Joe and I got a room in Auburn the night before the ride so we would be closer to the start in Enumclaw. . We had prepared everything the night before, but even so, we got up at 3:00am to give us plenty of time at the start line. Unfortunately, our prep work sort of backfired as we forgot our water bottles and Camelbak in the hotel fridge. We backtracked, losing all the time we had saved, and it was a bit of a sign of what was to come.
We met Tom at the start and joined him for the fundraising breakfast, and at about 5:15am it was light enough for them to send riders out. We took a few pictures, made the obligatory Facebook post, and hit the road at 5:25am.
Ramrod is a 150 mile, counter-clockwise loop around the mountain, entering the National Park at around mile 60. There are three major climbs along the route, with 10,000 feet of elevation gain overall. For comparison, the STP has about a third of the climbing spread out over a longer distance. Even though we had looked at the profile more times than was probably healthy, it was hard to picture what this all meant.
On paper, it would be the most difficult ride any of us had ever done, and I didn't have any reason to believe the reality would be much different.
Fortunately, the first 30 miles are primarily flat or down hill, easing us into the morning and the ride ahead. We rode in a loose group, quiet streets and sleepy riders drafting off of each other in hopes of banking a little time that we would surely spend later when the road tipped uphill. There are time cutoffs at certain points of the course, and we didn't want there to be any risk of getting pulled off the course.
We rolled into the first food stop in Eatonville right on schedule, but kept our stop brief. Shortly after hitting the road again, we passed a photographer at the top of a small rise. A longer un-named climb followed, and the meat of the day began. Drafting doesn't do you much good when you're climbing, but the plan was to stay together as much as possible, riding at a pace we could all maintain. The passes were still in the distance, but we all took this first real climb in stride.
Then snafu #2 happened. As Tom's chain had broken at mile 40 of the STP, Joe's pedals were now spinning in space after his chain snapped. We pulled over and pulled out the tools. Unfortunately, this time the pin holding the link was gone, lost in the pavement or gravel on the side of the road. Fortunately, I had a couple of extra pins in the junk drawer of a seat bag I carry around. I had bought the spares after my first side-of-the-road lesson in broken chains back in 2007, and my pack-rat preparedness was finally going to pay off.
The repair took much longer this time, and once again I wasn't very confident in my patch job. We briefly weighed the risks of pressing on, but decided to backtrack to the last bike shop we were going to see for the day. As we coasted downhill, all the bikers climbing in the opposite direction gave us confused or sympathetic looks. We were going backward, losing time and adding hills.
The guy at the bike shop put Joe's bike on the stand and looked things over. He did not have the right sized replacement chain, but he thought the repair job looked OK. We bought some more spare parts just in case and headed out, passing the photographer for the second time. I don't know if the second photo was any better, but the second time on the climb definitely was not. We had already lost 50 minutes we didn't think we had to spare, and our pace was slower on the hill repeat. It felt like the air had been let out of our tires.
We rolled under the Rainier National Park entrance, passing by cars backed up waiting to get in. The ride is held on a weekday to avoid the largest of crowds, but there were still plenty of people out on a sunny Thursday. Though we had already been climbing for 20 miles, the first of the three main climbs began once we entered the park. It was a 12 mile, 2,800 foot climb winding through massive trees and increasingly beautiful views. It had been decades since I had been to Rainier, and I can't imagine a better way to see it.
Tom had been struggling since our mechanical mishap, and the climb was taking its toll on his sore knee. We pedaled more slowly, stopped more often with the great excuse of taking pictures, but finishing before the route shut down was looking more and more remote. He had already run out of water, so we pooled resources until we could get to the food stop a couple of miles from the summit.Once we got there, we talked about how he was doing, how he was fueling, etc. As I talked about fluids and electrolytes, he looked at me and told me he was done.
Now he had told us he was done at the STP, and then made his solo comeback, but this time he was sure there was nothing left. He knee was still hurting, and he said he had bit off more than he could chew. We tried to find a way for him to get back to the start, and we were told there was someone at the summit with a radio to call it in. He wasn't quite done climbing.
Once at our summit, we were told that it would make more sense for him to head to the next rest stop rather than wait there. He could get food, be more comfortable in the shade, and most importantly, the rest stop was at the bottom of a canyon so he would get the downhill ride he had earned. Before heading out, we got a group shot with the mountain in the background.
There was a professional photographer a few hundred feet down the road, and he got a shot of us that looks Photo-Shopped. Truly worthy of the names Paradise and Inspiration Point we had just ridden past.
The next eight miles were a wonderful downhill ride winding down the mountain side. After climbing through the trees, it was all hillsides and open canyons. I think I smiled the entire way down, wishing I could have somehow filmed the whole thing. We pulled into the rest stop at mile 80, wishing Tom could go on, but knowing that more difficult climbs lay ahead. And more snafus.
The second major climb of the day was actually pretty manageable by comparison. There was a small water station at the top, along with someone taking bib numbers and times. I am not sure how serious they were about the cutoff times, but we were cutting it a bit close. As we topped off our water bottles, Tom rode by in a car with his bike on rack in back. I was glad to see that he hadn't had to wait as long as expected.
