Doing it all the hard way...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

More Gravel Lessons

I have been exploring Washington’s back roads and gaining more experience than I expected.  I took a long ride Sunday morning and I observed on my Evo graph that as the ride progressed, the quality of the road declined along with my speed.  However, there was an absolute inverse correlation in which the adventure and cool factor went up proportionally as the road quality declined.

While not essential to the story, I did have a unique experience on the first part of the ride.  As I was riding along marveling at the peace and quiet I heard something unusual and looked overhead as an F-18 buzzed the canyon I was in.  He was going the same direct as I was just five hundred miles per hour faster and a thousand feet higher.  Some might complain about disturbing the tranquility of nature, but the disruption was less than twenty seconds and if that is the price we pay for freedom, I don’t dare complain.   Besides, it was cool.

Not my photo, but this is an F-18
After a dozen miles of road I turned onto Forest Service Road 37.  
At first the pavement was little changed from the county road that brought me there.  However, potholes quickly appeared as well as rows of long cracks in the pavement.  Being under snow for three or four months a year is hard on the pave’.  The road snaked back and forth and up and less up as I went deeper and deeper into the forest.
As the pavement deteriorated and gravel and rocks became more and more prevalent I found myself weaving all over the road trying to take the best lines through the rocks and dirt.  This wasn’t an issue as I wasn’t going very fast. The grade kicked up every now and then to remind me that rhythm can be elusive on these less traveled roads.  

The constantly changing terrain may have made it hard to find my pedaling groove, the scenery was awesome, the air was crisp and clean and I found myself in tune with the forest.
Going up the deep canyon the road was at times right next to the river while other times it was above or away from the water.  The roar of the river was faint at times and thundering when the road was close and the grade steep. After climbing through thick forest I emerged to find bright yellow Arrow Leaf Balsam Root flowers adorning the more open slopes.

After crossing a bridge there was no further hint of pavement and the grade ticked up as well.  This was the E-Ticket adventure that I had hoped for. The surface had a bit of sand on it which provided some extra spinning when you got out of the saddle.  You could maintain traction if you kept your weight back but the grade inspired you to stand and shift your weight as far forward as possible to increase your pedaling leverage.  My CX experience comes into play more often than I might have thought.

Amazing what an idiot and a flame can do 
The surprise this day was the washboard surface.  My 28’s are pretty cushy yet the washboard was slowing me down as I couldn’t float and found myself rocking as I made my way up the double digit grade.  I was Jonesing for some fatter tires to soak up the bumps.
I was using all of my cassette but on this part of the ride my smaller cogs weren’t getting any action. I was trying to avoid pedaling squares as I fought my way up a never ending left hand bend wrapped around the side of the mountain.   Every dozen seconds I would scan up ahead to see if the road flattened out.  The road kept curving into the mountain and out of view at a constant 10-12% grade.  There was no relief in sight.  I was getting warm.  

My Garmin device beeps at me if my cadence drops below sixty rpm and it was beeping a lot. Although it is a pretty impressive bit of technology, it does not respond to my verbal instructions to “shut the hell up.”

The sandy washboard made standing tricky. The grade made it hard to stay seated.  The length of the climb exceeded anything you could just muscle through.  This was some good riding.

I checked my time and I was fast approaching my turn around time.  The climb was hard and while I was looking forward to turning around I wasn’t in a hurry to do so. I felt good and needed the miles. To complicate the dilemma I am a “what’s around the next corner?” kind of guy on a road I had never ridden before.  The grade dropped back to 6-8% which allowed some recovery and an increase in speed. 

The road appeared to flatten out a few hundred yards ahead next to a small stand of pines so I kept going.  I reached the pines and the road was still going uphill. It still looked like the road topped out a couple hundred yards further and I kept going a bit more.

After another hundred yards I realized I was being teased with some kind of cruel optical illusion and the road would never flatten out. The next day I checked a map and found that the road actually climbed another two thousand feet before topping out. I think it was CX racer Tim Johnson who once said that “False flat is the new downhill.”  I was eight minutes past my turn around time and I stopped and drank from my bottle.  I looked up and down the canyon and was glad to be here. 
And back down..

I pointed my bike downhill, shoved off and clipped in.  Instantly the washboard was tossing me around like a bull riding cowboy.  My lines kept changing as I was trying to find the least lumpy line.  Center looks okay, no time to try the left, okay let’s try the right side; I kept hunting.  I thought it prudent to stay away from the cliff side of the road.

On the descent the cool air chilled my sweat and I wasn’t hot anymore.  I had my vest in my pocket but I didn’t need it yet. 

At times the washboard was synced with my wheelbase and the whole bike would go up and down and other times the wheels would go up then down at opposite times. I can’t say I developed a favorite between the two.   

After what felt like a long time the grade finally lessened and after a sandy section there was some better hard pack and finally the patchy pavement that I thought was so rough a little more than an hour earlier now felt like glass. 

Even on the better road the descent was still steep.  Braking on a descent is depressing.  Debris on the road, the steepness of the grade, tight turns and the quality of the pavement forced me to keep my speed in check.  I saw the second car of the day going in the opposite direction.  I pulled off and waved it past.

Down, down, down I went. The beauty had distracted me on the climb and only now did I realize how much I had climbed. By now I had dropped over two thousand feet and was hitting thirty miles an hour on decent pavement.  Another ten minutes brought me to the end of the FS road and back on county maintained pavement.

All too soon the road turned up and my legs felt stiff after the long descent so I dropped down into the small chainring and began climbing again.  I looked down the canyon and could see dark clouds over my destination. The rain had held off all morning and I was convinced I was doomed. 

A minute later I felt the first heavy drop glance off my nose.  I sat up and pulled my trusty and awesome Pactimo Breckenridge vest out of my jersey pocket and put it on and grit my teeth preparing for the deluge.  This vest is my security blanket when the weather is iffy.

As always happens on a long ride that includes off road, I marveled at the ease I could build speed when back on the pave’ and couldn’t help but accelerate.  I could see the dark clouds dropping their rain ahead and to my left.  I felt some more drops.  “Here it comes” I thought to myself.  

The storm was on the east side of the canyon going north and I was on the west side going south.  The edge of the rain was between us and I pushed my pace and wondered aloud if I might just get lucky.  I dropped into town and zipped though and was still dry.  It would be close……

On the climb to our Cabane dons la Foret I felt more drops and thought, “I’m only ten minutes away, hang on!”  Once off the paved road I still had a mile to get to the cabin and the precipitation could still be categorized as drops and not rain. 
After the rolling approach I was on familiar gravel and then on our porch.  I was dry, the rain was just starting.  I am one lucky bum.

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