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Luis on day one
Photo: Alex Pope

The Real Triple Mountain Challenge
by Luis Bernhardt

The longest ride I’ve ever done at one time is 600 km (that’s right, I am BC Randonneur member #5, immediately after the Canadian pioneering legends Wayne Phillips, Gerry Pareja, Dan McGuire, and John Hathaway, but it’s true, I have never ridden PBP!). Now that I am done with racing, I need to do le Grand, but learning that there might be entry limits, I needed to qualify for an early registration for 2011. The last 1000km brevet was during Super Week on Labor Day Weekend, so I scheduled it. The only problem was that I had tickets to see an opera at Bard on the Beach on Monday at 1 pm, so I would have to finish by Sunday midnight to get enough sleep before the performance!

I thought that having 14,000 km in my legs since Jan 1, mostly on a 42x16/44x16 fixie, would be enough training, especially since I was going to be using my old carbon fiber Trek racing bike with Campag 10-speed cassette, but I made some really dumb beginner mistakes on this ride that almost destroyed my 100% brevet completion record. The first mistake was assuming that having a 20-speed gear selection would make the ride easy!

I studied the route, but I focused on the complicated roads thru the Fraser Valley. Mistake #2: I should have studied every stage, but more later. With Google maps and street views, I tried to commit as much of the route to memory as I could, which for this ride was pretty easy. Basically it was Highway 5, then the Connector to Kelowna, turn around and follow 97 to Highway 2, make a right turn and just follow US-2, turn right at Highway 9, and I’m basically done.  One big rectangle with three major climbs. Mistake #3 dawned on me while climbing the 60-km Stevens Pass: Never underestimate a big climb. If this were the Tour de France, this is likely to be how the climbs would have been categorized:

     - Coquihalla Pass: 1100 meters,1er Categorie

     - Pennask Summit: 1700 meters, Hors Categorie

     - Stevens Pass: 1100 meters, Hors Categorie

What’s more, I didn’t really consider the climbs between the major climbs, such as the 2nd category climb between Merritt and Kentucky-Alleyne (my vote for the most sonorous place-name in BC!), the interminable ramps over fresh, super-rough chip-seal on US97 along the Columbia between Brewster and Wenatchee, and the final rolling 150 km along Highway 9 which I had forgotten about. This was by far the toughest brevet I have ridden, and PBP will be a piece of cake by comparison, especially as this ride has shown me that it’s best to do PBP as three enjoyable 400-km rides in daylight separated by restful 8-hour sleep stops. I pity the poor fool who tries to ride it non-stop!

So I showed up in Abbotsford on Saturday morning at 5:30, with just enough time to set up the Trek, making sure I had tiny LED lights to back up the primary Schmidt generator hub with Busch und Mueller E6 headlamp and rear standlight. I had gel packets in my back pockets, a thin rain jacket in the seat bag, and I sent the rain booties, wool jersey, and extra shorts on to Kelowna. I had studied the weather reports and calculated that I wouldn’t be affected by rain until Sunday after Stevens Pass as long as I stayed on schedule. The only problem was the Mavic Ksyrium SSC rear wheel. I wanted to use my lightest wheel, but I had assumed it had the cassette with the 27-tooth cog on it. Mistake #4. I had put that cluster on another wheel. The Mavic had the racing cluster, so I would be lucky if I had a 21 bottom cog. Not only this, but (Mistake #5) the rear derailleur had been set up for a Campagnolo rear wheel. The Mavic (spaced for Shimano), was a bit further in, so I couldn’t shift to my biggest cog, and I didn’t have a screwdriver until I got to Leavenworth. So I was stuck with a low gear of 38x20 or thereabouts.

The Mickey D’s in Abbotsford was closed, but Timmie’s was open at 5:45, so I had a quick breakfast before joining the eleven others at the start. Lights on, we headed east, with two guys immediately sprinting off. I think that for a 1000, you want to really ease into it, letting the cruising speed just come up naturally, doing everything you can to save effort. But we had just awesome tailwinds that first day. I had tailwinds blowing me east across the Fraser Valley, then north up the Coquihalla. The wind then shifted to blow me east up through the Connector, and shortly before reaching Kelowna, it shifted to blow south, down into the US. Nigel was about a half-hour ahead of me when he hit Kelowna, and that’s about when the wind shifted, so I suspected that he had made some nefarious pact with the devil.

