Our wake-up knock! I roll off the edge of the bed and open the door of the motel room where I and three other randonneurs are sleeping the kind of sleep that comes after riding 360 km. I expect to see Paul, the organizer, but instead see Cecil, apparently dressed, perky, and rearin' to go. We wave and nod at each other—my brain is not yet prepared for speech. I close the door and start to get ready for the day's ride.
Bathroom. Teeth. Sleeping clothes off; riding clothes on. At some point I grab my 'phone to check the time and am puzzled. My bleary eyes see what looks like 4:55. Paul was supposed to wake us at 4:00. Are we already an hour late? Maybe it says 4:05? Nothing to be done now, in any case, but get my stuff back on the bike, grab some breakfast, and get back on the road ASAP.
The volunteers are wonderful. What sort of cereal? Egg and sausage? What would you like on your bagel? What kind of tea? it would be all-too-easy to linger, but by 5:35 we — Cecil, myself, Sal and Bill Alsup — are heading out of Richland for the final 240 km of what has been, so far, a great Brevet.
We had stared the previous morning in The Dalles, after the usual 6 AM
parking-lot pep-talk from Paul Whitney, the organizer,
almost immediately crossing over the Columbia on The Dalles Bridge into Washington. Cecil and Sal had both left me behind on the climb up from the bridge to Route 14 — in fact, it looked as though the whole field had left me behind, and the last red taillight had turned the corner onto Rt 14 long before I did so. Strong and gusty winds from the north-west had made the gorge crossing less than pleasant. I was reminded of a favorite aphorism from my youth. When I first started cycle-touring, a much older and wiser rider by the name of Peter Knottley took me under his wing. This is what Peter said. In case of headwind: put watch in pocket, engage low gear, and twiddle.
This makes perfect theoretical sense. In case of a steep hill, if you go 20% faster, you get to the top 20% sooner, and your total energy outlay is more or less unchanged. But in case of headwind, if you ride 20% faster, the wind resistance goes up by something 45%, because it's roughly proportional to the square of your speed. So your total energy outlay is significantly increased; moreover, the harder you work, the worse it gets. However, being late for tea is not a theoretical issue: it's a very practical one. Hence the importance of the "put watch in pocket" part of Peter's advice: you have to quit worrying about how slow you are.
All this became irrelevant as soon as I turned the corner onto Rt 14 and started heading east up the Columbia Gorge. Now I had a tailwind. Speeds in the mid-20's were easy, the bike seemed to float over the rolling hills, and even the views across the river didn't tempt me to linger very long.
The first 58 miles to the contrôle in Roosevelt flew by — I even arrived in time to wave to Cecil as she left. This was a country store of the kind that I didn't think existed any more. A darling lady in a print dress behind the counter signed our cards and I was soon on my way. Ray Ogilvie caught up with me and we chatted for a while; then he flatted and I left him behind. Then he caught me again, taking more advantage of the tailwind that I had. In Plymouth, 100 miles down, we crossed the Columbia on a bike path on the Interstate-82 bridge and returned to Oregon. I had a very respectable average speed by now, something like 6.5 hours for the first 107 miles, but other riders had broken their PRs for those first 100 miles.
At the Subway in Umatilla I found Cecil and Sal, and we rode together through Hermiston, Starfield and the little town of Echo, and onto what for me was the most beautiful road of the ride: through the Echo canyon alongside the Umatilla River on County Road 1300/Reith Road/Old Pendleton River Road. Somewhere along here I was trying to read the cue sheet, didn't notice a pothole until I found it the hard way, and soon after had a flat, presumably a pinch-flat from the pothole. WIth Sal's help a replacement tube was quickly installed, and we were soon in Reith (about 6 houses) and then Pendleton. There the "Blue Mountain Fuel" contrôle was cleverly disguised as an ordinary Shell station, and required a couple of miles of backtracking.
