Challenge + Teamwork = Fun

Challenge + Teamwork = Fun

My most memorable rides involved a challenge and friends. We came up with a goal, and then we set out, as a group of friends, to achieve that goal. What followed was a magical ride full of seamless teamwork. We traded pulls. We enjoyed the scenery together. We took turns struggling on the hills. And when we finished, whether we had achieved the goal or not, we basked in the warm afterglow of having given our best.
Even when I was racing, the best moments were about challenge, not competition. The long breakaways, where everybody worked smoothly, trying to stay ahead of the peloton. There is something about working together, rather than against each other, that is a source of true, lasting happiness. By contrast, the joy of winning a final sprint to the line was fleeting for me.
My most memorable challenge, and one of the best rides I have done, was the original Cyclos Montagnards challenge in 2009. It all started with an article in Bicycle Quarterly (Vol. 8, No. 2). Raymond Henry portrayed the constructeur Paul Charrel from Lyon. During the 1930s, Charrel had set himself a challenge: Ride from his home town of Lyon to the top of Mont Ventoux and back in 24 hours. He attempted this feat six times, but never succeeded, always foiled by the strong Mistral winds and the rough roads. (He did succeed in other challenges he set himself.)
When I read the manuscript, I was mesmerized. I called Mark and told him about Charrel’s challenge. There was a moment of silence on the line, then Mark said: “We have to do something like that!”
What would make a good challenge? I suggested Seattle to Windy Ridge on Mount St. Helens and back, but Mark rejected that as not far enough. We’d easily make it in 24 hours. To be a real challenge, the outcome had to be uncertain. What if we added Sunrise on Mount Rainier? That would be 530 km (330 miles). We would visit the two highest roads on the largest volcanoes of the central Cascade Range. Together with Cayuse Pass, there would be three major climbs. It seemed doable, but far from certain.
I called Ryan, and he was excited: “This is right up my alley!” This goal gave our training a new impetus, and we enjoyed many spirited rides in the Cascade foothills as we got in shape for the big ride. We looked at maps and planned the best route. We thought about when to start and where we’d be able to find supplies. Planning the ride already was a lot of fun.
Finally, in late July, the snow had melted on the high passes, the weather forecast was favorable, our bikes were tuned up, and we were ready to go. After dinner, I rode to Mark’s house, then we picked up Ryan. At 7:33 p.m., we had our cards signed at a coffee shop in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle.
For the next 24 hours, the clock would always be ticking! We made good progress on our way south. We skirted the western flanks of Mount Rainier on empty roads in the middle of the night. Just before 1 a.m., we made our first stop in Morton, a lumber town with a 24-hour gas station. An hour and a half later, we turned off the empty highway and started our ascent of Mount St. Helens. For three hours, we climbed this massive volcano. We did not see a single car during this time, but plenty of deer and a porcupine. We reached Windy Ridge at sunrise, right on schedule. The huge crater of the volcano was bathed in the pink light of the rising sun (photo at the top of this post). It was an incredible feeling to stand there, realizing that we had ridden all this way since dinner.
As we turned around, we saw four volcanoes in a stunning panorama: Mount St. Helens to the west, Mt. Hood to the south, Mount Adams to the east, and right in front of us, our next destination, Mount Rainier.
The day that followed saw vertiginous descents, breakfast at a small coffee shop, and long, long climbs. At high elevations, the wildflowers were in full bloom, but we were struggling in the heat. As we reached our second destination, Sunrise on Mount Rainier at 6400 feet, our goal looked elusive. There was even talk of abandoning, of calling somebody to pick us up.
Of course, you don’t abandon a ride on top of a huge descent, so we rolled downhill toward Greenwater. In Greenwater, we agreed that we could continue to Enumclaw. And once we reached Enumclaw, Mark mentioned: “If we continue at this pace, we might, just might, make our goal.”
That was enticement enough, and we raced the last 50 miles back to Seattle. We lost a few valuable minutes trying to find our way through the maze of streets in Kent, and the last few rollers on Lake Washington Boulevard were painful for our tired legs. But we knew that barring a mechanical mishap, we would make it back in time. And we did, reaching the café in Leschi at 7:12. We had made our goal with 21 minutes to spare. The barista working the evening shift was the same one who had signed our cards the day before. He was incredulous: “Did you really ride all this time?”
The immediate aftermath of the ride was anticlimactic, as it often is. Mark had given the most and suffered from dehydration. Ryan was exhausted and lay on the floor. Even so, we all made it home fine, on our own bikes.
And ever since, we keep talking of the day when we rode and rode, covering this incredible distance under our own power, and having one of the greatest times of our lives.
Rides like these are the reason we fine-tune our bikes, test tires and geometries, think about where to carry our gear, and how to optimize our stops. We love our bikes because they allow us to do these incredible things. Every winter, we talk about that ride and think about other challenges we can do in the coming year.
We opened up the Cyclos Montagnards Challenges to all riders, since we want to share this experience. Other riders have designed their own challenges in a similar spirit. We hope to add a few more to the list in coming years.
We also are excited about the Super Randonnées 600 km rides, organized under the auspices of the Audax Club Parisien. Over a distance of 600 km, these rides include at least 10,000 m of elevation gain, and you have 50 hours to complete the ride. There are three in North America right now, and more all over the world.
Challenges can be large or small – all it takes is come up with a ride that pushes the boundaries of what you think you can do. My first challenge was to ride 120 miles to visit my parents for my father’s birthday during my first year in college… That was more than 25 years ago, and it seemed huge then. That ride built my confidence for longer, more ambitious rides, which have kept my cycling exciting and fresh ever since.
What are your favorite challenges, past or future?
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Comments (22)

