Saturday, September 19, 2009

2009 High Pass Challenge

The first part of this blog will appear in the October Cascade Courier Newsletter. I also share additional comments that will not be included in the Courier.

On September 13th, the third annual High Pass Challenge was once again blessed by spectacular late summer weather. The weather was dialed in so perfectly that the riders had benign winds on “Windy” Ridge, and a 20+mph tailwind assisting them on the last part of the ride.

The High Pass Challenge is yet another Cascade event superbly produced and organized by the highly efficient Cascade staff and volunteer team. The HPC is the signature event of Cascade’s High Performance Cycling Team, and it is designed to be a very challenging event for fit riders. The High Pass Challenge was created to give “high performance” cyclists a late season hard ride they could then fondly recall over the ensuing rainy months. To make the event unique, it’s a challenge, complete with finisher “precious” medals given to people who ride the route within certain cutoff times.

This year’s event was a sellout! We expect the ride to sell out every year, and I would encourage our loyal High Pass Challenge regulars to register early for the 2010 event, where we will likely again have a 600 rider limit.

Cyclists came from far and wide to this year’s HPC. We had riders from as far away as Boston. CBC staffer Kim Thompson’s brother in law, Steve, flew in from Anchorage just to ride the event! A rider who calls his home Wellington, New Zealand, was visiting Seattle and decided he just had to make the HPC. At the finish line, 110 riders met the Gold Challenge with a finish before 2 PM.

Riders started in Packwood, and then climbed 4600’ up to Mt. St. Helens’ Windy Ridge Viewpoint. From Windy Ridge, the riders returned to Packwood via quiet roads lined by lush forest. Total mileage was 113 miles with 7650’ of climbing. Judging by the feedback on event day, the event route was not only tough, it was also noteworthy for its scenic beauty, as well as the overall low volume of auto traffic.

Many riders enthused about the HPC. CBC Board member and Team HPC member Ed Zuckerman had this to say about the event: “The HPC was a masterfully organized ride. Of course, this is what I have come to expect from the professionalism of the CBC organized events, yet this one in particular had the feel of a perfectly timed Swiss watch!”

Team HPC member Tim Hennings said, “The event was very well run and organized. Thanks a ton to the whole crew! I thought the food stops were terrific. I noticed a younger crowd than at other CBC events - that is a very good trend. I really love the ride; in fact it is my favorite CBC event.”

Reg Norberg, another Team HPC rider commented, “It was a great ride...well supported! I had no traffic problems at all. The last part of the ride on Highway 12 was really fast with the tail wind. Too bad we can't count on that every year!”

From Team HPC member Brian Unger: “It was my first High Pass Challenge, so approaching the ride I was a bit nervous about just how challenging it would be. In the end, I think the Team HPC rides and clinics helped a lot, as well as the camaraderie of the team members during the ride and afterwards. I ended up stopping at the Wakepish stop. The route guide said water only, but I was pleasantly surprised to find bananas as well. My next stop was at Windy Ridge, which was very well stocked. I’d never been to Windy Ridge before. What a spot! The views on the way up were just amazing, and I had a blast descending back down the road. Overall, I have to say it was an incredible ride. The support and logistics by Cascade were great, and like they say in real estate; location, location, location or I suppose in this case route, route, route, and the HPC has it.”

Karl Huber, another Team HPC member reported, “I was all alone out on Cispus Road. No other rider could be seen ahead or behind me, really an eerie feeling for a supported ride. I slowed and relaxed and realized it was so beautiful to be out there on such a gorgeous fall day with no traffic, smooth asphalt and no noise! I feel that most riders who attempt HPC are more experienced than at the typical event, and that keeps the stress level down.”

Finally, a comment from Team HPC member Mark Klausen: “Support for the ride was consistently outstanding. The route was well marked and there were Cascade people at all critical points.”

For more on Team HPC Powered by Cycle U, visit the High Performance Cycling page at

Thanks to all of the volunteers who made this event possible, as well as to the entire Cascade staff for organizing and delivering such a polished event. Special thanks go out to Rod Ludvigsen of the Special Uses Group at Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Without the support of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, it would not be possible to hold the HPC.

I know I’m looking forward to next year’s High Pass Challenge, and hope to see many of you out there on the route next year!

