Ride Report: Native Planet Classic

My longest bicycle ride of the year thus far was the 56 miles I rode with the group out of Singletrack Cycles last Thursday. Not one to wade into things, I cast aside the swimmies, held my breath, pinched my nose shut, and took a head-first dive into the deep end of the cycling pool just two days later when I embarked on the Native Planet Classic, a 125-mile road ride with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. And I hereby impose a moratorium on all cliched swimming metaphors.

The ride was an out-and-back starting and finishing in the little town of Winthrop in the Methow Valley, one of my favorite places on Earth (or at least in Washington), and making its way through the North Cascades to Diablo Lake. The starting point on the north end of Winthrop was at 1,760 feet above sea level and the turnaround point at Colonial Creek Campground was at an elevation of 1,290. Between them stood Washington Pass, peering out above the valleys from a vantage point of 5,470 feet.


Click to enlarge.

There were several ride options for the 130 or so cyclists in attendance. Naturally, being the type of guy whose two frame-mounted water bottles are consistently filled with piss and vinegar, I opted for the whole enchilada. I also wanted to ride alone and figured my morale would benefit from a day spent passing others than vice-versa so I chose to ignore the 5:30 suggested starting time and began my ride at 6:15 instead. But I still didn't have time for a cup of coffee.

The first 17 miles or so led out of Winthrop on lightly rolling terrain. Your basic sagebrush-speckled landscape with towering snow-capped peaks in the distance. That and a couple of dead mule deer on the side of the road. Kristin kissed me goodbye at the starting line and went off on a 15-mile run around Winthrop and out to Pearrygin Lake State Park. I wasn't five miles into the ride and was already far more uncomfortable on the bike than I had expected to be. If I had my cell phone with me, I may have called her and asked for a pick-up, but I didn't so I kept riding. And the pain eventually subsided... either that or my nether-regions grew numb to it.

I eventually passed a sign that read: Avoid Radiator Boil-Over Turn Off Air Conditioning. The translation for cyclists is simple: Large Doses of Pain Ahead Turn Around If You Have Any Sense! Of course, the sign wasn't really necessary since it only took a glance out in front of me to see that the road was kicking up pretty steeply and since this was all in the name of training for the Leadville 100, how could I possibly turn back? No, I kept going and over the next 15 miles I climbed along with Route 20 from an elevation of about 2,000 feet to nearly 5,500. No reprieves. No mid-climb descents to catch your breath on. Just one continuous climb that only steepened as you rose. And the rewards at the top were incredible. Oh, sure, the views were fantastic, but the food stop had a giant thermos of hot coffee. I would have climbed a mountain for a fresh cup of joe at that point. Oh, wait I just did.

The descent was incredible. There was very little traffic, WADOT swept the roads free of rocks and debris before the event, and the sightlines were great. Being that the trailheads around the pass were still snowed in (this section of Route 20 is closed for 5 months of the year due to snow) I knew to bring my knee warmers, arm warmers, and a lightweight cycling jacket and I needed all of it during the descent down the west side from Washington Pass. The temperature couldn't have been above 50 degrees in the pass and I was cruising along at 35mph for much of the descent. It warmed up slightly below 4,500 feet then got really warm below 3,000 feet, but the sudden blast of cold air from nearby waterfalls and creeks was enough to give an instant case of goosebumps.

I clicked off the 32 miles between Washington Pass and Diablo Lake in little over an hour, despite two more small climbs during the descent. The final drop from the Ross Lake Dam trailhead down to Diablo Lake was the best of all. The road sign showed curves ahead and a suggested speed limit of 30mph. I glanced over my shoulder and saw no cars on my tail, so I moved to the center of the lane and carved the S-turns at around 38mph and was hooting-and-hollering the whole way. It wasn't as much fun as mountain biking, but it was definitely the most fun I've ever had on a road bike.

Native Planet's leader Jean-Philippe was waiting at the turnaround point with tons of homemade sandwich wraps and other assorted foods and drinks. Nutritionwise, I had been making a point of drinking Nuun every 10 minutes and eating a couple Cliff Bloks or a Gu every 10 miles and, of course, supplementing this with fruit and extras at the aid stations. I didn't plan on eating a turkey wrap, but damn it tasted good after 4 hours on the bike.

