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In 2007, I started randonneuring. It was an odd way to begin a sport, sort of looking for a challenge, sort of on a dare, given I’d turned 50 that year and was wondering if I was all used up. It was a PBP (Paris-Brest-Paris) year and I decided to go to a PacTour Brevet week held in Wisconsin over Memorial Day week/end. I didn’t expect to complete the week and I suffered quite a bit, but I did in fact complete and went on to finish PBP that year. Fast forward to last week. I decided to attempt another brevet week, to once again see if I could do it. I’m in better shape than I was in 2007, and, do the math, seven years older. Clearly not any wiser.
I signed up and kept quiet about it, telling only a few people that this was my plan. It was a grand plan – ride a 600k-300k-400k – back to back to back – and then return home and ride the SFR fleche…as a recovery ride. Bought tickets, unpacked to check out and then re-packed the Ritchey Breakaway, my trusty ride. Flew into Seattle on Friday AM and spent the rest of the morning at the Seattle Art Museum visiting a fabulous Miro exhibit and being mesmerized by a fantastic mask exhibit.
Picked up a fellow rando-pal and we headed over the Cascades to Wenatchee in Eastern Washington where SIR’s Brevet week and NW Crank would be held. Got organized and once again unpacked and built the Ritchey – all systems go.
Met up with a posse of SIR rando folks, and a few riders down from British Columbia. It was an international crowd for dinner at a local Thai restaurant. The banter flowed and so did concerns about the weather – wind mostly. It would be in the low 30s in the AM, with temps reaching the low 60s. But the wind – it is the devil in Eastern WA, and everyone was fingers crossed that it did not materialize.
The 600k, Saturday-Sunday
Up at 4:00, the ride starts at 5:00. I am hoping to ride with a few SIR rando-pals whom I met on the Texas Stampede 1200k last May. It’s cold; I have wool on my body and on my head (a rarity for me), and am set to go. The ride will do a 400k loop and return to the Inn at the River, where you can sleep if you have time in the bank, and then head out for a shorter 200k loop on Sunday. No dropbags, but the lull of your bed could leave you snoozing away the time you had to get to the next control.
Eastern Washington is flattish. The ride elevation charts for the 600 weren’t huge – 16,000’ of climbing. Here in CA, many double century rides have at least that much climbing. There are big expanses of high mesa-like land, with ranches and land as far as the eye can see. There are also beautiful apple orchards, and water. Lots of water. The great Columbia River was prominent in the ride as well as the damns on it.
We head out quickly, lots of energy, and conversation. I am a bit nervous riding with people I don’t know all that well, and am a bit conservative. I am one of the few people who are also riding more than this brevet and my plan is to conserve on the 600k, so I don’t blow myself up for the other two rides. We head up the Orondo Grade, which puts us up on this high plateau. It is there we meet the wind.
It is blowing and growing in strength as the morning progresses. GP and I jump out of the control to meet up with Jan, Audun and Bill and feel like we’ve burned some matches just catching up to them. Wind doesn’t bother me too much, but many hate it. I’d trade rain for wind any day, time to lean in or forward depending on the direction.
The views are large and expansive. The Cascades are off to our left and my spirits are good. The snow-capped mountains are easy on the eye and the temps are good. I stick with Jan, Audun and Bill and somewhere out on that high prairie we lose GP. I know that Chris is not far behind and I hope they team up to combat the ever-increasing wind. The four of us turn left directly into the 30+ mph winds (we come to learn after the fact), and form a paceline, circulating through our group quickly (5 minute pulls?), and work to stay steady, and make forward progress all while dodging fast-moving tumbleweeds.
It feels like we are hardly moving, but we are crawling forward. You look down at your computer and it says you are going 6mph. We are pedaling madly into the wind on the downhill side of the rollers and are expending energy like no tomorrow. It is not good. For some reason, though, I’m not worried. It’s a lovely day, I am with people I enjoy in a new place exploring new roads on my bike.
