For the last ten years, Rapha has challenged cyclists to ride 500 kilometers between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. In these darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), riders attempt to ride distances that would be a challenge even in the Summer. For the last three years, Rapha Seattle has gone further. It has challenged club members to complete 500km in one big ride. The video below documents our adventures on last year’s event.
This year, with CoVid cases super high, I decided that, instead of a big loop somewhere remote with a small team, I would do a set of loops from my house solo. This was the birth of the Pedal the Petals brevet, 6 loops from my home in Seattle emanating in the various directions, islands and peninsulas that make up King County. Now, Seattle is not flat, and I happen to live near the summit of one of our city’s hills. This would be 315 miles and 16000ft of elevation gain. To keep this one “big ride”, I decided to give myself a time limit of 40 hours (same as last year’s brevet).
Big rides strip you down to your core. The road doesn’t care about your pride or bluster, and the miles tick pass only through your own efforts. In an event like this, no one is forcing you to continue, and it is a test of your conviction or stubbornness making you continue.
On Dec 26, I set off at 5:15am on loop 1, a simple loop of West Seattle. As I headed towards Downtown, I realized that the weather would not be my friend today. The forecasted wind showed up in full force; 15mph of persistent wind coming from the south, and my first two loops were both south bound. Given that I was doing loops though, the wind would eventually be at my back, and I celebrated that change with a turn of speed that I would ultimately come to regret.
My troubles with the weather were only just beginning. Loop 2 was straight down the Interurban and returning via the Cedar River Trail. The Interurban is not the prettiest of our long-distance trails. Running beside the active BNSF railway, the scenery consisted of warehouses and a heavily managed Mill Creek. Today, that scenery was augmented by a persistent headwind and the occasional heavy shower.
Returning from Loop 2, I ate a quick lunch before heading out. Heading out of my driveway, I noticed that I forgot to do up the zipper in my right glove. I reached over to fix it, but quickly found my wheel sideways and myself hurling off my bike. This was one of those moments. Why do I do this to myself? There would be no consequences to quitting at this point.
I went inside, cleaned my elbow, bandaged it and put on a new jersey before heading out for loop 3. On my way out, I see my teammate Zor. We chat, ride together for a bit, before I turn off to do Mercer. 110 miles in, and my legs were feeling good. I was still doing Z2 power with ease. Sure, Mercer Island Loop and May Valley were slower than how I would normally ride them, but only because I was still trying to keep a lid on my effort. That all changed in Issaquah. Up until now, rain had fallen intermittently in light showers. Things changed in Issaquah. The sun set, and the heavens opened. The dynamo light that gave me confidence on the Peninsula paled in comparison to the cars around me. I was cold, wet, and I couldn’t see where I was going.
Thankfully, I planned the last loop to be the easiest loop in the city. The Burke Gilman, Sammamish River, and 520 trails form an easy, nearly car free loop around the north half of Lake Washington. For six years, the north half of this route was my bike commute to work. On a sunny weekend, the trails could be an absolute zoo, but at 8pm on Boxing Day, it was a dark, serene tunnel punctuated by the occasional unlit pedestrian or trail hazard. My legs were burnt crisps, but on the flat trail, I was still able to make solid progress.
The serenity was interrupted by an orange net stretched across the trail. With no signage warning of a trail closure, the orange net came as a surprise. Luckily, it was not fully setup (or was in the process of being set up?) and was only about a foot high. I am awful at bunny hops. Anyone who’s ridden long distances with me has seen me botch a curb hop or slam my back wheel into a step up. Here, 180 miles in with fenders and dynamo, I hopped as hard as I could. I don’t think my back wheel cleared the net, but I did not go flying over the bars, so I’ll call that a win!
The next morning, the rain returned. I had made a last-minute decision to not route myself on the Issaquah-Fall City road, but I also managed to choose the wrong climb up the Sammamish Plateau. Somehow, I had selected a stair-step climb with 20% grades! My legs were not happy, but I was able to find a rhythm as the route wound through Carnation and back over Union Hill to the Red Brick Road. Here, I finally saw the sun. Invigorated by daylight, I made my way home. I would be able to finish this after all!
My last loop sent me around Magnolia, Ballard, and then up the Golden Gardens climb. Illuminated by the most gorgeous sunset of the ride, I made my way through a crowded Discovery Park and onto Shilshole. I was passed by a fast-moving pair of riders. It was Veronica and Jen on their own Festive ride! They were taking a very different approach to the Festive Brevet. Instead of heavy fenders, wide tires and a dynamo, they were on their aero race bikes. The speed difference showed, but I wondered how unpleasant it must have been for them during the rains earlier that day.
As I navigated the maze of bollards that demarked the Interurban trail in Mountlake Terrace, I thought once again about how improbable it was that I was about to finish this ride. After all, it was only in 2017 that I rode my first century. The last three years, I’ve set goals for myself that were a stretch. Goals that terrified me slightly when I set them. These goals gave me a target to problem solve towards and allowed me to achieve something that I would not have thought possible.
This ride stripped me to my core. In those 23 hours on the bike, it was my choice to keep riding. The simple acts of turning the pedals and fueling my effort was a welcome break from the more complex problems in everyday life. As a professional cat herder, I rarely have the agency to execute on all the parts of a plan. This ride allowed me to focus on a singular goal and problem solve towards it.
I suppose that’s why I do long rides. Creating big routes let me imagine an adventure for myself, and then planning, training and problem solving to let me go on that adventure. This has led to finding different ways through the mountains and riding them (Pyramid Pass), recreating a ride I read about in a magazine (Three Volcanoes 300K), and linking together all the MFG courses in one go (MFG Big Idea). I would say that’s a solid roster of big rides for any year.
Along the way, I’ve gotten to know the people who join these adventures both physically and vicariously through Instagram. The cheers of encouragement brought a smile to my face even as I rode in the rain and darkness. These connections have also brought new challenges. The solo Festive 500 brevet was a great way to cap off 2020. 2021 will bring on new challenges and new adventures as I train, plan, and problem solve towards those challenges.