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Pedal the Petals

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. 

Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/34811492

3 Volcanos 300k

“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.

Sunrise illuminating the crest of Tongue Mountain

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.

A brief luxury gravel respite

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.

The incredible view at Talakh Lake

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.

Don’t look down!

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

Ajay making his way out of the second gap

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.

Sunset on Cline Road

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.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/31818035?highlight=8460-10345

Finding the Unknown Mountain Pass

“You have got to be kidding me,” I thought, as I fell back onto the same hip and elbow that had taken the brunt of the earlier crash. Here I am, halfway up a 5mi, 10% gravel climb in the heat of the mid-day sun, 20 miles and a big climb away from civilization in either direction, about to use up more water to clean my wound. My teammate was somewhere up the road, fighting her own fight against this beast of a climb. I guess I just need to get back on and keep pedaling.

I spend a lot of time looking at maps and dreaming up interesting routes. One day, I saw a line on the Strava Heatmap connecting I-90 and SR410, and I knew that I wanted to ride it. Given its location, a loop to include this segment would have to be long. Between Seattle and Tacoma’s water supplies, a large stretch of the lands south of I-90 are closed to public access, and the shortest route for a loop would be roughly 140 miles.

A post to the local gravel riders Facebook group gave me a name: Pyramid Pass. One rider suggested that it could be done, but the climb would be steep, loose and rocky. It was suggested that I approach from the south, but going from the south would make it really hard to turn this into a loop without some very sketchy descents. I figured it would be better to suffer on the way up than to get injured on the way down. (Ha!)

On Saturday July 18th, Claire and I met up at the Landsburg Park parking lot and set off on our adventure. The goal for the day: make a loop of Snoqualmie Pass, Stampede Pass, and Pyramid Pass over 140 miles of gravel roads, trails, and roads. Before we get there though, we had the appetizer climb of Taylor Mountain.

Morning sunbeams on Taylor Mountain

The Taylor Mountain climb is a quiet road climb that becomes gravel and then double track. In the morning light, this was the perfect warm-up. We admired the sunbeams through the leaves as we made our way up the climb. As we chatted and took pictures, I suddenly heard a yelp behind me. I stopped, turned around, and saw Claire in a ditch. What a way to start a big day.

The descent before crossing Raging River is steep, loose, and punctuated by wide drainage ditches. Good thing we took the advice to do this climb first! Before long, we climbed back up to the backside of Rattlesnake, and we were heading towards Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Rattlesnake Lake, and the next sector of our ride.

The Palouse Cascade Trail climb from Rattlesnake to the rail tunnel is a staple for introducing new riders to gravel in the area. On this morning, it was a shaded, scenic connector to the next section of the ride. As we refilled our bottles and packs at Hyak, we were a third of the way in, and we’d ridden what would normally be a good day’s riding. We were just getting to the interesting part.

Switchbacks on Stampede Pass

Stampede Pass is a steep, exposed gravel road that snakes its way up from the I-90 corridor to the Green River Watershed and ghost town of Lester. The descent into Lester is a perfect set of perfect switchbacks. Only problem was, there was maybe a bit more loose gravel than I expected.

I knew the descent was loose. The last two switchbacks had both seen some controlled sliding of the tires, but I was still surprised to find myself on the ground sliding on my hip and elbow. I guess it’s time for new team sun sleeves, bibs and bar tape. After dusting myself off and rinsing off the road rash, we carried on through the picturesque Green River Valley. We rolled past idyllic campsites by the river with families enjoying the summer afternoon as we approached Pyramid Pass.

Pyramid Pass broke me. I don’t think there are any warnings that could have prepared me for this. The full climb gains 3650ft over 9.3mi, with the steep part gaining 2800ft over 5.5mi. That sounds painful, the thing that stats don’t tell you is just how rocky and eroded the road is. It wasn’t quite the “let’s pour some fist-sized chunks of flint in the tire tracks and call it good” style of Kansas road building, but more “we’ll just carve out some rock and pour sand and gravel over it”. Why am I harping on the road surface? It’s how I found myself halfway up the climb, on my butt contemplating my life choices.

I wasn’t going to make progress sitting there, so I pushed my bike until I found some traction, and started pedaling. With grades ramping up to 20% and traction alternating between sandpaper and marbles, I quickly found myself switching between suffering in the saddle and pushing my bike uphill. Towards the end of this first pitch, I saw Claire up the road! Seeing my teammate up the road, I stopped to take a quick picture, before powering up the rest of the climb with renewed vigor.

What I thought was the last pitch

Only we weren’t done yet. Remember how the full climb is 9.3mi at about 7.3%? It goes down before pitching up again. If it was any consolation, at least this part was consistently loose without sharp substrate. It didn’t make the hike any easier though. (Claire made it on her bike like a champ!)

We recover at the top taking in views of Rainier and the surrounding mountains while recounting the horrors of our respective pain caves. I guess there is some payoff when you climb to 5000ft. We ate, drank, and I am sure Claire spent 5 minutes passed out on the road. Soon, it was time to descend. Between the road conditions and my earlier incidents, it was a cautious, bumpy, and slippery descent down to NF70. I was tired, sore, and out of water, but Greenwater was only a short, paved climb and descent away.

We roll into Greenwater at 6:05, and I will be eternally grateful for the kind people at the Greenwater General Store for letting us run in after they were supposed to be closed to resupply. After a quick stop for water and food, we decided that we would ignore the route that took us down the Weyerhauser Mainline and just stay on pavement to get back to the cars as quickly as possible. We had enough adventure for one day.

With that, we aired up the tires for the 36 miles of road ahead, saddled up, and got moving. We soon came upon a stranded rider outside of Ravensdale. Luckily, I always carry a frame pump and enough spares to fix a small peloton. The stop saved his ride, allowed us to catch our breaths, and we rolled into the Landsburg Park parking lot at 8:35, 13 hours from when we started.

This ride was a bonding experience. We laughed, nearly cried (just speaking for myself), and explored just how much we could inspire each other to keep going. This is the beauty of being on a team. Where else do you find a group of people so strong, positive, and supportive that you could find a partner for this kind of adventure? We were broken and hungry, but a message from another teammate checking in to see that we had made it safely bouyed our spirits yet again as we packed up the cars. (Full disclosure: I was totally ordering food when that message came in because priorities.)

We survived the Pyramid Pass loop. Looking at Strava, only twelve people have completed this climb in our direction, and only 3 others have attempted this full loop. I would invite others to ride this route, but I’m not sure I would recommend this level of type 2 fun for anyone.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/32619178