It’s our second Tour in Washington. This time we will be riding in the scenic Northwest region of the state, including a ride among the islands inside Puget Sound. While the last time we were here the rain gods ruled, this year we are making numerous offerings to the Indian Summer Gods in hopes of having a warm dry early October. Get ready for a great and beautiful ride! Many of the small towns we ride through have local Indian names, and we will have fun learning how to pronounce each of these (Swinomish, Samish, Padilla, Fidalgo, Snohomish, etc.).
Once again, I had the good fortune to do a scouting ride of the Tour DaVita route. A wrinkle this year was an unexpected knee surgery for me, severely limiting my riding. But heck, who listens to their Orthopaedic surgeon anyway, so I saddled up and made a “promise” not to overdo it!
This year the Tour starts in Monroe, just 40 miles northeast of Seattle. The route starts in the fertile valleys between Monroe and Fall City. Day 2 winds its way Northwest towards Burlington, with an extra special route for the Century riders across the Swinomish Indian Reservation to follow along Padilla Bay and Fidalgo Bay. Day 3 winds from Burlington towards Anacortes, with one of the most spectacular rides ever seen on a Tour, crossing Samish Island and down along Padilla Bay before turning East, crossing over the Tulip fields to Burlington.
Riding with me again this year were two awesome and reliable riders, Seth Winbolt, Senior Accountant with the Accountables in Federal Way, Washington, and Dan DeYoung, Seattle based Audit Partner with KPMG. We were generously supported by my son Max and my wife Chong, who were voluntold to help drive SAG on this year’s adventure. The route is gorgeous, beautiful winding farmland, twisting rivers, fantastic sea shores, vistas and islands. The topography is primarily flat with intermittent rolling hills and just a couple of challenging hills. This a great Tour route. It gets better every day, culminating with the Day 3 ride which is one of the prettiest rides I have ever experienced.
Again this year we arrived with the intent on riding every mile of this year’s route.
However, I knew I would not be able to ride the full route each day because of my bum knee, but Dan and Seth were game to ride the entire route. Making a scouting ride is a very different experience compared to riding the Backroads supported Tour. No smiling Backroads teammates, no rest stops set up with goodies. Generally, the route winds through quiet country roads which are far from convenience or grocery stores, making it difficult to casually stop for needed supplies, so it is important to have SAG (Support and Gear) support. I asked my family to help out so that I could ½ ride and ½ SAG. Driving the SAG wagon consists of drop-off/pickup at the start and finish of each day’s ride, organizing a daily lunch for disoriented, overheated, dehydrated, and hungry riders, and making sure we were safe and accounted for at all times. It’s amazing how much driving time and effort that entails.
The total mileage for the long version of this year’s Tour is about 230 miles and about 200 for the shorter version. The area is generally flat with intermittent rolling hills. On average, this is a relatively flat course and the hills we encountered were gentle, with an occasional challenging hill to get your heart pumping. Total elevation gains of ~7300 feet over 230 miles is considered very ridable for the average cyclist. The Tour begins in Monroe, Washington at the Skykomish River Centennial Park, where we will camp for the first two nights. The road conditions varied a lot, with a healthy mix of asphalt and chip seal. Some of the lanes will get narrow and there are railroad tracks to cross, so remember to pay attention while riding (generally a good rule of life).
The first day of the route is a 70 mile loop that brings you back to the campground. Day 2 will zigzag over 100 miles, heading generally North by Northwest, ending in Burlington at the Skagit River Park Playfields (70 miles for those cyclists choosing the Metric Century), where we will spend the final two nights of the Tour. The final day of riding will head West towards Samish Island with a loop back to the Playfields. Washington is a great state and this year’s route is spectacular. I’ll be waiting to hear how many whale sightings the riders will get to experience!
The weather should be great, but early October can be unpredictable, so be prepared for moderate weather and bring a light weight rain jacket just in case. The temperature will likely drop down into the 50’s at night so a jacket or warm pullover for the evening is advised. We found the people are very friendly and cyclist-aware. On the road, drivers gave us a wide berth and were courteous and safety conscious.
First things first, Backroads has once again designed a great ride this year. Looking at the MapMyRide maps will reinforce the view of a rolling path winding through fertile valleys and farmland, along the gorgeous bay with incredible views. The roads were generally in reasonably good shape, with a mix of asphalt and sections of chip seal. This year’s route includes a twenty mile stretch of bike path on Day 2 that is really amazing. As in all routes that you are unfamiliar with, the roads can be unpredictable, so keeping both hands on the bars at all times is highly recommended. We did not encounter much road construction, so we should be in good stead come late September. However, always ride safely and pay attention to your surroundings.
While this year’s course is pretty flat, there are some rolling hills from time to time. A quick note about riding rolling hills. Rolling hills can be a total blast to ride! Lots of work and lots of rewards. While riding on the rollers, you will be changing gears much more frequently. Try to catch the momentum of going downhill and pedal through the bottom of the hill, using that captured momentum will help carry you up the hill. You should be increasing the power of the gears on the way downhill and reducing the gears as you go up the hill. This is an important skill to master and can make riding through the hills much less challenging and way more enjoyable.
