My cycling goal this summer was to try new things, which would take me to Port Angeles to climb Hurricane Ridge, to the San Juans to ride with my wife and climb Mt. Constitution, and south of Rainier to climb Windy Ridge. The first two have been accomplished, and I’m feeling pretty good, so it’s off to the third.
This is the first time I’ve done this ride, and the first Cascade ride I’ve done in quite some time. I didn’t do RAMROD this year (I tend to alternate year to year), so I was looking for something to ride instead. Last year I did the Passport2Pain, but I decided not to do that this year, so I picked HPC.
I like the ride concept, and – since I lead a bunch of rides for Cascade – I can exchange my “ride leader points” for my registration, so it won’t cost me anything to enter. It starts at 7AM rather than the 5AM start of RAMROD, but unfortunately it starts in Packwood, which isn’t near to anything. Rather than get up extra early and drive the whole way, I decided to spend the night nearby. After some research on cost, reviews, and minimal stays, “nearby” ends up being at the Crystal Mountain Village Inn. It’s about an hour to get to Packwood from there, which means:
6:30 AM packed pickup
5:30 AM Leave Crystal
4:30 AM Wake up
Which isn’t that bad. If I drove from home, I would have to leave home at 4AM.
Training-wise, I feel pretty good. I was able to push hard and stay consistent up Hurricane, and my power up Mt. Constitution was better than I expected (though the hard part was shorter than I expected). HPC really only has one climb – granted, at 14.6 miles and about 3000’, it’s not to be ignored, but Cayuse on RAMROD is 11 miles and 2500’, and I’ll be climbing this one in the morning and I won’t have climbed up to Paradise first.
For this ride, they give out medals based on your time to the top (they used to give them out for total elapsed time, then realized that encouraging people to descend as fast as possible was probably a bad idea). This puts it half way between a “ride” and a “race”. Playing with some numbers, I get the following:
Start to base of climb: 1:33 (assumes 17MPH)
Climb: 1:30 (assumes 600 meters/hour, which is conservative)
Portage: 0:48 (down and up to windy ridge, 15 MPH)
With a few minutes at food stops, that gets me to the top at 11:00, enough for the “silver ribbon” category. Pulling back the 30 minutes to get into “gold” seems problematic. If I could do 19MPH on the first part, that would cut off 7 minutes, and if I climbed at my Mt. Constitution rate, I could be down at 1:10 for the climb. We shall see. I want to go hard, but I don’t want to go too hard and have a serious amount of “not fun”. This is the time of year to revel in one’s fitness, not kill oneself.
I have a poor track record at accomplishing this.
The riders are supplied with timing chips to attach to our helmets, so they can know exactly when a rider went over the start line and when they got to Windy Ridge. They can therefore know that it (for example) took you 4 hours to get there, thereby qualifying for a silver award (assuming you finish). This means you can start any time between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM and have you award be based on your time.
Oh, wait, that’s what it would make sense to do. In fact, the award times are hard cutoffs that assume that you started at 7AM, so despite having an electronic system that can provide accurate elapsed time, everybody who cares about the medals is going to be wanting to start as close to 7AM as possible. My guess is that it’s because – lacking cell phone support – you would need to physically take the starting time information to the finish, but my guess is that you can drive it quickly enough to still work. Or you could rent a satellite phone & hot spot for $200 for the week, and use that to push the data up to the windy ridge location.
I’m going to hang back a bit at the start; I’m worried that it’s going to be like the triathlon starts I’ve been in.
I will be carrying with me:
- Two bottles of Skratch Labs Hydration Mix (Raspberries flavor)
- Four bags with mix for another bottle of the same mix
- 1 Honey Stinger Ginger Snap Waffle + 1 lemon waffle
- 1 Large sandwich bag of Cheez-its
- 1 Small bag of “o-boy” oberto beef jerky.