144 miles down, but now we had to turn back north and west, into that blessed wind. A less independent (and more intelligent) group of riders would have formed a peloton and fought the wind collectively. But no, we were randonneurs, determined to make everything as difficult as possible. We poodled along side by side into the wind until, at an information contrôle 17 miles from nowhere we came upon Narayan, and then Bill Gobie on his Bacchetta Aero rolled up. We stopped long enough to chat, to install lights, to put on some more layers of clothing, and to wait for the rain, which had to this time been an on-and-off drizzle, to start in earnest. As we moved off into it, I realized that this was going to be one of those rains that hits you in the face in small hard lumps, and which makes up in velocity what it lacks in volume.
Naturally, this was the point at which I punctured a second time. The chances of finding the offending flint in the dark and wet were zero, so I elected to install not just a new tube but also a new tire. That's why we carry spares, isn't it?
Sal was doing most of the repair work, and I was happy to let him. But he couldn't get the new tire onto the rim. Neither could I. Eventually we ask Bill, who has shown up on the Bacchetta and stopped to join the tire-changing party; Bill has what look like very powerful hands. Eventually, with Bill's thumbs and Sal's hands and me wielding the tire levers we got the damn thing mounted. and I hope that we haven't damaged the tube in the process. I do have one more tube in my bag, but I have no confidence that we will ever get that tire off again. This is all a little strange, because I've been using Schwalbe Stelvios in this size for four years, and have always been able to mount them with my bare hands without any trouble. The folding version of the Stelvio, which this was, is usually even easier to mount.
We headed off towards Highways 730 and 207 and fumbled around in Hermiston for a while before we eventually found the Safeway, lurking on the wrong side of the street. The supermarket porch is well populated with randonneurs who had scoured the place for food and drink before settling on the benches chowing down. With our reflective gear and our tired looks, maybe the locals took us for a DoT road-mending crew. The rain had stopped, but the next leg to Umatilla was on trafficked roads, and it was good to regain the I-82 bike path and cross back into Washington.
Then we had turned north onto Plymouth Road. Starting at the river, this road climbed for almost 13 miles almost due north. According to the map it crests at about 1900 ft, but climbing in the dark, with a buffeting crosswind threatening to push me into the ditch, the climb was Zen experience. I stopped a couple of times to take off layers of clothing, but apart from that just kept pushing the pedals into the night. Never too steep, never too easy, no traffic whatsoever, and a strange red glow in the sky to the north-east; no sense of distance covered, or time passing; just turning the cranks and listening to the silence.
I eventually reached the crest and the right turn onto Clodfelter Road. There I reconnected with Sal and Cecil. It was 18 miles to the overnight contrôle in Richland, and, from the fact that we had been climbing for the past 12 miles, and that the lights of the town were not visible, I deduced that we had a good descent ahead of us.
Cecila and Sal disappeared into the dark in front of me when I stopped to put those layers of clothing back on. I did catch a glimpse of two of their red tail lights in the distance, but I took the 9-mile descent fairly easily, not knowing the road or the grade. Even so, I missed the turn onto Leslie Road at the bottom, and had to pull out the GPS to find an alternate route. The last 9 miles through suburban Richland were a maze of city streets and bike paths; the cues would have been hard to follow even in daylight. At one point I followed the bike path downhill, as instructed, only to find that it dead-ended just beyond a locked gate. Back at the top of the hill, I found Narayan waiting for me. "Not that way". We eventually found the Days Inn Hotel a little after 1 AM, if I recall correctly. Sal was in the motel room, eating happily. Cecil was already asleep in another room. Soup and stew were excellent. Showers were cold but clean, and bed was very welcome. Somehow, those two spare tubes had not made their way into my drop bag, so before I went to sleep, I patched the tube that has pinch-flatted on Reith Road.
But now it is Sunday morning. We are heading west towards "Benton City", which heralds itself as "a Tuscany sort of place", in a bowl above the Yakima River. True to form,
the sun does appear from behind the dense clouds. We are passed by Narayan (what's that great yellow thing in the sky?), and Bll, and in turn re-pass them.
I'm a bit concerned about my front tire, which is definitely soft. There is nothing in the tire, and I suspect that we either damaged the tube when we installed it, or that the new tube came with a microscopic hole. Still, given how hard that tire was to get on, I don't want to try taking it off unless I really must. So I put some more air in the tire, and resolve to watch it and see how long it takes to go soft.
