Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder – The Hammer and the Nail
By Kevin Girkins
When I originally signed up for this brand new gravel stage race in the Cascades of Oregon, I had a different image in my head of what it would consist of, and as the time neared I started to get slightly more and more intimidated by the task that was ahead. Then the racing started, and I realized how far off I was about all of it.
I had the feeling this was going to be different than the typical gravel race and more like a mountain bike race where there’s less drafting and more line choice. It simplifies to a time trial scenario, and you’re constantly chasing guys that are 30 seconds in front of you. As it turns out I was pretty damn close. Fifteen miles into the start of day one I was dropped – and dropped hard I was. Not oh man if I kick it hard right here I can make back into the draft – it was more like how did they do that and where did they go? To say I was out skilled by the level of these athletes would be an understatement. It wasn’t that they could out-climb me or out-descend me, or move through technical sections smoother than me. They could do all that. I was a roadie in a mountain biker’s bunny slope playground. I think my only advantage was actual watts and relentlessly turning over the pedals. Besides that, I really need to do some more push-ups, was something I said pretty religiously after every day of racing while staring off at some point 1000 yards away.
Day two was freezing cold and started with a 25 mile climb. Ass kicked.
Day three was a 30 mile climb followed by another 5 mile steeper climb. Ass kicked.
Finally, on day four I felt more in my wheel-house, sparse climbing and rough sandy roads. Day five I must’ve dropped to the back 3 different times and said y’all have fun, I’ll see you at the top, there’s no way I’m gonna hang up this climb, and then as soon as a gap opened I resolved to dig a little deeper and close it. By the time we got to the base of the final 20 mile climb I was with the lead group and scheming ways to try and make things easier, like taking Tristan Uhl up the road with me since he had so many teammates that were unlikely to chase. Then, it sorta happened. Tristan attacked at the base of the climb and I went with him. A couple miles later I was asking how you doing back there and I got no response. The rest of that day was to be by myself.
The real challenge of these five days was being out of my element. All too often I race in “arenas” that have some semblance of a skillset I’ve obtained over the years. This race had none of those. I felt out-gunned on the climbs, out-skilled on the rough stuff and was out-balled on the descents. The best day of this race was supposed to be the “queen” stage, but I got dropped (on a descent) and said screw this I’m waiting for my friends. I sat at an aid station and ate sandwiches for 15 minutes. Once my friends showed up, it was all smiles and scenery.
But this “day off” would have never happened in a road stage race with a caravan, categories and time cuts. After one day of taking it easy (if you could call 10k ft of climbing easy), having fun and making stops to take pictures while appreciating the course, instead of hating it made the difference for me. I can’t think of any other race I’ve done where that happened or I even had the opportunity to do that.
Side note: I don’t care where you live, the beauty here is striking. These are “roads” that even if you lived in Bend you probably didn’t know they were there. At least thats what I heard from some locals. To piece this course together had to have taken countless hours of work, and somehow after all that instead of keeping it to themselves the organizers of this race decided to try their best at sharing it. Plenty of times I found myself thinking there was no way anyone could be here unless they were traveling on two wheels or by foot.
After the races each day the weather was pretty peachy at 75-85 F and sunny. I’d grab my race designated tote and pack a small bag with extra clean clothes, toiletry bag and a towel. Then I would find the nearest river which was never more than a mile away and go for an ice bath/swim (it seems that all rivers in Oregon feel like an ice bath) and rinse off the dirty kit in the water. There were hot showers after each day, but something about taking in the natural river beauty seemed like a better idea. Things during the race were tough, but I never felt like that afterwards. After the race things were pretty fuckin pleasant. I never went hungry, my bike got wrenched on by pros when it needed to be, and my bottles were always topped off. And most amazing of all, I was never bored! There was a schedule of thing each day and part of that was entertainment for the racers. Games, live music and good river vibes. How many times have you finished a stage of a race and ended up watching TV in a hotel, but wishing you had the energy to actually enjoy where you are? Chad Sperry and Breakaway Promotions said not at my race damnit. This one will be different.
I was initially a little worried about whether or not the race would be well organized and run smoothly, but was promptly blown away with the level of choreographed motions that fell into place each and every day. Chad Sperry didn’t just make sure that we had camping and food at the end of each day, he made sure it looked nice too. Drinks were served on top of a stained piece of wooden slab with oak barrels that were branded with the race logo, corn hole boards set out every night that were also race branded, and everything had its place. The bathrooms were clean. Chad used his experience and amazing race director abilities to make sure that shit was dialed, as if he’d been doing this for years or something.
A few pointers for those of you thinking about doing this race next year:
1. Ride your gravel bike on mountain bike trails. Descend on gravel roads, and learn to become more diverse than just pedaling in circles. Maybe do some cx racing this offseason specifically with this race in mind.
2. Sign up early. This race will fill up quickly and I have no doubt about it. I’ve done a lot of races with a $1500 price tag and I got a measly rolling enclosure, a sag vehicle and USAC officials at the finish line. These guys ask for $900, and give you 5 times more for your money. It’s worth every penny and it’s not gonna take long for word to spread about this.
3. Make sure you’re physically ready to suffer and mentally ready to have fun. I heard that Allison Tetrick brought a flask of whiskey each day. Now that’s exactly what I’m talking about!
4. Stay injury free. One of the beautiful things about this race is being able to continue to the next day and enjoy the festivities of each evening. If you can’t pedal your bike then you therefore have “dysentery” and must take the bus of shame back to the start/finish in Sisters, OR. Plenty of people crashed and/or had injuries, but they continued on and I guarantee that didn’t make surroundings easier to enjoy.
5. Bring a good jacket. If you’re from the south like me you need to bring a good jacket and gloves. In Texas we’ve been enjoying temps in the 80-90’s since March. June in Oregon can go below freezing at night, and during the day you’re lucky to hit 80 degrees at the peak.
6. Bring on the fatties! There were a couple of days I got beat by a guy on a mountain bike AND I don’t think he was 30 yrs old like me (if you know what I mean). Sure the guy’s a beast whoever he is, but you’re not going to regret bringing tires that are 42mm (like I rode) or even bigger. Karl Decker, the guy who smashed this race and won, put 50mm tires on his gravel bike and shaved down the side knobs to make them fit in his stays. Smart man.
7. Get there early and stay late. Redmond airport is a small one so expect possible delays, along with lots of logistics to figure out. I heard plenty of stories about people showing up day of due to delayed flights or even missing the first stage start. I myself had delays and logistically was under prepared too, and it creates for a hectic start. Plan to arrive minimum 24 hours before your start and I would even do more than that. Plus, when this race is over it’d be a good idea to stay a little longer. I personally would move to Bend tomorrow if there was a job opportunity, and not look back. I wish I had scheduled a couple days just for hanging out and enjoying the small city of Bend properly. I’ve been there three times now and can’t get enough.
This race is amazing and challenging and unforgettable. I will be going back and I expect this time with a few more friends from Texas. Like I said before, start planning early and get your tickets early!
All photos courtesy of Adam Lapierre and OTGG