Touring Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. (the RSVP), Washington and British Colombia

17-18 August 2007 (183 miles)


Okay, so I registered for this in January, which means that my jersey number should be like 1 or 3 or 7. But it isn't - #455 I will be, and so it says on the competitor's bid which is the latest proof-of-purchase receipt from my previous year's decision to ride all six of the Seattle area signature events ASAP after purchasing my new road bike. They are as follows: the STP (Seattle-Portland, 200 miles, done prior year), the RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier (in) One Day, the beast of the pack with 150+ miles and 10,000 vertical in one day although this year the road around Mt. Rainier isn't completely open), the RSVP (183 miles), the Chilly Hilly (a loop of Bainbridge Island, 33 miles long, which I did two years before as an event and then essentially repeated on my recent Bainbridge trip), the Flying Wheels (100 miles, covering the Snoqualmie Valley, "poached" recently), and the RAPSody (done last year, 165 miles looping around lower Puget Sound).

This event starts inauspiciously enough. I actually manage to arise sans alarm, at all of about 5a.m., then load up the bike and head over to my sis's house. Her abode is not so far away from the start line. I dress on the street in front of her house - no one's about - and then roll over the vacant streets toward the start line. It's only a mile away from her house at best, so there's no great suffering in my riding with a good-sized, strapped-on backpack to whine about. I pass a number of other riders on my way over as numerous cars with bikes on them zoom past me, too. These cumulatively have the effect of building a small but noticeable amount of hype in the air: Who the hell else is up at this hour, and getting ready to ride 100 miles toward Canada at that?

At the start area, there's the usual launching point zoo. There's the handful of booths with a little bit of swag, but they're nothing to write home about this time (unlike the STP): There's not even any food! A DJ is yammering away at the start line, with loud rock music in the background, apparently trying to give the event a race-like quality which doesn't exactly fit for what can be better termed an endurance event. No, there's not much of worthy distraction for me to do outside of dumping my backpack into the appropriate truck bound for Bellingham - which I do just before joining the long line-up for the final "pre-game" pee.

I bump into a friend in the process, the same one who initially made me aware of this event a couple of years prior. He offers me to join his group in a loose pace line. This sounds tempting, but they're slow in gathering. So I choose to head out on my own when I'm ready... like now. He's told me that he's with a slow group this time around, anyway, so I know that I'll be able to catch up with him at any time should I take a long break. I could use such a time to catch up on any old office gossip, at least: We used to work together, but I've lost touch with that entire scene.

Eventually I take my spot among the herds heading out along the Burke-Gilman trail to get out of Seattle. Almost immediately, I see two bikes lock together and perform a spectacular wipe out, but it's one that seems to be of great magnitude that somehow keeps the carnage to a minimum. I've heard that the RSVP has some 1300 riders (versus the 10,000 or so on the STP). Thus, while it's still a big event, it doesn't seem to have the absolute insanity involved with its larger, sister event. Additionally, the group of riders doing the RSVP strike me as generally more seasoned and capable (that collision notwithstanding). That stands in stark comparison to the STP, which attracts apparently everyone, everyone's brother, plus the crazy aunt in the attic - who are all riding on every imaginable kind of bike, in every imaginable shape to boot. The RSVP has no such variety, however, just an "even-ish" field. It's just a bunch of us going... moo-oo-oo-oo-oo!

The RSVP is hillier than the STP, too, but in general I never find this to get out of hand. There are a couple of food stops each day after miles 40 and 70 or so, places where one can stuff oneself silly on bagels with peanut butter and jelly (where's the cream cheese, anyway?), fresh fruit, and any number of cracker-cookie snacks. Mainly these are good places to rest for 15-20 minutes, stretch, get some energy into your system, pee, then see what kinda powerbar-ish items were being promoted freely to score for future rides. I'm nothing if not opportunistic. Hell, if one has the will and capacity, the power bars alone could pay for the entry fee!

