PULLMAN – Cycling on the Palouse can feel a little like an epic adventure at sea.
Giant, wheat-covered hillsides meet the skyline, looking like golden oceanic swells. You chug upward, cresting that massive wave, then plunge down the other side. Repeat, again and again.
And like the middle of the ocean, the Palouse is largely empty of civilization. In other words, it’s a bicyclist’s paradise – which brings us to the Tour de Lentil.
If you need a good excuse to go on a major ride through some of the most scenic parts of the Palouse, this is it.
The Tour de Lentil takes place on Aug. 19. Riders have options for 50K, 100K and 150K routes, each offering challenges and adventure.
The rides, sponsored by the Washington State University Cycling Club, have several aid stations along the way, ending smack dab in the middle of the lively National Lentil Festival in downtown Pullman.
Once there, riders can recuperate by dining on creative recipes made from the humble legume, grab a local craft brew at the beer garden, watch a robust lineup of musical entertainment and hang out with a beloved felt-covered mascot named Tase T. Lentil, a vegetarian alternative to WSU’s Butch the Cougar.
What makes the Palouse so great for bicycling?
“The scenery,” says Sean Ellis, general manager for B & L Bicycles in Pullman, the town’s only bike shop. “We have the rolling hills of wheat on farm roads with very little traffic. Compared to riding in the city, it’s empty.”
“It’s peaceful,” says David Whidbee, a WSU finance professor and avid cyclist for the 20 years he has lived in Pullman. “All you hear is the tires on the road and the wind in your ears.”
And compared to city riding, any drivers you meet are likely to give you a wide berth and a friendly wave, Whidbee says.
“Not once have I had an issue with someone while out on the Palouse,” he says.
For cyclists who enjoy climbing, the Palouse offers some great challenges, says Margaux McBirney, president of the WSU Cycling Club.
“You don’t think that the Palouse rides are about climbing, but it’s amazing how much climbing you can pack in,” she says. “You get lots of little hills that add up.”
Cost of the Tour de Lentil varies by distance. The 50K ride is $45, 100K is $55 and 150K is $65. Aid stations with light snacks and water will be scattered every 15 to 17 miles. Aid vehicles will offer assistance for any mechanical breakdowns, or pick up riders who might need help finishing, McBirney says. Cyclists will receive a T-shirt and other swag for participating.
McBirney says the 50K route is a favorite of area cyclists, rolling through the town of Albion just north of Pullman.
“It’s a good, compact, efficient ride that we do all the time,” she said.
The 100K route is for riders who “are in good shape who want to challenge themselves,” McBirney says.
A recent sampling of the 100K route proved challenging indeed. The ride takes cyclists southwest from Pullman along State Route 194, then north to Colfax, followed by a grind westward along State Route 272 to the picture-perfect town of Palouse, under the gaze of beautiful 3,641-foot Kamiak Butte, followed by a return southward to Pullman on Highway 27.
The 150K route incorporates much of the 100K route, but turns north at Colfax to include a climb of Steptoe Butte, where riders will have an aid station. There, they can take a rest, refuel and take in the view.
“The 150K route is quite hard,” McBirney says. “It has 6,000 feet of climbing.”
Whichever ride you choose, the Tour de Lentil offers a fail-safe way to do a long ride in the Palouse, McBirney says. If you run out of strength to finish the ride, a support vehicle will be there to help.
“For a lot of people, (this event) is about setting a goal for themselves and challenging themselves,” she says.
After the Tour de Lentil is over, it’s time to party at the National Lentil Festival in Pullman’s Reany Park.
“We see 20,000 to 30,000 people at the festival every year,” says Britnee Packwood, director of event. Beside celebrating the agriculture of the area, the festival coincides with “move-in weekend,” marking the return of the busy fall semester at WSU.
“It’s a great opportunity for the new families to explore Pullman,” Packwood says.
John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Read his blog at SkiZer.org.