We arrive at the Grand Coulee Damn and head into the Safeway for food and respite. GP and Chris show up just as we are about to leave. I decide to stay with them as three is better for fighting the wind then two, and the other trio is a bit stronger. They depart and I wait for the guys to refuel. We take off again into the wind and head up past the Grand Coulee damn and into the Colville Indian Reservation.
This stretch of land along the Columbia is stunning. The expanse of the river and the power of it amazes, and the road is empty, a plus. The wind is still with us kicking up dust devils, but the landscape equalizes the wind effect. We turn a corner and the wind greets us with a strong push backwards. We face a longish climb straight into it and push against it as we climb out of the river valley.
Somewhere along this stretch GP throws in the towel, he has decided to DNF. I don’t care either way, which he struggles to grasp, as I have more energy and am feeling pretty good. We have time in the bank, but if your head isn’t into it, then it doesn’t matter. The problem is, we are nowhere near our ending point. We decide to slog onto Wenatchee, but first, a fabulous dinner in Omak at the Breadline Café, which is hopping!
After a burger, a brew, and a cup of coffee, we continue the last 90 miles to Wenatchee. We aren’t moving fast, but we make our way. It is freezing cold and we keep moving, but I am getting sleepy and GP is beginning fade. At one point, he asks me if I mind if we hitchhike back to Wenatchee. We throw out our thumbs, but no one stops, there’s no one on the road. We stop and lay down on a mat outside the front door of the Orondo Elementary School for a 10 minute power nap. I am in the wind a bit and am shivering. No sleep there, but a quick rest helps.
We finish the last 30k and get off our bikes 23 hours after departure. We still have time in the bank and could get up in 2 hours and do a 200k, which is what a number of people do… some with a bit more sleep, and a number with less. I rationalize the DNF in my mind – I am here for the longer haul and so, I’ll get a day off before needing to complete a 300k, and I still got 400k in my legs. While I don’t like to DNF, and I don’t do it often, I am ok with it. We come to learn that over half of the field DNF’d the ride, which makes it a bit easier for me to live with.
The Ice Age Floods 300k, Monday
With a 6:00 start, I am thrilled for the extra hour of rest. I was trashed all day on Sunday and needed it to recover. Took a couple of naps during the day and didn’t get to sleep until about 9:30pm. A good-sized group is gathering at the front of the motel but I don’t know anyone. I expect to spend the day alone. This ride goes up through the Palisades, has a dirt section and goes by some very large lakes made by damming the waterways. I start out slow and find Rick Den Braber from British Columbia Randonneurs who is going about my pace and we spend the day together.
The morning is pretty and crisp, and we make our way up through the Palisades with its basalt rock formations. The dirt section is about 8 miles long and starts off with a steep stepped climb out of the Billingsley Ranch. Mr. Billingsley has a long row of old cars and trucks and tractors parked and lined up along the road. He waves hello as we pass and grunt up the climb.
The area reminds me of Grand Junction in Colorado. The mesa or coulee feels the same with similar scrub – sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Big expansive sky. We even pass a rock cave up off the road, which transports me to Utah, the Canyonlands, and the Anasazi. We come to a T intersection and up jumps Susan Otcenas, an SIR rando from Portland. She greets us with hugs and fresh water. We are a bit behind the first group, but neither Rick nor I want to try and catch them. After a climb, we descend into the valley with a number of lakes and our control.
There is a gourmet truck stand at the control and we partake in a fabulous handmade all beef brat that truly satisfies. Off again we make our way over to Banks Lake and take in the view. It is a huge expanse of water. I feel a slight bit of ownership sharing the same last name, but no true affiliation exists.
Rick and I push up and onto the plateau. We are retracing our steps from the 600k. And guess what’s up here? Yes, of course! The wind. It’s a slight cross-wind and we make use of it to get on down the road. But the roads go on forever. Just a ribbon, with nothing and I mean NOTHING to break up the view. Rollers for as far as the eye can see. And wind.
Rollers and wind, rollers and wind, rollers and wind.
Finally a turn, and the cue sheet says, 35 more miles…
of rollers and wind and rollers and wind and rollers and wind.
