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Chilly Hilly’s Difficult Climbs Just One of Many Obstacles

Heavy turnout means huge crowds on ferry and at ride’s start. But the biggest problem will be tires – both flat ones on bikes and spare ones on bodies.

Eighteen thousand years ago, this land was covered in a thick coating of ice that made our toughest winter storms seem like a day at the beach. Think of that as you climb and climb again on the Chilly Hilly this weekend, because you can thank the Vashon glacier for those hills.

When the glacier receded northward, glacial scouring and the erosive effects of melting ice left the land deeply gouged. On Bainbridge Island, the glacier carved north-south scars, which means stiff east-west climbs for us. So as you traverse the island on the 36th Chilly Hilly this Sunday, you will experience a glacial roller coaster.

The Cascade Bicycle Club estimates a heavy turnout for this year’s event, no doubt based on 2010. Last year, regular registration of about 4,000 cyclists was reached early, so they opened it up to more riders. In the end, a record 6,029 riders circled the island on the ride’s 33-mile route.

Since there surely will be more newbies trying it each year, let me share some details of the ride.

First, there are the crowds of people, many who have not ridden in a large group before. You queue up with a few thousand Gore-tex-clad friends at the ferry dock like salmon at the Locks, although I don’t believe the big fish are herded into groupings according to their speed.

After the half-hour ferry ride, you get your first feel for the crowd. Up the ramp go guys with their kids in tow, revved-up racing teams, macho riders, big folks, older folks, fast and slow — really every stripe. That’s part of the charm of this ride, and also part of the frustration.

If you start slow, or if you haven’t ridden in large groups, here’s a good way to survive: after exiting the ferry, move off to the right, maybe even pull over into the parking lot, and let the waves wash by you. In minutes, the road will be clear, and you will enjoy a much safer start.

If you are an experienced crowd-cyclist, you still will feel the frustration, because there are so many people who are less-versed in group riding. Suck in the salt air deeply and sock away your criticisms. Like the salmon, you just need to go with it.

A further complication: this being February, there are many people who haven’t been on their bikes in a while. Since, let’s say, September. In those five months, a couple of things have happened: They have gotten sluggish, and their bike tires have gone flat. Being sluggish, they have not thought to air up said tires before the ride. Result: within the first few miles you will see some epic struggles by people just trying to climb the small starter hills along Ferncliff Avenue. You will also see more flats than at Les Schwab on a Saturday morning.

Soon, after a stunning short stretch along Murden Cove that offers great Seattle vistas, you come to the first climb that separates the slugs from the rest. Hang a left away from the water and greet a hill that’s long and steep enough to wake up your thighs.

(We interrupt this travelogue for a Public Service Announcement: If you must stop among the throngs on a hill when everyone else is standing on their pedals, please loudly say “Stopping!” a few seconds before you collapse. You will save scrapes to body and bike, a multitude of stink-eyes and much passive-aggressive behavior.)

After a pleasant ride along Sunrise Drive, you pass one of my favorite island spots: Fay Bainbridge State Park. At eight miles from the ferry dock, this is a great summer destination for a picnic or even a quick-and-easy overnight bike camping trip. Curve around the scenic Port Madison Bay and head for the first rest stop at Battle Point Park. You’re nearly halfway through the ride, but the most fun is yet to come. Ponder gravity as you enjoy the rope-skipping team that greets riders at the top of the hill before the park.

I usually save my rest break for the next stop, at the American Legion Hall off Bucklin Hill Road. At 20 miles, it’s a better place for a few minutes’ rest, and the Porta Potty lines are generally much shorter, because many people skip this stop, or have just stood in the long park lines. Spend a couple of bucks on the homemade baked goods laid out like a church dinner (they’re fundraising for something) and grab some sips of free cider. You might need the sugar rush for Baker Hill.

Just before Lynwood Center, where the old movie theater sits with a few small shops, you turn off the main road and encounter a demoralizing sight: an impossibly long climb ahead, with the ants — wait, they’re bikers — weaving their way up the other side. This is the biggest but not the last climb of the ride, and you may find yourself forced to hike a bit of it, due to sheer road congestion. You’re quickly down the other side to a hard left at Point White and a nice curve around Rich Passage, with great views across to the Peninsula and fine homes along the road.

Less than 10 miles from the chili feed, you start the climbs on Oddfellows Road and Halls Hill Road before turning north toward Eagle Harbor along Rockaway Beach Drive. This is my favorite part of the ride. Look over the million-dollar views enjoyed by the homes facing Seattle and enjoy the rolling hills into town. One last climb on long, straight Wyatt Way and you’re in Winslow at the finish-line festival.

But the last hurdle comes after the chili, when you need to queue up again for the return ferry ride. Prepare yourself: there can be a healthy wait in the holding area, maybe even through one ferry departure. It’s OK on a nice day, but an inglorious way to end the ride if it’s been a wet or truly glacial outing.

Looping the island counterclockwise on a Sunday in February has become a tradition for many local cyclists, and I can think of few events that are as distinctive. Go get chilly with it.

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