The Skratch Labs stuff has worked well for me; it doesn’t seem to upset my stomach even if I’m working hard. It has half the calories (120/bottle) than the Accelerade (240/bottle) that I was using, and I think part of the reason it works better is that it is just more diluted.
The Cheez-its are something I have figured out through trial-and-error. They have a decent amount of sodium, and still remain palatable late in a ride. They do have a fair bit of fat in them, but I seem to be doing fine with them.
I head out at 4PM to get to Crystal at a reasonable time. I’m not really that hungry, so I stop by Taco Time and grab a natural soft taco. Traffic is slow slow heading up, so I get there and check in, and eat my dinner. I’ve been sitting on my butt the past two days, so I go for a walk to warm up my legs and see if I can score any snacks now what it’s obvious that dinner was not enough. The market is closed and I decide not to try the restaurant & bar. Walking around ski areas in the summer is always a little weird; it feels a little bit like a movie set or something.
Lacking snax, I scrounge in my bike bag and find a package of Sport Beans and a Lance-era honey stinger of very dubious parentage. I eat them and go to bed. Before I turn out the light, I discover that Crystal not only offers wedding packages, they also offer elopement packages, which I mention in case it is of use to my readers.
I have managed to combine sleeping in a new bed, sleeping at altitude (Crystal is 4500’ up), and sleeping with somebody’s ventilation fan on and phasing in and out to achieve the trifecta of insomnia. I wake up at 2:30 convinced that it is time to get up, and then am sort-of asleep when the alarm kicks off at 4:30. I get up, spend a few seconds choosing between another honey stinger and a granola bar for breakfast (I can’t eat much before rides). The honey stinger (ginger snap IIRC) wins out.
After dressing and putting on sunscreen, I head outside at 5:15, get in the car, and drive away. It’s 49 degrees at Crystal.
The drive to Packwood is unremarkable. Driving down Cayuse is a very different experience than climbing up on a bicycle. When I get to Packwood, I stop at a service station to buy some water & beef jerky (I buy water because water availability is sketchy in Packwood). I head a bit farther and turn into the starting location and parking. It’s about 52 degrees. I pick up my packet, take a nature break, and sit in the car as long as I can. I note that those who are wanting to start at 7AM are going to unhappy to be stuck in porta-pottie line. I pull out my rarely-used cycling windbreaker – which folds into one of the pockets and fits in a jersey pocket – and put it on.
I get in the line at 6:50, and shiver. The general rule is that it’s okay to be a little cold at the start, but this is more than a little cold. I don’t want to carry anything else, so I gut it out.
At 7AM the ride starts, and the group pulls out. It takes about a minute before my section starts moving. The first mile or so is pretty chaotic, with riders 4 and 5 abreast and a lot of sketchy riding, but it thins out after a bit as the fast group heads off the front. My plan is to just take it easy, but the combination of smooth road (I road lots of chipseal over the last week) and a slight downhill makes it easy to ride, so I grab onto the back of a paceline. We are in the low 20s but it’s not taking much effort so I’m happy to stick in the group. It’s not terribly well organized; somebody will pull off and the next person will slow way down, somebody else will bridge to head to the front, etc. I keep trying to work to the front to take a pull, but with all of the overlapping I never get there. It’s mostly safe except for the time when we are passing a group on the shoulder, the paceline is on the fog line, and one of the paceline guys pulls over into the shoulder. And stops. Lots of yelling but luckily we avoid the sound of bike scraping on asphalt.
We turn off at Randall and head south; the paceline holds together until we get to the first climb. I end up near the front of the group at the top, and we continue in a much smaller paceline to the first food stop at iron creek. My average speed is just under 20MPH for that whole section, which is much faster than I expected. I spend a couple of minutes at the food stop, and then head out.
We are currently at about 1100’, and we need to climb up to 4089’, so I’m going to call that 3000’ of climbing. The first part oscillates around in the 6-9% range, and I’m climbing at around 235 watts. You may wonder how we manage to make it through the pain and tedium of long mountain climbs. Which shows how little you know about bike riding; not only do we choose rides deliberately because of the pain and tedium, we pay money to experience that pain and tedium. Some of us even take trips to Europe so we can experience the same pain and tedium that the pros experience.
