Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Wheels Keep on Turning

Kranking the Ks:
Pushing the Pedals in One’s 60th Year ...

For just over a year now, I've been enjoying a baby blue bike from Brodie, my beloved 2015 Romax. At age 59, I'm beginning to experience a few lower leg tendon issues, stemming mainly from a life-time of running. As a result, time on the bike has been my “go-to” exercise regime, with most days seeing 20-30 km rides in and around the city of Vancouver.

These have been punctuated with occasional 55-65 km excursions and even one 100+ ride to Bellingham, Washington, from my home in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood. That was a one-way roll, with Amtrak conveniently providing the return, late in the evening. Bikes are only levied a USD $5 surcharge on the train (the fare itself is $20), so if an out-and-back isn't your desire, you can make the return via the rails.

Another time, a friend and I put bikes on the Skytrain, taking it to the outskirts of Metro Vancouver’s urban areas to Surrey's King George Station, thus shortening the ride to Bellingham to a very manageable 65 km. Skytrain cost on the weekend: CAD $2.75, with no surcharge.

As I've grown more comfortable with the Romax - an exquisite cyclocross machine (essentially a beefed up road bike with disc brakes) - I've yearned to go a little further afield, hearkening back to my twenties, when I managed a Vancouver-to-Calgary trip (10 days, with camping gear) and a Surrey-Whistler out-and-back (over 2 days, covering 340 km). However, work and not riding regularly have been easy excuses for deferral, until recently, when I embarked on a leave from my job. Without the 9-5 strictures, impromptu rides have been easier to accomplish, owing to more weather windows and schedule flexibility.

Riding to Calgary, 1983

So it was that on a Friday in mid-April, I got on my bike at 6 AM, thinking I might do another ride to West Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay and back (about 65 km), but in the recesses of my mind entertaining the possibility of continuing on to Lion's Bay, or maybe even Squamish ... or possibly  (shudder) Whistler!

I rode light, carrying only a flimsy windbreaker in addition to removable arm and leg sleeves, a couple of Cliff bars, a water bottle, and an iPhone. I knew that I had the option of bailing out en route and taking public transit back from Horseshoe Bay or Lion's Bay, with my bike, for the cost of a local bus ticket.

I enjoyed the quiet, scenic undulations of Marine Drive in West Vancouver and found myself above Horseshoe Bay, contemplating going on. That decision point led to another at Lion's Bay, where I refueled at the General Store with a date bar and hot chocolate. I continued north, now committed to Squamish. Timing myself on the nasty hill at Furry Creek, I noted that I was able to vanquish the incline in 7 minutes, bolstering my confidence. North of Squamish, more food and water at a local Tim Horton's in Garibaldi Highlands and then the slightly scary resolution to take on the challenging climbs between there and Whistler for my first time in over thirty years.

At noon, I was approaching Whistler's Creekside, by now on the sedate Valley Trail, but by this time also definitely "bonking" and groggily anticipating more food in Whistler Village, which would represent about 130 km of riding and cumulative elevation gains of close to 2000 m. I was doing the Squamish-Whistler stretch (675 metres of climbing over 53 km) with one Cliff bar and a bottle of water. Fortunately, the coolish weather helped to prevent overheating and too much water loss, but the engine was sputtering, nonetheless.

Whistler Village, this April 2016
12:30 PM saw me roll into Whistler Village, with the odd raindrop accompanying. A thousand+ calories later I was considering riding back as far as Squamish, thinking that the predominantly downhill run would give me bragging rights to an imperial century (i.e., 100 miles) plus more. However, the raindrops were still falling and the thought of getting caught in a chilly downpour in the Cheakamus Canyon, with its dearth of shelter and amenities was an effective deterrent. I decided to ride back to Creekside, just 5 km from the Village, and try my luck at hitchhiking, bike and all. Thanks to Dan in a canopied pick-up, Kristina in her Delica, and Lisa with her minivan, my Romax and I made it back to Vancouver by late afternoon!


Emboldened by what had been my longest, toughest ride in decades, I immediately wondered  -  with some trepidation  - about the feasibility of another trek, this time a southerly one-day "jaunt" from Vancouver to Seattle, downtown-to-downtown. A quick calculation via Google Maps suggested that this endeavour would involve about 265 km and almost 1400 metres uphill over 15 hours. Pretty daunting!

In spite of misgivings, my schedule and the weather were both looking good for just four days later, on the Wednesday following my Friday Whistler ride. Over the weekend, I did a couple of light rides (40 km and 20 km respectively). On Monday, my wife and I went skiing at Blackcomb and on Tuesday we did the Sea-to-Summit hike near Squamish. My right calf was sore, as was my left Achilles. I didn't feel confident that I could even do half the ride to Seattle, the next day.

The night before, I put fresh oil on the bike chain and pumped up my Continental Gatorskin tires, hitting the sack somewhat restless. My alarm was set for 5AM but I was amped and woke up at 3:30. By 4:10, I was out the door, beginning my roll through the dark streets of the city.

 My hasty research included ascertaining the Amtrak Cascades schedule, making a note of northerly departure times from not only Seattle, but closer stops including Edmonds, Everett, Stanwood, Mount Vernon and Bellingham. I could get on at 9:00 PM from Bellingham, arriving in Vancouver at 10:50, but my secret hope was to snag the train earlier, at 6:50, at Seattle's King Street Station. So, the internal pressure was on to keep up a steady pace. If it did take me 15 hours, I would barely make my goal.
On the Patullo Bridge, New Westminster, 5:20 AM

One nice feature of an early morning start on the bike, in the city, is that red lights can essentially be ignored, in the absence of traffic. By 5:20, I had shed my windbreaker, and was standing on the Patullo Bridge sidewalk in New Westminster, watching the Skytrain slide over the muddy Fraser, in a moonlit, pre-dawn, riverscape tableau. I briefly got out my iPhone to capture the scene and to record my location and time. I didn't want to carry a separate camera or GPS device, but I also wanted to document the "where and when." I had no roaming plan for my phone, so once I crossed the border, my intention was to turn off my cel data, but continue to take occasional photos. Navigation would be via paper maps I had printed out and the good graces of strangers whom I would consult to fine-tune directions.

