Long Live The Midnight Century

(This article orignally appeared in Out There Monthly, July 2009)

Over the last few years, local chef and endurance cyclist David Blaine has hosted a loosely-organized midnight century bike ride. The ride leaves Brown's Addition at midnight on a warm summer night. Until last year, the route was an all-paved route that took riders out to Liberty Lake and over the hills of the Palouse. Last year, for the first time, Blaine routed much of the century over dirt roads. While the Midnight Century was already an interesting ride, by changing the route to include rough dirt roads the ride became an instant classic. Last year, only three of 12 riders finished the ride.

It's an epic ride that is really a lot of fun if you're cycling with your friends. Riding over rough gravel roads with a group of friends under a dark sky is fun in the same way that sneaking out and night swimming was fun as a teenager.

For the record, David Blaine is not hosting the ride this year. In fact, no one is hosting the Midnight Century; the ride is officially hostless. From now on, the ride will just happen if cyclists show up and won't if they don't.

It will forever be the first Saturday night of August. The Midnight Century leaves the Elk at 11:59 PM. There is no support; there are no t-shirts; there are no road markings. The 2008 route is the official route of the officially hostless Midnight Century.

The route goes to Liberty Lake and over the hills of the Palouse to Spangle. From Spangle, the route follows dirt roads nearly into Cheney, where it heads off towards Spokane. The ride ends in Brown's Addition.

If you are interested in giving the ride a try, here are some things to consider:

  1. BE IN REASONABLE SHAPE. This is not a good ride to attempt for a first century ride. There's a lot of climbing. Much of it is on dirt roads. Generally speaking, if you can ride a 50-mile hilly dirt ride with little recovery, then you should be able to finish the route.
  2. RIDE WITH A PARTNER. You will be out in the middle of rural roads in the wee hours of the morning in the dark. Some of the route does not have cell phone access. You and your buddy should be about the same fitness level, or one of you should be willing to go slower.
  3. BRING A GPS. You or your partner should have a GPS with the route loaded on it. Bring a back-up map too. The route will take you on roads that you've not been on before. There's at least one “this can't be right” turn that puts you on a mostly-closed summer road. If you have time to pre-ride the route between Sands Road and Spangle, you should.
  4. RIDE THE RIGHT BIKE. The most important component for this ride is the tires. Volume is more important than tread; think high-volume and low pressure. For skilled and fit riders, a road bike with 28 mm tires could work. But for most riders, a cyclocross bike or other fat-tired (35 mm or fatter) road bike with a triple chain ring is probably best. A rigid mountain bike might work for some.
  5. PACK A REASONABLE TOOL KIT. Bring a spare tube and patches. Pack a spoke wrench, a FiberFix spoke, and a multi-tool. If you are running supple tires, which would be ideal for this ride, you might consider bringing a spare tire.
  6. LIGHTS ARE IMPORTANT. The majority of the ride is rural so it's really dark. Your light needs to illuminate the entire road ahead of you and it needs to last 7 hours. In addition to a good bike light, have a flashlight or a helmet-mounted secondary light for fiddling with stuff in the dark. You will need to dig through your bag for food. You may need to change a flat. And be sure you have at least one good rear, red blinky with fresh batteries.
  7. HAUL YOUR WATER. There is no easy water on the route until you get to about mile 75 at Spangle. Think about how much water you need in 100 miles of vigorous riding. You'll probably need all the water bottles that your bike will carry, plus a hydration pack.
  8. HAUL YOUR CALORIES. Again, there are no services until Spangle. It's important to realize that Spangle services (one gas station and one restaurant) open at 6 AM. However, for the purposes of food and water planning, you should assume that Spangle services will be closed. In any case, you need to bring food to get you through the ride.
  9. RECOGNIZE THAT THIS IS NOT A SUPPORTED RIDE. You are doing this because it's fun and a great challenge. But you should only attempt the ride if you are willing to assume the inherent risks of riding 100 miles over rural dirt roads in the middle of the night. Do not do this ride if you are not prepared.

A first-time finisher's take on the Midnight Century

(By Hank Greer from shallowcogitations.com)

Now that I've had a good night's sleep...

This ride is kick ass. It starts you off with a smooth 25 miles that gets you warmed up and feeling good about knocking out the first fourth quickly. That done, it throws you up and down the terrain, gives you thrilling and terrifying descents made more so as your speed overtakes what your light is able to reveal. This is no place for mushy brakes--if you use your brakes.

It lays out washboards in patterns that ensure you will hit the worst ones every time you dodge a set, shaking you so hard you'd swear you were trying to hold a paint shaking machine still.

Deer and other animals pay you little attention as you pass by while they go about the business of staying alive, but you feel more of a connection with them when you're sitting in the dark in the middle of nowhere and a bunch of coyotes howling in the distance sound like they're coming closer. "I should get moving. I can finish this snack while I'm riding." You may not say it, but it's in the back if your mind.

The ascents in the dark attack your mind as much as your body. You can't see the top so you have no idea when you'll reach it. Your legs complain so your mind tries to allay their fears. "Almost there. Just a little more." The road levels out a bit and your legs breathe a sigh of relief. "See? It's okay now." Then you suddenly hit the steepest part and your legs cry in agony, "You lied to me!" Coming to several of the short climbs, the darkness misleads you as to how steep they are so you don't gear down. "This doesn't look like much and we've got some speed going," you tell your legs. Suddenly you're standing on the pedals chunk-chunking in a frantic attempt to shift down. Yeah, you'll be lying to your legs all night.

The peacefulness surrounding the dawn, while beautiful, can also chip away at your mindset. The lull and calm of the rising sun combined with being up through the night and the idea of a long rest clashes with the realization that you still have two or three or more hours to ride.

At just over the halfway point, you get a short reprieve from the dust, dirt, gravel and rocks and you're given a bit of smooth pavement. It's not a gift. It's the longest and steepest climb of the ride. Your legs ache and complain like never before and all you can do is suck it up. Following that you return to dirt roads where the gravel and the washboards seem deeper than ever. It's like it was intentional and you almost take it personally. You never stood so much while trying to pedal.

The last 20 miles you're mostly on pavement and your butt is so grateful. Smoothly cruising along the Cheney-Spangle highway and the Fisk Lake Trail, your relief begins to convince you that this wasn't so bad. Then you reach the basalt infected, jarring interruption that is the unfinished section of Fish Lake Trail. It's your punishment for thinking you're almost done. One last slap down to remind you who the boss is. "This is the Midnight Century! I'm not done with you. How's your butt feelin', huh? That's what I thought. Now you can finish."

Rolling in to where you started hours before, the feelings of relief and accomplishment are overwhelming. And you don't mind being regarded as a lunatic by the early morning coffee drinkers whose curiosity compels them to ask what's going on. You just did the Midnight Century which is more that just something.

But you have to admit, it still kicked your ass.