Sam's Cascade 1200 Adventure


Touring Hell By Bicycle: A Guidebook For The Mentally Deficient

Other Ride Reports


It’s been nearly a week since I got back from the Cascade 1200, but I wanted to write a bit about it before I forgot all the gory details.

I really hadn’t planned on riding a 1200 this summer. Since I just started riding brevets in the spring with a 100K, then working on up to the 200K, 300K, 400K, and a failed attempt at the 600K, I thought I should probably get a year or two in of the shorter distances before jumping into a 1200. But after the 400K I felt pretty good, and figured I could probably handle a few days of that distance.

So, with a great deal of apprehension, I signed up for the Cascade 1200.

I drove up to Monroe, Washington (the start and end of the ride) on Friday afternoon, fighting and clawing my way through end of week rush hour traffic, and arriving around 7:00. I quickly checked in and passed the bike check, and found my hotel room so I could start preparing my bike. I really should have done that during the week but oh well.

I brought my Habanero, since I figured I’d be making copious use of its triple chainring. I had two 24-oz. water bottles, aero bars, map holder, and an under-seat bag. On recent brevets I’ve been taking a seat-rack with a Topeak bag with little mini panniers, but I’ve really not been happy with the weight. This time around I picked up a Cannondale bag that advertised around 110 cubic inches at Performance. This turned out to be large enough to hold 4 spare tubes along with money, tools, cell-phone, and a tube of nuun; I found that I didn’t really need anything more on this particular ride.

I apparently have a reputation in the OR randonneurs of going out hard and bonking, as Robert Buschman reminded me, so I decided to heed the advice of many far wiser than I. One of these many, Kent Peterson, once said that the best way to go fast was to not go slow. In other words, don’t dawdle at controls, don’t get flat tires, just stay on the bike. So I decided that would be my strategy. It almost worked out.

Day 1

I woke up around 4:30, and made a final equipment check. I made sure to stuff everything a small army might need in my drop bag (that’s an area to optimize next time around..), and hauled it all down to the start point. The drop bag went on a truck with everyone else’s drop bag, and I milled around for a bit waiting for the start.

After a few speeches and last minute instructions, we started off at 6:00AM. It’s a little daunting watching the tenths of a mile tick off, knowing that you have 759.8 miles left to ride, but I was feeling fresh and solid. I decided early on that I would not chase after every faster group that zipped past. For day 1, I really just wanted to make sure my body could handle the distance without tiring out too much.

Sure enough, after perhaps 10 miles a lone rider took off from the group at a solid 25 miles per hour, and he was quickly chased by a dozen other folks eager to grab a fast wheel. I plugged along at 17mph, admiring the abilities of those able to maintain such a torrid pace for such a long ride. I would pass several of them later in the day.

The first control was a manned stop about 50 miles into the ride. On the local brevets I’ve spent 10-15 minutes at the control stops but this time I got my card signed, and hit the road in about 45 seconds, easily a record for me. The next stop was 45 miles further in Eatonville, so I decided I would wait until then to grab some food. There was a short and easy climb between the two controls, with a secret control in the middle. This was manned by Jennifer Wise (sp?) who is apparently a bigwig at RUSA. She was friendly, and I got back on my way in short order. Not too much further, and another short climb brought me into Eatonville. I stopped at a grocery store there to get some chocolate milk and a sandwich, which I ate on the bike.

It was approaching mid-day, and the heat started to pick up something fierce. Between Eatonville and Morton there was a pretty long climb; nothing that would be tough in cool weather but with the heat I was really feeling it, and my water quickly emptied. Fortunately I rode past a closed forest service center with a water tap out front, so I refilled my bottled there and kept on climbing. The next control was Randle at mile 139, and then White Pass.

White Pass turned out to be quite the climb. Like most of the climbs on this ride, by itself it would not have been that tough. But today it came after 160 miles of riding, and I was already a bit tired. I put my triple in its lowest gear (30/27) and just started spinning. And spinning. And spinning. About halfway up, I got off the bike and sat for about 10 minutes when who should come barging up the hill in his big ring but Del! I hadn’t seen Del all day, so naturally assumed he was way out in front of me, but it turned out he’d arrived at the ride late, and was just now catching up. I rode with Del for a mile or two before falling back and letting him continue his rapid ascent.