From Benton City we take the Old Inland Empire Highway and follow it to the first contrôle, on the edge of Prosser. The first contôle after the overnight stop is a sensitive spot on a long Randonnée. The closing times for contrôles don't require one to ride very fast — an average speed of 10 mph is entirely adequate. But if one wants to sleep, then one needs to ride significantly faster than that, and build up a "time cushion", which one can then dissipate in such activities as sleeping and eating. We had left the overnight contrôle in Richland about 25 minutes ahead of its closing time. At Prosser we had clawed back some of our time cushion, but not very much; we now had about 40 minutes in hand. Cecil tells me that, based on her wide experience of 600 km rides (she does have infinitely more experience than me, since she has finished 1, and I have failed to finish one), that we will now be OK.
And on a normal ride, she would be right. On a normal ride, it's pretty easy to average 14 or 15 mph on the road, and build that time cushion back up. But this is not a normal ride.
From Prosser we follow a road parallel to the interstate for 13 miles through Grandview and Sunnyside, which is another contrôle. On the way to Grandview Sal punctures, and I take the opportunity to carefully check my front tire, and to put some more air in it. In Sunnyside we find a Subway and entertain the lone counter clerk with our antics. Then it's back to looking for another road that is named differently on the ground than on the cue sheet; fortunately Ray's GPS clears up the confusion. From Sunnyside it is 70 miles to the next contrôle, and we know that we have to climb up to Goldendale, but not much more.
The Mabton-Sunnyside road takes us through Mabton after 8 miles; after that the next possibility of services is the Bluebird Inn, which comes in 25 miles. Cecil had heard that the climb comes in two stages; a couple of long switchbacks to a false summit, followed by a descent, and then another climb to the Goldendale plateau. We have all done long climbs before, and we each settle in at our own pace. Cecil and Sal are soon ahead of me; Narayan catches me and we play leapfrog for a while. I still have a cashew-butter and jam bagel brought from home, and occasionally take a bite of this or a shot block. The reduced food intake seemed to suit my body; I not going fast, but I'm not bonking and I'm not feeling nauseous. I have plenty of energy bars, nuts and raisins, and so on, but I'm a bit concerned about water. Paul had warned us that this was a "three water bottle ride", and I had brought a camelback in response. However, the cool temperatures of the first day mean that I had toted the thing for the first 350 km without needing the extra capacity, so this morning I had decided to leave it in my drop bag. Now the sun was out and I was climbing; I was definitely going to need to find water in Bickleton, even though the "Bluebird Inn" was apparently the only place open, and time would be tight for a sit-down meal. Still, there is nothing to be done about it now.
The second climb seems much longer than the first, and I'm really looking forward to cresting the plateau at 3000 feet, and starting to make time, instead of crawling up the side of the plateau at what seems like a snail's pace. Then I reach the top of the plateau, and the wind hits me full in the face. Far from diminishing since yesterday, it seems to have gathered force. Ahead of me lie what appear to be endless rollers reaching to the horizon. In reality it is only about 4 miles to Bickleton, but every furlong must be gained by a struggle into the wind. The only time that my speed reaches double digits is when I head down a roller, but that must be paid for by climbing back up the other side.
I have one stroke of good fortune, or good thinking, as I pass Bickleton High School. There is a Pepsi machine outside the front entrance of the school. I've never used on of these things before, but I ride over and — yes — it contains two channels of bottled water. Bottled water is not one of my favorite purchases, but on this ride, it's just what I need. I put a dollar into the note acceptor, and press the first "water" button. "Selection sold out". My heart sinks. I try the second "water" button. Ker-thump! A bottle drops into the dispensing bin! I use it to fill the water bottles on my bike, and then get a second bottle from the machine, which I stash in a jersey pocket. Allright! Now I'm set for the three water bottle ride! It's amazing how cheered I was by this small success.
