Today is the 37th running of STP, a 206 mile jaunt from Seattle to Portland. Despite the heavy number of registrations, I was once again successful at not registering for this ride, continuing an 11-year streak in non-participation, even though my ride leadering would have granted me a complementary pass. Perhaps if it were a complimentary pass, things would be different.
Anyway, with Sufferin’ Summits looming on the calendar – a ride that I am hoping to finish this year – I needed a ride with a bit of bite to it, and along came Per Sunde’s “The Edge“, which seemed to fit the bill nicely.
Per was one of the founders of the Eastside Tours ride that I now lead, and has run the RAMROD training series for a lot of years, so I knew it would be a good ride. The ride has the following options:
- 42 miles with 4200′ of up
- 50 miles with 6000′ of up
- 75 miles with 7500′ of up
- 100 miles with 10000′ of up
Which one to do? Well, I had no desire to blow my whole Saturday and/or kill myself, so that eliminated the 75 and the 100. And I would be riding there and back, which would add about 17 miles to the total. Hmm; that gives me either 59 miles without enough climbing or the 67 mile with enough climbing but more riding than I wanted.
A look at the routes showed that if I took the 100 mile course (which is – somewhat strangely – 6 miles shorter at the start – and cut it off after the 4th climb, it would be in the right ballpark, so that was the plan. The ride starts in southwest Bellevue, and Per has chosen this area for the same reason I chose it for Sufferin’ Summits; it contains 4 of the tallest hills around – Somerset/Summit, Cougar, Squak, and Highlands/Grand Ridge. Most of them off 1000′ climbs.
I often forget to remember how lucky I am to live just a few miles away from such a cornucopia (literally, “big basket full ‘o corn”) of options.
The day dawned cool and cloudy – it was 58 when I rolled out of bed at 5:30 in the AM. A quick breakfast, getting dressed, sitting around waiting for my breakfast to settle, looking at the route again, took me to 6:35, and I put on my shoes and headed outside. In my pre-ride outside weather check, I settled for underlayer/jersey and shorts, with my arm warmers to help on the initial ride which has a lot of descent.
I toyed with loading the route on my GPS, but – as a experience ride leader – I make it a point of pride of keeping the route in my head, and not depending on any technical assistance. As those who ride with me know from experiencing a u-turn when I temporarily misplace a route…
The ride to the start was uneventful; nobody was out and I hit most of the light. I did notice a headwind – which would have zero effect on our ride, but was bound to cause some angst amongst the aforementioned STP participants. I arrive at about 7:18 – enough time to sign in and talk to Per a little bit.
The first block of us rolls out at around 7:35, and I head North with the all the riders. Well, all the riders starting the 100 mile course; the others head South. This is a short little section to get the group off the trail in an orderly fashion. I cheat and take a shortcut exit off the trail (I like to call that “leveraging local knowledge”), bypassing the 30 or so riders who were in front of me at that point and gaining the not-at-all important “first rider in this particular group to the base of the first hill” honors.
We turn onto the first climb – which I guess I should call “Newport Hills” – and start heading up to the south. I am immediately passed by “the fast group”, which is just fine with me, as my guess is that while I can pull the 300+ watts that are needed to keep up with them on this hill, I’m not going to be happy later. They pull away, we finish the climb, pass on of the ubiquitous small strip mall, and descend back down to Coal Creek Parkway. A quick descent, a turn onto Factoria Blvd, and turn on Newport to start the next climb, which will be a trip up Somerset.
There are three main ways to head up Somerset. There is the classic way, up Somerset blvd (hard), the much easier way up 148th/150th/whatever they call that road, and a really painful way coming up from the West. Per has a new alternative, we turn onto Somerset blvd, start to climb, the gradient kicks up to 13% (on it’s way to 16%), and then we turn off to the right and descend, wrapping our way around the hill to the south, and then turning left on Somerset Drive, which wraps around the north side of the hill, turns into SE 44th St, and then finally intersects Somerset Blvd near the top of the climb. There are a couple of steep pitches (I think 13-14%), but nothing as bad as the classic route. I ride this whole section with a guy I’m going to call “Bill”, because that is the name that my brain is giving me, and we chat about bicycle-related stuff. What rides are you doing this year, what have you done in the past, have you been watching the tour, those sorts of things. I think I’m a little bit faster than him or perhaps just a bit less out-of-breath. This ride up Somerset does not feature a trip all the way to the top – off of SE 47th – and today I think I’m okay with that. The view is stellar, but the 18-20% gradient is painful.
Somerset is a hard place to navigate. Note only are there a lot of different streets, but whoever set them up suffered from a supreme lack of creativity. We have:
- Somerset Blvd
- Somerset Drive
- Somerset Ave
- Somerset Place
- Somerset Lane
It is possible – though a bit contrived – to write a set of directions that say:
- Head south on Somerset Ave
- Turn right on Somerset Place
- When that ends, turn right on Somerset Drive
- Turn right on Somerset Blvd
- Turn left on Somerset Lane
I don’t know how people found their way around here before the advent of GPS and online maps.
Anyway, we finish the climb, descend to the east and then descend all the way back down to Eastgate. I like this descent; it’s not steep enough that you really need to worry about speed and the pavement is pretty good. At the bottom, we turn and head up the second hill.
If we were doing the route I usually do, this would be the “Summit” climb, but Per has something different planned; we hit a steep part, and turn to the East to do a little loop. The trip to the East features a nice 18% climb – which I would complain about, except that I know that the trip back to the west involves to 20% descents, and it would have be *way* worse if we went the other direction. We do the first part of the loop, I misplace the next part for about 15 seconds but we quickly realize and turn around, and the group reforms as we head to the west, and then finally we turn south to descend on Highland Drive. That puts us on the South side of the hills, on Forest Drive.
