Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cascade 1200 Ride Report

I’m going to start with the end because it was by far the most memorable part of the ride for me, maybe just due to recency effect, but quite possibly because there was magic afoot.

After having covered about 760 miles in the past four days, Kelly Smith and I pulled in to the McDonalds in Granite Falls. The rain had started falling about 20 minutes before we got there and we were starting to get wet. This was the penultimate control stop on the Cascade 1200. I mentioned to Kelly that I hadn’t eaten at McDonalds in several years since I swore off corporate fast food after reading Fast Food Nation. But after a couple of minutes within Mickie D’s the smell of french fries had worked it’s way into my soul and I was ready to set aside my anti fast-food oath for one special occasion. Filet O’ Fish and fries have never tasted so good.

While we were enjoying our meal, Joe Platzner pulled in looking a little tired but in good spirits. We had been riding with Joe an hour or so back but he decided to drop off to ride a slightly slower pace for a while. We decided to wait for Joe so the three of us could ride the last 20 miles into the finish in Monroe together. Joe wolfed his food, and with the brief rain shower all drizzled out we set off into the approaching dusk. The route from Granite Falls to Monroe follows rolling, winding quiet roads through a typical Snohomish county rural setting with a mix of cows, horses, llamas, BMW SUVs and pickup trucks.

We were taking this last stretch at what Randonneurs call a “social” pace. As we rode, we talked about rides we’ve done in the past, people we’ve ridden with, bikes, and even a few non-biking topics. Kelly is from Virginia and came out just for the Cascade 1200. As we rode and talked, Kelly and Joe found that they knew people in common and had ridden in some of the same places since Joe had spent some time living back east.

We were about five miles from the finish and any doubts about finishing the ride had completely vanished when something odd occurred to me. We were riding in the dark now, and our headlights lit up rectangular patches of the road ahead of us. The odd awareness I had was that nothing on my body hurt. I mean, if I really focused on it, everything was hurting a little, but there was no specific pain gnawing away at me like it had been for the past three or four days. Nothing from my butt, my hands, my feet, my back or neck, not even my legs. Not only was nothing hurting, but I didn’t have any of that typical dark randonneuring mind stuff going on that usually goes on at this point in a ride, either focusing on some source of pain, or worrying about falling asleep on the bike, or constantly checking the mileage that seems to be frozen in time or moving at a geologic pace.

I mentioned to Joe that I wasn’t hurting anywhere and he looked at me with wide eyes and said, “you know, I’m not hurting anywhere either! Isn’t that weird?” We had been struggling through pain, fatigue, hunger, hypothermia (for Joe), headwinds, plenty of doubt, and a few mechanical issues for the entire day, but suddenly we were just three guys on a really pleasant bike ride, just a few short miles away from the end of the ride. Joe and I were both nearly giddy with the realization that we felt so good after so many miles.

I’m not sure whether it was endorphins or magic or what, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed 20 miles on a bike more than I enjoyed those 20 miles from Granite Falls to the finish of the Cascade 1200 in Monroe with Joe and Kelly.

Okay, so I guess I should go back to the beginning of story…

Day 1 – Monroe to Naches.

Saturday morning at 6:00am 94 riders set off from Monroe for the 2010 Cascade 1200. Riders had come from all over North America, and there were several from Europe and a couple from Japan. Apparently the Cascade 1200 has achieved near legendary status among Randonneurs. I had no idea when I signed up.

For the first several miles as we wound through the Snoqualamie Valley, the entire group stayed together as one massive peloton traveling at a very casual pace. On most brevets, everyone splits up almost immediately as the fast riders race off the front and the slower riders settle into their own pace. I made a point to drift to the very back of the peloton just so I could take in the whole thing. It was fantastic to see the mob of cyclists, two, three, sometimes four abreast extending a couple hundred yards up the road.

The hill up to Ames Lake finally split the peloton up and at that point I started working my way back up through the pack. I rode alone for much of the morning, passing people I knew and chatting briefly, but not settling in to any pace lines at first.

The route went on through Issaquah, Enumclaw and along the west side of Mt. Rainier through towns like Buckley and Elbe. The weather was cool and overcast and the riding was easy. I hung with Gary Prinz for a while, a fellow Seattle Rando who I sometimes see on my commute to and from work.

