Two years ago, I did a ride named Passport 2 Pain, which is a ride around Vashon Island that goes down to the water and back up on pretty much every hill on the island. A series of 300-500’ climbs, over and over again, for 82 miles and darn near 10,000’ of climbing. I liked it.
P2P is a what some people call a “challenge” ride. I tend to call them “stupid rides”, as in, “you have to be very stupid to choose to do a ride like this”. P2P calls their full ride route “the Idiot”, so I think they agree.
This spring, I was musing about P2P and another challenge ride that’s been around for a few years in Portland, and I thought, “Self, there a lot of hills in the south end of Bellevue and Issaquah, and you know them pretty well. I bet you could put together a route that was at least as that”.
After a bit of design, a bit of riding to check out new routes, and a bit more design, I came up with a design I was happy with. It’s 55 miles in length (though the last few miles is downhill/flat) and features 8200’ of climbing.
And – in keeping with the challenge theme – it not only goes up a lot of hills, the route is designed to go up them in the worst ways. Why climb the top section of a hill one way when you can do it three separate ways?
After I showed it to a few people – and quietly hinted that I might be putting it on as an organized ride – there was sufficient interest that I decided to make it official, and Sufferin’ Summits was born.
Stupid? Yes. And sadistic.
Anyway, I had a route, I picked a date, built a very simple website, and did a very limited amount of advertising. If you knew me – or perhaps knew somebody who knew me – you might find out about the ride. This was deliberate; I wanted to this year to be a beta test of the route and approach.
I need to do a bit of level setting before I continue.
In the context of this writeup, a 10% hill is a moderate hill, and if I say “steep”, I mean something around 15%. Or more.
The official motto is, after all , “a special kind of stupid”.
I wake up at 6:30 in the morning, have a bit of cereal to eat, and then go to get dressed. I put some chamois crème on my chamois (improves comfort on long rides), put on the shorts and jersey, and walk out to the kitchen. Only to find that instead of grabbing my Pearl Izumi Elite shorts of the basket, I grabbed a different pair of Pearl Izumi shorts that a) were not “Elite” and b) belonged to my wife.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. The intended gender of your shorts is your own business.
A short shorts change, and I’m heading out to the starting point so that I can get there at 8:30. The published start time is 9AM, but there is no official start line so I’ve decided to be early.
I get there at 8:15, and there’s nobody there. A couple of people show up, drop off donations (the ride is raising money/food for Northwest Harvest), and head out to start the ride. Others show up and leave, and then at around 9AM, two of my riding friends (Mike and Jeanne) roll in, having parked in the opposite parking place. They ask me if they can ride with me because the route is a bit confusing (they’re right, it is). Which presents a dilemma…
Back when I was younger and less experienced, I started a long hilly ride (at the time, probably the hardest ride I had done, but not even close to as long and hilly as this stupid ride, which means I’ve either gotten better or stupider still then) with a group of faster friends, cooked myself on the first two hills, and then had a bunch of not fun the rest of the ride. Since then, I generally do climbs on my own. I know that both Mike and Jeanne can climb quite a bit faster than me.
<Okay, so, I’m not quite being honest.
To be honest, this whole thing started as a bit of a lark, but as I stand waiting to start, I realize that I have a problem. I know exactly what is in store for me, I know how bad the ride is, and I’m really not sure if I’m up for it, and more not sure if I’m up for riding it with others. >
But I say “yes” anyway, and we head out to do the first climb, Grand Ridge. The bottom part is uneventful; Mike and Jeanne pull ahead of me as they climb, then they wait for me, and then we keep climbing. We hit the first steep pitch – College Drive, a 17-18% gradient – and grind our way up.
I’ve been working on lower back issues – and upper back issues – well, let’s just leave it at the generic “back issues” the past 6 months. Lots of PT, lots of exercises, lots of stretching. It’s been getting better, but on our week in Hawaii, instead of stretching seriously 3 or 4 times in a week, I managed to stretch 0 times per week. That – and some perhaps overexuberant and not-great-form stretching since – have left my lower back in a condition that the medical profession refers to as “a bit wonky”.
Anyway, the good news is that my back feels okay. It’s a little sore, but only a little and I can deal with that.
<See what I did there? Now that you know that, you will be much more sympathetic if I need to use the excuse in the future>
We get to the nice park in the middle of Grand Ridge, work our way through to the east, and then climb up. We make the first turn, and then Mike turns left. This feels wrong, but this is a confusing section and I follow Mike as he descends to the North. I know after 15 seconds that it’s wrong, but he’s a ways ahead.
<okay, so, it’s the first hill of *my* ride and I already don’t know which way to go….>
No real foul – there’s an easy alternate route – except that my Strava will not be the official route.
