An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Friday, July 27, 2012


View from the start line.
RAMROD. One of the toughest one-day rides in Washington.

I'll start by saying this isn't the first time I've done this ride. In fact, it's the third time I've done it, but I also knew going in that I wasn't going approach my best for the ride of 8:15, some 15 years ago when I was bike racing basically full-time.

My wife and I had volunteered last year to secure spots for this year's ride, bypassing the lottery entry process. She was volunteering again this year, at the start and finish, so will have another bypass to use next year.

Getting Eric ready to ride.
And my wife had two jerseys made for Eric and I to advertise Lucky Cause Sports, as well as give a little humor and personality to our kit. Eric's had "Put it in the Big Ring" on the back, and mine had "Velominati's Rule #5" (which basically means HTFU, or Harden The F^#$ Up, for those not in the know). Nice. The full zip would be a very handy feature later in the day...

The day started well before the day... Meaning well before daylight. Three AM wake-up call, get dressed, bowl of cereal, load up the car and off to the races. My wife needed to be there at 4:30 for her volunteer duties, which left me with some time to check in and get ready before my start.

This isn't a race. The signs around the course called it a rally... Not sure what that's supposed to mean. But it seems that they don't even keep times for the event any more, I guess in an effort to make sure people obey traffic laws. When I did this event before, they had a time clock at the start and finish that you clocked in and out with, so you had an official time... Not this year. Anyway...

Clicking in for 150 miles of fun.
I was ready to go by 5:20, and was waiting for Eric. We'd agreed on a 5:30 start, but he had issues with a valve core on topping off his tires, so we didn't actually get going until 5:55.

Within a very short distance, I saw a good paceline forming ahead of us. I told Eric we should catch on, and I bumped the speed up to 26 to get the back wheel. Good move, as that paceline absorbed another, and kept a good speed all the way through Orville Road. On the hill just before the Kapowsin turn, the line split up into two again, and I didn't know that Eric hadn't made the front group.

Along Ohop Lake, we kept the pace going, and at the end of my last pull I picked up a helmet number off the road into my front wheel. "Flat!" every one was calling. But it WASN'T a flat -- the sticker had just caught in my front brake. I stopped to take it out, and the group held up the speed until I caught back on. We did the last two miles into Eatonville, then stopped for a little rest. At that point, the average speed was over 21 mph... Awesome!

Eric pulled into Eatonville a couple minutes behind me, and we left together a little while later after pit-stops.

Coming out of Eatonville, instead of taking the direct route to Highway 7 that leads to the more interesting sections of that highway (especially on a motorcycle -- nice "twisties"), we took the more eastern cutoff, bypassing Packwood. Construction was cited as the reason, but I think this also cut off a few miles.

On the first little hill, the paceline we had joined became very disjointed every time we came upon a slower rider. I kept my pace, which left the line behind, and went solo for several miles, catching onto another paceline just before Alder Lake. The pace was a nice, sedate 19 for that section, but when another pace line came by I jumped on a rode with them all the way to the Wildwood rest stop. Pulling in, I was still over 20 mph on the rolling average speed.

At this point I decided to ditch the arm warmers, gloves, and the clear safety glasses I'd been wearing, and go with the dark lenses. The sun was up to the point where they'd be a benefit.

Eric pulled in little while later, we both noshed and emptied, and he told me to go on ahead. I knew that once the climbs started, we'd be at different speeds, so I got back on the road and let him finish his fill-up.

This is where the ride really begins -- the entrance into Mount Rainier National Park, and the first climb of the day up to Paradise.

I was passing people constantly from that point on to the top at Inspiration Point, and I didn't even get out of the big chainring until passing Longmire, where the road pitches upward at a more... insistent... grade. I saw people already in their lowest gears on this climb, and I don't know whether they were just conserving energy, or if they were truly already geared out. If they were already challenged enough to need that gear on THIS climb, then they were in for a long, painful journey in another 30 miles...

The area is beautiful, with open valleys all the way up to the top of the mountain, and moon-scape vistas above the vegetation line. But often the areas where the view is best is also where you can afford to take your eyes off the road the least. Passing cars made the challenge even greater.