  • Greg

    The word ‘epic’ is much over-used these days. I don’t like to use it at all. We can make an exception here, though: that ride was epic!

    June 17, 2014 at 6:40 am
  • Michael Wolfe

    I think doing the 6 passes super randonnee 600 around Mount Hood last year definitely qualifies. Pre-riding my Willamette Headwaters 600 a few years ago, too. Doing your mountain 600 back in 2008 was an extremely satisfying experience. And later this summer I am looking forward to riding my 718k permanent from Klamath Falls to Portland along the spine of the Oregon Cascades. It seems that around 600k is a good distance for challenging effort, longer and it becomes kind of a pie-eating contest (for me, anyway.) Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to work as much as part of a team.

    June 17, 2014 at 6:43 am
  • Ryan

    This still ranks at the top of my list of favorite rides. I was a bit of a mess by the end, but all that was forgotten a few days later (until reminded by this picture–ugh). I often suggest this ride to people who fail to win the RAMROD lottery. It’s free, starts and ends at your door step, and has lots more climbing. What a deal!

    June 17, 2014 at 7:38 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There are many variations of this ride: One could just go to Windy Ridge and back, or go around Rainier on the Ramrod route, with or without a leg up to Sunrise. Or go up to Chinook Pass along the way…

      June 17, 2014 at 8:18 am
  • Jon

    One of my favorite challenges is the Green Mountain Double Century in Massachusetts and Vermont. 200 miles, >20,000 feet of climbing, 80% dirt roads, and one spiky elevation profile. Riding this route self-supported with a self-imposed 24h time limit has been challenging and tremendous fun.

    June 17, 2014 at 7:40 am
  • plattyjo

    I just started randonneuring last year and will be doing my first 1200k in August, and hopefully PBP in 2015! So these two big rides, for a newcomer like me, definitely feel like my favorite challenges thus far!

    June 17, 2014 at 8:22 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      A 1200 km brevet is a definite challenge, for all of us. Good luck on those rides!

      June 17, 2014 at 8:27 am
    • Jack

      Indeed, good luck.
      I also participated randonneuring events for the first time last year, did some of the shorter rides, and this spring have ridden the whole series up to 600k. That was a week and a half ago and it was really an inspirational challenge. I was surprised of how well everything went and how fast I could be in a good group for such a long distance, and am proud of how I could take strong and long pulls even on the last leg of the route. The beautiful route, with small roads and old buildings, mills the west coast and back.
      In August there’ll be an unsupported 1000k I’m planning to participate. And in 2015 the PBP!

      June 18, 2014 at 4:38 am
  • Oliver

    I set myself a challenge earlier this year: to build a bike (not just assemble the parts, also design the frame and weld the tubes, something I never tried before), then do the qualifying brevets and complete PBP 2015 on it. The bike is nearly ready, a 200k test is scheduled next weekend, the rest is fine-tuning… And a lot of training !

    June 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm
    • Greg

      Is the frame welded, or brazed? Can you show us photos.? Sounds very interesting….

      June 18, 2014 at 6:51 am
      • Oliver

        The (titanium) frame is TIG welded. This is probably not the best place to post photos.