In the case of the fruit, I'm very pleasantly surprised: the organizers have outdone themselves with fresh melons and whatnot that are properly ripe. This is a usual peeve of mine of no small order happily negated. (I don't get eating fruit that is not fully ripe.) Energy bar-wise, I mainly find packets of "goo" - not one of my favorite energy sources. At least these are of new flavors that seem palatable (mocha, cappuchino, etc.), but I'll have to find out later how well I had actually score in that freebie department (by how much I want to throw up after eating them.)

Day 1 of the ride turns into quite a luck-out situation: tail winds blow strongly over a good amount of the exposed section of the ride. With just over 100 miles scheduled for the day, this'll turn out to be the easiest century I ever complete. The weather is perfect, nothing but blue skies and a random cloud, nary a scorching t'at all. Whenever rain threatens at brief moments, it never makes good on its promise.

I just follow the crowds, slowly and steadily passing most people by. At times I end up in a loose pace line of 4-6 riders, easily adding an effortless 5+ mph to my speed. While a member of the pace line, one hand-signals the things observed as troublesome (like broken glass or loose rubble) down the line of riders behind you, but basically it's an autopilot experience unless something really untoward happens. Then you're likely screwed, of course, especially since bikes have a way of tangling themselves rather well and completely. In a peloton of newfound "friends", you take your chances.

There IS one interesting moment when the painted navigational signs on the road - the "dan henrys" (where does that name come from?) - disappear right about where we are to cross I-5. This is right where we are to begin to head more directly toward the coast for the day's final (long) approach to Bellingham. A group of twenty or so of us make a right turn on a guess, but only I stop very quickly thereafter and question the move. Soon a couple of others pull up alongside me in confusion, whereupon I consult my map. I decide, and they agree, to double back and head over I-5 - which turns out to be the right thing to do. As of this writing, I surmise that the wayward twenty I had previously been with are perhaps still on their way to Canada... or Mexico. Snooze you lose. But WE are going to Bellingham!

Next, as I travel amongst the whiffs of sweet manure (somehow that best describes it) and mosey across the fields north of Mt. Vernon and Burlington, I catch up with a woman riding with a couple of her girlfriends. I have a long chat about music with her, always a favorite topic of mine. Turns out that she's a graduate student in voice performance at Dartmouth who originally hails from Seattle, home for the summer. We jabber quite a bit about fudging through musical mistakes and performing, always good music topics.

Surprisingly, she has just written a five-trumpet piece that she avers is somewhat orchestral. "Wha--?", I think. As I next fumble for our wedding rings, plus the words to pledge our eternal devotion to her, her friends decide to make a pit stop at a lonely gas station. Naturally she does this too in turn, joining them. But I, eternally foolish, decide to go on my way, figuring serendipity will achieve the rest of our eternal union. Wrong-o! - I never see her again.

At this point I'm finally headed into the hills along the coast south of Bellingham, on Chuckanut Drive. It's a beautiful section of road, replete with nice overlooks of the Bay and Sound. I make a mental note of perhaps cycle-camping there one day in the park that lies along the road. Although these are the "major" hills of the ride, they really are nothing too crazy to deal with. I've long come to the point that I don't waste words complaining about hills. They're just part of the accepted equation of bike riding, part of the challenge AND the fun. Besides, there's always the succeeding downhill to relish - most of the time, anyway. So life is good, I roll into Bellingham, and a shower is in order, evidently. P, meet U - like NOW!

I've elected to stay at a dormitory of Western Washington University, so off to Buchanon Towers I head to get my room assignment. I'm one of the first to arrive, it seems, so I have to work diligently to find my backpack among the mountain of gear dumped off in the dorm's lobby. My roommate - we each have separate rooms off of a common area between them - is also one of the early arrivals. A nice enough guy in his 50s, we chat about the ride and the ease of it so far. Ultimately he asks about my plans in Vancouver, whereupon I state that I plan to take the bus back almost as soon as I arrive. He notes, in fortunately correcting me, that the bus doesn't arrive actually until the following day. PANIC!

