About 10 miles into the Ronde PDX ride, every cyclist hits the wall.
The wall is called Northwest Brynwood Lane, and it's a monster: a relentless hill over a quarter-mile long that tops out at a 31 percent grade, almost 1 foot up for every 3 feet forward. Its top is hidden by hairpin turns. Even the strongest cyclists lose heart. They pant and wobble, careening from side to side in a zipper pattern, their legs burning and backs aching as they try to cut the grade. Half of them turn into luggage-wheeling walkers.
You won't find the Ronde PDX in any official guidebooks, and the yearly ride of between 400 and 600 cyclists is announced only by last-minute email list and word of mouth. But the unsanctioned, unofficial trail through the back roads of Portland's Northwest and Southwest hill country has become a rite of passage in the Portland cycling community.
It's also synonymous with pain and suffering. Designed by longtime Portland riders Brad Ross and Hugh Givens, the ride is 47 miles long and contains nearly 8,000 feet of climbing.
The Ronde PDX is designed after a similar ride in Belgium called the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour de Flanders). "Belgium is a relatively flat country," says Ross. "There's one ridge line that goes through the Flemish country, and the race goes up and down this same ridge line a thousand times.â
The Ronde PDX does the same on Portland's western ridge. Ross and Givens spent 20 years exploring every abandoned-looking gravel road in the West Hills that says "No Outlet." They mark the jackknifing path with a series of spray-painted Lions of Flanders—hence the nickname for cycling through part of the course, "riding lions." "Right now it's me with 10 cans of Rust-Oleum," says Ross. "I just go out and spray-paint them. Almost nobody minds."
The course wasn't designed just for masochism, however. It's also a way for riders to discover the backchannels of their own city. "Nobody goes on these streets," he says. "There are streets that are like you're in Appalachia."
The ride begins in the Northwest Industrial District by ascending a muddy gravel hill onto Skyline Road, and twists along Cornell Road, past Pittock Mansion into the ride's most dangerous spot, a short descent to a quick turn on Old Barnes Road. "There's not a guardrail," says Ross. "You're just gonna go off into the woods. We've had people go into the hospital."
Still, Ross says, only two people have wound up in the hospital since 2007, the first year of the ride. It's a pretty good record.
From there, the course freewheels to the Mount Calvary Cemetery then loops back to the Hoyt Arboretum and the odd backroads in Washington Park that few know exist, before torturing riders up (and down) the hills of Oregon Health & Science University and Lewis and Clark College, looping back around to send them up Council Crest, with uphill grades that again ascend to 20 percent.
And if all that isn't bad enough, there is this knowledge: If you give up partway through, you'll be doing worse than 7-year-old Jake Reiss, who this year made it all the way through the Ronde and said the tough climbs were his favorite part. Granted, it took him 8½ hours with a sandwich break, but consider yourself shamed.
The only real advice Ross offers first-time riders is simple. "Bring a camera, and maybe get some lower gears on your bike. There's history on the side of the road that people don't notice because they're too busy suffering."
And above all, there is the race's mantra: "No Prize but Honor, No Fee but Sweat, No Support but Lycra, No Sponsor but Yourself, No Rules but the Lawful kind, No Sanction but From the Madonna del Ghisallo."
The Madonna del Ghisallo is the patron saint of cycling. Word on the street is, you're going to need her.
RIDE IT: Go to rondepdx.com to see a map and detailed directions for the Ronde ride.