The rest stop at Inspiration Point was sparse, with only water and Gatorade (purple flavor), the main food stop farther on after the next climb up Backbone Ridge. It was also just past this summit where the road became more treacherous, with several sections of gravel. I spent too much time here before moving on, and when I came to the gravel I slowed WAY down. The only one that proved to be of any real danger was the long section that encompassed the entire hairpin turn past Reflection Lake. People go off the road almost every year here when the road is paved, unable to scrub enough speed before needing to lean hard into the turn. Gravel? Fuggetaboudit. Though I never heard of any one going down there, I did see a few people with dusty shorts and shirts later. Two tunnels (which always make me feel disoriented on a bike), grates to bunny-hop... It was pretty exciting.

But I also found another issue rearing up -- I wasn't liking riding in the drops. Just the reach and my back getting a little tight (partly due to too much time at the top) was causing discomfort. So I ended up mostly riding the shifter/brake levers and trying to keep my weight off my hands on the rough sections. I had two riders pass me on the descent, one going by like I was standing still.

Then came the "short" climb up Backbone ridge. Three miles, approximately, being short. I remember the first time I did RAMROD, back in, I think, 1990, and getting to the rest stop at Upper Box Canyon, and asking people about how bad Backbone Ridge is, and they'd told me I'd just climbed it. It didn't even register to me that it was a climb. But not this time. I felt it. And the day was beginning to warm up significantly.

Bacon Salt = Ambrosia.
As I rolled into the rest stop, I was ready for some grub. The best part of this rest stop was the steamed red potatoes, with salt bar. BACON SALT! If Mountain Dew is the Nectar of the Gods, then Bacon Salt is ambrosia. There were several of us camped out at that end of the feed table, all trying to look non-chalant about stuffing our faces with sprinkled tubers...

I left that rest stop after being well-fed, topping off the bottles with Purple Flavor Gatorade and water. With the warnings of more gravel sections, and some one-lane roads with stop-lights, I forged on to the descent out of the park. On a couple of the gravel sections, the oncoming lane was intact, so with no cars in sight, I moved over to avoid the danger (and keeping my speed up). Somewhere between the two one-lane sections I lost my rear blinking red light on a gravel patch, the vibrations finally taking their toll on the poor little thing. Oh well... On the last one-lane section, I could see a Parks Department SUV larked at the other end, just waiting to ticket any cyclists that didn't wait for a green light. But once past this, the part exit was within sight, which means just one thing.

Cayuse Pass is next.

For me, this is THE crux of the ride. Not the distance (though it definitely takes its toll), and not the climb up Paradise or Backbone Ridge (though they take their toll as well). THIS is THE climb of the ride. Eight miles, eight percent grade, constant, and fully exposed to the sun for more than half it's length. Distance-wise this climb start at almost 100 miles, but mentally and physically, it's not quite half-way. This is definitely a Hors' Categorie climb.

Turning left out of the park (and mysteriously there were no road markings indicating this is the proper direction), the climb starts almost immediately.

I wish I'd looked at my odometer at this point. I had no gage on the distance left to the summit at any point, and I was alternating standing and sitting, though not really forcing the pace at any point -- the change was just to give each set of muscles a break, a little recovery. I'm one of those freakish riders that can recover standing up. But there's a very demoralizing factor to this ascent -- if one doesn't know it well (which I don't), one's mind starts to think that the top is "just around the next bend". And when that proves to be untrue, it is a let down.

At the Deer Creek rest stop, I kidded the workers there saying "just 10 miles to the top, right?" They said I'd be pleasantly surprised. But when I passed a Ham-radio station, I asked them how far to the top, and they told me one mile. I immediately switched to the odometer, and when I hit the next mile, only to see the sign indicating another half mile, I was cursing them as liars and worse... Such is the mental toll of Cayuse Pass. I had completely forgotten about the tunnel going up this grade. Pulling the glasses down to be able to see inside the tunnel proved to be vertigo-inducing. Something about not seeing down makes me dizzy and always has... I took the glasses off and was fine for the rest of the ride through.

At the top (finally!), I stopped to refill the bottles, and again spent too much time standing still. I think the better choice would have been to ride through, as the next stop was only a few miles down the road at the Crystal Mountain turn-off, and all downhill (though it was into a headwind). Again I was passed by a couple riders, but I never went faster than 40 mph. Riding the drops proved uncomfortable again, but I forced it, knowing this was possibly my last chance at free speed.

