Monday, June 22, 2009

Tour de Chelan Century Challenge on 6-20-09

Despite presenting the Cascade Bicycle Club with the concept for the High Pass Challenge, and working with CBC staff to develop the event, I’m not much of an event guy. I’m going to try and describe why I have added the Chelan Century to my short list of what I consider the premier organized ride events in Washington State.

My “requirements” are rather specific and demanding. First and most important, I have to feel that the ride conditions are safe and this obviously encompasses traffic conditions, road design and cycling compatibility, as well as the number and experience level of the riders in the event. Next, the route must be interesting, and for me that requires varied terrain with lots of climbing, including at least one long or epic climb. Last, but not least, the event support must be good, otherwise why put up with the hassles that can come with riding with the crowd. If you have to stand in line for 10 minutes to use the Sanican or grab a bagel, I’d rather just go it alone on my own.

The Chelan Century, the High Pass Challenge (I already did the disclosure), and the Tour de Blast are the three events that I would go out of my way to do. Unfortunately, all three are a long way from Seattle, and in 2009 the Chelan Century and the Tour de Blast were held on the same day. Ramrod would likely be included on most riders' lists, but for me, those first 50 and last 30 miles kind of spoil the outstanding riding during the 100 miles in between. Narrow roads with no shoulder, and a lot of early morning “Urgent Hour” traffic give me the creeps in the early miles. You will likely be in pacelines as you negotiate your way through this section, and the pacelines that form along 410 during those final 30 miles into a headwind are some of the scariest I have been in. Everybody is tired, and you are as well, so going it alone isn’t a great option either.

This was my first Chelan Century, and it met all of my requirements. My estimate of participants was only 300 riders, and everyone I saw seemed to be very experienced; I never saw a wheel out of line, or anybody do something stupid, as seems to happen when a group mentality takes over. There were enough bicycles to give you that “safety in numbers” effect, but not enough to ever feel crowded. Car drivers in the Chelan area are used to seeing cyclists, and the roads are just fantastic for cycling. None of the roads were super busy, and there was a wide shoulder available anytime there were more than a superficial number of cars on the road.

This fairly new event is produced by the Chelan Rotary, and you would never know that they are not “bike people”. There were a large number of volunteers given the number of participants, and every volunteer appeared to be dedicated to doing what they could to insure the safety and comfort of the riders. Food was fresh and plentiful, and there were a large number of mini-stops provided for water and a quick banana or bagel. I never waited in a line for anything; in fact, I never even saw a line. The support stop at the top of the out and back McNeil Canyon climb reminded me of the support provided by Cycle Miles at the top of every col during my 2007 Pyrenees trip. The Rotary even had the event t-shirt and jersey design dialed in. Despite the distance from Seattle, it’s easy to see why this event attracts more riders every year.

One word describes the route—magnificent. The Chelan Century route is a little unusual in that it is comprised of three loops of similar length, with all loops returning to the ride start at a lakefront park in downtown Chelan. Given the option, it appeared that some riders did just one or two of the loops. It’s just incredible how interesting and varied the terrain is, and at times it made me feel like I was back riding in Colorado. I love living in the "green zone", but it’s great to be able to access a totally different world east of the Cascades.

With 8600’ of climbing, there was ample opportunity to get in the climbing groove, and the descents on smooth roads were fabulous. While McNeil Canyon isn’t the longest climb around, it certainly ranks as epic. Gaining 2250’ over the 5+ miles of the main part of the climb works out to an average grade of 8.42%, and it would appear to be just a very hard climb. The last 1.25 miles at 10.6% guarantees that the overall grade that your legs feel is considerably steeper. This final section caps off what is an extremely hard climb, similar in steepness (but longer) than the Mt. Constitution climb on Orcas Island. Try to visualize four Montreaux (Village Parkway) ascents in a row, or use your imagination to link five Somersets...well, you get the picture. It’s a beast of a climb. There were a lot of happy faces at the top of that monster.

With one exception, all of the other climbs give you a choice as to how hard to punish yourself. With moderate grades and some good length, the Echo Ski Area and Navarre Coulee climbs were a perfect contrast to the brutal McNeil Climb. There were a lot of climbs on which it was easy to pick a pace and enjoy the flow. With the exception of the grinds up McNeil and the final climb, it never felt like we were riding all that hard, yet the three of us seemed to be making good progress compared with most of the crowd. At the end of the ride, I wasn’t really that tired, certainly nowhere near as spent as I am after the typical 70-75 mile summer Hills of the West Coast.

