Gorge Roubaix: Hell of the Northwest
Gorge Roubaix returned for its third running at the end of March, 2015, as racers and gravel grinders alike amassed in The Dalles, Oregon – a small, 15,000-person city nestled in the Columbia River Gorge at the end of the Oregon Trail, 85 miles due east of Portland and 36 miles north of Mt Hood.
Gravel Grinders and Rocking Roubaixs
Gorge Roubaix features two big-ass races with plenty of climbing and copious dirt/gravel, as well as a new non-competitive “gravel grinder” event on Sunday. Day 1 ranges between 32 miles long with 2,500 feet of elevation gain for beginners and 62 miles and 5,400 feet for Elites, while Day 2 offers 50- and 75-mile courses with 3,400 and 6,120 feet of elevation, respectively.
“Gravel grinder” may not be cycling’s most appealing ride type description, and “Roubaix” one of the sport’s biggest misnomers. That iconic race stretching from Compiegne (just north of Paris) to the northern French city of Roubaix is the root of the plethora of “Roubaix” events: basically any road course that incorporates sections of dirt, sand, gravel or cobbles has this word pasted onto its title. But the appeal of gravel grinders is undeniable, and riding and racing on gravel surfaces has become one of the biggest trends in the sport.
Gravel and dirt roads reward riders with dramatically reduced car traffic and access to remote areas otherwise unreachable. Riding – let alone racing – along these routes has an element of the heroic. It’s just damned hard. Leave your weight weenie gear behind, make sure what you run can stand up to lots of abuse (including your body parts), and pay particular attention to your wheels and tires.
Chad Sperry and his Breakaway Promotions team have put on some of the biggest races in the Northwest, including the Mount Hood Classic, Cascade Cycling Classic, Tour of Utah and a whole bunch of USA Cycling road and mountain bike National Championships. When Sperry & co. handle an event, racers know that it’s worth making the trip – whatever the destination.
And The Dalles is Sperry’s own backyard. He’s ridden the hell out of these roads himself, and he knows how to put on a world-class show. As he told me, “Gorge Roubaix is my way to give back to the community, to show off the amazing riding we have here, and to encourage people to come here to ride more.”
The Dalles and Wasco County are making a concerted effort to promote cycling, according to Sperry. And he sees the appeal, too. “Summer is not the time to be out here cycling – it gets blazing hot. But February through May, I will put The Dalles against anybody in the Northwest,” said Sperry. “We have the warmer temperatures coming out of Portland with the marine climate, but we are also in a rain shadow here. We’re averaging 12 inches of rain a year; Portland could pull that off in a wet month. And although paved options are limited, by taking advantage of the almost limitless array of 100 to 150-year-old gravel and dirt farming roads out here, we can just blow the lid off of the opportunities for unbelievable loops and rides. And there’s no one out there – you can hit some of these roads and not see a single vehicle for two- to three-hour stretches.”
Gorgeous Riders: A Wonderful, Mixed Bag
What does it take to prevail at Gorge Roubaix? In traditional, dated cycling parlance, it’s a classic “hard man’s race” – we’ll call it a warrior’s event. It’s not just a battle against competitors and climbs, but against rocks, bumps, vibrations, potholes, loose corners, and wind. Of course it’s tough physically, but mentally you just can’t let up either. Constantly scan the road ahead for sharp rock-fins that will end your day as you hurtle along, glued to the wheel in front of you, trying to catch those damned skinny climbers who dropped you on the way up. Much like the way a cyclocross race is a meeting point between roadies, cross country racers, ’cross specialists and even enduro people, Gorge Roubaix brings out an eclectic mix.
The races are, at their heart, road events. Team tactics play a role, but the first day features enough concentrated climbing – including one 25-minute pitch that’s at least half gravel each lap – that the pure billy goats rise to the top and coalesce. Still, teamwork can be effective, as my Hosmer Chiropractic – RPM Mortgage team proved on the second day, taking the win and placing four riders in the top 10, with two on the podium.
Being comfortable on dirt is critical – for maintaining traction on the climbs of the first day, but even more so for the super-fast, long dirt descents of Day 2. Mountain bikers and ‘crossers swelled the ranks, with riders from all over the Northwest – Washington, B.C., Idaho and of course Oregon – making the trek to the rural, farm-surrounded community.
Ned Overend – the 60-year-old superstar who won the first edition of the UCI XC World Championship back in 1990, just took home the first Fat Bike National Championship in March, 2015, and garnered a host of other national and world road, mountain, cyclocross and XTERRA titles in between – made the trip up to The Dalles and survived each whittling down of the field to eventually take fourth in the Elite race on Saturday.
It was Bend resident and roadie climber Cameron Clark of Team Oregon who took the win, sprinting away from a small group. And 19-year-old youngster Adam Oliver, my teammate and a roadie destined for big things, took the big W on Day 2.
Long time Giant Mountain bike pro and elite cyclocross racer Carl Decker showed up for his first ever gravel events, although he’s been riding on all kinds of surfaces for eons. Heck, the guy even races rally cars with teammate and former MTB Olympian Adam Craig in their “down time,” and back in 2005 Decker brought home the Elite National Road Championship. Decker took hard-fought 12th and 6th-place finishes Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Elite cyclocrosser and mountain biker Erik Tonkin made his presence known too, boldly venturing off the front in several breakaway bids on Day 1.