Now, here are my own personal thoughts that I didn’t think were appropriate for the Courier. I don’t know if anyone else noticed a few things that were different with this year’s High Pass Challenge, but I did. It appears to me that we have reached our target audience. Whereas during the first two HPC’s we had a large number of people not finish within the 10 hour limit, this year we seemed to have a collection of very serious and fit cyclists. While we certainly don’t want the HPC to become “elitist”, it is designed to be a very challenging event for strong riders. It’s not the STP; we have a 600 rider limit, not 10,000, and the route itself is very difficult.

We had a serious accident at this year’s HPC. The crash occurred at the one lane bridge above Iron Creek, and the rider somehow plummeted off of the bridge and fell 30’ or more into the gorge beneath the bridge. The rider is expected to make a full recovery, and that is wonderful news. Anybody who rode in the event likely believes that this rider was extremely fortunate, as the potential for very dire injuries or worse certainly was a possibility.

The purpose of this column is not to lay blame, or dwell on circumstances that may or may not have contributed to the accident. Since there were no eye witnesses and the rider himself has no recollection of the crash, it appears that we will never know what happened. I do think it is worth doing a little postulating about some potential factors in the hope of reducing the chances of another very serious crash.

When we were working on the concept for the HPC, we thought it would be nice to give the event a unique twist; we went with a finishing time medal system to give the riders a challenge. We couldn’t predict whether our medal system would be popular, or how riders would view it. One thing is for sure, we never had any intention in making the event into a “race”. The USFS would never condone such an event, and CBC has no desire in producing one.

In this year’s event, 110 riders managed to finish before 2 PM and earn gold. Based on what I saw, about half of these riders carefully calculated what it would take to get in before 2, and monitored their progress along the way. They stopped for food, chatted with the Cascade staff and volunteers, and seemed to really be enjoying themselves. This is exactly what we envisioned when I started working with Cascade on the event concept.

The other half of the 110 gold earners were clearly involved in a “race”. Of those 50-60 riders, I am going to guess that while all were strong riders; it’s probable that about half of them were highly skilled and experienced riders. Perhaps they had done some stage racing, or maybe they had done a lot of high-speed descending in Europe. Of the 50-60 riders who were really going for it, I am going to guess, and that’s all it is, that half of them were in way over their heads when it came time for the technical descents. We had reports of riders making sketchy passes of other cyclists, crossing the center line, and coming close to riders climbing on the other side of the road. Unlike a race, not only were the roads not closed to car traffic, there were riders (and cars) on the same section of road going in opposite directions. One of the great things about the HPC is that most of the route is in the shade. That said, many of these technical sections lie in the shade, and many of them occur in the only area of the entire route where there is broken pavement, holes, and cracks. At the start of the event, we warned riders about the bridge, about the shade, and about the rough sections.

Every rider who went down Rt. 25 and across the bridge first went up the same bridge. In both directions, there was signage well in advance of the bridge alerting riders of the one lane restriction. There were full sized stop signs at each end of the bridge, made necessary by the fact that it was difficult to see whether there was a car approaching from the other direction. While we will never know what happened on that bridge, it’s hard to imagine that it’s possible a crash could happen to a rider who came to a stop at the bridge.

I rode the HPC in 2007, the inaugural year, and I got the gold. Maybe because it was very cold on the ride, it seemed like all of the riders made stops for food, and to warm up. I never got the sense of taking part in a race; we rode hard just to stay warm! The weather has been perfect the last two years, and clearly a different attitude has prevailed.

Tracy and I volunteered as a team in 2008 and 2009, and it was a blast being around hundreds of riders who were enthused about what they were doing. Due to the accident, we were late getting back to Packwood, and therefore I didn’t see the first riders come in. What I can tell you is that there were no prizes, and outside of those 50 or 60 riders, I don’t think anyone cared who “got first”. After all, there was no first place to get. I suppose I could ride the HPC again, and I likely would try for the gold, but I guarantee you that I won’t be among those first 50 riders coming back down to Iron Creek, no matter what time I arrive at Windy Ridge.


LB said...

