By Kent Peterson
As we wait in the minutes before 7 a.m. on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Jan Heine and I chat about space and time and bicycles. We are here today with various other members of the Seattle International Randonneurs to ride 300 kilometers around the Hood Canal region of western Washington state. Each randonneur has his or hers own reason for being here today. For some the goal is to be fast, for some the goal is to finish within the time limits. For some of the riders this is a brand new experience and the distance is the farthest they have ever gone. For others, it is something else.
This route is one of my favorites. It has hills and mountain views and the scents of salt water. I've been here many times but each time is unique. Even on a perfect day this route is tinged with dread for the final section of the ride traverses a region populated more by hills than humans. The Tahuya Hills are to the Seattle Randonneurs what the Necromicon is to H.P. Lovecraft, they are the horror that defines us.
But we don't talk of that this morning, we talk of the road ahead, the sunlight and our goals. We are creatures shaped by hope. Kilometers of riding have brought us here, 300 more kilometers will take us home.
Jan is here for speed. He maintains the challenge by pushing against the clock. I am not here to be speedy but to be enough. I am here with a single gear ratio: 42 teeth on my front sprocket, 16 teeth on the rear. My bike is steel and strong and it does not coast. I am not interested in learning if this is the optimal solution today, I believe my bike will suffice and sufficiency is my field of fascination.
The early morning ride from Issaquah is cool and quick and entirely routine. There is some delay at the ticket booth but eventually we all queue up for the ferry and ride across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. At 7 a.m. under a very blue sky we'll roll north on SR-305, over Bainbridge Island, across the Agate Pass Bridge and into a beautiful day.
Although we all ride the same route, we each have our own rhythms. After the gentle run up Big Valley road, we turn onto the rolling hills of SR-3. With my fixed gear and lighter weight, I climb faster than some of my companions, although the fleet of pedal are already many kilometers farther on. When the roads go down, higher gears and higher weight have the advantage and I watch other riders tuck and coast as I explore the upper limits of my cadence.
The fixed gear has a precise and unchanging mathematical certainty. I don't need a cadence sensor, speed and cadence are literally chained together and I know the math not just by heart but also by lung and leg. Speed in miles per hour times four point seven equals cadence: 32 miles per hour equals 150 rpm. The upper bound is somewhere just beyond.
Port Hadlock is a quick pint of milk, a bottle of Gatorade saved for later, a card signed and quick snack from a pocket. On the chipseal that is Center Road, Galvin and Jon and Dan and I chat while we roll and we marvel as we return to smooth pavement. At Quilcene we join 101 but Walker Pass speeds and slows us, each according to his nature.
The nature of this ride, with its early beauty and ominous promise of dark and hilly doom, plays tricks with memory. Almost every year I ride this, almost every year I forget the rolling hills of 101. It's terrain I enjoy and often take for granted. It's perhaps too easy to take all of this for granted: a sunlit day with white mountains in the distance, the sounds of calling birds above the water, the scents of salt and shellfish, a club of woolen riders who make these distances their own.
Nearing Hoodsport I'm riding again with friends. The efficient control would be the mini-mart gas station but we are not mere machines fueled by raw calories alone. Kevin and Wayne have already parked their bikes in front of the Hoodsport Coffee Company and Mark Thomas shows the wisdom that made him president of RUSA and follows their intelligent lead. Juice and bagels and coffee drinks follow with all the speed a slightly overwhelmed coffee shop can muster. Gandhi knew that there was more to life than increasing its speed. Today we know this as well. But we also know that night will come and the hills are calling and we must go.
Now is the time for most of the others to be quicker and a few to be slower and the ride across SR-106 turns out to be a path that is for my steps alone. On the shallow waters of the southern edge of the canal I watch the ripples in still water, where there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow....
I grab a quick pint of milk and chocolate bar in Belfair and roll toward Kay's Corner along Northshore Road. It's more rolling terrain, more houses on the water, more mountain views. Some clouds are threatening to organize but there is still more clear than cloud, more hope than fear.
Kay's Corner is wonderfully equipped. As the club has grown, the infrastructure of volunteers has more than kept pace. In past years this checkpoint had been as simple as a plastic bag with stickers for a control card but today SIR has a tent and people with things like hot chili, hot beverages, water, Gatorade, chips, cookies and encouragement. Since it's my nature to not quite be comfortable with comfort, I don't linger too long but I do appreciate this bit of civilization on the edge of the Tahuya Hills.
