Troy Hopwood gets called a lot of things by riders of the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route (XWA), but “a wizard” and “evil genius” seem to rank pretty high up there. His brainchild is a public mountain bike route that crosses the state of Washington almost completely on dirt, covering 690 miles and 48,697 feet of climbing, providing you don’t get lost or have to take a detour.
On a combination of singletrack, gravel roads, doubletrack and a few stretches of pavement, the Cross-Washington traverses a wide range of ecosystems; temperate rainforests dripping moss, ancient cedar forests carpeted in ferns, mountain passes, desert canyons, and post-glacial scablands. As you may imagine, there are spectacular views around every corner.
Riders cross the route year-round, but every year in May a rowdy ragtag crowd of brave bikepackers gather in the northwest corner of the state on First Beach for a self-supported race. The Grand Depart begins with a ceremonial dip of your back wheel in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, then riders travel east across the state until the official finish in Tekoa, just south of Spokane.
If you haven’t suffered enough, you finish with a few extra miles in a “victory lap” to the Idaho border and back to Tekoa. There seems to be a movement among those who have ridden the victory lap in wet conditions and peanut butter mud to call these last miles Satan’s Highway. Most years, the finisher rate for the Cross-Washington ranges between 50-60%.
The creation of the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route
What inspired Hopwood, an ultra-endurance athlete and brand ambassador, to create an epic event like this? While he was on a winter bike-packing adventure around the Fools Loop in Arizona, he was kind enough to answer some questions about the process.
At the time he started scouting trails for what would become the Cross-Washington, Hopwood had raced mountain bikes for around 15 years. In 2014 he decided he was going to take on a life-changing adventure he had fantasized about for years: racing the Tour Divide.
For those unfamiliar, the Tour Divide follows the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route (2,745 miles) and climbs the equivalent of Mt. Everest from sea level seven times (nearly 200,000 feet).
“XWA started as my training ground for the Tour Divide race,” said Hopwood “As a result, you can find a bit of everything in the Divide on the XWA route. Once I learned how the Palouse To Cascades trail (PTCT) was almost lost forever due to some shady politics, I merged my training route with the Palouse to Cascades Trail and it became a cross-state route.”
The “shady politics” Hopwood refers to involved Washington state representatives, who in 2015 attempted to close a 130-mile-long section of the PTCT (then known as the John Wayne Trail) without any public review or comment, citing concerns such as the trail’s purported “lack of use.” This was only halted by a typo in the capitol budget which temporarily nullified the amendment. Luckily this error brought the attempted closure to the attention of trail users and community members along the trail who advocated against the closure and for future improvements.
Hopwood also mentioned that while training for the Divide, he had to travel far to train for long-distance bikepacking races. His hope is that providing great bikepacking routes in Washington makes it easier for others to grow in the sport.
The Cross-Washington Experience
I spoke with five riders who have completed the Cross-Washington, some who raced, some who toured at other times of the year. The following excerpts have been lightly edited.
Justin Short is the godfather of the Gravel Braintrust which their bio describes as “a community of adventure-oriented riders from across the globe, turning pedals wherever pedals probably ought not be turnt.”
Short has ridden the Cross-Washington twice, in 2019 and 2021. In 2021 he placed 8th, finishing 700+ miles (thanks to some detours) in six days and 21 hours.
Here is an excerpt from his trip report about his sixth day on the trail:
- 211 miles
- Almost 10,000 feet
Off I went from Ephrata at 4AM. I’d slept in a bit hoping to orchestrate a sunrise finish on Tekoa Mountain. The mountain top finish was an inside joke with XWA organizer, Troy Hopwood, from when I conned him into coming out to Spokane for the Mt. Doom Fun Ride. The weather was TERRIBLE, and we bailed out at the bottom of Mt Doom and took tailwind into Tekoa for burgers, beer and a spouse Über home. Coming into Tekoa, Troy pointed at the radio towers on the mountain, shouting, “that’s your finish line up there, Justin, or you get a DNF!!”
This day’s ride was a major milestone for me. I’d ridden one other double century last year, but I didn’t have 500 miles in the legs, I wasn’t riding a loaded bike and I certainly didn’t have that horrible 39-mile-long almost unrideable, loose, rocky, tumble weedy, sandy and utterly miserable section of the John Wayne trail (Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail) from Warden to Ralston…
I was accompanied by the moon for the last 31 miles from Rosalia, and my hands and feet had turned into solid blocks of ice. I don’t think it was all that cold out there, but it felt just like it does when I shovel snow barefoot in my underwear. So I definitely got a little clumsy on the bike. Catching my front tire on a dried mud rut, I launched myself off into some tall wet grass a few times.
I was relatively comfortable for a day this long on the bike, but the closer I got to the Idaho border, the more I wondered if it would ever come. And all at once, there it was: STATE LINE ROAD! Now all I needed to do was turn a hard right and zoom down 5.6 miles of dirt rollercoaster roads back into Tekoa for the finish. I counted 17 punchy climbs on that stretch. I’d hoped granny gearing up those things would warm me up, but it was blasting down the backside of each of those hills that I really began to appreciate the turtle’s pace I’d been riding the last few hours. My core was still warm, but those high speed descents weren’t helping. But there was no way in hell I was going to pump the brakes…”
If you’re wondering, Short did make it to the top of Tekoa Mountain as directed but stopped to eat some brownies with his wife first. As is proper.
The women riding across Washington
The group Washington Bikepacking Women was newly founded in October of this year. One of their goals is to increase the women’s turnout at the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route in 2023. One thing Hopwood pointed out is the small number of female riders at the mass start.
“Historically there has [often] been only one woman or sometimes zero who show up at the start,” he said. “I’m really excited to see the women’s group grow as there are a lot of women who want to take on the event but don’t for various reasons. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get more women to participate for a while.”
