If your friends found a perfect cycling road which you had never seen, much less traveled on by bike, would you want to go? Of course. What if it were in the middle of nowhere with no services? No problem, stock up. What if you had to ride 140 miles with 8000 feet of climbing to get to it and then 70 miles to get back afterwards? Hmm, still sounds pretty good!
The Columbia River Road / Omak Lake Road runs a bit over 40 miles between Omak and Nespelem on the Colville reservation in north central Washington. It climbs over Antoine Pass (~1500 feet), runs along Omak Lake, past Big Goose Lake, then follows the Columbia River, before climbing out of the valley to Nespelem. The pavement is perfect; the scenery is amazing. The endorheic (I learned a new word today!) Omak Lake off to the left is a sapphire gem. This road is a wonderful highlight of SIR's spring 400km brevet, but by no means the only one.
A wealth of rider-volunteers has made SIR one of the premier randonneur clubs around. A joyous by-product of all the volunteer support has been the constant development of new routes that show off the diversity of bike riding available in Washington. Rare is the complaint from a rider who is tired of the same routes on the same roads. From the urban streets of Seattle to the mountain passes of the Cascades to the vast spaces east of the mountains, I've been lucky to experience an extraordinary variety of roads in my 12 years of riding SIR populaires, brevets, and permanents.
For this year's spring 400k, Mike Norman and Shane Balkovetz cooked up a wonderful route. A remote start in Ephrata 175 miles from Seattle (but only 2 blocks from an Amtrak station) creates some logistical challenges, but the reward is in the riding.
On Saturday, a big crew of volunteers gathered in Ephrata for the volunteer pre-ride of the route. Mike and I were joined by Tom Brett (one of SIR's original riders), Geoff Swarts and Narayan Krishnamoorthy (our Permanents czars), Bob Brudvik, Tom Martin (resident GPS guru), Matt Dalton, and Duane Wright. Bob, Geoff, Mike, Tom Brett, and I rode together for much of the day. Our ride was uneventful, with no flats or mechanical issues, no major navigational mishaps, and great weather. The other riders absorbed all the issues - Matt had a flat in the middle of the night, Narayan ran out of fuel, Tom Martin took a fifty mile (!) wrong turn, and Duane ran out of time. During the event next weekend, SIR will have support at several spots along the ride. On the pre-ride, however, the paucity of services and support added to the challenge. There would be at least three stretches of 40-50 miles without any water, stores, or other services. But with good company and great roads, we had a wonderful day.
The route features a fair amount of climbing; my computer registered about 12,500 feet. About 2/3 of the climbing comes in the first half of the ride, although the last half contains the two steepest climbs. The ride starts with a nice climb up Sagebrush Flats Road from Ephrata. With a 5AM start, clear skies, and cold overnight temperatures, the initial climb was quite welcome. After a quick, cold descent we rode through the Moses Coulee. I've always enjoyed riding this road along the base of the steep cliff wall of the coulee. (Note to riders: three of the five teeth-rattling cattle grates had been replaced by similarly jarring gravel-filled ditches. Be careful).
Climbing out of the coulee on US-2, the route makes a right turn at the old Farmer Hall where Bob and I will be manning a control next weekend. Going north on SR-172 and west on McNeil Canyon Road took us to the rim of McNeil Canyon (the sign heralded the hitherto unknown, to me anyway, "McNeil Pass" at 3100 feet). The road down to the Columbia River from here is an E-ticket highlight. Recently improved and repaved, the road gives up nearly 2400 feet of elevation in about 5 miles. A sign warns of 12% downhill grades. Partway down, I was greeted by a chase party of five dogs. I faked them by slowing to about 25mph, then sped to 40mph to ruin their closing angle calculations. Whee! I slowed again to say hello to a cyclist coming up the hill. She did not look happy; then and there I resolved that I would only ever ride down this road and would never, never, ever ride up it. We'll see. A really nice sight on the descent down McNeil Canyon is a view of Lake Chelan across the Columbia and several hundred feet above the river.
Crossing the river, we rode up the Columbia on US-97 and Starr Road to Pateros. Eager to take advantage of pretty much the only option for real food for most of the route, we had a nice sit-down lunch at the restaurant behind the Chevron/convenience store before heading up the Methow River. The road up the Methow is another favorite of mine. With no support or services on the pre-ride until Okanogan/Omak, we stopped at the store in Carlton for candy bars and water. At Ralph Nussbaum's suggestion, we turned off before the usual SR-20 intersection to use Lower Beaver Creek Road as a cutoff. A nice choice which will be on the final route sheet.
Since adding an altimeter to my bike, my new form of entertainment on long climbs is to try to identify the point up ahead on the road where I will hit the next hundred foot elevation mark. With 25 such benchmark points, I got lots of practice on the climb up Loup Loup Pass (or "The Loup" as the nice lady in Carlton called it). We regrouped at the summit and then screamed down the other side (with one annoying little uphill). I ran out of gas riding into a headwind in the flat section through Okanogan to the control in Omak, but the guys were waiting there for me.
The road to Nespelem along Omak Lake and the Columbia couldn't have been nicer. Worth the trip. Even worth the painful 800 foot, 10% climb out the other end to meet SR-155 near Nespelem. The faster climbers made the store just in time and got water for all of us. From there it's mostly downhill to the Grand Coulee Dam. After crossing the river and passing the dam, another nasty steep climb took us up to the control spot in Grand Coulee. Shane and Chantel previewed the great support they will provide the riders next weekend. Soup, sandwiches, coffee, chairs, and good cheer set us up nicely for the last 55 miles of the ride. Having this kind of support on a volunteers' ride was amazing.
The remainder of the route does a lake tour - Banks Lake, Dry Falls Lake, Park Lake, Blue Lake, Alkali Lake, Lake Lenore, and Soap Lake. For most 400km riders (including us on the pre-ride), this section will be done at night. Fast riders will see these before sunset and slower riders may see the sunrise over a lake. We thought that riding this in the dark would be a disappointment, but a beautiful nearly full moon lit up the canyon cliffs and brought a silver shimmer to the lake waters. Beautiful.
Hope to see many of you next weekend. Absolutely worth the trip.
See Duane's pictures here.
See Geoff's write-up here.