The whole day seemed to go off without a hitch. I had only one little frustration during the entire ride. As we started up the steep McNeil Canyon grade, my chain did not want to stay on the largest cog. Riding this monster without that cog was not an option, so I stopped to snug the rear derailleur cable adjustment. Funny how the new cable installed several weeks ago picked this moment to stretch enough to not provide enough tension for the rear derailleur to move the chain up the cassette. It could have occurred on any one of the earlier climbs, but it didn’t. The third time I stopped for a cable tweak was in the middle of steep sustained climbing, and I decided to wait for my mates in the shade. Never once stopping mid-way on a climb in the Pyrenees or Alps, here I was stopped on McNeil. Initially, I forgot that we were being timed on the climb, but I quickly decided not to worry about that. In the grand scheme of things it just didn’t seem important, besides, I was timing myself, and I was pleased overall with how I rode the climb.

Everybody doing the full three loops seemed to be aware of the final climb of the Butte lurking at mile 98. Volunteers at the turn in for the out and back climb let us know that it was “voluntary"--funny that Tim never mentioned that. Mercifully it was only a mile long, and at over 10% average grade with a max of 15%, I'm not sure anyone was complaining. Honestly, it was the least attractive climb of the day, and skipping it would still give you 100 miles if that type of milestone is really important to you. Actual total mileage was a hair over 103 miles, and in my opinion, leaving this one out would not compromise your enjoyment of the event. Judging by how few bodies we saw on the climb, it appears that many did skip it.

After all, it was an event, not a race, and opposed to some other events, this one had a laid-back feel to it. I was invited to Chelan for the weekend by my friend Tim, who has had a lakefront house in Chelan since 1994. With us was Tim’s friend Daryl, and Tim, who has ridden in every Chelan Century, provided us insight during our journey. Team HPC was well represented, and we ran into the gang a number of times. At the top of McNeil, it was really nice to be around many riding friends from Seattle, and here I was, three hours from home.

We never encountered the sometimes huge pacelines that form at other events, and there was none of that “team” mentality evident at some of the large rides. Not once did we see a large team “sheltering” their leader from the wind, protecting him, and then launching him in his quest for his own PR, or for bragging rights over someone else.

We didn’t see anyone treating the ride as anything more than it was: a well-organized, small event on superb roads winding through a beautiful area of the state. It was one of those rare days when the breeze seemed to be at your back 75% of the time, and thankfully it actually was on the way up McNeil Canyon.
I hope to see you on the road.


Cascade Cyclist said...

I'll definitely put it on my calendar for next year, though I may do without that last little climb.

Fast Puppy said...

Wow. Sounds like a great ride. I'll definitely put it on the list for next year. And Tom, I'm so with you on organized ride criteria. Also, props for your work on High Pass Challenge. I did the ride last year and loved it, but sadly my tire shredded itself to ribbons in Randle on the return. So I've re-upped for this year in hopes of finishing those last 12 miles back to Packwood. Enjoy your blog.

Chelan Century Challenge said...

Tom: We are pleased you enjoyed the ride. We are trying to decide on a date for the 2010 Century Challenge given the competition we have on most weekends. Present thinking is to not to have the ride on the same weekend as the Tour de Blast and go for the same weekend as Flying Wheels.

Tom Meloy said...

You have a tough call to make. We have the same issue with our High Pass Challenge Event, which occurs on the same day as the Mt. Baker Hill Climb Ride.

I am not sure what you could do, but it's tough to compete with Flying Wheels if you hope to draw a Seattle crowd. Flying Wheels is well established and draws 4000 riders.

The Tour de Blast is much smaller (500-700 riders?), and is far from Seattle, as is the Chelan Century. Yes, having it on the same weekend forces riders to make a tough choice between two climbing based rides, but I am afraid that most would elect to stick around home and do Flying Wheels instead of Chelan.

A lot of people I know did both Flying Wheels and either Chelan or Tour de Blast.

The ride calendar is certainly busy, but if there is any way to swing it, I'd go for a different date.

Saturday is better than Sunday for out of towners I believe.

Tom Meloy said...

We talked about the Chelan Century on today's ride. Someone pointed out that there was absolutely nothing on the local ride calendar for this weekend. Would this weekend have worked for you? You wouldn't compete with Flying Wheels or Tour de Blast.

I have heard that in the past, you have held your event on the same weekend as the Wenatchee Century. If you have one on Saturday, and one on Sunday, I would do them both, and I think a lot of Seattle people would. Why not pick up two rides if you are heading out of town for the weekend?