This sets in motion a decision-making process with no easy answers to be readily obtained. My house in Seattle is now supposed to have guests in it, a couple arriving there around the time I'm arriving in Bellingham (a couple of hippies, they naturally have a booth to sell items at Hempfest). I of course want to visit with them as soon as possible - tomorrow night's the plan - but I'm also supposed to head out for cycle camping in the San Juans the following morning after Vancouver as well. Oops. So here's a new mess: where can I get accommodation in Vancouver on short notice, on a Saturday night at the height of tourist season? And at what price? Yuck!

I scramble to call a few friends for Vancouver hostel/hotel info, then I try to get in contact with some Vancouver acquaintances (who are outta town, as it happens). Sigh. Next I call a handful of hotels and hostels near Vancouver's downtown. No luck on any of these scores, so I finally just decide to try and head back to Seattle somehow the following day from Bellingham. This will waste my paid-for return trip from Vancouver (including bike transport)... then again, I could just go on to Vancouver and see what happens. Ultimately, having gone this far, I decide to let serendipity take its course. I'll go on. Surely this will work out better than my thwarted eternal union with the trumpet-composing girl.

Defeated, but at least decided, I grab a local bus to head into sleepy Bellingham's downtown for the afternoon and evening. I decide to make my way about on foot. I also read from my two books - Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster and Cervantes's Don Quixote (near the end!) - at cafes, eventually chowing down at some kinda Japanese place. I also try to find an old cafe I remember without any luck (the Black Cat), at least getting a nice ramble about downtown in the process.

Bellingham in 2007 is a curious mix of new money and swanky developments amidst an industrial past that seems like it's working. But it's really hard to make out which force will prove the stronger in the end: Will the new money peter out, letting the gloomy-yet-romantic, sleepy fog return to recapture Bellingham? Or will Bellingham go the way of becoming a smaller Seattle to the north? One thing that won't change will be its beautiful setting on the Bay and at the foot of Mt. Baker. It'll also always have its well-regarded and beloved (to all associated with it, it seems) school, WWU.

But the next morning means that it's time to leave any musings on Bellingham behind. The rolling starts pleasantly and, with a shorter Day Two ride in store (~80 miles) that includes fewer hills, the cycling should prove a breeze. We quickly make our way to the Canadian border through the quaint Dutch-American town of Lynde(n), then lope alongside the U.S.-Canada border for a stretch with only a ditch preventing entry. Can it really be that easy to cross?, we all wonder.

Finally we reach the small border crossing plaza. Fortunately the crossing itself proves mercifully perfunctory and quick. Two guards take us cyclists through some closed car lanes, a nice arrangement. This entry point also doesn't generally take buses or trucks, so its sleepy nature was likely taken into account by the event organizers. Following the crossing, it's only another five miles to the first rest stop of the day. It sits adjacent to a farmer's market in the heart of a small town so memorable I immediately forget its name.

Then it's on to the ferry crossing at Albion, just after passing through the restored tourist town of Fort Langley. Our great cluster of bikes seem to be allowed to take precedence for a while over the car traffic that's slowly building in tourist season, but the small ferry efficiently shuttles a couple hundred bikers at a time along (including a handful of cars each time, too). It's only a 10-15 minute crossing, anyway, one that chiefly consists of gunning the motor once and then guiding the drift of the barge. I guess that the waiting motorists really don't care much with such a quick service. For us cyclists, moreover, this is a picturesque reprieve and a forced rest off of the saddle - So no one's complaining all around, I'm thinking. (Surprisingly, I'm not suffering any real saddle soreness on this ride, something in great contrast to the previous year's STP. All of the summer's riding prior to the event has its payoff.)

