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.