. 

My three brothers have each contributed a signature stamp to this ride – each of which I initially balk at but come to appreciate. John has downloaded onto his phone an exhaustive road-trip playlist of mostly big-hair, 80s-era music that is automatically shared with anyone riding in proximity with him. Being the oldest of this crew, I grumble that there ought to be more classic ‘70s cuts, but my objection is ignored. The music, predictably, stirs conversation along these flat stretches of byways. Who was that one-hit wonder? Surely, you liked earlier Aerosmith, right?  But I enjoy John’s encyclopedic knowledge of song lyrics, and I quickly come to chortle at the tunes tinkling from him as I catch up to him again. 

‘We know better, brother’

Pat, before the ride, advanced the idea of drilling holes in our bicycle helmets (!), inserting a small stick with an attached American flag, and securing the 4” x 6”-sized flags with glue. Aside from any concerns about violating the structural integrity of our helmets, I express reservations initially at such a naked display of patriotism.  

But here we are, flags rippling atop our helmets as we cycle, and I’m happy to report to the lads that I’m on board. The gesture bonds us. We in fact become known as The Flag Boys on this trip, and the appellation sticks. The only drawback is the wind which, when it slaps our flags from certain directions, sounds exactly like our chains groaning in disharmony with our chain rings as we pedal. We glance down repeatedly, expecting the distress of grinding gears, only to remember that it’s the flags!

Tim, displaying a fondness and aptitude for technology, has affixed a Go-Pro camera to his helmet in hopes of capturing interesting footage of this ride. He records a YouTube-worthy moment on this first day on the road. Because the wind doesn’t allow us to hear each other well when we create distance between us, lead riders will frequently look back to speak and hope they’re heard. Drifting momentarily near the oncoming traffic lane is a common occurrence. 

Pat, wanting to get across some thought, twists backward too long, veering into the oncoming lane at a slight dip in the road just as an oncoming truck motors up. He calmly maneuvers back into our lane, just missing a front-fender smackdown from the truck. Tim catches the moment on Go-Pro, including the three of us simultaneously (and very audibly) screaming Pat’s name. We debated about showing that footage to Janice when we gathered at their home later in the week. We did so, eventually, taking a warped delight in the “oh the horror” moment of disbelief frozen on her face.

Pat and I chat as we pedal. In Labadie, his Franklin County training route consists normally of a jaunt into Washington on Old Highway 100 and a challenging climb to get back home. We laugh at the stereotypes so many people not from the Midwest hold about a place like Missouri: “So, it may be humid there,” they say, “but it’s flat, right? At least ya got that goin’ for ya?”

“Oh, man,” Pat laughs. “We know better, brother.”

The music, predictably, stirs conversation along these flat stretches of byways. Who was that one-hit wonder? Surely, you liked earlier Aerosmith, right?

Pat’s life has been busy lately. He’s got a one-year-old grandson who celebrated his birthday the day before we left for the BAM ride, and his daughter was due to welcome her first child into the world later in the week. If his training miles leading up to the ride are less than what he’d planned for, well, we all understand the call of family.  

We look at each other with goofy grins, and he says, “Can you believe we’re doing this?!” 

“Reclaiming our twelve-year-old selves, mister!” I call back, thinking about those pre-adolescent days when a bicycle offered the freedom to simply get away from parents and all these younger brothers for a bit. And in truth, it’s not so different these days, when the ride levels out the bumpiness of hectic work weeks. 

John and I ride together for a while. We discuss June in Missouri and this unsettling humidity business, alien to us in the Intermountain and Desert West. “I can beat the heat in Phoenix,” he says. “I just have to get my rides underway in early morning. Which I don’t mind doing, believe me. But this humidity!?!”

A week earlier, we had monitored the days of rain that pelted this part of the country, and we wondered whether the precipitation would linger into our ride. The rain never materialized, but the humidity was omnipresent, a serious wake-up call. It’s been years since most in our band of brothers have dealt with immediately sticky bike jerseys, sweat and sunscreen lotion dripping in our eyes, and the blast-furnace effect of the combination of temperatures hovering in the low to mid 90s and humidity off the charts. 