We reach a control at Farmer, which is an old community hall, and I get off my bike – I’m beat. I can’t take anymore of this topography. The vastness and emptiness have won. I give in to the rollers and wind.
Thankfully, our next control is not far off and we get to Waterville right at 8:00 PM. Time to get reflective and dress for the night. Rando’s before us have left a jug of water and sitting beside it is a large red apple, which I devour. I’m telling you, it is the best tasting apple I have ever enjoyed. While the grocery store we are sitting outside is closed, the ladies working the store open up for us to use the bathroom. Small kindnesses like this help so much and Rick and I gear up for the last bit to Wenatchee.
Down the Orondo grade and back to Wenatchee is all that’s left. I put everything I have on given how cold I was on Saturday night. We pedal hard down the grade because there is a strong up canyon wind. The moon is out and it adds light and a bit of warmth as we drop down to the river valley. At the T intersection I wait for Rick to arrive. He does just as some lights come up to us from the river valley.
“Who goes there?”
“It’s me, Banks and Rick from BC. Who are you?”
“It’s Mark, Vinnie and Rick.”
WOOHOO! It’s the SIR Band o’ Rando Brothers. They are on the home stretch of their 1000k that they began when I started the 600k a few days back. Rick and I jump on their wheels happy for the company and we swap stories of the recent ride adventures. The last 30k passes quickly especially with Vinnie and Mark pulling while joking around. We park our bikes just after 10PM.
Hugh is there to greet us, and he has beer! We hang and recount more stories from the road, then quickly take showers and reconvene for dinner at the casino right behind the motel. Mark, Vinnie, Rick and I share a huge meal and copious quantities of IPA. I fall into bed at 2:00 AM happy.
The Columbia River Run, 400k Wednesday
By now I am in the swing of things. I’d had another day off – caught up on email and done some work, cruised Wenatchee, ate ice cream and found the Brew Pub. Hot tubbed and most importantly, slept.
It is another 5:00 wake-up for a 6:00 start. Coffee is made, granola and yogurt is being inhaled, and electronics are being fixed to my bike for the third time. There are 9 of us at the start. Rick and a few of his BC friends have bailed. Nigel and Claire are there, and so is Holland and Dave, all four hardy BC Randonneurs. Holland and Dave I have nicknamed, “the Lovers”. They ride down the roads side by side, laughing and joking and talking as if on a date. A very long date. The wind doesn’t seem to bother them, Holland told me they were playing word games, during the stretch where I was seriously considering pulling my hair out from the monotony of the landscape.
We are off, Nigel and Claire on a fast moving tandem, I haven’t seen them yet on any of the rides (these two set course records together and on single bikes), and I am wondering again who I will ride with if anyone. Two SIR randos – Jason and Dave – are close, and I think I could form a trio with them, but I fall into a nice early morning conversation with Peter from Pennsylvania Randonneurs. Peter also rode the 300k and is a PacTour vet and crazy strong. He wants company, but says he will pull as long as I hang on and we are together during the night.
I tell him, I’ll give it a go – he wants to be in by 1:00, which is crazy talk for me. I’m not that fast, even when I’m fresh, that’s a tough time to get in by. But he says, no pressure, let’s just see how the day goes.
And it goes…fast. We have screaming tailwinds up the Columbia River valley, which means, headwinds back. We are cruising up valley at 20+mph, and I sit on Peter’s wheel like a pilot fish holding on.
Water, orchards, flowers by the side of the road, all pass by as we wind our way up valley to the town of Tonasket. Can’t find the control – how did a Shell station disappear? – but we make do at a local grocery where I sit down for a quick bite to eat.
Peter doesn’t seem to eat, or need to, but I am starving. I wolf down chocolate milk and a ham and swiss baquette type of thing and we are off again heading back down valley. Into the wind.
The return has us off the main road a bit more, up on side roads that sit higher above the main highway, which yields homes and farms, gardens and orchards, plus a few loose dogs, which are no match for Peter’s engine. Before I know it, we have returned to Omak, stopping at the Safeway where our jug of water, left for others, is right where we put it, untouched.
