Mt Rainier, finally!

After a cold derailed my plans to repeat last year’s Sunrise-Cayuse-Chinook ride on Mt Rainier before STP, I was trying to figure out when I could get that ride in. Both for the training benefit, and because it’s gorgeous.

Looking at my calendar, this past Wednesday was the only time I really had a chance to get it in, as long as I got up early enough. I really don’t like mornings. But at 5:45AM I bounded out of bed (or crawled) and was on the road by 6:15AM.

Oh, and if you’re counting, yes, I was heading off to ride up a mountain a couple times just 4 days after STP. Pushing yourself is how you build strength. And spoiler alert: my legs are now tired. And I am giving them a chance to rest.

The drive to the ride’s starting point (the parking lot at the turn-off for Crystal Mountain) was uneventful. Though there is a part, about 40 miles before you get to the parking lot, when Mt Rainier starts filling your field of vision. And it gets bigger. And bigger. And you’re not even close yet. And you start to wonder about your plans to bike up it today, and do RAMROD in a couple weeks.


After the heat wave we’ve been having, it was very bizarre to step out of the car into 48 degree weather. It was a cloudless and sunny day, but the morning can be chilly on a mountain! I was quite glad that I had grabbed my leg warmers at the last minute–they stayed on the entire ride. But since the road goes uphill immediately, I knew that being cold wouldn’t last long. I was right.

The nice thing about doing this ride on a weekday was that, as compared to a nice weekend day, there was hardly any traffic. No line at the booth to enter the National Park, very few cars going by me–and thank you to all of them who did for leaving lots of room when they passed me.

It’s a good steady climb up to Sunrise–in fact, pretty much the same as when I wrote about it last year… The wildflowers were in riotous full bloom, and made a beautiful contrast of bright color against the dark evergreen of the trees. This is one of the things I really enjoy about biking up mountains–not only can you enjoy grand vistas (which I did), but you can also see the small details of a flower’s petals.


I didn’t stop to take pictures, because I had to get back home in time to get to work. But here’s a photo from the Mt Rainier page on wildflowers. Click on the photo to get to the page, with links to info about the gazillion different wildflowers up there.

About a third of the way up to Sunrise, I noticed a car up ahead, pulled over with its hazards flashing. I slowed a bit and looked around, and just then a bear wandered onto the road ahead of the car.

I stopped.

I stayed stopped.

The bear meandered across the road, taking its time, and eventually got to the other side. (Q. Why did the bear cross the road? A. It’s a bear, it can do whatever it wants.)

I stayed stopped.

And sure enough, two little bear cubs bounded onto the road, bouncing their way across. I think that bears are pretty cute, and bear cubs are even cuter, but I was really glad that I did not have a closer view of them!

Bear family hung out on the side of the road for a bit, then continued up the mountainside, and I finally resumed pedaling. Given that I saw what was going on and stopped in time, it was a really neat experience–I was far enough away that they didn’t even bother glancing in my direction, not when there were yummy plant bits to nibble on the side of the road (apparently). But it was still a little closer than I felt I needed to be to a mother bear and her cubs!

The rest of the ride up to Sunrise continued without incident. As soon after STP as it was, I was pleased at how good my legs felt–my time from the car up to the top of Sunrise was about 12 minutes faster than last year.

I had really been looking forward to chocolate milk and a hot dog at the cafeteria (why a hot dog? I don’t know–it just sounded really good.) Alas, the kitchen didn’t open until 11:00AM, and it was only 10:15. That’s what I get for getting out of bed so early in the morning. So I had chocolate milk and some snacks from their cooler, and 15 minutes later, was rolling back downhill.

Besides my improved time up to Sunrise, I was also pleased by how ready to go I felt–when I got to the top, I didn’t need to rest and recover for a long time. I just wanted to fuel up and keep going. When I did this ride last year, I definitely appreciated taking some long breaks along the way.

Up to Cayuse Pass, and then the switchbacks to Chinook Pass. This continues to be a really fun part for me–the grade lessens considerably for a while, and you suddenly feel like you’re going so fast! Uphill! And then a last little push, and you’re there! No need to pedal from this point onwards, unless you feel like it.

After the great descent, I got back to the car, just 4:15 after I left it. Not bad for a 55 mile, 6,000′ elevation gain ride. After feeling strong on STP, and not feeling like I needed tons of recovery time between climbs on this ride, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic for RAMROD.

This is a pretty great ride to do–but you know what’s really awesome? Sitting on the couch. That’s pretty much the bee’s knees.


Hello, Haleakala!

Short Version: We continued the tradition of freezing our butts off on vacation, and rode up Mt Haleakala in Maui. Because who goes to Hawaii to be warm?!?! 36 miles riding continuously up, to 10,023 feet, where the air is very thin. Then roll back down to sea level and breathe again. Some photos (as usual, if you click to embiggen, they’re embetter):


At the top of Haleakala, with the crater (or, more properly, erosional valley…) in the background. We figured our jerseys from the Cinghiale trip were appropriate for such a ride.


Another view, the Big Island in the background. You really feel on top of the world up there.

Another view, the Big Island in the background. You really feel on top of the world up there.


