Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Friday, October 07, 2011

I’ve promised a few people that I’d write up my take on this year’s High Pass Challenge, which rolls 112 miles from Packwood, WA up what has become one of my favorite climbs – Mt St Helens, up to Windy Ridge overlook. I have only done this climb twice, but once I am back to the base I am already planning my next visit.

Great roads, spectacular scenery, almost none of the congested traffic that plagues any of the Rainier climbs.

As a reformed racer, I feel a little like I am stealing kids’ lunch money, doing rides like these. I may not have bothered to sign up for a USAC license this year, instead contenting myself with cycling to work and some fairly aimless “training” slugfests. When the opportunity arises to do a competitive ride up a mountain, how can I resist?

Five hundred riders queue up at the start line for High Pass, and, the crowd is something between the come-as-you-are circus that is Seattle-to-Portland, and the grim-faced bunch of assassins at Ronde van Oeste Portlandia.

But, wait: there is an official start line here. There are barricades and an announcer. Heck, I am handed a timing chip at the sign-on. What have I signed up for? By the time I finish the last minute used coffee disposal, there are already a couple hundred riders stacked up by the start. Forget that: I duck under some tape at near the front of the bunch and observe the moment of silence the director announces on this tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Seven a.m. exactly, and we’re rolling, but this is no race start. Nobody launches all out, hell-or-glory attacks, there is simply a turbine-like spooling up of riders as the pack quickly sorts itself out into those who want to prove themselves against the clock, and those who simply want to finish.

It’s about fifteen miles to the base of the climb, and, though I do a couple of quick turns at the front, I have no interest in flogging myself on the flats. We cruise along at a moderately fast pace – twenty-six? Twenty-seven?

The monotony of the remote highway twelve is broken by a race team’s train, which has finally gotten itself organized, hitting the front. At first I think the pace will increase, but, as soon as it starts, suddenly there is chaos: riders fan out over both lanes of the road. The race team pulls over to the side, and the mismatched pack at the front rearranges itself. I will later find that one of the racers broke a pair of spokes on his high-zoot wheels, and the team pulled over to help him out. Whoops.

I recognize the café at the turn at the microscopic town of Randle, WA, as the place where the flat stops. I make the turn, glance around at the other riders at the front of the pack. I wonder how many of them have done this climb before? The first couple of miles are some of the steepest of the whole ride.

For a few beats, I set a false tempo, waiting to see if there will be a flurry of matches burned as riders throw themselves at the mountain. Nothing happens. I briefly recall a movie character saying, “my turn,” but I cannot remember who it is.

A deep breath, and, I’m riding my tempo – out of the saddle, an over-geared metronome, I do set my watch to 350 watts and ease into the pain. The first thirty seconds, you always feel like a superhero. The next minute, a superstar. After that, it’s all reality: lungs, legs, heartbeat in your ears.

Five minutes or so, and the first rise in the road is over. I back off and flick a glance over my shoulder to see who’s left – maybe a dozen riders, with another dozen a pace behind. I let a couple of characters drive the pace on the false flat section for the next couple of miles and allow myself to enjoy the beauty of the area. This is great stuff. It’s dry today, but has rained recently enough the everything is green, fresh, alive. The mountain mist hangs in the air, redolent, storybook-like, amazing.

And, like that, we’re back to climbing. From here, we’ve got maybe fifteen miles, all uphill, and a rolling seven before the turnaround. I rise out of the saddle, pull back on the bars, and make sure my legs know the plan: no sudden accelerations. This isn’t a race. Don’t try to break people. No need to hide the hard work. Just ride.

A few miles later, we get to a stop sign and a narrow wooden bridge. Somehow a rider fell from this a couple of years ago. We cautiously cross, snowmelt still pooling over the road, and I count the riders with me: six. I get to the front again and chat with the guys I find up there. Skinny college-aged rider in an unmarked jersey takes the pace for a moment, but, it is too slow. I take back over and introduce myself.

College seems capable and composed here, but at some point on the mountain he will fall off. I recognize Ecker – he’s got TT bars. Some guy has a camelbak. A grizzled veteran seems to have fallen out of bed in 1994. Local race team kit has stars-and-bars on his sleeves: he’s won a national championship at some discipline. Another racer has full dress on: Carbon rig, Record components, and expensive carbon-fiber wheels.

This is the last I will see of these riders until the top. No looking back, no attempt to get anyone else to share the road, no cagey tactics to save some energy for the finish: it is in these ways that not being a true race is liberating. Up we ride. More amazing scenery. We climb of the trees into the volcano’s blast zone. Spartan, dead, at a glance, but really an impressive amount of life returning.

An hour or so climb crawls by. These are the moments I live for, a sort of memento mori, where life is measured in seconds, minutes, not years. Who cares what tomorrow will bring, after all, when one is counting heartbeats?

I think from time to time that someone will pass me, but, nobody does. Upward, upward.

Finally, the climb is over, and we are rolling down again – no dramatic single summit, this, but a gradual rolling ten miles along a ridgeline, a little bit up, a little bit down. Behind and beside me are still five, and we take turns sharing the pace on the flatter sections.

There’s one guy who I don’t understand: Grizzled 1994. He’s been on the same ride as everyone else, but he decides to attack the little rollers? I mean, it’s not a real, committed attack, exactly, but it is a noticeable acceleration. Power meters don’t lie, and he’s clearly gunning it.

Fine. Whatever. I roll to the front and force him to pick a pace, and sit on his wheel, for a few minutes, and he eventually drifts back into the group.

At each of several viewpoint turnouts, there is a noticeable anticipation in the group. Is this it? Is this the end? My legs, too, feel the burn from the climb. A few more magnificent corners, and we roll through the long loop of the parking lot at the end. That’s it for the out – time to head back.

Things get a little odd from here. Two turn straight around. Two stop at the restroom. Everyone catches their breath. Those relatively few feet of “up” on the return trip are the part where life feels the hardest. Ouch.

We stop for water long enough to fill bottles, and roll on down the mountain. The group gradually reforms, minus a couple. The descent is amazing. Twists, turns, but no hairpins, one can leave it wide open pretty well the entire way – though the pavement quality fails miserably at times. That’s got to be the ice and snow, over the winter.

I lose a bottle, nearly full, on a massive crack that looked shallower at thirty-five miles an hour. Whoops. I feel much faster descending than my usual cautious self, keeping pace, if barely, with Ecker, in front of me. Dang aerobars. Well, and, he's good at it. He's going fast.

So fast, in fact, that he misses the one crucial turn, despite my shouts of “wrong way,” and ends up taking the shortcut down the mountain. I mean, no, not the crashing kind. Just the way that cuts ten miles off the ride. One other rider goes wrong with him, and someone else has been dropped.

Now it is just three riders who regroup on the one lane, poorly paved little forest service road back into town: super racer, and, dude with the camelbak. guess the fred thing was a ruse, and the water was just to avoid stopping. Slick. We were meant to stay on this the entire rest of the trip, but a mudslide has washed the road out ahead, forcing us back onto the highway.

The last twenty miles are a blur. I’m pretty much cooked. Another companion pulls the ripcord and relaxes. Then, we do – dropping from twenty-five to a mere twenty miles an hour for a few miles, until we realize we are there.

And that, as they say, is that.

Great ride, everyone.

Thanks to the Cascade Bike Club for putting on an event like this. Tons of fun.

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