But it still goes down (well, actually, it goes up) better with a bit of diversion, so we look for ways to pass the time. We only made it through 3 iterations of “I spy”; it’s not very interesting when the answer is always “a hill”, even when you put colorful adjectives in the middle. And you can only sing so many rounds of “the wheels on the bike go round and round”. So, mostly, you vow that you will never, ever enter a ride like this again, and you use what breath you have left over to talk. I spend the first third of a climb talking with a Tacoma firefighter and then lamenting how much harder things are when you get older with the other guy climbing with us, only to find that the other guy is 13 years old than me.
When other riders passed us – and, since the fast guys were pretty much in front of us, the passing took a while – I started calling out “no passing” as they rode by. This then got modified to “you can’t pass until you’ve pushed me up the hill for 30 seconds”. Neither were successful.
After 4 miles of this, the road kicks up again, and the two guys pull off for the water stop. I elect to skip a water stop because I think I have enough for the hill.
This is, in retrospect, a pretty stupid thing to do, especially since I have only about 2/3 of a bottle left and I have the rest of this climb – say 1500’ left. For somebody who thinks he doesn’t care about a medal I’m not making the best choices.
Anyway, I resume the hill at a more reasonable pace, say 210 watts or so. None of the hill has felt very good; my legs have no snap in them at all (the climb up Mount Constitution three days before is still in effect (this is a great example of planning your excuses well)), and my head hurts. I’ve done a bit of calculating, and it’s seems likely that I’m not going to finish before the gold cutoff, and it’s more clear that I really. don’t. care. I back off a bit more, and finally, but finally my GPS pops over 4000’ of elevation and we finish the section. There is much rejoicing.
This hill is pretty annoying. Most hills change gradient pretty slowly; you might have 15 minutes at 4%, and then 30 minutes at 6%. You can find your speed, get in a groove, and just climb. But this hill is all over the place; you climb for a minute at 4%, then it hops up to 9% for a minute, then there’s a short descent, etc. It makes it very hard to get into a rhythm, which gives me the blues (ha ha – rhythm and blues…)
We are at 4089’, and the lunch stop at Windy ridge is at 4150’. So, we need to climb only 61’, which should be easy to do over the next 12 miles, but unfortunately we will descend down to about 3500’ and climb up to 4350’ (another 850’) before we descend down the to lunch stop. It’s worse that this, however, because it’s not just a descent and a climb, each descent has climbs as part of it and each climb has descents as part of it. So, it’s more like a series of rollers that tend up or down.
And I’ve realized that there is no water stop between here and Windy Ridge. I’m dehydrated at this point and riding slowly at 150 watts or so. My head still hurts, my stomach is still upset, and my legs still hurt. And the joy of coasting down every descent is tempered by the knowledge that I will have to climb back each of them on the way back.
A picture from the ride is an apt description of how I feel; out of focus and fuzzy at the corners:
I’ve decided to call this “no man’s land”. Here’s a plot of the ride to Windy Ridge and back. 1200’ of climbing each way, and I count 20 climbs overall.
Objectively, it is worse than a pure climb, because it hurts just as bad both directions.
(Spirit Lake. The grayish part to the left back of the water is floating logs. They’ve been floating there for 30-some years since the eruption)
Eventually, I come to the spirit lake overlook, and use the cover of taking a picture to take a 30 second breather. Then it’s back for the last little push. I finally finish the 11-mile trip to the lunch stop, and roll through the timing section at 11:37, 7 minutes past the cutoff for gold. The climb + no-mans land is as bad or worse than Cayuse on RAMROD.
At this point, I really need hydration, so I take my bottles over to the water table, and find out that all the water containers are empty. They are working on transferring water from a big container to the small containers, but they don’t have a pump.