A few hundred yards further on, I meet Sal Ortega and the local "cruise in" at the Bluebird Inn. Sal did in fact get water at the Inn, and we exchange notes. From here it is 36 miles to the Goldendale contrôle, and we have about 3.5 hours before it closes. 10 mph sounds like a very modest pace — but not into this wind. What we don't know is when the downhill starts. I don't know the elevation of Goldendale, although I do know that it's a stiff climb up from the Gorge. Maybe 1500 feet? (It's actually closer to 1800). That will give us another 1500 ft of descent from Bickleton to Goldendale — and maybe that will be enough to get our average speed up to where it needs to be to make the time cut.
As we leave town we come upon a great downhill, and my heart surges—but it's just the crossing of Pine Creek, and must be paid for by a stiff climb up the other side of the valley. Sal sprints away over the rollers, and I can't stay with him. I really am dragging today, no doubt about it. Each time I crest a hill, I hope to see a long descent on the other side, but each time all I see is a series of three or four more rollers to the next horizon. The landscape is open and more-or-less barren. I'm vaguely amused by a "No Trespassing" sign: what reason is there to trespass?
My altimeter tells me that I have dropped more than 1000 feet, but there is no screaming descent, just a few feet to be clawed out of the face of the relentless wind. Finally, about 18 miles out of Bickleton, I spot a "steep downgrade" sign, and my heart soars. On the downgrade, the whole cruise-in from Bickleton passes me; a stream of beautifully restored Model-As enjoying the descent as much as I am. Then I turn a corner, and see the road snaking up the other side. This is nothing but one more canyon crossing. I drop another 500 feet into Badger Gulch, and prepare to climb back out. The climb is actually quite easy: heading south up the west face of the gulch, I'm completely sheltered form the wind. Then I round a hairpin, and once again the wind is in my face, mocking me.
It's another 16 miles to Goldendale. A voice in my head says: you aren't going to make it. Quit now! Grab a ride! Indeed, every 15 minutes or so, a vehicle passes, and I almost stop to flag one down. Fortunately, there are so few vehicles that this is quite difficult. Finally, about 5 miles from Goldendale, with maybe 20 minutes left before closing time, I come across Bill Alsup fixing a flat. Bill is not the least despondent! A flat at this point would have cooked my goose, but Bill is yelling to me "we're going to make this Andrew". I exchange a few words — Bill says that Sal recently passed him — and push on, ashamed that I thought of quitting. I may make the cut, I may not, but I will at least give it my best shot. A few moments later, Bill shoots past me, riding as if he has stolen the bike that he's on. There is no way that I can keep with his pace, but I plug away, and soon other riders start to appear in my rear view mirror. Funny: I have seen no-one for the last three hours, and now all of these riders come out of nowhere. A big rider appears behind me, growing larger as he slowly reels me in. It's Jim "Iron Chef" Cox from Seattle; he sucks my wheel for a minute or so, and then concludes that he's not going to get much draft from me — I'm about half his size. Jim passes, and I get on his wheel. This is great: Jim is going flat out, and so long as I stay in his draft, I don't even have to pedal! We fly under Rt 97 and into town, Right on East Broadway, and pull in to the Dairy Queen cum Subway — about five minutes after the closing time of the contrôle.
I gave it my best shot. The time that the clerk writes on my card sure looks like 18:20, but I know that I arrived a few minutes later. Sal is eating a sandwich at a corner table; Bill Alsup, Narayan, Matt from Seattle, Jim and me all line up to order sandwiches. Time is a wastin', but randonneurs must eat!
Sal left while I was still eating; he made the contrôle before the close and is determined to complete the Brevet. By 7PM, with half of a foot-long vegi sandwich consumed, and half in my saddlebag for later (I'm sure that it will come in handy later) I'm way past ready to leave. Jim and I agree that it makes sense to ride as a group, both to fight the headwind, and because of the traffic on Route 14. Matt needs to be dragged out of the Subway. Narayan, saying that he is slow (who isn't slow after 340 punishing miles?), goes on ahead. Jim, Matt and I leave together, but within 2 minutes Jim is nothing more than a red tail light in the distance. I stick with Matt until route 97 starts to drop precipitously into the gorge, and then each of us is alone with the wind, the hill, the darkness and the road. At forty miles per hour I want the traffic lane, not the shoulder, and fortunately, traffic is light enough that I can take it, pulling onto the shoulder only when a vehicle comes up behind me.