The final rest stop was at the Crystal Mountain turn-off, site of what will be the start of the Crystal Mountain Hillclimb Time Trial in another two weeks. And just when we thought we were finished with the gravel, we rode into the large parking lot that was ALL gravel, just to get to the food. Yeah, I could have gotten off and walked, but what fun is that?

Again, too much time eating, sitting, talking... My jaw was actually getting tired from chewing food. I should have seen this as a bad sign of things to come, but I tried to down as much water as possible. Cookies, chips, a breadless sandwich (no high-fiber breads for me, and that's all they had), and some conversation, and I got going again.

As I walked my bike out (not wanting to risk tires at this point), I talked with a guy who wanted to form up a paceline. Sure... We picked up another one soon after, and within a few miles we were up to six riders, and the pace was high. After a few pulls, I could feel my right leg cramping -- I think it's called the gracilis, one of the deep quad muscles that goes under the vastus medialis and up the inside of the thigh. When I finished the pull, I couldn't get back on the tail end, so I let the line go about a mile before Greenwater.

I rode solo again for several miles, taking a short bladder break about a mile out of Federation Forest. With about 12 miles to go, caught onto another passing paceline (barely), and just hung out at the back as long as I could. At the turn off to Mud Mountain Road, I lost them, but they didn't gap me horribly. Still within striking distance at the top of the last descent, I stopped to stretch a bit. There was another rider there, so we talked a little, then I started off again.

This is a fun descent -- enough turns to keep it interesting, and you have to keep your head up because there are several potholes (well-marked, though). But at the bottom, there one more final uphill. Not a climb, just a little positive grade that's cruel -- just thinking you're done with the hills. Add the headwind, and I felt like I wasn't making any headway.

But one last paceline caught me, and I hooked onto the tail of it, staying with it to the end, and crossing the line at 4:18. Ten hours and 23 minutes from the time I started the journey, and 8:24:26 on the bike, for a rolling average of 17.60 mph.

I was surprised, though, to only see 148 miles on the odometer. The ride was advertised as 152 miles. I was very careful to make sure I was reading the entire ride distance, and making sure to start and stop the computer clock at all the rest stops. So I guess the re-routes did cut off some distance.

My wife was there to take my finish tag, and she helped me not fall over as I got off the bike one last time. It was very nice to have her there.

A shower, a Coke, and some ice cream and I was feeling almost human (though a shuffling, old-feeling human). Eric came in about 15 minutes behind me, and I think he made a good chunk of time up on that descent from Cayuse (he said he drafted a Nissan Xterra at north of 50 mph).

Dinner at Applebees... I was ready to drop off to sleep by 7...

Summary: The climbs were, in the end, not the most difficult part of the ride. Certainly the Cayuse Pass climb was the most physically taxing, and possibly the age-old trap of constantly thinking "the top has GOT to be around the next bend" set me up for the mental difficulties in the final miles.

 But by far the most difficult part of the ride was the last 25-30 miles, where I was battling the headwinds alone because I couldn't pull through on a paceline without cramping. I did find myself slouching on the saddle, too much spinal curve and using more lat tension up front than I should. Straightening out my back helped, but I'd find myself creeping back. My right shoulder was having issues with the position by the end.

I rode a compact 50/34 chainring set-up with 172.5 crankarms, and am 11-25 cassette with a long cage rear derailleur. But I never did use my lowest gear.

There were some entertaining points along the way, like seeing the six oldest riders of the day (rider numbers were in reverse age order), and the guy wearing the Buttcrack Riding jersey.

I'm glad it's over, and I know my wife is glad that the weekly long training rides are done. She asked me if I wanted to do the ride again. I said I don't think so. She'll have another bypass spot for next year's ride, but she said she isn't going to give it to me...

But the pain hasn't quite worn off yet, so by next week I'll probably be planning how to do it faster.


derscott said...

Great writeup, David! Really brought the "rally" to life. And holy crap! Bacon Salt!!? I need to find that in the store. Congrats on surviving such a cool ride.

Crazy Lady said...

Nice report! Mine's up on bt.

Crazy Lady said...

Great report, congrats on the ride! My rr is on bt.

Lisa KCT said...

I actually had Bacon Salt at home - got it at Fred Meyer I believe. We have started to use it quite often :-)

I love you dearest old man - and am super proud of you! :-D