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What It Takes To Be Super, pt. 1; the 200k

This is the first in a series of four articles I am writing for Ryan Warkentin's blog, Bicycle Smile, out of Vancouver, B.C. The articles will chronicle my run at the Super-Randonneur Award during the summer series.

I set a few goals for this randonneuring season: One, that I would ride 4000km in event distance; and another, that I would finish a Super-Randonneur as a complete series. After some early season illnesses, I'm struggling to make up distance for the 4000km goal, but the Super-Randonneur is well underway.
I missed the actual summer series 200km brevet with the Seattle Randonneurs because of a family emergency, so I decided to ride the Stevens Pass Summit 200k for my unofficial kickoff to the summer series, and as my July ride for my R-12 Award which I re-started after A Spectacular DNF that put a grinding halt to my previous R-12 streak.

A 200km is the shortest official medal earning distance in randonneuring, and the gateway ride to special obsession we have with long distance cycling. While a 200km solo unsupported ride is not the most difficult undertaking, it is also not a distance to take lightly. Weather conditions and course terrain can make even a "simple" double metric a very difficult ride. The Stevens Pass Summit 200k is no exception. For this distance, 6300' of elevation gain is not typically considered a strenuous amount. The difference with this route is that the course climbs fairly consistently in the first 100km to the 4061' summit at Stevens Pass on WA-2, with only light rollers on the return part of this out-n-back course.

Starting from the Duvall, WA Safeway grocery store I headed out into the grey morning. It was cold and overcast with a hint that I might encounter some drizzling rain before the sun peeked out. I rode past some cows that seemed mildly interested in what I might be doing out so early, and I saw a few of the Seattle Century street markings but never did encounter any riders from the event that day. As I rolled toward the small town of Index, I began the mental preparations for what lay ahead... The familiar climb to Skykomish, and then the real climbing from ~900' to 4061' in the final 25km push to the summit.

This was the first time I had done a real mountain pass on my bike. The previous month, I rode the Mountain Loop 200k which crosses Barlow Pass, but Barlow is a mere bump in the road at under 2500’. Stevens Pass is an open climb from Skykomish to the summit. The trees thin, the road widens, and the sun beats down on your back like a roofer’s mop. The road to the summit continued to climb without compassion, and it just got steeper as I neared the summit. 25km doesn’t sound like much on a bike until you settle in for a 25km climb that creeps to a 7% grade by the summit. After 30 minutes I realized it was going to be a far more arduous task than my usual hill repeats because I wouldn’t be getting an 8 minute break every 4km. After an hour I resigned myself to the fact that I would need to take the occasional break on the way to the top, and I pulled into a “slow vehicle turnout” lane to remove my knee and arm warmers, and have a little something to eat.

The climb just kept hammering at my legs as I continued to grind my way up. Even with my incredibly low climbing gear (34t chainring, 32t cog) I knew the road was steep. Being able to see the angle of the road as it switchbacks back and forth near the summit was the most difficult part. You get to look over at the road and mull over how much steeper that section looks than the section you’re on right now… And then the cramp hit me. 3.5km from the summit, not even 100km into the ride, and I knew that there was still some ugly climbing left for the way back home; and I got my oh-so-familiar inner thigh cramp. I stopped, drank a half liter of water in about 3 gulps to wash back a handful of 5 or 6 Endurolytes, and humped myself back onto the saddle with the determination to figure out what position I could ride in to alleviate the cramping. It turns out that if I roll my hips back and scoot way back on my saddle, it helps by overextending my leg at the bottom the pedal stroke; so this is how I finished my way to the summit.

At the summit, I nabbed a couple of photos with the elevation sign (courtesy of a couple of touring motorcyclists) and sat down on my jacket in a patch of dirt to enjoy my lunch. Ah, lunch… An Ensure Plus, Clif Bar, banana, more Endurolytes and a 5hr Energy shot. I sat there in the dirt and stretched for about 10 minutes before getting back up for the return trip. My legs were still a little bit “twitchy” with those pre-cramp quivers, but I wouldn’t be doing a lot of pedaling for the next 25km. After packing up my garbage I pulled my arm warmers back out of my Berthoud bag because the trip down the mountain would be considerable more chilly. The temperature was close to 14 degrees which made for a toasty climb; heading back down the mountain I realized a few things…

  1. 25km on a winding mountain highway is a long-ass downhill.
  2. 65kph seems pretty fast on my 4km hill repeat. It’s farking insane fast after doing it for 15 minutes. It’s just white-knuckle ridiculous after 25 minutes.
  3. The road didn’t seem that steep on the way up.
  4. I don’t recall the dropoff on the other side of the guardrail looking quite so steep.

After tear-assing my way down 25km in just under half an hour I pulled into the Skykomish Deli for a burger and another stretching break. There was still a significant amount of climbing left to get through the backroads of Index and Sultan and my legs were not entirely happy with me, although the position change on the saddle was helping stave off any cramps when I felt them coming on. I sat out at the riverside picnic table to enjoy the views, munch my burger and get some space to stretch. The sun felt good after that long, chilly downhill and the burger was delicious. I ditched my arm warmers, put on more sunscreen, and headed back to Index.

The climbing through the backroads of Index didn’t seem quite as bad as I had anticipated. I think the cheeseburger was the key to staving off any further cramping for the day. I was tired, but my legs weren’t on that constant brink of cramping up any longer. The worst part of the ride was actually a dead flat section on WA-2 heading from Index back into Sultan before the final patch of climbing on one of the club’s favourite routes: Ben Howard Road, a 13km long section of rollers. Turning back onto WA-2 I was greeted with a headwind which pushed my spirits lower than the Botts Dots, because I knew I was facing it for the next 16km. To change things up, the headwind sometimes gusted and brought my speed down to nearly single digits. I had never been happier to turn onto Ben Howard road and start the series of climbs back to the final 15km stretch back to the Safeway.

Rolling back into the Safeway parking lot, I propped my bike outside and went in for my victory Coke. In making small talk with the register attendant, she asked about my ride; so I mentioned summiting Stevens Pass after having started “right at this same register at 6:30 this morning.” She looked at me questioningly and asked, “and all you want is a Coke?”

“... And a receipt, please. I need it to verify my finish time.”