09 September 2016

The Spectacular SIR Summer "Gravel Grinder" 600k!

This was the most that Mt. Rainer showed itself during the entire 2 day circumnavigation. ... big tease of a mountain!
The Seattle International Randonneurs' "Summer 600" ride around Mt. Rainier was held this past weekend.  When I first mentioned the idea of joining to Vincent last month, he warned me that this one looked pretty tough.
Sure, there were 6400 meters of climbing, heading up over Paradise on the south side of Mt. Rainier, then back down, then up over Cayuse Pass and Chinook Pass on the east side of Mt. Rainier, then the much lower Ellensburg and Snoqualmie Passes on the return trip.  But 6400 meters of climbing over a 600k brevet (actually, 615k for this route) ... is really not so extraordinary when compared to our rides in Japan.  Jerome and I did a "regular" 600k event back in 2012 or 2013 with Kanagawa Audax that had over 7500 meters of elevation gain.  And my first 600k brevet ever in Japan back in 2010 had at least as much climbing as this one.
Route of the SIR Summer 600, from RidewithGPS
But Vinny was not referring to the climbing.  No, he was thinking of the road conditions.  The route we would travel includes over 150 kms of gravel/dirt surfaced roads and trails, including some very nasty "washboard" sections that will rattle your bones and shake loose your teeth fillings.  I had never ridden any kind of distance on dirt/gravel.  Maybe 10kms on one of the roads near Yabitsu Pass was the most I could recall.  And that was slow going, with cyclocross tires.
The pre-ride report by Mark Vande Kamp pretty much confirmed that this was an incredible, and incredibly difficult, route.  In fact, I really don't need to give a full description of the event since the SIR pre-ride report says it all. As Mark summed it up:
  • "we saw volcanoes, glaciers, rivers, rain forests, dry pine forests, shrub-steppe, and sub-alpine environments. We saw an orange moon rise over the ridge. We rode in the silent pre-dawn darkness and saw the pink light on the hills. We had a big 600k experience.
Wow, that sounded attractive to me.
On the other hand, riding 600km on smooth roads is a lot easier than riding it on gravel. This I can now state with confidence.
As Mark also noted:
  • "we felt heat-stress, cramps, sleepiness, muscle fatigue, hunger, thirst, hand pain, butt pain, neck pain, nausea, and general discomfort."
Given this report, it was no surprise that only around 15 riders showed up at the start, as Vinny described it, some of the "hard core" of the SIR membership.
In my case, the description of the pre-ride pretty much matched my experience.  I had no real heat-stress or cramps, and no nausea.  But the stiff, constant headwinds from Ellensburg to Hyak were an added challenge late in the event.
On an early unpaved but very smooth stretch Saturday morning between Renton and Black Diamond heading out of Seattle.
Of course, there is an enormous amount of energy absorbed when your wheel slips or gravel slides as you try to push forward. And there is more energy loss as you bump up and down on the surface. And the general rolling resistance is higher.  The two longest unpaved sections were maybe 20kms of awful road between Naches and Ellensburg, and then a very long stretch (60kms?) on the "Iron Horse Trail" over Snoqualmie Pass -- a barely perceptible, gradual climb followed by a slightly steeper (1 or 2%!) descent, then a section on the Snoqualmie Valley trail.  If these had all been paved roads, I am pretty sure I could have completed the ride 3-4 hours faster, or more. The section between Naches and Ellensburg would have taken probably 90 minutes less. And the 100kms on the Iron Horse Trail would have been a breeze.
I was grateful that, even if I had not actually ridden such long gravel stretches before, I have READ about them in Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly. And Hahn Rossman, who works with Jan and had been at the 2014 Japan fleche closing party in Kamakura, was on the staff at this event.  Audax really is a small world, and you can see the same people at various events around the globe if you just travel a bit!
Typical stretch of road on the climb to Ellensburg Pass -- average, with a few stretches much worse than this.
Typical stretch (except add washboard) on the descent from Ellensburg Pass.
The SIR organizers/staff for the ride (Ryan, Hahn, Steve ... any others who I missed?) did a great job -- Ryan Hamilton's house served as the start/goal, with a nice place to sit in the side yard/patio (and enjoy a beer) after we wrapped up.  And the overnight control at Naches offered some hot food (and a beer) upon arrival, safe bike storage, coffee and another bite before heading out, and an actual hotel room bed (or part of a bed, for one or two who ended up sharing) to get a few hours of sleep.
The organizers also kindly warned us that the time deadlines on the return leg would be difficult, and that we really should leave Naches around 4AM to make sure to get to the Ellensburg control by the 8:28AM cut off.  That's right, four-and-a-half hours for a segment that is only 56 kms and includes only 600~650 meters of elevation gain, and finishes with a nice downhill? It sounds crazy, and I took it with a grain of salt, not leaving the Naches control until maybe 4:20.  I arrived at Ellensburg with 8 minutes to spare.  One flat tire and I would not have made it.
Heading out of Seattle, Nigel and Cheryl on the tandem down from BC
Vinny early on, riding his 650Bx42 tire titanium brevet machine.  I did not see him between maybe km 140 and the finish.  He left Naches at 3AM and was many hours ahead at the finish, as expected.
Riding gravel requires different equipment selection.  I was very glad to have the Oregon Randonneur bike with 700x30 Grand Bois tires still in good condition and inflated to 70~75psi (I let out a bit of air at Naches so was probably at 60~65psi on the return).  I made it through the entire event with no, that's right zero, flat tires or tubes.  The only rider who completed the event on a road bike with 700x23mm tires, Mitch, had 3 flats and finished after me, despite being a much faster rider.  I might have been even happier if I had had a bike equipped with 650B x 42mm tires.  Vincent and others on 650Bx42 could ride the gravel with more confidence, more speed and less slippage. 

