The clerk at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center shook his head as I slid $3 across the counter to pay for an overpriced sticker to commemorate the occasion.
“You’re crazy,” he said, a hint of a smile forming on his face. “I think all you guys are crazy.”
Any cyclist brave enough to venture out in public wearing only a thin layer of spandex is used to being the target of bemused looks and a wide range of insults.
But it’s different at Hurricane Ridge, 5,242 feet above sea level. Here, the stares, head shakes and insults have an air of respect behind them.
“What are you guys thinking?” a man asked as some friends and I refilled our water bottles. “That doesn’t even look like fun.”
Maybe we would have agreed 45 minutes earlier when our legs were aching, our lungs were straining and our speedometers were taunting us with tiny numbers like 9 mph.
But not here. Here, we felt like we were on top of the world. The Olympic panorama seemed even more beautiful than it did the day before when we effortlessly drove up while drinking milkshakes.
On this day, however, it’s evident why this 40-mile round trip from Port Angeles is considered one of Washington’s classic bike rides.
Plus, our reward was more than great views and respectful insults. It might have taken nearly 21/2 hours and a gallon of sweat to get here, but getting back can take less than 40 minutes.
And on the way down, pedaling is optional.
“Hardest ride I’ve ever had on the way up,” Dirk Pettitt of Puyallup said. “Easiest ride I’ve ever had on the way down.”
OLD MAN AND THE HILL
Three Puyallup cyclists and I had different thoughts about taking on this ride as we looked up at the Olympics from the Port Angeles waterfront on the morning of July 25.
Pettitt was a little nervous about climbing nearly a vertical mile. I was excited about the climb, but a little worried about the descent. Rick Beitelspacher hates climbing and his presence was clearly the result of peer pressure.
“I’d much rather go to the dentist and have a root canal, or maybe a rectal examination,” he said.
But Russ Meyers, a 5,000-mile-per-year cycling nut, was almost giddy for the chance to bag a climb he’d been dreaming about for five years.
On a family trip to Olympic National Park, he saw an old man pedaling a single-speed bike with a basket up to Hurricane Ridge.
The image inspired Meyers. “It’s been on my bucket list ever since.”
The first part of any Hurricane Ridge ascent is deciding where to start.
While Beitelspacher suggested we start at the edge of the upper parking lot, for a climb of about 3 feet, I checked around to see what the locals do.
Many riders start at the park’s Heart O’the Hills entrance station, for a 12-mile climb up nearly 4,000 feet. This, however, cuts off the ride’s steepest five miles.
Starting lower is a point of pride for some cyclists.
“I’m a purist,” said Andy Stevenson, a local rider who, at 63, climbs Hurricane Ridge at least once a year to see if he can still do it. “If you really want to say you did the full monty, you need to take off from the park visitor center in town.”
In his 2012 book, “75 Classic Rides: Washington,” author Mike McQuaide suggests starting another 1.2 miles down the rode at Civic Field — just 140 feet above sea level — for “the longest sustained climb in the state.”
The annual Ride the Hurricane event in early August lets cyclists choose between starting at the park entrance or Peninsula College (a few feet higher than Civic Field).
“It’s hard no matter where you start, but I suppose if you really want to do it all,” Stevenson said, “you could start down on the city pier. Sea level.”
So, on a sunny but slightly windy morning that’s exactly what we did.
There’s a benefit to shoving off from the end of the pier. Rolling across the wood planks for about 600 feet is just about the only flat section you’ll find on this ride.
However, looking up at the snow-capped Olympics from here is daunting.
Stevenson compares the ride to Alpe d’Huez, the famously grueling bike climb used regularly in the Tour de France. Except Hurricane Ridge is 7 miles longer and climbs almost 1,500 more feet.
The road is smooth but sometimes narrow and traveled regularly by cars and RVs. While the park doesn’t keep track of how many cyclist attempt the ride, park spokeswoman Barb Maynes says there have been “about three or four (bicycle related accidents on the road) in the past four years.”
