11 September 2011

High Pass Challenge

Clocks are magic.

Without clocks sporting events are casual, fun and you can talk while participating. Throw a clock into the mix and suddenly people are shooting for a PR, racing their friends, trying to keep up with others they have no business trying to keep up with and basically hauling ass.

The organizers of the Cascade Bicycle Club High Pass Challenge proudly advertised the presence of a clock so you can probably guess what happened.

Still, this was a ride I had wanted to do for ages and this year there was finally no conflict in my schedule AND a friend was signed up so off to the 'races' I went.

Truth be told, I am not immune to the competitive spirit that a clock infuses into timed rides. The email conversation that my friend John P and I had prior to the ride went something like this.

John: "Yes, we should carpool.  It looks like it is about 2.5 hours to Packwood for a 7-8 AM start-line.  Leave your house at 4:45?"

Martin: "Is 4:30 okay?  I hear some people 'race' this because it's timed and it might be nice to get in a fast group... :)"

John: "Okay......4:30....are you sure you don't want me to see if the condo at Crystal is available Saturday night?"

Martin: "I know it's early but I don't want to be gone from home that long.  It's only 15 minutes... :)"

One word: predictable. A few more: Martin-has-not-trained-in-ages-and-pretty-much-had-to-stop-riding-two-weeks-ago-after-his-accident-and-isn't-riding-much-anyway-so-what-is-he-thinking. That's rhetorical of course as we all know that Martin was NOT thinking and was instead experiencing the peak of a competitive fever hot flash.

So we meet at my house at 4:30, load up the van and drive down over Cayuse Pass and into Packwood where this ride started.

I guess in the back of my mind I really wanted to make that 7:00 AM start. But we had to get gas and it's a long way and so I was trying to be cool with missing it but the closer we got to Packwood the more it looked like we were actually going to arrive in time and the more excited I got. We pulled into the event parking lot at 6:40 and I immediately noticed two things.

  1. There were already a TON of people lined up behind the start line rearing to go.
  2. The parking lot was pretty full.

As luck would have it I spotted a slot not far from the start or the toilets and so we blasted in, pulled our bikes out, pinned our numbers and changed clothes. By the time I get my tires pumped up and roll away from the van it's about 6:50 and I have to piss like a race horse. Or a guy that has been trying to hydrate prior to a long, hot ride; take your pick.

I hear they are handing out RFID timing chips so I grab one and then get in line at the porta-potty. When I am number eight in line the announcer comes on the PA and says, "Eight minutes to go!" Holy cow! They are actually going to start this thing on time… When I am number five in line the announcer let's us all know that it is now 6:55 and when I am number two in line I hear it's 6:58 and I am sweating. Not just because we might miss the start but also because I am doing the wee wee dance big time.

Did I mention that I still can't see John? He took off to go to the bathroom but got in some other line. Yikes.

No lie - with one minute to go (I think they announced that too) I see John. I wave to him and yell at him so he sees me and ask him to lock the van and then it's my turn to use the toilet.

Let's just say I was fast.

I exit the booth, grab my bike and John and I pull onto the starting road about 80 riders back from the front. They sound the 'gun' and we're off.

I had no idea what to expect but I heard the start is animated so right away I am picking my way through riders and moving up in the pack. It was that 'racer's instinct' kicking in I guess. We are not 200 m down the road when I can finally see that there are about 20 riders off the front and they have a gap! Crap. I check to see that John is behind me (which of course he is as he used to race) and we take off.

I had to go 29 mph for at least .5 miles to catch up. Nice warm-up. Not.

As I latch onto a wheel I am breathing pretty damn hard. Eventually I relax and look around and see another good friend Paul M who 'won' this thing last year so I feel I made the right decision and settle in.

