Thursday, July 31, 2008

Best Bike Ride Ever? (North)

In our adventure south with our boys, Chad and I never discussed our plans to return home. The boys chatted about it and tried to pry info from us, but little was gleaned. Of course the main reason for this was that we had no idea how the return trip was really going to go down. We had been completely focused on the details of the present, and simply getting the kids to Portland alive.

Sometime around 6pm we found ourselves strapping the tandem to the back of the car with the others and were heading for dinner with the kids, my mother, wife and sister Brenda who lives in Vancouver Wa. Brenda was convinced that Chad and I had spent a little too much time on the bikes and were not thinking clearly. She figured she'd take charge and head to Vancouver for dinner. We played along. At dinner, she asked where we planned to stay the night. She began suggesting places closer and closer to Seattle: Woodland, Longview, Chehalis... In fact, she even suggested that she would be happy to drive us all the way home. Finally, we told her that Longview would be fine. That would allow us to bypass highway 30.

We were dropped off at a Motel 6 right off I5 in Kelso. We swapped the kid bars, seat and pedals with the larger versions we'd brought along. That done, we left the tandem at the motel and headed to the AM/PM for a beer. We got a 6pack of Fat Tire. Good beer cold...

In the morning, we packed and shipped out. Chad could not stand the thought of leaving the remaining 2 Fat Tires behind for whomever would make our bed so he threw them into his messenger bag. We stopped at Dennys for our first breakfast. The waitress at the restaurant was a bit confused. She said that we were about a day behind the other riders on their way to Seattle. Despite the confusion, she was delighted to fill our water bottles and send us on our way. Confusion would be word of the day...

We managed to find our way to highway 411 despite a couple wrong turns. Somewhere in the middle of Longview, we decided that keeping the front wheel point north would be the best plan for the rest of the day. South was simply going to make things complicated no matter what logic told us. Indeed, 2 days on the bikes had left us somewhat compromised.

Along the way on highway 411 Chad pointed out the surprised looks we were getting from the folks along the way. Seeing 2 guys on a tandem heading north on Monday following STP was apparently impossible to figure out. So impossible in fact that it left most completely speechless and unable to do anything but stare. And I mean stop what you're doing, tell your friends, turn around, drop your jaw and watch until the apparition is out of sight kind of staring. Indeed today, we were the UFO's of Cowlitz, Lewis and Pierce counties.

At about 9:30 we were stopped in Vader by the Amtrac heading north. We waved knowing that the train was filled with cyclists heading back to Seattle, but more because we knew that Vaughn Aldredge, our colleague and occasional morning ride partner was on it heading to work in Seattle. There is truly something special knowing that other people are heading to work and you are simply heading north on a tandem.

We stopped in Vader for a supply of Gatoraide (yellow, not BLUE). As I was in the 150 year old mercantile, Chad was sidetracked by a retired ambulance driver who was a fixture on a stool in the front of the store. He began the conversation with Chad: "Let me tell you about the worst damn bike accident I've ever seen." I missed the middle 5 minutes of the story, but caught the last 3 which ended with a guy on a tandem flying 9 feet over the Vader bridge, hitting a tree and falling 90 feet to the river below and landing between massive boulders breaking T3 and becoming paralyzed from the chest down. Neither Chad nor I asked whether the guy was the pilot or stoker. We just drained our yellow nectar, bid him good day and pointed it north.

As we passed another old time mercantile in Napavine, I told Chad a story about my first STP. On that trip, my friend Kai and I had decided to stay at Castle Rock for the night. We'd spent the majority of the trip from Seattle to Napavine punishing each other chasing and passing one group after the next. We'd skipped the rest areas in Tenino and Centralia and were about to collapse when we got to Napavine. We stopped at this little shop 20 miles or so from our destination, and I set my eyes on a Hostess cherry pie. That, I told Chad, was the best food I'd ever eaten. I simply could not imagine why I'd never discovered them before and why I didn't eat them every day - or for that matter, every meal. Chad and I daydreamed about Hostess cherry pies for the rest of the day...

We rolled into Centralia around 11:30 just in time for our second breakfast at a super tasty diner called Papa Ray's. As I downed my 8th pancake of the day Chad pointed out that they had home-made cherry pies. It was easy to resist though since they were not Hostess.

We jumped back on the tandem and headed north. At the point where the one way streets become a two way highway thing at the north end of Centralia, I noticed a mullet coiffed dude with a goatee in a Toyota Corolla who was, like everyone else along the way, hypnotized by us. I smiled and waived. He acknowledged us and pulled in behind us. We were soon stopped by a gorgeous brunette construction worker in 501's who was controlling traffic as they were installing some public plumbing of some kind. She smiled as we rolled up and let us pass while the cars were held up behind us.