Not on the agenda: Rushing

Still, it’s a good day’s ride. We cross US Highway 61 and pull into the Sikeston Recreation Complex sometime after 2 p.m. and immediately recognize what will become cardinal rule #1 of the ride: make an effort to break camp in the morning as early as possible; so as to finish our ride earlier in the afternoon before the real heat of the day kicks in; so as to secure a good campsite with shade AS NEAR TO THE GEAR TRUCK AS POSSIBLE; so as to avoid a long walk in our bicycle shoes and cleats (clipless pedals are wonderful, except for extended walking!), shlepping our bags from truck to campsite (because we also have to shlep it back in the morning!)

This is a rule we will be consistently conscious of, and consistently fail at following. We learn to privately curse – and be envious of – those riders who get out of Dodge in the wee hours. We don’t grumble loudly, though. After all, it’s a vacation, and rushing around isn’t that high on our agenda. Tim and I are clearly on board with that approach. Pat and John, maybe somewhat less so. It could be why those boys have stipulated that Tim and I will share one tent, while they commandeer the other. 

Tents pitched and gear arranged at our campsite, we settle in to follow what will be cardinal rule #2: visit first the tent that shades the coolers that offers the beer and soda and water. No rule shall supersede this second cardinal rule. We find it odd that the beer was free at each designated city park campsite, while cyclists had to pay $1 for each soda and water. Our enduring gratitude goes out to Sudwerk Brewing Co. of Davis, Calif., who appeared to be the chief sponsor of Big BAM. Two offerings from Sudwerk’s core lineup, their Small Town Hustle Hazy IPA and Bavarian Style Hefeweizen Wheat, were always on hand. After more water at riding day’s end, and after the satisfying sugar-rush of a Coke or Dr. Pepper, these ales restored hydration balance. 

Only then do we sit around in camp chairs and contemplate the other vital decisions of the day: phone charging and where to dine. 

Doing reconnaissance work for communications, John returns to inform us that the phone-charging carousel, a jumbled network of cell phones, connectors, cords and plugs, isn’t the quickest or most modern-looking of recharging units. “It looks like something out of Green Acres!” he pronounces and shakes his head. 

Pat then launches a loud guffaw and instantly recounts all the character names of the loveable “knuckleheads” that populated the venerable ‘60s sitcom. We all remember Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in the lead roles, but he’s spot-on in recalling the quirky ensemble cast: Mr. Haney, Hank Kimball, Sam Drucker, Eb Dawson, and Fred and Doris Ziffel and their preternaturally intelligent pet pig, Arnold. This post-ride bouncing about with trivia, when we’re all a tad depleted, comprises a lot of our brotherly conversation this week.  

No one spends their only evening in Sikeston without visiting Lamberts Café, home of the Throwed Rolls.

When we’re not jawing about weather, food or drink, we strike up easy conversations with other travelers on this journey. People are pleasantly tired after the exertion, of course, and maybe more prone to open up to other pilgrims. We meet Tim and Eva Morrison, of Ellisville, Mo., a father-daughter team who’ve done all five previous Big BAMs. Eva’s now in college at KU in Lawrence, but she started signing up for these physically demanding bicycle trips with her dad when she was 13 years old! We’ll pass and be passed by Tim and Eva throughout the week, their unfailing good cheer a boost to our spirits. 

We’ll also be entertained by Charlie Brown and his lovely wife, Janae. Charlie’s father, he informs us as we lounge under the tent in the mid-day sun, named Charlie’s siblings Linus and Lucy. This fit of whimsey certainly must have colored Charlie’s life, we say. Janae has the good sense to quietly let Charlie enjoy his raconteur skills and ponder how she’ll do on the bicycle in this heat and terrain. Janae would later describe her pleasant interactions with the SAG wagon drivers when she had problems with the heat and needed a lift to the next day’s rendezvous place. 

