Craters 1200 (Seattle Randonneurs)

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Sourav Das

Oct 12, 2021, 3:56:28 AM10/12/21
to San Francisco Randonneurs

I wrote this in bits over a period of time. Upon putting it all together I realized it was really long and decided to not publish it, but then trimmed it down. It is still quite long. But I am surprised at how much I remember of the ride, especially the minute details. I was able to ride in a way that I was not phased out or so jaded as to blank out and make it a slog from one control to the next. Things worked out well and I had an enjoyable ride. I hope others consider doing this ride the next time it is offered.


Exactly a week ago I was on my way up to Crater Lake on OR138 out of Roseburg on the final leg of the Craters 1200 brevet offered by Seattle Randonneurs. This was my fifth "big" ride (1000+ km), my third "big" ride with SIR, and completely unplanned for.

Coming out of the worst days of the pandemic and with really no big commitments, I have been taking it one ride at a time. Limited to riding locally, it was liberating to not have to go to bed on Fridays fretting about a big ride in the wee hours of the morning, and just being able to go out on an impromptu ride without it being a big deal if I did not carry a jacket. But I am not yet a former randonneur. The solo rides made me realize that if I make a plan and execute it well, I can enjoy long rides without burning out or making it all feel like a drag. These rides provide a mental break -- an opportunity to disconnect and pursue an enjoyable pastime that doesn't determine my pay grade, all within four days and not a week or ten days.

I resumed brevets roughly two weeks after my second vaccine shot. Having ridden consistently in the Santa Cruz Mountains and a fair number of brevets (including Davis-Quincy-Davis 600, Healdsburg 300, that epicly hot Marin Mtns 200, Old Caz 300, and being on one of only two teams to sign up for the fleche and the only team to finish), and being two years out since my last 1200 (PBP), I felt the urge to ride one this year. Did not want to wait till 2022. I had ridden just enough that I had fitness and motivation, but not the burn.

The Colorado High Country was early in the year. The others were either sold out or didn't seem as appealing. I had ridden the Crater Lake 1000k in 2018, also an impromptu decision. It was a beautiful ride, but with the challenges of a night start. The 1200k version was a significant improvement to the route. Instead of riding empty miles overnight till at least Raymond, the first leg took the riders up through Mt Rainier National Park and down into Packwood and west till Randle, retracing the Cascade 1200. With favorable conditions, riders can get a substantial amount of sleep at the overnight controls. The finish time works out well for Bay Area riders who may consider taking the overnight Amtrak (10.00 pm departure time) from Klamath Falls instead of spending a night and all of the next day there, although you have to finish before the closing time window. The 1000k had turned out to be a bit of a slog to make it to the train, but just riding on the high plateau on the eastern side of the Cascades in daylight had been well worth it.

I was dubious about being able to make it for the ride. The last two weeks of Aug were especially bad with smoke from CA and hot, still air leading to 200+ AQI at Klamath Falls. Predicting AQI is dicy -- you can predict wind conditions but not fire. But on Sept 1, I saw a cold front moving into the region which would cause temps to drop by at least 20 F compared to the heatwave. Such a big change must be caused by a mass of air from the ocean which would presumably blow away the smoke or at least improve conditions drastically. I took a chance and signed up.

My plan for bike transport this time round was the same as before -- pack the bike in a cardboard box for air transport to SEA with Alaska Airlines, discard the box after assembly, ride into Klamath Falls and load the bike on Amtrak, having reserved a bike spot in advance while booking the ticket. Sports Basement in Campbell has always been happy to let me have a bike box, but this time they gave me one for a large-sized MTB. This allowed me to place the frame with the rear wheel and fender in place (with the pedals and seatpost removed and handlebars turned 90 degrees). Not only was packing the bike easy, but so was the assembly at Seattle as I only had to put the front wheel and fender back on and adjust the handlebar and seatpost. As always, seatpost+saddle and shoes went in the carry-on bag.

Hopes of favorable conditions this time around were squashed a few days before the ride as it was clear that a rain front would move in that very weekend. We did luck out however as the worst winds happened the night before the ride. But we were again looking at headwinds straight down the coast. As a consolation, we were almost guaranteed clear air at Crater Lake and into Klamath Falls. In hindsight, I would take wind and rain over smoke.