Obligatory elevation sign photo. We really did it!

Obligatory elevation sign photo. We did it!


Better shot of the moon-scape crater without us in the way messing up the view.

Better shot of the moon-scape crater without us in the way messing up the view.


Long version:

During a cold snap around Thanksgiving, Ian couldn’t take it any more. He looked at our gobs of frequent flyer miles, and started researching flight options to Maui. So, post-Christmas, we headed out for four days in tropical warmth. To our amusement, another cold snap settled in to Seattle right as we left…

Beaches and tropical paradise are nice and all, but we wouldn’t want to enjoy ourselves too much on vacation, so we looked into the options for bicycling up Mt Haleakala. It’s supposedly the longest paved, continuous climb in the world.

The climb goes from sea level to 10,023 feet with just a couple flat or downhill sections so brief if you blinked you’d miss them. I quibbled with the “continuous” label for the climb because of these, but Ian said I was being silly.

At any rate, it looked like the good options were to rent road bikes from Maui Cyclery, or sign up to do a supported ride with them, their schedule permitting. Their schedule did permit, so we opted for the latter, meaning that an angel named Ed drove up, periodically stopping and offering us and a couple others food, water, and encouragement.

It also meant we could pack all sorts of “just in case” gear for the descent, and then choose what the conditions merited once we got up to 6500′ (Ed had to leave off there because commercial operations aren’t allowed past the National Park entrance, after some people on downhill-only bike tours died…)

Sure, we could have done the ride on our own, lots of people do, but it sure was nice to have the support of someone else taking care of our water and food and gear. The less you have to carry on your bike uphill, the better. Not to mention that Ed was nice, fun, and encouraging. Thanks Ed and Maui Cyclery!

Pre-trip, as usual I dealt with my anxiety about this epic and difficult ride by reading as many accounts as I could of it. The ride sounded really hard–but also like something that I could do. There are a couple brief steep sections (best of all is the final steep kicker at the very end when there is no air to breathe, and you are so ready to be done. That’s a fun little treat…) but the grade overall isn’t that steep. It certainly wasn’t as steep as a bunch of the climbs we did this summer. The trick is that it just keeps going.

For 36 miles.

To over 10,000 feet.

But though I’m not the fastest person on a bike around, I am decent at pacing myself so that I can keep going. That seemed like one of the keys to this ride–calm and steady.

The other key was what I couldn’t control: the weather. At any time of the year, you can encounter gale-force winds, freezing rain, impenetrable fog, or sunshine and warmth. We got the latter. We had about as good weather as one could possibly have for this: sunny, warm, and barely any wind.

To contrast, here is us at the summit two days later (the overnight gusts to 70mph had calmed down, but even the people who work there were noting that it was a pretty windy day):


A slightly breezy day.

It was hard to stand up in the wind that day. Much less walk into it. Much less bike into it. As we drove up, we passed several cyclists making the ascent that day–I have huge respect for them. This was an unbelievably difficult ride in calm weather, and I don’t think I would have made it had we been riding up that day.

Meanwhile, two days earlier in calm weather, we picked up bikes at Maui Cyclery (titanium Litespeeds, if you’re curious. In an instance of epic unfairness, my bike had a compact double with great low end gearing, but Ian’s had a triple crankset with even better low end gearing. I really could have used those couple extra gears he had…) and after some time getting set up, headed uphill at around 8:45AM.

And about 5 minutes later, Ian decided his saddle was too low, rode a little longer, decided it really was too too low, and turned around for the shop to get it raised and get a multi-tool in case he needed to adjust it again. The bikes were really nice, but a rental just isn’t the same as your own.

Also, I know that if I rent a bike again in the future for a ride of any length, I need to bring my own saddle. I’ll save you the details.

It’s Maui–it seems a little ridiculous to state that the ride was beautiful. Duh. You go through a variety of landscapes–small town, farmland, forest, grassland, volcanic moonscape, and so on.

Not only is the landscape around you beautiful, but pretty soon, so are the views out over the landscape. The beginning of the ride is a pretty gentle ascent (most of the ride is a pretty gentle ascent–but in the beginning, it still feels like a gentle ascent too), but it’s steady.

Before you’ve really even done much of the ride, you’ve already ascended a long ways, and can see northwest out past Paia to the ocean, the view already looking like an aerial photograph. Whatever tropical magic it is, the angle of the light, the temperature of the water, whatever, the ocean is that magical tropical blue, and the breaking waves that are so impressive close up are just a pencil line of white outlining the coast.

And a little bit further on, you can see across the isthmus connecting the older mountains of West Maui and the newer mass formed by Haleakala, all the way to the ocean on the southwest. And the peaks of West Maui start to look about eye-level.

Looking out towards West Maui from near the summit. (Taken on the day we drove up. Because there wasn't much extra fiddle-fiddle going on the day we biked.)

Looking out towards West Maui from near the summit. (Taken on the day we drove up. Because there wasn’t much extra fiddle-faddle going on the day we biked.)

Another fun part about the ascent was that, until the 6,500 foot mark, you can wave at all the groups of downhill cyclists, and feel pretty bad-ass that you’re biking in the other direction. This downhill Haleakala cycling is a big tourist attraction on Maui.

