Tuesday, May 27, 2008

That's a ride!

Four mountain passes, spectacular scenery, over 20,000 feet of climbing, terrific challenge, and incredible support characterized my volunteers pre-ride of the SIR 600km on Memorial Day weekend.

Brad and Jeff Tilden are organizing the SIR 600k on June 7-8. On Sunday, I joined them and Mark Roehrig, Dave Read, and Ralph Nussbaum for the volunteers pre-ride of the event. Inspired by the legendary 2002 600km ride, Brad plotted a big loop course from his house in Issaquah over four mountain passes - Stevens, Blewett, White, and Cayuse.

In 2002, we did a similar ride in reverse. The ride generated some spectacular DNF stories. One weary rider called AAA from the Yakima River canyon south of Ellensburg to request roadside assistance, even though his car was 150 miles away. Another rider stuck out his thumb at the base of Blewett pass and scored a ride all the way to his home in West Seattle. Another rider made it to within 15 miles of the finish before shutting down and calling for reinforcements. The finishers were not free of drama either. I saw a buddy fall asleep and wake up dramatically (and just in time) while descending Blewett Pass in the dark at 30mph. Riders crawled off the road on the top of Blewett in futile attempts to warm up before heading down to the overnight stop in Leavenworth. As for me, I was in pretty decent shape in 2002 (the year I rode the Rocky Mountain 1200, BMB, and two 1000km brevets) and I recorded my personal best 600km time. This year would be a different challenge for me.

Our snowy winter made the scenery even more spectacular than usual. We left the shores of Lake Sammamish and climbed over the plateau to the Snoqualmie Valley on the way to the Stevens Pass highway. In the mountains, visual and auditory reminders of our extraordinary winter snows are everywhere. The snow fields on Mount Index played peek-a-boo with the clouds. The sound of rushing water was a frequent companion. I missed Wallace Falls, high above the highway around Gold Bar, but further along I heard and saw more water in Deception Falls than I can ever recall. At the hairpin turn after Scenic, both sides of the road showed evidence of the big avalanche that closed US-2 for a couple of days in February with a big slide of snow, trees, and other debris. In riding over three more passes, I saw snow-filled lakes, walls of snow by the roadside, spectacular hillsides, and more avalanche scars. Sounds ranged from rushing streams and cascading waterfalls to the eerie quiet of the Yakima Canyon south of Ellensburg in the dark.

In my experience, a 600km is never easy. (I'm up to 14 attempts, with 1 DNF). Although I do frequently fall victim to the randonneur habit of saying that the ride I've just done is the hardest ever, I really do believe that this course (and the reverse version from 2002) have been my greatest 600km challenges since my first attempt at the distance. Climbing the four passes is challenging in its own right (from near sea level at the start to just over 4000 feet on Stevens Pass, from 1200 feet in Leavenworth to 4100 feet on new Blewett Pass, from 1100 feet in Selah to 4500 feet on White Pass, and from 1400 feet at the low point to 4700 feet on Cayuse Pass). Before and after and in between, there is also just a lot of mileage to cover. Fatigue becomes another challenge for me at this distance. I've never tried to ride a 600km without some sleep, but I'm also not fast enough to get much. Unlike the longer brevet distances, the clock doesn't slow on a 600km, so the sleep needs to squeeze into the same pace as the shorter events. Having recently finished a 400km brevet with only a couple hours to spare, I expected little sleep on the 600km and my expectations were met. I spent just over 3 hours at the overnight stop, but probably got less than 90 minutes of somewhat fitful sleep.

So what's the good part? My long suffering spouse is fond of asking: "Do you really enjoy those rides?" Most of the time, a "you're nuts, you know" roll of the eyes accompanies this question. (Side note: That presumption of sanity on her part and insanity on mine was forever thrown out the window this past week when she decided on Thursday to participate in a marathon on Saturday despite never having done one before and not having trained at all. Chris did fine, but lost her last best claim to being the sane one in the family).