But back in Chilliwack, at one point there were five of us at the front, but two guys fell back for some reason, and Nigel had to stop to fix his shifters. But Alex was able to lead me through the Valley to Hope, where he waited for the next group. I continued alone – too early to be alone – up the Othello climbs but was soon caught and passed by Nigel, who could just spurt up the hills. I rode my own tempo, rejoining Nigel on the flat, then losing him again on the climbs. I was still feeling reasonably strong, but took the climbs at an easy pace to save energy. Nigel punctured at the top of Coquihalla Pass, just before the descent, where I passed him, but my legs cramped up completely at the foot of Larson Hill; I had to stop and get off before I could continue, and Nigel cruised past again halfway up the climb. After the next long descent, we exited to Coldwater Road, and I could see Nigel up ahead. I nearly lost it on a cattleguard, trying to maneuver the bike over the tiny metal strip, but the front wheel came off it and the bike went a bit sideways, so I just slowed down and rattled over the next guards. That would have been a spectacular mistake, crashing on the cattleguards. Coldwater was a welcome relief from being on the fast, busy Coq, with peaceful paved roads and scenic views heading mostly downhill to Merritt.

Coldwater Road
Photo: Luis

I tried to minimize my rest stop in Merritt, but this was Mistake #6: you need time off the bike. I learned that it’s better to just eat the sandwich while you’re stopped instead of trying to eat and drink while moving. It’s just a lot easier, and your body needs the little recovery you get from being off the saddle for that fifteen to twenty minutes. Instead, I bought a sub and a Coke, put them in my back pocket, and took off. But the climbing starts real soon after Merritt, and it’s difficult to eat and drink while riding uphill.

At least I missed the freak snowstorm on the Connector. For me, the weather was good, though cold near Pennask Summit, I had the tailwind, but it was a seemingly interminable climb, with long, straight ramps and too many descents that you have to make back up again to reach the 1700-meter summit. Probably the most frustrating part of the Connector is the road surface. On the shoulder, it is very bumpy, but in the car lanes, it is very smooth, much easier to roll up a small gear. Unfortunately, too many cars and trucks go by too fast to make taking the motorized portion practical. After finally making the summit, I decided not to put on the rain jacket for the descent since I figured things would warm up as I lost altitude, and this proved to be the case. The descent down the Connector was fast, the bike maxing at 77 kmh in places with no pedaling, even on the bumpy shoulder. I made an extra stop in Westbank for drinks, and then just before Kelowna, the right Ergopower shifter started to act up. First it got difficult to shift, then it made terrible grating sounds on each downshift. The problem seemed to fix itself by the time I got over the Bill Bennett Bridge with its new bike path, so I didn’t have to pack it in when I arrived at the control. After changing into a dry t-shirt  and putting on the rain jacket and booties, I left Kelowna at 6:50 pm, about 40 minutes ahead of schedule. I flipped on the lights about an hour later, heading into Peachland, and absorbed the alternating headwind/tailwind Lake Effect into Penticton and then Okanagan Centre, where the wind became a strong tailwind for the rest of the night.

When you’re doing the longer rides, your body is putting out so much energy turning the cranks that there’s not much left to keep it warm at night. You become like a cold-blooded animal, so it’s important to be dressed warmly on the night phases. I had the rain booties, plus the rain jacket over the jersey and vest and a cycling cap underneath my helmet, plus warmer gloves. I had also changed socks in Kelowna, but I should also have changed shorts (Mistake #7), since I was starting to get chafed pretty good, and I was wearing my most comfortable pair of expensive Adidas cycling shorts. Your body gets used to it, but only to a point, and I think that point was reached with about 100 km to go, when even getting up off the saddle was painful, but around 500 km was when things started to get uncomfortable.

I caught up to Nigel at the Husky gas control in Osoyoos, and we rode together for most of the night. This part of the route was planned well, hitting the long, straight, boring roads of Central Washington in the middle of the night. I had been able to catch Nigel only because he had grabbed a short nap in some field. I never feel like sleeping, so I had just pressed on. The US border crossing on 97 looked like it was closed to cars, but we found some US border guards to check in with. The bike was working fine at this point; it was rolling quietly, it was shifting easily, but I did have concerns about a small bump I could feel when dusting the front tire, and I was wondering if the narrow 10-speed chain might break on a bad forced shift, and I didn’t have a spare link to put it back together.  Fortunately, neither of these risks materialized.

Around 3:30 Nigel dropped back to sleep and I pushed on into the cool night. The weather forecast had called for a low of 3 degrees C in Brewster, but it never felt that cold. Every now and then I would pass through a pocket of warm air, and then it would get a bit chilly, but nothing near 3 degrees. After Brewster, I could start to make out the outlines of mountains as the first light of dawn started to appear. Depending on effort, this can be the best part of the ride as you roll along easily and effortlessly with the body waking up to the emerging light, or it can be the worst if you are really pushing hard and getting sleepy and irritable. Since I wasn’t trying to hold Nigel’s wheel, this was a beautiful time, and I even stopped to take pictures in the changing light.