Some outfits pick you up at your resort at 2AM, drive you up to the summit to watch the sunrise (and nearly freeze to death), then drive back out of the park to 6,500 feet, and put you on some sort of upright cruiser or mountain bike with squealing brakes and a full-face motorcycle helmet, and follow a guide back down to sea-level. Other tours omit the sunrise, and just let you off at 6,500 feet at a more reasonable time of day.

Some people love it. Some people have gotten seriously injured or killed doing it (hence the Park not letting them start their rides from the summit any more). Instead of completely bad-mouthing the experience, I’ll just say it’s not my thing.

But thanks to these tours, there’s a lot of awareness of cyclists on the road to Haleakala. And the guides know what it means when you’re biking the other way–they cheer you on as they lead their group down, as do some of the people on the tour. Occasionally I gave in to the impulse, and cheerfully called out to them “you’re going the wrong way!”

But scenery, views, and other cyclists aside, it’s a daunting climb. Normally when I get to the half-way point of a climb, I start to feel a sense of accomplishment, and get more optimistic about it, as I can start telling myself that I’ve already completed more than I have left to do.

But when I passed the 5,000 foot mark, I had a hard time convincing myself that there wasn’t so much left, comparatively speaking. After all, the remaining 5,000 feet still counted as a REALLY BIG CLIMB!

For perspective, Haleakala is somewhat comparable to climbing Hurricane Ridge, one of my big rides of the summer, twice. Without any break in the middle for descending back to the bottom. And the second time, you’re already really tired, and now you can’t breathe either.

This post is too long, so here's a nice random bit of West Maui from another day.

This post is too long, so here’s a nice random bit of West Maui from another day.

From about 5,500 feet to the Visitor Center at 7,000 feet, I was really feeling the magnitude of what I still had left to do, and not feeling like I was making much progress. And the switchbacks in that section are a bit steeper overall than most of the rest of the ride. I never went to my dark place on this ride, but this was the hardest section for me.

At 7,000 feet, something flipped for me. I only had three 1,000-foot climbs remaining, which seemed completely doable. 1,000 feet is still a chunk of climbing, but it’s a chunk that is conceptually manageable–and only three of them. That I could do!

And I did. One key for me to those last 3,000 feet was focusing on a couple hundred feet at a time. That’s not much climbing, and it makes a measurable dent in each 1,000-foot chunk.

Another key was never to push so hard that I needed to take a deep breath. Because the air just wasn’t there. Which wasn’t a problem–as long as I didn’t need to breathe that hard.

So, yeah, I didn’t set any land speed records over those last 3,000 feet…

Through all of this, I could also look out and down onto mountains of West Maui, and even the clouds. It was an incredible sensation. Mind-blowing doesn’t even get there.

More West Maui :)

More West Maui 🙂

So yes, biking up Haleakala is a pretty insane thing to do, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a reason to do it. It’s not the same in a car–as I know because we drove up two days later. You get the same views, but not the same opportunity to study them and their evolution, nor the sense of ownership and accomplishment.

At any rate, we made the summit. The last little kicker of steepness wasn’t as bad as I worried. I won’t say it was pretty getting up it, but it was more of the same slog of just-keep-going, but even slower.

I almost had a tragic tale to tell, as negotiating the turn from the poorly placed curb cut to the path to the very top exceeded my bike-handling skills at the moment. But all’s well that ends well, or so they say.

One fun part of biking to the summit is that you become a minor celebrity up there. People gawk and ask about the ride and act generally impressed with you. One nice woman–another athlete who does (I believe) trail running and other such extreme things, and so could really understand the effort we had just put in–insisted on taking lots of photos for us, with different parts of the view as backgrounds. Thanks, nice woman whose name we didn’t get!

Great as all that is, the prospect of a shower and real food beckons seductively. But at 10,023 feet, even a fast descent will still take a while. So we didn’t linger too much at the top, somewhat anxious to be done with the day.

The descent was really spectacular. At first I was pretty cautious, as I was on an unfamiliar bike (and my lower back was cramping up, the brakes didn’t feel as grippy as mine, and my wrists were fatigued and sore).

But, especially after a stop to stretch out our backs and other bits at the Visitor’s Center, at which point I was able to adjust the brakes a bit too, my confidence grew. The rental bikes actually handled great on the descent, and the road was beautifully constructed and banked for descending. Even getting a flat tire around 4,500 feet couldn’t put much of a damper in the fun of the descent. (Also, thanks to the guy in the Castelli kit who stopped to make sure we had everything we needed, and helped us committed pump-users with the CO2 cartridge the rental bike had in case of a flat.)

Afterward, Ian commented that he would come back to do that ride again just to do the descent–and this from someone who doesn’t always consider descending to be very fun. It really was that good. Or, I should say, it really was that good on well-handling road bikes, after earning every inch of the descent by climbing it.

I found a better shot of the view out to West Maui. I'm too lazy to rearrange the photos in the post, so I'm just adding this one in here.

I found a better shot of the view out to West Maui. I’m too lazy to rearrange the photos in the post, so I’m just adding this one in here.

