Wednesday, August 22, 2012


It was hot. And it was hilly. Our first 30 miles we climbed like 6,000 feet as temps climbed higher and higher into the mid-90s.
It might have been last year (or the year before?) when I first saw Conconully on a map and became obsessed with riding my bike there. 
About 23 miles in, Scott Young pedals up Forest Road 39 toward Freezeout Pass.
I'd heard that Brian Ecker had ridden it and well, anxiety-prone as I tend to be, I screwed up my courage and sent him an e-mail inquiring about the route. Ecker, btw, is an absolute machine on a bike with wins and podium finishes in races such as Furnace Creek 508, Tour of the Unknown Coast and many others. I'm sometimes intimidated by absolute machines on bikes but I have to say Brian couldn't have been more friendly and helpful. He sent me maps; shared tips, advice and route options, and the capper: he said it was one of his favorite routes of all-time. That sealed it: I had to do this ride.   
The last few scorched-earth-looking meters to Lone Frank Pass at about mile 33. Views north to Skull and Crossbones Ridge and far beyond into North Central Washington are stunners.
But how to bring it together? I wasn't going to ride it by myself and figuring out a time when John Clark, Scott Young (the Titanium Cowboys) and I could all get away together just wasn't happenin'; various fun (yet pesky) summer vacation thangs like trips to Costa Rica and Southern California kept getting in the way. Then, Brian sent out an e-mail inviting any and all on a Winthrop-Conconully "mini-epic" that he and Paul Clement were planning for last Saturday. I decided (gulp) to jump on it. (Unfortunately, John was doing that Costa Rica thing and Paul ended up crashing his bike just days before and couldn't join us.)    
Downtown Conconully. The chamber of commerce website boasts of its four restaurants, "3 of which are taverns".
Re: the particulars of our ride, at 8 a.m. we headed north from Winthrop (Scott and I on 29er mountain bikes, Brian on a beefed-up 'cross bike) on paved East Chewuch Road for 9 miles before turning right on Forest Road 37, which immediately begins climbing. After 6 miles, pavement ends and the next 25 miles--which includes 5,000 feet of elevation gain--are dirt road in various states of washboardy-ness and sandy slippery-ness. Along the way at mile 22, we hopped on FR 39. (FR 37 continues to Conconully as well--it's 5 or 10 miles shorter--and I'd be interested to try that route some time as well.)

Weatherwise, we knew it'd be hot but sorta tried not to dwell too much on that fact. Temps were about 80 when we started and just got hotter and hotter 'til it reached 102 by the time we hit Conconully. It was furnace-like and I couldn't help but be reminded of last year's Shasta Summit Century experience.
Brian and Scott pedal past Conconully Reservoir before beginning the FR 42 climb to Loup Loup.
Back to the route, at Salmon Meadows, we picked up FR 38 which offered a paved, fun fast 9-mile descent into Conconully. Truthfully, there's not much to the town beyond its intriguing location. Obviously its setting is beautiful--nestled in the forested mountains next to a lake and reservoir (there's a state park too)--but I feel sort of silly for getting so excited over this tiny town that kicks off its annual community events each MLK weekend with Outhouse Races down Main Street.

Anyway, we reached Conconully at the 50-mile mark and loaded up on Coke, Powerade, water by the gallon, candy bars, sandwiches and the like. In terms of climbing, all we really had left was the 3,000-foot climb toward Loup Loup Pass on FR 42. Given that we'd already climbed about 7,000 feet, and that I've ridden the 3,000 foot climb to Artist Point several times in recent weeks, I thought I'd be in good shape. How wrong I was.
Brian and Scott at the top of the FR 42 Loup Loup climb.
The 10-mile, mostly unpaved climb was brutal. The heat, the mileage, the climbing, the slippery traction, the heavy packs we carried (?) caught up to Scott and I and we were like two punch-drunk boxers at the end of round 15. We'd cramp like crazy, get off and walk for 50 feet, pedal a bit, cramp a bit, walk a bit. Etc. Scott had a killer headache and I had that Ironman-slash-long-day-in-the-sun nauseousness; neither one of us were exactly lovin' life at that point. Eventually, we made it to the top where we found Brian, shoes and helmet off, just lying in the shade; according to Strava, he'd gotten there about 40 minutes earlier. (Strava also revealed that it took me 30 minutes to do the toughest 1.1-mile stretch of that climb; Brian rode it in 12!) 
At the top, we had just 20 miles to go and thankfully all but two miles of it was downhill. After descending dirt FR 42, we turned right onto FR 4225, which led to FR 1624 and the last 600-foot stinger of a hill. But at this point--despite having 71 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing in my legs and absolutely no power to speak of, I didn't really mind it. Scenically, it was stunning; the dirt road cut through the Methow Wildlife Area as the late afternoon sun bathed the sagebrushy and cottonwood hills in a comforting gold. Cresting the last hill, the whole Methow Valley opened up before us and it was a great feeling to know we had it in the bag.
Back on pavement, we followed Bear Creek and Twisp-Winthrop roads back into town, Brian telling us that the last time he did this route he was greeted here by 40-mph headwinds. 

Not today. Thankfully, not today.   
I loved this route, this day, this ride and would highly, highly recommend it. It's tough, no getting around it, but the views are amazing and its high odd/unusual quotient make it real appealing.

(Facts 'n' figgers: The route is 82 miles with 10,471 feet of elevation gain; 51 of those miles are gravel road. My ride time was 8:01:03; total time: almost exactly 10 hours. In post below, Strava has it at 11-plus hours but that's because I hit my Garmin start button before we rode to the Rocking Horse Cafe where we sat by the Methow River sipping foofy espresso drinks and watched some early-morning hot-air balloon riders. We started the route in earnest at 8 a.m. and got back to town almost exactly at 6 p.m. We were splashing about in the Winthrop Inn pool maybe 15 minutes after that.)  

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