Your intrepid author at the top of Loup Loup Pass
My quest to ride a super randonneur series took me back to the State of Washington-this time to the small town of Ephrata which was the start/finish for the Seattle International Randonneurs' (SIR) spring 400 kilometer brevet (actually a little longer than 400k at 254 miles).
SIR is one of, if not the, largest randonneuring groups in the USA. I knew from reading websites, ride reports, articles, and message boards that they would put on a first class event. I was also excited that I'd be able to share the experience with a large group of riders. I wasn't going to be disappointed.
Due to a lot of stuff going on in the area, I ended up having to book a motel room in Moses Lake, which is about a half hour from Ephrata, so it was an early 3:15 a.m. wake up call. I parked a block-or-so away from the ride start in a public lot next to the railroad tracks. As I was putting my bike together the Amtrak Empire Builder pulled up to the station next to where I was parked. I took this as a good omen. I'm a minor train enthusiast and had the pleasure of riding the other half of the Empire Builder (the train splits in Spokane) from Whitefish, MT to Portland a couple of years ago. It was very cool. So despite my haste to get ready, I had to take a pause to admire the train. My family would have been in awe of my nerdom at that moment.
The weather was supposed to be warm and sunny all day, but given the dry climate in this part of Washington, the air is usually chilly when the sun is not up. The reports from the volunteers who pre-rode the course last weekend advised that we should bring some warm clothing despite the forecast. I am very grateful for those reports because I probably would have left some of my cool weather gear at home. I was glad I had it.
About 50 riders pulled out of the Travelodge parking lot at 5 a.m. With such a big group it was easy to draft along with the peloton-something I hoped to do for as long as possible to save energy. My plan was working to perfection as I cruised effortlessly towards the Moses Coulee when suddenly the road disappeared! Between the pre-ride and brevet the last four miles of pavement through the Coulee was completely torn up. It looked like many of the riders had wider tires and bomb proof wheels which allowed them to keep riding-slowly. I have skinny tires and typical road bike wheels-I have no idea if either would hold up to gravel. That along with my relatively unsure bike handling skills resulted in me walking for almost all of the four mile construction zone. At 3 miles per hour I easily lost more than an hour, but at least my bike and my body were intact.
Karel Stroethoff from Missoula caught up to me as I reached the pavement on Highway 2. Karel and I rode much of the 300k in the Tri Cities together two weeks ago. I knew he was signed up but I didn't find him at the start. I was glad to see him-we Montana randonneurs are a rare species (2 of the 3 current Montana RUSA members were on this ride).
The first checkpoint was Farmer (which looked like it consisted of one building and a cemetery up the road). Here I got to meet Mark Thomas who is the former RUSA President and current Seattle Regional Brevet Administrator (RBA). Mark writes an informative blog that I've followed for the last couple of years. He along with several others were volunteering their time to take care of us at various checkpoints along the route. Mark-being ever attentive-vigorously warned us (tongue in cheek) to look out for the gravel as we pulled off the highway.
Karel and I left Farmer together and rode on nice roads with little traffic-with the exception of a couple of rednecks in a pickup-who told us they were number one with their horn and middle fingers.
After some rollers and an uphill trend we got to the top of McNeil Canyon and a sign that warned of a 12% grade. The view of the Columbia River from the top of the hill was amazing, but I didn't ponder it-I was reaching for my brake levers. I'm a chicken descender anyway, but I've never gone down a hill this steep that was this long. Karel on the other hand had much more faith in his ability and equipment and quickly disappeared around the first bend. I figured I would see him again either crumpled in a heap at the bottom the hill or at the next check point in Pateros. I took the descent gingerly-though I was conscious of riding my brakes too hard. I didn't want to heat them up and pop a tire (not sure if that can happen or not, but I sure didn't want to find out). A car passed me and I immediately smelled burning brake pads. Intellectually I knew the smell was from the car, but it made me worry about my brakes even more. I may have been having less fun than a handful of cyclists who were trying climb up the hill! I later heard that some of the riders were touching speeds of 50+ mph!
I got to Pateros just before about 500 motorcycles descended upon the town. It was quite a site as they blocked off the side streets to let the bikers come through. There must have been some sort of mini-Sturgis thing going on in the area as we saw motorcycles all day long.