Nope, those downhill tours really aren’t my thing.

We made it in to town, happily rolling past several blocks of backed up car traffic (I will own the gleeful cackle I let out when we went past a car that had refused to go around us for quite a while–when we were biking on the shoulder–and then after turning onto a road without a shoulder, got upset and zoomed by in a huff, veering out into oncoming traffic unnecessarily to get around us…)

And then one of the best parts of a ride like this–a life-affirming shower, clean clothes, and DINNER!

We spent most of the rest of the evening discussing what a crazy, amazing, difficult, fun, crazy thing that had been to do. The phrase “I can’t believe we just did that!!!” was uttered more than once.

Riding up Mt Haleakala is definitely the most difficult ride I’ve done–but as far as personal challenge, much easier rides have been much harder for me.

This was a ride I felt that I had the tools to be able to do. The first time I rode up Zoo Hill, I spent the whole two days before with waves of adrenaline and cold sweats sweeping over me, not even knowing if I could make it. I started this blog to help deal with my anxiety that, in signing up for the Cinghiale Dolomites trip, I had gotten in way over my head.

One of the great things about the last couple years of cycling has been not so much the growth in my abilities on the bike, but the growth in my confidence in my abilities and what I can accomplish on the bike.

After all, there has to be some reason that I keep on doing stupid things like shivering with cold on top of a mountain when visiting Hawaii to get away from the cold.

In all seriousness, it was an amazing day. Challenging, fun, and really really astonishingly beautiful. I’m not exactly sure I would recommend doing it… But it was so worth doing.

Not from the ride, but a representative sample of beautiful Maui-ness

Not from the ride, but a representative sample of beautiful Maui-ness


The biggest single climb I've ever done, to the highest altitude I've ever been at not in an airplane.

The biggest single climb I’ve ever done, to the highest altitude I’ve ever been at not in an airplane.

Dolomites and Alps, Day 6


Long version: Erm. Uhhh, excuse the all-caps outburst there. And to be fair, I only rode with him briefly as he worked his way from the back of the group to the front. The actual story of the day is I RODE UP THE GAVIA WITH ELAINE HAMPSTEN!!!! I had a blast riding with her, and it was a super-duper awesome time.

But still, it was Gavia day, and however you cut it, it was a red letter kind of day. Upon reflection, I think that wasn’t an all-caps outburst so much as a calm, deliberate description of the day.

In case you haven’t hung on every single word I have written, Andy’s win of the Giro and place in the cycling pantheon and in the bosom of Italy, come of course from his performance over his whole career. But they also come from one brutal day on the Gavia. It’s known as “the day the big men cried.” (Read Andy’s account here. Read a long Sports Illustrated account here. A shorter account by here. See Bob Roll put people into hysterics talking about it here.)

So riding the Gavia with Andy Hampsten is kinda a big deal.

I might have had some nerves associated with the day. It’s kinda a hard climb. And then you turn around and have to come down a technical descent, with some steep downhill corners on rough pavement. And after the previous day, I wouldn’t describe my legs as fresh. But hey, this is what I was here for, right? Or something?

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for the Gavia day

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for Gavia day

We had a brief pre-ride talk–not much in the way of direction to give, just take the road from in front of the hotel all the way up to the top–but Andy did go into some discussion of extra-credit options we would have once at the top.

"Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can't miss it."

“Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can’t miss it.”

And then we were off.

After a bit of sorting out, people going ahead, then falling back, or vice versa, I found myself alongside Elaine, and we seemed to be at the same pace. For the most part we chatted our way up the Gavia–though there were some sections that I had to save all my oxygen for bicycling. It was a really lovely climb, through a few towns, then it got into the trees, the road narrowed, and it felt like your own private bicycling road. The illusion was very occasionally shattered by a car or motorcycle, but only occasionally.

After a while, an obscenely chipper Andy caught up with us, boisterous and talkative. He apparently hadn’t noticed the 10% + grade that we were grinding up… After riding together for a while, he shot up ahead, quickly out of sight. I asked Elaine if she’s ever seen him sweat while riding a bicycle. She said no.


She also said that on Gavia day, it is his habit to start at the back of the group, and then cycle through the whole group, and get to the top first to greet everyone as they arrive. And I can only imagine how much fun it must be for him to be able to ride this road easily, recreationally, and not in blizzard conditions with the Giro d’Italia on the line… No wonder he was so disgustingly chipper!

Partway up I was shocked to see Ian–I never see him on a climb. He was taking pictures of me and Elaine as we went by, and later I found out that his knee was hurting, which is why he had stopped. But thinking he was just being a tourist, I blithely went by with Elaine.

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey. Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey (click to embiggen). Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Towards the top we had a little adventure threading our way through a herd of cows who appeared not to have heard the phrase “share the road.” However the cows did not seem to be as productive as the sheep, and our bikes exited from the cow field as clean as they entered it (which in my case was not very–but at least it was merely dirt…)

Also towards the top, the temperature started dropping noticeably. What had been a humid warm day was becoming a humid cool day. Then the humid became wet. And then we got to the van!