The two food vendors in their mobile trucks leave disappointingly early, by mid-afternoon, leaving us to contemplate the shuttle into town. Our choice seems to be preordained. No one spends their only evening in Sikeston without visiting Lamberts Café, home of the Throwed Rolls. As we dine at this perennially popular venue, a waiter-cum-hurler of dinner rolls, who can’t be more than 16 years old, waits for guests to raise their hand, indicating the wish for another roll. The kid then launches the rolls expertly to that requesting diner. His accuracy and confidence is genuinely impressive. 

After dinner, we grab a convenience store 12-pack, head back to camp, and quietly sip our beers as night comes. It’s the only night, thankfully, that we’ll contend with mosquitos. Someone remembered to lug Cutter Deep Woods along in their bag, for which we express our deepest appreciation. 

“Those two are doers, for sure,” Tim says later that night in the tent as we discuss the heat, the difficulty of sleep in this sweathouse clamminess, and the hurry-up-to-grab-gear-and-a-good-spot-for-camping mentality. And it’s true, I think. Compared to the efficiency of Pat and John, Tim and I may be more inclined to being rather than doing

Still, all that being isn’t gonna get us on the road in the morning, we acknowledge, without the doing counterbalance. Best to grab some sleep and get our butts going before the day gets all sultry on us.

Day 2, Tuesday, June 15
Sikeston (straddling Scott and New Madrid Counties) to Cape Girardeau: 70 miles, 1,377 feet of climbing
[8.9% uphill grade; 8.1% downhill grade]

Day 2 sees us again violating cardinal rule #1 as we head out from Sikeston a bit earlier than yesterday. On this day’s journey north to Cape Girardeau, another 70’ish-mile day in mostly flatter stretches, we rely on our nutrition bars and gels for sustenance and look for the water stops that are promised around every 15 miles or so. 

What’s made this year’s iteration of BAM inviting “is the combination of Delta land in Missouri’s Bootheel, and the gradual rise to Ozark plateau country,” says Greg Wood, the event’s director. In Day 2 we encounter rice and cotton fields and magnolia trees in the lowlands as we head east. Over the next several days as we chart our course, we’ll encounter more of these Southeastern Lowlands and the St. Francois Mountains, as well as the famed Ozarks tableland. 

I’ve put in enough miles over the years to know that I distinctly favor climbing and down-hilling over long stretches of level terrain with headwinds. One bone of contention, always, is sharing both the wind and more heavily traveled state roads with motorists. Today, gliding out of Sikeston on U.S. 62, we face the traffic. It’s a price we pay, surely, for gaining access to places we’ve never visited: share the road with cars, ride responsibly and on the shoulder where feasible, and try not to gripe. There’s too much of interest and beauty to allow ourselves to be plagued by irritation. 

We continue the comfortable rhythm of alternating twosomes as we go, being careful to coexist with U.S. 62 traffic and its varying widths of shoulders. John, who’s never been a roadie, albeit a frequent mountain biker in Arizona, has put in the training miles in preparation for Big BAM. I daresay he values his recently purchased road bike as he’s been training, now that he realizes there are indeed places in every urban locale that a man can ride in harmony with vehicular traffic. On these days, he’s often out in the two-man lead pack, one of us accompanying him more or less. Often, though, he’ll initiate a burst-from-the-pack thrust that leaves us all in arrears. 

Ahhh—a blessed rest stop

It’s another day of heat. We don’t fail to stop at water and gel drink stops, strategically laid out, and we are overjoyed later that morning to ride through the Main Street of Charleston, Mo., in Mississippi County. There, the First Baptist Church in town has designated itself as a rest stop for water, juice, fruit and snacks to the BAM riders.

“Are you an official sponsor of the Big BAM ride?” I inquire of the lone, elderly gentleman manning the goods arrayed on long tables in the indoor education center next to the church. To us bikers, deprived of a hearty breakfast in the morning, the fare is something like manna from the heavens. 

“No sir,” he replied, the essence of genteel approachability, “we heard that you bicycle riders would be coming through Charleston, and we simply wanted to lend you assistance. It’s an interesting thing you folks are doing!”

