A Day on the Bike

by Kent Peterson

Mountains and Flowers

Saturday June 17th, 2006 was a completely free day in my life. I had no urgent meeting, no task that needed immediate attention. I could do whatever I wanted. I rode my bike.

I wake at 3:00 AM and I wake without an alarm. I always wake without an alarm. It's a skill I cultivated years ago. It's one of those things I do that people tell me is odd. What I find odd is the notion that most people wake up by being clanged into consciousness by some external contraption. That just seems hideous to me.

So I'm up at three. I make coffee. I answer some email. I feed the cat. I eat some breakfast. At 4:00 AM I'm out the door with my bike.

It's dark and raining lightly. I know many people, many randonneurs even, who avoid riding at night and who actively dislike riding in the rain.I admit that there are times when riding through a dark wet night can be a cold and miserable experience, but over the years I have learned much about clothes and lights and techniques for riding in darkness.One of my fondest memories is of riding with the legendary randonneur Jack Eason on some dark Canadian roads. Jack taught me to keep my eyes moving and to look past my lights and into the darkness. Jack said he learned a lot about navigating at night when he was a younger man in London during the war.

I am not the only cyclist riding this morning. An hour ago riders left Seattle on the 275 mile Cannonball Road Race. I've ridden Cannonball a few times in the past and I thought about riding it again this year. But I'm really not much into competition and the race ends more than 250 miles from my doorstep. So rather than racing hundreds of miles along Interstate 90, today I'm planning on riding some miles along the interstate and some other miles on smaller roads. Instead of a line, my route will be a loop.

Rolling out of Issaquah, I follow the blinking tail light of a Cannonball racer. We ride along the freeway shoulder in the rain. Large trucks and cars thunder eastward but the road shoulder is wide. The road climbs and dips over the Cascade foothills. One fast racer passes me, I wind up passing another. Most of the racers have support cars with friends or loved-ones to help them out with food, water or whatever repair needs that may arise. The first year I raced Cannonball I had my friend Steve driving a van containing food and tools, a spare bike and my loving wife. In subsequent years I raced without a support vehicle and I learned about randonneuring. My food and tools travel with me now and I know that my wife loves me even when she is at home and asleep. One of Christine's friends once asked her "Don't you ride with Kent on his bike trips?" and Christine dryly answered "Nobody rides with Kent on his trips." That's not strictly true. I have many randonneuring pals but we do ride our own paces and I ride in a different style than most. Most of my friends train for specific events and have specific goals for their training. I really don't think I train. I ride a lot because I like to ride. I prepare for various possibilities because I like being able to solve my own problems. Over the years I've learned that any distance is biking distance.

As the road climbs east of North Bend, the air turns colder and I stop to pull on my windshirt. It's getting light now and mist shrouds the low mountains. As I near the pass, I turn onto the quieter Denny Creek Road. I pause on the overpass to snap a few pictures of some of the Cannonball racers and then climb the quiet, switchbacked road to the summit.

I stop for coffee and refill my water bottles at the summit and bundle on my warm gloves and earband for the cold descent. I follow the frontage road down to Hyak and then rejoin the freeway for the rest of the trip down. Alongside the lake I see one of the Cannonball racers pulled over with his support vehicle repairing a flat tire. I call out the standard rando greeting of  "You got what you need?" and when the racer replies not with the expected "yeah, I'm fine" but rather "You don't have a long-valved tube do you?" I stop. I don't think I have a tube and we consult as to the location of the nearest bikeshop. "I think Cle Elum is your best bet and that's quite a ways, " I advise and quickly describe what I remember about the location of the shop. I start to pull away, but then I stop and double check my repair kit. I always travel with at least two spare tubes and a folding tire and I'm something of a scrounger. And even though my wheels don't need long-valved tubes, it happens that I have one with me. The racer is thrilled and trades me his new, standard-valved tube. I roll down the road feeling like a bodhisattva on a bicycle.

As is usual the weather on the eastern side of the pass is warmer and drier. I turn off the freeway at Cle Elum where I stop at Safeway. I buy an iced coffee drink and some on-sale Powerbars. I stow my warm jacket and then ride northeast out of town.

There is a strong tailwind on this section and I ride a lot of this in my highest gear. I pass a couple of riders including a fit-looking fellow wearing a Cascade Cycle Tuesdays windvest. A bit later the fit fellow flies past me but we both stop at Mineral Springs where I stop to put on sunblock and the Cascade rider waits for his companion. Dave and his girlfriend are riding out from Cle Elum and like me they'll  be climbing old Blewett Pass. I don't linger too long at Mineral Springs and I continue on up the road.

The main road is Hwy 97 but off to the left is the old road, a wonderful  narrow old hunk of asphalt that winds and switchbacks its way through the back country. The sky is mostly blue now and the scenery is stunning. A couple of turkey vultures drift in the warm air and I keep my eyes open for the tiny lizards that I know live in this high, dry country. Eventually I see a tiny lizard scoot across the road a few inches from my front tire and I think both the lizard and I are glad to see my vigilance rewarded.

