Words by Justin Short, photos by Josh Kato (@joshkatobike)
It was a crisp and misty May morning, and 48-ish masked riders gathered on the beach in La Push, Washington, for the ceremonial dunk of the rear wheel in the ocean to begin the grand depart of the fourth Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race. Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route (XWA) is a 700-mile, 90-percent-unpaved, non-event-style ultra bikepacking race across the great state of Washington organized by Troy Hopwood.
Spirits ran high as everyone was delighted to participate in a mass-start event after a full year of COVID cancellations; all at once we were off like a herd of turtles dashing for the Idaho border. My wife rode me out the first 10 miles, so I only had another 690 miles to ride alone. Fortunately, I happened upon a few new friends as well as some old friends from the XWA 2019. I chatted with a rider from Colorado on the slow climb up the first pass where a 45-minute snow drag was waiting for us, along with plenty of bear poo.
The Olympic Peninsula’s singletrack mountain bike trails through the fern-carpeted forest along Lake Crescent and above the Straights of Juan de Fuca were as delightful as ever, as were the Seattle urban park segments and the climb over Snoqualmie Pass into the Cascades. The western half of XWA is truly a wonderland of green.
My own fascination with gravel and adventure riding the last few years, though, has been going places I’ve never been before, and I had one good eye on the “high route” which no one had ever taken from the grand depart on account of the May snowpack. The route cuts north from the Palouse to Cascades Trail from Cle Elum over the Teanaway and Mission Ridge to Wenatchee. The weather forecast looked miserable, yet every rider I talked to but one seemed to be gunning for the high route. In the end, it was Olympia’s Adam Hale, winner of the inaugural XWA 2017, who became the first rider to “turn left” in Cle Elum to take the high route.
It was an inexplicably pleasant day when I came to the turn. I’d had my fillings rattled out on the alternate Colockum Ridge route in 2019, so I was game for some high country snow trudging and tree hoisting. And yes, there was a little bit of snow up there and a lot of fallen trees, but the breathtaking views of jagged snow capped mountain ranges and buttery smooth singletrack descents were so delicious, I never noticed that I was only averaging two miles per hour most of the day. The cooler full of beer that a trail angel hauled up into the snow zone didn’t hurt either. That may have been my best day ever on a bike. In the end, a half dozen riders opted for that glorious ascent.
A dozen of us rode out of Wenatchee the next morning, the others visibly traumatized by the bone-jarring 5,300-foot low route. The canyon creek crossings and blasting dust storms were a stark contrast to the misty verdant rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. I saved the final 211 miles for my last day, savoring the smell of sagebrush and the stony scabland views, but not the 40 miles of the Palouse to Cascades Trail from Warden to Ralston. No one savored that sandy, rocky, tumbleweedy mess. Mt. Spokane, my favorite little mountain perched next to the town I call home, cheered me on from afar as I pedaled out of Ritzville with a pile of gas station hotdogs to fuel the final 100 miles. Some friendly wheat farmers tossed me a beer at sunset as I made a long day’s journey into night, guided to the Idaho border by an almost full moon.
There are 17 punchy rollercoaster dirt road climbs that finish the “victory lap” from the Idaho border back into the thriving metropolis of Tekoa, Washington, where I rolled to a stop a mere 5 days and 21.5 hours after starting, not fast, but a good 12 hours faster than last time, setting a personal record for sleeping 9.5 hours in a train tunnel. I napped right there at the finish line until the sun chased me out of the sleeping bag, at which point I devoured the entire breakfast menu at C & D’s Bar and Grill. What a ride!
Make sure to dig into these related articles for more info...
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.