Nourished after this act of graciousness, we get back on the bikes and tour the several-blocks-long run of antebellum homes in Charleston, an aura of Southern refinement still in play here, before angling north toward Cape Girardeau. Miles of rural Missouri bottomland unfurl as our route traverses Scott County. A few miles before Scott City we turn sharply west and cross I-55 for the first time this day. We pass Tywappity Conservation Land, near Chaffee, Mo., and rehydrate without benefit of shade before angling back north and east into Cape Girardeau County. 

In the heat, this roadkill perfume is pungent but not entirely unpleasant. It becomes an indelible element of the journey, one that speeding motorists are denied.

Getting closer to the city of Cape Girardeau, easily the biggest burg we’ll encounter on this trip, we note multiple city signs that have us believing we’ve really entered the city. But they are false promises luring depleted bikers eager to give our butts, necks and shoulders a break for the day. For amusement, we mentally catalogue and discuss the sheer number of dead animals on these roads: raccoons, ‘possums, the occasional fox and armadillo, in various states of decomposition, are our frequent companions. In the heat, this roadkill perfume is pungent but not entirely unpleasant. It becomes an indelible element of the journey, one that speeding motorists are denied.

Armadillos in Missouri? Man, I would have thought these guys were confined to west Texas, but we’re told that they are thriving here. “You picture them dead, coiling into a ball, right?” says a rider. “But not so much. They have a tendency to leap up right into the grill plates of oncoming cars and buy the farm that way, slung off to the roadside.” 

And it’s true. We saw perfectly preserved specimens as we cycled by. 

Eastbound, we cross I-55 a second time and settle into Cape’s Arena Park, the most bustling city park scene we’ll see on this trip. We’re welcomed by a sound system cranking out tunes, a TV news channel reporter, and food trucks, each of its mobile purveyors of nourishment tempting us. We wolf down a pulled pork sandwich from Straight Line Swine BBQ, and both the Straight Line Swine and Molon Latte trucks promise a return trip in the morning to fuel us at breakfast.  

Amidst the high temps and stickiness, our physical exertion, and the urge to get the tents up, we ensure again to meet the highest priority: uber-necessary liquid replenishment. We visit the ice chests for the drinks, kvetch about the swamp-like humidity for a bit, and repair to our camp chairs to discuss the day’s road merits. 

Did someone say ‘massage?’

The much-admired shower trucks, too, await us. After each day’s ride, we will find time to partake, even if evening meals, shuttle buses and timing difficulties confront us. The shower truck is especially inviting now as we prepare for our other distinct perk of the day – the promise of a massage. Back in Poplar Bluff, on Sunday, Tim and I had signed up with Susan Barg, the lone massage therapist contracted by Pork Belly to knead the sore muscles of riders.  We lope over to the showers in late afternoon to prepare for our date with Susan.  

During my half hour session with her, Susan informs me that she’d be one of ten or so massage therapists catering to the roughly 1,260 RAGBRAI cyclists who have signed up exclusively for Pork Belly services during the weeklong late July ride. Yes, the gear hauling, showers, tent concierge and truck-apartment dwellings, if desired, massage services, etc., all serviced by Pork Belly amidst other companies offering similar amenities. For BAM, however, Susan is a team of one, and each afternoon as we set up our tents, we see Susan and her massage table steadily attending to the deltoids, glutes, calves and IT bands of achy riders. 

Susan is also delighted to tell me that she and her husband, Steve, who’s along for this ride, will plan later in the year on bicycles to skirt the length of the Mississippi River in stages, from the headwaters in northern Minnesota, down to the Delta. “Our current base is in Hanover, Ill.,” Susan says, “a beautiful little town about halfway between Dubuque and the Quad Cities. For so long we’ve enjoyed the vantage point of the Mississippi, so close to us, and wondered what it would be like to travel its ‘mighty’ course. Well, it’s time to live that dream!”

I wish her well, thank her for my massage, and walk back to our campsite to discover that a local church has donated plastic-bag bundles containing bags of fresh mini-carrots, pre-packaged cherries and cranberries, boxed-drink grape juice, and thawed-out Smucker’s Uncrustables peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. We had planned to shuttle in to Cape for an evening meal, but it’s getting late and there are concerns about meeting our shuttle pick-up in time after dining. The church donation has helped, and besides, we’re bushed. It’s an early day tomorrow. 