At Morton, the route turns east, first parallel to Hwy 12 on quiet roads, then on the busy highway. The wind had picked up and was blowing our direction, so the trip east on Hwy 12 was a fast and easy one. From Packwood the road tilts up toward White Pass, about 4,500 ft of elevation and 20 miles from Packwood. The last time I had been on White Pass was coming the other direction on the second day of the Four Passes 600k three weeks before. That day we were worried about hypothermia as we flew down the pass in the pouring rain with temperatures in the low 40s. This time it was a very different story. The sun had come out and it was starting to get a little warm on the climb. But for the most part I found the climb up White Pass to be much easier than I expected, and before I knew it I was bombing down the eastern slope heading for the control at Clear Lake.

At Clear Lake SiR volunteers made us sandwiches and I was very happy to sit for a bit. I left the control with a guy from Vancouver, WA named Michael who I had played leap-frog with on the climb up to the pass. Michael pushed hard and I did my best to keep up with him as we flew downhill with a strong tailwind (the stuff of dreams) for the last 35 miles into Naches. When they signed our cards at Naches Middle School, it was exactly 21:00 (9:00pm). I had logged a little over 225 miles for the day at an average rolling speed of about 16.5mph.

The volunteers at the overnight control in Naches treated us like kings and queens, though we were kings and queens who had to be content with cold showers and sleeping on wrestling mats on the gymnasium floor. With the aches and pains from a 225 mile day and the chorus of snores from dozens of tired Randonneurs, I didn’t manage to do more than doze off and on for a few minutes at a time. It seemed like a long night from when I lay down at 10:30 until I got up at 4:00am.

Day 2 – Naches to Quincy.

After a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage, I rolled out at about 5:00am. The wind that had blown us into Naches the night before was still blowing, which was now a bit of problem. The first leg of the day 2 route was an out-and-back up to Lodgepole Campground near Chinook Pass. This meant we were heading into the wind for the first 45 miles. I’ve done the ride up Hwy 410 to Chinook Pass before, but the last time was in the middle of the night and it was after a very difficult night and day of riding without any rest. This time I was feeling strong and moving along pretty well. At first I was riding with Michael and I was pulling and passing a few other riders as we went. I had thought it was just Michael behind me, but when I pulled off to the side to drift back and let Michael pull for a while I found that a pace line of about 15 riders had formed behind us.

We made great time up to Lodgepole, getting there a little after 8:00. After getting our cards signed and hanging out for a while we started back down the way we had come. At this point I was still riding with Michael, but we had also picked up Kelly Smith. The three of us rode together well and we continued back to Naches to finish the first 90 miles of the day.

From Naches the route followed a bike path through Yakima until we got on Hwy 24 heading east. Hwy 24 is pretty busy with fast moving semis blasting by constantly, not the most pleasant riding conditions. At this point I was riding in a pace line of seven or eight riders. The pace seemed to by inching upward and was getting to the point where I had to work pretty hard to keep up. The old me would have stayed with this group thinking, “this is killing me but at least I’m making good time.” The new me is a slightly wiser randonneur, so the new me dropped off the back of the pack and decided to go it alone at a more reasonable pace. Kelly was going through the same thought process as me and he dropped off a couple of minutes later.

Together Kelly and I rode the remaining 100 miles or so for the day. From the time we let that fast group go until we pulled into the overnight control in Quincy, I don’t think we saw more than a dozen trees. It was hot, there was no shade anywhere and we were riding roads that continued on in a straight line for miles until they just disappeared over the horizon. There’s something about being able to see the next two hours of riding laid out in front of you in a long straight ribbon of asphalt that puts me in that dark rando place really fast.

By the time we pulled into the Vernita rest stop just south of the Columbia River, I was ready to be done with this day. Unfortunately we still had another 60 miles or so of hot desolate headwinds ahead of us.

As we arrived at the control stop in Mattawa, Michael, my riding partner from the previous evening was already there and talking about dropping out of the ride. Michael broke his collarbone a couple of years ago and he was finding that the old injury was giving him some problems. He seemed to have no strength left in his left shoulder. As he rode he was unable to hold himself up and he was nearly collapsing on the bike. It was sad to see him struggling with this decision, but clearly he didn’t have much of a choice.

The last 10 miles from George to Quincy was especially brutal. Even though the mileage was less than the first day, and there was less climbing, by the time we rolled into Quincy I had decided that the second day was much tougher than the first for me.

We covered 210 miles on the second day and we rolled into the control at Quincy at 20:57. Since I had arrived at the previous overnight control at exactly 21:00, I decided to wait a couple minutes so once again my card would be marked 21:00 exactly. It seemed like that would have to bring me some sort of luck, good or bad.

The overnight at Quincy was at the High School. Luckily the showers were warm this time and I was able to lie down on a gymnastics tumbling mat that was a little cushier than the wrestling mats from the prior night. Still, it wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve ever had.

Day 3 – Quincy to Mazama.

