Up north of Seattle, near a southward jog of the Canadian border, lies a group of magical islands kissed by fresh sea breezes and plenty of sunshine. The four San Juan Islands serviced by state ferries are free of major development, which makes for great bicycling. Pretty much every road is a back road in the San Juans.
Riding the annual Tour de Lopez on Lopez Island is a great way to start the bicycling season, so some friends and I dust off our bicycles, pull on tight padded shorts, strap on bicycle helmets, and head north from the Seattle area for this year’s ride. With little traffic on I-5 when we leave (earlier than my taste on a weekend morning), the drive to Anacortes to catch the 8:30 ferry is about an hour and 20 minutes.
Often on summer weekends lots of bicyclists ride onto the San Juan ferry, but today we’re an overwhelming mass of shiny black lycra and rain shells as we wait to board for the 30-minute boat ride.
After we disembark at the north end of Lopez at Humphrey Head, we warm up fast with an uphill stretch along the tree-lined, two-lane road. Hills are a great way to separate the real bicyclists from the rest of us. I break a sweat within about 5 minutes.
Lopez is a mellow, fairly flat island, without any killer hills, which makes it the most popular San Juan Island with bicyclists. Tour de Lopez riders have a choice of four distances (5, 10, 18, and 31 miles), and I opt for the 18 mile route because of a fussy Achilles tendon. Although several hundred ride today, we spread out pretty quickly after check-in at Odlin County Park.
This is not a competitive ride. It’s about getting good exercise, maybe seeing old friends, and enjoying this friendly island. How many places do you know where drivers routinely lift their fingers off the steering wheel (the “Lopez wave”) to greet oncoming traffic?
We start by breezing south past Shoal and Swifts Bays on the northeast side of the island. For much of the ride we’re inland, riding along mostly level roads past bucolic, forest-fringed pastures where happy cows loll in the fresh island air. So I’m anthropomorphizing, but how could a cow not be happy here? How could anyone not be happy here?
I’m especially happy to see a good friend and former college roommate at one of the stops along the way.
“Ride with me!” Carina tells me after a hug. Good plan since I won’t see the friend I came with (one of the real bicyclists) until the finish in Lopez Village.
About halfway through the ride, bright sunshine and blue skies finally break through. Can it really be spring at last? Could it be any more idyllic and pastoral? Everything shimmers a brilliant spring green in the clean island air.
“I used to be a Bobby, guarded the Queen for a while,” says Graham, a retired British ex-pat who lives in Anacortes and rides alongside us for a while. “Never saw her smile.” After a few minutes of entertaining conversation, he pulls away in a flash of bright yellow and red spandex.
Before it seems possible, we’re coasting down one of the few decent hills on the island toward Fisherman’s Bay and quaint Lopez Village, where the post-ride lunch/party is happening.
It’s the biggest party of the year in the village, and a few hundred of us hungry cyclists chow down on tasty pulled pork, bratwurst, barbeque chicken, veggie burgers, salads, and cookies courtesy of the Bay Café (or so I was told). With musicians playing and tables spread out on the village green, there’s lots of hugs and laughter along with good appetites.
"I’d like to catch the 1:30 ferry,” says Rich. I can stop relaxing because now we have to dash 4.5 miles to the ferry going as fast as we can to make it. And my foot hurts. (Personally I recommend taking your time and enjoying an afternoon on the island.)
About a mile from the ferry we see a stream of cars heading towards the village that have come off the ferry. Dang, that means they’re loading already! And there’s still a hill to climb ahead.
“Slow down!” yells the ferry worker at us as we speed onto the ferry just as the gate is closing. Whew, that was close. Now we can really relax and enjoy the beauty of a San Juan ferry cruise (designated a State Scenic Byway in 2008) back to the mainland.
When You Go
The Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce organizes the Tour de Lopez each April; check their website in a few months for next year’s date. Their website has a slideshow of this year’s ride. But regardless, get yourself up to Lopez with your bicycle any time of year!