The top of White Pass was about a 3500 foot climb, and was manned by the excellent SIR volunteers. After eating and drinking, I set on down the road. It was getting late, and I wanted to be in to the rest-stop before dark. The descent down White Pass wasn’t as fast as I thought it would be, due to a mild headwind. But once at the bottom on the flats, a tailwind kicked in and I was able to maintain about 25mph most of the way into the control. That was a great way to end a beautiful day of biking.

The control was at a lovely retreat; we each got real beds (!), and the SIR volunteers had wonderful food prepared. Day 1 was a successful day of riding.

Day 2

Day 2 started out much like Day 1. I got an early start, on the road around 5:00 AM. But you know that nagging feeling that you get, when you just know that you’re missing something? I got that feeling right away as I left the retreat. About 30 miles down the road I realized that what I’d forgotten was the day’s cue sheet — it was tucked away in my drop bag. Doh!

I couldn’t reasonably go back at that point, so since I had the directions to the first control I figured I’d copy someone else’s cue sheet there. Along the way to the first control, we rode up the Yakima Valley. This was a beautiful ride along a meandering river. Along the way I rode for several miles with Ken Shoemaker, who it turned out is a processor architect in Santa Clara. We chatted about work-related stuff, and then I left him as I headed toward the control. Oh, I did get my first flat (a pinch flat) along the way. That turned out to be a foreshadowing of things to come.

When I hit Ellensburg I copied most of a fellow rider’s cue sheet. The rider was Gerald, and he would save my bacon again later in the day. Of course when working off a hand-copied cue-sheet, you always worry that you may have copied something incorrectly. My copy turned out to be pretty good.

Unfortunately that stop set me back about 45 minutes. Between my early morning flat and this 45 minutes, I had already lost about an hour. So much for being fast by not being slow.

I followed Gerald out the canyon, probably about 50 yards behind him the entire way, but then lost him in Selah. In Selah the route jumped onto a small local bike trail for a few miles, where I promptly got my second flat from riding over a thorn. Yikes; two flats already, and I had only brought three spare tubes. With only one spare tube left, I was starting to get worried.

Worse, the heat was picking up, and I was baking. It was nearly 50 miles to the next control in Sunnyside and I was nervous with my hand-written cue sheet that I might miss a turn, a fear compounded by a 30-mile segment when I didn't see anybody. When I did see a couple folks, it turned out to be Del and Mike who were, once again, passing me (while I fixed flat #3) on their way to a speedy finish. I tagged along with them for a few miles, and fell off the back. A few miles later I stopped and had a sandwich at a convenience store, then headed on to Sunnyside.

Not too far before Sunnyside I ran into Gerald again, and rode with him a ways. Gerald just keeps on plugging on, epitomizing “not slow”. I left Sunnyside with him, and was thankful I did; for now we were entering the heat of the day and “Rattlesnake Hills”. This was for me, by far, the low point of the ride.

I haven’t ridden much in heat before, and will avoid it in the future. For some reason my body just seemed to stop working. I rode along behind Gerald at about 7 mph, unable to muster the energy to go faster. I wasn’t sweating, and drinking water did not refresh me at all. The water, after all, was about 110 degrees like the surrounding air. We rode like this for hours, with no services in sight. I couldn’t even think clearly. And then I flatted again.

Thank goodness Gerald was there; my inclination was to sit on the road and cry. Gerald helped me get the new tube in, and then *kerplooie*; it flatted. It turned out the tire had a gash that we had missed in the heat, and I had no more tubes. Right about then Dave and Charlie rode past, and offered a spare tube. We booted the tire with a $20 (world’s most expensive boot, but well worth it under the circumstance), put in the new tube, and started back along the way.

