Climbing into the Clouds

Climbing into the Clouds

A recent hiking trip to Mount Rainier also provided an opportunity to revisit a favorite climb – and work on my form for the upcoming 1200 km (750 miles) of Paris-Brest-Paris.

This time, we headed to Mount Rainier by car, loaded with four people, backpacks and associated gear. Fortunately, the J.P. Weigle from the Concours de Machines is a Rinko bike, which packs quite small. The extralight bag protected our other luggage from the chain and sharp parts. The package took up little space in the car. It also was easy to store for the night in our room at the historic Paradise Inn.

I awoke at dawn, carried my bag downstairs and put together the bike. In less than ten minutes, I was ready to roll. It still amazes me how quickly a Rinko bike assembles.

The forecast predicted a sunny day, and for a moment, I got a peek of Rainier’s summit, before I started the long descent toward the Nisqually River valley. Within seconds, I dove into the clouds. I was glad to have fenders. The road was wet in places, dry in others. Without spray from the wheels, even descending in the clouds at this high altitude wasn’t as cold as I had feared. I carefully explored the grip of my tires on the wet pavement as I scythed around the many twists and turns. Warm weather improves the rubber’s coefficient of friction, and there was traction to spare. This meant I could relax and enjoy the descent on this beautiful road.

It did not take long until I traversed the bridge that, when it was built a century ago, was right at the mouth of the Nisqually Glacier. Today, the glacier has retreated out of sight. I passed Longmire, the second lodge in the park, still fast asleep. I continued toward the park boundary. Deep in the valley, the trees became bigger, and the road weaved its way between them. There was little traffic, all going the other way: Workers commuting to the park’s two lodges. Soon, that ebbed, and I had the road to myself.

Then it was time to turn around. I had come here not for the descent, but for the climb back up to Paradise.

The road climbs almost 900 m (3,000 ft) during the 18 km (11 miles) from Longmire to Paradise. It has a beautiful rhythm. With a maximum gradient of about 8%, it’s never really steep. The slope provides just enough resistance, so I can work hard without having to fight the constant ebb and flow of wind resistance that you get at high speeds on flat roads. It makes for a meditative, beautiful workout.

On this day, I wanted to test my form for PBP, and my plan was to climb in the ‘big’ ring of the Weigle. Of course, my big ring isn’t exactly huge (46 teeth), and the Weigle has a 27-tooth cog on the rear…

Having a superlight bike doesn’t hurt on a climb like this: The Weigle weighs a scant 20 pounds (9.1 kg) with lights, fenders, rack and even its pump. Even more important is a frame that flexes in unison with my pedal strokes and allows me to put out more power. The Weigle, with its super-thinwall, standard-diameter tubing, ‘planes’ extremely well. Would my 46×27 be enough for this hour-long climb?

I wound the bike up to speed on the relatively flat part in the lower reaches of the park. Once I passed Longmire, all I had to do was keep my momentum. That’s often easier said than done when the uphill stretches for an hour, but this morning, the bike performed beautifully as I climbed into the clouds.

The sunny forecast proved elusive, but the effort of spinning my gears kept me warm. When I reached Ricksecker Point at roughly the half-way point, I stopped briefly to remove my leg warmers and long-sleeve jersey. Sweat was beading on my forehead.

My memories of this climb are so varied, it’s hard to believe that it’s always been the same road. I recalled how, as a young racer, I gunned up this climb in just under 50 minutes during my preparation for the Race Around Mount Rainier in One Day (RAMROD). At other times, it’s taken me 50% longer, yet it was hard work. Today’s time was somewhere in between, but most of all, the climb was smooth. I could feel my body working hard, but it didn’t feel labored. Just how it should be!

The top appeared sooner than I remembered it, and then I pulled up to the historic lodge. It had been a short ride, well inside two hours, yet it had been thoroughly enjoyable and gratifying. (And I did make it all the way in the 46-tooth ring!)

As I rolled my bike inside, I got a last peek at Mount Rainier’s summit. Clouds were moving back in, and it soon started to drizzle. By pure luck, I had timed my ride perfectly.

Breakfast tasted twice as good after the effort of my ride. Then I packed my bike in its bag again. It vanished into the trunk of our car as we headed out on our hike. I was glad to have brought my bike on this trip – Rinko bikes are useful even if you aren’t traveling on Japanese trains!

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