As we passed out of the construction zone, Chad said 'Do you feel that thumping?'. I did feel a faint bumping coming from the rear end. We pulled over and noticed that the rear tire had a crimp in it. Some of the internal structural fibers had snapped and the tire had failed. We needed a new tire. We drained some of the air from the tire and headed south.. yes, south, back into Centralia.

Just then someone half shouts "Spandex!". As the car carrying the cheerleader passes, I notice that this is the Corolla driven by the Mullet. In the back seat of the Mullet's car was what I guessed was the Mullet's 18 year old brother. This young man was clean shaven, probably weighed in at 280 and was sitting next to nothing else but an inflated yellow duck - one of those floating ring ducks that a 3yr old kid uses in the swimming pool. Seriously, close your eyes and imagine this scene. Now, for some reason, this just made both of us start laughing. This was just too funny.

Soon, we rolled into the north end of the same construction area where the black haired beauty was working. We rolled up next to the Corolla and passed it ever so slowly. This time little Jimmie in the back seat couldn't raise his eyes from the floorboards. We smiled. The flagman on the north end of the construction area let us pass ahead of the cars. Damn, it turned out that it wasn't our good looks, it was their policy... Just as we left the construction area, we were again passed by the Corolla; and Jimmie shouts "Spandex!" again. It was all I could do to maintain my balance while Chad and I laughed.

Moments later, we passed a house with an old man in a lawn chair in the parking strip facing the street with a Budweiser in his hand smiling and waving to us. I was certain this man had been in the same place on Saturday. Did no one tell him that STP was over? Did we just get his hopes up that another 10,000 people were to follow? Or did he just sit on the parking stip in his lawn chair drinking beer at 12:30 every sunny day?

We rolled into the center of Centralia where we had seen a shop with a bunch of bikes for sale. It turned out that this shop was an antique shop. But the friendly owner directed us to Full Circle Bikes - another 2 miles south.

Pat, the helpful owner of Full Circle sold us the only 2 26x1" road tires he had. He also located tubes from a armload of tubes he had in the back room. We were amazed at the great condition of his shop after hearing that it had been 5' under water when the town flooded in November. Thanks to Pat, and the smallest floor pump either Chad or I have ever seen, we were back on the road north again.

On the way out of town, we were disappointed not to encounter our friends with the Corolla, but our friend with the 501's at the construction site smiled and gave us the free pass through the site again. Yeah! We'd made it out of Centralia - and this time for good!

We opened up the throttle as we left Centralia and headed up the newly laid chip seal towards one of the best named towns on the route - Bucoda (isn't that a bronchial disease?). We rounded a corner at something like 30mph and I was caught day dreaming staring straight down at wheel. One moment I looked up and saw the bend, the next I was picking the best line in the ditch that would cause us the least damage. We flew off the road, into the ditch, and barreled down the ditch for 100 feet before we rolled to a safe stop in the center of the ditch. Good thing this tandem is built for off roading! I could only imagine the thoughts that went through my helpless stoker's mind as this transpired.

The next couple of hours were all about surviving some really ugly traffic. We rolled through Yelm and Spanaway at pretty much rush hour. Cars were lined up at every intersection. At one point Chad counted 9 drivers at one traffic jam turning their heads and staring at us. It reminded me of one of my favorite photos from Ruth Orkin. We were a haunting; rolling by all these miserable souls with something they all desperatly wanted - freedom and fresh air. Oh how it must suck to rely on a car to commute to work each day!

We finally found our way to the only hill of STP. This is the hill just west of Puyallup that takes the herd up to Spanaway. But today, we were heading east - downhill! Now, did I mention that tandems are cool? Well, imagine 50mph without pedaling! We were still picking up speed when I finally had to break for the light at the bottom of the hill.

After dropping off the hill, we got a bit disoriented and did a lap around Puyallup. At one light, as we rolled through the green while oncoming traffic was waiting, a pretty, 20-something girl observed that the stoker had what she described as a "tight butt". Now, what with Floyd Landis, Ricardo Ricco and Michael Rassmussen, you'd think we'd have heard of all the ways to "enhance" cycling performance. Well, now this one was a new one to me - somehow, we averaged 35 something for the next 15 minutes!

Blown up the west valley highway by an overdose of hormones, we finally arrived in Renton. We rolled up to a Safeway in the mist of the sprawling strip malls that seem to extend forever. I waited at a table in the front with the bike while Chad went inside with one mission: Hostess Cherry pies. 5 minues later, Chad returned carring 4 pies. He handed 2 to me then sat and rested for a moment. As I finished my first pie and started into my second, Chad was staring in disbelief and clearly humored as I left crumbs, waste paper and saliva on my face, my chair and the pavement below. He said he was reminded of the wood chipper scene from Fargo. Obviously, he didn't (yet) understand how damn good these things were!