The sky is clouded over with a threat of rain that thankfully does not appear. As the sun lowers in the sky, rays poke through the cloud cover beaming on a distant field, or a ridge top and it is beautiful. Besides riding at night, my favorite time on a bike is during late afternoon, early evening. The light throws the land into a side-angled glow that always fills me up and I find myself anticipating the sunset.
Only when riding all day long do I really sync up with the rhythm of the world clock – the earth moving around the sun. And I love it. It makes me grateful for all that I am a part of, and that I am able to experience time in this way, by bicycle. I feel lucky to be this healthy and strong to ride through a day, and fortunate to have the time to do it.
From Omak, we return through Brewster, Pateros and then a long long push back to Orondo. We ride by the elementary school where I slept on a mat at 2:00 AM only a few days before, and now that the roads are becoming familiar to me, I know that we have about 30k left. It is night now and we have stopped more regularly, but only to take a leak, get a bite, put clothes on. I look at my watch and amazingly, the 1:00 AM arrival time is within reach.
Peter and I stop for one last time and gear up mentally and physically for the last push to Wenatchee. We haven’t seen other riders most of the day, although we hopscotched with “the Lovers” earlier in the afternoon. The last stretch includes a hill, which drops you closer to Wenatchee, and the lights of town draw you closer to the finish. We ride towards those lights and soon, we are back at our starting point.
We park our bikes at 1:05 and check into the Inn. Peter tells me I was a great conversationalist, which cracks me up, because I listened to music most of the day, but we were the right company for this ride and it was surprisingly sweet I think, for both of us.
I flew home the next day, late at night arriving in Sacramento around midnight.
and then a rally for friends arriving at Rivet WHQ for the SFR Fleche, a 360k 24 hour event where teams spend 24 hours riding point to point courses ending up at Crepes on Cole, a fabulous restaurant that we take over, in San Francisco on Easter Sunday morning.
Sacramento, Friday, PM
Team Fleche and Bones drops by for brews and a hello. Willy and Phil arrive too and the excitement for the upcoming event grows. Honestly, I am less excited, more tired! (really?), but I rally too because everyone’s enthusiasm is contagious. Both the Fleche Bones and The Slow Leaners (our team) have newbies on it which is always fun. We hop on bikes and I guide the group through an urban ride to dine at Dos Coyotes, a favorite spot for many of us, and then we go our separate ways to sleep and make final preparations for Saturday into Sunday’s ride to SF.
The Fleche, Saturday-Sunday
Our team is made up of 5 machines and 6 people. Willy and I are on his tandem (hey, this is a recovery ride for me!), and we depart at 9:30. We have a later start because other teams are following the same route, and we need to stagger our times so that we don’t all ride together. 17 teams are on the road, all headed to Crepes on Cole – like arrows heading to the bulls-eye on the target.
One team started in Eureka, another in Morro Bay, still another in Reno, and a group headed out from Yosemite. Many more teams rode in and around the Bay Area, and all made their way to San Francisco. I absolutely love this aspect of the event, and, it’s being held in many other places, so teams all over the world are riding to their pre-determined destination. This also means that it is likely that as we get closer to SF, we’ll run into other teams on the road. Love it.
Our route is on the basic side, I selfishly made it that way because of the prior week, but it is still beautiful. Spring is in full swing here in Cali and the fields are nuclear green, flowers are out, the vineyards are budding, trees are in full bloom and the weather for this ride could not have been better. Typically there’s rain and cold temps. The 2014 fleche was warm and sunny – mid 70s – but, yes, here’s the price – wind.
But not horrible wind, not soul stealing wind like in Wenatchee; just, in your face, work a bit harder wind, most of which Willy took as the captain of our tandem. Our group rode strong, and we made our way over to Napa Valley and up the Silverado Trail.
This road is so finely manicured and landscaped, with multi-gazillion dollar wineries gracing it, such a far cry from the empty coulees of Eastern Washington. I am struck by the wealth here, it’s incredible, and we get to pass through it on our bikes, taking it in, and letting it go, just like our breathing in and out to pedal down the road.