There I completely changed clothes, into a long sleeve jersey, and 3/4 length wool tights–clothes that were warm and dry. Yay! And of course there was the usual gourmet spread that we were becoming accustomed to. Rides since the trip have been a bit of a let down–no one meeting me halfway through with food, fresh clothing, mechanical assistance, and good cheer…

Anyway–we were at the top of the Gavia, with Andy Hampsten!

Ian limped in a bit later, his knee really bothering him in the cold, but he still had enough left to jump in on some photos.

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we're cold!

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we’re cold!

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

The rifugio was a welcome refuge indeed. Warmth. Espresso. I sort of had to pee, but upon hearing that the bathroom was like an icebox, I decided that actually, I was doing just fine. Though not the merchandising madhouse that the Stelvio was, there were a number of souvenirs for sale, and I wear my Gavia jacket with pride. The people running the place greeted Andy warmly–I think that the proprietors might have been there watching when he summited in 1988.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

It was now decision time: roll back down to the hotel, or descend the other side of the pass, ascend in the direction that Andy raced the Giro, and then descend to the hotel.

I decided to go back to the hotel. I was already nervous about descending the rough, broken pavement that we had ascended, and I was even more so as the weather appeared to be trending from sprinkles to a rainstorm. I didn’t want to be at my limit, exhausted, perhaps shivering, and dealing with a technical AND wet descent.

At the time, it was the right decision. But now I know that the descent was not nearly as challenging as I had worried it might be, and so knowing what I do now, I would probably go for the extra credit. But I’m glad that on the entire trip, aside from a few moments on the Passo Fedaia (which I solved by getting off my bike), I never felt like I was putting myself in a situation where I was over my head, or taking undue risks. I felt very challenged on the trip–but never unsafe.

Like I say, the descent really wasn’t all I had scared myself into thinking it would be. I took it really slow on the top, partly because the pavement was rough, often damp or outright wet, and I was worried about traction and braking effectiveness. It was also warmer to go slow than descend like a rocket. But I gained confidence, the pavement improved, and it got warmer, so I started to let it fly a bit. My ride data shows that in one 6-mile stretch, I didn’t pedal at all… Whee!!!! It still makes me nervous, but descending mountains is so unbelievably fun. Especially when you have earned every inch of the descent.

And the shower at the hotel was pretty amazing too.

The people who went on down the other side of the Gavia had a pretty neat personal Giro d’Italia highlights tour. But they also returned in a drenching rainstorm. We watched them come in as others of us relaxed with beer in the hotel… Missing out on the extra credit was really not too bad of a decision.

Before dinner, Andy gathered us around and told the story of *that day* on the Gavia. It was pretty similar to the accounts I linked to above–but being there in person, watching his body language, and hearing his vocal inflections as he relived the experience, was really special.

One of the things he mentioned was that it was a good thing he didn’t know where the team hotel was, otherwise he might have gone straight to it instead of crossing the finish line. He was consumed with thoughts of a hot bath or shower, but instead had to go through all the ceremonies associated with becoming the race leader (what a hardship!). And when he got to the hotel… Lukewarm water. And tiny uncomfortable cots that were billed as beds.

The upside to this, as he was shivering away in his cot, was anticipating dinner. Apparently the hotels along the Giro route could be hit or miss as regards showers, beds, and food–but they never missed all three. So given the miserableness of the first two, the team figured that dinner ought to be pretty amazing. And they were right.

One of the regional specialties is a hearty buckwheat pasta dish called pizzoccheri, and the team emerged into the dining room to be greeted with essentially troughs of delicious food, notably including pizzoccheri. Andy swears that the dish’s delicious heartiness recovered them after the brutal day, and saved the Giro for the team.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), pizzoccheri was one of the featured dishes at the hotel. I had it more than one night, and it was as fabulous as advertised.

It was a short day for me: only 31 miles and 5,700 feet of elevation gain. Only!


Dolomites and Alps, Day 3, Part 2

(When we left off, our heroine was relaxing in the sun partway up the Passo Gardena after a challenging morning on the bike that saw her tempted to pack it in…)

I’ll admit, it was pretty nice for a while to have no more difficult physical exertion than having to stand up and walk over to the food table a remarkable number of times. And when I could keep my eyes open, the view was pretty great.

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

Eventually we hefted ourselves and our full bellies back onto our bicycles to finish the ascent of the Passo Gardena. I almost feel it was cheating to count this as a pass–the descent from the Passo Sella didn’t go down very far, and the total ascent up the Gardena was less than 1,000′, with lunch and then a flat section in the middle. Really, it was like climbing a couple Seattle-area hills with an extended siesta in between. But hey, it’s called “Passo” so it goes in the book as the 3rd pass of 4 on the day.