It turned out that Rattlesnake Hills was a long slow climb, and we soon reached the top and had a nice, but short, descent. “Nice” is a strong word, as with temperatures well above body temperature, the breeze didn’t help at all. But shortly after the descent I found a house with a hose and, with the homeowner’s permission, filled up my bottles again.

That turned out to be unnecessary, as a couple miles down the road the friendly SIR folks had set up a water stop. By the time I got there my gashed tire was once again flat, but the SIR folks took care of it while I sat in the shade and drank soda.

After a half hour or so I was feeling better and headed back out from the water stop. The rest of the ride was much more pleasant; I rode with legend Kitty Goursolle for a while and learned about hang-gliding and crops. She also filled me in on the secret to staying cool when your water is too hot to drink. Just pour it over your head. I used this strategy extensively on day 3. Mike Rasmussen entertained us with his Clarinet playing on top of the L Rd. Hill, and the Mattawa control had a hose for soaking one’s clothes.

After Mattawa there was still 40 miles left to the overnight, so I sprinted out hoping to beat darkness. That was not to be, but I did catch up to Pete Raskin a few miles out of town, and rode in with him. He was a very friendly knowledgeable guy and, fortuitously, had a much better headlight than I.

We arrived in Quincy a little before midnight, and slept on a wrestling mat.

Day 3

After the horrors of day 2, I was eager for day 3 which promised to be the shortest easiest day of the ride. It may have been the shortest, but I’d consider it the second hardest next to day 2. I got on the road again at 5:00 AM, with 50 miles to ride until the first control. This 50 miles included probably 4000 - 5000 feet of genuine climbing, with a desolate area in the middle. I was very pleased to ride through early in the morning before it got too hot. I imagine riders who got a later start had a much less pleasant time here than I did, and it wasn’t that pleasant for me. This area in the heat of the day could easily be the equivalent of Rattlesnake Hills for some folks.

I hit the Farmer control and had a sandwich and a couple sodas before getting on the road again. From Farmer to Malott was only 65 miles, but it took me the better part of the day to complete it; right out of Farmer I was greeted with heat, rolling hills, and a headwind that kept my speed below around 10mph. Eventually the speedy Pete Rankin zipped past me, looking strong though claiming he wasn’t.

About 15 miles out of Farmer there was a treacherous descent down McNeil Canyon Road; I’m normally quite comfortable at high speeds, but here I was holding down the brakes around 35. The boot in my front tire was constantly on my mind here. These descents are quite exhausting; your arms tense up, your back tenses up, your legs tense up; basically it takes all the energy you can muster to avoid crashing. At the bottom the road met up with Highway 97, and I rested at Beebe park for 15 - 20 minutes before getting back on Highway 97.

It was clear to me at this point that I would finish the ride, but I still suffered on Highway 97. I stopped again only 12 miles later at the Wells Dam rest stop, and laid down in the shade of a large tree for an hour and slept. Eventually a couple other riders showed up, and lo and behold it turned out to be Gerald and another fellow (Mark perhaps?). I would run into them again, but for now I decided it was time to go, and I got back on Highway 97. I was still beat and I stopped again 9 miles later in Pateros, and had a sandwich at a truckstop convenience store. While there, Del and Mike showed up! They snacked while I finished my sandwich, and then we headed out of town again. They dropped me, and I caught up, and then they dropped me again. Story of my life. The last 10 miles or so into Malott was a gentle climb through a canyon, but with my newfound cooling technique (pouring water on my head) it actually wasn’t that bad. Eventually we all met up again in Malott at the control.

The control at Malott was at a charming little country grocery store. The proprietor was very friendly and helpful, and his young daughter, who was running the register, was a real sweetie. I had a couple 44 oz. cups of Pepsi, and then started the final climb of the day — Loup Loup pass. Loup Loup was quite a bit easier than White Pass, but  for a clydesdale it was still a long slow grind. Past the halfway point the climb entered the shade, and for the first time that day I was comfortable, and started to increase my speed. Mike Rasmussen was at the top of the climb with water and we chatted for a few minutes before I took off down the other side, with about 30 miles or so into Mazama. The descent was rip-roaring; I exceeded 50mph in a couple places. At these speeds you really make time quickly, but alas eventually you wind up back on the flats. I hit flat road just as it started to become dusk, and I turned on my lights for the final 20 miles into the control. I arrived around 10:00, shot the breeze with Del, Mike, and Eric for a bit before heading off to bed. This control had two people to a room, and real beds. I slept very well.