Please also remember that on flat stretches, larger groups of riders can often form and will tend to create pace lines. Riding in a pace line can be a lot of fun and you will go faster than you would otherwise ride, but you need to keep a few “rules” in mind. Rule number one, never touch your brakes in a pace line unless you first signal clearly to those behind you that you will be braking (failure to do so will likely result in riders, including you, suddenly hitting the ground). Rule number two, when you take a turn at the front, maintain the current pace of the line, riding in a steady, predictable pace. When you find yourself getting fatigued, signal to the rider behind you to come up and replace you at the front (don’t stay up front and slow down as you will slow the whole group). Rule number three, when you pull off the front, do so by pulling over to the left and drifting to the back of the line. Do not pull off to the right as you will become a hazard and may find yourself trapped in a dangerous situation. Rule number four, remember to “latch on” at the end of the line, which takes a final burst of energy so the line doesn’t ride off into the distance without you. Finally, when you are in a pace line, it is best to be in an easier gear while spinning the pedals a little faster. This will help prevent you from surging into the rider in front of you. Remember predictability is really important to safe pace lining.
You may encounter lots of wildlife on the ride this year. You may see deer, turkeys, otters, beavers, hawks, eagles, and yes, whales and dolphins.
Again, this year, we had intermittent user problems following the maps. We had dutifully printed out the maps and even downloaded them to our Garmins. We even used the MapMyRide App on our cell phones (this App is pretty darn good and can really give you a great view of where you are going). Each turn is laid out, right 1 mile, left .5 miles, rotate around the tree, go back, repeat and so on. Following the maps (or in my case, failing to pay attention) can sometimes be confusing or can take you to strange places. For instance, the map said turn left (west) and after a while we passed that darn corn field again…
All kidding aside, Backroads will have the route well marked with signs and painted arrows at most turns so no one should get lost or go off course. Riders should not be worried about getting lost or having to ride through overgrown forest trails, corn fields or tulip fields. We are on the paved roads the entire route.
Ok, a couple of other comments before I move on to describing the course. Drivers (although there were very few cars encountered) gave a wide berth and everyone we met could not have been more helpful or kind. There are farm trucks driving on some of the country roads. Drivers were patient and gave room, but please be careful as trucks and cars will win the physics battle 100% of the time. The weather may be unpredictable, with wind and rain possible while we are riding. Be prepared for great weather, but look out for heat, rain, winds and possible thunder storms. Staying hydrated is incredibly important. Even experienced riders can overlook this. Be smart and hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate!
Now, on to the route:
The Day 1 Monroe to Fall City Loop is a 70-mile route that climbs 2,300 ft. The majority of the route is a relatively flat ride through fertile valleys with some occasional rolling hills to break it up. There are three notable hills on this route, with only two being steep, but they are relatively short. Be prepared for quiet country roads and beautiful scenery. Road surfaces were good to marginal at times. At about 43 miles in there is a tough but short climb up Stillwater Hill that will challenge you. The good news is after to reach the top, the next 5-6 miles are mostly rollers making for a enjoyable ride. As you begin to get close to Duvall, at about 53 miles into the ride you will encounter some hills before flattening out for an easy downhill run back into Monroe and our campsite. Overall, Day 1 was very enjoyable and a fun ride.
This year, like last year, Day 2 is the 101-mile “Century” ride, with a shorter, more manageable 70-mile version as an option. The route winds 101 miles from Monroe to Burlington, with a 20-mile section of the Centennial Trail bike path, which starts in Snohomish. We will ride this until just beyond Arlington. Day 2 is pretty flat, with occasional rolling hills until you reach the cutoff for the longer route. The extra loop takes you to LaConnor and onto the Swinomish Indian Reservation. This loop incorporates a beautiful ride along Padilla Bay and Fidalgo Bay. Be on the lookout for eagles, whales, dolphins, otters and other wild creatures. As you ride along these bays, the gorgeous scenery will be on your right. On your left will be the major oil refineries in the Pacific Northwest, which are very interesting unto themselves. MapMyRide says 3,400 feet of elevation gain for the Century ride (our Garmins’ confirmed that elevation gain), so some up and down, especially on the extra loop for the Century riders, but frankly, it wasn’t that noticeable. Don’t sweat the elevation gain too much. It is spread out over 100 miles and there weren’t any super big hills along the way. Overall, we found the day’s ride to be very scenic and very pleasant riding.
Day 3 is a totally awesome and beautiful ride! This is a course that inspires, and will give you insight into why Washington is so special. Day 3 is a 58-mile loop route with a scant 1600 feet of climbing. This flat course starts from Burlington heading North by Northwest towards Samish Island and loops to the South along Padilla Bay before heading East back towards Burlington and our campsite. Riding across the marshland on Samish Island is fascinating and builds the anticipation for the ride around the point of the island. The end point of the Island is about ½ mile long with the Puget Sound to your left and right, providing incredible vistas. I just can’t repeat myself enough when I write that this is a great route which offers great riding. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Overall, this year’s route is terrific and will provide a great experience for both the seasoned rider as well as the novice rider. Be prepared. Bring sunscreen, but also bring a light rain jacket just in case. Ride safely. Finally, hydrating is crucial to set yourself up for a spectacular experience. It is easy to be surprised and become dehydrated on long rides, so a good rule of thumb is a full water bottle an hour!
Enjoy the Tour!!!
Jim “Hammer” Hilger