Washington Bikepacking Women have plans to organize some group overnighters when the weather warms up and hope to provide a supportive community for learning about bikepacking in general and also training for this particular event. If this is something that interests you, join their Facebook group!
Four founding members of Washington Bikepacking Women have completed the Cross-Washington: Sarah Graham, Irena Netik, Keri Bergere, and Annie Bilotta.
Graham toured the Cross-Washington in July of 2022 with her friend Evan. She and Evan rode their bikes to the start line in La Push from Seattle, which is over 150 miles by car. After they hit the finish at Tekoa, they kept riding. Graham stopped in Missoula while Evan continued on for another week through the Tetons. By the end of her ride, she had covered 1,188 miles with 71,998 feet of elevation gain in 19 days, one of which was a rest day.
There is a lot of elevation gain and drop on the XWA. For Graham, they were all in stride.
“The best part was the Teanaway (the community forest between Roslyn and Wenatchee),” she said. “It was really tough climbing but the views were jaw-dropping and the descents were insanely fun. The worst part was the deep 2” cobble trail surface of the Palouse to Cascades trail east of Lind. Getting bumped and tossed around by the stuff made every mile feel like two – both physically and mentally. Also, having to stop to open and close cattle gates in this long stretch of the route really messed with keeping any sort of mental momentum through the cobble.”
Netik raced the XWA in 2021. In October of 2022 she also raced the Washington High-Lite route (which consists of arguably the most scenic 319 miles of the XWA) to finish first female rider and sixth overall. Netik had her own highs and lows.
“The best part of XWA was the camaraderie. I shared some life-altering experiences with fellow riders such as sharing a pit toilet to get out of the rain overnight, telling stories over donuts in Edmonds, securing water in Malden, carrying bikes while wading through creeks in Douglas Canyon, etc. Dot-watchers followed the race and came out to cheer. Riders and their support crews waited for me at the finish. I love the fact that although I am on my own, completely self-sufficient, I didn’t feel alone and made new friends.”
The nitty gritty: What you need to know for the XWA
Riders shared the following tips about the XWA.
Justin Short: The thing I was most jazzed about the second time around was the Lauf fork. I got the hell knocked out of me the first time, and I bought that fork pretty much the next day, and as I suspected, it changed my life. Last year I reached Tekoa feeling relatively OK. It also really helped that I didn’t get saddle sores. I had switched to a leather saddle the year before. It’s so much easier to laugh about the hilarious stuff that happens out there where your bum isn’t crying out in pain. I went with a Selle Anitomica leather saddle. The break-in process is pretty forgiving once you figure out the nose angle.
Keri and Annie both stated that a bandana was an important piece of gear.
“My lips got very sunburned and I got the bandana a bit too late to really help,” said Bilotta. “It will be a crucial piece of equipment from now on. I also love my Revelate feed bags. One holds a water bottle and the other holds my day snacks making it very easy to eat while on the go.“
Sarah Graham’s choice erred on enabling quality food, fuel, and convenience.
“This would be a tie between my new MSR PocketRocket 2 stove and my Kula Cloth,” she said. “The stove allowed me to make much more satisfying camp meals (like red beans and rice with andouille sausage which was my favorite one of the trip) without having to resort to dehydrated bag meals. And my Kula Cloth was a game changer when I got it in 2021. I never saw the need for a pee cloth until I got one and now I don’t know how I ever lived without it!“
What they wish they knew before
“There are two things that stand out,” said Irena Netik. “First, I didn’t know how to completely fuel my body from gas station food for days/weeks at a time. As a result, I carried food for 3-4 days which added way too much weight. I only needed about 1.5 days of food because there are great re-supply stops (ie gas stations) pretty well distributed through the entire route.
Second, how to ride through the night, day after day. I commuted by bike in the city and that provided me with plenty of night riding but I haven’t been all by myself, on the bike, in the woods. I actually didn’t plan to ride at night and only had a headlight for camping. It’s important to try out your light systems at night in similar riding conditions, preferably on a safe trail, a short distance from home, so that you can easily bail if the systems fail. Even if you don’t plan to ride through the night during the event, be prepared to just in case.“
“I wish I had packed less gear,” said Keri Begere. “I did massive research prior to XWA, but still over-packed. I find it is a process, and each ride I am getting better.”
A final dash of encouragement
While the route might seem intimidating, Netik insists it’s a learning process and not to be afraid.
“The gear and logistics can feel overwhelming but there is a lot of gear and experience that transfers from backpacking,” she said. “The barriers to entry don’t have to be as high as we make them out to be. Any well-maintained bike with wide tires and decent tire clearance will work for the most part. To start, getting a frame bag and a saddle bag is probably necessary but the rest of the stuff can be strapped to your bike. Don’t feel that you need to have everything figured out. This is a trial and error type of adventure sport. Find a friend who has done this type of thing and learn from them.”
Sarah Graham was uncertain about the mass start and inserting competition into something she does for fun, but she is going to try it anyway this year.
“It’s a really tough sport with highs that are really high and lows that can be really low,” she said. “The thought of having that extra layer of the stress of competition added to those lows was entirely unappealing to me.
“I also felt that racing would erode the amazing highs of bikepacking: stopping to enjoy views, taking pictures, chatting with locals, and enjoying sit-down meals. But I decided to line up at the XWA Grand Depart in 2023 in spite of all this. I am super excited to have camaraderie with other racers and to test my limits by pushing harder through both mental and physical barriers.”
For interested riders, the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route Facebook page is a wealth of information. It is also an incredible community that shares recommendations on gear, training, campsites, saddle sore first aid… you name it. Some people have March Madness–I have Grand Depart dot-watching. Hopefully I’ll be able to follow some of you out there racing on May 21st!