Yes, I do enjoy these rides. For the exhilarating feeling of reaching a pass summit after two hours of climbing. For the camaraderie of riding with other fellow lunatics, sharing observations on the universe and retelling boring old randonneur stories. For the humorous company of Jeff Tilden for most of the first 400km, for the infrequent meetings with the speedy Mark Roehrig, and for the welcome support of Dave Read and Ralph Nussbaum over the last (and seemingly endless) 100km. For the quiet pleasure of riding alone in the pitch black dark with just the sound of tires on pavement for company. For the exquisite enjoyment of natural beauty experienced at bicycle speed. For the surprises of unexpected wildlife - my second bear in two brevets, the deer bounding across the road, the vultures that I hoped were interested in someone or something else, the raptor spotted on its aerial hunt. For the serendipity of a cool rain just when the fear of overheating was setting in. For the joyful feeling on realizing that I can (and will) finish. For the prideful conversation with a passing cyclist who innocently asks, "so where are you riding from?" For the cold, well-earned beer at the finish. For the sore, happy feeling the next day. For the randonneur amnesia that only remembers the good parts.

One of the best parts of this ride was the terrific support provided by Carol Nussbaum. I often marvel at the effort that a half dozen or more volunteers will put into supporting a 600km brevet. For Carol to do all that support by herself for a pre-ride is nothing short of extraordinary. Many thanks to her for all the good cheer, good humor, and well-placed assistance.

Some ride notes that may help riders in two weeks:

(1) It's over 65 miles to the first control in Skykomish. Other than the steep climb up to the plateau from Issaquah and a few steep pitches on Ben Howard Road before Sultan, this is nice gentle riding. There are no services until you join US-2 in Sultan (about 40 miles from the start). The last refueling opportunity before Skykomish is the Baring store (about 8 miles from Skykomish). The big, friendly, bear of a fellow that runs this place would be happy for your patronage. Jeff and I stopped for drinks there this weekend. In Skykomish, the Sky Deli makes great sandwiches.

(2) It's 50 miles from Skykomish to Leavenworth. The first 16 are uphill, 10 gentle and 6 of climbing in earnest after the railroad tunnel entrance at Scenic. The pass summit is between mileposts 64 and 65. There are one or two gratuitous uphills on the descent down the east side. (On my first trip over this pass 10 years ago, I stopped at one point to find the brake rub or other cause of my anemic speed. Only when I looked back after spinning both wheels did I realize that I had been going uphill). Refreshments are available at Coles Corner (about 17 miles east of the summit), before the spectacular ride through the Tumwater Canyon into Leavenworth. Note the waterfalls high on the south side of the river, the charred reminders of forest fires, and the class V rapids of the Wenatchee river.

(3) The faux-bavarian town of Leavenworth can be crowded with tourists and distracted drivers, so caution is advised. If you need more supplies than available at the control, look for the Safeway to the left as you leave town. Watch for the construction as you approach the turnoff to US-97 to Blewett Pass.

(4) It's 25 miles or so to the Blewett Pass summit (MP 164, I think) from Leavenworth. Once you turn onto 97, the only services are at the Ingall's Creek store (about halfway between Leavenworth and the summit). If it's hot, topping off the water bottles here could be a ride-saver. Bathrooms for customers only.

(5) At the base of Blewett on the south side is the Liberty Cafe, but it was closed by the time I reached it on Sunday. (It may be open later on Saturday; I didn't check). Just past there, the route turns left to stay on US-97 and climbs over a long gradual hill before a very nice descent into Ellensburg. Nice with a tailwind; no promises if the wind is not so friendly.

(6) In Ellensburg, there is a convenience store at the corner where the route turns south onto Main Street (which becomes Canyon Road). Further south are more convenience store options as well as a Starbucks (on left) at which I had a double espresso in a demitasse cup deemed insufficiently manly by Jeff at the time.

(7) The canyon between Ellensburg and Selah is a fun section of road. Despite following the Yakima river closely, the road is not flat. That benefit was reserved for the railroad tracks on the other side of the river. Apparently the trains got to pick first. There are a number of campgrounds along this stretch and many a campfire winked at us as we road past.

(8) It's a long stretch (over 70 miles) from Ellensburg to the overnight stop on Rimrock Lake. We found an open mini mart on the left side of the street in Selah before the turn off the main road to Fremont Ave, which was an easy turn to miss. If you get to Naches Ave, you've gone too far. From Selah, the route heads over the ridge before joining US-12 east of the town of Naches.

(9) East of the SR-410 intersection, US-12 is relatively flat. Rumble strips mark the edge of the pavement, but the shoulder to the right of the strips is inconsistent - sometimes a lovely wide shoulder and sometimes nothing much at all. We encountered little traffic and often took the travel lane (it's four lanes for much of this stretch).