With another good breakfast in our stomachs provided by the wonderful volunteers at the overnight control, Kelly and I got on the road at about 5:20 am. The days route started winding through cherry orchards on a beautiful quiet road with almost no traffic. I was definitely feeling the effects of two long days on the bike and not much sleep, but Kelly is full of interesting stories and facts, so the conversation eclipsed most of the aches and pain I was feeling.

After the orchards, the route turned north through Ephrata and Soap Lake and then through the Grand Coulee to Dry Falls. This has to be one of the most fascinating geological features in Washington state. It was created during the last ice age when glacial floods from Lake Missoula flowed through central Washington several times. It created a 400ft deep canyon but with no remaining river flowing through it.

From Dry Falls we climbed up out of the coulee on highway 2 to rolling wheat fields. On this climb, I barely missed a three foot rattle snake who was sunning himself on the side of the road. As slow as I was moving at that point, it would have been pretty easy for him to bite me if he had had a mind to.

Before turning north on SR-172, we were treated to a great control stop at the “town” of Farmer. I put town in quotes because there don’t appear to be any living people in Farmer. There’s a nice old grange hall (outfitted with two craps tables and not much else), two grain silos across the street, and a cemetery. That’s it. The ride organizers had rented out the grange hall and had sandwiches, watermelon and cold drinks inside. It was nice to sit down out of the sun as shade was very dear in this part of the state.

Thirty miles out of Farmer we were treated to probably the most fun descent of the entire ride as we dropped from the Columbia plateau down to the level of the Columbia River at Bridgeport. About eight miles at near 40 mph! Gotta love it. But what goes down must ride back up and the next 30 miles had us climbing back up to the next control at Malott which marked the beginning of the climb over Loup Loup pass.

The climb up to Loup Loup pass was long and hot and pretty steep. But having done this mountain pass climbing a few times, I’m getting pretty good at just finding a rhythm I can live with, zoning out, and grinding up the hill. It had cooled considerably by the time we reached the pass. The trip down the west side was a little slower than I had hoped with a headwind to fight. That was probably a good thing since apparently this stretch of road sees more than its share of deer collisions. I saw two dead deer on the side of the road on the way down.

Once on the other side of Loup Loup, we just had 35 more miles up through the Methow Valley to the overnight control in Mazama. Unfortunately wind karma was continuing to pay us back for 100 miles of tailwinds on the first day.

We decided to stop at a grocery store in Twisp to refill water bottles. I walked into the store alone while Kelly waited outside with the bikes. The store was pretty busy with normal folks picking up something for their evening meal, and as soon as I stepped into to the bustling store I went totally tharn. Something about the past two days of seeing few people, trees or buildings, and the lack of sleep, and the fatigue of many hours on the bike hit me like a ton of bricks. I probably stood there with my mouth hanging open for a couple minutes before I got my wits about me and remembered why I was in the store.

Later as we rolled through Winthrop, I looked at the time and realized that with 14 miles to Mazama, we could keep my perfect streak of signing into overnight controls at 9:00pm alive if we could just maintain 15 mph. Cool! (little things become amusing after days on a bike) Kelly and I had picked up Noel Howe at the store in Twisp, so I told the two of them about my mission and we started pushing hard toward Mazama. About that time, the headwind also decided to redouble its efforts to teach us humility. Our speed dropped from 17 mph to 15, then to 14, and eventually we were crawling along at 12 mph. I was ready to give up on the mission, but Kelly wanted to keep pushing, and Noel selflessly offered to give us one more good strong pull before he dropped off to let us finish alone. In spite of Kelly and Noel’s valiant efforts, it finally became obvious that we weren’t going to make it to Mazama by 9:00. When I handed my card to the SiR volunteer she looked at her watch and wrote “21:04”. I thought about offering her a bribe to get four minutes taken off my time, but it didn’t seem like that would be in the spirit of Randonneuring.

The overnight control at Mazama was at a very nice little resort where we had real rooms with beds and most of the comforts of home, although sharing a bed with a fellow Randonneur is not something I have to do at home. My computer showed 182 miles for the day and 8,800 feet of climbing. My average speed was telling the story of three long days in the saddle. My rolling average was just under 14 mph for the day.

Day 4 – Mazama to Monroe.

I actually got some good sleep for once, probably five hours or so, and woke up at 4:30am feeling pretty good considering… Which is to say, I still felt like I had been hit by a truck. We had a good breakfast served by the resort staff, and spent way too much time procrastinating before finally heading out at about 6:10am.