But soon the second day’s headwinds started, and the road went from being flat to gaining altitude with long grades. After Pateros, there was a 50-km section of road that had been freshly paved with chipseal, a very rough surface.  My speed really started dropping here, and I could see the average speed drop to below the planned 25 kmh. I had thought that maintaining a 25 kmh average shouldn’t be difficult, but the grades, roughness, and wind are definite factors. I had planned to reach Leavenworth by 10:10 am, but by 10 am I was still nearing Wenatchee and feeling tired. My mouth was dry, my whole body was aching, the shifter was acting up, and finally on US-2, on the debris-filled shoulder out of Wenatchee, I punctured the rear tire. I must have spent about 20 minutes just replacing the tube, as the first tube didn’t seem to hold air, I only had the small, useless mini-pump, and I needed to glue a boot on the tire – a staple had gone into the tread and come out the sidewall. Fortunately, I had the boot material, but I was now out of spare tubes with over 300 km to go, and the rear tire was nowhere near full operating pressure. So I decided to pack it in if there wasn’t a floor pump at the control when I reached Leavenworth.

I crawled into the faux-Bavarian village at about 11:30, absolutely no power left in the legs. The first thing I saw after handing over the control card was the floor pump. Then all the food and cold drinks. I also learned from an extremely helpful Darren Maclachlan that he and his friend wouldn’t be leaving Leavenworth until Monday morning, and that they didn’t have room to carry a bike, so if I wanted to get back to Vancouver as soon as possible, riding back was the quickest way.  So I told Darren that I’d take a 30-minute nap and decide what I’d do after I woke up. I set the alarm on my cell phone to wake me up at 12:30. I fell asleep at around 12 and woke up at 12:25, feeling much better.  I had some stuff to eat, pumped up the tires, finally adjusted the derailleur, had some coffee and a can of Red Bull, and set off up Stevens Pass in bright sunshine.

The first part of the climb was easy grades but narrow shoulders. I was told that the summit was at Stevens Pass, a ski area. I got to what appeared to be a ski area, but the road kept climbing. Soon I saw a sign that said: Stevens Pass – 19 Miles, followed by the “Hoffway Haus,” halfway between Leavenworth and Stevens Pass, 18 miles each way. “This is going to be just great,” I thought to myself. A 60-km climb? It clouded over and I kept climbing. The further I climbed, the steeper it got. I would go around a corner and there would be another long grade. It clouded over and started raining gently. I put on the rain jacket. With the slightly lower gear, I could spin up the gear when the grade lessened, but most of the time it just got steeper, and the pedaling rhythm slowed, or I was out of the saddle. I reached another potential ski area, but then I saw a sign that indicated 3600 feet, but the pass is over 4000 feet, so I had more climbing. By the time I reached the actual summit, the roads were wet and real rain was falling. I stopped and took a picture at the summit sign, then plunged down the other side, into a stiff headwind and a heavy shower that just pelted down most of the descent. For the first few kilometres, you have to stay off the shoulder to avoid the drainage grates. The wind kept my speed down to the 50’s on the high-speed turns, but the wind velocity (and chill) was equivalent to a descent in the 70’s. The Trek tracks pretty well on the descents, but for the first time it felt like it was developing a speed wobble on the turns. I braced one knee against the top tube, but the wobble may have just been my body shivering in the cold and affecting the steering.

By the time I reached Skykomish and a constant drizzle at the bottom, I was cold and damp from the wet gloves and from where the rain jacket was leaking at the seams, but not so cold that my hands were too frozen to operate the shifters. I was actually surprised that I could still shift gears, as the hands are usually the first body parts affected by the cold. I stopped at the first gas station/convenience store, asked the clerk if the washroom had a hot air dryer, and spent the next few minutes warming my hands and drying my gloves. When I returned the key, the clerk invited me to stand next to the heat lamps warming up the burritos and hot dogs, as that was the warmest spot in the store. I had a cheese burrito and a hot chocolate as I dried out and warmed up. So, Mistake #8: thin racing rain jackets don’t cut it. You need a proper rain jacket that doesn’t let in any water at all. Rain is cold, so steaming in your own sweat is not an issue on a long brevet – you are not going to get that warm riding long hours in the rain.

Back on the road, I still felt cold, so I spent the next few kilometres pushing out of the saddle up any small hills in a big gear, just to generate some body heat. Fortunately, the rain stopped, the roads dried, and the sun actually came out by the town of Sultan. And by the time I reached the control town of Monroe, I was getting tired of eating, which is probably a bad sign. I knew I needed to eat things with more moisture, so I switched to tuna sandwiches (which I normally wouldn’t eat) washed down with chocolate milk. This kept me going to the Highway 9 turnoff, where Nigel caught up with me after a hard chase.