Loaded with all the sugar a body can handle, we flew north to Lake Washington where we finally encountered our first cyclist. Seriously, we had not see a person riding a bike since we left Longview.

We stopped at Seward park, left the bike on the sidewalk and cracked open 2 Fat Tires at the shore as the sun was setting. Now you would certainly think that 98.6F is not an ideal temperature for beer, but somehow, these brews were even better than their friends the night before.

The remaining ride from Seward park to my home in Ballard was mostly fast and calm. Near Dunn Lumber on the Burke Gilman in Fremont, we nearly killed what looked like Peewee Herman on a bright red townie complete with plastic ribbons streaming off the bar ends. Whether we were delusional or inebriated, we managed to miss the goof as he darted in front of us inches from a painful fate.

We removed Chad's pedals from the tandem, hung it in it's place in the rafters of my garage, and that was it, an adventure complete. Time to rest a bit, and plan for the next one.

We start to cycle as a means to some end. Amidst these trips and journeys, we experience living detail. These details become the ride, the memories and eventually, the purpose.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Bike Ride Ever? (South)

I've been riding a lot for a long time. I am, like many of you, extremely lucky to be able to ride my bike every day and then some. From my daily commute for the last 9 years to the races and weekend rides, I've had some excellent times on my bike. But of all those times, nothing really compares to the ride I shared a couple weeks ago with my 2 boys (Sean and Kealan), Chad Richmond and his son Jaden on STP.

Heh, yeah, STP. I can't believe it myself. There really couldn't be a less likely opportunity for a good experience than the big cattle drive to Portland. But like an old friend used to tell me, sometimes good things sneek up and kick you in the knees...

Sean, Kealan and I had been looking forward to STP all year. Last year, Sean and I rode our new Cannondale MT 1000 tandem to Portland with Rod Megraw. Thanks to Rod's fending off the folks who thought they could gain something by drafting a "big rig" with a 8hp Suzuki stoker, we finished Sean's first big ride safely when he was just 9.

Meanwhile, Kealan, then just 7, demanded that he was simply not going to watch from the car next year. No, he was going to be the stoker, and Sean was simply going to have to figure out how to get to Portland on his own.

We started our serious training a couple weeks before Chilly Hilly where Sean barely survived, and Kealan enjoyed taunting other riders, especially his big brother. My goal in the training was to gradually increase time in the saddle and avoid any bottom pain during the big ride. Aerobic conditioning was not really something I was too concerned about since we could always just rest. But bottom pain would have been a show stopper as any of you parents can understand.

During one of our favorite moring rides Chad mentioned that he was bringing Jaden, his 13 yr old son on STP. Having a Surburban with a brand spanking new engine (another long story), I offered to give them a ride home from Portland.

OK, so the team was set. All we needed to do now was find some tires for Sean's Redline and Jaden's Novara. As it turned out, this was not as simple as it would seem. This was when I learned that 24" tires are not all 24". Sean's bike needed 24 x 1 &3/8 x 520 and Jaden needed 24x1&3/8 x 507. Thank goodness for Free Range and Harvys.

Thursday night, we were set. Kids - check. Bikes - check. Camping gear, food, tubes - check, check, check. Suburban... uh oh. I took the beast into the shop for an oil change after breaking in the new engine and the new oil pan failed when they tightened the drain plug and it needed to be replaced. And my mechanic's lift was broken. At 3:00 on Friday, I no longer had the room for my family and Chad's.

Chad and I spent a couple hours researching transportation options returning from Portland. The train was sold out, the buses were full, and rental vans were all rented. I jumped on my bike and raced to my mechanic's garage to suggest that I had tools and could replace the oil pan. My mechanic laughed heavily at me in my "hot orange" cycling gear and the thought of this spandex wearing geek in a greasy pit changing an oil pan. When he finally recovered from his hysterics, he considered it completely and then told me that I was going to need to unbolt the engine, transmission, exhaust, and lift the engine to make room to remove the oil pan. -So much for that idea.

Just about then I got a text message from Chad. Awesome I thought, Chad found a solution. I read the message from Chad: 'Would it be completely insane to ride your tandem back on Monday? I cannot stop laughing thinking about it'.

OK, now either Chad was just messing with me, or he'd been out drowning his sorrows. I called him and he was actually kind of giggling. So was the crowd at whatever pub he seemed to be at. As it turned out, he was serious. OK, I thought, I've got another seat and seat post for the tandem. I've got a set of mountain bars to replace the kid bars, and we could put Chad's pedals on. Gear wasn't an issue. So I double dared him. OK, bud, you wanna do this, let's do it!

We left Ballard at 6:30. The kids were lethargic. We rolled over to the U Bridge and met the herd. I was frightened. We were actually riding with a group of what I estimated to be 300 riders. At that moment, I convinced myself that there was no way I could protect Sean from the crowd and figured we'd never make it as far as Seward Park before something really bad happened.

