Left Into the Darkness

The British explorer Bill Tillman defined adventure as “outcome uncertain.”  The outcome of completing a three-hundred-and-thirty-mile bicycle circumnavigation of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in forty hours was certainly uncertain.  Add to the formula that we’d be riding through a rain forest during the winter – twenty one of the forty eight allotted hours would be in darkness.

In Joyce, starting to get wet

When it came to soliciting partners for this escapade Dan Liberator was my natural choice.  Dan was wary, which I took as a good sign – he wasn’t underestimating the project – but after a few days of roughing out a plan and talking it over with his wife, Amy, we were a team.

The space between mile one fifty and three hundred is extremely remote and devoid of services.  Dan and I considered our logistics carefully and decided to stop and sleep a few hours in the now somewhat famous, perpetually gray town of Forks.  We booked an AirBnB in Forks where we could eat, sleep and dry off.  We planned to depart Forks at three thirty AM and ride the seventy remote miles to Quinault Lake in the dark, arriving at the Lodge in time for breakfast.

The portion of the route between Forks and Quinault Lake passes through the Hoh Rain Forrest on the uninhabited and seldom used in the winter Hoh Mainline Road; we would ride this at night, with a near certainty of precipitation.  The idea of the trip was to be self-supported meaning that we’d load our bikes with all necessary food, water, clothing, repair and emergency supplies.  We needed to prepare for everything from mild temperatures and sunshine to freezing temperatures and driving rain.

The Hoh Mainline is thirty miles of no grocery store, no post office, no gas station, no house, no barn, no hayloft, no outhouse, no doghouse.  The only manmade structures are the pavement and the Olympic Corrections Center – a place where neither Dan nor I were keen on stopping.  A quick look at cell coverage showed that we wouldn’t be able to count on service while on the Mainline.  In the weeks leading up to the ride evening temperatures in Forks were in the low thirties making it seem reckless to venture onto this deserted stretch of road in the middle of the night without some sort of support.  Fortunately, my son, Sam, agreed to meet us in Forks and sweep the route. Even with Sam, the prospect of riding through the Hoh Rainforest in the middle of the night was a bit daunting.    

My long-distance riding credentials are limited, and thus preparation for this trip was a trial and error process.  My primary concern was where to put my gear.  I didn’t want to carry much, if anything, in jersey pockets so I had to figure out a bag system.  I noticed that a lot of randonneurs use porteur bags mounted between the handlebars, I tried a few different designs, without success as they all interfered with my lighting system and made the bike temperamental and unstable.  Fortunately, the recent popularity of bikepacking has rendered an array of super slick bike cargo solutions; I settled on a large bikepacking seat bag and a top tube-mounted frame bag.

Twenty one of the forty allotted hours would be in the dark thus lighting was a major issue.  An obvious solution would have been a dyno hub, but a disk brake front wheel with a dyno hub isn’t exactly an off-the-shelf item, and I had neither the time nor the resources to lace a new wheel.  I settled on my two existing rechargeable lights: a Niterider 550 and a Serfas 1100.  I have two external battery packs for the Serfas.  I planned to start the night riding with the Niterider and when it faded I would plug it into a portable power supply and then run the first Serfas battery then go back to the newly charged Niterider then to the other Serfas battery and then back to the Niterider.  Conservatively assuming two hours burn on each I could theoretically get twelve and a half hours of lighting – more than enough time between plugins.  As an emergency backup I brought a AAA powered headlamp secured to my helmet.  My taillight was AAA powered as well.  It seems to me that lighting companies should come up with a AA or a AAA option for their units.  Alkaline batteries are easy and lightweight to carry and available at any gas station.

The next issue to figure out was navigation.  My old timey Garmin has, at best, five hours of battery life and, much to my surprise, it doesn’t operate while plugged into a portable power supply.  It seems like this should be a solvable problem, but I don’t understand that much about electronics.  One solution – the solution that Dan thankfully took – would have been to buy a new modern bicycle computer.  I already have a bike computer – something I rarely use for day-to-day riding – so I opted to get a small handheld GPS, something that I can use both for this trip and also use for bikepacking, climbing, skiing, hiking, overlanding and other forays into remote places.  I went with the Garmin Etrex 22X.  The Etrex 22X is AAA battery powered, so by bringing spare alkalines and purchasing batteries along the route (if needed) my power supply should, in theory, be unlimited. 