From the "Passo" Gardegna

From the “Passo” Gardena

More Passo Gardegna

More Passo Gardena

The descent took us into the town of Corvara, where we stopped in at a little Pinarello-brand bike gallery/museum attached to a hotel/bar/cafe. They had one of Bradley Wiggins’ yellow Pinarello’s from the year he won the Tour de France, and other such historic bicycles and items from throughout the years. One of the bikes was Miguel Indurain’s fantastic hour record aero track bike (from before the UCI outlawed such cool space-agey bikes…) Andy leaned in to get a closer look at the monster gearing on it, and joked “sure, I could turn that gear over, no problem… On a downhill…” Then, continuing the jest, he pretended to be not impressed by Indurain and his bike… In being too slow to get a picture of the former, I managed to get a photo of the latter:

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

After we had been there for a little bit, the proprietor realized who was there–not some schmuck cyclist named Andy, but THE ANDY HAMPSTEN!!! In shock and apology and awe and delight, he dropped to his knees at Andy’s feet, torn between begging forgiveness and uttering effusive praise!

I love Italians!

A little later, we were sitting in the bar area, enjoying espressos and such, when the proprietor came up again, and deeply and sincerely thanked Andy for stopping by. He expressed how much he had always appreciated Andy, that he was a great champion, a “campionissime di bicicletta e gentilezza”–a great bicyclist and a great person. Which is all true.

View from our stop in Corvara

View from our stop in Corvara

So to recap, since lunch, we had bicycled a negligible amount uphill, hung out at the Passo Gardena for a bit (it would be a shame to go by a rifugio and *not* get espresso…), rolled ourselves downhill into Corvara, and hung out some more, consuming more espresso, and enjoying more sunshine and great views. The day was suddenly about as easy and laid back of a day as I’ve had on a bike in a long time.

But, the more astute readers may also remember that we had only done 3 of the 4 passes–still remaining was the Passo Campolongo. (Cue ominous music…)

But in the most satisfying anticlimax ever, the Passo Campolongo was mild both in terms of elevation gain, and in terms of slope. I thought it was the easiest of the day, and I was laughing at times with the delight of biking uphill and it feeling easy! I didn’t set any land speed records up the Campolongo, but I had a lot of fun reveling in the delight of cycling up it.

Soon enough, we were regrouping at the top, and then just had 17 miles left to Alleghe (and showers! and beer! and dinner!), over the course of which we would drop from about 6,200′ to 3,200′.

If you are unsure what that means, it means FUN!!!!!

Somehow, I ended up behind Andy as we descended, and this is when the day went from wonderful to I-must-be-dreaming deliriously amazing. Not only is he skilled beyond my ability to even understand how much better than me he is (I can only analogize by thinking about how my beginning dance students don’t even have the experience to know how beginning they are and how much more is involved with getting to a barely competent level of professional ability, much less an exceptional level) (seriously, the pro level of ability is way higher than you think it is. If you’re pretty fast on a bike, and wondering if you could maybe hang with the pro’s on a stage of the Tour or something, just stop. They’re faster and better than you.), he was on a road he’s ridden countless times.

(Really. They’re way better. It’s not just being faster–it’s things like riding along at a good clip, and reaching down to grab a branch off the road and toss it aside so that it doesn’t impede the people behind you. Or riding no-hands down a winding descent, doing airplane arms, as I heard he’s done.) (And I’ve asked around–no one has seen Andy sweat. Or breathe hard. Including when he whizzed past some of the fast guys, going uphill past them like they were standing still, when they were at their limit. And he’s on the record as saying he’s not near his level of fitness he had as a pro.) (So seriously, people on the internet bike forums who like to speculate from the couch about being as good as a pro if they just trained a bit more. Stop it.)

Anyway. As the road twisted its way around sharp hairpins, while sometimes simultaneously dropping precipitously down, Andy just flowed around the corners, smoothly, effortlessly, the picture of delight. I had to push myself a bit to keep up with his lollygagging his way down the mountain, but by just following his approaches to corners, trying to copy his body language, the descent became secure and full of ease for me too. (To an extent.)

I was going way faster than I could have gone on my own, yet felt like I was much more within my limits, taking on way less risk than I would have been (descending slower) on my own. I was essentially getting a private lesson on descending–from a winner of the Giro d’Italia!!!!–and felt like I was a better cyclist by the time I reached the bottom of the mountain.

As I’ve mentioned, I love descending, and am alarmed by descending. Getting to do such a fun descent, and feel that in the course of it, I became a safer, better descender, was almost too much awesomeness for one day to contain.

I finished the day feeling how I did at the start of the day–I’m ready to sign up for next year’s trip.

I also finished the day with more delicious food–are we detecting a theme here? The hotel’s restaurant was legitimately really good (Andy and Elaine reportedly have the hotel restaurant’s quality as their top criterion for picking tour hotels), but pretty much any food at all tastes amazing on days like we were doing. That we got to eat delicious, fresh, nutritive, flavorful, variety-filled food just made the constant “find more food” drumbeat in my brain all the more enjoyable of a quest.

At the end of the day, I had ridden about 60 miles (I forgot to turn my bike computer on until a few miles in, so the exact number is a mystery) and almost 8,900 feet of elevation gain. The only ride I’ve done with more elevation gain was 190 miles long…

day 3

Hurricane Ridge by bike!

Yesterday was a beautiful, fabulous day on the bike! Spoiler alert: the climb to Hurricane Ridge (and the descent) is spectacular!