Getting off the ferry, a cyclist waiting for the stoplight to change falls with her bike over into the oncoming lane, probably thinking too late to clip out upon stopping. This causes a tense moment as an oncoming car slams on his brakes to avoid her - which he only barely does. That scare aside, the bikes resume the ride en masse, thinning out quickly from the cluster that's been forcibly formed from the ferry's release of us charges. We all start going much faster now as I shortly join a particular pace line on and off that seems to pass everything in sight. The mileage accrues quickly as a consequence. Obviously we're beginning to smell the finish line, a buncha horses looking for a stable.

Soon we start to approach the outskirts of Vancouver; There's more jostling as people are perhaps getting impatient. One woman - whose number is 0, so I assume that she's probably one of the event's organizers or something - even cusses me out for passing her on the right side from a stop sign start after a bunch of us had clustered. Huh-wha? Considering she was in the middle of the road, wobbling to start out of the stop, and I'm several spacious feet over from her, she really doesn't have much to work with for a beef. Maybe she's embarrassed; Maybe she's just anal.

Moments later she swears at me again, this time for having an iPod that I'm wearing. That it's not even turned on at the time is a point I'm not interesting in even making. Having enough of her... frivolity, I decide it's time to tell her crudely to "achieve intercourse" in a manner opposite to "on" before kicking into gear to dust her nonsense. Life is just too short to deal with the anal retentives. At least the ones that aren't of my brand - I'm on the star-bellied team!

For the roughly final 20-30 miles we continue meandering through the suburbs of Vancouver before entering the city's core. We kind of form a loose pack of 20-30 riders that alternately speed forward before sliding back with traffic at times. Views of mountains come and go before the skyscrapers of Vancouver itself ultimately wheel into sight. What to say about Vancouver from the seat of bicycle that's not been said by every other tourist? It's a stunningly beautiful city, rivaling and perhaps besting Seattle in any number of aspects. Although there is comparatively a bit less on the preserved historical side, it has possibly a nicer setting and is certainly more cosmopolitan-feeling.

As to our course, the final miles consist of rambling through Chinatown, the Gaslight District, then into Downtown proper near Stanley Park. This is a grand entry to end on, indeed. We raise the eyebrows of pedestrians making their way shopping, probably giving each of us riders the thought that we've accomplished something greater than a relatively well-supported ride - not that WE are going to say anything, however. We nonchalantly pick up our pace for a more heroic impression.

Finally we finish up our journey at the downtown Coastal Suites Hotel, where a sort of party is just getting started. I store my bike for retrieval the next morning, then have some food and a beer before considering what to do next. I'm not in a social mood after so many miles, true, but it's mainly that, for all the pleasantness of the event, I don't feel much of an affinity for my co-riders (outside of my lost bride-to-be-but-not composer). Almost all are weekend warriors who relish the clockwork organization of such an event, a community of like-minded (and I'm tempted to say anal) riders.

Me, I guess I'm too much the loner who likes to meet the other random loners and misfits. The ones who like to speak other languages, do things on the cheap, and be away from the crowds. Thus it is in spite of all the truly good work put into the event that I had decide that this will be my last such outing. It's not for my tastes, frankly, although I'm glad to have done it. RAMROD, the lone remaining event of interest to me, I resolve to do on my own.

But that doesn't resolve the problem of what to do for the night. Fortunately, the Coastal Suites concierge gives me an empty manager's office to work from - and a visitor's sheet with every hotel in the downtown Vancouver area. Starting first with the hostels again, I quickly grab the second-to-last bed at a hostel twenty minutes from downtown I previously hadn't heard of. It's reachable by bus and located at Jericho Beach, over by the University of British Columbia. Score! At C$27, I'll also be spending much less than I was prepared to surrender for accommodations - so I naturally decide to blow some extra bucks on food and beer to celebrate.

First, however, there's the business of a shower I can take in the hotel, supposedly located somewhere in its bowels. On that account, I'm also quite fortunate: heat has just come back into its pipes after some malfunction. A freezing shower (as others have just taken) would have way sucked the life out of my recent sea change of hostel availability. Plus I've been counting on it for some time after coming so many miles in one day. I've indeed lucked out, and then I'm soon off and about downtown Vancouver with both my bed and cleanliness settled.