Showered, fed, and sore calf muscles worked over, we retire to our tents, our spirits buoyed by the vision of a genuine breakfast in the morning. Tomorrow starts our days of significant climbing.

Day 3, Wednesday, June 16
Cape Girardeau to Perryville: 52 miles, 3,821 feet of climbing
[12.4% uphill grade; 9.3% downhill grade

After slogging our tents and gear bags to the truck around 6:45 a.m., we do indeed enjoy what’s been promised us—scrambled egg and sausage burritos, with espresso! The mobile trucks are there, and the java from Billy and Kristen Lewis’ Molon Latte coffee trailer complementing the meal is an over-the-top, mirth-inducing moment.  

It’s spirit-elevating to have a hearty breakfast in our bellies, knowing that elevation awaits us. I am hopeful, initially, that we will be afforded bluff-site views of the Mississippi River as we veer northwesterly toward Perryville. Recognizing that Cape hugs the Big Muddy, I’m optimistic, but it’s not to be. It’s a minor frustration, soon forgotten as we confront the terrain so familiar to us in our youth—the roller-coaster routes, the hill-and-dale highways slicing through verdant Ozark foothills. All that rain has yielded lushness of deciduous forest that still has the capacity to stun me. 

I’ve often remarked to John and Tim when we go back home: “Look at this road, or even at I-44. If there was no traffic, how soon would it be before there was no trace of steel, asphalt, concrete and neon? How soon before it would be all covered over?!”

Hanging out at Bollinger Mill

We’re quite pleased with our earliest water stop at Burfordville, right on the grounds of Bollinger Mill State Historic Site. It’s a state-owned property preserving a mill and covered bridge that pre-date the American Civil War. We stop and pose for pictures at the bridge and chat amiably with Tim and Eva, whose pace we often approximate. This pitstop under a shady grove of white oak and shellbark hickory stands in stark contrast to a few of our bottled water refills on this ride, sun-pounded spots along service roads with no place to rest our haunches. So we’re motivated to hang out at the mill, hard by the Whitewater River, a while longer. 

More stretches of hills and arduous climbing are ahead. We’re either up out of our saddles now more often, or bearing down, our bodies slung low, self-contained, focusing on a steady pace in our lowest gears. Not so much chattering now as we labor in our small chainrings, battling the uphill grades and the heat. In Sedgewickville, our water stop is at the Lutheran Church, and riders alternately suck down liquids as they assess the temperature and their place in this peloton of hardy souls. 

We’re impressed, seriously, with brother Tim’s pounding out the miles. His work often prevents him from doing the kind of training he might have hoped to do, and his personal ride is an old mountain bike he had his San Diego shop retool for the road. When we rumble into Perryville’s pristine Perry Recreation Complex, we complement our youngest brother on his grit. It’s been a “granny gear” day with serious climbing, and we’re beat, all of us. After grabbing our gear from the truck (too late again, we are! It’s a longer walk to a suitable tree-shaded spot!), we set up our tents and stroll back to the open-air shelter and gathering spot to address the immediate need of these days: water, soda, beer. 

Perryville is our paternal grandfather’s birthplace. Our great-grandfather, of German heritage, was born in the area in 1872, and our grandfather in 1902.

On that stroll from our campsite, we take note of the array of brightly colored tents mushrooming up around the park—many of which are NOT of the ultralight backpacking variety. I ask a couple who’ve pitched an impressively large, bright-orange Marmot tent, “Beautiful! How many does it sleep?” 

“Two,” he deadpans.  

This cycling gig is gear-intensive, no doubt. Pat and Janice have kindly supplied the two tents we use on this trip—a four-person and six-person. “You’re kidding me!” I said initially before we left town. “The six-person should accommodate us four lunkheads and our bags, yes?!”

“Um, not really, dude,” Pat shoots back. “We got a lotta stuff.” 

