Jan Sets FKT on Dark Divide 300Jan Heine
Writing about the Dark Divide 300 is a challenge—not quite as much as riding it, fortunately. You see, I’m suffering from the opposite of writer’s block: There are too many stories. Which one to tell? This route is epic, reminiscent of the dramas of ancient Greek: full of action, beauty, passion, success and (near) defeat. Over 37 hours and 34 minutes, I experienced some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I did some of the most fun riding I’ve ever done. I pushed my body as hard as it would go. I sweated in 92° heat and shivered in cold fog that descended into deep valleys just after midnight. I rode gravel roads that had the most wonderful flow, and others that don’t really deserve the name ‘road’ (and I’m not sure about the ‘gravel’ part, either, because there must a size limit to how big individual pieces of gravel can be before it becomes something else.). I praised and cursed Ben Everett, the mastermind behind this route. In other words, I felt completely alive.
Almost as a footnote, the time of 37:34 hours is a little over two hours off the previous FKT (Fastest Known Time). But the time almost doesn’t matter. Except that a quest—and that’s what this ride is—should have a goal with an uncertain outcome. (Although, honestly, just completing this route is enough of a quest, if you ask me.)
There are many ways to ride from Seattle (or Olympia) to Portland. This course is the hardest and most remote, but also the most scenic. It’s one of those things that are fascinating just because they are out there. (Click on the map above for a larger version.)
It’s not like Ben didn’t warn prospective riders about the challenges of his route: “Resupply is limited, cell phones are useless, and the terrain can be steep, rutted, and utterly unforgiving, while simultaneously surrounding riders with profound and indescribable natural beauty and wonder.”
‘Indescribable’ is perhaps the only way to describe Juniper Ridge. My plan was to get there at sunrise, as the 11-mile trail across the ridge doesn’t seem advisable in the dark. I rode all night on familiar and new-to-me roads across the Sawtooth Mountains. Along the way, I admired the Milky Way in the moonless night, descended ultra-fast and sweeping gravel roads (and a few paved ones, too). I forded two creeks with knee-high water, clambered across several large landslides, and finally climbed the long approach to Juniper Ridge in the first light of new day.
I was the only person up there, traversing alpine meadows with wildflowers still in bloom. The Dark Divide felt incredibly remote, yet also the center of the earth. I was surrounded by the giant snow-capped volcanos of the Cascade Mountains, gleaming in the early-morning light: Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) to the North, Loowit (Mt. St. Helens) to the West, Pahto (Mt. Adams) to the East, and Wy’east (Mt. Hood) to the South. Being right in the middle between these four huge mountains felt like the most special place on earth, and the long effort to get there made it feel even more special.
I knew Juniper Ridge would be a challenge. Much (most) of the trail is not rideable, and pushing a bike on narrow, steep singletrack can be difficult. I looked for inspiration not just from bikepacking, but also cyclocross and Japanese passhunters. Fortunately, Natsuko has many years of experience in just this type of terrain. In Japan, passhunters use lightweight bikes for the approach to the mountain, then portage for hours on trails too steep and rocky for riding, before continuing on their bikes to return to civilization. Natsuko lent me an ultralight backpack, which I used to transfer my supplies at the start of the 11-mile trail, to lighten my bike. Then I portaged the bike across the sections of the trail that were too rough or too steep to ride. Being able to switch between riding and portaging quickly, cyclocross-style, was key to being efficient. Even if I only rode 50 feet at a time, that was faster than walking the entire distance.
It took four hours to traverse Juniper Ridge and emerge on the other side of the Dark Divide. After a resupply in the tiny hamlet of Trout Lake (cafe, small general store, post office), I tackled the last third of the route, with overgrown single-track, rutted gravel roads, but also spectacular views as the sun set for the second time on his ride. The night was long: My body was getting tired after 30 hours on the bike, and the last sections were the roughest of all. After riding all night, I finished at 6:09 a.m. in Portland. To my surprise, I was greeted by a cyclist: Bicycle Quarterly reader Dennis Howe had followed my tracker and ridden over to see me finish. It was a wonderful surprise at the end of this long ride.
I rode the Unbound XL Rene Herse. It worked well, even though some of the single-track descents were definitely better-suited to a mountain bike with suspension and a dropper post than a bike that’s optimized for fast (gravel) road riding. On the other hand, the bike was pure joy on the rolling gravel sections, on the long climbs, and also on the narrow single-track on top of Juniper Ridge—where the trail was rideable. And in the places where I had to portage, I appreciated its light weight and large main triangle that made shouldering the bike easy. (A piece of foam pipe insulation wrapped around the top tube also helped.) I rode on Rene Herse Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ Extralight tires. Happy to report no flats nor mechanical issues of any kind.
Here are a few fun facts about the ride:
- Distance: 330 miles (530 km)
- Elevation gain: 30,500 ft (9,300 m)
- Time: 37:34 hours
- Stops: Eatonville (Mile 50; 7 minutes); Packwood (Mile 104; 15 minutes); Trout Lake (Mile 198; 40 minutes)
- Total stopped time: 62 minutes
- Calories consumed: 9,500 (253 kcal/hr)
- Water and liquids consumed: 14.3 liters (3.8 gallons)
- Bike weight: 10.3 kg (22.7 lb; including pedals, rack, cages, pump, lights, etc.)
- Luggage weight: 5.1 kg (11.2 lb; including bag)
- Complete bike weight (including luggage, water, GPS, etc.) at start: 18.8 kg (41.5 lb)
The Dark Divide 300 is probably the most challenging ride I’ve done, but it’s also created some of the most powerful memories. The full story will be in a future edition of Bicycle Quarterly.