When I think of an ideal way to spend five days on a bicycle, it would be riding through the Cascade Mountains on a point-to-point tour. Riding into the unknown abyss of the foothills, in the shadows of the prominent peaks. Beneath the 10,000+ foot mountains lies endless opportunity for adventure by rivers, waterfalls, valleys, cliffs, and drastic climate changes all in a day’s ride.
This is precisely what the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder was intended to be. Surely an unfathomable task upon conception – guiding hundreds of people over the hills and through the woods, carrying their gear, and feeding them for five days. Additionally, it was a timed event with course markings and results just like any other bike race.
The first day started off with a climb over the Santiam Wagon Road, which turned out to be several miles of soft, sandy, dusty doubletrack. It was an inspired test for our legs and our “wagons”. The second day started off with a gigantic climb right after the start and included a wintry mix spitting out from the sky over the first summit at over 5000 feet elevation.
Day three was the Queen Stage of the race. Starting in the low elevation valley of Oakridge and finishing in the high desert near Crescent Lake, climbing was on the menu for the day. While the stage included a net elevation gain of over 4000 feet, there was a series of rugged climbs and descents that brought the total elevation gain for the day to 9600 feet over 75 miles.
At the stage start, the mood in the group was mellow upon facing the endless climb to begin the day. The first twelve miles or so was a paved road with a gentle grade which was a nice surprise in a race that had surpassed expectations in difficulty so far. As soon as the terrain steepened and turned to gravel, the race truly began. I had no plan about how to approach this day as the terrain and difficult conditions would create a challenging task.
Up and away we started to climb. I couldn’t resist following a few of the other strong riders to push the pace off the front. The first climb leveled out at about 5700 feet elevation after our starting elevation of 1200 feet in Oakridge. I break down a climb like this not by distance, but by elevation. 3000 feet….4000 feet… etc. Now I can think about two similar climbs in Portland that can be stacked together to make the end of the current climb go by. Small goals are manageable.
We got to the ridge that is effectively the top of the climb as it continued to roll up and down. When I had a moment to look up and around, I felt as though we were in the middle of a Disney-like mountain wonderland. Diamond peaks towered straight ahead with countless other mountain tops scattered in every direction. We were in a remote, rugged, and unknown area of the Cascades.
The road began to descend. Rocks and other debris that had fallen down the steep hillside littered the road. In some spots the road had partially washed away and only a singletrack remained.
Making it over the first climb was just one box to check. Up next was another climb of almost 2000 feet vertical. While leading the race, one of my companions had stopped for a mechanical which left myself and one other rider to continue pushing on. The road opened up in a rocky traverse and it was the first time that we could see more than one minute back down the road. Higher and higher we rode until finally a few specks became visible across the draw in the hillside. Three minutes? Five minutes? In the tunnel vision of a bike race it can be tough to gauge how long ago you rode that arbitrary spot down the road.
The climb opened up with the sun on our backs, and I noticed my companion was starting to struggle. A small gap had opened. When riding in a breakaway it’s important to have a keen sense of what is going on with the other riders in the group. Have they been eating and drinking enough? Are they getting gapped off because the pace is easy and they are sitting up to eat, or are they struggling? Do I need him or should I turn the screws and soldier on alone? How do I beat this guy today? I upped the pace and the gap got bigger. I stayed on the gas up the climb and accelerated over the top. I was alone with 35 miles to go.
A short descent led to another, smaller, climb. The effort was beginning to wear on me, but there was no time to ease up. Every section of the course was an obstacle to be dealt with one at a time. How hard to push in this instance is not something you can know with any data or power meters. It’s a random assortment of efforts and the only way to find out what you can do is to grit your teeth and dig deep. Staying on the limit for the duration of the race without blowing up or going too easy takes a keen sense.
I kept waiting for someone to catch me on the six mile wagon road section. Up, down, puddles, snow bank, rut, rocks. This road had plenty of opportunities to ruin my day. I held back just enough to limit the risk of flatting or crashing, while still keeping the pressure on.
When I finally reached the wide open gravel road with 15 miles to go I knew I had a good chance of staying away. This is when the legs have to do the work. The road had soft spots and washboard sections which forced me to move side to side to find a good line. I looked back and no one was in sight. I thought to myself “Head down, look ahead, get aero, pedal hard, power up this hill.”
With eight miles to go I blew by the last feed station. I had not seen a rider behind me for hours, so the gap could have been two minutes or even ten minutes back to the next rider. As the road pointed up I made the decision to not look back until the top. I reached the summit and glanced back to see at least one distant figure at the bottom of the hill. Renewed vigor induced by panic! Don’t let them have it!
Four miles to go and the last turn of the day was onto a soft dirt road. The sand had sucked the speed away as my legs and body were under serious load at this point. While I could manage this kind of effort only a few times a year seeing the finish line in the distance let me know I had won. I stepped off the bike and everything hurt, but it was a good kind of hurt that only a victory could produce.