The next 20 miles are a little tense… Our pack is going about 26-29 mph but soon we get caught by a larger group. With bike handling skills all over the board I am really trying to pay attention and not draft too close and also to stay relatively near the front so I don't get gapped off and needlessly have to expend energy or get caught up in some horrendous wreck. In spite of my best efforts I have to close two small gaps but the group keeps re-forming and surging and it's not what you would call safe. :)

ASIDE - I am continually amazed by some people that will go to the front and absolutely slay themselves at the start of rides like this in spite of the fact that we have a hard climb coming up very fast and then a 20 mile climb soon after…?! What are they thinking? This race fever is obviously running rampant.

Paul and I talk while we ride and he tells me about a 1-mile climb coming up that is relatively steep and that I should get up near the front of the pack when we turn left off of the highway. It's easy to do this and it was great advice as some guy in a Raleigh jersey hits the front in the big chainring and proceeds to absolutely shred the bunch. At the bottom we were at least 80 strong and by the top we're down to about 13. Thank good ness John and Paul are right there.

As the hill levels off some our pace relaxes a bit as well and soon about 10 more people catch up to us. But then the road tips up again. This same Raleigh jersey guy goes to the front and one-by-one people pop until we are down to seven. I look around and see 1) a young kid in a Hagens Berman kit and carbon tubular wheels, 2) Brian E (longtime local strongman), 3) some ripped guy with very subtle world championship rainbow stripes on his socks, 4) this dude with a CamelBak, 5) Raleigh guy, 6) someone in an orange jersey and then there is me.


My friend John is gone. Paul is gone. I am at my limit wondering if this is such a smart place to try and hang out. It also occurs to me that John and I never agreed if we were going to ride together or what so I am feeling pretty ass-holish to boot. Does it make me slow down? Nope. I justified it to myself this way.

  • I probably won't last all the way.
  • I'll just see if I can make it to the top of Windy Ridge.
  • When I get shelled I'll pull over and wait for John.

And just like that I decided to keep going.

As it turned out, our pace dipped again and a group of about six caught us and John was one of them. This gave me the chance to ask what he wanted to do, admit that I was being a self-centered ass and should we ride together. To this John said I was free to go ahead and gave me his blessing. For some reason not having any excuses to slow down put even more pressure on me…

As we climbed I think Raleigh jersey guy did 99% of the work. Literally. And at least 70% of the time he was in the big ring. Unreal. I recall turning to the Hagens kid at one point and gasping, "That guy sure is strong, eh…?" He concurred. At one point orange jersey guy simply pulled out of the line and went backwards. I never saw him again.

The pace did slow. Thank god. Finally I was able to talk while riding although I saved my breath. And Raleigh jersey guy did shift to the small chainring on the steeper sections. Still, his cadence was about half of mine! Most of this climb found me in my lowest gear and this guy is alternating between his big ring and the small ring while in the middle of his cassette.

I had been doing my best to eat and drink. Unfortunately I had tried to take a bite of a bar at the base of the first hill and almost choked to death because my gasping for air caused me to inhale some food. I was also drinking from my liquid food bottles and at one point when the pace eased slightly I actually managed to suck down a caffeinated gel while on the climb. Still, I could tell I was on the edge. It was the strangest feeling; one speed was just manageable and anything higher would put me in the red and I knew I only had seconds before blowing. Luckily these red sections were few and far enough between that I could cling to the group.

During one of those lulls in the pace I casually asked Raleigh jersey if he would mind pulling over at the next food stop so we all could get water. You know, not like I was tired or anything… I was just thirsty. He was like, "Sure, no problem!" so now I had a goal. Last to the next aid station.

As we neared the aid station at 46 miles (the one I dearly wanted to pull over at) rainbow socks gets out of the saddle and surges. I mean this was a major acceleration! I came this close to saying something and then thought better to keep my mouth shut. I mean people should be able to do what they want, right? Still, I was just coming off the back as we rolled by the turnout to the aid station and so instead I just gasped. "Can we stop here?"

Brian said, "How about we pull over on the way back." Full stop. Of course Raleigh jersey agreed and the pace picked back up. By now I could tell I was totally cooked and it was just a matter of time.