        June 18, 2014 at 10:03 am
  • Jon Gehman

    I like that when you use the word challenge it’s not just some open ended dare to do more more more. Stories about rides like this really capture the imagination and make us think hard about what makes something better and satisfying rather than just “more”.
    For me it’s become about finding people to do longer, more inspiring rides with, not just trying to hang closer to the front on the fast Thursday ride. I’m glad I discovered BQ and this blog, it’s pointed me in the direction of a different type of riding, rich in history and adventure, just when I needed a new challenge. I feel like I should send you a check…

    June 17, 2014 at 7:37 pm
  • Michael

    I’m a newcomer to trying distance riding.
    Challenges of the past for me was my first metric century. Then my first 100-mile century last fall. I did my second full century last month. I would love to do a 200k sometime. Also, a sub-7 hour century – on the bike time.
    I am amazed to think that you all do 3 hour climbs and all that mountaineering.
    I get bogged down on the short rollers during my commute. I cannot imagine the strength involved in doing that hill work you guys do.
    How long did it take you all to be able to start handling that mountain riding?

    June 17, 2014 at 11:17 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It came gradually. Even when I started racing, I feared the hill… until I realized that the other riders suffered as much or more on them. After a while, the hills became challenges instead of obstacles. And then you start getting in sync with your bike. Climbing a hill begins to feel like soaring on an updraft, watching the valley recede below. It’s a great feeling.

      June 18, 2014 at 7:25 am
  • Frank

    Hi. Do you chaps not have kids? I mange to slip out for a quick blast at 10pm after the house is picked up … and then the littles are awake again at 5am needing weetbix. I can’t even imagine sliding out for a whole day!
    Or what I really mean to say is … ‘good for you’.
    Oh, and thanks for all the stories, and the much to think about besides Jan.

    June 18, 2014 at 3:21 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We do have children. The ride we described took 24 hours – it’s a short trip away from home. We can sneak out a few times a year to do this. In return, we don’t get to watch much TV… so we probably spend as much time with our children as most people. It’s a question of how you budget, not how much you have.

      June 18, 2014 at 7:26 am
  • don compton

    At 62 with a bad back, I have lowered my expectations. But, on the other hand, I love doing 100k rides with a group of friends, riding with a tempo that can be sustained by all the riders, the stronger riders taking most of the pulls. We usually have two, short coffee stops. These rides are cycling Nirvana.

    June 22, 2014 at 8:07 pm
  • David Pearce

    Dear Jan & Team,
    Thanks for the thrilling story. As I write this, I am (car) camping outside of Charlottesville, Va. at 11:48 p.m., Sunday, June 22. There is the remnants of a campfire going, my tent awaits, and a rather smoky Jiffy-Pop popcorn is next to me as I write this. An opossum just ambled past, not the least intimidated.
    I guess I have not yet become a “randonneur”, nor do I feel a great need to become one. I guess I am just a cyclotourist at heart, and for the moment, likely to remain so. So far, I don’t see the need or the challenge in upending my daily and nightly rhythms to bicycle when it is dark.
    The lack of cars on the road at night is a big plus, I must admit. I will report back in a couple of years!
    Thanks for your work!

    June 22, 2014 at 8:57 pm
  • tandemman

    My “challenge” ride memory is a bit different. My childhood friend and I used to ride to his grandfather’s cabin, about 50 miles from home. My family (dad, actually) was building a cabin on a lake about 500 miles from home. Though we talked about it, we never did the longer ride. When I was 52 I loaded up our tandem and my youngest son, 10 at the time, and we pedaled “from his mom’s to my mom’s.” We took our time, but had days of 50, 55, and 75 miles, and one of 18!. On tough hills I would gasp, “Give me 10!” and he would stand and I could feel the difference as we picked up 2 or 3mph! Such a power to weight ratio in that little guy! We took 2 days lay over, one with friends, one with cousins. One hotel, one cabin, 11 camping. Our tent poles broke and we spent an afternoon rigging sleeves out of copper tubing scraps at a hardware store in Indiana. We had lunch with an Amish miller/banker. My son learned there are better places to get lunch than McD’s – and has not forgotten that! I have done some touring, brevets and cross state rides, but if I could only hold one ride in my memory, those 17 days would be my easy choice!

    June 23, 2014 at 10:08 am
    • Alan

      I’ve done lots of rides with Tandemman and all have been great rides. (Some better for one than the other!) and expect to do more, but probably none will top this one.

      June 23, 2014 at 5:25 pm

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