Monday, November 5, 2007

Hooray, a new Permanent!

The Inaugural Mountain Loop Permanent ride, November 03, 2007

I have always hated chip-seal: Monte-Elma road, South Sauk Highway, that road from Potlatch to Belfair, and Rockport-Cascade Road, are just some of the names that evoke nightmares. It has its list of annoyances, but after yesterday's 200k ride, I shall never ever complain of chip-seal, for I now know what one step lower than chip-seal is. Geoff Swarts and I experienced it first-hand this past weekend.

Geoff, upon hearing that the Mountain Loop Highway had just opened, quickly came up with a route sheet and all the necessary paperwork for it to become a RUSA permanent. Of course, we needed to ride the route to make sure that everything was a-ok. I really enjoy riding on "new" scenic roads: ones I've never been on. This seemed a great way to indulge that passion.

Geoff picked me up at my house around 6.30 in the morning, and gave me my route sheet, brevet card and waiver, to keep things all nice and official. I was wearing a synthetic base-layer, a half-sleeved SIR wool jersey on top, and my Showers Pass Jacket, along with Ibex Wool leg warmers and Sugoi (means "great" in Japanese) shorts. We were a bit overdressed. Temperatures hovered in the low 40s, but it seemed like a third-layer was unneeded. I tried to thwart the rain gods by carrying a helmet-cover, rain pants and ear muffs. If they held true to form, we would have no rain on the ride.

Somewhere early on this ride, Geoff recounted the Peter McKay incident, and I was shocked. Peter is a terrific guy, and I rode with him last year on the Dan Turner 300 (he was gracious enough to shepherd me and Cindy Holmstrom along), and was full of good conversation and smiles. A terrible thing to happen to him, but then again, Peter is sure to bounce back from this incident quicker than anybody I know.

Snohomish to Granite Falls

We got to the starting control at the 7-11 in Snohomish, quickly got our receipts from the friendly sales clerks and took off, a tad late. The first few stretches of road are "rolling", and hit you when you aren't really warmed up. There is a fun descent on 131st Avenue, which I particularly enjoyed, but would hate to go up on. Fear not, there is no paucity of reasonably steep but not terribly long, little hills on this one.

Geoff would be my nominee for SIR rookie of the year. He rode our Spring 200, 300 and 400, and then rode from Los Angeles to Boston, in 32 days. He also rode the toughest 1000k of the year, albeit in conditions far friendlier than on brevet day. He was coming up on 10,000 miles for the year, and compared to my 6000 miles, he was head and shoulders above me, literally and figuratively. The more I talked to him, the more I was impressed by his riding abilities. I was the laggard as Geoff motored up the hills. This was a recurring theme throughout the ride, and Geoff was most patient with me. If he were a rim, I was the brake pad constantly slowing him down. We rode two-abreast as far as we could, except our climbing abilities quickly split us up when the rode tilted uphill. But I bet you knew that already.

The route from Snohomish to Granite Falls is extremely pleasurable cycling. Rural roads, with very little and very considerate, traffic, the latter coming as a pleasant surprise from my ride the previous week, where I had gotten honked at twice in this same county. The county was having a case of Multiple-personality disorder, but I was not going to complain. I don't remember if the roads were chip-sealed, probably not, as the hills were the only thing that gave me any trouble. There were two turns onto Robe Menzel Road, one unmarked, and the other a little further down the road that was marked. The whole area formed a big triangle, so if you are looking for this turn, look for this big triangle. However, if you are tracking the turns using the mileage as I was, you should not miss this turn. We didn't, but you could miss this turn, if you aren't.

We stopped a couple of times to make notes, and ponder over some of the roads, and got to Granite falls, with about 20 minutes to spare. We used the Shell station by making a left on E Stanley Street (instead of turning right as the route sheet advises), but services are available by following the route sheet as well. We made short work of the control stop, doing the usual things. I bought a Snickers bar, some water and Gatorade, and the clerks at this Shell were efficient, nice, and interested in where we were headed, and even offered information about the roads.