The Oregon randonneur with a 3-bottle set up and no fenders again.
I made good time as far as the 128km Eatonville control, remembering some of the route from Cascade 1200.  I struggled between Eatonville and Longmire, fatigue setting in and lack of sleep in the prior few days of transit/early wake-up catching up with me. 
A U.S. convenience store - typically attached to a gasoline station.
This one, in Black Diamond, did have hot breakfast biscuit sandwiches (non-McD egg mcmuffins).
Typical of the roads between Black Diamond and Eatonville

Looking back toward Ohop Lake between Electron/Clay City and Eatonville
The last 15kms to Longmire followed a national forest road.  This was dirt -- or more accurately mud -- at least at the beginning.  There was a local fellow standing beside his parked car at the entrance as I rode by.  He asked "are you heading to Longmire"?  "Yep".  "Well, you must be going the right way because I've seen 4 others come by. Good luck."  The "good luck" was delivered with a kind of skeptical "you must be crazy to head up this road" sense to it.  

Pre-modern gasoline stand at Longmire, in Rainier National Park, where we rejoined the main road to Paradise.
Anyway, my fatigue did not lift at Longmire, where I ended up taking only a short rest and filling my water bottles and chatting a bit with John and Shiggy, two of the other riders.  800+ meters of climbing left from Longmire to Paradise.  In my condition I figured the only way would be to divide it up into shorter segments, with short rests.  I did so, 200 meters elevation gain at a time, and made it to Paradise after 5PM, but still more than 2 hours ahead of the deadline.
On the climb to Paradise

Paradise!  But still a bit more climbing left to the visitor center/control
The section of the ride between Paradise and Cayuse Pass was spectacular.  I have never been (or at least do not remember) traveling this SE side of Mt. Rainier.  The old growth forest was beautiful, the roads were not crowded.  I want to go back. 
Looking South across a meadow at Paradise

Old growth forest on the SE side of Rainier, just past
"Grove of the Patriarchs. I almost expected to see an Ewok, or a Sasquatch, or at least a black bear.
The road toward Cayuse Pass, Washington Rte 123
Looking back at Rainier -- barely visible
Descending to the East on the SE side of Rainier
And I felt recovered enough to climb to Cayuse and Chinook without any major problems.  I was far back in the pack at this point, but at Paradise, Ryan had told me there were still 4 riders behind me.  And even though Shiggy had gone ahead, I could see John's tail-light at various points on the climb to Cayuse, and caught up with him before Chinook.  We started the descent together, and eventually I went ahead, feeling full of energy and enjoying the tailwind.  We were together again at the control in Cliffdell, where we entered the bar and enjoyed some country music while getting some (non-alcoholic) refreshment.  John needed food, so I pressed on and was at Naches at 12:50AM, fed, showered and in bed by 1:30AM for a 4AM wakeup.
Pink morning clouds before 6AM on Sunday 

