I really had no idea what to expect for the ride and I knew that riding the B-Road gravel bike with 38 mm tires would either be the perfect bike or the fastest way to complete implosion. Tire choice, gear selection and route finding were all parts of the equation.
Kevin Condron, James Wilson and myself drove down on Thursday afternoon. Gear was checked and rechecked and we rolled into Klamath Falls about 5 pm with enough time to get food, walk around and check into the motel to rest up for the early start and long miles the next few days in the woods.
A few highlights that struck me after finishing the route. The first 90 miles on and off the OC&E trail was the hardest. The windy section on FR-27 was tough and unforgiving. I am pretty convinced the whole route only had about 7,000 feet of climbing so Donnie added the other 10,000 in the last 60 miles. Trout Creek Rd. at 2 am with my Niterider 1200 helmet mount was a fucking blast. The water crossings were a blast but cold. Shitty coffee and Snickers in Prineville were good. Watching the sun come up over Divide Rd. was amazing.
I wasn’t sure who was going to be going for the fastest time, but I did know that there were some fast people riding the Outback including Paul LaCava, who just raced the Trans-Iowa and got second a month before, Nelson Snyder, who has won nearly every Velo Dirt event held and John McCaffrey who is no slouch on a bike. The Maverick Motel in Klamath Falls was busy with activity and everyone was getting ready for the start at 7 am on Friday am. We woke up at 5:45. I used a huge handful of Rapha chamois cream in my Rapha bibs and put them on. I knew neither of these things would give me any trouble over the next 36 hours. Solid. Pockets were filled with food, jackets, chain lube, etc. and we started right at 7 am with Donnie thanking everyone for showing up and a vague warning not to die. Ha.
Seeing everyone’s bike set up really showed who was going for it and who was going to take a few days to camp and ride the route. Nelson’s bike was an old alloy Motor-Bacon with flat bars, aero bars, XTR STI shifters/brake levers, disc brakes, 700×37 tires and a small seat pack. It was clear he was shooting for a fast time. I kept telling myself this was just a bike ride and to not get caught up in any sort of race ego bullshit. The 150+ riders quickly spread out as we rolled towards the edge of K Falls and I was near the back of the group. I knew anyone wanting to “win” would be at the front right away, and I rolled past all my friends to the front to see Nelson already up the road. I was sort of sad to leave so many good people with such good spirits about the adventure so I could ride with a few fast dudes who I knew wouldn’t be much for good conversation.
I caught Nelson with a few other riders looking to make some fast miles early on. The paved path soon turned to gravel, and as we hit the first section with some big rocks scattered around, Nelson mumbled something as I noticed the minefield we were cruising into. I looked behind when I heard the obvious sounds of a crash and saw bikes and riders on the ground. We all stopped to find one guy hit the deck hard and was shaken and the other guy’s derailleur was ripped off the frame. Making sure those two were ok for spares and injuries, Nelson, Jan Heine (from Bicycle Quarterly) and I motored on. We would follow the OC&E trail for the next 70 miles or so. The grade was easy as it was an old decommissioned railroad bed but it had turned into loose rock, weeds and dirt double track for most of its length.
Let me mention Jan Heine here. Jan is the editor/publisher of Bicycle Quarterly and a fan of handmade and old French bikes. In an event where most people are riding 29er mountain bikes with bikepacking gear, Jan was riding the same bike he rides for most events including 1200 km brevets and exploring around the Cascade Mountains in Washington. He is fast and can put in the miles but is also great for conversations and points out details about the landscape, etc. He used to be a geologist so he had plenty to note about the rocks we were dodging all day. He also gets the tough guy award for riding with a broken hand. Ouch. His bike is a Rene Herse 650b rando bike with downtube shifters, Gran Bois tires and full fenders.
Nelson and I pulled away as the pace was just slightly faster than what Jan was comfortable with and we soon were out of sight from anyone else. We rode across the flat valleys on the double tracks of the trail dodging small ground squirrels, their holes and rocks. I spotted a number of big birds including red tail hawks, a lot of turkey vultures and even a mature bald eagle. Lots of magpies, red wing black birds and a bird that looked like a magpie with black and white but with a bright gold head. We took turns opening and closing each of the 48 gates that kept the cattle in.