(10) The happiest thing I learned on the ride was that the overnight stop at Rimrock Lake was at 2900 feet. I had attributed my slow progress to exhaustion and headwind and was delighted to learn that I had made more than a 50% down payment on the White Pass climb before sleeping.

(11) From Rimrock to Greenwater is a 60 mile stretch with two mountain passes and no towns. We expect to have manned support at the US-12/SR-123 intersection, but even after that is 40 miles (including a long pass climb). Be prepared for cool descents off both White and Cayuse passes. The descent from White Pass summit (MP 151) was a screamer - over 3000 feet in about 12 miles. Felt like being on a rock dropped off a bridge. Yee-hah! Cayuse (MP 16+) still had pretty walls of snow on either side (the road just opened to traffic on Friday). Great views of Mt. Rainier in front going down White Pass and in the rear view mirror on the way to Greenwater.

(12) After Greenwater (real food at Natchez Tavern on right, friendly convenience store on the left), the route returns to civilization and reasonable access to supplies. The route goes within a couple miles of the finish in Issaquah before heading up to Redmond and back on a "victory lap" around Lake Sammamish. A few final notes: Road construction makes the access into and out of the convenience store control at the end of East Lake Sammamish a bit dicey, the road through Marymoor park features speed bumps and stop signs galore, and the pavement on the south end of West Lake Sammamish can be pretty grim (but you can sure smell the barn from there).

(13) Map of the route (subject to revision)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

SIR 400k Support

On my pre-ride of the 400km, a friendly face at the Maltby control (~340km) did wonders for my attitude and helped me to complete the ride. I hoped to return the favor by spending the evening and night there during the scheduled brevet yesterday.

I helped the volunteers (John Morris, Thai Nguyen, and Erik Andersen) set up the secret control on Dubuque Cutoff Road. I stayed long enough to see the three first riders (Chris Ragsdale and Urs Koenig, setting a smoking pace, and Peter Beeson not far behind). Then I went shopping for cookies, ice, and drinking water and set up shop in the parking lot of the convenience store at the control. I missed Chris & Urs, but was there in time for Peter at 5:45PM. I stayed until the last rider came through at around 3:30AM.

The day had been tough for many riders, who faced temperatures near 100 east of the Cascades. That's tough enough under most circumstances, but especially so for NW riders who haven't seen any warm temperatures this spring. Most of the participants were feeling better by the time they arrived at Maltby in the relative cool of the evening (or night). I pushed electrolyte tablets to the riders with the most salt on their shorts. My supplies of water and cookies were well received, but many riders seemed more drawn to the comfy camp chairs.

Of the 60 starters, only five would DNF. Four of these were probably attributable to heat/fatigue, but one rider crashed in a drainage ditch just a mile or so before reaching Maltby. In the space of a couple minutes, I received a e-mail and a voice mail from ride organizer Brian Ohlemeier and an alert from incoming rider Mike Norman about the accident. The rider was taken off in an aid car before I got there, but I picked up the broken-framed bicycle. I spoke to him today and he's resting at home after his concussion. Tests (x-ray and CAT scan) were negative. We hope to see him back riding with us again soon. Thanks to Galvin Chow, Shan Perera, Robert Lagasca, and any others who assisted at the scene.

As always, I enjoyed the opportunity to see the ride from the other side. Only in support do you get the chance to talk with all of the participants. It's nice to see new members and old friends and to witness the spirit and determination shown by randonneurs. The mother of one rider had come from out of town to see first-hand her son's new obsession. She and the rider's wife brought cookies and good cheer.

I don't know if I helped any riders to complete their 400km, but I did remind myself yet again how much I enjoy our club and our sport.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

400km Pre-ride - 5/10

Randonneurs view maps differently. The map of Washington features mountain areas with few roads. Looking at the limited roads in these areas, randonneurs see brevets. No roads through the Olympic Mountains? Riding around them makes a great 600km brevet. Only four roads across the Cascades and one around them along the Columbia? Think of the possiblities. Over the North Cascades Highway and back on US-2 - 600km. Over US-2 and back on US-12 - another 600km. East along the Columbia and back on US-2 - 1000km. East along the Columbia and back on the North Cascades Highway - 1200km. Interstate 90 and US-2 - 400km.