This falls into the “you had one job” category; it’s not that hard to get this right. So, I wait to fill one bottle, drink half of it right away, get a sandwich (with crème cheese – yuck), wait for the porta-potties, then I wait in the water line again for the second bottle. I have this thing where lack of logistical forethought drives me crazy, but I do manage to stretch out on the pavement, eat a second sandwich and the 7 chips in my bag. I take a 2 salt tablets and 2 motrin.
(Mt. St Helens. The eruption blew apart a 1/2 cubic mile of mountain)
I start to feel marginally better, so I take a picture of the mountain, and then start heading back. 170 watts seems about right, and I do the up/down/up/down/up/down back over no man’s land.
(even though this was off-axis from the direction of the eruption and on the backside of a ride, it was still strong enough to swat the whole forest flat).
Finally, we crest the final part of this section, turn the corner, ride up the real final part of the section, and we are ready for the descent.
The official directions for this say:
The descent from Windy Ridge is quite technical, and even though 99 has a smooth surface, there are patches of rough road. Please be extremely careful! And, once you’re on NF 25, you’re back into the shade headed downhill, so be extra cautious here too.
I’ve thought about how to describe this section, and I think the best description is “intense”. There are sections of nice straight and smooth pavement. There are a number of well-signed curves. And then there are sections where the road is a bit sketchy. Where sketchy means things like “2 inch cracks across half the lane”, “heavy washboard across the road”, or, my personal favorite, “8 inch sinkhole about 6 feet wide”. The Cascade crew has done a pretty good job of marking these with paint so that you can avoid them, but even when you avoid them, the road can be pretty rough. At least once I find myself unexpectedly in the air for a fraction of a second, and I need to deploy my bunny-hopping skills once or twice. Because of the roughness, I spend a lot of time standing so that I can let the bike move beneath me, and the balls of my feet are painful because of all the vibration. I am very much not trying to be fast here, just keepin’ it smooth and safe. It takes about 40 minutes for this whole section, and my guess that that’s about 5 minutes slower than I would have been on a smooth road.
I finally pull back into the Iron Creek food stop, refill one bottle with water, and refill the second one with Berry Nuun. I’m sitting on a log massaging the pain out of my feet, and trying to make a decision. I overheard the mechanics telling me that some people are skipping the next section (a little dogleg) and just heading straight back to Randall. I pull out my map, look at the mileage numbers, and figure out that it would save me 10 miles. I get back on the bike, start to ride out, and then turn back towards Randall. I’m tired, my body hurts, and I really don’t want any climbing. I have 10 miles to get there. Initially, I get to descend that nice road that I climbed five and half hours ago, and then it flattens out. There is some crappy pavement here as well, but it’s not marked and the lighting is variable, so I pay close attention. Back on the flat, I start rolling along. My average speed is 14.something MPH, and I’d like to finish about 15, which is about what I did on my last RAMROD. There are a number of light uphills. After about 5 miles, I get a thought.
I really need a drink. Not water, not Nuun. What I need is a Coke Zero.
You may ask why I go with the diet stuff when I need calories. And the answer is simple. I am fructose sensitive, and it’s especially bad when I’m exercising. At one RAMROD long ago (2007?), I grabbed a grape soda at lunch. One sip, and my stomach cramped. Bad.
I think about it for the next few miles. Ice cold. Frosty. Refreshing. And then I think back, and because I was in a paceline and paying a lot of attention, I don’t recall whether there were actually any stores in the section we turn off. I convince myself that the turnoff is right in the middle of some fields, and am quite depressed that I may have to wait all the way until Packwood, when I crest a bridge and see that there’s a gas station at the intersection. I cross, get stiffly off the bike, and head in for the aforementioned Coke Zero, 20 ounces of heaven. There are some tables in front, but it’s sunny and hot (around 90), so I roll my bike to the side, sit down on the decidedly grimy ground and lean against the building. Drinking my zero, and snacking on cheez-its.
