Went The Day Well - A 400k Brevet

by Jan Heine

The editor, dressed for success

(Click photo to read more about the bike and its specs)

Our 400k brevet is my favorite. The course, over and through the Cascades, crossing 3 major passes (Snoqualmie, Swauk/Blewitt, Stevens), has been a favorite of mine since I first rode it. I decided to add to the experience by riding my 1962 Alex Singer randonneur bike.

A few minutes after 5, 29 randonneurs headed out of the parking lot in North Bend, entered the freeway and immediately started the first climb. Using small gears, I spun up the hill, warming up as I climbed. Looking back at the top, I saw that the other riders were half a mile behind. Since the next climb was not far ahead, waiting for them didn't make much sense - we'd split up again. Spinning up the false flats toward Snoqualmie Pass, I was overcome with joy. The air was so crisp. The snow on the jagged peaks gleamed in the first rays of the sun, the dark pine forests on the slopes had not yet left the twilight that separates night from day. The bike climbed effortlessly. Well, almost. While the bike was performing flawlessly on its 40th anniversary, its rider's knee wasn't doing so well. At the start of the steep climb toward Snoqualmie Pass, I got off the bike to stretch. At Snoqualmie Pass, the sun had risen a bit further to shine on the upper slopes, but the cold air of the night persisted: The thermometer read 32F. Warm from the climb and still wearing my rainjacket, I didn't suffer too much on the following fast sections. Spinning the biggest gear (46-15), I passed the three big lakes on the east side of the pass. The combination of a widening valley and the rising sun - maybe aided by my moving eastward - resulted in a rapid transition from night to day, with temperatures rising by the minute. I stopped for a bathroom break and to take off some clothes. With a nice tailwind, the kilometers flew by, and I soon reached Cle Elum - the first control 80 km into the ride.

The Safeway at the edge of town provided a convenient stop, a cashier signed my card, and after less than a minute, I was back on the road. The tailwinds persisted through Cle Elum until the turnoff toward Swauk Pass. Recent maps call this pass on the new road Blewitt, but the old Blewitt Pass continues to exist on a very scenic backroad, leading to great confusion. But my annoyance with the lack of historic accuracy faded into the background as crosswinds slowed my progress. The gorgeous views of the snowcapped Cascades and the warmth of the sun made this a nice stretch nonetheless. I stopped at a diner to fill my water bottle. The climb toward Swauk Pass is not very steep, but almost 9 miles long. Riding in the "big" ring, I gained altitude quickly and smoothly. The forest here is less dense than on the wetter western slopes, resulting in beautiful patterns of sun and shade. Toward the top, I remembered my knee, shifted into the small 32 tooth ring, and spun up the steepest part. On top, I was greeted by Ken Carter, the organizer, who had installed a secret control to ensure that nobody took the marginally shorter, but much steeper route over the real Blewitt Pass. We chatted for a minute or two, then I remounted and pointed the bike downhill. With this bike's small gears, I spin out at about 33 mph. My speed on most of the 12-mile descent comfortably exceeded this value, so I concentrated on maintaining an aerodynamic tuck and on stretching my calfs for the first, steepest part. Then I dug into my handlebar bag for a snack. About half-way down the hill, I began to pedal again, spinning without much effort to maintain the pace. It didn't take long to reach the turnoff toward Leavenworth and Steven's Pass. Uphill all the way for about 50 km (31 miles)! I was prepared for the hill, but the headwind came a bit as a surprise. As if to compensate for the rudeness of nature, only half the lights into Leavenworth were red - usually they conspire against cyclists.

Another control followed in Leavenworth, and soon, I was off again into the glorious morning. Following a winter with lots of snow, the Wenatchee River was at its greatest, a roaring stream of whitewater in the steep canyon, with rapids and occasional stretches of calm water providing a continuous feast for the eyes. The grade here is not steep, the scenery made me forget the headwind, and progress seemed swift even if it wasn't. At the last gas station before the climb, I pulled in for an unscheduled stop to stretch more and refill my bottles. There are no services on the climb, nor on the pass... The climb up Steven's Pass seemed less steep this year than in the past. Even the almost 40-year-old Brooks saddle had adapted to the unique shape of my bottom and was becoming quite comfortable. More and more snow lined the sides of the road, reflecting the late-morning sun. But despite the glare, climbing was pleasant. It was almost with regret that I reached the top, about 200 km into the ride and with 200 km to go, knowing that I was about to leave the wonderful mountains. Without much of a transition, I found myself flying toward the valley. It did not take long to reach the bottom, followed by a quick spin into Skykomish. Another gas station, another control, another opportunity to stretch. Back on the road, the headwind was stronger now, but aided by the slight downhill grade, the miles passed quickly. The old Singer still was performing flawlessly and seemed to enjoy the ride.

Even with 288 km behind me, the real test for rider and machine still lay ahead: After a quick stop in Sultan for more water and stretching, the course turned into the hills toward Lake Roesinger and Snohomish. 15,000 years ago, this area was covered by a mile of ice, which had flowed out of the Canadian Rocky Mountains far to the north. As the debris-covered ice melted, it deposited huge amounts of gravel over the landscape. Pockets of ice - "dead ice" in the colorful language of geologists - melted after the gravel had been deposited, resulting in huge holes and dips. This landscape remains to this day. For cyclists, it is noteable as a continuous succession of steep hills. Too short to find a rhythm, but too long for a sprint, the hills involve continous shifting. Despite its paucity of gears (eight, to be exact) and apparently antiquated derailleurs (both were developed in the late 1930s), the Singer excelled on this terrain. The front derailleur moved the chain to the desired chainring as soon as I tapped the lever. Without inhibiting springs, the chain was free to complete the shift once it had engaged on the new chainring. Trimming the front derailleur after shifts on the rear also was unnecessary - the chain simply moved the floating cage out of the way. The rear shifter also was amazing, with a positive action that allowed flawless shifts in mid-hill, rivaling any modern derailleur. By now, I had become used to the lever action being opposite to modern bikes: Pulling the lever toward you results in a smaller cog. Empty roads were a welcome respite after the busy road from Steven's Pass. Riding these hills was a joy, especially on a bike that was performing so well. On the steepest hills, my legs were protesting a bit, but knowing that the finish was only 100 km away helped a lot. Just as I was getting tired nonetheless, the turnoff with the "secret" control came into view.

Russ Carter, Ken's father, was the sole person staffing it. It was nice to chat with him for a few minutes. I was sad to leave so soon, but the clock was ticking and the finish beckoned. Now on gently rolling hills, the bike stormed ahead. With the small "big" ring, I could dispatch most minor rollers with a simple shift or two on the rear. Snohomish was reached and left behind without stopping. More gentle hills followed toward the next control at the Paradise Lake gas station. With my bottles refilled, I was ready for the final stretch. Soon came the turnoff into the Snoqualmie Valley. From here, the course was on empty roads following the wide, bucolic valley, with the snow-capped Cascades gleaming in the evening light. The head- and crosswinds that had been with me almost all day now were gentle tailwinds. With the finish approaching, I picked up the pace, zoomed through Carnation and reached the climb up Snoqualmie Falls with my forces waning. But the bike went up just fine, and I picked up the pace again on top. The last miles into North Bend seemed endless. I was about to reach down and turn on the lights, when the finish came into sight. I was rather pleased with my time of 15 hours 30 minutes. This compares well to previous efforts (15:34 in a group of 3 in 1998). Most of all, I was proud of the bike, which had transformed what could have been a grueling day of climbing and headwinds into a wonderful experience. And despite its advanced age and the many kilometers it had put under its wheels today, it was none the worse for wear.