Maynes recommends starting early to beat the crowds and the heat. The final three miles offer almost no shade.
While the climb is relentless, it isn’t particularly steep. The grade is about 10 percent for five miles but it lessens to about 5 percent after entering the park.
That alone is worth the $5 entry fee.
About 4 miles into the climb, Meyers and I were 50 yards ahead when we heard a loud pop. Beitelspacher had blown a tire. Who says there’s no flats on Hurricane Ridge?
At first we mocked him, certain he popped the tire on purpose so he could take a break. But we later discovered the flat was likely the result of a hole in his tire’s sidewall that would eventually force him to stop his ride 3 miles from the top.
The ride, especially the descent, “should only be attempted by riders with good equipment, strong skills and experience,” Maynes said.
And, as Beitelspacher wisely decided, two-out-of-three wasn’t good enough.
Suffering on without him, we found plenty of ways to distract our minds from the work. We admired the views and told jokes, but one distraction was more annoying than the effort.
At our slow pace we were repeatedly pestered by horseflies roughly the size of Cessna airplanes. I tried swatting at them when they buzzed past or flew into my helmet, but eventually I decided wildly swinging my arms probably wasn’t the best use of energy.
A cyclist behind us wasn’t so lucky. He was stung by a hornet, then poured the contents of his water bottle on himself to help alleviate the pain.
When he came across us working on Beitelspacher’s bike, the cyclist was out of water and cramping.
All of us had carried an extra water bottle (three instead of two), so we were able to spare enough to help him reach the top.
THE “EASY” PART
Naturally, the road bends several times before reaching the Hurricane Ridge parking lot, allowing you to get your hopes of finishing up only to turn a corner and find more hill.
“I enjoyed the entire climb,” Meyers said. “But I think the last mile, when I could see all the mountains in the distance, the switchbacks and my friends riding up, that was a pretty cool stretch.”
At Hurricane Ridge, we posed for pictures and talked to several of those motorists who respectfully poked fun at us.
One motorist even asked if any of us were the cyclist he saw puking on the side of the road. (We were not.)
“Now comes easy part, huh?” he added.
Meyers and Pettitt agreed, but I was a bit nervous.
Climbing up is a simple test of fitness and mental toughness. The price for failing is no worse than having to turn back.
But descending a winding mountain road at top speed with the potential for strong winds and motorists distracted by the view comes with a potentially gruesome punishment for even the smallest mistakes.
Maynes says most cyclist take about an hour to descend, but she says it’s not uncommon for some to have a driver meet them at the top and transport them down.
Maynes warns cyclists to be aware of the metal grates on the road entering each of the road’s three tunnels. The most dangerous stretch, she says, is the lower five miles where traffic increases and the road is steepest.
We quickly found ourselves flirting with the speed limit, 35 mph. However a headwind — one I don’t recall helping us much on the way up — regularly knocked our coasting speed down to the mid 20s. Not as fast as we expected, but at least fast enough to avoid the horseflies.
Meyers led the way and I kept my distance at the back looking for cars that wanted to pass. Instead, a yellow Corvette appeared in front of us.
We gained on it for about a minute until it pulled over briefly to let us pass.
Later, we pulled over twice to let cars pass us. We also took two other short stops and still found ourselves in Port Angeles in 45 minutes.
When I checked the time stamps on the video from my helmet cam it showed our 19.32-mile descent required just 39 minutes, 23 seconds of bike time.
“It was fast, it was fun,” Meyers said. “We didn’t have to work real hard.”
The computer on Pettitt's bike said our fastest speed was 43.7 mph. But near the end of the ride, when the speed limit increased to 45 mph, the cycling app on my phone recorded us going 46.3 mph.
However fast it was, the combination of conquering the climb and the exhilarating descent left us infused with energy and a sense of accomplishment that’s rare for a 40-mile ride.
“Now, I get to check it off my bucket list,” Meyers said. “It’s a great ride. Will I ever do it again? You never know.”