XWA: Getting There
This story really begins back in June 2017. Four friends met to celebrate a successful double Everesting; something that had stretched each of us. Ben H greeted us by throwing the RAAM (Race Across AMerica) rulebook on the table in front of us. He was only half joking. We talked about many things that evening and I left with a deepened sense of awe for my riding buddies. I also left with a vague notion. RAAM was big; too big. The intensity was so beyond my comprehension; it intimidated me to think about someday doing such a ride. I built myself a mental list of stepping-stones to make it more palatable. The list has been adjusted over time but eventually I settled on this order of completion:
- Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route (XWA)
- Tour Divide
- Trans Am
- Something across international borders; such as Transcontinental or Indian Pacific Wheel Race
“So, I didn’t click on the link above and read Troy’s (XWA route creator) whole webpage; what IS this XWA after all?” It’s a 700 mile mostly unpaved bicycle route across the state of Washington. It starts at the Pacific Ocean in the small town of La Push and heads east until it hits the Idaho border, followed by a few fun frolicking miles into the closest town of Tekoa. The Grand Depart occurs in May to avoid both the start of tourist season on the Olympic Peninsula and the summer heat on the eastside of the Cascade mountains. The ride is unsupported, which can mean different things to different people, but the idea is that you bring everything you’ll need with you and resupply along the way while taking advantage of nothing which isn’t available to everyone in the grand depart. If the route goes past your front door and you decide to sleep at home, you better be willing to leave the door (and fridge) unlocked for everyone else!
Oh yeah, did you notice the “unpaved” part? Yeah. Troy called it a mountain bike route for a reason; it isn’t just that it avoids pavement at all costs, but he got way creative. If you want to dip your toes in adventure, start at the Edmonds ferry terminal and load the route from there to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail in Duvall.
This was the third year of the grand depart. The route changes slightly each year for a number of reasons. Snow pack had this year taking a different, and much more entertaining, route from Ellensburg to Wenatchee. Troy also revamped the section I mentioned above from Edmonds. He seems to take a couple of trips each year to scout for new route options. Don’t be encouraged; this isn’t for your enjoyment or ease of passage. He really does want you to curse his name as frequently as possible, no other explanation will do. Another change for 2019 was a section of the Palouse to Cascades trail, formerly known as the John Wayne Trail. The section of trail between the towns of Warden and Lind is managed by the DNR and requires a permit for its use. The permit is free, but you need to submit a form well in advance of using it. A small challenge for this year was our overlapping usage of this section with a fantastic group of equestrians known as the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association who ride the trail each year to celebrate it’s history. Unfortunately the DNR was unwilling to issue permits for both our groups to use the trail simultaneously, so we were routed off this section of trail.
This isn’t actually a race. It isn’t even an event. It’s a route with a suggested “grand depart” date and some loose guidelines for safety and fair play. Of course, that’s all about legal responsibility and we were all cool with that. Another way to look at it is that we were all starting at the same place, at the same time, going to the same destination, and carrying satellite trackers which would appear with lots of fun data on a single webpage. So yeah, to most of us, it was a race!
Some of the businesses in the destination town of Tekoa came together and offered a $15 coupon for each of the first 10 finishers. Game on! Fun fact, it’s pronounced “TEE-KOH;” otherwise someone may think you missed a turn on your way to Tacoma.
At some point in 2018 Troy reached out and invited me. It was too soon/I had other things I was focused on, but I joined the Facebook group and watched XWA 2018 play out in photos and ride reports, although I’m ashamed to say I never opened a dot watcher link. My loss!
Fast-forward to what must have been November 2018. One of my best friends Lois asked about my cycling goals for the upcoming year.
Lo: you should do XWA!
me: retreats to a corner and orders all the gear
No, seriously. I hadn’t been camping without a car since I was a teenager in Boy Scouts so I had no equipment, let alone lightweight bikepacking gear. I proceeded to spend a small fortune on stuff I may or may not use, such as an ultralight compact stove and cook set I wouldn’t even bring on XWA.
I began to focus on endurance rides and especially gravel endurance rides, cutting out most activities which hinted at intensity. This included a Wednesday night group ride I very much enjoyed and would fight tooth-and-nail to be able to get out of work for and any road racing. Okay, I showed up for one road race because my license had auto-renewed and I felt I should get something out of it. I sat-in the entire race and got crashed out in the final sprint.
(you may now pause and feel bad for me………………..… okay, back to the story).