Riding along, Team Oblio’s Dog comes by, and it’s fun to say hello. Everyone is in good form, joking and bantering, and Willy and I rev the tandem up to give them a bit of a race. After a few minutes of hanging with them, we drop back to scoop up the rest of our team and make our way up to Calistoga where Willy makes a quick stop at a bike shop to buy leg warmers that he left at Rivet WHQ.
At the Deli stop there is Team Fleche and Bones. They are on their way out as we are in, everyone is still happy and merrily moving along. We will continue to see them throughout the evening, as we make our way to Cloverdale, our farthest point before we turn south towards SF.
We are doing fine, I am listening to music, but I can hear easy chatting as we ride into the evening. Another fabulous just before sunset set of views in the Alexander Valley, where the vineyards were glowing and the sky was a deep lavender.
Our hope is to get to Cloverdale and then hurry back to Healdsburg to make the Bear Republic Brew pub for dinner. Willy and Drew are doing brevet math and have calculated that we’ll get there right around 10pm, which will most likely be too late. We catch up to the Fleche and Bones team right at the Bear, and Stacy and I plead our case to the wait staff, who take pity on us and serve us beer – but no food, the kitchen is closed.
Good enough for us! We pile in for suds and relax, and then go to McD’s for fries and who knows what else. Our team has hours in the bank (meaning we are ahead of schedule), we can hang out and take our time. F + B is a bit behind on their schedule, so they need to get going. John shoos his team out and we won’t see them again until Sunday in the city.
We continue down to Petaluma, stopping to fix a flat that Julie has. It provides the evening entertainment, as we are getting slaphappy. Carlos’ team of three comes by – they started farther north and rode over Fish Rock Road – a steep dirt road that about killed me a few weeks back.
In Petaluma we stop at a truck stop, and run into another team as they are heading out. We eat and rest. I sleep for an hour, but the rules of the ride only allow a group to remain somewhere for up to 2 hours. That means I am denied the pie ala mode that I was hoping for. Another team has come in while I was asleep – it’s a regular party in this truck stop diner with a bunch of weary cyclists eating everything in sight.
After Petaluma, we are on roads we know well, and most of them include climbing. This was the toughest stretch – most of us are cold now, and sleepy (its 4:00 am or so), and we slog over the Petaluma hills heading to Nicasio. It’s misty and cold as the sun starts to rise and we drop into Fairfax, one of Marin’s chi-chi towns. We have it to ourselves; its empty streets are a joy to traverse sans uber expensive automobiles piloted by aggressive drivers.
Our team is talked out, quiet now as we make our way to Corte Madera and we stop for our final rest at a Denny’s. No one else is here, but there is evidence of other rando’s – a stray glove and cliff bar wrapper tell the tale.
In no time we are at the final push to Sausalito, and then the stepped hill that brings us to the Bridge. For me, it’s always deeply satisfying to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. It means I have risen to the challenge of the ride and completed the adventure. No wind this AM and the light mist in SF is burning off to become a stellar Easter Sunday. We wind our way through the Presidio and jog up and down SF streets to Crepes on Cole arriving 15 minutes early, happy and ready to eat.
Total tally for the week: 1460k = 907 miles & roughly 35,000’ of climbing
My idea was to see if I could do a 600-300-400 series of brevets, and then come back to Cali and ride a 360k fleche. I did not complete that exact goal, but I came close (400-300-400-360) and actually I could’ve completed it had I chosen to. It was a push for sure, and I’m glad I gave it a go. I felt much better at the end of this Brevet week then I did in 2007. Still I do not need to prove this to myself again, so if I ever start talking about this type of thing in the future, someone, please, please stop me.
Thanks to Chris Heg, Cheryl Lynch and everyone who took pictures that I have borrowed. Always my thanks goes to everyone I had the chance to share these roads with, and if you read through this entire post, then you deserve a RUSA medal for Brevet reading! Thanks.