That’s David Longdon, who does the cool Seattle-area cycling blog for the Seattle P-I, nearing the top of McNeil Canyon, the featured spot of bother on the spectacular Chelan Century Challenge ride. He’s a little less than a mile from the top, a stretch that’s consistently 11-percent with a bit of 14-percent thrown in for fun. He, like many riders I saw yesterday, was rocking a SRAM Apex cassette and taking full advantage of its pie-plate sized 32-tooth gear. But of course, there’s more to the Chelan Century Challenge than McNeil Canyon so enough about that for now.
The ride’s slightly more than 100 miles are split up into three loops–a Manson loop on the north side of Lake Chelan, a McNeil Canyon loop that makes its way down to the Columbia River and then heads up toward the Waterville Plateau and finally, a Navarre Coulee loop which does an up-down to the Columbia, then an up-down which spits you out on the south shore of Lake Chelan about 10 miles west of town.
With two epic bodies of water–Lake Chelan and the mighty-as-hell Columbia–as well as those wonderful Eastern Washington dry-side pine forests and craggy canyons, the route can’t help but be incredibly scenic. Loop 1 was perhaps my favorite, yanking you up, up, and up on the north side of Lake Chelan before delivering you lakeside via a series of winding, no-traffic roads through orchards and vineyards. These were some fun descents. (I’d never been to this Manson side of the lake before and was just wowed by it; one suggestion though for the town fathers: change the town’s name. And don’t change it to something like ‘Bundy’ either.)
After 30 miles and about 2,400 feet of ups, we headed for McNeil and loop 2, which was 40-miles long. I’d ridden most of the loop 1 on my own and figured I’d hook up with a group for the 20-mile jaunt to the base of the canyon. Sit in the back, get a free ride as it were, save my energy for the big beastie. Which pretty much didn’t happen. For whatever reason, except for about 5 miles just before the McNeil climb when I hooked up with Longdon and three (or four?) members of Seattle’s High Performance Cycling club, I rode the entire route by myself. Kinda surprised me. Wonder if it’s because I have that disease that makes me leave as early as I can on rides like this. Most people probably prefer a later start but I want to get at it, and get ‘er done, as it were. (And stop as little as possible along the way; thus my lack of photos on Loop 1 and 3.)
At McNeil, we all went our separate paces and headed for the top. Mile markers have it at a 7-mile climb but it’s really the last 5 miles that make one question one’s sanity. Though to be honest, I love to climb so I dig this hill. There’s something about finding that deliberate, methodical rhythm within me that I find … I don’t know what the word is, maybe it’s what other people get from meditation or yoga or prayer or whatever, all I know is that it’s a head/mind/soul (?) space that I love.
Weather-wise we were blessed–sunny, not too warm, and though sweat was dripping in my eyes while I climbed and I could feel my arms getting sunburned, because we’ve had such a dreary wet spring in Bellingham, it felt glorious. Aid stations and volunteers were great throughout the day too, and located in key spots–at top, bottom and middle of McNeil Canyon, for instance.
I’d had much agita about the descent but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d remembered it from my previous ride. Then, I was by myself, just three months after collarbone surgery and the landscape, while beautiful seemed a tad tumbleweed ‘n’ rattlesnake scary. Today though (yesterday), I was one of hundreds and felt more comfortable letting the Tarmac Pro hit speeds of 40-plus mph. (Saw Steve Noble heading up while I was heading down; only time I saw him all day.)
Upon returning to Chelan we embarked on Loop 3, up Highway 97 Alt., then after blazing through a tunnel, find ourselves once again beside the Columbia River. Upon which, we immediately headed back up toward (or through?) Navarre Coulee. This was a gradual hill, which sorta climbed, sorta didn’t, and with sorta a headwind and sorta not, I found myself at about the 81-mile mark wondering if I was going to bonk. But eventually, after some salty potatoes, a turkey-ham wrap thang from the aid station (as well as Gatorade fortified with Enduralyes Fizz–I kinda like ’em), I made it up the last hill and after another fast descent found myself on the shores of Lake Chelan with about 10 miles left.
Found myself aided by a generous tailwind too, which, after some quick calculations in my head, made me realize if I brought it home in strong fashion I could average 15 mph for this thang. Not that that’s particularly fast but given the hills (it’d end up gaining 7,800 feet), given that I rode just about all of it by myself (and thus had no draft to benefit from), given that I’m not a time-trial guy, given that I don’t have a big endurance engine like a lot of the people I ride with, given that I’m on the cusp of 50, given that I’m from N.J., given that I can’t hit lefties very well, given that … I was psyched. So I hammered, as it were, my Garmin GPS reading 22-, 24-, 21-miles per hour and I brought her home in 6:38 (ride time) for 101 miles. (15.2 mph.)
Here’s a caveat (think that’s the word I want): the course calls for a ridiculously steep 1.5-mile hill that climbs 600 feet at about the 98-mile mark, but I skipped it. It just seemed dumb and too painful and unnecessary at that point. My sense is that a lot of people skipped it. (Or perhaps I’m rationalizing it to myself.)
Anyway, an amazing event. I highly recommend it. As I was riding the first loop, I was thinking that the Chelan area might just be the most beautiful place to ride in the state. And that the Chelan Century Challenge might just be my favorite organized ride. This or RAMROD. Close call.