Aiming High on the Cross-Washington MTB Race

It was a crisp and misty May morning. Forty-eight-ish masked riders gathered on the beach in La Push, Wash., for the ceremonial dunk of the rear wheel in the Pacific Ocean to begin the grand depart of the 4th-ever Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race (XWA).

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 to ride alone.

Of course I soon met up with new friends and old pals from the XWA 2019, the first being a guy from Colorado on the slow climb up a pass where a 45-minute snow drag and plenty of bear pooh was waiting for us. Singletrack trails 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.

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 high 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.

As it turned out, it was Olympia’s Adam Hale, winner of 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 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.

Illustration of a mountainn biker grinding up a mountain.
Illustration by Justin Short

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 and buttery smooth singletrack descents were so delicious, I never noticed that I was only averaging 2 mph most of the day. That may have been my best day on a bike ever.

A dozen of us rode out of Wenatchee the next morning, a few visibly traumatized by the bone jarring 5,300-foot low route. The canyon creek crossings and blasting dust storms of eastern Washington 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. Except for the 40 miles of the Palouse to Cascades Trail from Warden to Ralston—no one savored that sandy, rocky, tumble weed mess.

Mount Spokane 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.

I rolled to a stop at the finish line in the town of Tekoa, a mere five days and 21.5 hours after starting. I napped until the sun chased me out of my sleeping bag, at which point I devastated the entire breakfast menu at C & D’s Bar and Grill. What a ride!

Justin Short has two 8th place XWA finishes now and will spend the rest of the summer goofing off in preparation for The Big Lonely out of Bend, Oregon. Look for his documentary on XWA 2021 coming soon to the Gravel Braintrust YouTube channel.

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