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Memories of Summer: Lake Bessemer

As last summer’s 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris was approaching, my training went into high gear. That meant hill intervals and speedwork, but also occasional longer rides to maintain my endurance – and have fun!

When Mark and Steve suggested a weekend ride up the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, we came up with an idea: They would take the bus to Mount Si, a popular hiking destination. I’d ride out there and meet them. I decided to add the climb to Lake Bessemer for some extra training.

Mark and Steve would take the old Forest Road 9010-1, which Ryan and I had explored a few months earlier when we tested the Calfee Bamboo bike. We’d meet where this road intersects the road to Lake Bessemer and then continue up the Middle Fork.

I started in Seattle on my Firefly just before sunrise. The ‘transport stage’ to North Bend passed quickly. I took the valley road to save time and then embarked on the long climb to Lake Bessemer. It’s not an actual lake – perhaps there used to be one, but now satellite images show a gravel pit at the top of the climb. The road climbs 700 m (2300 ft) in 8 km (5 miles). The grade on the upper section varies between 12 and 18% – it’s a challenge!  In addition, the road is rough: It’s used for hauling gravel with a 6-wheel-drive quarry truck, and big rocks are spread on the surface periodically to prevent erosion. My Firefly, with its low gears and wide tires, was perfect for this climb.

No photos from the climb itself – I knew that Mark and Steve already had got off the bus at Mount Si by now. I could estimate how long it would take them to get to our meeting point, and I knew I wouldn’t make it all the way to the very top. At the very least, I wanted to reach the false flat where the main climb ends. So I went all-out on this steep ascent.

I love climbing. My body and bike work in perfect sync as we soar up the slope. So much fun! As I turned around at the top, I took a minute for a take this selfie with my mini tripod. Having climbed this high, I wanted to preserve the memory of this moment.

The descent was almost as much fun as the climb. On the rough surface, the bike was airborne almost as much as the wheels touched the ground. I jumped across holes and large rocks. It was like a roller-coaster ride, except I was not a passenger, but in control! Braking hard for the hairpin turns on the rough gravel brought the front tire right to the lockup point time and again. Then I released the brake on the next straight. The rate at which the bike picked up speed on the steep slope was almost scary, but I know my bike well and have total confidence in it.

As I rolled up to our meeting point, my heart still pounding from the adrenaline, Mark and Steve appeared on the other side of the creek. Perfect timing to the second! They opted to ford the creek rather than use the narrow log bridge.

Together, we rode up the valley and then took the Middle Fork Road. It’s closed to most traffic, making for wonderful riding.

Mark was riding his Six Hands randonneur bike on 650B x 42 mm Babyshoe Pass tires. He was looking strong – as always.

Steve was on his Rawland, which runs 650B x 48 Switchback Hills. It’s a competent gravel bike, and Steve rides it well.

Together, we flew up the valley. The distance passed quickly under our wheels on this beautiful road. The surface varied from smooth gravel…

…to quite rough.

After a while, grass appeared in the middle, and then the road ended.

We followed a single track hiking trail into the woods for a while. Riding a road bike on single tracks is fun. Using ‘Body English’ to maneuver the bike in close quarters is a different experience from the fast gravel roads we usually ride.

It still amazes me that a good all-road bike can do so many things so well. On the transport stage this morning, the Firefly had felt like a good racing bike. Now it was tackling rocky single track.

The shadows lengthened as we turned back toward Seattle. The Middle Fork Road is a beautiful rollercoaster, and with its ultra-wide tires, the Firefly flew ahead. I love that road with its many ups and downs. I got so immersed in the experience that I forgot to take photos.

An hour later, we were re-entered civilization. In North Bend, Steve hopped on the bus again, since he had a dinner obligation. Mark and I continued back to Seattle, where we arrived just as the sun set. It was a grand day out, and it gave me confidence in my form for Paris-Brest-Paris.

Now I’m looking forward to riding there again this summer. Maybe I’ll finally make it to the top of Lake Bessemer Road this year!

16 Responses to Memories of Summer: Lake Bessemer

  1. Scott Sattler March 2, 2020 at 7:32 am #

    Bessemer Mountain Road and the Middle Fork Road are two of my favorites ! Just a few years ago, the entire length of the MF Road was unpaved. The adjacent CCC Trail is also a blast to ride an allroad bike on.

  2. Matt March 2, 2020 at 9:26 am #

    Very cool! Do you have a .gpx or other file of this route? Thanks for the photos and writeup!

    • Jan Heine March 2, 2020 at 10:43 am #

      No GPS file, but the route is easy to find!

  3. Vince March 2, 2020 at 9:50 am #

    Fenders are not ideal in this terrain…

    • Jan Heine March 2, 2020 at 10:46 am #

      Mark had no trouble on his be-fendered bike, although he wishes for tires wider than 42 mm. Fenders are only an issue on big drop-offs, where the fenders can get hung up and crumble. We were mostly on gravel roads. What is important for safetey is sufficient fender clearance and good fender design, so small stones can pass through the fender without risking an accident.

    • Mike M March 3, 2020 at 8:04 am #

      Having ridden on gravel with a fendered bike many times, I can confirm that fenders are no problem at all on this terrain. I use good alumin(i)um fenders now, with plenty of clearance around the tires, but this wasn’t a problem even when I used the cheap plastic crap.

