This ended up being much longer than I originally intended so if you want the main points, here they are:
· All of central Oregon is stunningly beautiful.
· I loved the solitude of being alone in a remote area.
· Until you attempt the Outback route, you won’t understand how difficult it is.
On Friday, May 23rd, I met up with about 100 other cyclists to ride the Oregon Outback. The guys at Velodirt mapped a 363 mile route (about 75% of which is gravel) across Oregon from Klamath Falls to the Deschutes Recreation Area at the Columbia River. If you are interested in more details and the route itself, all the information is available on the velodirt.com web page.
Most people who gathered at the start were planning on riding the route between 3 and 5 days. That was the sensible plan. Camping under the central Oregon night sky would be incredible and waking up to the smell of sage, pine and juniper would be awesome. I definitely plan to do some bike packing and camping in the future but for this ride, I wanted to carry less.
This weekend I wanted to test myself and push hard to complete the gravel route across the state as quickly as I could. I knew it might take two days and a night of riding but the challenge of transporting myself across the state along a difficult route outweighed the thoughts of how hard it was going to be.
I suppose like all ultra endurance events, the mood at the start was a happy, nervous buzz. Everyone was instagraming (#oregonback) and talking about how many beers they were carrying or wondering if they had enough water or too much. I thought rolling out of town that it was impressive how many folks from different riding backgrounds had come together to travel across the state under their own power.
The first 70 miles were on the OC&E trail. A former railway, now it’s a trail for non-motorized use which means there are no vehicles to pack the gravel down. The surface ranged from bone jarring cow-hoof potholes to loose red volcanic rock while gradually climbing in elevation. It was a tough few hours and trying to go fast would have required way too much energy. I was very glad with my choice of riding my Kesho 29er mountain bike. It performed perfectly all weekend.
I rode with friends for the first hour or so since it was nice to chat and it was a good way to not get sucked into race mode. At about mile 39 and the first available store, I stopped to get a full load of water and do a full sun screen application. I knew the next stop would be near mile 120 if I didn’t want to pull water from a stream. I rode with a few other folks up to about mile 65 when I stopped to stand in a creek for a few minutes and snack. I love how the cold water rejuvenates my feet and lower legs on warm days. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years – thanks Coach Yriarte! As I left the creek, I had about 300 miles to ride. That was a hard number to comprehend. I pressed on alone from this point. I knew there were a handful of guys in front of me but I was trying not to be concerned with anyone else’s pace.
On the way to Silver Lake at mile 120, the sky clouded up, and I was a little worried about lightning. The cooling effect was nice but at the same time, the wind picked up and of course it was a headwind. I passed Blake from Truckee between the Sycan Marsh and Thompson Reservoir, but didn’t see another rider for the whole 55 mile push to the Silver Lake store. At the store, I caught up with Ethan from Eugene and Rick from Santa Cruz. It was only 4:30pm and with Fort Rock being only 16 miles down the road, I decided to continue on before stopping for a meal.
At the Fort Rock Tavern, Ethan and I sat at the bar and ate a huge burger. It was hard to fully enjoy it because we were both thinking of the night ahead and knew sitting there too long would just lead to muscles that didn’t want to get back onto the bike. I did order a second burger to go since I’ve been finding real food works better for me than energy bars and I thought later in the night it might taste pretty good.
I got going again at about 6:30pm and really enjoyed the evening sunshine and beautiful colors of the high desert. I think the 10 mile stretch from Fort Rock to the north made the whole weekend worthwhile for me. No matter what happened in the 200 miles ahead, I was happy to have started the ride.
As the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly. While I still had a little daylight, I stopped to put on more clothes and eat a little of my second burger. It still tasted good but as fatigue was really setting in, it was hard to eat. Soon I was rolling along in darkness and turning my senses up a notch to be prepared for one of my bigger fears of the whole ride – a black cow in the road at night. Sure enough, it came true and on a downhill section too. I was going too fast to stop if the cow had moved in front of me. Luckily, it stayed to my left and I kept straight.
By the time I got to Prineville, about 50 miles after the cow, it was 2:30am and I was really tired. I knew gas station food would not be good enough and there wouldn’t be anything else open so I stopped to try to sleep for a couple hours. The temperature was near 40 degrees and I never did get comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. About 5:30am I got back on the bike and rolled into town to the Cinnabar Café and met Owen from Bend. A few minutes later Rick rolled in and joined us.
We rolled out separately and headed toward the Ochoco’s and a 2000 ft. climb. I was amazed at how much better I felt with a little rest and some good food. Now we had less than 140 miles to go and it seemed much less daunting than it had just a couple of hours before. I never saw Owen again but Rick and I were within 2 minutes of each other all the way up the climb. At the top, there was a “Y” and for some reason I went to the right and never looked at my GPS to verify it. By the time I figured out I had gone the wrong way, I had gone quite a few miles and descended a long way. I got myself oriented after a while and got back on course before too long but I never saw Rick again. Riding along (and through) Trout Creek was a nice change with a little more dirt, trees and generally downhill. The temperature was starting to rise and I took my last long creek stand to load up on sun screen once more.
My wife always wonders what I think about on long rides since I don’t ride with ear buds. Usually I tell her, “everything”. But during the Outback, especially beginning at Ashwood with 95 miles to go, all I thought about was managing my body. It sounds weird now knowing how beautiful the terrain was around me but I really started watching my average speed, doing the math as to when I might finish, really thinking about how much I was eating and drinking and thinking about my sore achilles, knees, hands and butt. I really wanted to finish before dark.
After a big climb up from Ashwood, we rode Divide Rd and Cold Camp Rd. These were my favorite roads of the weekend, rolling and twisty with views to the east and west. After stopping to snap a photo, the sounds of the wind through the fence and the songs of a few birds struck me as being as beautiful as the sights. With the constant noise of our tires on the gravel, we could not enjoy the solitude of being in such remote areas. I laughed out loud when I saw a large volcano to the west and thought “oh good, the finish is not too far from that mountain”. Then I looked again to realize it was Mt. Jefferson and not Mt. Hood. Dang, we’re going to the next volcano.
The climb up from the town of Antelope was my least favorite. The road was paved and without any shade at all. It was about 80 degrees and I had a slight tailwind. A slight tailwind when you are climbing at 5 mph gets you about 5.2 mph. I would have rather had a cooling headwind and 4.8 (or so I thought).
Next up was the town of Shaniko and the last water stop. I downed a V-8, got some Gatorade to go and enjoyed an ice-cream cone on the bench before heading north on Hwy 97. The highway heads a little north-east here and with the wind mostly out of the west, it gave a pretty good tailwind and false sense of cruising to the finish. About 14 miles later, the route turned west then north and back onto gravel. This turned out to be the toughest 48 miles of road I think I have ever ridden. These 48 miles were a tough ride by themselves even without the 315 miles leading up to them. Loose gravel rollers, horizon after horizon with no land marks to judge scale or distance and a headwind that kept getting stronger as I continued north. A couple of pitches were steep and loose. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. I don’t think I have ever been so upset with a route. Of course it was still beautiful and I would still stop a take a photo once in a while but mainly I felt I was losing my race with the sun.
When I reached the top of Gordon Ridge, it was a huge relief. The entire route had been beautiful but the views down to the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers and even the wind mill farms were incredible. I still had to pedal to fight the wind on the downhill, but I only had 10 miles to go. I arrived at the finish just before 9pm on Saturday, 37 hours and 56 minutes after leaving the start line. I was with my family within about 15 minutes after finishing and so happy to have completed the most incredible ride I have attempted so far.