RUSA members are regularly featured in newspaper articles because of the public's fascination with the distances they ride. This article by freelance writer Mike McQuaide appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of the Seattle Times and is reprinted with permission.
There are few things I have an easier time talking myself out of than riding my road bike outside this time of year. Obstacles abound. The rain. The cold. The wind. The cold, windy rain, too.
Much easier to hit the Y and spin on the stationary bike for an hour. Plus, I can catch up on back issues of People magazine and decide for myself just how big a role I think Angelina Jolie played in the Brad and Jennifer split. But this weekend's Chilly Hilly road ride, kicking off Puget Sound's 2005 cycling season, might be a lure to get off that bike to nowhere. And as I recently found out on a Cascade Bicycle Club outing, with the right gear and a cohort of like-minded riders, cool-weather road riding can be a great time.
"Riding in a group makes a really big difference in the winter," said Cascade member Terry Zmrhal of Kirkland, who's also a member of the Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR), a group of ultra-endurance cyclists. "That's why I've been putting on these rides for the last seven winters."
Zmrhal's rides are called Terry Z's Winter Ride Series VII. They're one of eight to 10 organized rides held every weekend throughout the winter around the Puget Sound area by various individuals or groups under the umbrella of the Cascade Bicycle Club. They're free, open to anyone and on the Cascade Web site (www.cascade.org; most give a description of the kind of riding that's required).
The ride I chose, Winter Ride 4 (of eight), was a mostly flat 65- miler from Southcenter to Auburn along both sides of the Green River, then east to the Black Diamond Bakery — in the town of the same name — and pretty much back again.
"Our rides are really informal," Zmrhal told me beforehand. "We're a lot less formal than most roadies."
Not all of Terry's Winter Rides are flat like this. The following week's 48-miler on Vashon Island climbed 3,700 feet over a roller-coaster route that was just one up and down after another.
"Not too brutal but it was enough to put the hurt on me," said Dave Huelsbeck, a Seattle rider who does all of Terry's Winter Rides.
But tempering the hills was Vashon's stunning scenery, which at least offered some distraction during the ride's more lung-busting aspects. The route included some gentle beachfront rambling, long straight stretches past horse farms and llama fields, and at the top of some of those hills, 360-degree water and island views taking in everything from Point Defiance Park to Bainbridge Island to Seattle's skyscrapers. The road to Black Diamond
The day of the Southcenter-Black Diamond ride we met up at a Starbuck's near Southcenter. Zmrhal handed out cue sheets — route directions — and we headed south on Andover Park Way, cutting our way through the mall sprawl and car traffic. At about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, though, traffic wasn't bad. There were about 40 riders, many wearing gold, orange, lime green or some other obnoxiously bright, cars- can't-miss-'em shade of Gore-Tex-type jackets.
"This is a real good turnout," Zmrhal said.
After a little more than a mile, we made a left on Frager Road and, as if by magic, the cars, big box stores and restaurants disappeared. We passed a llama farm — seemingly mere yards from an Olive Garden — and soon started meandering along both sides of the Green River via a combination of the paved Interurban and Green River trails and various country roads.
We passed cormorants perched atop pilings holding out their wings as if in homage to the Batman symbol. Overhead, a couple bald eagles shrieked and swooped down upon each other, fighting over something no doubt food- related. Nearby crows watched and cawed in amusement. They were Discovery Channel moments we probably wouldn't see on a summer ride.
Weatherwise, it was in the low-40s with low, gray skies. Smudgy cloud puffs here and there suggested that we weren't going to escape without at least some sprinkles.
"We'll definitely hit some rain," rider Fred Mulder of Seattle told me. "Maybe quite a bit."
But Mulder, like the rest of the winter cycling veterans here, was prepared for it. Along with the multi-hued, wind- and rain-resistant shells, they wore neoprene booties over their bike shoes, wool tights, headbands that covered their ears under their helmets, and on their hands, heavy wool or fleece gloves. Some even favored Gore-Tex lobster mitts, like the kind that mountaineers wear.
I also saw a lot of what I would call old-school wool jerseys, and only a few high-tech, wick-sweat-away, Lance Armstrong-type tops.
"What's great about wool is that it insulates when wet," said Huelsbeck. "Plus, unlike polypro and those types of materials, it doesn't start to stink after you've been wearing it for a while."
"Or at least not as soon," Mulder chimed in.
Near Auburn, we began heading toward Black Diamond on Auburn-Black Diamond Road. The road here was rough and wet, and huge, boxy dump trucks chug-a-chugged on by, elbowing us to the road's narrow shoulder. Mud splattered my face from my front wheel and I wished I had equipped my bike with proper fenders like most of the other riders. Not only were they staying mud- and splash-free, but because their bikes had full fenders with mud flaps reaching down almost to the ground — many of the flaps were homemade, as in strips of water bottle plastic duct-taped to the fender — the rider behind them stayed dry also.
"You'll quickly be sent to the back," Mulder had joked before the ride when he took a look at the short, stubby mountain-bike fender I'd affixed above my rear wheel. Randonneurs?
Most of these riders' bikes were different from my feather-light aluminum-and-carbon bike in other ways, too. Like most of the day's riders, Mulder, Huelsbeck and Zmrhal were Seattle International Randonneurs club members and, as their forte is ultra-long, self-supported, sometimes multi- day rides, their bikes were built and outfitted not for speed, but for endurance and persistence. (Randonneur translates loosely from French as a long outing, either on foot or bicycle.)
Self-supported means they ride with big, heavy packs that are stuffed with tools, clothes, food and spare parts such as extra tubes, tires, cables and even spokes. Ultra-long and multi-day means that they're often riding when it's dark out, and not just for a few minutes or an hour or so. Many riders that day sported big round headlights almost the size of a motorcycle's; power came from generators in the bike's front wheel hub. Battery-operated lights with only a two- or three-hour burn time just won't do.
Last September, for instance. Huelsbeck was feeling good at the end of the first day of a 600K (360-mile) brevet circumnavigating the Olympic Peninsula. (Randonneuring events are called brevets, which translates loosely to certificate, as in the certificate of completion one receives for finishing such an event.)
While all the other brevet participants stopped to overnight at the Kalaloch Lodge, Huelsbeck continued on the route, riding 65 miles by himself through the moonless, starless night.
"It was so dark along Highway 101 that when I finally reached Aberdeen at about 4 a.m., it looked like Las Vegas to me," Huelsbeck said. Cycling for cinnamon rolls
Just north of Flaming Geyser State Park, we climbed a hill that, so early in the ride season, felt like Mount Rainier. Soon, we arrived at the Black Diamond Bakery, which rider David Rainey of Kent said is kind of an icon to the cycling community.
"A lot of rides either start or finish up here," he said. "Plus, the cinnamon rolls are really, really good so it's a great place to stop."
From the bakery, we headed back to Auburn via a slightly different route but once there returned to the Southcenter area via the same country road-and-Interurban-Green River trails combo. The rain held off until about the last 8 miles, but it was light and felt more like someone spritzing us with a hairdresser's spray bottle.
"It's kind of refreshing, isn't it?" someone in the pack said.
He was right. So was getting in a 65-mile ride in the dead of winter. Riding like this in a group, the time and the miles just flew by. Misery loves company, I guess. And then it's not misery at all.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham-based freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is reprinted with his permission.