Just so you know, there are a LOT of rollers in the last 5-10 miles of this ride before you get to the turnaround at Windy Ridge. I would just barely get tailed off the back (it was so subtle that some people might not have recognized it as such) on the climbs and then catch back on and roll through the group to the front on the descents (just so I could start the next climb with a head start) totally faking it. When we got to the parking lot we did the loop and I asked if they would wait so I could use the toilet. Raleigh jersey said there was no water and to be 'fast' so Brian and I ran in, did our thing and ran out. There was just one person (rainbow socks) in the parking lot. Damn.

As we got on our bikes and raced up the road I could feel myself coming apart. Then we could see a pair of riders up in the distance and I flat out told Brian I would not be able to bridge that gap and he proceeded to ride away from me.

Right about this time I saw John heading the other direction. He smiled and I waved. All show. Other people were incredibly encouraging! They would shout out what the gap was between me and the leaders (as if I could do anything about it) and tell us we were doing great, etc. It was kinda cool.

Rainbow socks and I sorta rode together and sorta did not. He seemed to do his own thing pretty much all the time and was obviously a stronger climber than me but on each roller/descent I would pass him and then keep on going across the flatter transitions and when the road tipped up he was right on my wheel and then would slowly ride away from me again. Impressive but it did not help me any.

As I pulled into the aid station we saw at mile 46 (so this would be at about mile 66?) I could see that everyone from my original group had pulled in as well. Whew. I quickly filled both of my bottles and looked around for something to eat as I half expected there would be no more stops if I stayed with this bunch. NOTHING was appealing to me which is a sure sign that I have been going hard and my stomach is in a bit of turmoil… In the end as I saw guys rolling out I grabbed two small bananas in desperation and sprinted after them.

Dave D (Events Director at Cascade Bicycle Club) was at this aid station and wished me luck. I believe his exact words were, "Careful on the descent, And you better catch Brian before the flats…!" Thanks Dave. Thanks a bunch. Did I mention that Brian was sporting some cute, little carbon fiber clip-on TT bars? Oh yes.

Although I managed to catch back on to the lead group which had re-formed after this food stop it was a very short-lived joy. On the fist climb I was off, caught back on during the descent and then the next climb shelled me for good. Bu-bye. At some point during this section of the ride a rider going the other way yelled at us that we were only 30 seconds behind the leader. We all looked at each other and then it dawned on us… CamelBak guy was up the road as he had never stopped. Nice move.

Whew. In a way it was a big relief. I had really been pushing myself hard and honestly was not sure how I had lasted this long. Somehow I had achieved my goal of lasting to the half way point and so now I throttled it back, tried to get my stomach to calm down and once I got on the descent I enjoyed the hell out of it. What a freaking fantastic descent that was!

The road has all these signed 20 mph corners but once you go through one you realize that you don't need your brakes at all and can easily take them at 40. They were banked just a little and really well designed. Needless to say I had a huge smile plastered to me face for the next 30 minutes.

As I rolled up to the next water stop I figured it would be the perfect spot to wait for John so I filled my bottles, ate another banana and proceeded to hang out by the side of the road. Not 10 minutes later John pulls up and after he has a chance to re-stock too we roll out. And there was still more great descent to come! This road is absolutely brilliant.

It's not perfect of course meaning there are some dips and cracks and one corner that got washed out and has an interim wood bridge with gaps between the planks but overall it's excellent and I had a super time. After much extoling of how awesome this road was John and I pulled into the last aid station.

From here it's 10-15 miles of incredibly scenic road. It climbs a little again which was not so welcome at this point but the forest is amazing. All the trees are draped with moss, there are ferns everywhere and it just feels and smells like old growth. At one point we rode past a campsite and some guy in full camo had a huge animal (deer?) strung up from a tree and was butchering the carcass. I wish I'd had my camera…

By now I was torched. And John was doing just fine. Kinda serves me right for ditching him in my vein attempt at glory I suppose. Not only was I holding cramps at bay but my back was blowing up big time. There was a bit of respite as we descended back to the highway but then it was pure slog back to the start/finish. There was a slight tailwind and we were able to maintain something around 23 mph but ouch. I had to beg John to stop THREE TIMES so I could get off my bike and stretch my back. That's three times in 10 miles. Not fun. John pulled most of this last section and I am very grateful for that.