At the border, I walked into the U.S. Customs and Border Security office and produced my Nexus card. Again, thanks to the early start, there were no waits or hassles. By about 7:15, I was having my breakfast wrap and a coffee at Woods in Birch Bay Village near I-5, on Portal Way. The sun had risen and was slowly warming. Thankfully, there was no wind.


I continued to pedal across the Fraser Delta toward Bellingham, via quiet farm roads that first led to Ferndale. There, I crossed the freeway and rode a straight shot down Northwest Avenue to downtown Bellingham. At 8:45, I conscripted someone to take my picture at the U.S. Post Office in the heart of the city and then continued south below Western Washington University and through Old Fairhaven, to the start of the famous coastal route on Chuckanut Drive. This winding, wooded road can be somewhat dicey for cyclists, owing to its popularity with sight-seeing motorists and the narrow to non-existent shoulder. Between 9 and 10 AM on a sunny, dry weekday morning, however, it was quiet and exhilarating, with its banked turns and gorgeous ocean glimpses.

After the hills and woods, I was spit out into the flats of the Skagit Valley and I moseyed in behind a group of serious older guys in their Lycra, one of whom invited me to "tuck into the back" and hang on. I spent a couple of quick kilometres with them before they peeled off east, leaving me alone on my push to the south.

By 10:30 AM, I was roughly half way to Seattle, rolling down the picturesque main street of Mount Vernon. With no noticeable wind, and perfect temperatures, I was beginning to feel mildly optimistic that my Romax and I could do this!

Mount Vernon

Three-quarters of an our later, my stomache was growling, my palate was dry, and was I anticipating the next 45 km with little ready opportunity for refueling. So, when I came across a gem of a general store at Conway  -  a modified barn with “Skagit River Produce” boldly painted on its brown siding  -  I gratefully pulled into the gravel parking lot and leaned my bike up against storage shelves on the veranda. Inside, there was all manner of replenishment available, so I scarfed down a pesto pasta salad and some water, before undertaking a minor climb on Route 534 on my way to the northern trailhead of the 50 km-long Centennial Trail, a wonderful paved bike path that has origins as a rail bed.

Skagit River Produce store

I reached the path at exactly noon, coincidentally watching my odometer turn over to 160 km, signifying the achievement of my first imperial century  since my early twenties. 

Historic Nakashima Farm, north end Centennial Trail

Whoo-hoo! The distances continued to fly by, especially as by now  -  miracle of miracles  -  I had a slight northerly assist from the wind. On the virtually level Centennial Trail, I could keep up averages of 29-32 kph, occasionally easing off with hands leaving the bars to stretch out and adjust creaky limbs. The pavement was so smooth that I could even sit up with one hand on my water bottle and the other wrapped around a hefty oat bar, munching and slurping away, while still keeping the pedals turning.
On the Centennial Trail, north of Arlington
Arlington town centre

At the town of Arlington, the trail crosses the Stillaguamish River. Once on the main street and near the old train station, I took time for a brief stop and a photo-op at rusty sculpture of a bicycle, then it was on to more rustic trail meandering, gliding by Lake Cassidy and near Lake Stevens, finally ending up in another classic American small town, Snohomish.

It was 2:45 PM, I was flagging and reckoned I was still 60 km from my goal of making the Amtrak, in Seattle. That doesn't sound like much, but when you've already cracked 200 km, another 60 clicks in warm weather, with wind that appears to be switching, looms pretty large ...

A quick consultation with the friendly guys at Snohomish Bicycles, and some energy goop and chews, helped me decide to eschew the closer stations in Everett and Edmonds and continue on to King Street. There was some debate as to which roads to choose, but I ended up taking Route 9 to Woodinville, an ugly thoroughfare with the most challenging climb of the entire ride and hot, fast, rush-hour traffic. Thankfully, the paved shoulder is huge!

On the Burke-Gilman Tail

Woodinville saw one last coffee/wifi break and then a dash for the nearby paved Sammamish River Trail. This is another bucolic path, skirting river vistas and leading fairly directly to a connection with the Burke-Gilman Trail. Together, these two paths take you to the University of Washington, over 25 glorious kilometres. As I left the Sammamish River for the western shores of Lake Washington, I experienced the happy counterflow of scores of bicycle commuters and runners, all leaving UW for home, in the late afternoon.
Portage Bay, from University Bridge, Seattle

At 5:20, I crossed over my last body of water via University Bridge, with Portage Bay on my left and Lake Union on the right, watching the college rowers rhythmically sculling below, during their afternoon training. That put me on East Lake Avenue, in Seattle proper, in the thick of the rush hour traffic madness.

At this point, I improvised my way doggedly between cars, on sidewalks, too spent to dig out my rough maps, opting instead to periodically ask directions from helpful citizens. Eventually, at 6:00 PM, I pushed open the doors of the train station and wheeled my Romax over to the ticket counter, tired but happy. With a payment of $42 and the $5 bike surcharge, an hour later I was rolling north to Canada, on the rails, gazing out at the coastal sunset and already re-living through memory, my one-day adventure.
King Street Station, Seattle

Contents of my jersey pockets, end of the ride.

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