A few days ago CFL and I completed a very big bike ride: we rode 400 miles from Ilwaco, up the Columbia River Gorge, to Walla Walla, Washington. That’s three-quarters of the way across Washington, from the far southwestern corner at the Pacific Coast, nearly all the way to Idaho.
It was the biggest thing either of us has ever done as an athlete. I still can’t quite believe we did it!
I started researching active vacations back in January, and quickly focused on Ride Around Washington, organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club. The 2015 edition was the 17th annual RAW. Each year they follow a different route, visiting different sections of the state. I first learned about RAW last year when they rode through and camped in my town.
The ride is relatively small and and intimate, with only 250 cyclists. We camped each night in state parks, county fairgrounds, and the like. Our luggage was transported and our meals and snacks were provided — all we had to do was ride our bikes, pitch our tents, and pack up our stuff each morning. We were expected to fix our own flats, but additional mechanical assistance and other support was provided by a fleet of roving support vehicles.
Piece of cake, right?
Every bike ride I’ve taken this year has been focused on preparing for RAW. We knew that our longest day would be 88+ miles, that our hilliest day would have 4,500+ feet of elevation gain, and that we could be facing 100+ degree days in eastern Washington. We tried to train toward those numbers, but the longest ride we did before RAW was 73 miles, our warmest ride was about 90 degrees, my biggest climb was about 3,300 feet, and my longest riding streak was 5 consecutive days and 244 miles. In short, we prepared as well as we could, but we weren’t entirely sure we were ready.
Perhaps you noticed the big bandage on my chin in the photo above. No, I didn’t fall off my bike! But I did trip over a curb while trying to board the bus in Seattle on the first morning. I managed to land squarely on my chin. Event staff arrived promptly with a first aid kit, but it was clear that I needed more than a band-aid.
Our bikes and luggage were already loaded on the trucks, and we couldn’t think of anything to do but get on the bus and go to Ilwaco. As soon as we arrived in Ilwaco, I dashed to the nearest Emergency Room. I didn’t need stitches, but they did glue the laceration closed and applied the huge bandage that you see. I was in and out of that ER in an hour and ten minutes.
The truck with the bikes was running late. When I walked back from the ER they were still unloading bikes. Yet I needed some time to collect my thoughts (calm down) before I was ready to get on the bike. CFL and I were the last ones to leave the parking lot, but we weren’t very far behind the others.
The route for Day 1 had a 6-mile possible short cut. We took that, so we rode just 48 miles to Skamokawa. I had a tough time. I was hurting, I had a headache, and the bumpy road was hell on my chin. We rolled into camp at nearly 7:00 PM.
We ate, pitched our tent, and were asleep very soon thereafter. The next morning my alarm went off at 5:15 AM. We had to break camp, drag our luggage to the truck, eat breakfast, and be on the road before 8:00. That schedule would become our norm for the week.
On Day 2 we rode from Skamokawa to Vancouver. My chin was not nearly as sore. It didn’t hurt so badly to hit bumps. We rode nearly 89 miles and I arrived feeling reasonably fresh and strong. A highlight of Day 2 was about 6 miles of riding along I-5. While the shoulder itself was relatively smooth and wide, the 18-wheelers flying by were… thrilling. A couple of times we passed obstacles on the shoulder that forced us over the bone-rattling rumble strip and into the traffic lane. Frankly, it was terrifying.
On Day 3 we started the morning with a brisk ride over the I-205 bridge into Oregon. We rode down the bike path in the center of the freeway. That was fun! From there we took surface roads eastward to the Historic Columbia River Highway.
It was a relatively short distance (just under 59 miles), but the narrow, winding road and heavy tourist traffic made it scary. It was especially tough right at Multnomah Falls where tourists in cars were looking at everything but us cyclists. The inherent tension of the situation caused my left shoulder to stiffen up and begin to spasm.
Still, it was a beautiful place to ride.
The last thing we had to do before arriving at camp in Stevenson, WA was ride over the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks.
This is the location at which the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Columbia River (it’s Cheryl Strayed’s destination in Wild). CFL had looked forward to riding over this bridge for months. To his delight, we actually passed a thru-hiker on the approach to the bridge.