“Not really” turns out to be right. John and Pat take the six-person; Tim and I repair to the slightly smaller tent. When we factor in the gear – jerseys, shorts/bibs, chamois cream, gloves, helmets, headbands/skull caps, sunglasses, water, bars, gels, electrolyte fizzy solutions, shoes, sunscreen, et al., not to mention sleeping bags, pads, pillows and tent bags and gear bags for loading it all on the truck – I’m grateful for Pat and Janice’s eminently sensible decision to go larger with the more spacious digs. 

As we tear into liquid refreshment, I remind my brothers, to the point of their irritation, that Perryville is our paternal grandfather’s birthplace. Our great-grandfather, of German heritage, was born in the area in 1872, and our grandfather in 1902.

And then an indoor pool!

I introduce our sweaty selves to Trish Erzfeld, the Perry County Heritage Tourism director who’s formally greeting the BAM riders on behalf of her organization. She verifies that the Zoellner name is still recognized in the area. The publisher of the Perry County Republic-Monitor, Beth Durreman, is also on hand. Beth snaps a pic of the four brothers and informs us that Perryville and Washington share something like a sister-city relationship, each town marked by a strong German Catholic influence. In subsequent days, Trish and Beth will both forward the names of Perryville citizens I can contact who may be able to pass along genealogical information regarding our forebears and their efforts to gain a foothold in the New World.

On this sweltering day we feel charmed that the impressively spacious Perry Park Center has a recently updated indoor pool, and it is ours as BAM riders to partake of, free of charge. John and Tim dive and do cannon balls off the 3-meter high board (“No, Mark,” John reminds me, “not cannon balls. These are ‘preacher seats’, remember?”). Then these two aging men – the youngest of a brood of six, the “little kids” – gravitate to the massive 85-foot-long water slide apparatus installed in the far end of the pool, where they vie for space in line with eight-year-olds. I’m elated just to do breast strokes alone in the 25-meter swimming lanes, basking in the bracing water that transports me away from the heat of the day. 

As the day fades, we shuttle into Perryville’s downtown to eat Italian at Galati’s Ristorante. Pat has contacted a bike repair guy from Farmington who we chatted with at the Perry Recreation Complex to do a quick tune-up of the bikes (lube, chain check, etc.), so we hustle it back to the park. Pleased that nothing mechanical is out of order, we head to the tents and hope for a cooler night as we drift off to sleep watching the fireflies. 

Day 4, Thursday, June 17, Perryville to Farmington
44 miles. 2,583 feet of climbing
[8.5% uphill grade; 10% downhill grade

Breaking camp and hauling butt to the gear truck, later than we intend to be, as usual. After another hearty breakfast, this one in a shelter overlooking the baseball diamond at the city park complex, it’s another day of hills. We get right to it, conscious now of the necessary rhythm of our riding: start near first light; enjoy the morning hours; and get off the bikes at least by early afternoon so we’re not assaulted by true heat of day. 

As we ride through Perryville on our way west toward Farmington, I’m struck by the notion that bicycle touring doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to photo documentation of a trip. Before we left town, I had wanted to signal my bros to stop at Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial and its replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, but it’s the invigorating air of morning and we want to find our rhythm in that crispness. To stop, even briefly and not where there’s liquid nourishment waiting for us, is to break that cadence, something we’re all loathe to do frequently. 

And for the first time during these days’ rides, I’m feeling drained and sluggish. I lag behind my brothers as we ride. I resolve at the first rest stop to get back in sync by gulping an Espresso Love energy gel and adding one of the electrolyte fizzy solutions to my water bottle. Always, the need to hydrate/refuel in these muggy conditions that cling to Missouri summers. 

I also linger for a bit on the road with Charlie and Janae Brown. Janae has found her mojo again after bouts with physical distress. She’s exceedingly grateful for the Sag Wagon support in recent days, and she seems anxious again to ride the route to its completion. I wish the couple good energy as I pedal away. As a group, too, we’re also very aware that more climbing remains. Challenging uphill stretches take us on through the towns of Silver Lake and Knob Lick amidst other water stops. 