Mark, Peter, Wayne, myself and some others all wind up leaving the control within a few minutes of each other but the Tahuya Hills measure each of us as individuals. It's a darkening landscape of burned-out cars, abandoned appliances and good old boys shooting up a gravel gully. A chip- sealed road winding its way up and down and down and up and over a fractal landscape resembling nothing but itself or perhaps a crumpled map once tossed away in disgust and then retrieved without any attempt to straighten the wrinkles. We ride this land with vague notions that the journey is some kind of reward, perhaps a reward not savored in the moment but endured and appreciated in retrospect. But retrospect is down the road, past Seabeck, past Anderson Hill Road, a future that is only hope and now is the time of turning the pedals, a simple application of mathematics and muscle, gear ratios and gumption. Now is the time when the stubborn carry on. The rational have reasoned their way elsewhere. Randonneur logic is not the common logic of the masses, it is a rarer application of obsession applied to goals that few understand.
These are the things that go through my head as I climb and descend, descend and climb. Sometimes I wonder at the few people who live in this sparse and lumpy landscape. Some live in shacks while a few live in gentrified country estates. A line from Bob Dylan comes effortlessly to mind, "some are mathematicians, some are carpenters wives. I don't know how it all got started, I don't know what they've done with their lives...."
The climbs are varied: some steep, some long, some steep and long, some just stupid. Some have stuck in my memory, some have been repressed or respaced in time.
I turn onto the Seabeck Holly Road to meet one hill that I remember clearly, the steep hill with the clear view of its full climb and the dog that lives at its base. Wayne is pulled over, pulling on his night reflective gear and I charge on, ready to meet the hill.
Some years the dog has been free other years he's been tied to the porch. Some years the hill has slowed me to walking speed and below and some years I've walked. Today I am here to ride. I am not sure I can do this. I think that I am here to find out if I can.
The dog is tied this year and I charge into the hill that looms up like a great grey wall. I cannot gear down, I can only increase the effort.
My technique is too simple to even be called a technique. I count to two. One-Two, One-Two. Over and over. With each pedal stroke. My only thought is counting and each digit calls up the next. Like a Zen student counting breaths, I count my pedal strokes. I have no tally, no total. I have a mantra that is one and then two, two followed by one. Repeat as necessary.
I don't know how low my speed goes. It goes one-two and then one-two and then one-two. Somehow it doesn't stop. Somehow the hill crests. My tendons did not snap, my chain did not snap, my bike did not stall and fall over. I am over Holly Hill.
"Me I'm still on the road, headed for another joint...."
The next joint is the store in Seabeck. Seabeck is a control of dangerous comfort: hot coffee, cold chocolate milk and a fire burning in the wood stove.
It's dark and cold outside now that the sun is down and it's tempting to linger but time and ferries wait for no man.
A buck and half equals a pint of chocolate milk and all the coffee refills I can handle. Balancing the coffee to milk ratio in the cup is a precise chemical and thermal relationship with which I'm intimately familiar. I brew my mocha, eat more from my stash of munchie bars and get ready to head out.
I know there are three hills on Anderson Hill road, three bad hills. I debate putting on my Marmot windshirt. It's quite cold now but I'll generate a lot of heat on the climbs. Another problem in thermodynamics that I don't waste too much time in studying. It's really cold and I bundle on the shirt. I'll pull the zipper loose for the climbs.
A year from now I might be reading this and I'll want to know, so here are some subjective numbers about the hills on Anderson Hill road. The first hill is a nine on a 10-point scale. It's bad. It's big. But it's not impossible. And then I drop into a creek valley. That drop is a 14% grade and going up the other side is the second hill.
Call that one an eight on the 10-point scale. Maybe it's the momentum of the valley, maybe it's really not as steep as the first, whatever. It's still bad, it's still long but eventually one-two, one-two, one-two, it's over.
The third hill is an 11 on the 10-point scale. If my brain were capable of doing anything more than counting to two it would scream at me to stop. Except all I can do is count to two, one-two, one-two, one-two and maybe spare one final thought, the thought that this is the last big hill of the night. I walked no hills today, I won't walk this one. One-two, one- two, one-two. One Two One and I'm at the crest.
Now the final problem is just navigation. My old memories don't match with the newly revised route sheet but this is where companions come in ever so handy. My twitchy mind misses turns and a fellow randonneur calls out a correction.
Half Mile Road isn't really a half mile past Trigger Avenue, it's just past Trigger Avenue and it's called Half Mile Road. OK, I get it now!
The new route is much nicer than the old route on Hwy 3. I can't call these quiet country roads since a painfully loud chorus of frogs is desperately trying to continue the species but it's good to be away from traffic.
At Poulsbo, the trip back home returns to the familiar route of memory. I finish at 10:01 p.m. with riders just minutes ahead and behind me. There is a good crowd of us for the 10:25 ferry and of course their were boatloads of riders earlier and later as well.
A good day on the bike, a good day even on bad hills.