Day One: Sleepless Toward Seattle
We awoke to steady rain.
The concept of riding in the rain had been one thing, putting on clothes to actually ride in the rain is another! How often do YOU leave the house while it is currently raining for a bicycle ride? Exactly. Breakfast was quiet. I failed at making coffee, we ran out of water pressure to take showers or flush the morning weight savings down the toilet, and you could just about cut the tension with a dull butter knife. I guess it’s go-time!
We stepped out into the rain and threw our “drop bags” into Troy’s van. Everything we would wear and use outside of food and water refuels was now on our bikes; and they did not feel light. Well, Maybe Thomas’ bike did. We didn’t have a postal scale, but our planning told us his bike came out to around 25lbs while Aharon and I floated right around 46lbs.
Troy drove off and we rode to the beach in the rain. We saw several cars go by with fat tired bikes strapped onboard. We laughed and joked, I suppose believing we were prepared for what Troy’s love child of a route was about to clobber us with.
The first challenge of XWA is getting to the water at First Beach in La Push. There isn’t really a path; the driftwood blockade is far too dynamic for that. You have to haul your loaded bike down to the water; before you can join the grand depart, either part of your body or your bike must touch the water.
Troy offered a one hour time bonus to anyone willing to completely submerge their body in the ocean at this point; no one took the bait.
All lined up in the sand, family and friends who had made the drive took last gray photos of the bunch. This is the last time we would all be assembled. Within about an hour all these adventurous riders would be strung out for miles.
Aharon fumbled with gear on his bike, Chase M accidentally left his beautiful Yeti bike too close to the surf, and Troy said a few nice words no one remembers.
Two courageous women were joining the grand depart this year! (only two? where you at ladies??) The first was Valerie who was the first woman to complete the route when she rode it on a tandem with her husband Josh the year before. This time she was fighting the good fight solo. The second lady to line up was Jenevieve H, wife of the ONLY person crazy enough to show up to all three of Troy’s grand departs. That’s right, Bob H assuredly has memory problems.
Once off the beach, Troy led us out for a very short “neutral start” to the paved trail out of town, where he bid us good luck or some other nonsense. In the true spirit of the event, this first stretch was a climb. At least the rain had subsided to more of a mist. The beach was the last time I would see Thomas for the first day. His minimalist gear strategy meant he relied on hotels and did not bring any camping gear. His destination for the night was a motel in the town of Quilcene. At approximately 175 miles and 16,000ft into the route, he would need to keep a solid pace in order to both check into the mom and pop type motel and do so with enough time for a proper sleep. Ambitious.
I rode for a bit with a Seattle local I had never met before named Nat. His gear looked similar to Thomas, although he had forgone the nearly ubiquitous clip on aero bars and his tires appeared smooth. Then he told me about one of his adventures from the previous summer, spending time in the altitudes of Colorado on a bikepacking route which included a five day stretch without the ability to resupply. Wow. I was feeling incredibly outgunned. Who were these people?! Was I about to become one of them?? Nat rode off at a faster clip than I was willing to do, leaving me to wonder if I had misjudged my competitive prospects for XWA.
Aharon and I rode together for some time, just chatting and enjoying a beautiful route through the rain forest.
The climbing came and went and with it a bunch of riders around us. The rest seemed to out-climb us and then we would catch them on the next descent. Once the sustained climb began in earnest however, they stayed away.
Aharon and I stuck together until his pace slowed to have a conversation with someone, Kyle I think, and mine held to the top. I saw him briefly on the following descent but then he was gone; he must have stopped for something because I didn’t see him for quite awhile.
A kind Jeep driver let me pass on the descent toward highway 101; bikes are fast downhill!
I stopped for a short bathroom break at the Olympic Discovery Trailhead, but still no sight of Aharon or Kyle. Weird. I pressed on for some relaxing pavement and with it the exhilaration of speed again.
I found I am unable to embed YouTube videos using this blog platform. In the future, I’ll find and learn a better one, but for now I’ll just insert good old links. I recommend right-click and then open in a new tab or window, otherwise it will take over the window you are in and you’ll have to navigate back here, potentially losing your place in this riveting narrative… you’ve been warned.
A little Olympic Discovery Trail video
(the above text is a link!)
I don’t remember at what points the trail changed from pavement to gravel and back, but it wends its way along Lake Crescent. On past rides I’ve stopped to marvel at the gorgeous valley and the color of the water; this time things felt more urgent and I didn’t stop for long anywhere.
I went off-course many times during XWA. The first time was missing a turn onto the road by the lake instead of following the trail. You can’t always tell if Troy intended detours like these or if they are just route mistakes made in the software. Looking back at how things played out overall, little detours like these were meaningless, but at the time, I felt touches of frustration and panic each time I turned my bike around.
This tunnel was one point I was glad I checked the map. It was so cool and inviting and I was rolling along at a good clip - nope, off into the rubble of a trail to the right where I half rode half stumbled to avoid a dip in the lake.
