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)


matt said...

excellent write-up! and congrats on another 600k done.

i'm looking forward to this ride, it sounds beyond epic.

Jeff Tilden said...

Mark, this is a wonderful description, with alot of soul and poetry. It also answers one question lurking in the back of my mind: I left Rimrock Lake shortly after you, Monday am, and the climb to White Pass was relatively easy. My first reaction (always only the first) was "I am magnificent." Soon to be disproven on Cayuse, but the fact we started at 2900 feet also explains alot.

We are all lucky to live in such a wonderful part of the country and this route is a great reminder. Brad and Don and I are biased, but we think it's a classic.

Not enough can be said about Carol Nussbaum, who single-handedly womaned all control stops, back and forth, all night, cheerfully, for 37 hours. I don't know where to begin.

Cheers, Jeff

bill dussler said...

That 600K in 2002 was my last DNF, when I was taught (again) some randonneuring lessons that I still forget from time to time. Among them:

1. The weight saved by leaving my jacket in the car at the start gave me zero benefit when it was in the 40's with a pass to climb and descend before I could get warm.

2. The good story of hitching a ride home at midnight from the middle of nowhere pales in comparison to the story that could have been, had I finished what I started.

Lesli L said...


Thanks for the detailed report. These have really helped me prepare for the unknown/unforseen SIR events. As always, I'm curious to know what sort of garment selection you carried with you on the ride (how many layers). Did you lack for any specific items? I'm not experienced with pass climbing in June so I'm wondering if I should bring full booties, winter gloves, etc. The 400k with its high temps was a bit misleading, weatherwise.

Mark said...

Well, with the usual caveat that I come with more insulation that you (and most riders), here's what worked for me:

- Wool headband (Ibex)
- Wool liner gloves (Ibex)
- Normal short finger lightly padded glove (VOmax from BMB)
- Lightweight wool long-sleeve t-shirt (Ibex)
- Short sleeve wool SIR jersey
- Lycra bibshorts (Assos)
- Wool kneewarmers (Ibex)
- Midweight wool socks (the SIR/PBP red ones from last year)
- Windfront vest (SIR logo 2007 edition)
- Lightweight, very packable raincoat (Gore) - never made it out of my handlebar bag

My comfort extremes were the start of the Blewett Pass climb, where it got a little toasty, and the summit and descents of White and Cayuse passes, where it was chilly.

On the way up Blewett, I stopped at the Ingalls Creek store and filled water bottles and added an extra bottle to my handlebar bag for the climb. I took the headband off. I took the jersey off and pushed the sleeves up on the t-shirt. I took the kneewarmers off. I had already shed the vest and the liner gloves earlier. Rain on the way up rendered all the heat preparations moot and I put some stuff back on - mostly at the top, because the climb itself kept me warm until then.

The descent off White Pass in the morning was chilly. Although there wasn't much roadside snow on the descent, it was early in the morning and the descent was high speed (like being on a rock thrown off a bridge was my description at the time). Cayuse had more snow, but it was later in the day. Coming down White Pass, I wore all the items listed above (except the jacket) and was cold, but not uncomfortably so.

The night riding from Ellensburg to Rimrock was quite comfortable.

One caution: if there is a cold rain coming down White Pass, you might need a lot more. But the whole trip down takes less than half and hour, so I'm not sure I'd worry too much.

brons2 said...

Nice report. Wish I was riding the Cascade but alas it was not to be, at least this year.

Mark said...

We'll miss you, Jim. Get well and come back for the next one.