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600 km in British Columbia
a view from the back

by Pamela Blalock


I laid my head down on the pillow at 2:30 AM and for the next five hours I slept with an intensity that Randonneurs know all too well. It's a special kind of sleep that's well earned. Then, despite only getting 5 hours of sleep, I woke up completely refreshed. I was a little disoriented for a few minutes, but soon after looking around the room, I recognized the tandem, and my captain, and quickly remembered why I was here, and indeed where here was.

Here was Lytton, British Columbia, about 400 km into a 600 km brevet. Why? Because it was fun. Hard, but fun. The previous morning at 7 AM, Terry Zmrhal and I clipped our shoes into the pedals on the tandem at a gas station just outside Vancouver, BC, along with 10 or so other Randonneurs, and aimed our bikes north and east toward Cache Creek, 300 km away, up the Fraser River Canyon, and into the wind.

The sight of another tandem was welcome, since this meant we might have company during the ride, and a little help with the winds. It's really difficult for tandems to draft singles, since our pace is considerably different from that of single bikes, but tandems do very well drafting each other. Dierdre and Bob had just started riding together. This was only their fourth tandem ride, but their last ride was a 300 km, so they knew sort of what they were in for.

Terry, on the other hand, had somehow allowed himself to be conned into attempting a 600 km ride on a tandem after having done just a 50 mile ride with me 6 weeks before. I thought it was very brave of him to agree to try this ride, but also had every confidence in our ability to complete the ride. The second time we rode together, he proved to be an excellent captain, inspiring great confidence, as he maneuvered the bike up and back down a fire road for a little offroad fun. I half jokingly suggested we try a 600 km on my bike, when I made my next trip to Seattle in June, and he shocked me when he wrote back saying sure. So I rented a tandem case and packed up the Burley for its first plane trip.

After my last trip out, when my bike went to San Francisco instead of Seattle, I was a bit paranoid about the bike's final destination, so I showed up at the airport several hours early, and insisted on seeing the bike board a plane bound for Seattle. They assured me that it would go with me, and the sight of it at the baggage claim area when I arrived was certainly a relief. A few hours later, I had the bike reassembled and ready to go.

Ted Milner had graciously offered us a place to stay the night before the ride, and planned to do the first 100 km of the route before heading home and catching up on overdue work. I had hoped we might see Ted on the road, but he flew out of the parking lot, and we only saw him at the first checkpoint, where he turned back. We were joined by Mike, Anna, Bob and Dierdre. They also flew out of the parking lot, but we tried to hang on as our speed hovered around 24 to 25 miles an hour. The route started out flat to rolling, and everyone seemed to want to take advantage of the initial easy part.

According to the locals, winds typically blow up the canyon, but we noticed that we already had a slight headwind. This was not a good sign, but I was happy to have the tandem, given its inherent advantage in a headwind.

We continued on with this group until we heard that first awful pinging noise of a broken spoke. Fortunately, for us, it wasn't on our bike! Deirdre asked Terry if he noticed a wobble in their rear wheel. A pretty serious amount of side to side movement confirmed the bad news, but luckily we had just passed through a large town, so they were able to ride back to find an open bike shop to get spokes and fix the wheel. We continued on with Mike and Anna, since we had no spokes that would fit and there was nothing else we could do to help.

We took a quick break at the first checkpoint at about 90km, gulped down a couple of muffins, refilled our Camelbaks and headed on our way. This concluded the flat part of the ride. Soon afterwards we turned on Route 1, the Trans-Canada highway and began our ascent up the canyon. The scenery up to this point had been quite nice as we followed a river valley, with a few small hills on either side, but breathtaking does not adequately describe what followed for the next 200 km. Mountains rose up from both sides of the river, and the road rolled along up and down where the base of each hill reached down toward the river. This broke up the relentless climb to Cache Creek with an occasional screaming descent, but also made me realize how difficult the return trip would be. I tried not to think about it as I soaked in the most beautiful scenery I have ever experienced on a ride. My words just can't do justice to the beauty of this area. I can say that this was the most difficult ride I have ever done, but every ounce of energy expended on the climb was rewarded many times over with the sights along the way. Maybe I appreciated it more because we had to work so hard, or maybe the Fraser Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I highly recommend this ride to all Randonneurs!

The weather was also spectacular... well sort of. The skies were crystal clear, allowing the sun to poor down on the completely exposed route. So actually it was a little too hot. There was no break from the sun, and while it was better than being wet and cold, it did make for a tougher ride. Terry and I found ourselves each going through a full Camelbak almost every 30 miles.

Camelbaks are great inventions, since they allow a rider to carry 70 ounces of water in an insulated bag in a very convenient place, but they have one disadvantage over clear bottles, and that is seeing when the water is about to run out. I've started keeping a water bottle on the bike for these situations and to use to spray on the back of my neck and my feet to help cool me off, but we discovered at about the time Terry finished off his Camelbak that it works better when someone has put water in the bottle. His clever stoker was able to hand up her not yet empty Camelbak to get us through to the next stop.

