Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Yakima Heat Camp 400k: "Heat" is a Relative Term

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I would be riding a completely gratuitous 400k night start brevet. I say "completely gratuitous" because I've already ridden all of my necessary qualifying rides for PBP. This one was purely for the fun and educational value that comes with riding all night over mountain passes.

This ride was part of the Seattle Randonneur's "Heat Camp" which is a collection of rides all starting from a hotel in lovely Yakima. It's usually pretty warm in Eastern Washington this time of year, so the idea was to spend some time getting acclimated to riding in the heat. Nice idea, but as I descended from Blewett Pass at 3:30 am Saturday morning, shivering uncontrollably in the 37 degree wind, all I could think was, "h-h-h-heat c-c-camp my a-a-ass."

Twenty-some people showed up for heat camp, but only four of us chose to ride the 400k. On my drive into Yakima Friday afternoon, I followed the brevet route from Ellensburg to Yakima just to get familiar with it. It was a bit disconcerting since the wind was howling the whole way and I found that for about half the distance between Ellensburg and Yakima the road had just been covered with a brand new coat of chipseal. With fresh gravel a couple inches deep in places, riding the Yakima Canyon road would be about as much fun as riding your typical logging road.

The four of us (Me, Jeff, Dan and Matt) set off into the windy gravelly night at 10:00pm and rode together to take turns hiding from the wind. The trip from Yakima to Ellensburg turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. The wind had died down a bit with the setting of the sun and the chipseal's bark was worse than its bite. We pulled into the first control in Ellensburg at about 12:30.

As we headed out of Ellensburg for Blewett pass, the wind picked up a bit and we were faced with a long slow slog uphill into a cold headwind. The moon had set and we were far from any artificial lights, so all I could see was the rectangle of road lit up by my head light, and about 10 gazillion stars overhead. With the darkness and the headwind, I couldn't really tell how steep it was, or if I was even going uphill at all. I only knew I was in a very low gear moving very slowly and that none of that seemed to change for a very long time. I didn't bother turning on my helmet light to check my speed or the time. I knew it would only depress me.

During the endless climb toward Blewett Pass I slowly pulled away from the other three riders. I slowed to wait for them at one point but I was getting so cold that I decided to keep moving for warmth. I wouldn't see any of them again until I was back in Yakima many hours later.

Eventually the wind started to die down and not long after I found myself on the summit of Blewett Pass. I flipped on my helmet light for a minute to note the time (3:29am), answer the "info control" question on the brevet card (Q: "What's the elevation of Blewett Pass?" A: 4102') and put on my wool gloves. Then I was off for 20 miles of downhill toward Leavenworth. If not for my violent shivering making it difficult to control the bike this section of the ride might have been a lot of fun.

As I approached Leavenworth with visions of a hot breakfast dancing in my head, the sky was beginning to show signs of life.


After a slow cruise through L-worth I had to temporarily give up on my hopes for a hot breakfast. Nothing was open. What kind of town doesn't have a 24 hour convenience store?? A Bavarian theme town, that's what kind. So, I pressed on knowing that there was a gas station another miles up the road at Cole's Corner that would be open by the time I got there.

The trip up Highway 2 toward Stevens pass was beautiful with the sun starting to light up the peaks around me. It was still early enough that the traffic was nearly non-existent.

At Cole's Corner, still a long, slow twenty miles away from Stevens Pass, I stopped for that overdue breakfast and to refill my water bottles. Now, I'm not that picky about what I eat when I'm randonneuring. I mean, even a foil wrapped sausage muffin sandwich from under the heatlamp is a very adequate breakfast as far as I'm concerned, still the Cole's Corner Shell station was a big disappointment.

With some "food" and hot beverage in my belly I pressed on for Stevens Pass, feeling quite good and happy to have survived the night.

The climb to Stevens Pass from the east isn't terribly steep but it does run on a bit. The day was in full swing and the Highway 2 traffic was starting to pick up by the time I finally made the summit, about 8:30. It was cold, but not nearly as bad as Blewett had been the night before. This was the turn-around point and halfway to the end of the ride, though I kept my celebrations pretty low-key since halfway still meant over 125 miles and another 4,000 ft. mountain pass.

The trip back down to Leavenworth was fast and fun, though I'm not terribly fond of Highway 2's lack of shoulder. Cars come flying by at 60 - 70 mph, not willing to give an inch to some crazy guy on a bike trying to find a safe haven between the crumbled shoulder and the speeding traffic.

After an honest-to-goodness sit down lunch in Leavenworth at the Subway with a tankard of their finest Mountain Dew it was time for Old Blewett Pass, the last big climb of the ride. The sun was finally above the hills and the day was starting to feel like July in Eastern Washington.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I've been looking forward to riding Old Blewett Pass for a while. It didn't disappoint me one bit. The road is barely wide enough for two cars and it winds around ridges and gullys as it climbs at a fairly consistent 5% - 6% through the trees. I was passed by maybe two or three cars the entire time I was on old road.

Paul and Noel, two SiR volunteers had set up a nice little rest stop at the top of the pass and offered me water (which I needed desperately), a bite to eat and a few minutes to sit without having to turn the cranks. But I didn't sit around for long. I knew from Old Blewett Pass the rest of the route was almost all downhill and I was anxious to get on to it.

After a long gentle downhill run, there's a little ridge that the highway climbs over before you get some more downhill into Leavenworth. The climb only lasts three miles, but it seems like a lot more after 200 miles and three mountain passes. And just to rub it in a bit, about halfway up, the Washington Dept. of Transportation remind you that you still have a good chunk of riding ahead before you'll be back in Yakima with a cold beer in hand.

On top of the ridge outside Ellensburg is one of those enormous wind farms that seem to be popping up like dandelions across eastern Washington. Of course, they put the wind mills there for a reason. As I topped the ridge, I was blasted by a warm wind. Luckily the road and the wind were both heading for Ellensburg so I was able to ride like a pro for the next 15 miles, easily averaging 30+ mph all the way into town.

After the penultimate control stop in Ellensburg, the wind continued to push me on through the freshly chipsealed Canyon Rd nearly all the way back to Yakima. I rolled into the finish at the Clarion Hotel at 5:49pm feeling darn fine all things considered.

Over the last few miles I thought a lot about my upcoming trip to France. This 400k was a good test of what the first part of PBP might be like. I rode through the night just like I'm planning to do in France on the first night. I maintained a pace of about 5 hours per 100k, which is what I'm shooting for in France. I finished feeling like I could probably maintain the same pace for another 200k if I had to, which I'll need to do to get to Brest. So, I think it bodes well for my PBP plans.

Thanks to Maggie and Eric for hosting the Yakima Heat (snicker, snicker) Camp! I had a fantastic time. And Thanks Paul and Noel for feeding and watering me on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere!

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