Granite Falls to Darrington

After a very short flat stretch, we were on Mountain Loop Highway, which was to be our
companion for the next 50 miles or so. It starts out true to its name, and then becomes a long and gentle climb. The closest I could description I could give of this road, is Skate Creek Road, with tons more scenery. The road parallels the Stillaguamish (Stilly) river for much of the ride, offering great views of the surrounding mountains. A fine mist covered the air and the water drops got progressively heavier but never to the point of actually being rain, as we climbed higher. Fantastic scenery, with a gentle climb and hardly any traffic at all, resulted in peaceful, comfortable and fairly quick cycling. The Pass itself was only 2361 feet, hardly a monster, but a Pass nonetheless, and with fresh legs, we were able to maintain upwards of 20kmph, with rare stretches where we dipped below.

Geoff and I had never ridden together, but he let me set the pace for much of the ride. We passed Verlot. Not much in the way of services here, and our initial thought was that Verlot would be nothing more than a bunch of mailboxes and some houses, but we were pleasantly surprised to see a restaurant. We didn't stop in, but it seemed like a fine place to refresh oneself with drink and sustenance. Of course, you could also choose to load up in Granite Falls, as we did. The next services are to be found in Darrington, so you would be smart to stop and load up somewhere before leaving Verlot. Darrington would be called Barrington, if it were not for the bad handwriting of the Postmaster at that time, Geoff informed me.

I was quite apprehensive of climbing Barlow pass, but I should have been more apprehensive of my math! I repeatedly forecast the summit of the pass, only to be wrong. My miles to km conversion skills have eroded. A lot of campgrounds dotted the route, with tons of little shacks for restrooms, so one was not tempted to water the bushes. I think this would be a fascinating place to camp, however, a guy we met in Arlington, seemed to think that there were so many bears, that he would not camp there without a gun. Forewarned is forearmed, literally.

It got progressively colder, and we faced some very light rain. My toes froze, and the tips of my fingers started to freeze, but that was to be expected. Geoff wore half-finger gloves, and was never cold. We were riding in a bowl of mountains, along a river, and the snow on the mountains seemed closer and closer, until we finally got to the summit. We took pictures at the "summit", adored the scenery for a few minutes. The ghost town of Monte Cristo is just off this road, and I hunted for a "Kent Peterson was here" sign somewhere. :)

We had been trying to guess, at what point the unpaved section would start, but the sign at the pass cleared it up. "Pavement ends" it said, and sure enough, we encountered gravel and loose dirt and stones. Geoff commented that he was making a list of the signs that gave bicyclists the creeps, and said that "Pavement ends" was one of them, along with "Truck Route", and "Slower Traffic Keep Right". Well, how hard could it be? We were about to find out.

I think I ought to come clean about my choice of equipment for this ride, especially the tyres. I rode 28s in the back (Conti GP 4 Season), but the front had disaster writ large over it. 700x23, Schwalbe Stelvios. It started off pretty badly, with some slippery mud, that I was very careful on, but as the road started to tilt increasingly downhill, we encountered mud, gravel, rocks, potholes and and compacted dirt, which had gotten further mashed by all the cars driving through.

I started off extremely cautiously, and I think that saved me, as I felt my rear tyre slide out only once. Pace was slow, and I abandoned any thoughts of making significant time up on the descent. We didn't know how far these treacherous conditions would last, and as long as they lasted, our speeds would not exceed 15 kph, which was slower than our average climbing the pass. That was going to be a first.

We were hoping that the gravel would last about 5 miles before pavement would begin again, but all I got after 5 miles was more loose rock, gravel and mud, with running water as an added bonus. If all this weren't enough, there were cars in either directions, and this made some of the turns pretty slippery, not to mention complicated, because we could not take the best routes through the mud. Most cars were extremely kind, but you still had some "unsmart" people, who passed us close, or tried to maintain their path through the middle of the road, thus relegating us to the perilous corners.