We ride up through the cool custom homes at the top of Grand ride (pick a style, from cape code to craftsman to northwest contemporary to castle, you’ll find them all here), and crest at the top. Usually there is a great view, but there’s so much smoke in the air that we can just barely tell where Seattle is if you look closely. With the wandering around, the 1000’ climb took me about 30 minutes.
The descent is fast and fun, and they have thoughtfully repaved the bumpy section, so we make it back down to Issaquah, and head across to our next hill, Squak. The first part of the climb rolls up the hill, with 13-15% sections followed by sections of lesser gradient. I stand up now and then to let my back work out a bit, which kindof sortof helps. At the saddle of the climb, Mike continues to follow his GPS directions and rides on past the turn, demonstrating that his Garmin is a few bits short of a byte today. He returns, and we head up to the top part of Squak. With the exception of a steep section at the beginning, the gradient isn’t too bad. However, the pavement is really rough, which makes it a lot harder to climb, as we lose a lot more power to friction. After a while, we hit the top loop and ride around it to the true top of the climb. I spent 24 minutes to get the second 1000 feet. This looks promising; the trend suggests I will climb the third 1000’ in 18 minutes.
A quick discussion and we decided that we were okay on water to the next water stop (two hills later), so we skipped refilling. I decided that I wasn’t drinking enough (the weather was cool but I was still sweating a lot on the climbs), so I made an effort to rehydrate.
The top part of the Squak descent is not fun. The rough pavement makes the bike shake a lot and the corners a bit treacherous. We hit the lower, more-populated part, the road flattens and improves, and we speed up. It would have been a very nice descent except for having to slow down because of the Prius in front of me. At the bottom I swallow a couple of Ibuprofen tablets to see if it will help with my back.
Back in Issaquah and right at the starting point, we head to hill #3, Talus. Talus is a recent discovery of mine; I hadn’t climbed it before because it doesn’t have the elevation of its taller neighbors and it only has a single way up (I try to avoid up and back climbs). But a little research showed me that there is a road that isn’t open to cars but can be biked, and that’s where we are headed. The road is brutal; it kicks up steeply to like 18% at the start, and holds there for quite a while. It’s a nice climb though the woods usually, but they’re using it for construction access higher up the hill, so there’s gravel off to the sides.
Which is probably a good point to introduce “tacking”. If you are on a steep hill, you can ease the gradient by riding diagonally back and forth across the hill – cutting it down from maybe 20% to 14% or so, assuming you have a whole road to use. You can get less if there is less room. It’s also sometimes known as “paperboying”.
I would generally tack a bit on a hill like this, and get maybe a 1% reduction, but the gravel is in the way so I gut it out. We pull out of the first section back onto a normal road, turn right, and the take another right to take another connector, which is an honest 20%. I stand for that because it’s short, and then there’s another right, and more steep climbing to the top. Not quite 500 feet in about 9 minutes. The rest of Talus is nearly flat ride to the south to get a little more elevation and get out the road exit. We descend back down, and head out towards the next hill. We are right behind one of the other groups, which makes me happy, because we were about 10 minutes behind them at the top of Grand Ridge.
Hill #4 is Zoo hill, probably the most notorious of the hills. After a short flat portion – which feels very strange to ride – we turn up and start climbing, and soon pass the zoo. This section feels like you are out in the country; there are no houses and the tree canopy covers the road. We climb and soon hit the hairpin, which is probably 15% at the center line. I ride the center line, and Jeanne rides near the inside, which is the steepest part, at 25% or more.
<as we got near the to the hairpin, I suggested that riding the center line was a good idea, but she chose the harder line. She’s a bit of an animal.>
The road opens up a bit after, and we hit the turn at the end of the first section of the climb. My stats say that I climbed it in 13:11 at 223 watts and heartrate of 148 bpm. Translated, it means that, despite having 2700’ of climbing in my legs, I’m climbing pretty fast for me and my heartrate is high but not to high – I can ride a long time at that heart rate.
We turn right on the middle section, which is a set of rollers that get steeper and steeper. Today, however, we take a trail to drop down to the top of the Montreux climb. We do that, pick up a slightly-lost rider, and descend down to pick up the next climb.
I am not looking forward to this. This section is only 4 tenths of a mile long, but it’s going to take me nearly 6 minutes to climb it. Because it is a wall, at 18, 19, even 20% gradient. If I look online, the fastest person I found could not even reach 8 MPH on this climb. Today I ride it at 4.1 MPH, weaving back and forth, and now my back is really, really unhappy. I’m distracted enough that I miss the turnoff I want, but luckily I catch my mistake. I catch my breath a bit, eat a few cheez-its, and decide that I will try the next section.
<there is always a time during a ride when I have “the downs”. Generally, it goes something like this:
“Why do I bother doing this? It starts out being okay, but then something like this happens. And I paid to do it”
This time, of course, I didn’t pay for it. I also know that if I keep riding, it will go away and I’ll feel better>
I also decide that, at the next water stop, I’m going to ride back to the start.