Immediately we started a gradual climb up the North Cascades highway toward Washington Pass. At about three miles from the pass you can clearly see the highway do a big switchback and climb another 1,000 ft or so to the pass. The road is about 7% grade here, so I was climbing at a banana slug's pace of about 6 mph. That gave me about 30 minutes of staring up at the road ahead and thinking I’d never get there. But sure enough I was getting there, until about 10 minutes from the pass my front tire went soft, one of those slow leaking flats, and I had to pull off the road to fix the flat and spend even more time staring at “the pass that would never arrive.” But as often seems to happen in Randonneuring, if you keep turning the cranks eventually you seem to get where you’re going. I got to the top of Washington Pass around 8:30am.

For the past few weeks I had been thinking that if I could just make it to Washington Pass, then the ride was as good as done. From there it’s almost all downhill. Well, actually there’s about 2,500 ft of climbing between the pass and Monroe, but for some reason that seemed very insignificant. Oh yeah, and there were another 145 miles of road between Washington Pass and Monroe. Nonetheless, at Washington Pass I was totally reveling in the “the rides basically in the bag” vibe.

Kelly had pulled ahead of me on the climb to Washington Pass, and with my flat tire I figured there were perhaps several miles between us now. So I started down the west side of the pass looking forward to the screaming descent. But the screaming descent never came. The wind was continuing to blow out of the west and seemed to have increased considerably on the west side of the mountains. What should have been 20 miles of coasting ended up being 20 miles of having to pedal to maintain 15 – 17 mph which would be slowish on flat ground. It was also quite cold. The temperature at the pass was somewhere in the mid 40s, and with the wind blowing, the windchill factor worked out to be somewhere between damn cold and colder than a welldigger’s ass (incidentally, there’s a peak near Steven’s Pass named Welldigger’s Ass, seriously).

After a few miles of fighting cold headwinds, I came upon Joe Platzner and Kelly on the side of the road. Joe had stopped because he was getting too cold and Kelly had stopped to make sure Joe was okay. Joe was eating everything he could hoping it would warm him up, and it seemed to be working. So after a few minutes he was feeling much better and we all took off again. I pulled ahead on some steep descents over the next few miles and left Kelly and Joe behind. I kept moving thinking I would wait for them at the store in Newhalem. By the time I got to Newhalem it was really becoming a struggle to stay awake on the bike. Apparently 6 – 7 hours of sleep in the past three nights wasn’t quite enough. So I had a couple of Starbuck’s Mocha frappuccino at the store and waited for the caffeine to kick in. I was there about 20 minutes before Kelly and Joe showed up. Apparently Joe had become hypothermic and ended up holing up in an outhouse for a while to get out of the wind so he could warm up. Nice trick.

From Newhalem on, Joe, Kelly and I mostly stuck together except for a short stretch that I mentioned earlier leading up to Granite Falls. For some of the long stretches between Marblemount and Granite Falls, I continued to fight the sleepies. When we stopped at a grocery store in Oso, Kelly went in and I stretched out on a wooden bench out front. I immediately fell asleep and was deep in dreamland when Kelly came out a couple minutes later.

As I’m sure you already gathered from the beginning of this story, we eventually rolled into Monroe to finish the Cascade 1200. We got there at 22:05 (with the 21:00 streak blown on the previous evening, the pressure was off), 88 hours and 5 minutes after the start. I rode 165 miles on the fourth day at a rolling average crawl of 13.25 mph.

The Cascade 1200 was an amazing experience and it definitely pushed the limits of what I thought I was capable of on a bike. Kelly Smith was a great companion for the last three days and deserves a big thank you for keeping me moving when everything in my body was saying, "no, no, no." Joe Platzner also deserves a huge thanks for keeping me entertained and laughing for much of the hardest part of the ride for me.

I also want to send a million thank yous to the many volunteers who helped make the Cascade 1200 a first class event. I couldn’t begin to name them all, but every one of them helped me along the way some small or large way.

And I also want to compliment all of the riders. What an amazing group of people. I met only a small fraction, but I was impressed and inspired by every one I met. There were some truly exceptional athletes on this ride and I felt honored to be among them.

Sorry about the lack of pictures. Sarah took the camera with her to Michigan so I was camera-less for this ride. You can find some pictures taken by others and lots of other ride reports here.


  1. Steve, what a great write up! Riding with you made what could have been ugly a lot of fun. Your 'struggling' pace kept me moving right along. Hope to ride with you again, maybe out East here.

  2. Awesome job, Steve. It was quite an experience that I'll never forget.

    Though I admit that I've already forgotten most of the pain. I could barely sit down on my bike Day 4.

  3. Great job. Fun riding with you. Was a great adventure and truly memorable.

    Let's go riding sometime (we're neighbors by 6 blocks!)