Faithful readers will note that I previously did a 100-mile mountain bike this summer. For brand new readers, please refer back to the War and Peace-length saga earlier this month of the Leadville 100. So, after finishing such a long and difficult ride, what would the natural and normal thing to do be? Take it easy, enjoy some casual riding, right? So what did I do? I went out to ride the Midnight Century course with the fastest MC rider in town. Was this sensible? No. Reasonable? No. Hours of endless gravel rollers? Yes.
A couple of quotes I heard this morning remind me of this ride. Nietzsche famously said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Are they mutually exclusive? I don't think I died, but I certainly don't feel any stronger. Is it possible for something to both kill you and make you stronger? The other quote is actually a song lyric and no, I don't have to be embarrassed about it, I was listening to a Coldplay song. The line is something like, "no one said it was easy, but does it have to be this hard?" And that, my friends, regardless of your feelings for Chris Martin is a good motto for the Midnight Century course.
During the summer, Tom (who is the Head Mechanic at Two Wheel Transit (okay, currently the only mechanic)), helped me out by taking care of my bike, serving as a sounding board for numerous discussions of tires, wheels, etc., and may have saved my life during the 24 Hour Race (he helped me find the large and obvious wheel drag problem that plagued my 3rd lap: http://teamtwowheel.blogspot.com/2010/06/24-hour-race.html). Alongside the great wrenching and therapy sessions Tom offered me, we also discussed the Midnight Century and his preparations for it.
Tom had done numerous reconnaissance tours of the MC course in preparation for the actual event. While it is not a race, Tom was ready to go out and set the course record. Instead, because Tom is an incredibly nice guy he did two things on the night of the actual ride - he rode with and supported the efforts of two friends to help them have quick rides that night and he leap-frogged these riders to leave behind pine cone smiley faces for all the other riders. In other words, left to his own devices he clearly could have ridden faster than the 6 hours, 9 minutes that they finished together.
In my conversations with Tom, we had talked about doing a pre-ride of the MC course. I had wanted to go, but timing or my Leadville prep. schedule or something prevented it before I left for Colorado. I had considered doing the MC, which was the week before Leadville, but not being familiar with the course, I was concerned that it would be too much of an effort to recover from in a week's time. I was also cognizant of the additional danger of riding at night and didn't want to needlessly complicate or endanger my chances at Leadville. As a result, I put aside my desire to ride the MC and Tom and I agreed we would ride the course after I got back from my trip.
This did, however, pose a couple of issues. One, Tom, as mentioned above, was capable of a very, very fast ride on this course. While he will be very uncomfortable with me mentioning it, he is a previous Washington State Road Race champion in one of the Master's categories. As a result, I was a bit afraid of going with Tom because I didn't want to endure 9-12 hours of a) holding up Tom; b) patronizing comments from Tom like, "No, you climb really well for a fat guy" or "I was really looking forward to a 10-12 hour pace on the MC course - I get to see so much more going half the speed I normally do"; or c) finding myself laying in the midst of yet another gravel roller, crying on the road side and wondering why had I hadn't just rested on my laurels instead of tacking on another tough 100-mile mountain bike ride.
Despite my trepidations, however, I agreed to meet Tom at the Elk Saturday morning at 6.30 am for a trip around the MC course. We extended a couple of invitations to go along with us, but had no takers. I had no idea so many cyclists I knew would be having their hair done that morning. Nonetheless, the two of us headed out at the appointed time. In fact, my Garmin says we started at 6.32 am, which is remarkably timely for me. Doing it in the daytime has some upsides, like it means that without the lighting systems the bikes are lighter, the navigation is easier and you can show up feeling reasonably rested. Doing it in the daytime also has some downsides, like it is still a long, hard course full of mile upon mile of rollers and gravel roads.
Tom described the course generally like this, the first 25 miles are pretty easy and the last 25 miles are pretty easy, but the middle 50 miles are pretty tough. You could describe the 100 Years War in the same way (that middle 50 years was really something), but with just a bit less bloodshed. One of the interesting things about riding with Tom is that this description of the course may have been the only instance of him using understatement. In fact, Tom is a remarkably literal person. If someone asks me how far something is, I might say, "about 4 miles" which could mean anywhere from 2 to 8 miles, unless of course I have completely mis-remembered and then it could be somewhere between 100 yards and 10 miles. I don't mean to be inaccurate, but I'm okay with the idea of a range. That's why atomic clocks are of no particular interest to me. "About 4 pm" makes more sense to me than "4.01.53.002 pm" as a time. In contrast, when you say to Tom, "how long is this hill", his answer will be "it's about 1.1 miles" which translated means "it is almost precisely 1.1 miles unless I am wrong and it is really between 1.09 and 1.11 miles".
In terms of course descriptions, this is a great resource. Every time I asked about what was coming up on the course Tom had a full, complete and accurate answer, which is really nice when you aren't familiar with an area. On the other hand, it also means that when you say something like, "Sorry I am holding you up today," his response is not, "oh, you're not holding me up, I wanted to go slow today," and instead his response is more like, "Sure". Oh well, it is true that I was holding him up all day.
The MC course, at least the version we rode, which I think is the 2008 version, starts in Browne's Addition at Cannon and Pacific, heads into downtown and picks up the Centennial Trail to Stateline. We rolled along this portion of the course quickly and it did call into question the mountain bikes and giant tires we were riding. We covered this first 23 miles in about an hour and twenty minutes. Not blazing fast, but then again we were just riding and talking as opposed to racing.
