Gravel-bound and Down: 12 Hit Squadders Cross Washington
Ed. Note—2020 hasn't been kind to any of our racing calendars, so what's an endurance athlete to do, all this historical fitness at hand and nowhere to spend it? Robbie Walker and Kris Everts, two Hit Squadders, dreamt up a gravel odyssey across Washington and invited all their friends. Here's what happened next.
“I now regret calling day two a recovery day,” Robbie Walker says, ruminatively. “It was only 48 miles, and we had planned about three to four hours of riding. Coming after day one, which was about eighty miles, everyone thought they would have an easy day. Twenty-two miles in and we’d already gone over four hours.” Who among us in the endurance world can’t remember a similar situation of brisk expectations set against crushing reality? In this particular case Walker and eleven other members of the Wattie Ink. Hit Squad played the protagonists, while Washington State’s wind, gravel, tumbleweeds, burned-out bridges, and goathead thorns provided the crucible that every hero’s journey needs. Walker and his partner (and fellow Hit Squadder) Kris Everts planned the trip as a way to lend some structure to 2020, something none of us imagined necessary back in February and are now all too familiar with. The two Seattle-area residents pulled out some maps and drew a line between North Bend, Washington and Sandpoint, Idaho. Walker set up his gravel bike and put the word out to the Wattie Ink. teams. Everts agreed to play a support role in her vehicle. On Friday, June 26th, twelve riders and Everts gathered in a parking lot in North Bend, Washington and set out towards the east.
“We changed the destination even before we started,” Walker says. “Sandpoint was perfect. They have this sign there that says ‘Sandpoint, Idaho: The Next Best Thing in The West,’ and I’m pretty sure it’s been standing for the last 100 years. I thought that would be a perfect place to finish the trip, but there’s no train station in Sandpoint, so we couldn’t get home easily. Spokane ended up making more sense.” As with many of these journeys, adversity struck early, with one of the riders breaking a chain and then flatting twice in the first two miles, but then the day settled down as the group climbed up to Snoqualmie Pass and descended the gravel roads into Ellensberg. “It was just stunning gravel,” Walker remembers.
Any easy start needs some complication, though, to make a compelling story. Day two seemed easier, a gentle 48-mile course culminating in Wanapum Lake. Only 1700 feet of climbing loomed over the riders. What they didn’t account for, however, were the tumbleweeds. “Oh my god, the tumbleweeds,” Walker says. “Most of them were over eight feet tall, and they filled up the entrance to this tunnel we needed to get across I-90. We cleared the tumbleweeds and were already over four hours for the day. We made it through the tunnel and the wind picked up.” One of the riders slashed the sidewall of her tire, a gash too wide for her sealant to fill. Windgusts blew two other riders off their bikes and off the road. “I was riding about two miles an hour when the wind knocked me over,” Walker recalls. By the time we finished up that day, we’d all spent more than eight hours on the road.” They’d managed nine miles an hour, with another 190 miles to cover over the next two days.
“I think people were concerned about day three after day two,” Walker tells me, “but things started to get better. Kirby Amacker (who’s also on the Hit Squad and Gravel Collective Project) drove up to Wanapum Lake and cooked all of us dinner that night, which really buoyed people’s spirits. This team, man. Kirby didn’t expect any of us to even pay her back for her time and supplies, and when we offered she said ‘I didn’t even think of that! Well, that’s fine if you want too, but no worries if not!’”
Buoyed by teammates and food, the crew rolled out the next day aiming to complete 108 miles. "By mile 35, we were well under three hours, and morale was high," Walker says. "Our goal was to hit Lind (mile 75) by one o'clock or so, because otherwise we knew we'd get doused by the daily afternoon thunderstorms, and we were well on our way to making that cutoff." Walker and teammate Ben Atkinson, leading the group, encountered a T-intersection where their GPS units suggested a continuous road. They waited for the group to re-assemble and then gave them some directions: "If we don't come back in five minutes, it's good to ride. We could have circumnavigated the field and ended up in the exact same place, and it wouldn't have been a problem. But this whole adventure wasn't supposed to be about making intelligent decisions; it was to sort of not make intelligent decisions, and to have fun, and to have an adventure, and if there's a way to get where we need to be, let's just give it a shot. And there was. There was this raised tractor road that was just about wide enough for a tractor. We started riding, and it was a bit bumpy, but fine, and soon enough we came out on the other side. I hit the asphalt and heard that sound you hear when you install studded tires on your car, you know? I looked down and my tires were full of goathead thorns—maybe 100 in each tire. I looked over my shoulder, hoping the group hadn't followed me, and right then eleven people rolled out of the wheat field. We spent the next hour picking goathead thorns out of our tires."
The fourth day carried the riders from Ritzville to Spokane, along some of the longer expanses of gravel the trip had featured thus far. Along the way Walker stopped to help one of the riders with a flat. He was new to gravel and new to tubeless tires, and the hole in his tire was bigger than the sealant could fill. Walker asked him if he had a plug and "the guy looked at me like I was speaking a different language. I pulled out a set of plugs and showed him how they worked, and I was happy to do it, but a part of your mind still thinks 'I wish this guy was better prepared.' But we got him sorted out and rolling, and a few minutes later I was riding alone again. I reached back for my phone and realized it wasn't in my hydration pack. It had fallen out somewhere. I turned around and started retracing my steps, and soon enough bumped back into the guy whose tire I'd just help fix. I told him I'd lost my phone and he held one out and said 'Does it look like this?' It was one of those reminders to be patient with people, be kind, and I feel like the whole trip kept reminding all of us about that. Kirby coming out to feed us, Ben fixing everybody's bikes, Kris keeping us safe and supplied with food and water...I just wish we could have had more people out there. Next time we're going to bring 100 people out."
Intrigued about Kris and Robbie's Eastbound and Down adventure? You can find all of the ride links here. Finally, this post (and the trip) is dedicated to the memory of Kerry Wiltshire. Kerry was the mother of one of the riders and team members, Dawn, and the group learned on day one that Kerry had been struck by a tow truck back at home. Dawn finished the day of riding and left to be with her mother, who passed away three days later on the trip's final day. Ride co-organizer Kris Everts says "Dawn I will forever be in awe of your strength and courage to make it through that first 80-mile day with us. You, your family, and every person’s life Kerry touched are in my thoughts. Life is so short and fleeting. It’s important to make use of our time here by setting out to accomplish our goals that scare us more than anything, for it’s those accomplishments that will enrich our lives the most. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE."