Sunday, 23 September
(updates added 25 September)
Last time I went to a cycling event called the HP Challenge, it was the biggest-money bike race in the country. And it was only for women. And no, there was no separate cat 3 or cat 4 race. I didn't race, but I stood in feed zones in some pretty spectacular country: Stanley and Galena Pass come to mind. I also met some pretty amazing people. I know of only one woman who did that race who's still racing, and she lives in Pullman.
Today's HP Challenge was put on by the Cascade Bicycle Club. It started in Packwood, went about 15 miles down SR 12 to Randle, then turned south on forest service roads and eventually wound its way up through the Mt. St. Helens blast zone to the Windy Ridge lookout. The high point of the ride is only at about 4100 feet, but the road rolls so much that the total elevation gain over the ride was probably more like 6000 (update: Garmin says 7755). There are some amazing trees in the Gifford Pinchot forest, but it's the 12 or so miles of road through the blast zone that are jaw-dropping. I had to keep reminding my tandem partner to keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the brakes as he was trying to point things out while the rollercoaster road dropped away from us (whoever thinks you can't backseat drive on a tandem has never ridden with me--downhill!).
My Mt. St. Helens guidebook says that "Windy Ridge is possibly one of the most breathtaking panoramas in the world." In addition to the crater, lava domes, and steam plumes, we were supposed to see Mt. Adams towering to the east. The clouds were hanging too low today: we could see just a bit of the red ridges on the east flank of the mountain but no "breathtaking panorama" from that particular spot. And the spot is aptly named. In spite of the abundant stock of food Cascade provided for us there, the temps were estimated in the low 40s (update: Garmin says average temp on the day was 38.6F) with a steady wind, and there was no lingering with the hope of a better view of the mountain. I schlepped the camera up and back, but it was too cold to get it out (take off jacket to find jersey pocket, take off gloves to find camera, take camera out of bag...you get the "picture").
That road through the blast zone is amazing both for itself and for what it transports you through. It is perched along the edges of a steep ridge and follows the contours of the hills, making it roundabout and very rollercoaster-like. I'm not an engineer, but I sure appreciate where those folks can put a road. It transports you through a land of ash and pumice and trees laid over like toothpicks--past tucks and pockets in the terrain that were sheltered in the blast and now seem verdant green. Some of the hillsides today were raging red and yellow and orange as the leaves on the huckleberries and scrub maples turned color--colors you only see on ornamental landscaping here in town. And since there are no trees to block your view, you look east (I think) at a huge expanse of forest and river drainages. Truly spectacular. Priceless, even.
Since Cayuse Pass is missing huge chunks of roadway that disappeared in the 18"-of-rain-in-24-hours storm last November, there is no good way to get to Packwood. Our route took us through Eatonville, and I now have a new bakery on my list of places to stop on road trips in that direction. Anything tastes good after 110 miles on a bike, but the blueberry muffins fresh out of the oven were luscious. Further commercial endorsement: my Stungunners performed flawlessly again today. Put 'em on, forget they're there, ride all day in arctic blasts with nary a tear. I guess while I'm promoting PruDog's efforts, I should mention that Ohop is very near to that bakery in Eatonville.... And of course I would be remiss not to mention the great performance by our Co-Motion Macchiato. We are getting more and more confident about how it handles on all kinds of terrain, which means more and more fun. (Update: Garmin says our max speed was 146.5 mph. See how fast you can go on a Co-Motion!!)
When we signed up for this ride, OAD and I figured we'd be tired of the tandem after Ring of Fire and would do this one on our single bikes. But the more we thought about it, the more the vain, snooty bike racers in us came out, and it seemed like it might be fun to pass a lot of people on a long, relentless climb...on a tandem. Oh, we were so right about that. :)