What is the value of a supported ride to the strong cyclist? Gold HPC finishers could drive down to Packwood any given day and rip this out solo. It comes down to PEOPLE – to race with, to ride fast with, to hang out with or just to have around in the case something goes wrong on these remote roads. These being the reasons we come to a ride like this, I find it ironic that some are so reckless and not show care / respect for all the other PEOPLE. Don’t know how to fix it either. HPC is still a great ride!

Tom Meloy said...


Very well spoken. Naturally people will compete, and that is not the problem.

I think you have hit the nail on the head.

psorr said...

Sounds like great weather again, sorry I had to miss this year's HPC. I heard second-hand about another injury (cracked rib, but the rider was able to finish) which sounds like it may have been another case of too-many-risks-on-the-descent. To keep the 'challenge' aspect but reduce reckless riding, what about the idea of moving the medal qualification time to the top of Windy Ridge? That way the 'race' would be the climb (the main focus of the ride in any case) and people could relax and enjoy the scenery/food/company on the descent and the final push to Packwood. Of course there will always be unskilled riders taking the corners too fast, but removing the 'race downhill' portion would probably improve overall safety.

Tom Meloy said...


What a brilliant idea! Before I say "Why didn't I think of that", I wonder if the USFS/St. Helens would view your TT idea as a race-I can certainly find out. Also, there are some pretty fast corners on the way to Windy Ridge, but there are no trees up there, and very few blind corners, so that shouldn't be a problem.

psorr said...

I have to admit that the original idea was Tricia's! I'm not picturing a 'real' time trial but just the basic format of the past 3 years, only saying that 'gold' means hitting the topmost rest stop by 10:30, silver 11:00, bronze 12:00 (for example). Maybe give out plastic tokens at the top that riders would trade in for 'real' medals in Packwood. For those who care about time the start and initial pacelines would still be a bit intense, but the ride gets spread out by the time riders hit the blast zone so it should be no less safe than other years. Then, you avoid riders bombing downhill, skipping nutrition/bathroom stops to make up time, etc.

Tom Meloy said...


A concern might be a lot of personal support vehicles if people only ride up to Windy Ridge.

Or would we have a worse problem descending to Iron Creek, etc., because everyone would be so dang tired from hammering to Windy Ridge?

Fast Puppy said...

HPC was great...hard to believe I could hurt so much yet have so much fun at the same time. Thanks to Cascade for putting on such a great ride. That said, Cline Rd. is hands down the worst piece of pavement - and I use the term loosely - I have ever ridden on, and I've covered many miles in many remote corners of the state. A friend tried to convince me to return with him on FS 25 and HWY 12 to avoid those 10 miles of chip seal hell. I didn't want to cheat the ride and took my lumps on Cline Rd. Maybe consider another route back to Packwood for 2010. Also, I noticed a surprising number of riders on full-on TT bikes, complete with super-deep-dish rims. I saw several of them descending from Windy Ridge and had to wonder "What are these people thinking?" Maybe think about banning TT bikes and aero bars for 2010. Here's my two-cents on the medal system: LOVE IT! Keep it in place for the whole 114 miles. Those of us who finish HPC in the allotted time deserve a medal.

Tom Meloy said...

Fast Puppy,

Thanks for the support and kind words.

I still don't get the Cline Road issue, and I have ridden it three different times, once at the very end of a 5 day/500+ mile trip. If you want to see bad chipseal, ride Skate Creek Rd. north of Packwood (the road next to the Cowlitz River Lodge).

Honestly, I think Cline feels worse than it is, given that the 100 miles before it are on almost pool table smooth roads. I bet it we did Cline first (not desirable with afternoon traffic on Rt. 12), riders would likely not notice the surface as much.

Monkey said...

I'm doing the HPC 2011 for the first time. I've been training pretty hard and hope I qualify as a strong, experienced rider, but I guess this ride will tell. I don't know how to feel yet about the medal system. Perhaps they should figure out a way to reward it based on the summit time versus including the descent. That seems to be the real safety issue and the place where most inexperienced riders will try to make up time. Plus it would give riders a chance to enjoy the scenery on the way back to Packwood.
I'm glad events like this exist though. For someone who loves to ride and loves a challenge, it's an opportunity to learn and develop as a cyclist that you simply cannot get on solo rides or in the big tour rides like RSVP etc.