Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Most Unusual Ride

Our regular readers know we don't write the blog during the winter.  The last time we did so, we were in New Zealand and Australia, where it was actually summer at the time.  So why today?  Because we have just ridden one of the most unusual and exciting rides we have ever done.

Seattle has 2 main North-South highways, I-5 and Hwy 99.  Part of Highway 99 is a viaduct that has been an eyesore since the day they started building it, in 1949.  In 2001 it was damaged by the Nisqually Earthquake.  Not enough to close it, but clearly enough to convince the city that it had to come down before another earthquake did the demolition work for us.  Since the Viaduct looks an awful lot like the Nimitz Freeway that came down on top of (and killed) 42 people during the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, nobody wanted Mother Nature's help at that price.

It took 18 years to get city and state officials to agree to build a tunnel to replace the viaduct, and then for an army of workers to do the job with the help of Big Bertha, the largest tunnel-boring machine ever built.  Three weeks ago the viaduct closed for good, and those workers have been busy disconnecting Highway 99 from the old route and channeling  it into the new one.  Drivers have had to use alternate routes for those three weeks, which were nicknamed "Viadoom" for the traffic jams that were expected.  But Seattleites rose to the challenge and large numbers of them started their commutes earlier than usual, or switched to mass transit or cycling, or worked from home, and the city did not become a giant traffic jam.  But no one expects such good fortune to last forever, and the opening of the new tunnel to motor vehicles tomorrow, February 4th, is going to be a Big Deal for Seattle.

But what does this have to do with biking?  Well, yesterday and today were set aside as the public's chance to see the new tunnel up close on foot or by bike.  Close to 100,000 folks were there yesterday for an 8k fun run in the morning and casual strolls through the tunnel all afternoon.  Tens of thousands had timed admission tickets, and those who waited to long to get those and just showed up had to wait up to an hour to be allowed in.

Today was for the cyclists.  The Cascade Bicycle Club organized it with the help of Washington State DOT, and they sold out of all 12,000 spots weeks ago.  We we no slouches, and got our tickets the week they went on sale.  With that many participants, it now holds the record as the largest cycling event in state history.

Cyclists could start anytime between 8:30 and 10:30 am, and we got there roughly mid-way through that window.  It was chilly, 40 degrees Fahrenheit (3 C) and we had ridden 7 miles (10 km) to get there, so the bank of porta-potties was a welcome stop before heading on.  There were so many bikes at the beginning point two blocks from the tunnel that you had to walk your bike.

And then, there it was, that opening of the earth we've been waiting for all these years!

We joined many others in stopping on the side from time to time to take photos.  Here we are just 2 or 3 hundred yards/meters inside the tunnel, watching folks entering and heading down the surprisingly steep hill as the tunnel descends to a point that is actually below sea level before rising at the far end.

At regular intervals there are escape doors, should there be an emergency such as a vehicle crash that causes a fire, and you are always in view of easy-to read signs telling you where the nearest exit is.  We stopped at one and stepped inside the door.  A sign clearly told you where you were and how far it was to each exit at the north and south ends of the tunnel, and stairs took you down to the seemingly endless route out if you are in the southbound lanes (which are in the top of the tunnel bore) or up if you are escaping from the northbound lanes.

On we went, reassured we had a safe way out if all these bikes crashed and burned.  Burning might seem unlikely, crashing a bit less so when a dense wave of cyclists came along.  At last, the illustrious "light at the end of the tunnel!"

We had been underground for 2 miles.  At the south end we went another half mile or so out in the daylight until we came to a turnaround.  Along the way we passed the sign that told us the tunnel toll today was "free" and that we could pay that toll by mail!  How cool is that?  Actually, the tunnel will be free tomorrow for motor vehicles, and also for a few months more, as drivers get used to using it.  Then the fiscal axe will fall and tolling will begin.  As is common pretty much everywhere now, you have to have a transponder on your car to automate the process, otherwise they'll read your license plate and mail you a bill, plus a "convenience charge" of $2.  No worries for us -- bikes won't be allowed in the tunnel after today.

Just before reentering the tunnel we stopped to take a photo of the south entrance.  A tandem pulled up and the couple asked us if we're the folks who give talks about biking in Europe?  Why YES, that is us!!!  In the 5 1/2 years since we took our first extended bike trip in Europe we have given slide presentations over a dozen times to three different bike clubs and to three additional organizations that host presentations about all sorts of outdoor adventures, so we have become somewhat known around here.  It's fun to be recognized, but even more so when folks tell us they've been inspired to get out there pursuing their own adventures.  As they did today with this couple and then, 45 minutes later, with yet another rider!

The route north was pretty much the same as the one southbound except that we had an even bigger downhill this time, amplified by a south wind that was so strong it was even pushing through the tunnel.  We hit 32 mph (51 kph), and perhaps could have gone even a tad faster but we really didn't want to do that crash-and-burn thing with all the other bikes around us.

After the 2-mile trip north we once again came to the tunnel exit, looped around a few blocks, and entered the old tunnel.  We mentioned a viaduct earlier in this blog, and we were indeed headed toward it, but before the old highway got there it first dug under Denny Hill in a cut-and-cover tunnel, i.e. one just below the street that was dug out from above, not bored through the earth like the new tunnel.

We headed south in the former northbound lanes so that the turnaround in downtown would cause less interference with regular street traffic when we exited and then reentered the viaduct.  A large contingent of the Seattle Police Dept. bike patrol was there but apparently not needed for action dealing with large-scale crashes or other mayhem.

Like the viaduct we were headed toward, this tunnel is also ugly, ugly, ugly.  In a few weeks it will disappear.  It will be filled with concrete rubble from the viaduct as it gets dismantled, then gets sealed.  We wonder what archaeologists a millennium from now will make of this?

No one is going to miss this tunnel.  The viaduct is a little different.  Most everyone agrees it is not pretty and that it has cut Seattle off from its wonderful waterfront for 7 decades.  But driving it meant getting some wonderful if fleeting views from your car.window.  However, given that many drivers since the Nisqually Earthquake have been saying little prayers: "Please God, no earthquake today until I get off this thing," we all know it has to go.  So here are some of those views.  These are some of the last ones anyone will ever get from up here, as the viaduct was permanently closed at noon today, an hour after we exited from it, and demolition starts later this month.  The south end, just beyond the turnaround, was already permanently out of service, as the third photo below shows.

And just before the end of the ride, while stopped to take some of those photos, we had another wonderful surprise.  A dad and his son approached us. "You're the folks who spoke with young Zane two months ago at the University Village shopping mall, when he spent 20 minutes asking you all about your tandem bike.  As I told you then, he's just taken up biking and is fascinated by bikes, and he has often talked about those nice people who told him all about their tandem.  He saw you a minute ago and said we had to stop and say Hi.  We were soooo touched!  Let's hope Zane keeps his love of cycling, and his curiosity about bikes and much more!

We're not the type to take group rides, but boy, this was one humdinger of one.  Like Zane, we'll be talking about it for a long time to come.