“Did you see that!?” I yelled as I recovered my composure. My back tire had just decided that sliding diagonally was much more interesting than going in a straight line. We were 3 hours in and halfway up the first big climb, and I was already questioning my choices.
I have been aware of the 3 Volcanos Brevet ever since I read an excerpt of Jan Heine’s Fastest Known Time on the route a few years back. A few weeks ago, he re-published the full article on the Rene Herse blog, and it was back at the top of the “routes I want to ride” list.
While trying to recreate his route from the description in the article, I stumbled across a draft route on RideWithGPS published by the Seattle International Randonneurs. A post to the PNW gravel riders group on road conditions got me bonus intel from the creator of the route. With that, I reached out to a few friends, found someone crazy enough to do it with me, and it was off to planning.
Now, there are a couple things to know about me and the people who’s advice I sought in this process. I like to plan things out, with as much data as possible, but I also have a tendency to be optimistic and allow myself 10-20% to “let skill and luck sort things out”. With this background, I present the three accounts of the road conditions I was expecting to face:
- From Tim, a rider I respect immensely who had ridden this recently: “The gravel is dry, loose and quite a bit of washboards… I was happiest on 650×57”
- From Rob, the man who made the route: “These roads are not terribly gnarly”
- Finally, Jan took 35mm tires when he had ridden this 15 years ago
Now, I should also note that the route seemed to indicate that most of the gravel was uphill, so I thought to myself, it’s 180 miles of pavement, I’ll go with a nice, wide, but still aero 30mm road tire. This is how I find myself sliding sideways climbing a switchback on NF56.
On August 23rd, Ajay and I set off from a rental just north of Packwood at 5:30am to take on the Three Volcanos Brevet. Rural roads at 5:30 in the morning have a sort of serene magic to them. Humans aren’t around to bother them, so the deer, elk, and birds roam freely and wonder at the two riders gliding through the pre-dawn mist. An hour soon passed, and we were heading into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
As we climbed along the Cispus river, the rising sun’s rays lit up the crest of Tongue Mountain to our right. Without a car in sight, this ride was fast becoming a favorite. Soon, we reached Adam’s Fork Campground, crossed the Cispus River, and began the gravel climb.
The climb up NF5603 was a little loose and ever so slightly washboard-y. I quickly I found myself reaching the limits of adhesion and sliding sideways into the apex of a switchback, and every subsequent turn became an exercise in line choice. The fun wasn’t over though, as the climb soon changed from gravel to the sharpest and bumpiest chip seal I have ever ridden in my life. It was a relief to turn onto the soft, sandy gravel of NF 2029 towards Talakh lake and the high point of the ride. A short restroom stop later, it was time to descend Babyshoe Pass.
Now, Tim had warned me about Babyshoe. He had called it “dry, loose and washboard-y. What none of us knew at the time was that the forest service had “addressed” the washboard by dumping very fine gravel on the highway to fill in the dips. If a bunch of cars were to drive over this gravel, it would eventually get compacted into luxury gravel. Unfortunately for me, a bunch of cars had yet to drive over it, and I found myself fishtailing through a particularly deep patch before getting thrown off my bike. So much for this being mostly a road ride.
The nice thing about crashing in deep gravel is that you land in a pillow. Unfortunately, that the pillow is sharp. Getting back on my feet, I surveyed the damage. My shin looked like someone had sprayed it with bb pellets, and my hip had seen better days, but at least I wasn’t significantly injured. My bike was in similar shape, some scratches, a couple parts knocked askew, but nothing that would jeopardize our ride.
We made our way gingerly down the rest of the gravel descent with me tripod-ing every time it got loose. I don’t think I’ve even been this freaked out on a bike. Luckily, the gravel didn’t last much longer, and we were soon flying down the descent into Trout Lake.
I wanted two things at our first stop. First aid supplies and a sandwich. I got one of those. Irrigating road rash is always exciting, and I tried to hold in the tears as we excavated gravel from unexpected locations and bandaged the wounds.
We roll out of Trout Lake at noon. It was starting to get warm, and we were starting to see other cyclists on the road. As we climbed, we soon turned onto a road with a “Road Closed” sign. Looking at Gaia GPS, it looked like the road had a small gap. Figuring that we could walk around any road closure, we rolled on.
The road was missing. It wasn’t the usual “oh there used to be a road here and it’s now overgrown”; it was more “someone took a massive bite out of the side of the mountain where the road used to be”. The road had completely washed away along with a good chunk of the hillside. Luckily for us, there was a narrow strip of road bed to walk through. Just don’t look down. On the other side, we remounted our bikes, descended a switchback, and came to a lower part of the washout. This one didn’t have a convenient walkway to one side, and I needed some help to get my bike up the other bank. This is way too much shenanigans for a 300k ride
Remounting our bikes a second time, we picked our way down the rest of NF88, and turned onto NF90. We named those first miles of NF90 Pinch Flat Alley. Deep, abrupt holes with sharp edges camouflaged by bright sunlight and dark shadows dotted the pavement. We would have a few hundred meters of perfect pavement followed by a stretch dotted with holes shoulder to shoulder ready to eat a tire or a rim. We strained to see where the holes were, and it was a minor miracle neither of us flatted.
Finally freed of these obstacles, we make our way towards Northwoods, passing a couple of bikepackers along the way. We were still riding strong, and we soon pulled into Eagle Cliff Campstore. I was again disappointed by the available food selection, and instead of a sandwich or wrap with cheese, lunch was a sausage and cheese flavored Pringles. Why do I do this again?
After Northwoods, there was only one climb left. On a normal day, the climb up to Elk Pass wouldn’t be particularly challenging. At 3200ft of elevation gain averaging a hair over 6%, this was clearly easier than the first climb of the day. The trouble was, neither of us were fresh, and I was super happy about my sub-compact crankset and sub 1:1 gearing on this climb.
A persistent theme of this route has been that our National Forest Development Roads have seen better days. We’ve experienced terrible potholes, unexpected gravel stretches, and complete washouts. On NF-25, we added a tree growing out of the road to that list. Large sections of the road threatened to fall down the mountain, and vegetation of all sorts were starting to sprout through the cracks. It was against this backdrop, and an epic sunset, that we summit our last pass, and begin the long and technical descent back into Randle.
As we neared Randle, our route directed us eastward towards Cline Road rather than through the town itself. Since there was “supposed to be water” on route, it didn’t occur to us to go off-route for this water. As we cruised through the rollers, I found myself completely out of water. That wasn’t our only problem though. Both of us were feeling the 180 miles we had already ridden, and Ajay’s back was not exactly thrilled with the current state of affairs. Nonetheless, we pressed on, and I soon found myself gritting my teeth for one last big pull into Packwood, where a vending machine stop revived and fueled us for the last 3 miles back to base.
We rolled into our rental driveway at 8:32PM, nearly 15 hours after our start. Given that the brevet had a time cutoff of 20 hours, I’d say we did okay. Going into this, I was quite nervous about such a big day in this remote location, but that nervousness turned out to be unfounded. We pushed our limits today in endurance and adventure, and we agreed not to do something this hard in a while. Of course, immediately after this agreement, another friend reach out about attempting an even more difficult route. This is what happens when racing is cancelled and I still want to push my limits.