Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hypermiling Triumph

Please indulge me while I toot my horn. 

Ever since I moved to Salt Lake City five years ago I’ve had my mind set on a single goal.  It is not a cycling goal, nor is it a career goal.  It’s not something for which I would earn a prize, prestige, a medal or even a ribbon upon its accomplishment, but it is something I have worked toward every time the opportunity presented itself.   I have failed so many times that I started to believe it was impossible, nevertheless it’s so compelling that Ryan and Paz are trying to do it too. 

Last night while driving home from a mountain bike race in Park City I finally did it.  I coasted all the way down Parley’s Canyon. 

To the uninitiated this seems easy or stupid or dangerous, but I say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  For those of you not from the Wasatch Front, Parley’s Canyon is just east of Salt Lake City, between Park City and SLC.  Interstate 80 runs through it, so it’s a major thoroughfare with lots of traffic, big trucks and steep grades.  It climbs 2,240 feet in the 10 miles between the canyon mouth and the 7,120 foot pass called Parley’s Summit. 

There are a several challenges to coasting all the way down I-80 through Parley’s Canyon.  To begin, the top is so steep that coasting down is asking for a speeding ticket.  You could easily hit speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour by coasting through the entire upper section—and you’ll never be able to boast of your hypermiling abilities if you crash and die because you coasted around a curve at that speed.  It’s also uncool to scare the bejeezus out of your fellow road users by blowing past them at such dangerous speeds.  So the only option is to scrub off a bit of speed by using your brakes. 

But don’t scrub too much.  You will need that momentum to make it through the first flat-ish section near Mountain Dell.  Here the canyon curves to the north for about a mile before curving south again and getting even less steep.   This is a good time to start looking for semis to draft.  There’s a nice steep pitch by Little Dell Reservoir, but you’ve got to play it just right because there’s a long flat section just beyond it.  Keep an eye on your rear view mirror here because you want to see those semis before they squash you like a bug on their windshield. 

There is one more chance to pick up some speed before the mouth of the canyon, and you’ve got to take full advantage of it if you’re going to make it all the way.  With luck you can tuck in behind one of those semis that had to swerve around you and let him pull you all the way up the small rise at the mouth of the canyon.  If you can do that then you’re home free.  Coasting down to the valley floor is academic as long as nobody pulls the classic Utah no-look, no-signal merge on you.

My night of glory was the result of perfect storm of provident fortune and adroit skill.  I was returning from a mountain bike race but I had put my bike inside my car instead of on the roof rack, ostensibly to improve my gas mileage but really because it eliminates the risk me of driving into the garage with it still up there when I get home.  Normally the added drag of the bike on the roof slows me down in the lower, less-steep parts of the canyon.  But I needed more help than that.  At one point I actually pushed in the clutch and put my car in gear, until I noticed a slight tailwind that pushed me through the toughest section.  I pulled it back out of gear and released the clutch pedal.  Only then did I realize I was on the verge of something magical. 

With white knuckles, I moved from semi to semi, trying to get maximum pull from every one, but they all slowly pulled away from me.  I was starting the final climb before the mouth.  A check of my rear view mirror for another semi to draft left me disappointed—nothing was coming.  I’d never make it without another pull, would I?  Then it hit me, I realized with no traffic behind me, it didn’t matter how slow I was going.  All I had to do was ride it out.  My speedometer dipped below 30 mph before I finally crested the hill and had a view of Salt Lake Valley.   Oh what a glorious sight!  The only thing between me and my dream now was the unlikely event of a traffic jam or the very likely event of a bad Utah-merge.  But luck and the hypermiling gods were on my side that night.  By now there were two pickup trucks pulling camper trailers waiting patiently behind me while I picked up speed and entered the valley.  I actually made it back to freeway speed before my exit at 1300 East.  There is a stoplight at the end of the off ramp that I coasted through just for good measure. 

Success never felt so good.