By Justin M. Short
The Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race, or XWA as we’ve come to call it, is a 700+ mile self-supported ultra bikepacking race that crosses the great state of Washington—from the picturesque sea stacks of La Push on the Olympic Peninsula to Tekoa, a mere 40 miles south of Spokane. The XWA route and its “Grand Depart” on the third Sunday in May are the brain child of Seattle ultra endurance rider Troy Hopwood. Hopwood wanted to promote the John Wayne Trail, now the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (PTCT), which wasn’t seeing much use.
XWA is a non-race, non-event sort of thing, but you can be sure that freaks of nature will be out there gunning for the finish line—including course record holder, Josh Kato, and 2019 Grand Depart winner, Thomas Baron. Other riders take their time, making sure they hit every brewpub on the course and the pie shop in North Bend that offers a free slice to XWA riders.
On May 18, 2019, riders rolled out onto a misty beach at La Push for the ceremonial dunk of the rear wheel in the ocean. They were ready for scenery, ready for adventure; as for the ride, they would soon see. The countdown was made and they all shuffled toward the tangled mountain of driftwood through which they hefted bikes to begin this epic journey.
To fully understand this race, you have to understand the ethic of bikepacking. Distinct from bicycle touring, bikepacking can be any overnight bike trip, but tends toward ultralight minimalism and off-road adventure. A typical adventure bikepacking race is a self-supported affair with no support crews, no feed stations, no course markings, and no prizes. The exception for XWA is that the town of Tekoa offered $15 gift certificates for the top 10 finishers to any of Tekoa’s four restaurants.
The first leg across the Olympic Peninsula was filled, as one might suspect, with magical fern-carpeted forests as riders pedaled over mountain passes on gravel roads and some exceedingly fun singletrack trails with that favorite west side companion, RAIN. The ferry from Kingston offered 6 miles of respite from the grind. Then the route begins hopscotching through parks along the northern Seattle suburbs up the steepest climbs of the whole route.
The Snoqualmie Valley Trail leads riders to the PTCT, which offers a rather gentle climb over Snoqualmie Pass through an almost 3-mile long tunnel at the summit. The route continues on this chunky gravel rail trail all the way to Kittitas, where the route cuts north over the barely rideable Colockum Ridge, then plummets 3,000 feet down into Wenatchee. The last big climb over the Rock Island Grade leads into Palisades, Washington’s own Grand Canyon, and on to Ephrata, through a herd of cows to Moses Lake. It then crosses a waist-deep canal on the way to Ritzville and continues through the Swamps of Doom to the finish.
XWA 2020 will be a virtual race, and you can follow riders’ progress at www.bandok.com. Participants can complete the race either on their trainers or anywhere outdoors in a single push, or they can put in the mileage over the course of a month. Bandók Virtual Events offers virtual options for other long distance challenges throughout the summer.
Justin M. Short has recently been drafted to write the Everyday Cyclist column for OTO. Watch his “Lockdown Washington Mountain Bike Race” on YouTube — a Stay Home, Stay Healthy-inspired spoof on the 2020 XWA Race.