Day 4

I was up at 4:30 again on day 4, and I pulled on a pair of shorts still wet from washing the previous evening. That’s a cold way to start the day, but my body heat dried them out in short order.

Before leaving I decided to do something about my front tire which was still booted with a $20 bill. Fortunately Donald, who had helped me with the boot on day 2, had some spare tires and I fitted one to my wheel, paying him with my now unnecessary boot. That gave me a little more confidence in my gear for the day, and I still had my spare tire in case I had another mishap on the road.

I ended up not getting on the road until about 5:45, much later than I’d hoped. The first 15 miles today was a slow but easy climb up Washington Pass, followed by a very quick 1000 foot drop, and then a quick climb up Rainy Pass. Somewhere over the top of Rainy Pass was a water stop and it was here that I started to have my first physical problems of the day. Coming down over Rainy Pass was cold, and I was cranking in my high gear with my legs tense. After the water stop I hopped back on my bike, still stiff, and took off in high gear. I felt a little *tweak* in my knee, but chose to ignore it and kept on hammering. By the end of the day that tweak would become excruciating.

But no matter, I was still hammering down the descent. Eventually on a flat area Mike and Del caught me, along with a third rider (Brian I think?). I rode with them for a few miles before, as usual, they dropped me on a climb. This gave me a chance to get back on my aero-bars, and I found that I could keep within a couple hundred yards of them so long as I kept a low frontal profile. I caught back up at a convenience store, at which point they’d picked up a fourth rider. All five of us left together, and rode for probably 25 miles before I fell off once again.

But I learned something in that 25 miles. The guy in front of me in the paceline had aero bars. Whenever he’d hit the front of the line, he got down on his bars. This causes a couple problems for a paceline:

* As soon as he drops into the aero bars, his power requirements drop, so he picks up speed. Generally this guy was bringing our nice maintainable pace of 18mph up to about 21, and sometimes 24. That’s fine when you’re on aero bars.

* But when he dropped onto the aero-bars, he also blocked a lot less wind for me. So as he’s speeding up to the mid-20s, I have to do the same without the benefit of aerobars or a draft. Of course I could use my aerobars, but that’s not real safe when following a few inches behind a tire. Besides, that just screws the guy behind me out of his draft.

So the “no aerobars in a paceline” thing isn’t just for safety. It really disrupts the pacing. That was a good lesson to learn, and it was largely my attempts to keep up that wore me out so rapidly.

After I dropped off the second time, with probably 100 miles to go, I rode at my own pace for the rest of the day. That meant increasingly long stops, including one 30 minute nap under a tree by the side of the road. My knee grew worse as the day progressed, so I tried to take it easy the rest of the way in. It’s always amazing to me how, as you reach the end of a ride, every 2-3 mile stretch of road feels like it’s 3 times that distance, and today was no exception. I almost enjoy the shorter segments more, because at least you feel like you’re making more progress!

I finally cruised into the end of the ride at about 7:00 or so. The SIR folks were there cheering, but overall the end of the ride was pretty anti-climactic. I changed into fresh clothes, had about 5 slices of pizza, and chatted with folks for a bit before hitting the road (and picking up 4 tacos on the way out of town!)

Lessons And Observations

And there were many.

* The volunteers really make the ride wonderful. At every stop they were cheerful and friendly. They offered food and drink and friendly chatter. Unfortunately they continually turned down my requests for a backrub, but if I could smell myself I’d likely have done the same. Most of them were probably getting less sleep than I was, and yet their demeanor remained upbeat. They deserve a huge round of applause.

* I need to figure out what happened to my tires. 6 flats in one day is just not OK. Perhaps it really was just bad luck, but with no flats on day 1, 3, and 4 that’s a significant deviation. My theory is still that the heat had something to do with it.