As we pulled into the finish Paul and Raleigh jersey were sitting in the grass. Raleigh jersey looked amazingly fresh and had already changed his clothes. Turns out there was a sprinkler behind the parking lot and so John and I immediately stripped down to our cycling shorts and took a 'shower'. Oh man did that feel good. And cold.

They really take care of you on this ride. The food throughout is excellent, there is a lot of it and then at the finish you are treated to schwag (the by now ubiquitous cycling event pint glass) and they had a grill going that was serving several different kinds of sausage, grilled onions and FREE BEER. That's right; multiple giant coolers full of various kinds of New Belgium goodness. My current favorite is the Ranger IPA which they had in cool looking cans.

In my depleted state I knew one beer was all I could handle so luckily hey also had sparkling water. Of which I had three bottles. And one for the road. It had been a hot day.

This ride is SO scenic. Windy Ridge is - in my humble opinion - much more beautiful than the Johnston Ridge route. You see Spirit Lake, you are in the blast zone and the climb and descent are definitely more fun to ride. WAY more fun.

Turns out both John and I ended up in the top 10! I heard that two guys from the lead bunch did not stop at the last aid station and instead blew by the way the ride had come up the mountain. The only problem was the route went the other way and they shortened the distance by about 10 miles. That spells DQ. What a bummer. It also turns out that Raleigh jersey's name is Tyler and that he used to race on First Rate Mortgage and he obviously has not lost much since.

I'm really happy I was able to hang as long as I did, I'm really happy John gave me his blessing to go up the road and I'm really happy that we connected again to finish together. It would have been awful to ride those last 30 (especially the last 15!) miles alone.

Congratulation to Tyler who was the first finisher and to Paul who did ride solo for at least the last 30 miles and still finished ahead of us.

Some days my back cooperates more than others and this was just not one of those days. But in retrospect I still loved being out there. That is some inspiring scenery. And on the upside my foot, hand and shoulder (all the things I injured when I fell off my mountain bike two weeks ago) were not a problem! Oh yeah, and I think I set a personal record for least time off the bike on a ride like this. 17 minutes total?! And that includes waiting for John.

Sleep 5
Waking HR  
Body Weight  
Body Fat  
Workout Food 2 large bottles each w/3 scoops Perpetuem, 3 large bottles w/Nuun, 3 small bananas, 2 Fig Newtons, 2 gels, sample size Clif Bar
Time of Day 7:00 AM
Workout Type  
Weather mid 50s at the start, mid 80s at the finish, sunny, dry, light wind
Time 5:50
Distance 112 miles
Pace 20 mph
Equipment Road Bike
Neuvation wheels
39/53, 12-25
Clothing bib shorts, sleeveless undershirt, short sleeve jersey, arm warmers, wind vest, cap


  1. Windy Ridge the prettier side of St. Helens: You got that right! I've been doing that ride from Randle once a year for the past couple of years. I just love it.


  2. @Richard - totally. It just got added to my must-do list for every summer.

  3. Hi
    I just stumbled across your blog searching for write ups of this year's HPC. I was one of the last riders to squeeze in under 7 hrs for a gold ribbon. I have never done a ride like this and had a great time except I realized afterwards that I was stopping for too long if I was going to be worrying about the clock. I really enjoyed reading your account of what was going on at the front of the ride. I remember seeing the first two groups of three heading back from the turnaround towards the lunch stop and thinking it was groups working together. Didn't realize it was a bit more of a race. Thanks for sharing the details.

    Also, I've ridden the courage classic the last three years and recognize you as the guy who rides it on the single speed. Way to go.

    Now a quick plug for our new ride. Passport to Pain on Vashon Island tomorrow if you are interested: 75miles/10,000'.

  4. @Unknown - nice job! Under 7 hours is fantastic.

    And the Courage Classic is a great ride, isn't it? They sure take care of you.

    That Passport to Pain ride looks Excellent and I will try to catch it next year.


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