How much creativity does it take to ride your bike one hundred and fifty-four miles up and around Mount Rainier? Just think of the stories you have to tell yourself to make it all the way. There are reasons why regular people mutate into dedicated...

How much creativity does it take to ride your bike one hundred and fifty-four miles up and around Mount Rainier? Just think of the stories you have to tell yourself to make it all the way.

There are reasons why regular people mutate into dedicated cyclists. Often, as Lance Armstrong asserted in his memoir, it’s not about the bike. First reason: It’s fun. And it’s green: “Converting calories into gas, a bicycle gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon,” notes cycling book author Bill Strickland. It’s creative: “I thought of that while riding my bike,” said Albert Einstein, on developing the theory of relativity. And it’s so damn healthy: hammering the pavement pumps oxygen-rich blood through the body.

Still, it takes a spiked determination to ratchet up to RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary as this issue of City Arts goes to press, RAMROD is aone-hundred-and-fifty-four-mile mountain challenge with a lung-exploding ten thousand feet of climbing.

The course begins in Enumclaw (elevation 740 feet) and enters Mount Rainier National Park at the Nisqually entrance, fifty-nine miles into the ride. Of its three major climbs, the most punishing — the final nine-mile ascent to Cayuse Pass (elevation 4,720 feet) — starts at mile one hundred, after riders have already climbed seven thousand feet for the day. The remaining forty-plus miles are mostly downhill, but (as if nature were intentionally adding insult to injury) an afternoon headwind usually meets riders as they head back to Enumclaw. Nature, in fact, takes a hand in the layout of each year’s course: Sunrise and Crystal Mountain appeared on last year’s map after severe flooding forced rerouting.

RAMROD is not a race. Each year the event draws riders of every stripe who are covetously eager to don the official jersey. These include recreationists, testosterone monkeys, club riders, weekend-warrior moms, triathletes and others.

Bob Myrick, for example, is a retired quality-control manager at Tacoma City Water. A seven-time finisher, Myrick, 64, has a wiry build. He evinces no guilt as he downs a Frisbee-sized cinnamon roll over coffee. RAMROD, he says, has both celebratory and unpredictable sides: his kaleidoscopic memories include muscle-searing climbs in July heat, Kodak-moment sightings of roadside deer and black bear, and bone-chilling descents in snow and deadly fog.

“You think something’s wrong with your bike because it’s shaking,” he recalls. “But it’s your hands shaking because you’re so cold and you can’t control the bike.”

RAMROD is so popular these days that the host organization, the Redmond Cycling Club (not based in Redmond, but never mind), holds an annual lottery for the eight hundred slots allowed by the National Park Service. More than three thousand hopefuls entered the lottery this year; the field averages about 86 percent men to 14 percent women. Riders have traveled from as far as Europe, Australia and China to participate; in 2004, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond paid a visit. 

Undeniably, part of RAMROD’s attraction is that, rugged alpine ascents notwithstanding, this event presents a realistic goal for a surprising number of physically fit recreational riders. Veterans of two popular Northwest rides, STP (Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic: 200 miles, 9,500 riders) and RSVP (Ride Seattle to Vancouver and Party: 186 miles, 1,200 riders), often view it as a logical step up. But while the goal is (somewhat) easy to conceive of physically, psychologically it can be about as likely as Jimmy Olsen aspiring to be Superman.

RAMROD is neither flat, like STP, nor moderately rolling, like RSVP.  From the start line at Enumclaw High School, the course descends to Orting before gradually ascending to Mount Rainier National Park through the towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford, where, if riders were there to enjoy the scenery, they would notice a rustic sculpture garden and Whittaker’s Bunkhouse, a popular lodge for climbers. 

The first major climb is from Longmire to Inspiration Point (elevation 4,850 feet). It’s a twelve-mile haul ending just short of the Paradise visitors’ center, followed by a twelve-mile drop into Stevens Canyon. A strenuous three-mile effort to Backbone Ridge (elevation 3,400 feet) is rewarded with a thrilling five-mile downhill to the Grove of the Patriarchs, a virgin old-growth forest of Douglas firs, red hemlocks and western cedars.

The final assault of the day is that nine-mile ascent to Cayuse Pass. “The best climbers do not suffer less,” said Olympic gold medal champion cyclist Chris Boardman, “they just suffer faster.” Where strong riders may have danced on the pedals during early climbs, Cayuse tests even the most ripped.

“Riders often feel sick climbing Cayuse on a hot afternoon,” says RAMROD vet Duane Wright. “There isn’t much shade and there’s lots of south-facing rock to radiate heat back onto the cyclist.”

For some, high-speed descending is even more treacherous than climbing; velocity can reach fifty miles per hour on Rainier’s downhills, or even up to sixty miles per hour if you’re on a tandem cycle. Tunnels, grates and loose gravel are a few road hazards. RAMROD director George Thornton calls the descent from Backbone Ridge “deceptively dangerous,” with winding curves that change from bright sunlight to forest shade. “There is opposing vehicle traffic on this road that can appear suddenly and there is often rock fall damage,” he says. Cyclists must maintain superb control, constantly looking ahead and carving turns in much the same way downhill skiers do.

RAMROD is not a timed event; Redmond Cycling Club stopped clocking finishers in 1999 after the Park Service raised safety concerns. But between the five a.m. start and the close at eight p.m., riders must attain a series of timed checkpoints or be “swept” off the course by “sag wagons” — support vehicles that provide a lift, first aid or mechanical support (the original French term is voiture balai, or “broom wagon”). Though few and far between, volunteer-manned checkpoints are happy oases where riders lay down their bikes, compare notes, are fed and watered and run to the Port-O-Potty. Medics are on hand to administer IVs to the seriously dehydrated.

The first RAMROD was in 1985 and had fifty-two starters. Legendary performances abound, like that of gonzo cyclist Dan Wood, who rode the course in clunky hiking boots on a single-speed bike with platform pedals. The fastest time in RAMROD history was an astonishing six hours, fifty-seven minutes, established in 1991 by two individual riders, Mike Koczarski and Brian Ecker.

Some riders impose training regimens on themselves as challenging as the course around the mountain. “I have learned not to have relationships with GUs,” says Wright. He’s describing potential romantic partners who are “geographically undesirable.” “They can only be maintained on the weekends, and weekends are when a lot of riding occurs.”  Carrie Tellefson, a Gig Harbor lawyer and mother who did her second RAMROD this year, trains by squeezing five a.m. rides into her schedule and, ideally, one long ride on the weekend. Attitude is important: “I don’t do it for record time,” she says, “I do it for fun.”

“Some people set RAMROD as a yearlong goal for athletic endeavor,” says Kent Wienker, former president of the Tacoma Wheelmen’s Bicycle Club. Accordingly, riders with three-thousand-dollar bikes, ironclad nutritional plans worthy of Lance Armstrong and geeky wireless cycle computers that record on-road stats for later uploading onto a spreadsheet are not uncommon. Nonetheless, Wienker advises first-timers: “Don’t be afraid. Just let it happen.”

RAMROD is not for every cyclist. Laid-back riders can have a taste of RAMROD glory via WIMPROD, a fully supported, two-day version of the ride that is Redmond Cycling Club’s gift to event volunteers. Either way, it’s not too early to cultivate your inner cycle marathoner for 2009: Just get on the bike and ride.