The wind had come up by then. I started over the narrow bridge, which was a bumpy open grate, and got blasted by side wind. It was all I could do to keep moving forward, but I had to keep going because of traffic on the bridge right behind me. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever done… way scarier than I-5.
We were slower than most of the riders so we didn’t have much time for sightseeing stops along the way. Each day we rolled into camp around 4:30 to 4:45, which left us just enough time to put up the tent, grab a celebratory beer, and take a quick shower before dinner. Then we’d be off to bed by 9:00 or so.
Of course, Slow Ride session IPA from New Belgium was my go-to beer of the week.
Day 4, from Stevenson to Maryhill, was the day I have been worried about from the beginning: 77 miles with 4,500+ feet of elevation gain.
It started out fine. We picked up a nice little tailwind and sailed along. We rode several miles on I-84, with a narrow shoulder and construction blocking one vehicle lane. It was scary but manageable. Then later, as I was nearing a viewpoint at the top of a hill for our late morning water stop, I got hit by a sidewind that almost knocked me over. From there, coming down the hill on the far side was a series of wind blasts from different directions at every turn. Again, it was terrifying.
We arrived at the lunch stop in The Dalles at 49.2 miles. We had another 27+ miles and 2,000+ feet of elevation gain to go. I told CFL I was done for the day. I arranged a ride into camp on one of the support vehicles. The guy praised my decision to “sag,” as he said there was a 35 MPH headwind on the bridge we were about to cross.
CFL kept riding. I marveled at all the hills we went up and down as we drove past a long line of riders.
The driver asked if I’d like to be dropped off at the Stonehenge war memorial and ride down the last hill to camp from there. I decided I’d do that. It was another 2.3 miles, so I ended up doing 51.50 that day.
While waiting for CFL to arrive, I somehow managed to pitch the tent myself in a 25+ MPH wind. He did not get into camp until after 6:00. In addition to battling the winds, he’d had a flat tire.
On Day 5 we rode from Maryhill to Umatilla, OR. This was the day we’d been promised big tailwinds that would allow us to “put it on autopilot.” We did get some wind early in the day, but then it petered out and it got hot. Sometime in the mid-afternoon CFL noticed that my rear tire was low. It was still inflated enough that I rode carefully for another 3 miles to the water stop. There, a friendly and gracious volunteer helped us (mostly CFL) patch the leak… something we were supposed to be able to do for ourselves. I had picked up a tiny curlicued bit of wire. He gave us some pointers on how to quickly and effectively fix a flat. I appreciated his instruction.
We got back on the bikes and finished the ride, ending with a bike path over a Columbia River bridge that (because of the lack of wind) was not scary. We were among the last few riders into camp. Day 5 was an 85-mile day.
On Day 6 I was tired again. We got a late start and were among the last riders on the road. This guaranteed that we would be almost last, if not the last, to finish.
On that last day, everything hurt: my knees, my shoulders, my butt, and once again my chin (which had quieted down but now seemed more sore again). I was ready to be done. We got to the afternoon food stop (at a winery) and the “sweep” riders (those who would escort the last few to the finish) showed up right behind us.
Of course we didn’t taste any wine. We were hot and that was the last thing we wanted. Still we stuck around there for a while, drinking ice water and cooling off.
The sweep riders were polite and said we could take all the time we needed. We cruised into camp with them right behind us. (A few riders actually finished behind the sweep riders, as they’d stopped somewhere to sightsee.)
There was an actual “FINISH” banner at the end, as well as a person handing out a RAW patch on a cord… a finishers medal of sorts. I got a bit emotional but only for a few seconds. I felt better as soon as I learned that the beer would be free until all of it was gone.
The next morning felt rather sad, packing up the tent for the last time and putting our bikes on the truck and ourselves on the bus back to Seattle.
While we were certainly ready to stop riding, we knew that we would miss our little traveling community.
Will we do RAW again? Probably. Next year will pick up where this year ended, in Walla Walla, and traverse the eastern half of the state, the region known as The Palouse, from south to north. We’ll see lots more beautiful, stark scenery like this.
It will be hot, windy, miserable, and no doubt terrifying in places. But we’ll know what to expect, and we’ll be better prepared. And when we’re done, we’ll know that we’ve again accomplished something very big.
It’s no piece of cake, but it’s a savory and satisfying experience indeed.