My most memorable rides involved a challenge and friends. We came up with a goal, and then we set out, as a group of friends, to achieve that goal. What followed was a magical ride full of seamless teamwork. We traded pulls. We enjoyed the scenery together. We took turns struggling on the hills. And when we finished, whether we had achieved the goal or not, we basked in the warm afterglow of having given our best.
Even when I was racing, the best moments were about challenge, not competition. The long breakaways, where everybody worked smoothly, trying to stay ahead of the peloton. There is something about working together, rather than against each other, that is a source of true, lasting happiness. By contrast, the joy of winning a final sprint to the line was fleeting for me.
My most memorable challenge, and one of the best rides I have done, was the original Cyclos Montagnards challenge in 2009. It all started with an article in Bicycle Quarterly (Vol. 8, No. 2). Raymond Henry portrayed the constructeur Paul Charrel from Lyon. During the 1930s, Charrel had set himself a challenge: Ride from his home town of Lyon to the top of Mont Ventoux and back in 24 hours. He attempted this feat six times, but never succeeded, always foiled by the strong Mistral winds and the rough roads. (He did succeed in other challenges he set himself.)
When I read the manuscript, I was mesmerized. I called Mark and told him about Charrel’s challenge. There was a moment of silence on the line, then Mark said: “We have to do something like that!”
What would make a good challenge? I suggested Seattle to Windy Ridge on Mount St. Helens and back, but Mark rejected that as not far enough. We’d easily make it in 24 hours. To be a real challenge, the outcome had to be uncertain. What if we added Sunrise on Mount Rainier? That would be 530 km (330 miles). We would visit the two highest roads on the largest volcanoes of the central Cascade Range. Together with Cayuse Pass, there would be three major climbs. It seemed doable, but far from certain.
I called Ryan, and he was excited: “This is right up my alley!” This goal gave our training a new impetus, and we enjoyed many spirited rides in the Cascade foothills as we got in shape for the big ride. We looked at maps and planned the best route. We thought about when to start and where we’d be able to find supplies. Planning the ride already was a lot of fun.
Finally, in late July, the snow had melted on the high passes, the weather forecast was favorable, our bikes were tuned up, and we were ready to go. After dinner, I rode to Mark’s house, then we picked up Ryan. At 7:33 p.m., we had our cards signed at a coffee shop in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle.
For the next 24 hours, the clock would always be ticking! We made good progress on our way south. We skirted the western flanks of Mount Rainier on empty roads in the middle of the night. Just before 1 a.m., we made our first stop in Morton, a lumber town with a 24-hour gas station. An hour and a half later, we turned off the empty highway and started our ascent of Mount St. Helens. For three hours, we climbed this massive volcano. We did not see a single car during this time, but plenty of deer and a porcupine. We reached Windy Ridge at sunrise, right on schedule. The huge crater of the volcano was bathed in the pink light of the rising sun (photo at the top of this post). It was an incredible feeling to stand there, realizing that we had ridden all this way since dinner.
As we turned around, we saw four volcanoes in a stunning panorama: Mount St. Helens to the west, Mt. Hood to the south, Mount Adams to the east, and right in front of us, our next destination, Mount Rainier.
The day that followed saw vertiginous descents, breakfast at a small coffee shop, and long, long climbs. At high elevations, the wildflowers were in full bloom, but we were struggling in the heat. As we reached our second destination, Sunrise on Mount Rainier at 6400 feet, our goal looked elusive. There was even talk of abandoning, of calling somebody to pick us up.
Of course, you don’t abandon a ride on top of a huge descent, so we rolled downhill toward Greenwater. In Greenwater, we agreed that we could continue to Enumclaw. And once we reached Enumclaw, Mark mentioned: “If we continue at this pace, we might, just might, make our goal.”
That was enticement enough, and we raced the last 50 miles back to Seattle. We lost a few valuable minutes trying to find our way through the maze of streets in Kent, and the last few rollers on Lake Washington Boulevard were painful for our tired legs. But we knew that barring a mechanical mishap, we would make it back in time. And we did, reaching the café in Leschi at 7:12. We had made our goal with 21 minutes to spare. The barista working the evening shift was the same one who had signed our cards the day before. He was incredulous: “Did you really ride all this time?”
The immediate aftermath of the ride was anticlimactic, as it often is. Mark had given the most and suffered from dehydration. Ryan was exhausted and lay on the floor. Even so, we all made it home fine, on our own bikes.
And ever since, we keep talking of the day when we rode and rode, covering this incredible distance under our own power, and having one of the greatest times of our lives.
Rides like these are the reason we fine-tune our bikes, test tires and geometries, think about where to carry our gear, and how to optimize our stops. We love our bikes because they allow us to do these incredible things. Every winter, we talk about that ride and think about other challenges we can do in the coming year.
We opened up the Cyclos Montagnards Challenges to all riders, since we want to share this experience. Other riders have designed their own challenges in a similar spirit. We hope to add a few more to the list in coming years.
We also are excited about the Super Randonnées 600 km rides, organized under the auspices of the Audax Club Parisien. Over a distance of 600 km, these rides include at least 10,000 m of elevation gain, and you have 50 hours to complete the ride. There are three in North America right now, and more all over the world.
Challenges can be large or small – all it takes is come up with a ride that pushes the boundaries of what you think you can do. My first challenge was to ride 120 miles to visit my parents for my father’s birthday during my first year in college… That was more than 25 years ago, and it seemed huge then. That ride built my confidence for longer, more ambitious rides, which have kept my cycling exciting and fresh ever since.
What are your favorite challenges, past or future?