An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Getting high -- Cascade Bicycle Club's High Pass Challenge

I guess I have some need for penance, some need to self-flagellate. It's the only explanation I have for doing events like this.

With that, I bring you the Cascade Bicycle Club's High Pass Challenge, a 104 mile out-and-back ride from Packwood, WA, to the Windy Ridge overlook on Mt St Helens, and back. The real story, though, is the 7500-some feet of ascent along the way.

I'd had this event on my list of possibilities last year, but opted to pass. My mileage had suffered greatly with the efforts to sell our house, and it fell right in the time we were looking at moving into a temporary location. 

I signed up about a month ago, did some final prep rides with a lot of climbing, and relied somewhat on the base that got me through the Ellensburg Gran Fondo in June. Then I kept an eye on the weather forecast... And watched the approaching lower temperatures and rain.

The ride is scheduled on a Monday to avoid traffic in what is a fairly popular tourist destination. The weather further helped, as longer range views, and the mountain itself, were obscured by clouds.

Ride morning dawned (okay, I was up well before dawn) to a wet car and sporadic misty showers. I made the drive to Packwood in good time, arriving just before the registration tables opened. An hour previous to the ride start provided the time to get gear together, make the last pit stops, and line up with 200 of my new best friends.

We rolled out at 7am, and within a quarter mile of the already wet highway, it began to rain. I had opted to don my vest over wool base layer and jersey, and I'm glad I did. The rain continued over the first eight miles or so, adding to the nervous energy expenditure of staying with the lead pack. At one point a log-loaded semi turned onto the highway next to us (in the oncoming lane) and proceeded to move over into the peloton. This caused a bit of mayhem as riders dove for the shoulder, hitting the brakes with varying effectiveness. No one kissed pavement, though, so we pushed on. This did, however, cause a bit of a split in the group, and I was in the second. 

It wasn't long before it was well strung out, and by the time we hit the real climbs entering the park, we were at one's and two's. Everyone for themselves. I stopped at the first food station to refill a bottle and grab a cookie or two. It was at this point that I realized I hadn't started the recording on my Garmin, so if anyone looks at my online profile there it appears I cheated. Honestly, I did the whole thing! Anyway, I then forged on up the road.

And up.

And up.

Fifteen miles of climbing only briefly interrupted by flat sections or short downhills. Lots of back-and-forth passing of riders as the pitch varied, noting differing pedaling styles and gearing. I found myself in my lowest gear for long stretches, but I think I nailed my needs well -- I wasn't wishing for any lower gearing at any point.

The roads were still wet for much of the climb, but in the last few miles the dry patches increased, and the sun broke through the clouds. The last several miles are above the tree line, and the landscape become much more open. I passed one rider who made a comment about maybe hitting the "gold standard" at the top. I knew they timed the first half of the ride (up to the lookout), but had no idea what he was talking about. Turns out it's an award level (gold, silver, and bronze) based on the time one hits the summit, given a 7am start (if you start late, oh well).
I passed through the banners at the summit at 10:32 (and some seconds), just two minutes shy of the cutoff for that gold standard. So close. Most likely I could have eked out the two minutes somewhere, if I'd been aware of it.

I lingered at the top for a while, wringing out my socks, refilling my water bottle, and getting some more food in me. Thankfully Windy Ridge didn't live up to its name on this day. The sunshine felt almost warm. But the mountain, or what's left of it after the 1980 eruption, was being shy, hiding behind a bank of clouds.

The return ride starts with a slight downhill, but then soon climbs a bit. Good to get the legs woken back up after the rest stop. But no one was in any mood to hurry back. Spinning the pedals lightly was the way to go. 

The long descent was over often sketchy pavement, missing completely in some places, replaced by packed gravel. Many depressions where erosion had hollowed out underneath (one particular hole looked to have an absolute abyss below the tarmac), checked areas where patching had broken away. I had to take my sunglasses off in order to see far enough into the distance to anticipate my path. But in all that, even with 23mm tires, I never felt in danger of flatting or losing traction. 

The last 20 miles back into Packwood were a search for a rider or two to tag along with. Mercifully there was no headwind, and the pace could be kept high. Like horses smelling the barn, we rolled fast into the finish. The "Welcome to Packwood" sign was indeed a welcome sight.

Back at the finish, I changed clothes, got some food (provided by Cascade Bicycle Club), and spoke with other riders about the ride.

Then it was back on the road for the trip home, tired, but satisfied with a hard day in the saddle.

In a bit of summary, here is what I view as the critical elements in making the ride a success for me:
* Gearing wise, I think I hit it perfectly with the 11-28 10-speed cassette and 46/34 chainrings. There were times when I would have liked one of the middle cogs, but in order to make that happen, I'd have to go to 11-speed. Or 12...
* Opting for the vest was a good choice. I think I would have been very chilled without it. It's a bit flappy, but the wind block was needed.
* I wore gloves for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, an old standard fingerless pair of Schwinn brand. I think going without would have been unwise.
* Once at the first rest stop, I was filling my second bottle with Nuun rather than water.
* Smartwool socks were... smart. The rain soaking kept my feet on the edge of going numb.
* Smartwool base layer just worked.
* The Kinekt seatpost kept things comfortable even on the worst of the sketchy pavement, and the miles of chip seal on the return trip down Hwy 12 back to Packwood.
* One of my customers had given me a jar of his home-brew all-natural chamois cream. I had used some a while back, but just got out of the habit after a while. I restarted using it a couple weeks ago, and the difference is amazing. 

I told my wife after I got home that, yeah, I could do this one again. And with that two-minutes-to-the-gold-standard thing bouncing around in my head, I was already thinking about what I could do to make it up the hill just a little faster.

I guess I have a goal for next time.

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