The women’s races emphasized dirt handling as well, with Pro mountain bikers claiming the top podium steps each day. Bend’s Serena Bishop Gordon won from a small group the first day, and Portland’s Megan Chinburg dominated the second by creating a substantial gap via a hard downhill attack on the dirt leading to a 25-mile solo break: victory in amazing style. But roadie Brenna Wrye-Simpson was on the podium both days, claiming a second and a third place and proving that skinny-tired folks can be in the mix, too.
The Gear for the Gorge
Equipment selection is always important, but adverse conditions make this even more crucial. Broken stuff is really slow. And like the variety of competitors who attend the Gorge Roubaix, one of the coolest things about these races is the blend of setups that people bring out – everything from full-on aero race bikes to disc brake cyclocross rigs to purpose-specific gravel steeds.
Day 1 of Gorge Roubaix features plenty of gravel, but since it’s almost all on climbs you’re less likely to slice a tire, pinch a tube or taco a wheel. Day 2, however, has a healthy dose of high-speed gravel descending sure to test skills and gear.
The discussions about “what to run” are reminiscent of a ’cross race, with questions about bike choice, tire width and durability replacing tread and tire pressure chatter. Think 23mm lightweight road race tires will suffice? Just ask my teammate, Carl Hoefer, who had several flats on Sunday alone after flatting on Saturday, too.
Ironically it’s the racers who really need the durable gear here. If you’re there for the experience and to grind some gravel – even if you’re descending quickly – you’re probably not in a pack that’s holding mach speeds and drifting through corners. It’s that ludicrous velocity coupled with lack of visibility while in the midst of a semi-reckless group that can spell disaster.
I went out for a pre-ride / photo and video shoot with Castelli a month before the event, and I had pretty close to a perfect setup: 25mm IRC tubeless tires on some HiFi Mix Tape aluminum clinchers. We were gleefully descending right on the camera car’s bumper, quite rapidly, and shredding right along … until I walloped a babyhead that I never saw coming at over 35 mph, slicing my tire and shooting sealant across the road.
My Hosmer Chiropractic – RPM Mortgage team’s race-day equipment selection (perhaps excluding Carl) actually serves as a pretty interesting example of different setups that can work well. We’re sponsored by Giant, a company that lives up to its name and makes quite an array of bikes. Several of us who normally race on Propels – Giant’s full-on aero race bikes – opted for the more versatile TCR model, mostly because of the ability to run fatter tires, and we scored some loaners from the rental fleet of our extremely generous shop sponsor, Sellwood Cycle Repair.
Adam Oliver, my teammate who won the second day from a two-man breakaway, ran his Propel with low-profile aluminum clinchers and 25mm Clement Strada clincher tires. Note, however, that the kid also weighs sub-130 pounds.
I left my Propel at home and opted for an aluminum TCR loaner with a 28mm Schwalbe One tubeless tire in front and a 25mm IRC RBCC tubeless tire in back, both mounted to HiFi Hit Single 50mm carbon clinchers. I was quite frankly blown away by just how good modern aluminum bikes can be – especially with some extra cush in the tires – and how much bang can be had for a relatively short buck. Although I’m sure the extra wheel depth I ran came in handy on the flats, I mostly opted for these wheels so they’d serve as bigger billboards: I’m one of the owners of HiFi. For the non-wheel-company owners, I think lower profile wheels is probably the smarter choice, and aluminum may the better way to go for most folks.
Carl Decker told me that he expected to struggle to remain in contact with the front group on the uphills since he’s still pretty early into building up his race-season fitness. He ran his Giant TCX disc cyclocross bike with a 28mm Schwalbe One rear clincher and a 31mm knobby Rocket Ron tubular on a deeper carbon wheel up front. His plan was to call on his enviable skills to rail the descents to make up for any lost time, but he kept up just fine throughout the weekend even with that extra rolling resistance.
Beers and Bike Love
Day Two finishes with a 500-meter, kind of mean little kicker to the line after a 10-mile, mostly flat and fast run-in. Cross the line, continue up and over the small hill, and descend right into the heart of downtown The Dalles where beer tickets and a sunny deck await you. The podium presentation is on a closed-off street right out front, the draft beer selections staggering, and the camaraderie and overall vibe exactly what bike racing and gravel grinding should be all about.
The Gorge Roubaix keeps getting more attention and will continue to grow, but under Sperry’s watchful eye, its character will undoubtedly remain. Next year, come and be a part of it. And bone up on your gravel climbing – and descending.
About the Author
Josh Liberles has been all about bikes for a long time. He has written for a whole bunch of publications, cycling and otherwise, and was the editor of Cyclocross Magazine for several years. He currently runs HiFi Sound Cycling Components, a wheel company based in Portland, Oregon (his official title is “Super Domestique”) and races as a Cat 1 for the Hosmer Chiropractic – RPM Mortgage Cycling Team.