Chelan Century 2011

Trip Report

The Chelan Century Challenge has been on my “B” list for about three years ever since High Performance Cycling teammate Carol Noble-Potts mentioned it during the Flying Wheels Century, which she was using as a training ride for this event. I originally had other plans for the weekend (the Mountain Lakes Challenge in Ashland, OR), but those plans fell through and–lucky for me–the Chelan ride popped to the top of the list. And–also lucky for me–I was able to find a place to sleep in Chelan the night before. While the ride itself is stupendously organized, there is a dearth of bed-space in Chelan and adjacent towns.

Members of the Cascade Bicycle Club*s High Performance Cycling Team all smiles at the start of the 2011 edition of the Chelan Century. Image: Carol Noble-Potts
I felt ill-prepared for what was in store: 100+ miles and ~8,000′ of climbing. While my early season got off to a decent start despite lousy weather–I had done a few races in March and April, and a gorgeous sunny 80-mile ride with Tom Meloy in mid-April–I spent the second half of April on a sailboat in Belize. My Caribbean “training program” consisted of splashing around with coral reef creatures. Since returning from Belize the longest ride I’d done was under 70 miles. There is a BIG difference between a 70 and a 100+ mile ride. I knew the climbing was going to be hard, but I felt like I just didn’t have enough saddle time for a 100-mile outing. I decided to jump into the deep end of the swimming pool anyway.

This event consists of three loops each of which returns to Don Morse Park on the east shore of Lake Chelan just north and west of Chelan’s main street. The first loop circles to the north of Chelan and returns via the town of Manson; the 2nd loop circles to the NE of Chelan and includes an out and back up the infamous ~7-mile McNeil Canyon climb; and the 3rd loop circles to the west up and over Navarre Coulee Rd.

The plan was to start with buddies from the High Performance Cycling Team (aka “HPC”) and go with the flow; we had enough folks in our group that I figured I could find riding companions all day long regardless of how the ride went for me–I felt unsure about my fitness and that a complete bonk or meltdown of the legs was possible. About 10 or 11 of us rolled out at the official 7AM start.

The first “Manson Loop” was a gorgeous ~30 mile warm-up. After a fairly strenuous ~4 mile climb, the route becomes a roller coaster ride through vineyards and finishes with a tailwind-aided return to the park. The legs felt good and I managed to stay with the front end of the HPC group, which was a foursome for most of the day.

With Lake Chelan as a backdrop, riders struggle up an exceptionally steep section of McNeil Canyon.
After negotiating the streets of Chelan, the second “McNeil Loop” rolls through scenic farmland and yields an amazing vista of the Columbia River, followed by a thrilling descent down to Hwy 97. The highway runs along the west side of the river, which looked like it was was boiling due to this year’s high water flow. The stretch along Hwy 97 was busy with fast-moving traffic and semi-tractor trailors that distracted from the views, but it was very conducive to paceline riding and we zipped along with each rider taking 30-60 second pulls at the front of the group. Up ahead I could see the distinctive jersey of Mike McQuaide, who has written several guidebooks, and who helped organize a fantastic 100-mile group ride from Everson to Artist Point last year. Mike joined the paceline and our foursome became a fivesome up to the start of the McNeil climb.
Bellingham area man *svelte* Mike McQuaide powers past the 6-mile mark on the McNeil Canyon Climb during Chelan Century 2011.

The McNeil climb rises about 3,100′ in ~7 miles (though the seriously difficult climbing happens in the final ~5 miles), and the event web site says the climb is a consistent 12%. I’m not sure about that, but my Garmin 500 never went below 8% and there were stretches of 14%. For this reason I rode my “adventure bike”–a 2003-ish Trek 2300 outfitted with a new SRAM Apex group with a compact crankset (50-34), and an 11-32 cassette. I figure if a big cassette can work for Alberto Contador on the Monte Zoncolan, it can work for the average me on a hard century ride. I’d estimate that I spent 80% of the McNeil climb in the 34-32.

The climb took us about an hour, and after a quick regroup at the end-point, we enjoyed an exhilarating descent at speeds well over 40 mph. Getting back to the park in Chelan involved a comparatively small but not insignificant climb up from the Columbia River.

The third and final “Navarre Coulee” loop leaves Chelan to the southwest via Hwy 97 and trends uphill for about 2 miles, which was enough for me to pop loose from my HPC buddies–I rode solo for the final miles of the day. As an example of the exemplary support on this ride, Hwy 97 has a tunnel about 10 miles out, and they had a volunteer stationed at the entrance to push the “bicycle warning” button. No need to dismount and press the button! I gave the volunteer a “thumbs up” and sped through the tunnel. The final climb of the day (for me) stair-stepped up Navarre Coulee Rd. leading to a gorgeous forested “summit” view of Lake Chelan followed by a windy descent to the lake. The final ~12 miles on S. Lakeshore Rd. was a tailwind-aided time-trial through mostly flat terrain. My legs felt great given the punishment I’d put them through for the last 5+ hours and I sped through the home stretch at 21-26 mph.

The ride organizers do offer a final bit of pain that I opted NOT to do. Once back in town from the Navarre Coulee loop riders can climb Chelan Butte Rd., which adds another ~2 miles and ~700′ of climbing. Given how I went into the ride expecting disaster, I wanted to finish on a positive note and called it a day. HPC teammate Jeff Sorrentino who did do the extra climb summed it up: “…the ‘bonus’ climb was completely contrived and unnecessary – about a mile up of leg-crushing 10-15%. Nice view at the top, but no better than the top of Coulee. Definitely not recommended…esp. since the route covers 100mi without that ‘bonus’…”

High Performance Cycling Team member Jeff Sorrentino and Mike McQuaid begin the McNeil Canyon descent.
With the 3-loop configuration, riders can choose to do one, two, or all three loops, and if you feel you are in over your head on the McNeil climb, you can simply turn around!

Although this ride was on my “B” list last week, it’s on my “A” list now. I’m a convert. And I agree with Jeff Sorrentino: “…Chelan Century is better than RAMROD since the first (my favorite) and third loops were far more enjoyable than the slogs from/to Enumclaw…

The drive from Seattle to Chelan is a solid three hours. You can pretty much assume the weather will be decent if not hot regardless of the weather on the west side of the Cascade Crest. Lodging was hard to find–best to book early if this ride is on your hit list.

Garmin data:
I had a temporary ~4 mile malfunction on the McNeil descent, so the totals are a bit off.

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