Climbing Dirt Roads at Night

Climbing Dirt Roads at Night

Ever since the Super Randonnée 600 program was announced by RUSA, we’ve been planning our ride. Even though RUSA cancelled the program, we’ve been pursuing the idea. (You still can ride the SR600 by applying directly to the ACP in Paris.)
Last week, we headed out to see whether the snow had melted enough to make our route passable. This also allowed us to examine one short piece of road we had not ridden before. (During my pre-ride, I encountered a massive landslide, which required re-routing the course slightly – see the article in the Winter 2012 Bicycle Quarterly.)
As so often, the ride started with an e-mail, but this time I was the instigator: “I’ll leave after dinner on Tuesday. Will you join me?” Ryan replied that he could make it! So we headed out of town on little-known backroads as the sun set on our destination: Mount Rainier.
The route toward Mount Rainier through and past the metropolitan area is a “transport stage.” We know these roads and prefer to ride them night when there is almost no traffic. In three hours, we saw no more than 5 cars. And that was before we turned off the pavement and started climbing Forest Road 84. Last autumn, I barely made it across this road, having to walk my bike for about a mile through the snow at the summit. Had the snow melted enough to make this road passable now in early June?
For now, things were going well. The gravel was smooth, and only occasionally were tree branches strewn over the road. Our Edelux headlights provided ample light for riding this gravel road on this moonless night.
As we gained elevation, we started seeing patches of snow on the road. For the most part, we could ride on the edge of the road where the snow had melted. We had to hike from time to time (photo at the top of the post), but finally made it to the summit. We probably were the first people to cross this summit this year – there were no tire tracks in the snow, and several fallen trees made the road impassable for motorized vehicles. It was strange to think that nobody else has crossed this summit, since I came through here more than 6 months ago (except perhaps on skis). It makes you realize the power of nature when a road is passable less than half of the year.
We stopped for a moment and admired the stars. At this elevation on the moonless night, the stars were incredibly bright. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. It was an incredible feeling, having climbed this dirt road pass in the middle of the night. Even though it was about 3 o’clock in the morning, we were wide awake. Sharing this moment with a friend made it doubly special.
The descent was even more exhilarating. We saw the silhouette of Mount Rainier against the first dawn. A few more hike-a-bike sections followed, where snow remained in narrow valleys that don’t see much sun. Then we could let the bikes roll in the twilight. We zoomed past amazing rock formations as we approached the Skate Creek valley. Back on pavement, but still “off the beaten path,” we rolled into Packwood as the first rays of the sun illuminated the slopes above.
We hadn’t seen a single car in more than 5 hours, and most of all, we had made it across the first mountain road of our reconnaissance trip. Riding passes on dirt roads in daytime is great fun, but doing so at night adds another dimension to the experience.
In Packwood, we took 15 minutes for a short rest and snack at the 24-hour gas station before tackling the second part of our journey… (to be continued)

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Comments (17)

  • David

    I really like your stories of riding in the country around Seattle. I find it more inspiring to read about cyclotouring adventures than timed or competitive randonneuring events.
    Your last picture reminds me of this painting:

    June 14, 2013 at 4:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I thought the same thing when I took the photo.

      June 14, 2013 at 7:02 am
    • David Pearce

      Wow, interesting connection! Good call.

      June 14, 2013 at 8:42 am
  • Dax


    June 14, 2013 at 5:51 am
  • Ford Bailey

    Thanks. What a wonderful ride. I look forward to the second part and more.

    June 14, 2013 at 7:52 am
  • Edward

    I really enjoy these pieces about night rides. For one who is intrigued by them but never done them, can you speak to the recovery process? How do they affect one’s sleep cycle and everyday activity in the days and nights that follow? I would like to take on a ride like this someday for the experience of it, but worry that I would be in a fog for a couple of days afterwords.