Soon we were joined by Owen from Bend who was making better time on his 29er than our bikes on the loose bed of gravel. He didn’t say much when I asked him about his plans for timing. Both Nelson and I were open about our goal of 36 hours or so but Nelson was quiet most of the time. This was where I got my only flat for the whole ride. Quickly fixed with a spare tube and rolling but Nelson was out of site for a while. Really loose gravel and bigger rocks scattered on the “road” forces you to use all your back and core muscles to keep moving forward and after hours, we were happy to be done with the OC&E segment of the route.
We started our roll north first on pavement and then again on a evenly graded gravel stretch towards Silver Lake and our first planned water stop. There were some clouds in the sky and the sun didn’t fully cook us on the exposed sections so we were grateful for that. Once the three of us hit the road, Owen dropped back. There were some rollers and I felt good on the B-Road so I pushed on alone. I didn’t think anything about attacking or tactics and instead just practiced my mantra of “it’s just a bike ride” and “just keep pedaling.” I had music and would just cruise along, practice good smooth form and keep eating and drinking.
Eventually, Nelson caught me on the windy section of FR-27 before Silver Lake and we rolled in together to find water, food and some friendly smiles by the two ladies in the store. She had mentioned all the bikers and I am sure they hadn’t seen anything like this before. This was about mile 120 and it was 3:10 pm on Friday.
We continued north onto Pitcher Rd. in the middle of the Fort Rock Valley to find a flat, straight gravel road leading all the way to the horizon. It was beautiful but a little soul crushing at the same time. Add the wind coming from about 10 o’clock and it made for a long stretch north. Soon we saw Fort Rock which makes sense considering that with nothing around for miles, a giant rock formation that looks like a pioneer fort would be reason enough to call the small town Fort Rock. The road kept north and we passed a group of 4 riders who set out a few days prior with typical dust and gear for a 4 day trip.
The types of gravel varied a lot of this route from railroad bed rock and loose granite, to crushed limestone that’s been evenly graded and maintained to red pumice sand that has been driven into a fine silt that makes it impossible to ride at all. Packed dirt and well-travelled roads are probably the best but often wide and not as much fun for views, etc.
The day was wearing on, and it was now late afternoon as Nelson and I rode on. I felt good and kept pace but Nelson soon fell back and out of sight. The warm afternoon turned cloudy, and there were a few spits of rain that felt good but nothing to be concerned about or reason to put on a rain cape. The sage brush lined the landscape to the horizon in every direction, and as the sun warmed the leaves, the wind would kick up that hippie smell of warm sage.
The short section through the OHV area near the South Ice Cave was a blast with some twisty, loose corners both up and down. The B-Road’s disc brakes were great and after grinding away for hours, some punchy up and down corners were fun. FR 22 and 2312 were not great as the road was mostly red pumice that was recently graded to make it loose, even and thick. Very hard to keep the bike rolling. Making it through the Deschutes National Forest puts you in some huge open country with lots of open cattle land which means even more cow shit all over the road. It added a nice touch to the landscape as the sun was setting.
Turning onto the Crooked River road, I stopped at dusk to put on knee warmers, armwarmers, my Rapha gillet and my helmet mounted light for riding into the darkness. The temperature was dropping, but as long as I kept moving, I should stay warm. I had ridden 181.5 miles and was halfway. My knees were starting to get achy so I popped a couple more Advil. A few ibuprofen every couple hours is par for this type of thing from my experience.
The decent on the Crooked River Hwy was great as the sun was going to bed for the night. Fast and loose, and the B-Road was great at 27-30 mph with my headlight showing me the lines in the corners. Smooth pavement greeted me at the bottom and soon pitched up to a long climb before dropping back down to the Prineville Reservoir. The climb really made my left knee ache and the small seed of doubt was planted in my mind as I rode in the dark past campsites full of Memorial Day RV’s. I rolled into Prineville and saw James with the truck shooting video as I rolled by.
