What's Cool In Road Cycling

Travel: Cycle Oregon

New England has some of the best cycling in the country. So why pack up your bike and fly 3,000 miles just to see what it looks like on the other coast? Because it’s Cycle Oregon, that’s why. CO isn’t a race, but it’s still a very challenging event – a little less than 500 miles in 7 riding days, including 25,000 feet of elevation gain. You sleep in a tent. And you’re tired when you get home.

– Reported by John Flumerfelt –

It’s a pretty unique adventure that combines camping, riding and some of the attributes of a Caribbean cruise – there’s lots of free food, you can get a massage, and there’s beer, pizza, and stage show every night, assuming you can stay awake for it.

The Foundation
The basic premise of Cycle Oregon is to celebrate the amazing geographic diversity and rich cultural heritage of rural Oregon. This year we were deep in the heart of Lewis and Clark and Gold Rush country, among the sage brush and Douglas Fir.

Event organizers work with local communities up to a year in advance to iron out a mind-boggling array of logistical details. Like where to put 2,000 riders in a town that might be less than half that size. Just to give you a sense of how much local support CO enjoys, the communities of Union and Athena even let us camp on their well irrigated, perfectly manicured high school football fields. They don’t even let soccer players on those fields!

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things…
Some of our group’s favorite memories from this year’s CO include things like:

-The smell of wheat and wild sage;

-Riding into the proud, Irish-settled town of Heppner on Day 1 and being welcomed by young men on horseback in formal cowboy attire waving their hats in the air and young women dressed as 19th Century bar maids saying “Hey Fella, whatcha doin’ later?”

-Having lunch in the beautiful town of Ukiah (Haiku spelled backwards – pretty cool!).

-Hearing about life on a cattle ranch in Starkey (population: 30) from the town’s 13-year-old Mayor.

-Riding into Union on Day 4 and having the entire elementary school out on Main Street cheering and welcoming us to town.

-Cresting the 7,298 foot Elkhorn Summit at Anthony Lake State Park after 25 miles of steady climbing … and then getting safely down the other side.

Descending out of Dead Man’s Pass.

Get Your Ride On
A typical riding day this year ranged from 50 to 100 miles with 3,000 to 5,000+ feet of elevation gain. The route is fully supported with SAG vehicles and well-provisioned rest stops.

The really nice thing about a fully-supported ride is that you don’t have to carry all your gear, so you can either hammer and try to hang on to the faster pace lines or just plug along, enjoy the scenery, and have a conversation or two.

Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that it’s OK to just ride for fun.

Riders some to Cycle Oregon from all corners of the globe, but most are from the Portland area (the “other” Portland). So one of the cool things about our little group is that when people asked where we were from we could say: “We’re from Portland …. Maine.” It was always a good conversation starter.

That’s a LOT of tents.

Limits And Day To Day Living
Riders have a one-bag, 60 lb limit for gear and have two choices for nightly accommodations: you can either bring your own tent or hire a tent and porter service that will have everything set up for you when you get in camp.

Riders who don’t use that option have the extra daily challenge of finding their duffle in a pile that may include 1,000 similar looking bags, so it’s a good idea to customize your bag, or decide to arrive late enough in the afternoon so that yours is the only one left.

Actually, we found it’s much better (and less embarrassing) to get in fairly early so you can set up camp, hit the showers, relax, visit the Widemer Brothers Beer Garden, or get a massage or acupuncture treatment, or just wander around town and soak up some local flavor before chow time.

Ride hard, eat, drink, rest, have fun. It’s a pretty good formula.

A CO campsite, as we discovered this year, is not too different than the kind of setup they use to support forest fire crews. (On Day 4 we rode by a major fire crew encampment. It was like a small military base.)

That’s a LOT of blue rooms.

Each afternoon we arrived to find a portable city capable of meeting the daily needs of 2,000 riders – plus volunteers, vendors, and support crews – with food, water, showers, toilets (the affectionately named Blue Rooms) and other basic needs, such ice cold chocolate milk, pizza, live music, and espresso.

That’s a lot of food, water, and Blue Rooms, especially when you think about the fact that everything – absolutely everything – is on a carry-in, carry-out basis. Then after breakfast the next day the whole operation packs up and moves to the next site. The logistics are unbelievable and it’s pretty amazing to see how well they make it all work.

A Minor Glitch
We had a minor glitch in Starkey on Day 2. The nearest drinking water source (that could support a city of 2,000) was 40 miles away. It turned out we had to share some of our water tanker trucks with fire crews who were fighting a local wildfire, which ended up taking a couple shower trucks out of commission for the afternoon. It made for some long lines at the remaining showers but I don’t think it ruined anyone’s day.

In fact, the wildfire actually had a silver lining for us. For a couple days it looked like one of the trip’s highlights – the fabled 25-mile, 2,500 foot climb up to Anthony Lakes and the 7,200 foot Elkhorn Summit – was going to be closed because of the fire.

Ted Darling and Jon Chamoff on the 20-mile climb up to Elkhorn Pass. A long grind but pretty relaxing compared with their effort on the Mt Washington Hill Climb this summer!