Yes, this whole thing was my idea.
We first climb up the classic top of the zoo climb. At 12-13%, it’s a lot flatter than what we have been riding, and Jeanne and I talk as we climb up. My back has recovered a bit. Mike is, as usual, off ahead of us. We hit the false summit on the road, continue on, and catch the small drive that takes us up to the water towers. At this point, we’ve caught the group that started just a bit ahead of us, which makes me feel pretty good; despite my back hurting, I’m still climbing okay.
Then, it’s a short descent, and we climb up Pinacle which goes to nearly the same summit, and then Belvedere, also to nearly the same summit. Neither is notable; I ride slowly, sometimes tacking back in forth, standing to try and stretch my back and working to keep my legs turning over. I think I’m maybe a bit dehydrated, so I drink as much as I can.
We descend down to Lakemont, and turn right to do a short climb to the park. It’s a 4% climb, but it honestly feels like it is flat. There are probably 10 of us there, filling our water bottles, using the bathroom, having a snack, complaining about the route (that’s mostly me). One of the guys tells me two of the guys in his group hate me, which makes me happy. That group decides they are insufficiently caffeinated, so they head over to the Starbucks and we continue on. I look at the online Strava flyby later and can see that at least some of them continued the ride, but it looked like they got a bit confused on the route.
Standing around, my back feels a little better, so I decide that I’m going to try the next section. On the map, this section looks pretty unassuming, just three little climbs next to each other. Two of them are up and down, and then third takes us to the top.
We descend quickly down to the turnoff, and then turn to start the climb, which is about 500’. It starts off steep, turns steeper, flattens out a bit, gets steep, and then turns nasty, where nasty is something like 25%. You can tack back and forth on some of it, but some of the corners are blind and you have to be wary of cars. There are, if you need them, a few roads and driveways you can pull in to take a break, but I do not need to avail myself of them, and turn the corner where it flattens out and keep going to the actual crest.
I am inordinately smug that I didn’t have to stop on the climb.
Then it’s back down to repeat on the next climb to the east, but this one only tops out at around 15% and is much shorter at 262’ of elevation gain. That one doesn’t hurt that much.
Then, finally, we have a short but steep kicker and the final climb up to the appropriately named “Summit”. About 350’ of up, it starts at 15%, backs off a little, kicks up to 17%, backs off a bit, then finally up to 19% to the false flat and then a final short push to the summit. It is unpleasant, but I make it up to the others.
I am well and truly cooked – so cooked that I don’t even both looking at the view to the north. It’s generally worth a few minutes, as the view is properly described as “territorial” – on a clear day, you can see Bellevue, Seattle, the Olympics, the water, the Cascades, Mt. Baker, and beyond. We wait for another rider so that I can lead the group.
In case you are wondering, the entry fee for the cheapest of these homes is right about $1M, though you can pay more than double that if you’d like. The Belvedere and Pinacle houses are in the same range.
We work our way around to the emergency access gate; there are two of these that block off the Summit from the roads to the north so that cars can’t get in that way, but we just have to get off our bikes and carry them around a wall, and then it’s down a wonderfully-repaved section of road to the food stop. We have about 800’ to lose, and we do it in about 4 minutes, taking us to the unofficial food stop at a gas station food mart. I buy a Coke Zero, drink all 20oz of it and eat some Cheez-its. Once again, I feel pretty good at the food stop, but I know what is coming up and how I felt, so it’s time to cut my losses. I decide to cut the difference; I’ll ride the first climb of the next section, which will conveniently put me back on Newport way. Turn left, and it will be back to the start; turn right, and it will be back up to the Summit, but a more painful route than we came down.
<there really is no chance at this point that I will continue. I spent one night earlier this summer quivering on the floor with back spasms, and I have no desire to repeat that>
But first, we need to descend more, dropping all the way down to the shores of Lake Sammamish at Vasa park, which at 37’ of altitude is probably the low point of the ride, though downtown Issaquah is close. Then it’s a right turn into the “Forty One Point Five” development, and another 250’ of pain. We connect through a little path at the top, take the ped/bike bridge over I-90, and I depart to head back to the starting line. I have pretty good energy and I feel okay, but the back won’t let me continue.
<see? Don’t you feel bad for me? Eric would have keep riding except for his back. He had *no choice*>
So, I speed back along the road and got back to the finish line (well, place where we started), put the bike in the truck, and headed home.
A few statistics:
6637’ of climbing
10.1 mi/hour average speed
2247 kJ (read as “calories”)
As a comparison, the last time I did RAMROD (150 miles, 9200’ of climbing), I completed it with an average speed of 15.2 MPH. 10.1 MPH is pretty darn slow.