I sat and ate “real” food from the Chevron off Main St. and considered the options of knee pain vs. going on. I knew I was the first one through, but I also am older and want to ride smarter, not harder. Hot coffee mixed with hot coco warmed me up, and I decided to just go a little bit more and see how I felt. Food and pavement for the next 10 miles helped. It was 11:30 before I left Prineville and I clipped into my pedals.
Rolling pavement and a steady climb up FR 27 lead to the pass over the Ochoco Mountains, and I wished I could have seen this section with daylight. I am sure it’s great. Made the top of the climb and started the amazing gravel descent past Green Mtn. The road was rough in spots, but with my light on full and the confidence of a solid bike with disc brakes, I charged into every corner. It was also nice to give my legs a break from pushing uphill. The cue sheet was good, and I was able to navigate well with my handlebar bag/map case making it easy to ride and read at night.
Trout Creek Rd. was a blast, and I knew to expect some water across the route soon. Just cryptic talk of several stream crossings was all I knew. The road felt more like flowing singletrack than a road with just the right amount of rocks and loose corners to keep you focused but enough ups and downs to make some speed. 20 mph in the dark can feel so good sometimes. Coming over the first hill with the creek on the other side, I paused before charging through knowing that the wrong rock could be bad. Look for the thin spots in the water with no ripples and go. I even tried to ratchet-pedal with my cranks flat but my feet still got wet. Oh well. There were maybe 4 more crossings. I can’t remember.
Lots of deer at night and I spooked a few for sure. I even came up on a cow and her calf in the road at night and slowly chased them for a half mile as they wouldn’t get off the road to let me by. I eventually just sprinted past them both and hoped they wouldn’t dart into me. Adventure.
Between 2 and 5 am is always the hardest time to keep going, but I felt ok, and it was nice to be able to tick off sections of the cue sheet. I had heard that there was a stiff climb up Gosner Rd. , and I tried to prepare my knees, but they felt ok with a few more Advil and some water. Gosner was steep, but the gravel was rideable, and I just kept moving. By the time I turned onto Divide Rd. , the sky was fully shifting to sunrise mode, and the birds were already starting to chirp. Seeing the road snake around the hills in front of you felt a bit like seeing Ventoux and knowing that the downhill on the other side is going to be worth every pedal stroke.
It was true. The decent was fast and open, and I was able to turn off my light with the sun coming up. Onto Antelope, a quick stop to eat and then climb up the pavement to Shaniko. It was already sunny and starting to get hot, but I felt like I was almost done. I rolled into Shaniko at 6:45 am with 300 miles down. I felt pretty good and kept moving.
A short, fast bit of highway before turning north onto more gravel seemed easy enough. Ha. Every road seemed to be loosely graded gravel with hills and headwind. I could feel my body getting more sensitive to how often and how much food I was eating, but I was virtually gagging on bars and tired of Perpetum flavored water, but I forced myself to keep cramming food into the food hole. The gravel stretches in the last 60 miles were super hard, and I had to walk up one steep, loose section. Looking at the map and seeing the paved road going straight there was so tempting, but I just kept going.
Sayrs Rd. and Erskine Rd. seemed to go on forever, and by this time the sun was fully up and hot too. I could see Gordon Ridge taunting my efforts the whole way, but I was almost done. This will cause some souls to shatter even if they make that last day a shorter one. Add the wind as you get close to Gordon Ridge, and it will break you. Even with some rollers on the last paved stretch, I knew this was the last real climb of the route and the last section of gravel too.
Just once, I would like to descend down Fulton Canyon without a headwind. The wind always whips up the hill from the Columbia River, and you have to tuck down and push hard to get above 35 mph. There was no dessert for this effort other than seeing the river at the bottom. Turn left and ride into the wind for 2 miles, and I would be done. Got to Deschutes Park to find James with a beer and some nice grass to sit in. I was done.
The stats: 363 miles with 17,000 feet of climbing. 75% gravel. Total time was 28 hours, 4 minutes.