My experience transferring an online map to a bicycle computer is limited – actually I’ve only done it once – and while after much trail and error I did manage to download the route to my new machine I wasn’t able to access turn-by-turn instructions.  Ideally I would have taken the unit out on a few trial routes and figured it all out, but in the end I simply ran out of time.  Thankfully Dan had navigation all figured out, which allowed me to focus on the food.

I need to consume north of three hundred calories per hour in order to sustain a full day effort.  On training rides I can survive on blocks, bars and gels, but when it’s an all day ride I need real food.  Three items that work well for me are rice cakes, chocolate waffles and ham and cheese sandwiches (made on cheap white bread).  These three items are calorically dense, offer all three macronutrients, travel well (don’t crush or melt) and offer a variety of textures and tastes (sweet, to salty to savory).  I planned to purchase supplemental food at restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores; I find that on a long cold ride some potato wedges or a gas station burrito can be a game-changer.   

The final issue to solve was clothing.  I’m on a bike racing team, and my team gear is perfectly adequate for the vast majority of my rides, but with the possibility of below freezing temperatures I needed a combination of packability and warmth.  My cold weather racing gear, while warm, isn’t exactly packable.  My years in the mountains has taught me that the ultimate in packability and warmth is down, which is less than worthless when wet, and we were going to get wet.  The middle ground is synthetic insulation.

My friend, Todd, has this great insulated jacket from Rapha and so I asked if I could use it on a wet and cold training ride.  It was perfect.  Thankfully Todd let me borrow it.  I did, however, go to the Rapha store and purchase the vest version of this jacket.  On any big trip, whether it be hiking, climbing, ski mountaineering or biking, I like to have one secret weapon, one thing in the bottom of the pack that I can pull out when things are really starting to go south.  The insulated Rapha jacket will be that peace of mind.

I am a big fan of wool as it’s perfectly suited to the cold damp conditions of the Pacific Northwest.  I opted to start the ride with a wool undershirt, a team jersey and a wool long sleeve jersey.  On the bottom I wore bibs under padded wool tights.  The bibs under tights provided two layers of chamois, which both Dan and I agreed was essential.  On my feet I wore wool socks tucked into Fizik Artica R5 winter road shoes.  On my hands I wore Head gloves purchased for eleven dollars at Costco.  The insulated jacket, the vest, a rain shell, SealSkinz split finger gloves and a spare skull cap were packed into the seat bag.

Dan and I were part of a ride leaving from the Rapha store at five forty-five in the AM on the Saturday after Christmas.  We both arrived at five in order to drink some coffee, eat some oatmeal and to listen to a last minute briefing.  The sidewalk outside of the store was lined with a vast array of variously loaded bicycles; everyone seemed to a have a personalized way of carrying their load and lighting their path.  As I entered the store I felt strangely intimidated.

When it comes to bike racing I know my way around, I know the people, I have my routines, in short I’m comfortable.  Here, other than Mick Walsh, every face was new, and everyone seemed to be fitter, better prepared and better informed than myself.  There was a confidence to the room.  A confidence I didn’t share.  Dan and I struck up a conversation with one rider who said that his plan was to just ride the course.  He didn’t have any plans to stop or spend the night.  This seemed like a bold proposal due to the one hundred and fifty miles of desolate night riding between Forks and Shelton.

On the ferry ride to Bainbridge Island Mick realized that he’d ridden the six miles from his house with both his bibs and his tights inside out – the consequence of getting dressed in the dark.  The highly enthusiastic Rapha support crew walked the ferry photographing the nervous tension.

We rolled off the ferry and into the darkness at seven AM.  The group stayed together riding a comfortable pace towards the bridge over Agate Pass.  The ride was self-supported and thus everyone was loaded with food, water and foul(er) weather gear.  Everyone geared down as we climbed a series of rolling hills; gravity was working against our loaded bicycles.  Thankfully, I’d been carrying my gear on training rides, and thus wasn’t shocked by the added weight.

After Agate Pass the group started to break up.  Some of the faster riders began pulling away and Dan and I had to overcome our racer tendency to chase.  We quickly fell into a groove and soon we were rolling along at a comfortable sustainable pace.