Joe and I made our way down another great descent. The roads were in much better shape on this slope, and we were back in the trees again, so we flew down the hill, eyes on the road, leaning into the corners. It really does make you feel alive, the exhilaration of speed and riding that edge of comfort, made that much better for having worked so hard to earn it.
Everyone we had spoken to about the ride had said the last climb, up Cayuse Pass, was the most difficult. It was the steepest of the three, nine or ten miles long, and from what we had heard there was little shade. And of course you already had almost a hundred miles and thousands of feet of climbing on your legs. The downhill ended in a sharp left turn, and almost instantly we were climbing again.
After backtracking early on in the day, and our slow climb to Paradise, we were running behind the bulk of the riders, but there were still some other riders around us as we started up Cayuse. Like the end of the marathon though, we had kind of reached the walking wounded stage of the ride. People that were clearly tired, nearly tapped out, but still determined to finish. We kept willing our way up the slope, looking around each corner for the water break halfway up.
About a third of the way up the climb, snafu #3 reared its ugly head. This time it was a broken spoke on Joe's bike. He had brought along extra spokes, but unfortunately the broken spoke was on the drive side of his rear wheel, so without a tool to remove the cassette, we couldn't make the swap on the side of the road. Back into my bike bag of tricks to find the best $10 I ever spent.
As the link mentions, the Fiberfix is basically a Kevlar string that you can loop and tighten to bring your wheel back into alignment. The plastic tube it was packed in had disintegrated, so who knows how good of shape the Fiberfix was in. As I was trying to get it installed, one of the support vehicles pulled up to help. He was a mechanic, but hadn't pulled a cassette off a wheel before, so he called in backup. When the other mechanic showed up, the baton was passed and he went to work.
While the mechanic was working on the wheel, we realized the other guy had taken off with one of the parts, so we were stuck a bit longer. While we chatted with the driver, a rider passed by with the number 2 on his bib. Low numbers in rides usually go to volunteers or long-time participants, and it is one of those mental distractions to look for the lowest number on the road. We had seen number 2 a few times during the day, and the driver mentioned that he was probably in his early 70's. He let us know that the Ramrod ride gives out their numbers by age, lowest numbers to the oldest riders. It was inspiring, and I hope I am still conquering mountains when I am in my 70's.
Snafu #3 delayed us by the same 50 minutes as snafu #1, and once again, when we hit the road, it felt like someone had deflated our tires. The shade was completely gone, and it was 80 some degrees out. We melted. The road seemed to stretch out in some special effects sort of way, and that water stop at the halfway point just would not appear, no matter how many corners we went around.
It finally did appear out of the haze, and one of the volunteers was wetting down the riders with a spray bottle. I think we were both feeling pretty broken at that point, and I wanted to linger under the cool spray and shade, but we were running low on time. We pushed on, but split up pretty quickly. It became an individual struggle, and we had to find our own way up, at whatever pace made sense to us individually.
I finally reached the top, and after all the struggle and mishaps, it was strangely anti-climatic. I suppose I had this great vista in my mind, the land falling away in every direction, but the road ended in a T surrounded by trees. It also felt like a stumbling shamble rather than a victorious summit, but I had made it. Volunteers had set up a small pit stop on the island splitting the road, and there were cheers and water for our burned out bodies. I walked around in a daze as I waited for Joe to top that last rise.
I had planned to spread some more of Sierra's ashes at the peak of this last climb. I suppose that is why I had this spectacular vista in my mind, something worthy of the climb and a place for her to rest. Instead of the picture perfect spot I had conjured in my mind, it was a nice, simple bed of wildflowers in the shade of tall pines. Not a bad spot after all.
When Joe arrived, he was ready to head down the other side. We were still some 40 miles from the finish, but we had conquered the mountain. The rest of the way was mostly downhill or flat, and we just had to make the victory lap. After coasting down another great descent, we swung into the last food stop near the entrance to Crystal Mountain. There was the promise of a deli sandwich, and I was hoping against hope that there would be an ice-cold Coke waiting for us as well. There was, and more than the downhill ride or solid food, it brought me back around.
I started to do the math as we headed out. We needed to average about 18 mph over the last 33 miles to make it in by 8:00. I kept the math to myself, and just tried to keep the tempo high but reasonable. Each easily divisible point along the way (math is hard at mile 130) I would check in, and we were keeping pace and even building a small cushion. The route left the highway for a quieter road about ten miles from the finish, and it was finally safe to ride side by side. Can't remember a thing we talked about, but our smiles, pride and sense of relief were easy to recognize.
After one more magical descent and a stop to cross the highway, we were finally back where we started. After fourteen and a half hours on the road, losing more than an hour and a half to mechanical issues, and adding six miles just for good measure, we rolled under the finish line with ten minutes to spare.
Months of training, hundred-mile Saturdays for weeks, climbing all around western Washington, seeing beautiful places and building friendships - the challenge of the mountain kept us moving forward, and in the end we conquered it. We were sorry not to have Tom with us in the end, but I know he will be back to take on the challenge again, and I can verify that success after failure is that much sweeter.