I even skipped the only gravel race currently held in Washington State (Cascadia Super G). I tested new tires, I had a dynamo wheelset built to power a headlight and charge a battery (thanks David J!!), and I went on overnight test trips carrying everything with me.
Turns out this whole unsupported bikepacking thing was a lot of fun!
I had a blast just testing my gear and plotting routes which took two days to complete.
Eventually, XWA was only weeks away! Two of my best friends and riding buddies, Aharon E and Thomas B, had also decided to do the ride. We spent many hours chatting about gear choices, strategy, injuries, and nerves. I think this was incredibly helpful for each of us; mostly just to talk through some of the concerns we had and know there was someone else sharing the same thoughts. There was even a chat with Troy titled “a sensitive subject.” Yep, four grown-ass dudes discussing the strategies of ultra-endurance butt care; no big deal.
As the day drew nearer, we each struggled in our own way. Thomas lost sleep, unable to quiet his mind over logistics and equipment risks. Aharon struggled to get any time in on the bike with injuries that just wouldn’t go away and a baby at home (way more important than bikes, just to be clear). I probably had it the easiest as I just felt physically underprepared. I found myself tapering early while at the same time struggling not to put in “one last huge training weekend” which I knew (and Lo reinforced) could not possibly help me this late in the game. With lots of snow during the winter, some low level illness, and the road race crash, I didn’t feel like I had really gained much fitness and my Strava “fitness and freshness” graph agreed; I had barely moved the needle all year! There were a lot of unknowns for me. I had done hard one day races like Dirty Kanza. I had done endurance rides of 48 hours plus without sleep. I had ridden back-to-back big days in the French Alps, but this stood to offer all of that and more!
Spoiled by a couple weeks of nice weather, our gear choices and resilience had been softened a bit. The forecast called for rain and lots of it. We worried and second guessed gear choices. While doing a final packing test, I nearly stuffed my tent on the bike to see how much weight it would really add - “stop it! we’ve been through this a hundred times already, this is a race not a camping trip!” (I told myself).
Eventually you just run out of time to overthink and the day is upon you…
We were fortunate enough to have convinced Troy to drive our sorry butts out to the start in La Push. He was going anyways and drives a van. We added 3 bike racks to his roof; “you’re responsible for reminding me there are bikes on the roof, I haven’t done this before!”
We met Troy at Thomas’ house where Thomas was just finishing a rebuild of his bicycle including bottom bracket, wrenches still turning when we pulled up in the driveway. What could go wrong? Surprisingly, I don’t think anything did - better mechanic than I!
Bikes were loaded on the roof and gear tossed inside. Troy: “wow, you guys are going to carry all that?” Thomas took front seat to run questions by Troy. Beautiful day for a drive! Josh Kato, of Tour Divide legend, was starting the XWA route one day early and going for the course record as an individual time trial effort. We updated the Trackleaders page frequently throughout the drive; “where’s Josh now??” Based on the forecast, we decided Josh was the only smart one. We made good time with only two quick stops; warming up to fast food at Jack in the Box, and stopping in Port Angeles to confirm the Olympic Discovery Trail had reopened where there was a landslide - all clear!
Early to La Push, Thomas couldn’t help himself and unloaded his bike from the roof for a quick ride to the beach. The crazies (noun: other cyclists dumb enough to do this) started to arrive one by one until eventually it was time for the riders meeting and everyone gathered around the van in the parking lot. This was the first time we would get to see the competition; many of whom would become friends in the following days. What a random bunch! Troy gave his introductory talk, forgetting to introduce himself, and we mingled for awhile before heading for a resupply at the local store.
Then time to check into our Airbnb just up the road. Perfect location, although it took a bit to find the actual building without cell phone service or the host on site. Thomas convinced Troy to join us rather than camp on the beach. He may have regretted that offer when we started to assemble our bikes for the next day. Troy was only riding with us for a few feet since he had another endurance race starting the following week, so he had nothing better to do with this time than critique the three of us newbies on our gear choice and strategies. I don’t think he’s been that entertained in years! Poor Thomas had it the worst, adding and removing bags from his bike so many times we completely lost track of what he was planning to bring. The weather was looking better - we should only see rain for the first two days. I ditched a couple of items which probably affected my bike weight very little. Amongst these was a pocketknife; my last line of defense against the wild.
We had dinner just a short walk away, where we were reminded how much the Twilight novels had impacted the local economy of Forks Washington.
Aharon was carsick, I had a solid headache, and it was a good idea to sleep before something like this anyways, so we turned in relatively early.
Click the link for the next segment:
Day One: Sleepless Toward Seattle