Picking up speed!

Yin-yang. The hills yield the downs! After a series of sinuous dips and climbs, I dare John, at 6’3’’ and 210 pounds, to go for it when we see a traffic sign signaling a 10 percent downhill grade. Not knowing if we’ll get other speedwork opportunities, I burst ahead and wait for him to follow. He does, and we get our bike computers recording 39 miles per hour. “Not bad,” I shout, “but some time I gotta see you hit 50 mph, dude. Give you the right terrain…it’ll be a cinch for you to get it revved up.” He remains skeptical of hitting that mark. 

Tim and I ride together and talk before the next uphill will merit our full attention. He’s the die-hard golfer in the family, less enthusiastic about this road bike avocation we’ve adopted as our aging bodies preclude full-bore pursuit of the other sports – basketball, running, tennis – we’ve enjoyed earlier in our lives. On this more level stretch of road, I say, referring to the downhill rush a while back, “Seriously, isn’t that exhilarating!?” 

“Um, no, that’s frightening!” he fires back. “Seriously? I keep thinking of these skinny tires and blowouts going that fast. Or animals darting out at you. I think of crashing is what I think about!”

To stop, even briefly and not where there’s liquid nourishment waiting for us, is to break that cadence, something we’re all loathe to do frequently. 

And it’s true. The sport comes with its inherent risks, assuredly. But like I tell our mother, who exhorts all of us – always and forever – to be careful, “Mom, really, we’re never more careful than when we’re out there on the road. The vehicles, the hydration issues, fueling up on these long, hot rides, the maintaining concentration to avoid colliding with other cyclists. You pay attention, and then you get to enjoy like nobody’s business. But trust us, we’re being careful.”

We’re also chuckling at the riders we see on the roads each day. We pass them. They pass us. A familiarity develops. They’ve come to recognize The Flag Boys. Throughout the day before, a rider had noticed John’s red and black Arrogant Bastard Ale jersey, but in passing it’s hard to make out the “Ale” part on the bottom. “I can’t figure it out,” he yells as he passes us. “Are you guys the Flag Boys or the Arrogant Bastards?!”

The day also forces us to ride through our only significant stretch of unpleasant road conditions. The Missouri Department of Transportation is repaving a stretch of road somewhere in St. Francois County, and the newly-laid-down gummy material has us all feeling as though we’re cycling through an oatmeal-like slush. The road issues coincide with the only mechanical/tire issue any of us will face on the trip. John’s chain comes off, and as he stops to situate it on the chain ring and cassette, a MoDot man hops out of his truck and offers my brother some paper towels to deal with his oily hands. “Ya’ll could use this, I reckon,” he says and hustles back to his road crew.

Sudsy Sudwerk brews

By Thursday, the temperature has become an even greater concern. We feel relieved to end the ride at Farmington’s Engler Park in early afternoon. In the heat, we scramble to hoist from the gear truck and assemble tents. Our reward is the ice chest of beverages and the chance to kibbutz with other riders.    

Amid more Sudwerk brews and waters, we chat with Joan Flieg, the Ste. Genevieve, Mo., native who’s done a lot of these organized rides. Her husband and grown children aren’t so fond of cycling, so she good-naturedly chooses to sign up solo, trusting that she will fire up friendships en route. We notice that quite a few riders are singletons, similarly inclined. There’s a camaraderie among riders that’s enviable.      

Another of our prevailing topics back in camp is the necessity of charging those damn cell phones – and debating how best to get photos to wives. Maybe the favorite meme of this trip is Tim’s response to a call for technical aid on the phone: “Oh, it’s simple,” he opines. “Just go to Settings… and then figure it out from there.”

We notice that quite a few riders are singletons, similarly inclined. There’s a camaraderie among riders that’s enviable.      

We don’t figure a whole lot out, ever, but we have the good sense to amble over for a late lunch to Baylee Jo’s BBQ, a mobile food service dishing out the best pork steak sandwich I’ve ever tasted. Thick as a middle linebacker’s haunches, it’s succulent and extraordinarily tasty. Tim Morrison partakes of the sandwich, too, and we talk contentedly about the climbing and fatigue factors that mark our days.