At 4.30 am on Sat 9/18, I rolled in to the start at the Hampton Inn in Redmond. SFR riders Charlie Martin and Jack Holmgren were there, as were Ian Hands and John Ende from North Carolina who had also ridden the Crater Lake 1000k in 2018, and familiar faces from SIR. It was especially great to meet people who were there just to see off the riders. We headed out into a steady drizzle at 5.00 am. Unlike CA, it was warm and quite comfortable to ride in. Riding along Lake Sammamish, my main concern was to watch out for branches and sticks while riding with the group which meant keeping a check on my speed, being in control, and avoiding squirrelly riders. Clouds and rain meant that we wouldn't have a spectacular dawn but rather just gradual daylight. It rained intermittently for the rest of the morning. I personally quite liked this section of the ride as it felt like I had always expected the Pacific Northwest to be -- rainy and very green. We soon split into groups and I found myself riding with three riders from Colorado, including Pascal Ledru who I knew from Cascade 1200 -- he recognized me from my bike; I am not sure exactly what he liked so much about it but he did -- and Ken Moss from Utah (RBA of SLC Randonneurs). This was a really fun group with a host of bad jokes and a steady, sustainable speed. 

We rode through the countryside past huge lakes and on some bike paths that were strewn with branches. The highlight of this part of the ride was in Buckley. Passing through town we rode past a Boy Scouts fundraiser pancake breakfast at the Buckley Hall. Their invitation sounded good in the rain. We got to sit inside on the carpeted floor with hot coffee and "pigs in a blanket". While the other groups chose to ride on, it was the best food we had the whole day and will remain a good memory. We rode into Eatonville, the approach to which I remembered from Cascade 1200. We passed a cafe where Metin, Anson, Michael and myself had stopped. The other riders that had ridden past us in Buckley were stopped at the grocery store. Heading out of Eatonville, I sensed a slow leak in my front tire which was not completely a surprise as we had ridden through some busy roads. Some locals came out of their houses and chatted with us as I fixed my flat near their driveway. At this time, the others caught up to us and we rode together from here on for the rest of the day. I am not sure I have ever ridden with so many people for so long on a ride longer than 300k, or for any distance this year. Past Eatonville, the grade started to pick up as we entered Mt Rainier NP through Elbe, Ashford, and the forested Skate Creek Climb, followed by a fast descent into Packwood.

At Packwood we assembled at the general store. Anything in town was going to take a while. We wanted to keep moving as the winds were picking up and we would now be riding straight into the wind. As we rode towards Randle, the rain picked up quite significantly. It was really pouring and felt like more than the combined rain we've had in CA in the last year. The rain eventually stopped and we rode further westwards on a highway through the towns of Morton and Harmony through rolling hillsides. The bridge over the vast Tilton River was quite amazing as dusk set in. We made another store stop at Salkum after which it got dark.

We were riding past farms at the point, one of which was hosting a party. A live musician called out to the audience, "Give a shout out to the bikers!" as we rode by. The final stop of the day was at a gas station outside Toledo. Past this, the grade picked up significantly. And as if we had not already had enough, we rode into another front which dumped rain on us. The climb at this point got a bit daunting as we approached 400km for the day. The last 20 miles for the day were on a highway along the Columbia River. The river looked impressive and wide in the ambient light of the night. I fell back from the group and it was a bit of a drag on the rollers getting to Cathlamet. The overnight control was a welcome stop and it was nice to see Vinny from SIR. He remembered me from CL 1000k and recalled me having a train to catch. I told him that was the case this time too. We had a quick dinner, and despite my best attempts my shoes did not dry in 4 hrs.

We headed out at 6.00 am the next day, all of us again as a group (minus Ken and the Colorado gang). Hwy 4 had a couple of punchy climbs. It was damp and foggy as the sun rose. We made the detour into Grays River and down to the Covered Bridge. This part of the ride was beautiful, with the landscape and hills against first light and melting fog. Near Nasselle, we made a stop at a gas station as most of us had not eaten a whole lot that early in the morning. We then headed towards the iconic Astoria-Megler bridge as we were welcomed into Oregon with bursts of rain.

