Monday, March 29, 2010

Hills Like Green Velvet

Spring doesn’t arrive on a platter like the sumptuous dinner you order at the trendy new bistro in town. No, as we are all aware it arrives over a period of time. ‘Steady, by jerks’ as a sage old logger once described the progress of getting a turn of logs to the landing with worn out equipment. Here in our neck of the woods it has a variety of different looks. On the west side of the Cascades the willows are starting to leaf out, the scotch broom is getting a jump on most everything else, calves and lambs are showing up in the fields. East of the mountains things still look a little ragged as you drop down out of the passes. In the mountain towns, you see piles of gravel on the street corners where the front loaders piled snow all winter. The brush is still dead and brown, fences sag from the snow and wind, and pot holes are alternately filled with ice at night and muddy water during the days. But farther down the road, as you get away from the forested mountains you get into the rolling hills that are covered with cheat grass, hellebore, and sage. Seen from a distance at this time of year they appear covered in soft green velvet which only lasts a few weeks, a month at most.

Whatever part of the country you live in I am sure that just like here, spring does not arrive on a platter, but is delivered on the wings of a bitter cold wind. Who knows this better than cyclists? Sheep maybe.

Last week I thought that the coming weekend would be one I would take off the bike, thinking ahead to the first weekend in April to ride a 300K event, either in Oregon, or Northwest Washington. But events developed to cause me to consider a change in plans: Early in the week Mrs. C had been overcome by a head cold and missed a few days work. As the week progressed I thought that perhaps the coming weekend might be a better time to take the next step up the rando staircase. It has been a very long time since I’ve ridden a 300K brevet, I’m pretty sure my last successful 300K was in 2007. That is long enough to cause serious doubt to settle in. I’ve done this distance before, plenty of times, but I’ve had such a long layoff and let myself fall into such poor riding shape that my confidence was shaken. Still, you can never really test the parachute if you don’t take the leap and it would be this weekend or next.

So, my rationale was that if Mr’s C would still be in recovering from her illness perhaps the best I could do would be to get out of the house, go ride my bike and let her sleep in peace. I had two choices: The SIR 300K starting in Seattle, or I could go back to the east side and ride Paul’s Desert River 300. Logistics suggested the SIR event, but the DRR was more likely to be sunny and it would be new country for me on a bike.

I presented this crafty strategy to Mrs. C about Thursday night I think. Guys, help me out here, (ladies, share the secret if you are willing) if any of you know of a sure fire way to let a last minute change of plans drop without it sounding like a china set hitting a marble tile floor, I’d love to hear about it. I figured I had slightly less than even odds of her saying “Sure that sounds like a great idea!’ So, if I had bet the line (against myself!) I’d have gotten maybe 150% back on my money. What I got was a long face. It wasn’t a crashing explosion of glass, she said sure, but she was sad that she wasn’t getting to see much of me lately.

That’s a fact, partly because she’s been traveling for work, partly because she’s been working a lot with a kids group at church, and partly because I’ve been out on weekend forays with the big horse. I felt bad, guilty, selfish, all the things that are appropriate when you don’t give your mate the attention she deserves and I was thinking of a way to gracefully retract the proposal. There was always the next weekend; B’ham, or Three Capes (note there is a new poll up). But before I could begin rehearsing my new pitch she came back with a surprise counter: “How ‘bout if I go with you?” Now this was a prospect I never even contemplated. She’s been around this business long enough to know what was in store, and I reminded her that this wasn’t a 200K, so I’d likely be showing up in the wee hours of the next day, not early Saturday evening. She thought about it a bit and came back with the winning raise to my bluff bet. “How about if we stay over Sunday night and then go visit Pandi in Roslyn on the way home?” And in the blink of an eye a plan was formed.

It really is luxurious when Mrs. C comes along for one of these things. She’s a great soigneur, there’s food and drink waiting when I finish, and all the little details that I never think to attend to (or am too lazy to take care of) are all ready, in place, and in the right order. I had imagined sleeping in the truck and driving home, ‘steady by jerks’. That’s drive a little until you are too tired, and then find a little burg or quiet off ramp and pull over for another hour or so of cold sleep, still sweaty, still salt covered, crampy and achy. I’ve done this many times and it feels more like escape from a concentration camp than returning home victorious from an epic ride. So the plan was set and we were away Friday afternoon. Now, about that ride in Eastern Washington.

Let me first say thanks, and thanks again to Paul and his volunteers for going to the trouble of putting on this event. No matter how easy it appears, it is never easy to put on an ACP certified brevet, but like all the great people that make this sport a reality Paul does it, he volunteers, and puts on a great event. If you ride brevets, thank someone, or help out when you can; Like public TV, it’s not free, you just have to pay your dues or it goes way.

The Desert River 300K starts in the tri-Cites, takes the riders east to Waitsburg then heads south to Walla Walla, through Milton Freewater and Pendleton in Oregon cow country. This ride does not take you up into the Blue mountains, but you can see them from points along the way. From Pendleton you head west to Hermiston and Umatilla before once again heading north, crossing the Wide Columbia and home to the start point.