  4. Conrad March 2, 2020 at 1:52 pm #

    I love the middle fork, and its quite accessible from Seattle. I opted to put SKF fenders on my bike with rat traps due to the combination of tires that wide/road chainline/triple crank making for a tricky fender job and because the terrain one rides with the extra wide tires makes fender mishaps more likely and one hates to ruin Honjos…I have been pleasantly surprised, they have held up nicely, and the wider SKFs dont seem to run as much water on the outside as the narrower ones do. The breakaway on the front fender is also reassuring in rat trap territory although luckily I havent needed it so far.

    • Mike M March 3, 2020 at 8:13 am #

      My experience with SKS/ESGE fenders is that the breakaway tabs separate after going over even minor bumps in the room, at least after a year+ of use. Before I installed the Honjo fenders, I had ziptied the breakaway tabs, thus defeating the purpose of the tabs in the first place. Now I have quality fenders installed with plenty of clearance around the tires.

  5. Mark March 2, 2020 at 2:36 pm #

    Regarding mudguards (fenders) on gravel. I’ve had no issues with them—mostly plastic, but some aluminium—for 40 years. On the theory that what can’t get into a gap can’t block it, I’ve usually kept the clearance between tyre and guard much closer than BQ recommends. I’ve only once had something get caught—a small branch got flicked into my rear wheel, caught in a stay and then jammed under the guard, which, being plastic, simply accordioned. My latest bike has aluminium guards mounted with a wide gap between tyre & guard. Australia, where I live, has exceptionally “twiggy” trees—there is, I think, much more litter (small, spiky, and hard branches & leaves) on the ground than in, for instance, the UK or Japan—and I’ve been slightly worried about these getting caught, especially when I hear small stones rattling thru the guards. But what actually undid me was a stone at the bottom of what looked like a dried up puddle. The puddle wasn’t dry, there was maybe 20 mm of mud underneath. That mud stuck a stone to my front tyre which transported it under the guard to the fork crown mounting bolt where it wedged, catapulting me onto the ground I know the stone was wedged because it was still in place when I inspected the bike. I also got a slow puncture at that place on the tyre. Now, I know I may have been very unlucky, and the stone was an odd shape. But the conditions weren’t that unusual, the road otherwise easily rideable, the mud not all that sticky, and the stone no odder than billions of others. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the stone & mud would have had any chance of getting between tyre and guard if the clearance had been finer, I think the edge of the guard would have knocked it off. I’ve now replaced all the internal mounting bolts with flat-domed bolts that turn with a screw driver, but I’m very nervous about using the bike on gravel or single track, especially in the wet or where there’s mud. Come to think of it, I’m nervous about the mudguards all the time.

  6. Andy Ramsdale March 2, 2020 at 2:39 pm #

    Looks like an awesome day out. Hope to get some similar trips done this year in the UK. Super interesting tyre choice looking at the terrain. Just ordered hurricane ridge in endurance, and Barlow pass in extralite, to get me set up for the season. I do wonder if I should have gone extralite in the hurricane ridge to looking at the pictures here, but the rides that bike does are never really planned they just evolve on the bike, and having that bit extra of security is nice. However is it volume rather than protection I need? Maybe I just need to try them. Either way looking forward to rolling on supple tyres again.

    • Jan Heine March 2, 2020 at 3:33 pm #

      Volume certainly helps – lower pressures make the tires softer and thus harder to cut. That said, if the rocks are sharp and/or the speeds are high, additional protection can be useful.

      Much also depends on the rider – I’ve had good experiences with Extralights almost everywhere. In 10 years of running Extralights on all my bikes (including BQ test bikes), I’ve cut one tire, and that was during a 100 km mountain bike race on terrain so rough that even Fatbikes suffered from pinch flats. And even then, the cut only went through the first of three layers of the casing, and I rode the tire for another week during a tour until I replaced it. Of course, every rider (and terrain) are different.

  7. Brendan March 2, 2020 at 6:27 pm #

    What was the mph speed and front and rear gear tooth count that you used to go up those 18% (or whatever is steepest) grades?

    • Jan Heine March 2, 2020 at 6:40 pm #

      I have no way of tracking my speed, but I spun my 26×27 at about 60 rpm on the steepest pitches. With a outer diameter of the Rat Trap Pass tires of about 650 mm (taking into account tire drop), it’s easy to calculate my speed: about 6.5 km/h (4 mph). That sounds about right.

      For those interested in the gearing, the Firefly had a Rene Herse 42×26 subcompact double with an 11-speed 12-27 cassette on this ride.

  8. Eric Hancock March 2, 2020 at 6:56 pm #

    Really nice route. Those roads look beautiful. I’d love to ride them one day.

  9. Jacob Musha March 4, 2020 at 9:45 am #

    I notice the Firefly now has a front rack and bag. Are fenders and generator hub lighting next?? I tend to do the same thing – I want to add wide tires, rack/bag, fenders, and lights to all my bikes. I keep a “naked” 32mm-tire racing bike with no braze-ons in my fleet so at least one bike is left alone. But I hardly use that bike since it’s not ideal for the riding I like to do.

    Do you wish the Firefly was built with more conventional components like downtube shifters and cantilever brakes? It was unfortunate to read about the original Campy shifters failing so soon and the difficulty sourcing replacements for a bike that’s only a few years old. Three years in, I’m thrilled with my custom Blue Steel Bike that also has Rat Trap Pass tires but uses future-proof parts that should last decades.

    • Jan Heine March 4, 2020 at 3:34 pm #

      The front rack and bag were temporary for our Solstice Ride along the crest of the Oregon Cascades. That said, it’s tempting to upgrade the Firefly with a new fork (thru-axle) and lights. Maybe in the future?