DIY Gravel #1: Rasputitsa in WashingtonJan Heine
When Ted King floated the idea of DIY Gravel, I was intrigued: For each gravel race that’s cancelled, he challenges everybody to ride a similar distance – and elevation gain, if possible – near home and solo, within one week of the original event date. There’s a Strava group and even some prizes to win.
I like the idea of envisioning these courses here in Washington. First on the list was Rasputitsa. Named with the Russian word for ‘Mud Season,’ when roads become difficult to impassable, Rasputitsa coincides with the snow melt in Vermont. Ted King rode the actual course a week ago as he launched DIY Gravel.
Where to go? The snowmelt in the Cascade Mountains is still a few months away, and the high mountains aren’t really what I associate with Vermont, anyhow. Then I thought about heading to the Hood Canal, on the course that we rode with Ted during the #RideUnRide last winter (above).
The course almost matches the statistics of Rasputitsa – a little longer with a distance of 72 miles, but also a little less hilly. I checked the ferry schedule and realized that the boats are running on a reduced schedule, just like our buses that display “Essential Trips Only” on their route board. Suddenly it didn’t seem right to take the ferry for a ride that even I would not consider ‘essential.’
I also didn’t want to drive to the start of my ride. What is the point of riding near home if it involves motorized travel? I thought about the ride Steve and I did in the foothills last December, when we tested the Horse Cycle for the Spring Bicycle Quarterly. But that one didn’t feel like Vermont – all the climbing was during the early stages, and then it followed valleys and was mostly flat.
That’s when I thought of an old favorite: the Mountain 100k course. It’s actually 111 km long, 69 miles. And it’s hilly without being mountainous. In fact, it’s probably the closest to Vermont we have here in Western Washington, even with a few barns thrown in for good measure (top photo).
This course was originally developed by Kent Peterson as a randonneur brevet, stringing together some favorite – and challenging – roads in the Puget Lowland. It’s not just relentless hilly, but it’s also got a beautiful rhythm to it. It reminds me of Beethoven’s 9th symphony: It starts with a big movement, continues strong, and ends with one of the most memorable Crescendos. It’s overpowering, extreme and intense. And beautiful. Perfect for my first DIY Gravel ride. (Except it doesn’t have gravel, but I decided to overlook that small detail.)
The Mountain 100k starts is what many consider the toughest hill in Western Washington: Zoo Hill climbs 1000 ft (300 m) in 2.2 miles as it ascends Cougar Mountain. It’s a beautiful road that winds its way through the trees – and it immediately lets you know whether your legs are in good form or not.
Then you descend on a fast, wide-open road, before climbing Cougar Mountain again on the ‘shallow’ side. It’s intense, and it takes 45 to 50 minutes to do this little figure-8. It’s a great way to start a ride…
Like a good symphony, this ride isn’t just intense and relentless. There are some beautiful interludes – like this one as the course ascends the May Valley on a small winding road that – to me – looks like it could be in Vermont…
… complete with horses grazing on green pastures. Please excuse the poor photos – like during a symphony, I wouldn’t stop in the middle of a ride like this. Its relentless nature is part of the appeal – and if I was racing Rasputitsa, I also wouldn’t stop for photos. So these shot-from-the-hip cell phone photos are all I can offer today.
Like Beethoven’s 9th, the interlude doesn’t last long, as soon it’s back to climbing. Cedar Grove is a little warmup, then comes Tiger Mountain with a beautiful descent, then the climb across the Issaquah Plateau…
… where my progress was rudely interrupted by a major construction site. They’re building a new road in the place that required an aero tuck to rollercoaster through this steep ravine and make it up the other side without losing much speed. It was almost as if a fire alarm went off during the symphony.
I detoured into the neighborhood, checked Google Maps, and found some gravel trails that took me across the creek and through the ravine. So my own private Rasputitsa included some gravel after all.
From there I dropped into the Snoqualmie Valley for another interlude. I couldn’t resist a quick stop for a photo of these four geese walking along the roadside. As I passed the barn in the top photo, I suddenly felt like I was riding with Ted King, Matt Surch and other friends from New England through the rolling hills of Vermont. Some day, when all this is over, I’ll have head east and race Rasputitsa…
The interlude didn’t last long. After a quick out-and-back into Carnation – usually to buy a Coke at the bakery, but not in these social-distanced times – it’s the start of the Crescendo that builds up to the finale. First comes Tolt Hill, which starts as deceptively easy big-ring climb before gradually steepening to 11% near the top.
And with Mount Rainier mostly obscured by the clouds, it even looked like Vermont on this overcast day.
Then comes Duthie Hill, before the course traverses Issaquah for the grand finale: the climb up Mount Olympus Drive. It’s about the hardest climb you can imagine, starting with a mind-blowing 16%. And this after more than 4.5 hours of all-out effort…
It’s only 450 ft (120 m) elevation gain, but it feels much more. You need a good bike or really good legs here. Preferably both. In my case, more credit goes to the bike than the legs (which were cramping lightly by this point). This was the first time I’ve taken my new Rene Herse on this course, and it didn’t disappoint.
And then there’s the top, and the ride is over. I don’t know whether Rasputitsa ends on top of a big hill and whether there are cherry trees in bloom in Vermont now, but it was a great feeling to have finished this challenging ride.
A quick check of my watch: 4:46 hours. Considering I lost about 15 minutes due to the construction, that’s not bad for a first-of-the-year effort. And yet it’s far from the sub-4-hour times I posted in 2007 during the run-up to that year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. Or the course record of 3:47 set by Chris Ragsdale and Brian Ohlemeier during one of the brevets on this course… It’s good to have goals for the season!
If you’re into this kind of thing, here’s the Strava profile of the ride, which includes the warmup and cool-down. If you’re in the Seattle area, it allows you to explore some of these roads yourself.
A quick drop back to lake level followed – Strava claims I hit 57.3 mph, but it certainly didn’t feel that fast, since I was just letting the bike roll in the aero tuck. And then followed a long spin home.
The sun was almost setting as I crossed the I-90 bridge on the back to Seattle. It was a good ride, and Ted’s DIY Gravel gave me the impetus to head out and push myself. I can’t wait for the Belgian Waffle Ride on May 3. Thank you, Ted, for the inspiration!
Click here for more on Ted’s DIY Gravel!