We set out in the dark at 6:00 am sharp. I was just slightly confused (not really) when Paul sent us on our way saying the locals could head out that way. What of the rest of us? Do we have to go up that hill or take the longer way? No, he meant the locals would help us find the way through the first few miles, … and then I think he knew I was pulling his leg again.

We were soon spinning along the banks of the Columbia in the dark. Five miles into the ride I was thinking that there was something wrong. My perceived exertion indicator was sending signals that the boiler room was about to blow. Perhaps a brake pad was rubbing, or I had the rear wheel in crooked and it was rubbing a stay (don’t ask how I know this is possible). In any event I was just barely hanging with the pack. It always feels hard for me at the start, these old legs want to rebel, or perhaps have just forgotten what is expected, but in this case that didn’t abate after the first few minutes as usual. I flipped the light on the computer and noticed that I was moving along at 17MPH, and the pack was pulling away. I felt better then, slacked off a little and let them go. This was a fast group and It looked like I would be doing this solo.
Just before the sun came up Paul and John came along.

Paul not only gets the riders going, but then he rides the event! We rode together to the first control, a typical rando oasis; gas station/convenience store. Learning from my experience the weekend before I made myself eat. Given that it was early in the morning I could not find my stale pizza pocket, so opted for the fresh BBQ beef deep fried burrito.

On we went and when we came to the next turn I had to flip my cue sheet and let John and Paul drift off into the distance. This next leg was ‘interesting’. It is 39.5 miles miles to the next turn. I appreciate routes that do not have a lot of tricky navigation, but this part of the route was also devoid of much to entertain the mind:
40 miles to Waitsburg

30 miles to waitsburg

20 miles to Waitsburg 

I consoled myself with the notion that wind was not crashing waves across all lanes of the Hood Canal Bridge as I endeavored to make my way to the next control. But finally, Waitsburg!

Not only was this stretch short on scenery, it was a little bit demoralizing as that spring wind was waking up to find lone riders heading east. It wasn’t a fierce wind, actually nearly imperceptible, exempt that it robbed me of the one thing riders can usually get on a long flat straight stretch with no traffic: speed. I had to push to keep it in double digits, where otherwise I’d have been tooling along at 14 or 15. It took me a while to figure this out. But I had plenty of time to for figuring. 

Just as I was turning off Hwy 124 Norman caught me. He’d had a flat and a bit of a bonk earlier. We rode into Waitsburg together. The day was warming up and so in Waitsburg I marked a rite of spring riding: I stripped down to just a poly jersey, fingerless gloves and knickers. Gone were the long fingered gloves, the thermal vest, wool armwarmers and Showers Pass raincoat. I also initiated my new sunny weather ritual: I applied sunscreen, liberally where ever I thought the sun might peek in. I did a pretty good job, judging by the few pink spots the sun left behind.  Here I had a microwave breakfast muffin and a 7 up. Norman allowed as he was going to stay for an additional cup of coffee so I headed out solo.

Out of Waitsburg I entered one of the most delightful segments of the ride. The 20 miles to Walla Walla took us through the rolling dry land Palouse, alternately freshly tilled or covered in the lush green of new wheat. It was really a wonderful section of the ride, it remixed me a lot of PBP: never flat but never steep. With no wind, my legs found their happy place and it felt great to be riding through the countryside fee of winter clothing, the sun warming me as I worked my way along the course.

Navigating Walla Walla was a snap. Either by luck of craft Paul had routed us through neighbor hoods where most of the turns were at Stop signs with “T” intersections, making it pretty hard to get off track. Soon enough I was out of W/W and rolling south to the Oregon line. This stretch, all the way to Pendleton was the hardest bit of riding I have done this year. By the time I got to Milton Freewater I was feeling just a little punished. I had been riding into a strong headwind on the gritty litter strewn shoulders of Wa St Hwy 125/Oregon SR 11Hwy the temps had climbed into the 70’s (another fist) and I felt like I needed a break. A Safeway appeared and so I pulled over to fill bottles and see what else might be interesting.

The china express syndrome apparently has not yet hit this part of eastern Oregon, but there was a pan of Mac and Cheese in the deli case. This can be a good thing or something else. If it’s fresh enough, creamy mac and cheese is pretty good fuel for me but if it sits long enough it gets bitter, the fat renders out of the cheese, and we’ll, that can be hard on the stomach. I took a chance and got half of a small container, two bottles of unsweetened iced tea and water for the bottles. The Mac and cheese was great and I had gotten just the right amount. It is a good thing I did too because I surely would have ended up road kill in the ditch somewhere on the stretch to Pendleton without it.

I headed out and the wind that was just waking up earlier was now wide awake.

It was murderous.

 The wind roared, there was a fair amount of climbing, it was high desert ag country, with no shade to be found for miles. for the first half of this 35 mile stretch I was headed mostly due south, the wind right on my nose. It was all I could do to hold onto 8 to 10 mph. At one point it occurred to me that if it was going to be like this for the whole 37 miles to Pendleton I might have trouble making the cut off. I had a couple hours in the bank in Walla Walla but this looked like it would eat that all up.

