I'd been watching the weather forecast all week, hoping that the ever-increasing chance of rain on ride day would somehow diminish as the day approached. It vacillated a couple times, but then settled in at about 60% -- a sure thing in these parts.
Sure enough, Sunday morning arrived to the sound of drips off my roof. It was going to be a wet one.
The first edition of this ride, two years ago, was in similarly rainy conditions. I'd put that ride on the first weekend in May, after realizing that February wasn't the best idea -- a pre-drive had me barely able to turn my car around a good mile and near 700 ft in elevation short of the summit due to snow. I thought that going later into May would increase the chances of better weather after that very wet ride. And so the mid-May date for last year and this.
The odds have NOT been in our favor.
But cyclists can be hardy souls. Maybe foolhardy is a better term. Or prone to self-abuse.
I arrived at the start a little later than I would have liked, but with just enough time to make a couple pre-ride announcements and get everyone signed on the waiver and with a cue sheets in hand. We rolled out just a few minutes after the designated 9:00am start.
We were nine-strong going north on the Mountain Highway along Alder Lake, including five returnees from last year. This was the warm-up where road spray got us to the point of "it just doesn't matter any more" (you can only get so wet, you know). A short climb on the south side of Pack Forest on Hwy 7 led to the drop-in through La Grande and to the forest entrance. We picked up a road rider along the highway who stayed with the lead group through to the last climb. I stayed back to make sure everyone made the turn into Pack Forest, then proceeded in at my pace.
Pack Forest is owned by the University of Washington, and is used by a few of the departments for classes, including some that require residence for a quarter at a time. Marking the course has always been a struggle, as I couldn't use any kind of directions that couldn't be packed out. Not even temporary marking paint or chalk was allowed. So in the past I'd used paper plates stapled to stakes with painted-on arrows. Having to go in the day before to place them, then hope that the resident students left them alone long enough for the ride to go through, then going in to ride those hills again after the event to take the signs out (the result of which has been signs that had been moved, kicked over, or thrown into the woods), as well as questions about use permits and insurance, led me to just forgo marking the course this year. We really are just a group of cyclists touring around Pack Forest, and this isn't a paid event. In any case, the road up to Kirkland Pass was uneventful, and again I stayed back to make sure everyone got the correct turn there. But some newly laid gravel led me to embarrassingly take two wrong turns on the way to the actual summit.
Fortunately my Garmin was quick to point out my error, and I and a ride-mate were back on track with minimal added mileage. After hitting the top, the road tilts quickly downward, with varying degrees of mud and rock. This is where the flat tires started last year. Once back on the main track, though, the road smooths considerably, and speeds can safely increase.
I'd given the option to take the new Bud Blancher Trail into Eatonville rather than exiting Pack Forest at the northwest corner and taking the 3-mile stretch of no-shoulder road into town. I opted for the road, while the lead five took the trail.
Into Eatonville, I arrived at the Mill Valley Shell for snacks, and a water cooler that I'd placed there on my drive to the start. After some waiting, I realized that the lead folks must have continued on with the rest of the course and not made the food stop. The riders behind me came in, and soon I was starting to get chilled and needed to get riding again to warm up. One other rider was in the same situation, and so we stayed together getting the shivers calmed, having a nice conversation along the Alder Cutoff Road and Scott Turner Road before we hit the gravel again and we parted.
This enters into a 16 mile stretch of gravel road that includes some ridiculously steep sections both up and down. With a 34/32 low gear, it's barely enough on the worst section, and just like the last two years, the uphills leading to that leg-and-lung test deceived me into thinking I was already on it before I had actually arrived. But one can only go so slow before the snail-like cadence forces a get-off, and I was determined to make it without dabbing (which pretty well means walking, as getting re-started on this pitch is near impossible). I passed the two riders who had opted for mountain bikes (and were fairly comfortably spinning along) on this steepest uphill, and continued on in my lowest gear. It was long after that grind before I could drop out of that easiest gear -- my legs just said no.
But that isn't the top. Though the continued climb is mercifully less vertical, there's still a good mile to go before the highest point of the ride at 2900 ft, but once over that point there is a long downhill that changes the ride from a test of legs to a test of brakes and nerve. And some luck with the washboard.
A few hairpins down the steeper parts, past a roadside shooting gallery, and the road flattens out for a comfortable cruise on smoother surfaces for a few miles. This leads into one last slightly uphill section before the turn-off at the ORV area, and a fast downhill towards the exit off gravel and the final drop-in to Ashford. By that time we're ready for smooth pavement, and the final seven mile stretch along the Mountain Highway back to Elbe. My legs felt like concrete at this point, but I maintained the speed all the way to the end. That last half mile to the car was all about thinking of dry socks and the burgers at the Elbe Bar and Grill.
The trash talking started in earnest then, fueled by burgers a brews. Have I mentioned that the burgers are the Elbe Bar and Grill are legendary? Not your everyday one-napkin affair. No, these are full-on two- or three-wipers, with awesome fries on the side. Don't think about it, just do it.
Michael Pruitt of Machete Squad was quick to point out that his team had now taken the top two spots both last year and this year, even though it's not a race. His put was that I had no control what happened once we started out, and if people wanted to "race", then it was a race! All in good fun.
With only one flat this year, I wondered what it is about bad weather that produces fewer flat tires.
But apparently I need to provide some form of a podium for next year.
And maybe we'll have some sunshine.