Astoria has an interesting historical connection which I had learned about growing up in India. It was the birthplace of the Ghadar revolutionary movement started by railroad workers from the Northern Indian state of Punjab. Inspired by a taste of freedom and socialist ideals, and with the First World War looming, they sought to trigger revolution in their homeland. Their opposition to Gandhian non-violence put them at odds with the Indian National Congress. But it was very influential in Northern India and inspired a whole generation of young people to take a more aggressive, but not necessarily violent, approach compared to the INC which was perceived as more interested in retaining political power. As the ruling party in the decades after, this side of Indian history was downplayed and buried. Although not a part of the official curriculum, my history teacher had made a point to mention them and it had somehow stuck with me. And here I was in Astoria.

We had been slow rolling into town and decided to be more efficient from here on. There was a steady headwind at this point, but the rain was behind us. We rode through the rolling hillsides of the Lewis & Clark NP to rejoin Hwy 101 at Seaside, then made the short climb and descent into Cannon Beach. Opting to be efficient, we again had sandwiches and soup at the store. Past Cannon Beach, Hwy 101 goes along the coastal hills. I fell back from the group as we headed out. Rolling past Leech Lane, I remembered taking a nap on the bench at the beach in 2018. At the top of a certain pitch, I felt my brake hood getting loose. As I stopped to tighten it down, I noticed that my front brakes were stuck in an odd position due to the fenders and the pads contacting the wheel. Having fixed that, I made a fast descent and caught up to the group at the top of the climb at the Nehalem Bay overlook. It was really a spectacular view, looking down into the ocean from the edge of the cliff with Nehalem Beach and the mountains in the distance. The overcast conditions made the water look grayish-blue.

At Nehalem we headed inland making a detour into rolling country backroads on Miami Foley Rd, which dropped us at the mouth of the Tillamook Bay. Although from sea-level, the view of the Tillamook Bay was again spectacular with the overcast sky and hills and the town of Garibaldi on the other side. It got a bit urban and busy heading into Tillamook. We rode past the ice-cream factory and stopped at the Safeway in town. It was starting to get dark as we rode past the Tillamook Air Museum, the setting sun lighting up the distant hills and the rain clouds. Night fell as we rolled into Pacific City. The group made a rather long stop here and Charlie, Mark Thomas and myself opted to ride on.

At this point, my rear wheel started making a squealing sound. I apologized to my co-riders, not wanting to stop, but it started bothering me so I decided to stop and fix it. The wheel wasn't rubbing against anything when spun on its own so likely flex in the wheel was causing that. I tried loosening the rear brakes a couple of times but that didn't help so perhaps it was the fender? To determine that, I disengaged the rear brakes completely and the squealing persisted so it was the fender after all. So I adjusted the fender stays and that fixed it once and for all, which motivated me to catch back up to Charlie and Mark. Riding past Neskowin which was the first overnight control in 2018, the clouds started to part and the moon peeked out. At Depoe Bay (World's Smallest Harbor), the waves were really crashing into the cliffs and you could see the splashes from the road. In the silence of the night it sounded like pure white noise.

The Newport control was staffed by Susan Otcenas who was the organizer of the Cascade 1200. We recalled the Quincy control on Cascades when Metin, Anson, Michael and I had sprinted in while those 30 mins behind us got caught in a freak thunder/hailstorm and had to shelter. (The next time you meet Anson, ask him about the greatest sprint contest in history involving Ken Bonner... and who won). Five hours later we were back on the road. The sky had cleared up considerably. Couple of flats later (not me), we enjoyed the first sit-down meal of the ride at a cafe in Waldport. The locals were super friendly. An older lady walked up to me and asked what a Gran Fondo means. She then showed me a message from her daughter which showed she placed second in her age group, and asked what that meant.