My hands started to hurt through the constant braking, and mud splattered liberally all over my clothing and the bike [It sits as yet unwashed in our garage]. If it had rained any heavily in the last few days, we would have been toast, but for the most part, we were okay. There were also some uphill, which actually provided a kind of welcome relief from the triceps hurting, brakepad destroying, rim killing, braking that I was doing constantly, to keep my speeds down to safe levels. Of course, the only thing we could pay real attention to was the road and the traffic, so we weren't able to see much of the scenery. This was a real shame. I hope they pave this road soon.

We finally reached an area of not terrible mud, but our ordeal was far from over. I spent all of this time worrying about getting a flat. I really didn't want to get down in this muck to fix a flat, and I guess I had some good karma saved up, and completely lucked out. After about 10 miles we had descended enough that there was not much water left on the road itself, and so, the hard-packed mud was actually dry in places. I let it rip down much of these slopes, and rare was the time that Geoff and I rode within 20 feet of each other. The only thing I could think of was this: "If you are going through hell, keep going". I am sure that I would have enjoyed this stretch even more had I had 28s in the front. Geoff, not one to complain that easily, pulled up next to me and said, "I am about ready for this gravel to be over". "Mud Mountain Loop Highway" was how he named the road.

I was cursing my existence, while trying to maintain enough focus and not take a spill. All "bad" things have to come to an end, and we eventually came upon pavement, and both hollered loud enough for people still atop the pass to hear us. 14 miles of mud, muck, water and gravel. Hell was over, and we were back to civilization, back on the much-maligned chip seal. I almost mimicked the Pope [in bending down and kissing the pavement], but decided that it would be a display not befitting a randonneur [or -euse], because after all, we are masters of the stiff upper lip.

We stopped to make notes and to savour the fact that we had gotten out of this mess unscathed, but our bikes could not say the same thing. Mud and muck covered much of our bikes. We picked up speed. The turn onto Clear Creek Road was nice, as it brings you right along the river, only to put you back on the highway again. You can stay on the main highway if you'd like - it is a touch longer that way - but it is not as though this road (Clear Creek) routes you away from some particularly irritating stretch of road. We arrived in Darrington, and the "new road" aspect of the ride was temporarily suspended. I forgot when we got there, but it was with about 50 minutes to spare.

Darrington to Arlington

We ate some food, bought Gatorade and water, and set off after 10 minutes, and started hammering to Arlington. I have always suspected this stretch to be either downhill, or having a tailwind, and it was not even a bother when the rain started. As you may know, it always rains in Darrington. Geoff pulled me for much of the way, maintaining an excess of 25 kph on the flats and the downhills, and then waiting for me on the uphills, as we blasted our way to Arlington, getting there at 4.11p. We had covered the 30 miles to Arlington, in under 2 hours.

Arlington to Finish [Snohomish]

We stopped at the Chevron Station (a control on last years 1000k) and got more food, and took for the finish. We used Burn road, where predictably I slowed to a crawl, but it brought back memories of last year's 1000k. That helped me notice the fact that Burn road turns, so we amended the cue sheet to add a turn to stay on Burn. From here on out, the route is essentially flat to the finish. We switched to the Centennial Trail - much quieter, and no traffic - as Machias Road has no shoulders, and has some hills that I'd rather not have at the end of a ride (the anti Mark Thomas, if you will), and we pleasantly rolled in to finish in 11 hours and 3 minutes (or something like that).

I had tried to chicken out of this ride, quoting things I don't even remember now, but changed my mind, thinking of a chance to get some mileage in, and also visit new roads. I was not disappointed, as the rivers, creeks, mountains and waterfalls on this ride, are simply fantastic. An important lesson I learned was to always use the right equipment for the conditions, something that slipped me on Saturday's ride. The route sheet was spot on, and it was a great day to be on our bicycles.

1 comment:

lynnef said...

another sign for your collection:
"Motorcycles use extreme caution"