    June 14, 2013 at 8:48 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I find that for a 24-hour ride, if I start in the evening, and arrive in the evening, the night’s sleep (with a few hours extra) provide a very good recovery. I’d like to claim like Vélocio’s disciples that I don’t feel “abnormal fatigue” the day after, but like any long ride, I am a bit tired the following day.
      The lack of sleep seems to be fine, as long as it’s done only rarely, and as long as I don’t start the ride sleep-deprived (i.e., plenty of sleep the days before). Night-time riding has a lot of appeal…

      June 14, 2013 at 9:55 am
  • David Pearce

    You, Jan Heine, are really an Industry, with a Capital “I”. I pretty much understand what drives you, but maybe I’d like to know more. You’ve got the magazine, the blog, the company, more I must be leaving out. Especially, how did you get your start in biking? Have you written about that anywhere? Did you come from a biking family? Maybe you’re on Wikipedia?

    June 14, 2013 at 8:48 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I’ve loved cycling all my life, but I really go into it when I went to college in Germany. It’s natural to see how far you can go, so I rode to visit friends and family all over Germany on weekends. (I didn’t know about randonneuring then.) You’ll find more in this interview.

      June 14, 2013 at 9:56 am
      • David Pearce

        Can I ask you one specific question about the bicycle shown in that interview, with the following caption?:
        “A 1950s René Herse randonneur bike designed for riding on smooth and rough roads, even gravel. Photo by Jean-Pierre Pradéres, Vintage Bicycle Press.”
        Is the rear wheel laced correctly? It must be, but I’m used to seeing the tire valve in between a pair of nearly parallel spokes, like the front wheel shown. Can you comment?

        June 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The rear wheel isn’t laced correctly. Knowing René Herse’s perfectionism, I doubt it left the shop in Levallois-Perret that way. I suspect it was rebuilt at some stage with the spoke pattern it displays now. The bikes in our books are often 50+ years old and have lived a long life. We go to great lengths to ensure that they are as original as possible, but we have to make small compromises like this. We are lucky that these machines have survived as intact as they are – so many classic bikes have been modernized over time, and when they are restored, it is almost impossible to recreate them the way they originally were.

          June 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm
  • David Pearce

    Do you write French well? I’d love to see some of your blog conducted in French, since France and 50,000,000 French are so much connected with the riding and the machines we love.

    June 14, 2013 at 9:04 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I do a lot of research in France, so I can communicate fine, especially about cycling topics. However, for translating our René Herse book into French, we employed a professional translator, plus two copy editors who are cycling historians.

      June 14, 2013 at 9:58 am
      • marmotte27

        I’m afraid those millions of French have all but forgotten the kind of riding and the bikes they’ve invented, apart from a few enthusiasts (rather less than in the US). Even Randonneurs and ‘Cyclotouristes’ ride on ill suited road bikes these days and the wonderful urban bikes have disappeared likewise.

        June 17, 2013 at 4:55 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          They will come back. When I was a teenager, my French friends did not understand my enthusiasm for classic Citroëns cars, like the DS and 2 CV. Today, they are prized collector pieces…

          June 17, 2013 at 5:47 am
  • Harald

    How come RUSA cancelled the SR 600 program? Not possible because of a lack of long and steep enough climbs in close proximity to each other? It certainly sounded like a nice idea (even though I personally could only do it in tourist mode).

    June 14, 2013 at 11:15 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You’ll have to ask RUSA about that. There were a few routes in the works, and ours already was approved by the Audax-Club Parisien (ACP), so it’s not impossible to create routes in the U.S. I think the idea is wonderful, especially since the ACP made it clear they don’t want “climb-fests,” but routes that really provide a sense of destination and offer interesting scenery. 50 hours for 600 km is quite do-able, and for every 500 m of elevation gain beyond 10,000 m, you get an extra hour. So our route has a time limit of 52 hours.
      The elevation gain calculations by the “official” mapping site for the program (Openrunner) is much more generous than the we’ve been using, but around here, incorporating dirt roads into the course really has opened up a lot of possibilities, mostly, because it avoids long legs in the valleys to go from pass to pass.

      June 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm

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