We saw a lot of beautiful sky, clouds, and stars on this brevet
The second day was all about time management.  8 minutes to spare at Ellensburg (km 397.3), then a miserable headwind from Ellensburg to Cle Elum (made much easier by Hugh, as we traded pulls until I ran out of gas at some point and he did most of the pulling).  Then the long gravel slog over the Iron Horse Trail (see pre-ride report for details on conditions -- I would only add that the deep gravel around various gates along the trail made it all much harder.  I got to the North Bend control (km 533.8) with 10 minutes to spare, following Jeff the last few kms.
Yakima River between Ellensburg and Cle Elum. Miserable headwinds here.

A few miles outside of Ellensburg

I only snapped one photo at the west exit to the tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass.  Not a moment to waste.
The tunnel was over 4 kms long, and unlit, with an uneven floor and some dripping water from the ceiling.
I passed a few cyclists and at least 30 walkers inside.
From North Bend, it looked like there was plenty of time to get to the Woodinville control, and I joined (and then passed) 3 riders - John, Hugh and Jeff - on the trail after North Bend, so it would be easy, right?  Then I noticed that it was almost 30 kilometers from the Woodinville control to the finish, but Woodinville closed at 916PM, while the finish deadline was 10PM.  Only 44 minutes for 27.6 kms? No way!  Yes way.  The course was 616.2 kms in length, but the time deadline was 40 hours -- standard for any 600km brevet.  So the last 16.2 kms did not get any time allocation.  Fortunately, I was able to get to Woodinville around 825PM, after dark now, but with plenty of time for the last 27.6kms. 
My Garmin died, and my mind was confused.  As I continued beyond the Woodinville control I looked at my cue sheet for navigation and pulled out my phone and tried to load the ridewithgps route. I would need it with no cyclecomputer or measure of distances. It looked as if I was supposed to join yet another trail in Woodinville.  I was fumbling around in the dark, grabbing some food from my bag and trying to figure it out when John, Jeff and Hugh came by, across the street.  
I hopped on the train and rode with them all the way to the finish.  This last 25 kms was reminiscent of the end of the Cascade 1200, when we rode in a nice group at a relaxed pace from the last control, near the "lanterne rouge" position.  
3+ kms later that we joined the trail I had been looking for -- the Burke Gilman Trail.  This trail is PAVED, and WIDE, and includes underpasses for busy intersections, and it took us all the way to the Univ. of Washington Campus and beyond, over 20 kilometers of easy, relatively flat riding, much of it along the NW shore of Lake Washington.  I was thinking "if I ever live in Seattle, this is an area where I could live and easily get into town - at least to the university - by bicycle."  At one point, Hugh reminded John, our pace-maker, that we could not be TOO relaxed, since we had slowed to around 15kph, and had only one hour to go the remaining almost 15 kms.  We sped up.  Jeff zoomed off ahead.
And so, as we rolled up to Ryan's house at 9:46PM Sunday, with 14 minutes to spare, then sat down and enjoyed the post-ride beer and some nice food, Randonesia had already begun to set in.
Then it was back to my hotel and off to sleep.  A deep, deep, satisfying 9 hour sleep, followed by a short day of activity then another deep, deep long sleep of 10+ hours on Monday night.  And more long sleep on Tuesday night.
Thank you, SIR, for a great 600k experience. 


NuitsBlanches said...

Congrats! Nice riding - and thanks for the excellent, vivid, edge-of-my-seat-at-the-end, report. :-)

shiggy person said...

Good report, David. Nice to ride with you.
You are correct, the 42mm tires made a big difference on the gravel and rough roads. I was slower, but not too much...and as a drysider I am used to riding such surfaces, only steeper :-)