Mike didn't seem too happy taking leisurely water and food breaks every thirty miles, and a look a shock appeared when I suggested we might take the full forty hours to complete the ride, but Anna seemed to enjoy the draft and the company, so we stayed together, not taking real long breaks, but still relaxing and enjoying the ride, the food, and the mountain views.

The second checkpoint was listed as either Boston Bar or a cafe just beyond the town. We continued through town up a hill to the cafe, while Mike and Anna stopped in town. Both of us were pretty hungry at this point and craving salt, but the waitress didn't express any surprise when we ordered pancakes and french fries. It was already starting to get quite warm, so I soaked my hair with water to cool myself off a little, doused lots of powder in my shorts to cut down on the saddle sores, and we headed back out, up the next major climb.

It wasn't too much later that we caught up to Mike and Anna taking a rest stop in the one little spot of shade in the entire canyon. We pulled over for a few minutes of shade ourselves, and then headed out together. The mountains on either side of us rose up probably 5-6,000 feet. The canyon itself was wide enough to accommodate the river, a set of railroad tracks on either side, and the road, although the road often had to travel along the side of the mountains, sometimes rising as much as 1000 feet above the river, and other times dropping down just beside it. Every thirty miles or so the canyon would spread out enough, and a small town would appear. One of these towns was Lytton, where we made our next stop. Here we checked into a motel. Knowing we would be coming back through well past midnight, I figured it was better to get the room now. This would also give us incentive to ride back after the turnaround point. We were about 200K out on the course, but it seemed much farther. And the next 100K seemed to take much, much longer than it should.

My legs weren't that tired, and the views definitely gave me something to take in, but my mind wandered, at it just became a very mentally challenging ride. From his previous descriptions of rides, I knew that Terry was a true Randonneur at heart, and would have no trouble with this ride. I think he may have also felt a bit weary, but his spirit was strong, and he never showed any signs of fatigue. I saw a sign for a car dealership in Cache Creek, and fantasized about buying a car for the return trip, but Terry would hear nothing of it!!

We had a couple of minor mechanical problems. One was that we could not use the smallest (13 tooth) cog. No amount of adjusting the indexing would allow us to use that cog, and we really, really wanted to at times, but we adjusted and made do with our other gears. The other problem was this annoying clicking coming from the front wheel. I had noticed it on a previous ride, and took the wheel into Peter, my local wheel builder. He tightened the spokes, and that seemed to fix the problem for a while, but it came back. Terry asked if it might be the bearings, and I said it couldn't possibly be my less than 1 year old Phil Wood Hubs that I'd taken out a second mortgage on the house to purchase. Well, as it turns out the FSA hubs have just the teeniest bit of play in them, making them Field Serviceable, and they need more grease to prevent the creak. I promise that the wheel will be quieter on our next ride, but the noise did help keep us awake.

We reached the turnaround point in Cache Creek before dark, and after riding around in circles found the motel that served as a checkpoint. We had sent drop bags out to this point, so I showered and changed into fresh shorts, picked up food and batteries, and resisted the temptation to sleep. Terry and I were ready for real food, and opted for a Chinese restaurant across the street. Mike and Anna seemed OK with fast food, so we split off here. The chow mien hit the spot, and we were back on the road just after 10pm.

We then began seeing riders coming toward us. Two passed on singles, and were greeted noisily with our horns and cheers. Later we saw Bob and Dierdre. They had lost about two hours to the spoke repair, but were cranking along and looking strong. The best part though was that we were going downhill. I knew we had done a fair amount of climbing on the way out, but I had also remembered a lot of descending, and we didn't seem to have very many climbs now. The skies were clear. A full moon poked over the mountains, but was occasionally hidden by the peaks. The air was cool, though not cold, and the sounds of trains down below traveling next to the river were the only thing that broke the still calm of the night. We enjoyed a slight tailwind, but nothing like the winds from earlier in the day.

The next few miles were quite desolate. We reached one little crossroads and found two cyclists bundled up and waiting for rescue. The hills and lack of low gears on their bikes had taken their toll on their knees, so a spouse was her way to take them home. We sipped on some caffeine containing drinks, chatted for a few minutes, and headed off into the moonlight. Soon afterwards, a car with their bikes on the back passed by as we continued heading down the canyon.

We reached Lytton, where we had a room, at around 2AM. We were both getting tired, and the motel was a welcome sight. We knew that it would have been better to continue down the canyon with the light winds, since the normal wind direction would return the next day, but we were both ready for sleep. We talked briefly with Mike and Anna who were staying in the next rrom. They planned to just sleep a couple of hours and try to beat some of the winds. We decided to go for more sleep.