At one point I crossed a small footbridge and greeted the family playing on the opposite bank. After a friendly exchange, the lady let me know she was told if she saw anyone else on a bike to tell them they were going the wrong way! Oooo… I like this group; game on! I feel like I quickly ran out of brain cells to play such games, but it was worth a good laugh in this particular moment!
At the end of the lake, a brief stop for a photo and to greet the only cyclist I’d yet seen traveling the other way. I recognized this spot from a previous ride with Tom S when we traveled around the lake in the opposite direction. I was so disoriented I didn’t know which side of the lake I was on at this point; wow, thank goodness for route guidance! How did people do this before cycling computers?!
At this point the route turns onto a section of endless singletrack. Nothing technical or particularly steep, but it did feel endless. Bumbling along with a loaded rigid bike and feeling like I was making no forward progress because everything looked the same quickly turned a section of the route I should have very much enjoyed into something to be dealt with.
Somewhere in this stretch I passed two young guys heading the other way with fully loaded bikes. We exchanged quick greetings, the last one calling back to me “Idaho is just around the next corner!” That was good for a lasting smile. Whoever was ahead of me at this point was good at talking up the locals and I was benefiting - unheard kudos my friends!
There were a few other mountain bikers out on the trail. One guy in particular working very hard to climb a section I was coming down. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere but took note that he didn’t even have a hydration pack with him! He caught me on his way back down the trail later. I was encouraged when I offered to let him pass and he breathlessly let me know I was going just fine! Ah, the little things. I did let him pass shortly after that, and he was going much faster than me, FYI. Somewhere in this stretch I made two more wrong turns and had to backtrack. What’s a little bonus climb here or there? Egads. Each time it happened, all I could think of was Aharon, Kyle, and Chase passing me and I wouldn’t even be aware of it.
Eventually the trail paralleled highway 112 and then broke out of the trees into a parking area where my MTB riding encourager of earlier was just packing up his truck. He wished me luck as I wheeled to a stop. I took time for water and to reply to Lo who had texted me, but I didn’t try to load the Trackleaders page with such poor cell reception. I had no idea where anyone was and hadn’t seen another XWA rider in something like four hours - not since Aharon dropped back on the descent.
After a short stint on the highway, a camouflaged turn off toward a suspended bridge crossing for cyclists and pedestrians which Troy had warned us about was worth a photo stop!
Now across the Elwha River, a nice trail back to pavement. Then a short tailwind-driven stretch into the first civilization of the route in Port Angeles.
I paused long enough to route slightly off course for food. I settled on a pizza place and didn’t even hesitate when I realized my chosen route included an 18% pitch. Here I felt like I made a great decision and ordered boneless wings and garlic bread. So. Freakin. Good.
I communicated with Aharon letting him know where I was and also checked Trackleaders. I don’t remember who was ahead of me at this point, but Aharon and Kyle had only been 20-30 minutes behind me and no one had passed when I made my navigational errors. All was good in the world - when Aharon let me know where they were going to shop for supplies, I wheeled out and met them at the door; all of us were happy to see familiar faces.
Happy to have company and riding at similar paces anyway, Kyle Aharon and I rolled out of Port Angeles together into the afternoon sun (and that killer tailwind).
Unfortunately we really couldn’t take advantage of the tailwind; Aharon had derailleur issues and had to stop each time he needed to get into a more difficult gear. Kyle had a 1x drivetrain like Aharon but was so geared toward hills he spun out pretty fast, so we just kind of relaxed and took in the views.
Kyle was also from the Seattle area and it was rather surprising we had never run into each other before; in spite of it’s numbers and the large geography of the Seattle area, the bike community feels reasonably small and tight knit.
A fourth rider joined us during this stretch, but I’m not sure who it was. Going back using the Trackleaders page does not show anyone riding with us. He was definitely a XWA rider but I can’t figure out who. My guess is Rick M?
Aharon settling in amongst the scenery of the Olympic Discovery Trail between Port Angeles and Sequim
(This is another link to YouTube; don’t forget to right-click and open in a new tab! The adventure is just about to turn up a few degrees)
I don’t have many pictures after we turned inland from Sequim. Energy was a bit low and the light began to fade. It was here I began making mistakes. I switched on my dynamo powered headlight - it flickered and immediately went out. Uh-oh. I was depending on that to be able to ride long stretches through the night. I quelled a bit of panic. Worst case I had my battery pack which could run the light by itself; I just didn’t know for how long and I hadn’t intended to stop at any point long enough to recharge the battery. I suspected my hack of a wiring job was at fault. I leaned over while riding and wiggled the wires at the hub and the light flickered! I took it as confirmation of poor wiring.
Kyle and Aharon were planning to stop at the Dungeness Forks campground. In my mind this wasn’t a big deal, but the route was actually very hilly between Sequim and the campground. I was topping out the climbs ahead of the group so I took the time to play with my light; I tried squeezing the connectors tighter and eventually plugged in the battery pack to the light cable. The light still only flickered. I was confused because the tail light, which was wired in series through the headlight, worked fine. The USB charging provided by the headlight also worked. I assumed, incorrectly, that somehow these could work with only one of the electrical leads connected to the dynamo.