* I’m not sure “training” is really necessary for these rides. I didn’t train at all; I just used the OR brevet series to slowly increase my mileage (though I DNF’ed the 600K), and had maybe 50 miles per week aside from those 5 rides (100K, 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K). I believe that if you ride within your comfort zone, you can pretty much ride a bike forever.

* It’s all about avoiding stopping. Those hour-long naps I took during the day cost me about 10 - 15 miles. Not that the naps weren’t refreshing, and maybe helped out a bit, but it’s tough to justify them from a time perspective.

* Be careful where you ride! The flats on Day 2 wiped out my spare tube supply, but more importantly sapped time during the heat of the day and really tested my morale. A corollary to this is to use flat-resistant tires. My Avocet tires seemed to attract a lot of crap when they got hot.

* Go your own pace. I actually did this pretty successfully on this ride. For some reason my pace seemed to be in a no-man’s land between the fast riders and the slower riders. There were very few people I saw that I was comfortable riding with. But no matter, I turned out to be pretty good company for myself.

* There really seemed to be three groups of riders. There were the straight-through (by choice) riders, who just rode the course trying to get the best time possible. That’s maybe 5% of the field. Then there were folks like me, who rode fast enough to get a reasonable night’s sleep every night. That seemed to be maybe 25% of the field. Then there were a whole lot of folks who made it to the evening stops with only a couple hours to go before they had to hit the road. After eating, these guys were lucky to get any sleep at all. That’s the group that I am in awe of. You heard stories of guys sleeping for an hour in a ditch on the side of a highway in the middle of the night! Yikes.

* Related to the above, I noticed after the first couple days that I was seeing the same 5-10 riders every day. I’m still not sure I understand this phenomenon, but I never saw the vast majority of the riders.

* Bike comfort is important. I rode my Habanero, which I love. But I have about a 4″ drop from the seat to the top of the handlebars. By the last day I almost never used my handlebars; instead I was resorting to being on my aero-bars or resting my hands on the elbow rests for the aero-bars. I just didn’t want to lean over far enough to put my hands on the bars. For a multi-day ride, I really need to bring my handlebars up 2-3″.

* I am not ready to ride in the heat. In cool weather I can ride 100 miles and find that I’ve only consumed 24oz. of water. But on Rattlesnake Hills I could not stay hydrated, and I could not sweat. It was baffling and unpleasant, probably even dangerous. I’ve got to figure that out.

* Eating real food periodically helps quite a bit. Even a deli sandwich from a grocery store eaten on the bike does a good job filling that void in your stomach.

* Nothing hits the spot on a hot day like an ice cold pepsi. Very refreshing. Some people claim that the carbonation causes problems, but I don’t find that to be the case.


Location Time Comments
Monroe (0m) 6/24 @ 6:00  
Cumberland (52m) 6/24 @ 9:15  
Kapowsin (83m) 6/24 @ 11:07  
Eatonville (94m) 6/24 @ 11:50 Ate a sandwich and chocolate milk
Randle (140m) 6/24 @ 15:00  
White Pass (176m) 6/24 @ 18:53 Long slow climb here, with several breaks
Cowiche (220m) 6/24 @ 21:21
Ellensburg (269m) 6/25 @ 9:02 One flat, and hand-copied the cue sheet
Selah (299m) 6/25 @ 11:00  
Sunnyside (345m) 6/25 @ 14:54 Here’s where it started to get hot
Rattlesnake (363m) 6/25 @ 17:46 Hot…. so hot….
Mattawa (393m) 6/25 @ 20:30 Rode the rest of the way back in the dark
Quincy (433m) 6/25 @ 23:53  
Farmer (481m) 6/26 @ 9:24 Long slow climb to here
Malott (548m) 6/26 @ 15:40 Another hot day..
Mazama (600m) 6/26 @ 22:15  
Marblemount (675m) 6/27 @ 11:30  
Granite Falls (741m) 6/27 @ 16:40  
Monroe (762m) 6/27 @ 18:21