I usually function very well on 5 hours, but the headwinds weighed heavy on my thoughts as I set the alarm for 6:30. Apparently I needed 5 hours, since when the alarm went off I showed no signs of life whatsoever. Terry let me have another hour and woke me at 7:30. We were out the door in 15 minutes. The winds had already started, and the heat wouldn't be far behind. We returned to the pancake checkpoint from the day before, and found 4 other riders, the tandem and the other two singles we had seen going into Cache Creek. Mike and Anna had left on schedule. Bob and Dierdre had also stayed in Lytton, arriving a few hours after we did, and leaving an hour or so before. They were just finishing breakfast when we arrived and headed out soon afterwards, figuring we would see them down the road. The other two riders had stayed in Cache Creek and had been riding since 3AM. Terry and I were definitely operating on more sleep than any of the other riders, and it showed. We were in good spirits and having a great time.

While waiting for pancakes, I spotted a chocolate mouse cake, and devoured it as an appetizer. One great thing about riding 385 miles in a day and a half is I can eat lots of forbidden food. Just get the calories in. At least until it gets hot. I've been using a completely liquid diet for the past 7 years, and this year I am trying to go with solid food for various reasons. I am still having a lot of trouble digesting solid food during the heat of the day, and having to take Motrin for my back wasn't helping any. I have mostly healed from my accident a couple of weeks ago, but still have an occasional muscle spasm in my shoulder and pain in my lower back. Our bike was like a small rolling drugstore with Rolaids, Motrin, muscle relaxers, powder and sunscreen. And while I was taking and applying these things, I had to remind myself that I was having fun, but it wasn't that hard. I really was having fun!

The next section of the ride involved a couple of major climbs, one over Jackass Hill, and the other through Hell's Gate. We stopped at Hell's Gate for pictures, while I wondered which way the gate led. Were we entering or leaving??

The winds soon answered that question. We entered. The headwinds picked up and brought our spirits down. I really, really hate pedaling with all my might on downgrades, but there were times that we really had to fight to make the bike go forward. The sun poured down with a vengeance. Terry lives in Seattle and doesn't get to see much sun, so his prayers were being answered, but I think he was starting to change his wish! I began having more trouble with heat and food, and was definitely ready for a break when we reached Yale.

Bob and Dierdre were just finishing a short break when we arrived. We talked about getting together on the flats to do what tandems do best, draft off of each other and work together in the tailwind. We decided to meet at the next checkpoint. Then we went in for food. I munched on a box of cheese crackers and soaked my head a couple of times. I was definitely going through a low at this point, but Terry kept a great positive attitude. Just before we left, we saw the other two single riders go by, and stop at the next store in town.

The winds picked up. Terry showed incredible bike handing skills as he kept us going straight in fierce crosswind gusts, and 25-30 mile per hour in his face winds. When we came off the canyon, we barely broke 11 miles an hour on an 11% downgrade. We turned right onto route 7 and the wind picked up. I didn't think it could be worse, but it was. I kept looking around, trying to concentrate on the beauty of the scenery rather than the wind. We were both getting butt-weary and tried standing more and more to relieve the pressure, but standing made us a bigger sail against the wind.

We eventually reached the next checkpoint and were so relieved to see that Bob and Dierdre had waited. We asked them to wait just a bit longer, as we gobbled down grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes. Two tandems working together are great. They didn't feel they were getting much of a draft off of us, but the companionship helped increase both of our speeds. We leap frogged back and forth on the hills, and I was glad to have them along because we started standing more without me having to ask. Two tandems can draft off of each other, but there is also a little competitiveness that just makes them go faster together. We seemed to catch that for a while.

Then we reached the hill. Some referred to it at Agassiz Agony. I think Terry called it Woodside. All I know is that it was steep and long and we used our lowest gear and it hurt. Bob and Dierdre had broken another spoke and were worried how the wheel would hold up on this climb, but they did fine. The rest of the ride in was easy, well relative to everything else.

We took one more break and my stomach finally started to feel better. We both picked up our pace and even reached those 24-25 mph readings that I had seen on the way out. We arrived a few minutes after Mike and Anna, and everyone was thrilled to have completed the ride. The skies had looked threatening for much of the afternoon, but the rain held off for 1/2 hour after we finished. We reloaded the van, and after quick showers at Ted's began the drive home to Seattle.

This ride was absolutely the best ride I have done all year. I have never been on a more beautiful ride. I thought Terry was a little foolish to agree to ride the tandem on a 600 km, but my respect for him is considerable. He did a remarkable job as a captain and riding companion. He kept the bike upright when I got dizzy. He pulled us up hills with remarkable ease. He never complained about the heat, or distance or shifting and put up with my complaints and my stomach. And I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank him again for a wonderful ride. Thanks Terry! Want to do another one?


Tour of New England