We were conscientious about our eating and we didn’t hesitate to stop every hour to eat and fill our rear pockets with road snacks.  This was a welcome change from the grab what you can when you can aspect of eating during races and team training rides.  Our first stop was the elaborate gas station at Blyne where we ate hot sandwiches and talked to pro rider Kiel Reijnen of Trek Sigafredo who was out on a training ride.

We rode toward Port Angeles on a waterfront trail – on the left a wooded cliff, on the right saltwater.  Winter hadn’t been easy on the trail and we encountered several washouts strewn with softball-sized rocks.  We’d nearly made it to town when we encountered a major landslide that had deposited several large deciduous trees across the trail.  The cliff prohibited going around to the left and the ocean prevented traversing right; our only option was to go over.  These were some thick trees and after we’d carried and drug our loaded bikes to a tenuous midpoint, we found our route degraded from nearly impassable to downright dangerous.  Backtracking over the deadfall and then riding backwards on the route until we found an alternate route into Port Angeles seemed unpleasant at best, so we pushed forward crawling through branches, handing bikes off and walking through ankle-deep mud until we made it out the other side.

Dan was using mountain bike shoes and pedals while I’d opted for a road set-up.  My cleats were packed with mud and despite several stick cleanings and a wash in a puddle I couldn’t manage to get my right cleat clipped in.  Thankfully Sam would be in Port Angeles and with him would be a spare set of shoes.

Dan and I grabbed coffee at the Port Angeles ferry terminal – where, in 1999, Ahmed Ressam was intercepted on his way to Los Angeles with a trunkful of explosives – and met up with Sam.  I changed shoes and told our faithful support driver to continue on to Forks.  At the hip grocery, the young lady behind me in line said to be careful on Highway 101 as there is minimal shoulder and lots of logging trucks.  She seemed relieved when I told her that we wouldn’t be on 101 but instead would be riding west on Highway 112 to Joyce where we’d turn south and ride the trail along the north shore of Lake Crescent.

The rain began as we climbed west out of Port Angeles.  I changed out of the wool jersey and into the insulated jacket under a raincoat.  At a training pace I would have been sweating, but at our steady all day pace I was warm and comfortable.  The fourteen miles from Port Angeles to Joyce along Highway 112 were our first “nervous” miles.

Dan’s thumbtack

This section of highway has little to no shoulder and heavy truck traffic.  Two miles short of Joyce Dan pulled over to check out a thumping sensation coming from his front wheel.  The culprit was easy to locate: a large thumbtack embedded into his tire.  Dan was running tubeless and the tire didn’t seem to be losing air so we pushed on to Joyce where we could get under cover and repair the tire.  Joyce was more town than expected and we passed a group of our comrades eating under cover at a small drive-in restaurant.  Dan and I rolled up to a little log cabin museum and surveyed the damage. 

Despite the presence of the big silver thumbtack the tire was holding air.  Were we only six or seven miles from home, we probably would have just left it, but with two hundred plus miles to go we figured that we’d better “fix” it.  I was fully ready to add a tube, but Dan simply pulled out the tack, spun the wheel and let the sealant do its job.  Much to my surprise the sealant filled the hole, and after a bit of work with the hand pump we were back on the road.

The road between Joyce and Lake Crescent is the only sustained climbing of the route.  Dan and I rode a moderate consistent pace and soon we were at the parking lot at the end of the road.  The Rapha support crew was there cheering as we turned onto the trail that follows the north shore of the lake.

The sun had long since set and we were now in total darkness.  Both Dan and I are gravel/cyclocross racers and the temptation to “open it up” on the trail was strong, but the desire to not flat or break a rim was stronger.  For me a wilderness lake is synonymous with peace, and despite limited visibility I felt a sense of tranquility as we cruised along the shoreline. 

Once off the trail we took a mixture of backroads and the wide-shouldered Highway 101 to Forks.  We rolled into town a little after 8:00 PM.  We located the AirBnB where Sam was waiting, stripped out of our wet clothing, threw it all in the dryer and headed out for a pizza place suggested by the owner of the AirBnB.  We drove straight there and ate as much pizza and drank as much soda as we could fit into our stomachs.  The grocery store closed ten minutes before we got there, so we had to purchase a dusty box of instant oatmeal and some industrial coffee at the gas station on the edge of town.