Forest drive is one of my absolute favorite roads; it is a roller road that has steep sections and flatter sections, and if you have legs you can power on the flatter sections and keep your speed up. A *great* descent, and I that would make me very happy except that today we are riding it the opposite direction.
Most of our small group pulls away a bit, and then we hit the steepest part and I reel them back. I’m not as light or fast as a lot of cyclists, but when it gets really steep, I have a strength advantage. I also run slightly lower gearing, but I’m going to stick with the “stronger” explanation.
I pass the group on the last steep part, we turn left on Lakemont, and then we turn right on Cougar mountain road, for our trip up “The Zoo”.
The Zoo – named for a small zoo at the base – is probably the most notorious climb in the area. It gains that reputation not by being the worst climb in the area – though at 1300′ of climbing in 2.8 miles it is pretty hard – but rather by being a benchmark that cyclists use to cull out the weak. “Have you ever done The Zoo?” is a question that will separate the men from the stupider men.
This reputation is somewhat diluted by two things:
- The top third of the climb is an out-and back, and many people think riding up the lower two-thirds counts. They are incorrect.
- More disturbingly, there is a back way up that gets you to the two-thirds point without too much steepness, and some people call that “the zoo” as well. They are also incorrect.
We are heading up the easy back way. Very soon after turning onto the climb, my climbing prowess shreds the group into tatters, with a small assist from everybody else stopping when the GPS of one of the riders gets confused.
Routes that cross themselves are really confusing to most bike GPSes. They assume that your goal is to get to the end as quickly as possible, so you cross the later part of the route and the GPS wakes up and say, “Hey! Hey! If you just turn right on this road, we can cut like 50 miles off the route. I am SO smart!”. Which would be okay if it really did that, but all it really says is something like, “Turn around to rejoin route”, which isn’t very helpful.
We sort things out, the errant GPS is suitably reprimanded, and we continue up. I push a bit and stay in front on the the climb, ease up so that Bill can catch up, and as we near the turn for the top third of the climb, we see the fast group descending back down. This section has a couple of steep tight turns at the bottom, but after we clear that, it’s pretty much a 12% climb to the crest, and it’s only half a mile, so it goes by quickly.
At the crest, we keep riding on a short downhill, because we know the secret: the crest of the road is not the top of the Zoo climb; the top is reached by a small road that heads up to the city water towers. We finally crest the top, which 1350′ or so is pretty much the highest paved spot in the area. And also a nice view, which I do not stop to see because lunch is on my mind.
A quick descent back down, and then we turn right to descend the lower portions of the classic route. The last time I rode this was probably a decade ago, and my brain tells me that it was curvy and a bit scary, and my hands were very tired at the bottom from using the brakes so much. This time the whole descent takes only 7 minutes; there are a few tight corners and a hairpin that is torn up, but it’s really a fun descent. Apparently I’ve learned something in the last 10 years.
At the bottom of the hill, we spin back into Issaquah and stop for water at Tibbets field. We then head up Squak Mountain from there, on a route that I have labeled in my head as the second hardest way up. I still think that is true, but I had forgotten the steep initial climb and the steep later climb, which are something in the 15-18% range, but thankfully the rest is pretty easy. We topped out the first part of the climb, and then turned onto the second part. This has one steep kicker at the start but other than that it is a very nice climb through the woods, which is mostly spoiled y the fact that the road is very old so it’s just a bunch of aggregate sticking up. It’s like riding on chipseal – basically, you like a slower and weaker version of your normal self. We hit the development at the top without incident, do the loop at the top (you have to do the loop to get the full elevation gain), and then head back down. The crappy pavement limits traction on the way down and messes up braking and cornering, so we are conservative.
Near the bottom of the top section, the route has a turn off to do a bit more climbing on the East face of Squak. The group splits here; I want to get my last climb done and head for home, so Bill and I head down the climb from the west, which is nice new pavement but has a stoplight at the bottom that I remember so we can stop in time. I think my next bike is going to have disk brakes…
That puts us in Issaquah, and just a quick spin across the town to get to the last climb. About two blocks in Bill sees somebody he knows on the sidewalk and pulls off to chat, so I ride on solo.
Per has a route that is unfamiliar to me for the next section – a climb up Highlands/Grand Ridge – but I don’t remember what route he chose, so I just head up on one of my routes. This is a long climb; the lower part takes us up into Highlands, and involves about 300′ of elevation gain including a pretty unpleasant section at 13-14%. I’m feeling pretty tired now; I rode harder up Squak than I should have and I think I’m a bit dehydrated. I push on because suffering is what we do. The second section is up the main drag (NE Park Drive), which is really pretty calm. Then I turn right on Central park drive, navigate past all the parents here to watch their kids play in sports, and then head over towards Daphne street. Daphne must not have been very nice, because this is a hard pitch – 15% or so – and I’m tired so I do the whole thing standing. Slowly and standing. Eventually I end up on 30th, which is the defined top of the climb for today’s ride, but there is no way I am going to skip heading up Harrison street, because that is the best part of the climb; every house is custom and they look like an architecture manual on “different styles of houses”. At the top I am rewarded with a nice view of Seattle shrouded in the mist (I think perhaps “dark and brooding” is a good description of how it looked), and I’m a cool 1000′ above the start of the climb in Issaquah.
To keep things short and quick, I descend the first section and then work my way over to Black Nugget drive and take that to the bottom. Then it’s a quick ride along the South shore of lake Sam, a “I am very tired” climb up the I-90 trail, and then a ride back home in time for lunch.
That gave me 55 miles of riding at 12.3 MPH average and a satisfying 6346′ of climbing. Or something like 2/3 of Sufferin’ Summits.
Overall, it was a pretty good day, once I got some lunch into me.