Fortunately, they were able to reopen the road just in time, but only for CO riders and support vehicles, so we had the road to ourselves. It couldn’t have worked out any better. The climb and the descent were memorable, and so was having lunch on the shore of a beautiful alpine lake under a clear blue sky.

We had one other logistical glitch on Day 6, which again had a silver lining. It had snowed at elevation the day before and closed a 5,000-foot pass we were supposed to traverse, requiring a last minute complete reroute.

This is kind of a big deal when you think about marking the route and setting up rest stops and lunch and radio communications and moving Blue Rooms around to where people need them. Not to mention the need to find good roads for riding.

Happy campers after another epic day in the saddle. Tired, happy, a little chilly and ready for some chow.

Getting The Job Done
Amazingly CO came up with an alternate that was not only workable but (despite some cold, damp weather) turned out to be some of the best riding on the trip. They even managed to coordinate lunch at a state park that allowed us to warm up inside around the woodstove (CO volunteers brought in the firewood).

Not bad for last-minute planning. Or did they have a whole backup plan worked out ahead of time? Who knows? But these guys are scary good at what they do.

Since we were in the high desert this year, it could get pretty cold at night, just hovering above freezing a couple mornings when we arose at “o-dark-hundred.” It’s hard to remember to put on sunscreen in those conditions, and we also learned it’s also a good idea to keep your chamois cream nice and warm in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night. Think about it.

Riding through cowboy country. Aero bars are very helpful when you’re fighting a monster headwind.

The Oddities Of The High Desert
Another challenge is that if you started out in full winter riding gear you’d look and feel kind of stupid by noon when it would warm up to 90 degrees. But of course CO has this logistical problem figured out too: they provide a gear drop at lunch so you can dump your booties and leg warmers and pick them up back at camp.

On a fairly strenuous multi-day ride like this your metabolism really kicks into high gear. So eating becomes an important focus. You need to pay close attention to nutrition and hydration. We found the key is to cram every calorie you can down the old pie hole.

Eating Is Numero Uno
There’s a full breakfast and dinner every day at camp, plus lunch and gels and other snacks on the road, but it’s still a good idea to bring along your own supply of your favorite sports nutrition product. If necessary, you can always resort to low-tech solutions like Mountain Dew and Twizzlers.

A rider stops to smell the roses. At least that’s what I think he’s doing.

To keep all the bikes running smoothly, the trip includes a fully-equipped portable bike shop and mechanics crew, compliments of the Bike Gallery in Portland. Mechanics are ready to provide wrench support whenever you need it from the crack of dawn until well past midnight.

Bike Rodeo
These guys (and gals) also provide the unfortunately unforgettable, once-a-year show called Bike Rodeo. You don’t really want to know too much about Bike Rodeo. Just imagine a demolition derby with a bunch of wrench-monkey mountain biker types who don’t mind breaking bikes and the occasional body part just to give the crowd a thrill. It makes you wonder who (in their right mind) provides their workers comp insurance.

But the real Cycle Oregon experience is on the road, and the riding is great. Some of the best you’ll ever find.

Northeast Oregon – Not Bad At All
This year we rode a loop through the northeast corner of the state, experiencing a slice of the awesome Columbia River Valley, the Blue Mountains, and the Elkhorn range. It was a stunning route with high mountain passes, sage brush-covered rolling hills, and jaw-dropping vistas.

Unlike my neck of the woods here in Maine, in Oregon you can frequently see all the way to the horizon, like the memorable view we had on Day 6 when we came down out of the mountains over Dead Man’s Pass and, just like Lewis and Clark, saw the Columbia River Valley and mostly flat land ahead, heading west toward the Willamette Valley.

All The Climbing You Can Handle And Then Some
Also, there’s not much climbing in this part of New England that compares to what you can find Out West, like 20+ mile climbs with an average grade of 6 or 7 percent, followed by screaming downhills that can be so long you kind of get bored (except you could die if you get your line wrong on the switchbacks), followed by another 20-mile climb to totally toast the legs.

All of which helps ease the guilt you would otherwise feel hanging out at the Beer Garden.

By the way, we noticed that triple cranks aren’t so much of a stigma out west. There were some very fit riders on Cycle Oregon this year, but not many who looked too happy grinding a 39 by 23 gear up one of those 20-mile hills.

8, 9, 10 Hours A Day For Some
Of course, the real heroes on this kind of ride aren’t the hotshots that finish first but those not-so-fit types who spend 8 or 9 or 10 hours on the bike everyday and have to put up with everyone else yelling “on your left” at them. You know someone’s had a really long day in the saddle when you see them ride directly into the Beer Garden just before dark without even bothering to get cleaned up first. At least they have their priorities straight!

In 2007, CO will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. The organizers keep next year’s route under tight wraps until they’re ready to announce it (probably in February) but veteran riders expect it will be a particularly special ride.

Point To Point In 07?
Some hope that 2007 will be a point-to-point cross-state adventure, maybe from the Idaho border to the Pacific Coast, or maybe south to north with a climb up to Crater Lake. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

In the meantime, think about putting this one on your calendar. We had a great time and can report without hesitation that Cycle Oregon is one of the best supported rides of its kind anywhere in the country.

Check out www.cycleoregon.com for more info.

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