I follow the signs for Rt 14 West, and Vancouver; I expect to come to a stop sign where the road meets Rt 14, but there is none, and after a while, I realize from the constant headwind and the roaring of 18-wheelers in my left ear that I'm on Rt 14. I see flashing red lights ahead, and figure that these must be Matt and Narayan, but when I reach them, I find that they are "road works" signs. At some point Matt comes up from behind me; this is a surprise, because I thought that he was long gone. He explains that he and Narayan had turned left off of Rt 97, following the cue sheet, and only later realized that this was wrong. This was an odd mistake to make, because we had all commented on the "L" onto WA Rt 14 in Goldendale, and agreed that it was a misprint, unless there were some sort of overpass at the intersection. Maybe we are not thinking clearly. I stay with Matt until the first hill, and then he drops me. Maybe I am tired?
I have 17 miles of WA Rt 14 to cover. The Dalles bridge, lit up like a christmas tree, is visible for about 10 miles before one reaches it. Each downhill brings a surge of speed; the steeper uphills bring some relief from the wind. There is no relief from the trucks, and there is precious little shoulder. My diNotte rear light is set on "stun", but for once it seems to have no effect. On my right hand is a gully filled with rocks from the cliff face looming above; on my left the traffic lane. Sometimes the minimal shoulder vanished entirely for a space, and I have to time a quick dash between convoys of trucks. I suspect that the original route did indeed turn left from Rt 97 and head down to cross the Biggs bridge, currently closed for repairs. No one would have routed cyclists along this road on a Sunday night if there had been any alternative.
At long last I see the signs for Columbia Hills State Park, and I know that I'm almost at the bridge. Finally there is a sign for Rt 197, pointing off into the blackness. Is there really a road there? I had expected to see the bridge; I had forgotten that at this point Rt 14 is almost two miles away from the river. Fortunately, that two miles is all downhill. Not only that: the wind is now a mere crosswind. The cue sheets says that there is about 7.5 miles to go to the final contrôle; even the parts headed West through town should be sheltered from the wind. I have about 20 minutes left before the contrôle closes. As I'm flying down the hill into the darkness that must hold Oregon, my 'phone rings. It shall wait!
The bridge comes and goes; I'm on Rt 30 trying to find my way though town. The cue sheet doesn't help much, but fortunately I've been here before. There's the Safeway! There's the motel! A flashing red light is at the window; a group of tired and dazed riders and almost equally tired and dazed volunteers greets me. I've finished.
Mmm, that sandwich was good!
Cecil has been here for 40 minutes. She wants the car key so that she can get a change of clothes. I ask why she didn't get a key from Sal, assuming that he has beaten me in by at least half an hour. Cecil says that Sal is still on the course. We learn later that he took the left turn described on the cue sheet, and headed 12 miles in the wrong direction before turning around to battling the headwind for almost 30 miles back to the Dalles. I speak to him on the 'phone and offer to drive out to pick him up. Sal declines my offer, and eventually finishes at about 00:15, with a total of more than 400 miles on his odometer: an impressive achievement. Narayan finished on a rear wheel that was becoming less and less true with each revolution, shedding lumps of metal as the spoke heads pulled-through the rim. Even the fast guys took more than 35.5 hours for this brevet; the 20 men (and one woman) who attempted the ride all deserve a round of applause. Bill Alsup said that thus was the hardest thing that he had ever done, and I think that I agree with that assesement. It was epic.
... And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That rode with us into the desert winds.
Well, maybe not quite like Agincourt, but you get the idea.
The volunteers were exceptional. Putting on a 600 km ride is a lot of work, and there are a myriad of details that have to be worked out. We can't really blame them for the wind (although we can try!), but we can thank Paul and his crew for the food, the attention, and the moral support.
Bill Alsup's Blog