I like goals. I will admit to being just slightly result-driven. I like to see where I’m headed, and work to get there. I’m a big-picture, plan-it-out, hyphenate-everything kinda gal. That said, some goals just seem too lofty, too drenched in the heavens and hangin’ out with the angels to be reached by us mere mortals. Riding across the I-90 bridge seemed like that sort of goal to me.
First off, some background for those of you who don’t live here in Drizzletopia: the I-90 bridge runs between Bellevue and Seattle, connecting the two sides of Lake Washington by way of Mercer Island, a rather significant land mass in the middle of the lake. We have two bridges across the lake, but the other one doesn’t have a bike lane. Lake Washington is no small shakes: this is a substantial body of water, requiring quite a trek should one wish to drive around it. In fact, the Lake Washington Loop, which is part purpose-built trail and part street navigation around the lake, is nearly 52 miles long.
Biking (or running) across the bridge is a popular commuter activity, but hardly something most people consider a life-goal. I am, as most of you probably already know, not really like most people in many respects, my affection for heavy steel three-speeds among them. And it was that very proclivity for monstrously heavy bicycles that caused me to doubt my ability to traverse the lake. You see, to get to the trailhead for the trip across the bridge, I would either have to drive the ten miles north from Renton, or ride them. Did I mention that those ten miles are pretty dang hilly?
Per example, from a previous Raleigh-driven escapade:
By the time I reached Bellevue on my previous attempts, I was generally a sweaty mess. And considering the ride back features those same hills, only in reverse, the idea of adding another nearly ten miles in each direction across the bridge just didn’t appeal to me. I know, I could have driven up and parked near the trailhead, but where’s the fun in that?
So I didn’t do the bridge. But I really, really wanted to.
Then last week, I decided to take a sunny Tuesday morning ride over to Bellevue on the new Gazelle Champion Mondial. The ride from Renton to Bellevue is very pretty in its own right.
The aptly named Lake Washington Loop follows the lake for the most part from Renton all the way to a middling suburb known as Newcastle, where it joins up with an actual bike trail for a brief period, paralleling the freeway. This part is a bit less scenic.
For those who survive the assault of their ears by I-405, which is the freeway this trail follows, the trail quickly pops out onto the road again in a lovely stretch of leafy green beauty and that truly hideous hill.
And here’s where something began to dawn on me: riding a bike that weighs at least ten pounds less than my three-speed, has seven additional gears (including a heck of a granny gear), and that isn’t encumbered by a basket on one side… allows me to climb hills more easily.
Stop laughing: this was a big revelation for me!
I cruised up the same hill that nearly killed me on The Raleigh.
It just looks less steep, doesn’t it? I don’t think they’ve regraded the hill since I last rode it, though I suppose anything is possible. This photo, unlike the last one, is actually taken from the top. I didn’t have to stop halfway up. I won’t say it was a breeze, but it was easily doable.
Mind blown, I made my way happily on to Bellevue, thinking I might head over to the Whole Foods, sit and have something featuring too much organic quinoa. Instead, when I reached the sign indicating the trailhead to the I-90 trail, I paused. I considered the dwindling supply of water in my rather ridiculous water bottle (borrowed from my son), the fact that it was noon and all I’d eaten that day were two slices of toast spread with goat cheese, and that Seattle was over nine miles away. All things considered, I should probably have put the bridge off again.
But I wasn’t tired. Not even a little. Besides, though the sign said the bridge ride was over nine miles, how bad could that really be? I had driven that bridge a thousand times, and in my mind, it was a nice flat ribbon across the water, with a pretty island in the middle. Like that bridge out to Key West in the movies, you know? But with fewer palm trees and a lot less Jimmy Buffet.
After only a moment’s hesitation, I turned The Gazelle and headed under the freeway through the Mercer Slough, a wetland preserved by building the bridge above it. It took me about five seconds to question the wisdom of my decision.
The slough itself is a green and shady oasis under the pillars, replete with reeds, herons and horsetails.
I was unprepared for the volume of the traffic noise. I-90 is one of the busiest freeways in America, and this bridge, even at noon on a Tuesday, is heavily used. I’m not sure what I expected the sound to be like on the bridge, but really, nothing could have prepared me for that ridiculous roar.
There were compensatory elements, however…
The views heading in Seattle’s direction were certainly pretty. That’s Mercer Island up ahead. It’s a bit of a rich-man’s enclave. A small island less than five miles from a major metropolitan area, with more than a lot of waterfront property, all of which costs a freakin’ fortune. Who’d have thunk it?
One of the many things I hadn’t noticed when driving this route was how long Mercer Island actually is. I crossed the short span between Bellevue and the island and was soon cruising along the wide back street bike paths. And cruising. And cruising. Really, Mercer Island has always seemed like a brief blip as a bridge-driver, but it’s a good four miles across. And I swear, it’s entirely uphill, both ways. Halfway across, I crested what seemed like the thirtieth gigantic incline to find my salvation: a bathroom!
