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Ride report: Columbia River Gorge (5/13/2012)

The view from the top of the climb at mile 24.

It's around this time in every ALC training season that you probably start to become more than a little tired of seeing the same places, doing the same hills, visiting the same Starbucks over and over and over again.

One of my standard pieces of advice is to shake up your training just a bit by going someplace different for a change.

This year, I took my own advice seriously to heart and traveled to Portland, Ore., to do an official ALC training ride there with about a dozen members of Team Portland. The ride was plenty challenging, and the scenery was amazing.

Our meeting place was along the I-205 bike path on the east side of town, part of Portland's vast network of bicycle facilities. (The previous day, I explored just a small sample of them on a 25-mile ride into downtown and back.) Our route quickly took us down a couple hundred feet in elevation to the Columbia River, which we crossed in the middle of the I-205 bridge -- a separated bike lane with traffic speeding by on both sides. It was efficient if a bit noisy, but not really that much worse than crossing the Dumbarton Bridge.

After that, we were in Washington state, and we spent several miles on the original pre-freeway routing of Highway 14 along the river's edge. The gently rolling hills were a gentle wake-up call, but the poor condition of the road surface (original deteriorating concrete covered in places with deteriorating asphalt) was less gentle. There was almost no motorized traffic, so the route was better than the freeway alternative -- and it served the training purpose of getting riders ready for the poor road conditions we experience through much of Monterey County.

At mile 14, our first rest stop of the day was in the small town of Washougal, and it was a Starbucks (ha!). Our group had stayed mostly together until this point, but here my randonneuring instincts took over and I was eager to get back on the road and not linger at the rest stop. I found myself leaving alone -- and, sad to say, that was the last I saw of any of Team Portland for the rest of the day.

A few miles later, the route put us on Highway 14 itself, past the end of the freeway section. This is the main route along the north shore of the Columbia, and it had plenty of high-speed traffic, including many large trucks. Early on a Sunday morning, things weren't too bad, but traffic definitely picked up as the day went on. And at the same time, the hills began in earnest. Rolling hills over and over again, interspersed with the occasional long climb to several hundred feet above the river. Again, this is very good training for June because this very closely mirrors the conditions along Highway 1 down the coast to Santa Cruz. What we also had Sunday, however, were headwinds out of the east that slowly increased during the morning. This further motivated me to press forward relentlessly -- I knew that the longer I waited to head east, the stronger the headwinds would become.

Around mile 30, a police car raced toward me with lights and sirens flashing. A couple of minutes later, an ambulance. Then some more police cars. And more emergency vehicles. On the event, this is the moment that sends a chill down one's spine. Had something happened to our group? Fortunately not, as I learned later, but a westbound vehicle apparently had been found on the shoulder in a way that suggested a possible accident. The riders who saw the vehicle said they didn't see anyone inside, but it apparently happened very soon after I went by ... another reason to pause and consider.

There's a whole lot of nothing
on the Washington side of the river.
The temperature was beginning to heat up as well. Coupled with the wind and the hills, the riding was more challenging than I expected, and I took brief advantage of the marked rest stops on the route sheet, even though none of them were full food-service stops.

Finally, I reached the turnaround point at mile 41: the crossing back across the river into Oregon via the Bridge of the Gods. This now-ancient and very, very narrow structure was built in 1926 and has a grated steel deck all the way across. I had read reports that some cyclists prefer to walk across the bridge, even though there's no walkway, and I approached the surface with more than a little fear. I gingerly began to cycle across the steel, and I took the middle of the traffic lane.

With a 15 mph speed limit and a travel trailer approaching behind me, I was certainly in no hurry. And I tried to take other riders' advice to "not look down" because one can look right through the grating to the river surface a full 140 feet below. But I had to look down to maintain a steady line on the grating. I'll admit that this nearly half-mile stretch of cycling was one of the scariest things I'd done in quite some time. (And there was no way I was going to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture.) But there was a somewhat pleasant surprise waiting on the other side at the toll booth: Despite what the bridge's official website says, I wasn't charged a toll.

The bridge dropped me into the small town of Cascade Locks, where the scheduled lunch stop was a cafeteria-style sit-down restaurant. I chose to make only a brief toilet and water stop for two reasons: I didn't want to leave my bike unattended outside for any length of time, and I didn't want to sacrifice all the time required for a full inside dining experience. I had brought plenty of "emergency" food with me, so I took some of that, refilled my water, and began to head back west, this time along the Oregon side of the river.