Shortly before noon I add to my collection of "Kent's bike by some summit sign" pictures. On the quick descent I see at least half a dozen other cyclists climbing and it occurs to me that I've seen more cyclists than autos since I turned off the main road.

Back on Hwy 97 I continue descending. At Hwy 2 I turn east and into a fairly brisk wind. I roll past apple and pear orchards.Windmills rise above the trees and rafters whoop as they splash though the rapids on the river off to my right. At 1:30 PM I stop for lunch at the fake-Bavarian McDonalds in the fake-Bavarian town of Leavenworth. Nothing is more American than faux old world charm and Leavenworth has always struck me as being almost perfectly bizarre. American flags flap in the strong wind as if they are some necessary reminder that I'm not really in Bavaria. 

After lunch I climb up the canyon and into the wind. The river thunders and foams off to my left and the sun is warm. The wind is not enough to make anything seem epic but it is enough to keep me from speeding through the day. At 3:30 PM I stop at the Nason Creek rest area to top out my water bottles. As is usual on the weekends, a local volunteer group is serving coffee, lemonade and cookies. I chat with the volunteers while I munch and drink. They are kind of surprised when I tell them where I've come from and where I'm going but I try to reassure them that there really are people who do these kinds of rides routinely. "There's a whole club of us," I explain and go on to tell them about the racers riding Cannonball and some of my club-mates who will be riding the Cascade 1200 or the VanIsle. We chat for a bit more and before I leave I stuff a couple of dollars into the donation jar.

There wind is still against me as I climb up into the mountains. The sky is cloudier now and things are cooling down again. I stop and layer on my windshirt and warmers once again. There is snow on the peaks now but the road is clear and the climbing is easy. I'm still new enough to riding the three-speed after years of riding fixed and single that having low, medium and high gears makes everything seem rather relaxed and lazy. The old Sturmey-Archer hub ticks away the miles and the years with a rugged clockwork precision. There are newer, lighter fancier bits of gearing and there are simpler, purer wheels as well, but on a day in June with sun and cloud and climbs and twisty descents, three speeds and three passes make for a lovely day on the bike.

At 5:40 PM I am at the top of Stevens summit and I don warm gloves and my Buff earband. I know the descent will be fast and chilly and sure enough I hit my day's max speed of 37.5 mph coming down off the pass.

Just past the summit, the old road snakes off to the right but I've never explored that bit. I've heard that the pavement is choppy in places and I'm not sure if it's all clear of snow, so I save that exploration for another day and stick to Hwy 2 for much of the descent. At the Iron Goat trail turn I connect with the old highway for a bit and as usual it is small and smooth and much prettier and quieter than the larger, modern road. A creek tumbles alongside me and now that I'm back on the damp side of the mountains I'm avoiding slugs instead of lizards. East of Snoqualmie, I rejoin Hwy 2.

On another day I might turn off for the quiet road connecting Index and Gold Bar but the broad views from the big highway are stunning now and the mist gives the hills the soft focus of a Chinese watercolor. It is the time to be a small wanderer in the corner of a vast landscape. I roll westward.

At 8:05 PM I stop at Goldbar for a coffee and a big Snickers bar. I pull on all my reflective gear, turn on all my lights and roll into fading light.

At Sultan I turn off the highway and join the Ben Howard Road. Families are gathered around evening fires at the campground, cows and horses are quiet in the fields, and the road climbs and drops as it winds down the river valley.

Darkness is complete when I turn south toward home but my course is certain. I look beyond my lights, scanning the familiar edges of routes I've ridden on sunlit days and darker times of rain and fog and gloom. Tonight the air is still and the darkness is brightened with light from distant stars and local farm houses. Dogs bark territorially as I pass and in the edges of the fields I sometimes see the glow of small night-roving eyes.

I cross the valley and cross the river, pass the big Nestle farm with it's giant cow statue, cross the river once again and roll through the quiet streets of what once was called Tolt and now is known as Carnation. The town is quiet this Saturday night and it seems as if the hum of bicycle tires on pavement might be the loudest thing in the world right now. But then I cross the river yet again and again and the frogs are singing to the stars.

I finally leave the valley behind and climb the Issaquah Plateau. I follow the curves of the small road in darkness and then arc onto the bright wide streets of south Sammamish. A final fast descent and I'm home at midnight.

Christine is asleep and beautiful and dreaming. In the morning I will tell her what I've seen.

Pictures from the day can be seen here:


Ride stats:

Elapsed time: 4:00 AM -- 12:00 Midnight = 20 hours
Time on bike: 17:42:11
Distance: 237.18 miles
Average Speed: 13.4 mph
Max Speed: 37.5 mph