Even though it was February, Sunday's weather was unseasonably perfect for cycling: Sunny and dry with temperatures pushing 60. Luckily for Seattle-area cyclists, there was a glut of organized rides to participate in. More than 6,000 people tackled the steep and numerous hills of Bainbridge Island for the Cascade Bicycle Club's annual 33-mile Chilly Hilly fundraiser ride. Another hundred or so "pirates" joined the Point83 bike club's tongue-in-cheek rebel race, the Fucking Hills Race, alongside the Chilly Hilly riders.
I chose a different ride altogether. I channeled my inner Francophile and joined the Seattle International Randonneurs on their 100km (62 mile) Spring Fever Populaire, the club's first event of the year.
Beginning at the Renton Stadium, the scenic and sometimes grueling ride took me along Lake Washington, east through suburbia, up tree-lined climbs that put Bainbridge Island's biggest hills to shame, and down rolling country roads back to the Dog and Pony pub a few blocks from the starting point.
[caption id="attachment_29182" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="The route."][/caption]
I've done plenty of unorganized rides in the 100-mile range, but I'd never tried randonneuring, a non-competitive sub-genre of cycling with roots in late-19th century France. Randonneuring rides are split by distance into three categories: populaires (100 km), brevets (200-1000 km) and randonnées (1200 km). The Seattle International Randonneurs is Washington's only randonneuring club.
Though there are no winners, riders must complete the route within a time limit that varies based on course length. To ensure that nobody takes short cuts, riders have to stop at checkpoints, called controls, along the way and either get their "control card" signed or, at unmanned checkpoints, answer a question to prove they were there.
Unlike organized rides like the Chilly Hilly, which have aid stations along the route, randonneuring events are self-supported and riders are responsible for their own food, drink, and mechanical problems (though there are occasionally snacks and water at the controls). Founded in 1994, the Seattle International Randonneurs holds about 20 rides per year, including the renowned Cascade 1200k.
I made it down to the stadium parking lot with plenty of time to pick up my control card, eat a doughnut, and chat with some of the 100+ other participants before the 9 o'clock start. After brief remarks by the ride organizers, the group set off to the peals of two bagpipers.
It didn't take long for the fastest riders to set off at a blazing pace and break away from the group. I managed to let logic win out over ego and didn't attempt to hang with the fast folks at the front. I typically maintain a moderate 14-15 mph average on longer rides and settled in with a group of five riders moving along at my speed.
[caption id="attachment_29184" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Leaving the stadium."][/caption]
Unlike its testosterone- and competition- fueled cousin road racing, randonneuring mostly draws crowds of congenial men and women (though mostly men, unfortunately, as in all genres of cycling) who are riding for the personal challenge and are glad to share the company of others doing the same.
The 13 miles to the first control in Montreux (a neighborhood in Bellevue) sailed by. After a quick stop at the control to get our cards signed, we hung a right onto Village Park Dr., the first big climb of the day. The steep road winds uphill through an upscale suburban neighborhood for the better part of a mile and a half.
Shortly after the Village Park climb, the ride took a turn for the rural. The roads rolled along through the forests and farmland of High Valley leading up to the halfway point, Tiger Mountain. The the two-mile ride up Tiger Mountain Rd. was a leg-burning, heart-pounding slog that left me gasping. Control #3 was at the top of hill, an unmanned checkpoint with a question about a road sign. The group took a quick break at the control to drink some water, eat some food, and catch our breaths before screaming down the other side of the mountain.
[caption id="attachment_29193" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Central King County fauna."][/caption]
Nutrition is vitally important on long rides (though "nutrition" is a pretty loose term). Be it Clif bars, candy, or a 7-11 hot dog, the standard wisdom is to eat around 250 calories and drink a bottle of water per hour on long rides to keep from bonking. Randonneurs often bring some food with them, but on longer brevets sometimes rely on gas stations for food.
Tiger Mountain was by far the hardest climb of the day, but it was by no means the end of the hills. The ride continued south through the farmlands of Hobart before curving northwest toward Cedar Mountain. At mile 45 it dipped south again through a series of short, steep rolling hills that burned my already burnt legs. The hill-loving sadists who mapped the course showed some mercy as the final stretch of the ride was relatively flat and included a few miles on the easy, smooth Cedar River bike path.
[caption id="attachment_29197" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Volunteers at the 5th control provided much-appreciated snacks."][/caption]
After five hours on the road, I completed my tour of central King County at the Dog and Pony pub, the final control, and sat down for a much deserved pint. At the pub, riders sat together revisiting their rides, taking good-humored jabs at each other over slow finishing times, and sharing in the fun of the day. I finished my pint and rode the five miles back to the Rainier Beach light rail station to catch a train back to Seattle.
If spending a day pedaling through western Washington's hills and valleys strikes your fancy, SIR's first 200k brevet of the season is coming up on March 13.