We rode together as night settled along Highway 9. Nigel had slept a couple of hours, then had arrived in Leavenworth just after I had left, so had been chasing over the pass. I was still looking for a 1:30 am finish, about 3:30 over my most optimistic schedule, but the road dragged on past some construction, and speeds tend to drop at night since the sensation of speed is tempered by what’s visible in the headlight beam, so 25 kmh appears fast on a dark road, and 20 kmh appears more reasonable.

We finally reached the last control town of Sedro Woolley, and this is where I made Mistake #9. I thought I knew the roads around Mt. Vernon and Sedro Woolley pretty well, but I should have known to turn right when Highway 9 met Highway 20. Instead, in a moment of confusion over the route, we turned left, and fortunately Nigel realized that the road markers no longer showed Highway 9 long before we reached Whidbey Island. We turned around and retraced three or four kilometres, getting back on course over a section that was confusing enough even with good directions.

The next section of Highway 9 was just interminable. First it climbed, which I wasn’t expecting. Then it started to rain. We were reaching the point where you have to be a real “hard man,” really tough if you want to finish. My toughness manifests itself in getting angry at everything, just totally ticked off. So I was surprised that Nigel was even riding with me after we’d gone for seeming hours in the dark and cold rain, one hill after the other, while I complained about the rain and the hills, and losing time on the wrong turn. He gave me some cashews, which really helped, and some chocolate-covered coffee beans, which were a tasty diversion, but they cause an upset stomach, one more thing to get mad about. I was starting to hallucinate a little, but at this point it was just a lengthening of the awareness of time and distance. Everything just seemed to take longer. The dark road seemed to stretch on forever. Sections of road I knew to be short instead seemed to lengthen beyond endurance. The rain continued to fall. I decided that the best way to deal with this was to just ride on and accept however long it took.

Finally, we reached the border crossing at Sumas, and then the hotel at 3 am, where a dedicated Alex was still up with the laptop. Even a hot shower didn’t get me completely warm, but I was finally able to get in the car for the drive home at 4 am. And this was the biggest mistake, #10: If you’ve been riding for 45 hours straight with just a half hour of sleep, do not drive a car. Shortly after getting on Highway 1 to Vancouver, I started hallucinating. First I would see objects on the side of the road that would recede back to the far edge as I approached. Then things like bridges would turn into flatbed trailers ahead of me. I slowed down a couple of times to avoid running into things that weren’t there. What I should have done was to have just pulled over and slept, but I needed to get home and there was no traffic, or if there was, they were able to avoid me. I had to really focus to make it back. A couple of times I wouldn’t recognize where I was. Once I thought I was somewhere in Paris. Somehow, I made it back home. I left the wet bike inside the car and dropped off to sleep. The alarm was set to 7:30, and I woke up then, but the next thing I knew, it was 9:20 and I didn’t know where the time had gone. But I did make it to the opera, capping another fun-filled weekend. See you in Paris!

Some additional tips:

The Schmidt generator and B&M lights worked flawlessly, even in the hardest rain. Back in the 80’s, the state of the art was the Sanyo bottom-bracket-mounted generator, but even it would slip in the rain. The Schmidt is completely unaffected by rain, especially with the heavy-duty wires provided by Peter White. Their only disadvantage is the significant weight. I think the hubs also add to the front wheel inertia, which makes it more difficult to ride no-hands. You need to be able to ride no-hands on these long rides, if only to ease pressure on the back.

The jury’s still out on oval-section handlebars. My left hand is still numb two days later.

I need to upgrade the Campag shifter, but I’m thinking that I will build a rear wheel on a Sturmey-Archer S3X 3-speed fixed gear hub and use it on the fixie, probably with a freewheel instead of a track cog. These appear to be the only 3-speed hubs you can get in a 120mm rear spacing.

Forget the mini-pumps. Take a full-size frame pump. And CO2 is fast, but it loses pressure quickly. How do you suppose they get it all into the small canister? If they could compress oxygen that much, you’d think they would use that. No, they use CO2 because it’s easier to compress. Unfortunately, it will compress when in the tire, too. It’s OK for short races, but not for 1000 km rides.

Since 2006, Sigma bike computers no longer completely reset when the clock hits 10 hours. At the end of the ride, my Sigma 906 showed 1019.4 kilometers and 40 hours 18 minutes, which is the actual time the bike is moving. In previous brevets, my pre-2006 Sigmas would lose everything as soon as the 10-hour clock rolled over. However, I have never had a Sigma fail in the rain. One more praise for German engineering.

The Michelin Pro 3 front tire and the 10-speed chain went the distance. The Ksyrium wheel was still true. (So was the front wheel with the Schmidt hub, but I had built that one.)


Go to: Super Week Results
Go to: Luis' 1000 km Photos
Go to: 1000 km Photo Gallery


September 11, 2010