The next stretch along the Methow River was my lowest point of the day. I started out of Pateros riding with Karel again, but soon had to let him go. I just couldn't seem to muster any energy. This was troubling. I was still well under 100 miles for the day and had a long, long ways to go. I figured I'd be stronger on the first half of this ride and if I was to fall apart it would be when I reached the heretofore uncharted distance of 200 miles. I finally came to the realization that the temperatures were probably somewhere around 70 and I was drinking as if it were in the 40's or 50's-as my training rides have been. I backed off a little more and slogged into the next SIR manned checkpoint near Twisp and headed for the water jug. After a long stop, and turkey sandwich, and some more fluids I set out to conquer Loup Loup pass.
I felt a little better when I left the checkpoint but I was already in my granny gear at the foot of the climb. However as the grade increased to a steady 6% I kept up my cadence and momentum. The food and fluids at the last checkpoint must have kicked in because I started feeling much better as I chugged up the hill. Before too long I made it to the top along with several other riders, including Eric Vigoren. We stopped for obligatory photos and to take a little break.
The descent of Loup Loup was much more fun for me than McNeil Canyon. Though the road surface wasn't as nice, the grade was a manageable 6% on the top half and 5% on the lower half. It was a fun cruise to the flattest part of the route through the towns of Okanogen and Omak. Our next checkpoint was a c-store in Omak. A nice local gentleman came out to talk to us about what we were doing. He told us the rest of the way to Ephrata was easy-even the big hill before Nespelem would be no problem (I don't think he's ever tried it on a bicycle though).
The ride out of Omak on the Columbia River Road was very nice as far as pavement surface and scenery. But it was also hilly and breezy. I hit my second low point on this stretch. I started doing math in my head and tried to predict when I would get done. At one point I had worked it out that I would miss the last checkpoint closing time by 2 hours! After a few miles of panic I realized I was miscalculating and time wasn't going to be an issue as long as I kept at it. Before long I came upon a SIR "secret control". A cup-o-noodles was offered that so hit the spot I couldn't even believe it. It's amazing how the right food at the right time can really lift your spirits.
Buoyed by the cup-o-noodles I made short work of the 2 mile long 10% climb away from the Columbia and back up to Highway 155. It was now dark, the crickets were chirping, frogs were croaking, a coyote was yapping somewhere off in the distance, and the occasional (drunk?) redneck was screaming some undecipherable gibberish as they roared past on the highway. I followed the bright tail lights of Joe Platzner all the way to the Grand Coulee Dam where we were caught by Matt Mikul. Matt rode his bike to the ride start from North Bend, Washington the day before! I was pretty amazed.
We got to the last checkpoint before the end after another steep climb away from the dam that I also felt fine on and were greeted by encouraging volunteers with steaming bowls of potato soup. Once again the soup hit the spot!
Joe had been battling stomach problems and a stubborn leaky tire for much of the route. He wanted to take it a little easier as we rode out the final 56 miles to the finish. This was absolutely fine with me. We cruised along under a multitude of stars on what was a very dark night. Other than a rare passing car the only sound besides our own chatting was the croaking frogs. We could faintly make out a steep cliff to our left and a body of water to our right. The air temperature fluctuated drastically. Every now and then we would hit a cold air pocket that really woke us up. After a while Joe Llona came along-his headlight looking like an approaching locomotive-then Matt, who must have "smelled the barn" as his tail light quickly disappeared up an approaching hill.
The sky was starting to light up and the song birds were beginning to sing as we took the home stretch between Soap Lake and Ephrata. I often notice song birds on pre-dawn departures. I've never noticed them at the end of a ride. I had been at it for almost one complete lap of the clock! As I got my brevet card signed for the final time back at the Travelodge I heard a train horn honking-probably the Empire Builder again. Yep it had been a long day. However, the euphoria of finishing such an event is so addictive...I'd do it all over again-no question!
A weigh in on Monday morning showed I had lost about 4 pounds. I think that confirms my suspicion about my hydration issues. Something to work on for the next one.
Many thanks to all the SIR volunteers who put on such a spectacular brevet. The scenery was amazing, the weather was great, and the support at the checkpoints was tremendous. I met many nice people on the route and at the checkpoints. I know I'll be back to ride with them again.
More Ride Photos Here