In the morning, I popped out of bed much earlier than I otherwise would have been inclined to, loaded up the car, and hit the road. A ferry ride and some scenic driving later, I was parked next to the water in Port Angeles. I figured if I was going to do this, I was going to start at sea level and get credit for every inch of elevation that I could…

Over the few days previous, I had obsessively read as many accounts of this climb as I could find (when nervous and/or faced with a new situation, I deal with my anxiety by what some might call over-preparation…) so I knew that the steepest part was in the beginning. That said, my bike computer never showed greater than 9%, and usually less than that. While 7-9% is nothing to sneeze at, it’s nothing like some of the vertical walls I’ve been making myself go up. I wasn’t competing to set a landspeed record, so I climbed at a pretty relaxed tempo, and still had a few gears in reserve.

Once out of Port Angeles, the road is shoulderless chipseal. Not great on paper, but the road is really wide, so cars can pass with tons of room, and right now the chipseal is worn enough that it’s relatively smooth. Still, there is some effort involved in biking uphill on a rough surface.

Then the miracles start (angels singing and all). First the slope lessens noticeably–after the previous couple miles of effort, I suddenly felt like Superman on a bike. Then you enter the National Park ($5 for a bike, an amazing deal) and the road surface turns buttery smooth. Double Superman on a bike!

From there the climb never quite gets as steep as the first part, and even almost levels off a couple times. But it’s pretty much relentlessly upwards–if your legs aren’t moving, neither is your bike.

And so why go to all this effort? Because it’s fascinating and gorgeous! At first you’re surrounded by lush woods–the air is so fresh and rich that it’s a taste more than a smell. Then you climb enough that the ecosystem changes–the trees thin out, the vegetation goes from moss and ferns to wildflowers, and the views start to open up.

A few flowers, and a little bit of the view

A few flowers, and a little bit of the view

I started to feel sorry for the people going by me in cars, because I was enjoying the climb so much. I was torn between wanting to get to the top and have that sense of accomplishment, and wanting the climb not to end. Of course it did end, I did get to the top, but by the time I did, my cheeks hurt from smiling.

19 miles uphill, over 5,000 feet of steady elevation gain, and I very much enjoyed the most delicious chocolate milk and hot dog that I have ever had. Thanks, Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center!

Proof that I made it!

Proof that I made it!

View from the Visitor Center

View from the Visitor Center

More view from the Visitor Center

More view from the Visitor Center

The descent was pretty great too–though I was very glad for the extra clothing that I had brought. The corollary of a not-too-steep ascent is not needing to touch the brakes on the way back down (unless you’re stopping to take photos, and then stopping again to, on second thought, go ahead and put on that wool cap you brought. And then stopping again for more photos.) There’s not as much admiring of the scenery on the way down–it’s a little more necessary to focus on the road–but that’s the part where you can convince yourself that you can fly, because that’s what it feels like.

Partway down, and you can see out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Partway down, and you can see out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Next weekend is the Ride the Hurricane event, where for part of the day, the road is closed to cars, and bicyclists have it to themselves. I’m thinking of going back for this, both because I really enjoyed the climb, and because once you’re out of the urban environment, you really notice how much noise cars make. My audio progress uphill was something like “birds, insects, wind–oh, I can hear a car way down the road that will eventually pass me–ahh, quiet again, birds, insects, wind.”

At any rate, for a ride that I was expecting to be a challenge, it definitely was, but it was also a lot easier than I had anticipated. This was partly because the slope is never viciously steep, partly because I wasn’t pushing to be fast (and the relative gentleness of the slope allowed me to pedal easily), and partly because it was such a rewarding environment to get to spend a couple hours admiring. The climb never felt dreary, or like I just wanted it to be done, as there was always something to enjoy.

So maybe next weekend (I’m not ashamed to be a delicate princess about the weather…) or maybe some other time, but it’s definitely a ride I want to do again.

A few more photos:


The really good patches of wildflowers were not next to road pullouts, so this will have to do.

The really good patches of wildflowers weren’t next to road pullouts, so this will have to do.

Another not-great photo of wildflowers that were pretty great.

Another not-great photo of wildflowers that were pretty great.

More from the Visitor Center

More from the Visitor Center

Mt Rainier by bike!

Yesterday’s ride was amazing! Biking up to Sunrise and Chinook Pass was so much fun, and stunningly beautiful. I want to go do it again!

At the last minute, my dad ending up signing up for the trip too, so the three of us got started first thing in the morning–judging by the traffic, a lot of people were still sleeping off their 4th of July parties…

(And for the record, even though it was super-fun to have my dad along, and I’m really glad he joined us, one has to wonder… Someone calls you up, and in the course of conversation mentions that because she is either stupid or a glutton for punishment or both, she is going to spend the next day–on a holiday weekend–riding up mountains. And instead of wishing her well and going on at length about the lazy morning you are planning, involving sleeping in, coffee, and a delicious breakfast, you say “sounds fun!” and join in. I am a little worried that I have inherited some questionable DNA here…)

Anyway. We started at Crystal Mountain Boulevard, and immediately headed uphill. There was a little downhill to the National Park entrance (bad… it’s elevation that we just have to re-climb), and then just steadily up from 3700′ to 6400′ at the Sunrise Visitor’s Center, the highest paved road in the state. It’s a nice climb–in the woods for the first part, and then the trees start to thin, and you start getting glimpses of the surrounding mountains–and their peaks are at eye level… Though constantly uphill, it’s not outrageously steep–I didn’t need my easiest gear, and felt very comfortable climbing the whole way.