Toward the end of this segment the route turned to the SW so I was no longer riding into the teeth of the wind, it was now coming off the port bow so I would occasionally drift into the gravel beyond the paved shoulder. Semi’s passing caused serious buffeting. Drudgery interspersed with brief moments of high anxiety. But shoot, it was only 37 miles (don’t think I didn’t count those miles down).

I didn’t loose all my time, and when I got to Pendleton I stopped at the very first suitable place; Hals Burgers, straight out of 1958. Two kids running the place new the drill and took very god care of me: A huge Pepsi, a cheeseburger and fries (oh and do you want us to fill up those water bottles and put them in the cooler for you?) all for $5.05. I’m not a big burger eater but this was definitely mom and pop and way beyond McD.

Suitably refreshed I made my way through Pendleton. This place has not changed much in 20 years. The rodeo grounds are considerably spruced up, but outside of the Roundup, it’s the typical ranching, sawmill, working class town that you find in the rural northwest. Riding past a sawmill I got a whiff chips and bark dust.

 I like that smell, it reminds me of some pretty good times in my life, and my old man was a logger and a mill worker in his day, so I guess I come by it honestly.

It’s a ride of contrasts and the next leg was ample payback and more for the punishment of the previous 10 hours. Out of Pendleton Paul had routed us onto the Old Pendleton River Road which meanders alongside the Umatilla River. This truly is God’s country and though it would probably be hard to scratch a living out of the ground, but a rider would have to look long and hard to find a more pleasant place to ride a bike.

(Street gang in Eastern Oregon)

The sun was going down so the light was not the best for pics, and spring still has a little more color to deliver to the scenery but even still, it was beautiful, made all the more luscious by the incredible tailwind that delivered me in and out of the swoops and curves 15 to 19 mph.

To be honest, I’d rather go faster through the less peasant parts but we'll always take a push when we can get it.  At a particularly sharp curve I came upon Paul and Nat discussing Nat’s technique for negotiating loose gravel on black top.  It was generally agreed that Nat needs to refine that technique.

After a cursory look it appeared that Nat was basically OK but seriously abraded, and it looked like the bike might be able to make it so I rode on.

As I was leaving the river canyon I looked back and could not help but snap one last pic of the scenic landscape with a three quarter moon shining down.

I turned and continued heading west and a minute later caught the sun going over a ridge.

Darkness descended quickly, but I was through Hermiston and into Umatilla by 8:45, quicker than I expected. At this point there are only 28 miles left in the event and a greenhorn might think a 300K personal best is in the works. I’m no greenhorn.

This last leg takes you across the Columba and then up over the remnants of the Columbia breaks via a gradual 12 mile climb up Plymouth road. I pace myself pretty well on these things, one of the few things I have learned that has stuck, but even so I’m rarely as strong at 160 miles into an event as I am at the start. Throw in the climbing, and the tiredness that just creeps in after dark and I inevitably slow down. If I were in better shape I could have polished this off in 3 hours. In my current sorry state, that last stretch took me over 4 hours. It was partly physical, but also partly mental. At times I let the relentless climb get into my head, I know better than this. I was road weary and decided to take a caffeine tablet only to find that I had either used them all up or in his fervor to lighten my on-bike load Serge, my Belgian hard man soigneur and deemed them unessential for the test at hand (I’ll fix that, and Serge is back to strictly bike washing and body guard duties).

It did seem like forever until I crested the ridge and the lights of the tri-cities lit up the valley below. The descent was dark and swoop and incredibly …cold! I stopped mid way down and put on more warm clothes lest I shiver myself into the ditch. Oh, did I say it was partly physical but partly mental? It was also partly stupid. Despite Paul’s excellent cue sheet I shot past the last turn and rode a good 2 plus ‘bonus’ miles. Two miles may not sound like much but in those two miles we had a very serious talk, myself and I.

There were volunteers at the finish, but of course, my biggest fan and personal cheering section, Mrs. C was there to whisk me away in the team car to our executive suit (Motel 6). This was such a great way to finish, food and drink were ready, all I had to do was peel the salt encrusted gear off my tired old body and stand under a hot shower until I started feeling human again.

So another 300K in the books. Far from pretty this may have been a personal worst (time wise) but it was a confidence builder. As I told friend John, I’m not sure I had another 100K in me at the end, but we’ll know soon enough, on to the 400K!

The next day we headed up to Rosyln (I dozed, Mrs. C chauffeured) to visit with Pandi. It is surprising to see that she’s even cuter than she was when she was born two weeks ago. (no bias, here it’s scientific fact, the cuteness meter was stuck on max!)

After our visit we headed west, and it started raining. From Easton to North Bend it was pouring, and onto the Auburn cutoff was 40 days and 40 nights. I had a thought that made me laugh: Tahuya Hills 300, 2002. Those who were there know what I mean.

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