After a couple of minutes, I have slightly recovered, and I cast my eyes across the parking lot and a small road. Just off the highway, there is a covered tent with a sign that says “huckleberries”. Next to it, another vendor has set up a second tent, with a sign that reads, “buy and sell – mushrooms and huckleberries. Better prices”.
I am very impressed by their proper use of “better”, and quite amused by how impressed I am.
Finally, the third and final tent says, “huckleberries – best prices”. It’s like a grammar lesson in real life. Next to me, there is a nice pickup with a picture of the aforementioned fruit, along with an appropriate caption. Turning out onto the highway, I notice there are two more tents on the other side of the highway, also selling huckleberries. Apparently Randall is the headquarters for the huckleberry mafia.
I have 17 miles to ride back to the start, which is flat to slightly uphill, but never much more than 2%. I’m feeling better, and I should be able to do it in about an hour. After about 15 minutes, a paceline goes by, and I say, “legs, how do you feel about putting out a bit of effort to catch this group so we can finish earlier with less effort”? Before legs can answer brain decides to go for it, so I chase, hooking onto the back of a group of about 12 riders, and relaxing into the group.
A skilled paceline is a joy to experience, a finely-tuned machine, a sublime fee lunch, all parts in harmony as it effortlessly eats up the miles.
This paceline, however, is like that shopping cart at the grocery store that randomly changes direction every few seconds. I have prepared a visual aid to help make my point:
Here I am, just cruising along before the paceline shows up. The green line shows my speed (19MPH), the red line shows my power output (150 watts or so), and the blue line shows my cadence (85 or so). They are nice and smooth. The spike at the end is 400 watts where I decided to hop on the paceline, which leads to the next graph:
The first thing to notice is that speed (green) is all over the place; ranging from 19 MPH to 23 MPH. The blue and red lines show my reaction to it; sometimes I am soft pedaling (power down but cadence the same), but most times I have to react by coasting (on the worst drop on the right side I have to use my brakes). What it doesn’t show is that I am also drifting to my right to increase my drag to help me slow down, and I’m not the only one doing this.
This is what is called “the dreaded accordion” – the group is continually compressing and expanding. A few of us are trying to reduce the effect, there’s a solid core of riders who are faithfully trying to react to any change in speed as quickly as possible, which is why it is happening.
I have a couple of choices. I could pull left, work my way to the front, take a pull, and then try to slot back into the front group of 5 or so (the accordion is worse the farther back you get). I could sit here and deal with it. Or I can drop off.
Not only is it very aggravating, there are a lot of tired riders here, and there’s a decent chance somebody will touch a wheel and go down, and I’m in the back, so I will have to deal with the carnage.
I drop off and resign myself to a calmer spin back to the start. As I cross a bridge, I see a guy on the side holding a wheel with a forlorn look on his face. I ask him, “do you have what you need?” as I roll by, and he says, “not really…”, so I stop, and ride back. Only to find that it’s one of the guys who regularly rides with me on our Tuesday/Thursday rides. He has flatted twice, and would just patch the tube but his pump isn’t working so he can’t find the hole to patch it. I offer him my spare tube, he says, “you might need it”, I point out that we are only 6 miles from the end, but if it makes him feel better, he can pull all the way. As we are getting the tire back on, a support car pulls up, so we borrow his floor pump to inflate the tire, and we’re back on the road.
In payment for my services, I wheelsuck mercilessly for the last 22 minutes and we finally hit the finish line.
Summary and Reflection
This is one hard ride (and I avoided a bit of climbing with my shortcut); not as hard as RAMROD, but certainly in the same class, and the combination of the varying gradients, the quality of the pavement, and the out-and-back nature made it very mentally challenging.
A few stats:
|Average speed||15.7 MPH (yea pacelines)|
|Average power||147 watts|
|Top speed||42 MPH|
|Strava suffer score||310 (Epic)|