View from Sunrise Point, 6100'

View from Sunrise Point, 6100′

We weren't the only ones biking up to Sunrise!

We weren’t the only ones biking up to Sunrise!

The last stretch towards the Visitor’s Center has you staring straight at the giant, so-close-you-could-touch-it summit of Mt Rainier. Though I still don’t have any interest in climbing it, seeing the mountain like that made me start to understand those who do.

We enjoyed lunch at the Visitor’s Center, and then headed back down for a super fun descent. Since it wasn’t overly steep, I didn’t feel like I had to ride the brakes (the steeper it is, the slower I tend to descend, as your speed can get away from you very quickly. Plus, it’s freaky-feeling to be pitched headfirst down a 15 or 20% slope…) Plus there were great swoopy bends in the road–not difficult, technical corners, just fun curves to lean into.

All bundled up for the descent from Sunrise. That cloud-shrouded looming presence in the background? Mt Rainier. It's really big!

All bundled up for the descent from Sunrise. That cloud-shrouded looming presence in the background? Mt Rainier. It’s really big…

Then, Chinook Pass (via Cayuse). I had been up Cayuse Pass two years ago, on an out-and-back from Enumclaw. It was my first time up a mountain, and I was pretty shattered at the end of the day. Granted, this time we were starting from partway up the climb (but after climbing several thousand feet to Sunrise), and it felt so much easier.

Up to Cayuse is a pretty steady climb, in the trees for the most part. Then you make the turn to go up to Chinook Pass, and suddenly this vista opens up as you go through a couple long switchbacks, with a view so silly amazing I was almost giggling. No photos of that bit–go see it for yourself.

At the top of Chinook Pass. Behind us, the road slopes down to Eastern Washington.

At the top of Chinook Pass. Behind us, the road slopes down to Eastern Washington.

From there it was all downhill–no more pedaling needed! After the Chinook Pass switchbacks, the road is pretty straight, and my speed didn’t drop below 30 mph until I was back at the car. Whee!

I already have planned a pre-RAMROD ride at the end of the month, and now I’m thinking that I want to get back there before or after that too. Or both.

And in closing, a plug for the National Park Service. Mt Rainier National Park is an amazing place, a true public treasure. There were tourists from all over the world there, wide-eyed. We had several interactions with Park employees, and they were all cheerful, knowledgeable, helpful, and very into their job. That even includes the people working the cafeteria. So support your National Parks, people!!!

Accidental riding

I wasn’t planning to do much riding today, what with teaching and all (especially after I decided to fill in and dance the prince’s variation in rehearsal–always warm up properly before jumping, kids. Whoops.)

But despite my I’ll-regret-that-later poor decision making while teaching, I was still feeling like my commute wasn’t long enough (said no one ever driving to/from work). So, thinking ahead to catching the ferry to Vashon to ride there some day, I got off the Bainbridge ferry and decided to bike to the Fauntleroy ferry dock via Alki. I’d never done this before, so I thought it would be fun, and a good opportunity to scope things out. Looking briefly at a map, it just seemed like a few miles, and nice and flat along the water.

The second of those statements was correct–great views, easy riding, but it was more like 13 miles one-way… I ended up biking over 35 miles on the day, not bad for a day I figured I wouldn’t ride much!

And really, how had I not biked this route before?!? It was so much fun rolling along on the edge of the water–from ferry to ferry, you get to see all aspects of Seattle. There’s gritty industrial (big machines! trains! cool stuff!), nature views, wacky people watching, different sorts of residential neighborhoods, parks, business districts, you get the idea. Or, if you’ve gone through there, you already had the idea. Anyway. But today did move the plan to bike around on Vashon up my priority list.

Ok, not that exciting of a view, but proof that I was there...

Ok, not that exciting of a view, but proof that I was there…

(Bike obsession TMI alert–I was riding on my single speed bike today. Though a single-speed can definitely make some things more difficult–any slope above 5 or 6% gets to be quite the core and arm workout, whew!–I kinda really like riding it when I’m tired. On my geared bikes, I’m always shifting up or down to try to stay in an optimal gear to keep my effort consistent, or thinking about how I ought to be shifting, or whether I should stay in a harder gear and stand up to climb, or would do better to go to an easier gear to sit and spin up a hill. There’s none of that with a single-speed–99% of the time you can put your mind at ease, secure and confident in the knowledge that you are in the wrong gear. It takes a lot less mental energy, and since my single-speed is a little undergeared for the flats, to preserve a slight hope of making it up hills, it also makes me take it easy a bit on the flats–no shifting up to go faster (and work harder). There were a couple exciting moments where I wasn’t sure whether I’d clear a hill, or slow to a halt and topple over sideways before I could clip out of my pedals, but overall, it made for a very relaxing day on the bike. Though had my route been less flat, I would be singing a different tune…)