From there, you hit your first substantial climb and then descent towards Liberty Lake, followed by the next climb out of Liberty Lake. At this point, all of the roads are still paved and I wondered about my cyclo-cross bike sitting at home. Shortly thereafter, however, the gravel roads start and the mountain bikes seemed like a better idea. We finished the first 1/3 of the course in something over two hours, but we had just started to get to the meat of the course (or, for you vegans, the "tofu" of the course). If you aren't familiar with the route, the best way to understand it is to go ride it, but second best is probably taking a look at this: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/47717598.
The next 1/3 of the course is mostly comprised of rollers, many on gravel roads and a few on paved roads, but through mile 58 you are either going up or down. I do not recall more than 100 feet of level road in this entire section (There might have been a level section, but I find that hypoxia limits my recollections). This section also involves the oddest part of the course, where at about mile 55 you take a right turn off of the gravel road, go around a fence and down a path into a ravine, across a charming wood bridge and back up the other side of the ravine. It is totally unexpected and I have to think it would be easy to miss in the middle of the night, not to mention a bit of rough riding. This is a portion that a cross bike would be a distinct disadvantage to a mountain bike. Rideable, but tougher. I am interested to go back and check this area out to understand the how and why this county-owned cut-off came to be.
Just after this, you then reach the major V in the profile. About mile 58 you start a 2-mile descent that takes you to Valley-Chapel road, but really to the base of this little valley. From there, however, you start climbing right back out of the valley including going up Spangle Creek road. In total, just after the 2 mile descent you have about 2.5 miles of climbing and an elevation gain of around 550 feet. I had never ridden up Spangle Creek road because I have always been at the bottom on my road bike and thought it turned to gravel just out of sight of Valley-Chapel Road. It turns out the climb is all paved, but it does turn to gravel for many miles before you can hook-up to a paved road again. This climb has grades as steep as 15% and it is, to use a crass term, a real ball-buster. For me, at least, this marked the period of waning strength. Tom was being very patient, but my back had been bothering me (which is a very unusual cycling problem for me) and I was getting tired.
From the top of this climb, you are about 2/3 done with the ride. Unfortunately, I was more than 2/3 done with my joie de vivre. We were at about 5 hours here, which I was surprised to realize was only about 15-20 minutes behind Tom's ride at the MC event. It was, for me, however, the closest we would be to that time. As we reached the open Palouse, we were greeted with increasing winds and an inverse proportion of strength from me. I gamely plowed along, but I was getting tired. I also didn't realize the way the course went and I thought that if I made it to Spangle then it would be an easy trip down the hill into town. I was wrong.
From Spangle, you cross 195 (tantalizingly down the hill to my house) and get on more gravel roads. These gravel roads, as all gravel roads on the Palouse, are rolling. The don't roll up and down as much as some of the prior roads, but nonetheless, they go up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. And for our ride, they also went straight into the high winds for quite a ways.
You do, however, finally reach the point where the road is going mostly downhill and eventually intersect with the Cheney-Spangle road, leaving behind the gravel roads except for one tame stretch. The Cheney-Spangle road also rolls up and down a bit, but mostly down to the Fish Lake trailhead. From there, down the upper Fish Lake trail (where we had a nice tailwind finally and I sat on Tom's wheel for the whole length of it), a 3 mile section of ride-able gravel taking you to the lower Fish Lake trail, and then the final few blocks back to Browne's Addition.
I was seriously knackered for the last stretch and probably tried Tom's patience. He stopped a time or two, for a natural break and then for a couple of trail maintenance issues, and each time caught up to me surprisingly quickly. At least it surprised me. The old tortoise and the hare trick, except in this instance the hare was the one that was able to keep going and going.
And so, this story, much like the ride, peters out quickly. After the criss-crossing of fields, mile upon mile of road I have never seen, roller after roller and a very miserable wind that just blew stronger as the day went on, you then suddenly find yourself sharing the Fish Lake trail with families that just bought their bikes on sale at Wal-Mart. It is a bit of an odd transition and it feels like you should ride along next to them to say "hey, we started at 6.30 this morning and are just finishing a very tough ride, do you mind having a bit more respect?", but instead we just politely moved over to let the labradoodles and their owners have the trail. We rolled back up to my car after 7 hours and 13 minutes. As the Garmin tells the tale (succinctly compared to me), we were moving for 7 hours, 1 minute and 46 seconds. I wish I had realized so that somewhere I could have knocked off 2 minutes and booked a sub-7 hour time, but I guess that's why the road is still out there beckoning.
I am curious about how different it would be at night and I imagine it would be quite gratifying (as described here: http://26inchslicks.blogspot.com/2010/08/midnight-century-2010-my-view.html) to finish as the day is beginning. I can't guarantee that I will be there, but I will certainly try to make it next year to find out. Speaking of which, here is the link to the not-official ride information (since it isn't an official ride): http://www.midnightcentury.com/. Here are a couple of other links to ride information from 2010: http://100km.us/2010/08/22/midnight-century-2010-pt-1/ and http://100km.us/2010/08/25/midnight-century-2010-pt-2/ and http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com/2010/08/midnight-century-preliminary-results.html and finally http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com/2010/08/mc-results-mid-day-update.html.
In fact, the Midnight Century website and the Dean of Cycling Blogs are the best place to find out about next year's ride. It sounds as if Tom's cue sheet (found here: http://www.mechbgon.com/Midnight_century_cue_sheet.pdf) will be updated, revised and expanded upon to become the official cue sheet of the unofficial ride.
So, to sum it up. Midnight Century - No one said it would be easy, but did it have to be that hard?