I expected the act of turning around and retracing the 62 miles back over the pass to Winthrop to be a bit harder to come to grips with than it was. I was in good spirits and feeling great on the bike (a 30-mile descent will do that), but this soaring high quickly blew away when faced with the massive headwind we were now encountering. Kristin was planning to meet me at the return-trip aid station at Easy Pass, roughly 21 miles after the turnaround point and I was really looking forward to seeing her. The climb back out from the lakes was dismal. I was using that 27-tooth cog I installed the prior night and battling to keep the speedometer above 5mph on account of the wind. I had passed dozens of riders on the out-bound portion, but was now gaining on nobody. The climb to Easy Pass took forever and I was all but out of water when I got there -- just 21 miles and I went through 40 ounces of Nuun -- but I did finally roll into the aid station and Kristin was there to give me some fruit and a couple of Advil. 83 miles down, 12 more miles of climbing to go, then it's all downhill.

The nice thing about this ride was knowing that the last 31 miles were quite literally all downhill. Sure, there were a couple bumps to get up and over on the ride into Winthrop, but nothing worth mentioning. So, with this in mind, I grit my teeth and mashed my way up the final 12 miles to the top of Washington Pass for the second time of the day. The clouds had rolled in, it was starting to rain, and it was damn cold at the pass, but the coffee was still hot and Kristin had one of my cans of V8 and some of that salty "giardia snack mix."

Kristin would later tell me she was proud of me for not climbing into the truck and hitching a ride back into town, especially since the rain was picking up. My response was one of shock, "I didn't spend 3 hours pedaling up this damn mountain to not get a chance to ride down the other side!"

That descent proved mighty scary. The rain abated once I got back below 4,000 feet but the wind didn't. I'm a bit timid on the bike at high speeds but was feeling pretty confident this day and decided to really open it up on a lengthy straightaway. Just as I was cranking up the speed and watching the speedometer tick past 42mph, I got blasted with a vicious cross-wind. I swerved mightily, my heart leapt into my throat, and images of Beloki's infamous crash leapt to the center of my mind. I was nearly blown completely off the bike, but I somehow recovered. Fortunately. I eased it back below 35mph and allowed my heartrate to recover and was thankful to roll back into Winthrop in one piece.

I covered the 125 mile course completely alone, not drafting for a single moment, and just enjoying the scenery and the music playing in my right-ear. I spent over an hour at the various food and water stations and finished with a total time of 9:12, a far cry from my nearly sub-5:00 century ride last summer in Redmond, but this course most certainly earned its "Super Century" title.

This is a good time to note that Native Planet is a non-profit organization working with various foreign NGOs to preserve indigenous cultures around the world, particularly in the jungles of Indonesia. You can read more about Native Planet's mission and the other bicycle tours the group leads right here. The organization's leader Jean-Philippe Soule is a super nice guy, and is a valuable asset to the Seattle cycling community, as well as the world community at large. Definitely stop by their website and check out what they do. And if you're thinking of doing the NPC next year, do it! I totally recommend this event. The support was fantastic, the organizers and volunteers were super-friendly, and the post-ride dinner was a very pleasant addition.

Lastly, I want to thank my sponsors BradyGames and Singletrack Cycles for their help in making these endeavours possible. Thanks everyone, especially you Kristin!

Note: I'll have some photos posted from the ride tomorrow. Kristin and I camped the weekend near Twisp and kayaked the Methow River on Sunday before breaking camp and taking the scenic route back home through the North Cascades. A fantastic weekend.


Anonymous said...

awesome ride and review
thoroughly enjoyed it
the pictures were great too
i hope to do this ride next year..would be sweet if it was a week or two apart from this and not the same day as the tour de blast.

congrats...i'll check out some of your other posts now...living vicariously through you on 2 wheels.


Doug Walsh said...

Thanks a lot Eric. You might also want to consider doing this next season and the High Pass Challenge which is also near St. Helens. The HPC is in the fall (usually conflicts with a Seahawks game) and is geared for those wanting to do a ride like the Tour de Blast, but with a litttle bit more of a competitive spirit.