Later, when it’s slightly cooler, we use the shuttle service to dine at 102 Taphouse in downtown Farmington, as much to sit in an air-conditioned space as to sample the fare. The scuttlebutt in camp when we return is that ride officials will want to shorten Friday’s ride due to weather concerns. We learn on the BAM website that Friday’s ride will indeed be shorter, 42.5 miles. The hope is that everyone will pull into Ste. Genevieve, the Mississippi River town with its French historical influence, as early as possible, circumventing heat-related issues. 

Day 5, Friday, June 18, Farmington to St. Genevieve
43 miles, 2,2318 ft. of climbing
; 10% uphill grade; 8.7% downhill grade]

Heading east now, we revel in the rural highways of Ste. Genevieve County that will wind us down to the finish stretch somewhere ahead of mid-day. One of our earliest rest stops on this last day of the ride is an unexpected treat – the Crown Valley Brewing & Distilling Co., established in 2008. The handsome facility is housed right on Highway F in the old Coffman school house, Coffman, Mo., and the expansive interior is a treat to inspect. (It’s also quite cold, contrasted with us sweating cyclists laboring under this boiling summer day.) The Crown Valley proprietors proudly concoct and serve Coldwater Whiskey, Washtub Gin, Crown Valley Vodka, Downhome Vodkas, Absinthe and Missouri Moonshine. 

Onward we pedal toward tiny Ozora, Mo. (population 183 in the 2010 census), and its captivating Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church. Due to declining enrollment, the elementary school adjoining the church closed some years back, we’re informed by a church caretaker. But the church, both exterior and interior, exudes a sense of vibrancy and contemplation. Certainly, our less than fully hydrated bodies crave the liquid break and a chance to recline on a splendid patch of lawn fronting the church. Maybe the break is something more, too. Here in this quiet of a Friday morning in June in rural Missouri, when the world is not seeming to conform to breakneck pace, there is space to enjoy a momentary antidote to rushing. Eva, sprawled on the front lawn next to her bike, seems content. And she remains so even as her dad cajoles her into visiting the church interior.  

The trip renewed our fondness for the place most of us have not called home in a long time.

For the citizens of Ozora, we hope the church never closes. 

Back on the highway, we soon cross I-55 for the last time and sense Ste. Genevieve in the bottomlands along Highway 61. The great Mississippi lazes along nearby, unseen. When we veer onto St. Mary’s Road, we know the end of the ride looms. As if confirming Ste. Genevieve’s legitimate French historical trappings for our eyes, our BAM route takes us past Bequette-Ribault House and Beauvais-Amoureux House on our way to a final gulping of ice water and a shower before we plot a lunch with Janice at The Anvil Bar downtown. She’s a good sport to drive to this river town and haul her tired husband and brothers-in-law back to the old hometown. 

On the ride back, one of us mentions what we’d all heard before we started this trip – friends, co-workers saying, “I can’t believe you guys can get along with each other well enough to pull this off!” 

I think I speak for my brothers when I say that the trip renewed our fondness for the place most of us have not called home in a long time. That impossibly green countryside that turns a hazy blue in the sunshiny distance. Farmland and river bottoms and Ozark upthrust that seem as unperturbed now as it was to us then.  

And the freedom to bicycle through it at our own pace. 

The WashMoBros came back for more Big BAM in 2022. For the Route 66 trek (Missouri’s portion of the Mother Road), they opted for a different approach to the Flag Boys theme. They each affixed Ukrainian flags to their helmets this year (photo below), in support of that country’s fight against Russian aggression in their homeland. Slava Ukraini! (The Ukrainian phrase translates to “Glory to Ukraine!) On Day 2 of their six-day jaunt from Joplin to Eureka, above, they pose next to a Route 66 mural in Marshfield, Mo., northeast of Springfield. Left to right: Terry Armer, riding in place of brother Tim Zoellner, and Mark, John, and Pat Zoellner.