Our mystery rider turned off into a single campsite beside a creek. Shortly after, the remaining three of us rolled up to the Dungeness Forks campground sign. In spite of my lighting worries, I was firm in my commitment to ride through the night. If I ran out of light using my helmet mounted light I could always camp somewhere in the wilderness of the next stretch, I told myself. We said our goodbyes; if everything went well, I wouldn’t see either of them until the finish.
I took time to change into warmer clothes and filter some water. Then I wheeled off into the dark by myself. This was an incredibly remote stretch and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t freak me out just a little. I put headphones on to keep me company and distract from the rustlings in the woods. If something decided it wanted to eat me I didn’t feel like there was much I could do anyway. The moon was full or close to full that night and I rather enjoyed all the solo climbing in the light it provided. I had my helmet light set to the lowest mode of 50 lumens and almost didn’t even need it for some stretches. My music was set to shuffle a huge playlist, so I had no idea what song was coming next. There were a couple of times an unexpected musical note or the left-right play of some recordings set the hair on the back of my neck standing on end and chilling me for minutes at a time.
Somewhere in this stretch of the ride the first “day” ended, although I didn’t mark its passing. The Mount Zion trailhead at the top of Bon Jon Pass came much easier than I anticipated. I really struggled before setting out on XWA whether to switch to an easier set of chainrings for climbing with this particular segment in mind. My previous memory of it was as a nasty low cadence grind, but that had been on a MTB without adequate gears. In spite of the extra luggage, I was able to spin up this time without hesitation. That didn’t mean it was free or I wasn’t tiring, and I did take time to rest and snap a photo of the sign before donning a jacket for the now chilly descent.
My headlight worked just fine going downhill where the speeds were higher; I didn’t take enough note of this, but we’ll come back to that later.
I didn’t even remember there was another stiff climb coming, but at this point it didn’t matter; pedals would be turned. Up and over, I finally reached the Lower Big Quilcene Trail; some of the more technical MTB trails to be had on XWA. It really isn’t that bad, but tired and in the dead of night I was really working hard not to crash. My thoughts were of finishing the race injury-free. Regardless, there were many “MTB moments” where I just had to let go of the brakes and work it out. The slow steering of a loaded bike really took some getting used to.
At some point I popped around a corner headed for a bridge across the water and saw someone camped out in the middle of the trail. I tried to ride quietly and hide my light, but I’d be surprised if whatever XWA rider it was didn’t wake anyway. I think it was Nat, but unconfirmed.
Once I got to the end of the trail I sat down to celebrate with a proper feeding. I had carried the remaining garlic bread and butter dip all this way from the pizza place; although it was cold, this was such a delicious moment! I had conquered the Lower Big Quilcene by myself in the dark and as far as I could tell there was only one rider ahead of me in the race at this point; Thomas, and I was confident I would pass him before he awoke. This was where I began to measure time again, realizing how much I may have lost by small decisions; amongst these were sitting at the pizza place so long, not taking advantage of the tailwind to Sequim, and staying with my friends until their camp instead of climbing on ahead.
It didn’t matter, I was where I was and I was going somewhere. I made good time now that I was off the big climbs and my heart jumped for joy when I passed through Quilcene! I pushed hard there and tried to be quiet for some reason, almost as if my disturbance might wake the sleeping giant of Thomas and he’d chase me earlier than necessary.
More climbing in the dark past Quilcene, I snapped this foreboding sign on the way by in the woods.
There is a quarry in the woods up there which has really taken over. The road is no more. I climbed on foot up a dirt bank and skirted around the quarry feeling very much that I didn’t belong. It didn’t help that whatever time of the dawn it was there were bright lights in the quarry which seemed to always be pointed at me. I assume they were mounted in a circular pattern on a pole for security, but at the time, I imagined it to be a security guard in a pickup truck watching me pass and I had no idea if it was considered trespassing.
Thankfully on the other side, I pushed on, knowing Thomas would likely be awake by now and I was not as far as I’d hoped. My dream would have been to catch the first ferry of the morning from Kingston to Edmonds, but that was at 4:55am and not going to happen. There was actually a LOT of space between the quarry and the ferry which I had forgotten or taken for granted in my mental scope of the route. It was really hard getting to the ferry and I constantly imagined a peloton of XWA riders breathing heavy just one or two turns behind me. False. I did check Trackleaders at one point and noted Thomas’ position; I figured he was pushing hard to catch me at the ferry. If you’ve ever had that spine tingling fear while being chased in the dark as a kid, well you know what was going on. Completely unwarranted; I expected him to beat me anyways, but in this moment when I found myself at the head of the race, it meant everything to me to stay there.
Click the link for the next segment:
Day Two: Navigationally Challenged in the Rain