The 400km Stevens Pass (US-2), Blewett Pass (US-97), and Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) loop is a classic SIR ride. I first rode a version of this route in 1998, my first year of randonneuring. The 3-pass loop engendered real trepidation. I rode the 200km on a lark. Thinking about the 300km, I recalled my one double century and thought the 300km would be no problem. (I was wrong, meeting the infamous Tahuya Hills for the first time, but I didn't realize this in advance). The 400k was a different matter. With zero experience riding over mountain passes, I was terrified of the idea of three - in one day, no less. Completing that 400km brought a real feeling of accomplishment and probably set the hook that reeled me into the sport.

Ten years later, some things have changed. We run the route counterclockwise now, to get riders off the passes before dark and to avoid a fear-inducing snow shed on westbound I-90. We've added some gratuitous hills at the end that push the climbing over 13,000 feet. In the past 10 years, I've been over countless mountain passes on my bicycle. But when the 3-pass 400km came back from a six-year absence, one thing was familiar - my trepidation. With the struggles in my cycling this year, I was unsure that I could make it over one pass, much less three in one day. Nonetheless, I headed out yesterday for the pre-ride of the 400km, which will be run next weekend by first-time SIR brevet organizers Brian Ohlmeier and Galvin Chow.

Unwilling to hold stronger riders back and preferring to struggle alone, I watched the other pre-riders go by in the first 10 miles of the Snoqualmie Pass climb. Thai Ngyuen and Erik Anderson rode derailleur-less - Ty on fixed, Erik on single. Geoff Swarts, one of our permanents coordinators, headed off too. I stayed ahead of fast guys Brian Ohlmeier and John Morris, but only for long enough for them to fix an early flat and sprint on ahead.

Most of the mental preparation for the route goes into preparing to climb the three mountain passes - Snoqualmie (3022ft), Blewett (4102 ft), and Stevens (4061ft). With nice weather and lighter than expect traffic, these climbs went well for me, if quite slowly. I reached the third summit, 220km into the ride, thirteen hours after the start - not exactly a blistering pace, but good enough to get the job done.

I was less well prepared mentally for the last 180km of the ride. The weather turned as a I came over Stevens, so I started this stretch with a cold, wet downhill. (Bonus wildlife sighting: Trying to figure out why a oncoming car had nearly stopped caused me to looked the wrong way; when I turned, I saw the black bear on my side of the road. I was within 25 feet or so when the smell of randonneur caused him to amble off in disgust.) Restored by a wonderful bowl of soup at the Sky Deli in Skykomish, I slogged more or less cheerfully through the rain to Sultan. Parts of this stretch are a bit nerve-wracking on a bicycle because of minimal or non-existent shoulder lanes, but yesterday the drivers were unfailingly kind. (It's not always so; I've had trash thrown at me here before). On hitting the steep hills north of Sultan in a spitting rain, however, my positive attitude started to flag. Every uphill was a struggle and the rain took the joy out of the downhills.

Somewhere along the way, I started to formulate a rescue plan for my attitude and my ride. I would take advantage of a noted weakness. Kent Peterson is fond of saying that cellphones make you weak. He casts this observation in general terms, but I'm pretty sure that he formulated this with a specific scenario in mind - a long ride, me, my cellphone, and a call to my lovely and tolerant wife. Chris has helped me euthanize a few ill-fated rides, but she has also saved a few. A replacement bike at the La Push control on a 600k in 1999 probably saved not only that ride, but also my first Paris-Brest-Paris.

The penultimate control of the 400km in Maltby is about 15km from our house. Chris could meet me there. I debated this idea up and down the hills of Dubuque road. Slog on and prove (to myself) my fortitude? Get help and improve the experience? Outside Snohomish, I attracted the attention (and pity) of local law enforcement while standing at the side of a shoulderless road in the pouring rain fixing a dropped chain. Their pity paved the way for me to give in to my own self-pity. At the 7-11 in Snohomish, I dried my hands and called home.

That was all it took. As I rolled into the control, I spotted Chris. She brought a warm dry car, towels, dry clothes, pizza, hot chocolate, and most importantly, lots of good cheer and encouragement. An hour later, I took off - warm, dry, fed, and cheered - into a now rainless night. One small withdrawal from the pride-in-self-sufficiency account; one great dividend in attitude adjustment. Sixty slow happy kilometers later, I cruised into the truck stop in North Bend. My finish time - 23:58 - was 5.5 hours slower than the last time we used this route and 3 hours slower than my first 3-pass 400km 10 years ago. But the feeling of accomplishment was just like I remembered it.