The ride down the coast from there on was superb. The sun peeking out through the melting fog and low-lying mist against the jagged coastline made for some excellent photos. We jokingly wished we had picked at least a scenic place to ride. Moods were good, and I was dropped again. The stretch after Florence got a bit dull as we moved away from the coast. From here on, we would be riding by the ocean but would no longer see it. I couldn't find the group at Florence, so I got a drink at a Safeway and continued on toward Reedsport.

Just outside town I saw Ken who I had not seen at all the day before. He had been super efficient though, making limited stops. We rode into Reedsport, crossing the wide Umpqua River just before it drained into the Pacific. Having had enough grocery store food, we opted for fish & chips at a roadside truck called Little Country Kitchen. Not the quickest, but it hit the spot. At Reedsport we turned inland heading east along the Umpqua River. It was really beautiful against the afternoon sun and low, forested hills rising up dramatically on either side. Shortly after we made a turn into forest roads and eventually the Camp Creek climb. The forest closed in and the late afternoon sun filtering through made for a nice climb, although there were no views. I had done the climb at night the last time. At the top we were greeted by Ken Lanteine who was there despite it being his birthday. The descent on a BLM road was steep and some stretches seemed quite outworldly and spectacular as dusk set it. Night fell as we made our way towards Roseburg on the I-5. There was a heated discussion topic on this stretch that drew some passionate responses. The 20 miles along OR-138 to Glide from Roseburg felt like a drag, but it was good to do it at the end of the leg rather than the wee hours of dawn. We were greeted by Rose, the new SIR RBA, and Greg.

The next leg started at 4.30 for me. Charlie had informed me that he wished to leave at 4.00 and do his own thing; we both had to catch the Amtrak but he had additional logistics to figure out. We also separated from the rest of the group. Having left the junk miles behind, OR-138 now entered the Western Cascades. The mountains closed in and got bigger, the road became twisty and rolling, and the North Umpqua River was gushing over rocks like a mountain stream and not a gently flowing river. The bare hillsides rising up from the edge of the river looked quite dramatic at some places. I remembered the town of Steamboat and the creek from the 2018 ride.

Shortly after, at mile marker 50, the road crossed over the N Umpqua River and the grade started to kick up. The road gradually climbed up and away from the river although you could still hear the water gushing quite rapidly in the canyon below. Although there was nothing specific to look at, with trees on either side, there was a strange sense of calm and serenity as you gained altitude. My memory from 2018 of this leg was being jaded, and wishing there was something more engaging than just looking at the road and the trees. Some of it had to do with the cumulative fatigue and challenges from a night start which were taking a toll. I was also starting to feel sick (in 2018, not this time... no, just no... I was not showing any symptoms... none at all...). But this time things had mostly gone as per plan, I had ridden more consistently and was less fatigued, and I had gotten a decent amount of sleep. The elevation increased steadily and there were signs marking the elevation at every 1000 ft. I was surprised to get to 4000 ft a bit sooner than expected, or at least it did not feel like a slog. At one point Rose and Greg passed me and called out from the car.

There was one issue though -- heading out at 4.30 meant that I had not eaten much heading out of Glide -- maybe a muffin and a bar -- and was carrying one half of a leftover sandwich + bars. But I really was craving hot food and starting to feel a bit low on energy. So I stopped to eat but really could have done with hot clam chowder. Ian Hands and John Nguyen passed by at this point. The stretch from 4000 ft till 5000 ft started to drag as the grade eased (climber's nightmare). But the scenery was spectacular. The dense forest cover at lower elevations gradually gave way to more sparse pine trees and conifers that you could see through to a distance. Instead of looking into a hillside, you could now see stretches of forest on red volcanic soil, and even Mt Bailey and Mt Thielsen capped in snow. Skeletons of burned trees were evidence of recent fires. Weather-wise we had definitely lucked out. Temps were comfortable (felt like 60's) and it was a clear day with absolutely no smoke. It really felt like you were up in the mountains, and hard to believe that just the previous day we were riding by the coast.

Diamond Lake was a welcome stop. Rose and Greg were parked there and had some drinks and snacks, but I chose to eat real food at the lodge. Service was pretty fast and it felt like a mountain cabin with the wooden interiors and a view of the lake and the distant peaks. Ian Hands and Mark Thomas were outside by the time I was heading out. They were waiting for the rest of the group. I had a train to catch and had to head on with still another 3000 ft till Crater Lake, even though I was making pretty good time.