I didn’t actually need to avail myself of the facilities all that badly; I was sweating up a storm by this point, so what I really needed was the water fountain.
Except that the water fountain was more of a water dribbler. I couldn’t fit my water bottle under the stream without laying the bottle completely on its side, totally defeating the purpose as I sloshed half the water right back out. I tried the faucets at the bathroom sinks, but these too produced weak streams that slid down the back of the faucets and along the side of the sink. I’ve never seen more pathetic water faucets, actually, that could still be considered “working.” So, with only half a water bottle refill possible, I snapped a quick Obligatory Bathroom Self-Portrait, and headed back on the road. Note my expression of grim determination and sacrifice.
Finally, another mile or so of struggling up yet another hill, and there it was: the main portion of the I-90 bridge!
Dear god, I’d forgotten about the grades on either end!
And no, going down the hill wasn’t any better than going up. You see, one small problem had developed on this ride with The Gazelle’s recent upgrades. The brakes squeak. Okay, it’s more than that. They shriek. Actually, it’s more like an ear-splitting high-pitched banshee wailing death scream.
I’m not easily embarrassed by my ancient bike quirks, but holy mother of heaven, are those brakes ridiculously humiliating. I actually thanked some minor deities for the tremendous grind of the near-by vehicles.
The I-90 Bridge: Where No One Can Hear Your Brakes.
About mid-span, after surviving another round of the screaming furies that had alighted on my Mafics, I found myself awed by the beauty of Lake Washington on a sunny day.
How often can you ride over a boat? Seriously, that’s an exciting milestone! I was grinning from ear to ear as I pumped up the final hill to the top of the bridge and out onto the nearest vantage point.
Look, Gazelle Champion Mondial, you just rode that!
We did a triumphant little happy dance (okay, I did a triumphant little happy dance, mostly internally) and then turned around to head back.
The views on the return trip were even more beautiful. That’s Bellevue in the foreground, backed by the supporting chorus of the Cascade foothills. On my right was a very majestic Mount Rainier, who was looking a bit too hazy to show up in photographs. Also, stopping to take a picture on this bridge was tough, as the trail is very narrow and mostly used by speeding roadies in lots of lycra. Timing my photos to avoid being hit by a guy burning down the hill at 30 miles an hour was tricky enough that I only tried it on the way out, not on the return. I can’t imagine how crazy it is during the commute!
At any rate, after about six hundred hills and more than a few times when I had to stop on the way down to give my ears a rest (not kidding), I arrived back at my car in Renton (I have to drive to the trailhead for this ride, as I live at the top of a hill that would make the bridge ride look like a walk in a very flat park). I was starving. The wee saddlebag I’m borrowing from The Raleigh barely fits my camera, phone and a credit card, without any room for things like sustenance. But other than the fact that I was nearly deaf and harrowed by hunger, I was fine. I could, in fact, have ridden much further, had I brought… you know, food and water.
Even stranger… my butt, normally the source of much of my long-distance misery, was fine. The well-loved Brooks on The Gazelle Champion Mondial is actually broken in, a concept I find almost frightening in its unfamiliarity. My hands, also a pressure point, were just fine. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized that I had just completed my longest ride, ever. Thirty-six or so miles, about ten miles further than I have ever ridden on The Raleigh. And the best part? It took me just half an hour longer than my last round-trip to Bellevue, even though I’d added another EIGHTEEN miles.
I can’t even wrap my head around all this. I realize the rest of you probably don’t find the idea that The Raleigh is a slow, heavy bike that astonishing, but I do. I think of it as my cute little workhorse, but the idea that it might not be suited to long rides never even occurred to me. I have honestly thought of the problem as one of my own fitness, not one related to my choice of transport. Call me dumb and slap me silly.
In the days after this monumental event, I have realized several important things: different bikes are suited for different routes (again, stop laughing. I’m serious!); I’m not as out of shape as I always think I am; and finally, I need that saddlebag before I do this again. If I’d had say… a bigger breakfast, and a banana and an energy bar in my bag, as well as more water, I’d have been able to do another twenty or so miles, perhaps even more. THIS BLOWS MY MIND.
I think I’ve crossed a metaphorical bridge, as well as a physical one. But don’t worry: I won’t be writing to you in a year from my carbon-fiber modern road bike with brifters, describing my latest high-speed century. The Raleigh isn’t perfect, but it’s my kind of screwy. I love having a faster, lighter ten-speed, but I have no desire to start road racing. I’m still a vintage bike kind of gal, and that’s never going to change. What I have now are options, and admittedly, a few new goals. And that is never a bad thing!