The Last Sunday in February
The traditional start to the biking season in the northwest, Chilly Hilly has been a biking challenge for 40 years. The 33 mile route circling Bainbridge Island includes plenty of hills to challenge even the hardcore Seattle bike commuter. Although popular among bikers, the island residents tend to have a love/hate relationship with the event. For more than seven hours our streets are clogged with bikers of all sorts, slowing or stopping vehicle traffic through some key roads that need to be driven on to accomplish weekend chores. On the other hand, Chilly Hilly is an amazing event with a ton of local volunteers and plenty of support from those that envy the courage of the bikers facing those painfully long hills. I admit I was in the “I hate this thing” camp until the one day I stopped on the side of the road to watch for a while. I’ve changed my mind.
Bicycles take over the ferries
On the last Sunday in February, boatloads (literally) of riders are loosed on the shores of Bainbridge Island, brought over by Washington State Ferries. They start their ride, of course, with a hill, as they join the riders that are already on the island and head off on their journey around the island. Since I had planned to watch the mass exodus from the mouth of the ferry, I knew I’d need to plan my escape to avoid as much of the route as possible. It was not difficult since the map route is easily available through the Cascade Bicycle Club website.
More than 3000 participants
I jostled for space at the windows of the ferry terminal, joining dozens of other ferry folk watching with a mix of awe and incredulity as thousands of Chilly Hilly participants rode bicycles of all types off the ramp and headed up the hill. As the throng thinned, I raced back to my car to head over to my favorite watching spot at the top of the first challenging hill, a long 100 foot climb about 8K into the ride.
Wheels of all types are welcome
This is where I began to understand that riding a bike is not a hobby – it’s a culture. And it’s a culture of kindness and care. I received smiles, “good morning”s and even a few high fives as I stood marveling on the side of the road. Calls of “car up!” are relayed back through the crowd to warn less attentive riders to be wary. A rider off his or her bike is asked repeatedly if everything is ok and did he need any help? And the riders themselves ranged from kids to those who have acquired many decades of wisdom. Thin, round, decked out, sweats, it didn’t matter. If you were on a bike you were one of them, and you mattered.
Hundreds of volunteers coordinate the event
Curious what the level of enthusiasm would be at the end of the ride, I headed over to the last big hill before the easy ride back into town. At this point riders have ridden close to 49K and climbed a total of 2675 feet. They were pretty much done with tired and moving into zombie. And yet they were still cheerful, asking laughingly for pushes or offering a gasped “thanks” when I yelled that this was the last hill. And they kept going, eyes set on the top of this hill that signaled the end of the best, and worst ride of the season.
Safety is a top concern for the organizers
Rest breaks, water and cupcakes provided on the route
I don’t know how many people actually ride the whole course, but I do know that just signing up and cycling up the first hills is something very few people can do. It’s a phenomenal event and I hope that the islanders who spent their Sunday morning stuck in bike traffic will let go of their frustration, and just plan ahead next year. It’s just one day, after all, and they are just ordinary people.