Saying goodbye to the two, I made the slow trudge as the grade really kicked up now. The landscape gave the impression of a false flat as you could see an expanse of forest on either side but the grade was in the upper single-digits. Eventually I made the right to the Crater Lake NP entrance where I encountered John. You could really see the tree cover thinning out now, eventually giving way to a vast open barren meadow dotted with Christmas trees, as the ground was mostly solid volcanic rock with a thin layer of soil that did not allow trees to grow very tall. There was even snow on the sides of the road. You could eventually see the rim which served as motivation for the last big push. In 2018 when I was here last was also my first time and it had felt Martian, with the deep blue water of Crater Lake suddenly revealing itself. I knew what to expect this time, but the sight still remains surreal. This description from the SIR page is befitting -- "It’s challenging, but no journey to such a sacred place should be without challenge. Crater Lake is a magical, wondrous place. Getting there by bike puts you in the right frame of mind to really appreciate it."

At the rim, I talked to another cyclist who was doing the rim loop. She wanted to know if I rode from SF. Rather than spill out my randonneuring resume and then answer questions about sleep, food, what is randonneuring, etc, etc, and make it all about memememe, I threw out a modest distance and called it, "a multi-day supported ride with some friends". She was a native of MI living in Orlando, FL so this was probably extremely challenging terrain. We rode up to the rim where Rose and Greg were again waiting. It was the first time I really got to talk to them. It felt euphoric knowing that the hard parts of the ride, and especially having reached the place that the ride was all about, were done. Instant randonnesia, when you realize it was all well worth it.

I decided to head out when reminded it was already 3.00pm (and the train was to leave at 10.00). The 20-mile descent from Crater Lake on the eastern side of the Cascades was fast and absolutely stunning in the late afternoon light. I was feeling "stoked". At Ft Klamath the conifers gave way to vast open, flat meadows at 4500 ft elevation dotted with black, volcanic rocks and small hills in the distance. The change in landscape was dramatic and quite sudden. I kept a steady speed, wanting to make it back before or not long after sunset, but it was slightly faster than I ideally would have wanted. Crater Lake Hwy went on to Klamath Agency and eventually dropped me at Modoc Point Rd. Soon after the Agency Lake was on my left, looking stunning against the high altitude, dry landscape and the setting sun. At Modoc Point the even bigger Upper Klamath Lake revealed itself. My feet were starting to hurt from pushing hard on the pedals and I decided to take a break and appreciate the view. John passed by at this point, checking to see if I was okay.

A short stretch on Hwy and a turn into Algoma Rd brought me to Old Fort Road. This comes as a rude awakening for those who think they are done with the ride. The initially smooth dirt road eventually turns into washboard, requiring the rider to find a line. Riding this stretch in the dark can be challenging. If you take your mind away from the road and look around, it squeezes between two small, parallel ranges. Riding at the base of these hills, you can really appreciate the geology and the terrain. The end of the dirt road brings temporary relief as the grade kicks up on pavement. At the top, I was treated to a spectacular sunset view of Klamath Falls and the surrounding mountains. It was a fast descent into town and on to the Olympic Hotel.

I was greeted again by Rose and Greg, happy to have finished with about 2.5 hrs of buffer before the train. Charlie was figuring out logistics of packing some new bike stuff he had acquired. John let me shower in his room. I met a couple of the CO riders and was hoping to see the rest of the riders finish, but that was not to happen as it was time for the train.

I had a bite to eat on the train and was soon knocked out. The next thing I knew was waking up near Davis. Rather than taking the train to San Jose, I got off at Emeryville and took BART back as there are often delays on that stretch, followed by a ride back home through San Jose and being struck by the familiar following four days of spectacularly epic riding.

Although the Cascades 1200 is often billed as "the" SIR ride, I think this ride is really the best they have to offer and I can't recommend it enough. If it works out, I would definitely do it again, and again.

Thanks for reading.
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