Somehow, Sean and Jaden perfected riding in close quarters in about 3 minutes. Just say "on your left" in the voice of a preteen and everyone sits up straight and fears the moment that a kid passes them. They rode in a virtual bubble until the packs thinned out after Kent.

In Auburn, along the street of stank (otherwise known as the West Valley Highway), Sean dismounted by raming his front wheel into our tandem's cogset. He flew over the bars and landed on my rear wheel, then the pavement. Us adults would have been carted off to Harborview with broken ribs and clavicle. Sean stood up, drug his bike out of the way and suffered. Moments later, a medic rolled in and checked him out and gave him a thumbs up to carry on. Oh for rubber bones...

We flew on into my least favorite part of STP - Spanaway and Ft Lewis. (I'm going to use this route next year.) Up to this point, our speed was surprising. We were averaging 17+mph on any extended stretch. The kids were amped! As we rolled down highway 507 through Fort Lewis, Chad and Kealan and I were talking for a while when we realized that we had been dropped by Sean and Jaden. Jaden was pulling at a speed of 24mph, and they now had a gap of like 30 seconds.

After 5 minutes of work, we finally caught the boys and Chad and I were humbled. Yeah, Chad's riding a fixie and I've got a mountain tandem, surely, we'd be killing with our "real" bikes? We'll keep living this fantasy.

At the Tenino rest stop, I was reminded of my time in Ireland. A friend and I went to Dublin in 1993 for a weekend which happened to be Easter weekend. On every corner was some dude screaming at the top of his raspy lungs: "Eggs here! Git ur Aster eggs here!" . In Tenino, it was "We've got Blue Gator Aide! BLUE!!!". He was screaming so loudly that most ladies and children were apprehensive to approach and fill their bottles.

We rolled easily into Chehalis after 115 miles on the road. We were met by my wife Isabel and my mother June. They'd already set our tents up and delivered some choice popsicles in celebration of Jaden's birthday. Kealan who had been an upbeat stoker all day announced that it was time for swimming. He donned his trunks, passed the swim test and spent the next hour in the pool. The older boys were somewhat more reserved. They rested, ate, then spent the next 4 hours playing football. The bodies of the other riders scattered all over the field made for great obstacles.

We woke in the morning at what we thought was an early 6:00. Already the masses of cyclists were on their way out. We roused the kids - some less than thrilled about our schedule. We managed to get our camping gear packed, eat breakfast and get to our bikes in an hour. When we went to the cycling security corral, we were humored to find only our 4 bikes left from the hundreds there the night before. The bikes were surrounded by a group of confused corral deputies who seemed to be wondering where to look for the bodies of the owners. They were thankful when we showed up and explained that they really were not prepared to deal with "loafers".

We spent most of the next 3 hours chasing Sean up and down the rollers from Chehalis to Castle Rock. We'd come close to catching him on the downhills and flats, then we'd hit a climb and he and Chad'd be off again. Somewhere along this stretch we got a flat. We sent Jaden ahead to catch up with Sean and Chad and told him that we'd catch up.

I pulled the front wheel off. While Kealan held the tandem up, I replaced the tube, pumped 150 pumps into the tire and reinstalled the wheel. Now I told Kealan that it was time to really show the other guys what it was like to have an 8hp Suzuki on the back. Man, we flew! We cruised at about 28 for about 10 minutes until we caught the others. Trust me, tandems are cool!

When we made it to the Longview bridge over the Columbia river I was relieved that there was a nice 10mph wind from the west meaning that we'd have a tailwind all the way down the "Highway of truth" or Oregon St. Highway 30. The final 40 miles to Portland should be a cinch!

We climbed the big ramp up to the bridge deck and Chad and Jaden dropped us. Sean was bringing up the rear. I was worried that he'd bonked. As we rolled along in the silence of the warm tailwind, we continued to loose Sean. I pulled up along Sean and asked him how it was going. He confessed that he couldn't make the climb from Longview to Portland in this headwind. He wasn't sure he could believe me when I told him that it was basically flat all the way to Portland and we had a tailwind. I had to prove it to him by making him observe the grass leaning to the east.

Sean recovered. He and Jaden took turns pulling at the front all the way to Portland. At some intersection just past the steel bridge, Sean bolted through a green light that quickly changed and left us behind. Just imagine my horror as my 10yr old disappeared into this strange city! Worse, imagine Isabel's (Sean's Mom) thoughts as her kid rolled in 5 minutes ahead of the rest of us!

We made it! Somehow, we'd 'guided' this gang 200 miles from Seattle to Portland with only some minor scrapes, greasy calves and some scared egos to show for it.

Now we just need to get home...