I next spent a number of hours making my way down the waterfront to the east, stopping for turkish coffee, some pastry, then more coffee. Life's good. I again find myself in the Gaslight district, where in succession I get propositioned for prostitution, to "get high on the rock," and then even take in the dubious-if-unwitting show of a woman wearing a inch-wide mesh tanktop that leaves little to the imagination as she laughs maniacally. Yikes! Ah, Gastown! Last time in the area for me was several years prior - when I saw oil barrels on fire and heroin addicts shooting up on its outskirts.

Chinatown is actually my destination in starting this little walkabout, but upon arriving there I'm instantly reminded that in Vancouver Chinatown means... Chinatown. This is no big deal, of course, but I'm bummed that no other Asian ethnicities are represented in the area. This is the opposite case of Seattle, which calls its formerly-named Chinatown the International District. It's not that, either - it only represents the Far East - but there is a better variety of food to be found.

Nevertheless, in Vancouver there IS at least a good-sized Chinese Garden (for Sun Yat Sen). This is always a plus in my book since, not coincidentally, it's also a good place for reading books. Soon I'm reminded that I'm not really thinking about gardens - no, I'm thinking about grub instead. I've been wanting some Vietnamese food in a bad way, but quickly and I learn to settle after some luckless hunting. Instead I'll make do with some incredibly cheap - but good! - Japanese food back in the downtown proper, near one of the full hostels that I had called just hours earlier as it turns out. Tellingly, for several blocks around that hostel there are umpteen pizza joints. Each is obviously trying to hone in on the international youth hostel clientele's typical age - and less-than-expansive culinary interest.

Finally stuffed and getting tired, I catch the bus to UBC and make my way to the hostel. At this pristine (enough) facility that was perhaps previously a military installation, I find almost no one around. Well, I said I was a loner, so... so I amble over by my lonesome to check out the rapidly-declining sunset at the beach. There I decide to have that foretold beer or two at the tiny marina. I enjoy the overlook of the beach, the bay, and even the mountains across the way. Not shabby, and what a beautiful and relaxing way to end the day, I tell myself in self-congratulations. The sun soon vanishes along with my beers, however, so I make my way back to the still rather empty hostel to drop off to sleep.

Getting up early in the morning, I note that the hostel has indeed filled up to capacity as originally stated. In fact, every bunk of the twenty or so in my room has quietly been filled somehow. I guess I really slept well! Silently I collect my things, retrace my steps back to the main road, then wait in the morning dew's serenity along a deserted 4th Avenue. I catch the virtually empty bus to return to downtown.

At the hotel, a bucolic calm is steadily shaking itself to a burgeoning chaos as cyclists begin appearing from all directions. In view of this, I quickly reclaim my bike. Then I wait in the haphazardly growing snake lines of cyclists, all with like minds to settle matters of transport quickly. I rid myself of my cycle burden by putting it on its truck. Relieved of that responsibility, all that remains is to eat and drink coffee while waiting for the bus. This I can do with relish and, thinking ahead of the long bus ride, I perhaps unwisely eat twice my weight in Greek quiche, veggie burrito and cups of coffee. I guess I'm still exultant in having found such a cheap bed on the fly from the previous night. Starvation is effectively ruled out for the rest of the day (or week) in the process.

Rejoining the new lines that are forming for boarding the passenger buses, I notice that almost the same order from the previous bike-truck lines has been preserved. What creatures of similar habit we are indeed. This makes for some more food for thought - which isn't a good thought, actually: I've already stuffed myself silly. Finally getting onboard, the return trip is digestively uneventful, thankfully, even if we do waste a couple of hours at the border. We even switch our actual crossing after being in line at one border control for a while and not moving. Cross the border we eventually do, however, and upon eventually getting back to Seattle, I reclaim my bike before once again riding back to my sis's. After one night of rest I'll be back on my (other) cycle again: It's time to be off to the San Juan Islands for some cycle camping!

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