Back at the AirBnB Dan and I set multiple alarms for two thirty and went to bed.  I fell asleep immediately, but by one thirty I was wide awake and ready to go.  I later found out that Dan was in the same situation, had I known we could have gotten on the road an hour earlier.  After two cups of black coffee and a bowl of oatmeal we were on the road.  It’s always surprising how quickly time passes in the early morning hours: we didn’t manage to get on the road until three thirty.

The rain started as was turned out of the driveway.  I have to say that the rain simply was not a major factor – our bikes had good fenders and we were dressed adequately.  Riding in the dark amid driving rain sounds miserable, but I wasn’t miserable.  Perhaps the negative aspect of the weather was balanced by the well-maintained deserted road and good company.  Dan and I rode side-by-side talking and telling stories.  I was having a good time.

About fifteen miles south of Forks we came upon the intersection of Highway 101 and the Hoh Mainline Road.  The next forty miles were intimidating.  Other than a minimum-security prison and the roadway itself we’d see no manmade structure along the Mainline.  I’d brought along a small thermos of coffee – stuffed into a water bottle cage – Dan and I each took a long drink of hot Folgers and turned left into the darkness.

I find it difficult to accurately assess speed and grade while riding in the dark.  My perceived speed is faster the perceived grade slacker, so for the first five miles of the Mainline I thought we were riding quickly up a gradual slope when we were riding slowly up a steep incline.  Either way we were making good progress up the dark, deserted yet surprisingly smooth road. 

We’d been on the Mainline for about an hour when Sam came cruising by in the truck, we verified that all was good and told him to drive fifteen miles up the road and expect us in an hour.  Riding past the Olympic Corrections Center – where, evidently, they do a “Full Productive Day” – at night was a surreal experience.  The facility was glowing ultraviolet, while outside of the wire the forest was shrouded in blackhole darkness.

The Hoh Rainforest lived up to its name, occasionally I’d shine my helmet light on Dan to see a steady stream of water dripping from the tip of his nose.  When running an Ironman marathon you don’t run twenty six miles, instead you run one mile, get there and then decide that you can do another mile and then carry on.  I took the same attitude with this ride: break the route into manageable sections, point A to point B, then once at B push on to C.  As we rode the Mainline I focused on returning to Highway 101 and didn’t concern myself with the rest. 

Happy to be off the Hoh Mainline

We hit 101 at sunrise and the first road sign we saw read Quinault 23 miles.  When engaged in a fast-paced training ride twenty-three miles isn’t very far.  It’s a distance easily knocked off in an hour, and it’s common to “power through” the final hour of a ride and arrive at the end “on fumes.”  Dan and I decided to power it through to the Quinault Lodge, arrive there on fumes and then power up with a big breakfast.  Until this point Dan and I had ridden what I would consider to be a very intelligent, thought-out and well-executed ride.  This was our one stupid mistake.  The Lake Quinault Lodger was actually thirty miles away and we got to “fumes” state about five miles short.  We arrived at the Lodge at ten AM.

Days after the ride Sam said that moral at the breakfast table was “pretty low.”  Dan and I were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough time to ride the final one hundred and twenty miles – we needed to be at the Bremerton ferry dock in time to make the nine o-clock sailing.  We decided to continue onward, roll steady and if we make it we make it, if we don’t we don’t.  Back on Highway 101 the rain continued its steady drumbeat, but we had daylight and a descent shoulder with minimal traffic so on we went.  The Lodge breakfast didn’t satiate my appetite, but we were both feeling okay, neither great nor horrible, but okay.

As I shifted down for a hill a few miles south of the little town of Neilton the rear derailleur cage extended into the spokes ripping off the hanger and destroying the rear mech.  It was time to call Sam, who was, thankfully, only ten miles up the road parked on the edge of cell service.

For us the ride was over, but I don’t consider the experience a failure.  Both Dan and I came away from the ride with a deeper knowledge of how to prepare for and execute long self-supported bike rides.  Despite the miserable weather I don’t think either of us were miserable.  In fact, I can say that I enjoyed the ride and the companionship.  This ride took me back to my mountaineering roots, where the ethos is preparation, camaraderie and a thirst to extend what one considers possible.