“Wars may be fought with with machines, but they are won by men.” – George S. Patton
Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. A rider passes on my left. “How you doing,” he asks. “I’m hanging,” was all I could reply. “That’s all anyone can do right now,” he says, pulling slowly away. A few minutes later, he’s beside the road getting ready to repair a flat. “Need a hand,” I ask? “No, just suckie luck,” he says. I continue on; left foot, right foot.
We are nearly four hours into the Tour de Blast and approaching the midpoint at Johnston Ridge. Beginning in the town of Toutle, Washington, the ride is relatively flat for the first 10 mi (16 km), then begins a steady climb for the next 18 mi (30km) to Elk Ridge at 3800 ft (1158 m), then descends to Coldwater Creek before climbing again to Johnston ridge at 4200 ft (1280 m). After 42 miles of riding, you are not really done, because you still face the climb back from Coldwater Creek back up to Elk Ridge before starting the long descent back to Toutle. Fortunately, it is the least of the three climbs. (Check out the ride as recorded on my Garmin bike computer.)
The ride celebrates the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Johnston Ridge is named in memory of a Dr. David Johnston, a geologist who was among those killed on that fateful day 31 years ago. Sponsored by the Longview Rotary club, the ride is the biggest annual fund raiser for the local community and helps pay for services and facilities throughout the year.
Near the top, snow lines the roadway and the road rises steadily at a 7 or 8% grade. Seeing a U-turn approaching, my spirits lift in the hope that the grueling climb is nearly over, and are just as quickly dashed when I see the road double back and continue climbing into the clouds. Left foot, right foot.
With a distance of 84 miles (135 km) and elevation gain in excess of 6000 ft (1830 m), most cyclists would consider Tour de Blast to be a tough ride on a good day. This day was not a good day. Though Friday was warm and sunny, clouds and rain had moved in overnight and we began the ride in rain with temperatures in the upper 40s F (9 C). By the time we reached Elk Ridge, the temperature had dropped to 42 F (5 C). What could have been a tough ride had now become an epic ride.
I had trained specifically for the ride for several months, though it’s almost impossible to find steady climbs more than an hour in length around here. Nonetheless, I expected some long, hard climbs and felt prepared for them. What I was not expecting were the descents; not because they were especially steep or treacherous, but because they were cold. Really, really cold. Brain-freeze headache that makes you sick COLD. Had to drag the brakes to keep my speed down for the first three or four minutes. After that, the headaches let up and I was merely cold. At that point, I could let the bike run and get on to the next climb as quickly as possible. This ride was the exact opposite of a typical ride, where you kind of dread the climbs and enjoy the descents. No, on this day, the climbs were my friend, for they kept me warm. The descents were not fun, just something to get through as quickly as possible, with a minimum of drama. Many riders were under-dressed for the weather. By the time they made it to Johnston Ridge, they were shivering uncontrollably, victims of hypothermia. Lucky for them the ride organizers had plenty of shuttle buses to take them and their bikes back to town for some hot spaghetti.
Thought it’s not not something you can really train for, you can prepare for the cold. Fortunately, I had. Shoe covers, check. Helmet cover, check. Rain jacket and pants, check. Long finger gloves, check. Long-sleeve jersey and bib knickers, check and check. Though I was pretty warm on the climbs, the descents were manageable, and overall, was about a comfortable as one could be. When the humidity is near 100%, you will end up wet no matter how “breathable” the outer fabric. The key to surviving this ride was to have wind-proof outerwear that would minimize wind chill.
Some riders may describe the 2011 edition of the Tour de Blast with words like “disaster”, “miserable”, or “awful”, and for them, they might be right. For me, the words that come to mind are “epic”, “challenge”, and “victory.” Sure, it would have been nice to have sunny, warm weather to enjoy what I can only imagine are wonderful views of Mt. St. Helens. It would have been nice to have been able to better enjoy the company of fellow riders. But on this day, all the niceties were mostly internal; the riders were left with their bikes, the mountain, and the will to continue until one or the other was used up.
Let me hasten to add that the organizers did their best to make the ride enjoyable. They provided plenty of fruits, baked potatoes, cookies, and other tasty snacks to keep the riders fueled, and lots of on-course crews to watch over the riders and ensure that aid was always nearby. Had the ride been one day earlier, we would have had that beautiful, sunny day for the ride. Maybe it will be so next year!