This is where the character of the ride changed considerably. Now, instead of a major highway, the route was on a multi-use trail that was formed out of pieces of the original U.S. 30. The first few miles were calm but marred somewhat by lots of bumps (from frost?) in the trail that sometimes came up by surprise. Also, because the trail was completely enshrouded in trees, there was almost no benefit from the wind that was now supposed to be a tailwind.

After a few miles on the trail, there's still a gap in the path westbound, which meant that we had to get on busy Interstate 84 for about three miles. With a nice shoulder and a mostly downhill route, this segment wasn't too bad (in fact, this is the part of the route that I'd done in October 2006 on my own). Next, it was back onto historic U.S. 30, which in this part was still in use as a scenic highway -- and, with the hot weekend in full effect by now, it was full of traffic escaping the Portland heat. Plus, there were still the hills. Lots of rolling hills, over and over again.

The heat was beginning to take its toll on me as well, so I was quite happy when the next rest stop arrived sooner than indicated on the route sheet. Someplace along the way, my odometer had become 3 miles off the readings on the route sheet. Even reviewing the route after the fact, I can't see anything I did wrong, so I'm still baffled. But at mile 55, I was at Multnomah Falls -- which was absolutely packed to the hilt with visitors. Fortunately for me, there was an "express" outdoor line that was serving quick food, and it was right next to the sidewalk where I was easily able to keep my bike within sight. Unfortunately, however, they were out of any healthy food such as a turkey wrap, so I went with the next best thing: a quarter-pound "sausage dog." It hit the spot, and after refilling my water (which had gotten dangerously close to running out), I was back on my way along historic U.S. 30.

By now, traffic was extremely heavy, although much of it was coming in the opposite direction. And the biggest climb of the day was still ahead: about 900 feet up to the vintage 1917 Vista House high above the river. Coming more than 60 miles into this ride, coupled with the heat, the climb was much more challenging than I anticipated, and I took several brief breaks along the way.

Once at Vista House, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was essentially done with climbing for the day. How wrong I was! Turns out that Vista House isn't at the highest elevation, and there's another half-mile or so of climbing afterward. And then our route took a brief inland detour, mostly for the sake of adding a few miles, but also adding some more rolling hills just for fun. And this was the only point of the day where I got a little worried: I was in unfamiliar territory, and I had a little difficulty decrypting the directions on the route sheet. Fortunately, I chose the correct road.

Much to my surprise, I had completely used up my Camelbak full of water in the past 15 miles! With just a small reserve remaining in my one water bottle, I was quite relieved to see a small country market by the side of the road. I bought some water and some salted nuts, but I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes while another customer (about six people in front of me, most of whom seemed to be buying beer and little else) had some type of dispute with the cashier that I didn't bother to fully investigate. My bike, although parked near the door, was out of sight the whole time, and I was more than a little worried.

Back on the bike, I made my way back into the eastern suburbs. Then, at mile 74, I took the indicated right turn, and there it was -- I was back at I-84, much to my surprise. The rest of the route back to Portland was a direct shot on the old highway along the shore. But one more surprise also awaited: the winds that had been from the east all day shifted to the west and became an annoying headwind for the last 10 miles. Coupled with the heat (which, as I found out later, was above 90 degrees by this point), I was taking more than a few stops, despite the nearly flat terrain.

Finally, at mile 84, I arrived back at the I-205 bike path, which conveniently took me by my hotel, just a half-mile from the official start/end point. Because I had already cycled to the start, I declared my ride over at that point, and I sent a text message to the ride leader indicating that I had finished safely.

Not only had I finished safely, I finished happy -- which was no mean feat considering that there was more than 5,200 feet of climbing, mostly unfavorable winds, and extreme heat. Some of it might simply have been the unfamiliar scenery, but I think some of it was also because I made an effort to keep a steady but moderate intake of calories -- and salt -- throughout the day. I didn't try to race up any of the hills -- in fact, my Strava times for the climbs are among the slowest recorded for all riders, despite my reasonable average of 14.4 mph for the day.

Although I had set out on my own after the first rest stop, I was alone only on the Washington side of the river. After crossing back into Oregon, there were many other cyclists, especially west of Multnomah Falls. And the "lumpy" terrain is second nature for these folks, many of whom were clipping along far more rapidly than I.

But given the challenging terrain, I'm certain that the members of Team Portland will be more than ready for ALC11 in June! This ride also helped me boost my confidence just a bit as well ... and it did so along an incredibly scenic route that was well worth the effort to get there and back.