“Those guys are really strong.
Way stronger than we are.”
“Well, they might be stronger than us,
but that doesn’t mean they’re better than us.”
Tristan was talking about some of our toughest competition in the race starting the next day. It was the night before the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder and the Giant Factory Team and Liv Racing squad were gathered around Serena Gordon’s small living room for a race planning and tactics meeting. We don’t often do this, but most of us were from out of town, and I, being a local, knew more than anybody about the 5 days and 400 miles that lie ahead. I’d previewed most of the course on a motorcycle a couple weeks prior when the final course maps were available online. I called it due diligence—the two guys riding with me called it fun. We were both right.
My teammates Tristan Uhl and Josh Berry knew less about the course we’d tackle, but more about our competition for the week—they’d raced several of them at the Dirty Kanza race a couple weeks earlier. Of a strong field, it was the Allied Team’s Colin Strickland and Kevin Gerkins that concerned us most. Colin, the concurrent “Gravel World Champ” and “King of Kanza” is a Redbull athlete due to his prowess at international fixed gear crit racing. Which sounds terrifying—both that kind of racing and the prospect of trying to keep up with him. These Allied guys hailed from Texas, and our team’s Texan, Tristan seemed even more worried about Gerkins than Strickland, eliciting his “stronger than we are” statement.
I wasn’t trying to be glib in my “that doesn’t mean they’re better than us” response—though I did crack a smile. West Coast style gravel events require more than just watts.
God knows what we were going to encounter in a week of racing through some of the most demanding and remote terrain in Oregon—and our skillset as Mountain Bikers might come in handy. Big climbs, scary descents, and challenging weather were to be expected, but in the unexpected lay our hopes for success.
The next morning, as we packed our supplied tote bins and dropped them to be ferried to our first camp—the beginning of a morning ritual—I had an aside with my good friend and Bend local, Barry Wicks. “There’s a sandy bit at the top of the pass. If we’re gonna have a run at this thing, we have to attack early and make that count. This is the only downhill day—I’m going for broke up there.” I told him. “Sweet. Yeah man. Sounds good.” Barry replied. I had big tires on my Revolt. Barry had big tires too. We’re both good bike handlers, we know each other well and work well together.
And so, at mile 15, of a 5 day ordeal, where a red cinder road ended and a sandy beige one began, we went for it. I went to the front and rode uncomfortably hard. Barry followed. The gap opened quickly. This special section of road—the Santiam Wagon Road—was part of the Oregon Trail. Not the green hued video game version the I played in 5th grade—the original settlers route. Established in 1861, this road was the “easier way” to the verdant Willamette Valley further west. For perspective, the other route involved making a raft and floating the mighty Columbia river with your wagon, family, and all worldly possessions aboard. So easier—not easy.
For 7 miles it was damn sandy and occasionally damn rocky. At one point I saw a golf ball half buried in the middle of the road, pointed at it, and said only “Fitting!” There wasn’t time for much banter. Barry and I were betting the farm on a long move, and we were determined to make it stick. As the wagon road went on, it became rougher and rougher. Some would call it worse and worse. Barry and I were laughing out loud as we criss-crossed each others lines through the sand laced with jagged lava rock. And then, just as it became nearly impassible, it suddenly ended, Teeing into another road. An incredibly smooth gravel road through old growth fir trees. As quickly as turning a corner, we had left the mountain pass behind and entered the lush green promised land.
Energized by our early success, Barry and I set to work trying to keep our gap. The fast, smooth West Side roads were a good place to work together, and we were riding strong on the uphills and flat sections. On the downhills we were riding balls out—taking chances, hot-footing it to the edges of the roadbed, laughing at our own close calls, totally committed. At the end of the long final descent to the finish, and after 60 miles alone, we crossed the line together. And then we sat on a guardrail and waited to see what we’d achieved. It took seven long minutes for the next two guys to come—Josh Berry and Jacob Rathe—and then eventually Tristan—and then more waiting still. When Colin Strickland came across the line, a little bloody and a little bleary, it had been a while. He waited a minute or two to casually ask how long we’d been finished. I walked to my bike and looked at my Garmin. “Thirty-Five minutes” I said, deadpan. “Uff.” Said Colin, stretching his neck, looking at the sky.
Our Liv sister Serena Bishop Gordon was the first woman to finish—salty, dusty, beaming. She’d had a great ride too, using big rubber and MTB skills to make the winning selection in the sand, and again to solo to victory on the final long and fast and wonderful gravel descent.
Camp was impressive—hundreds of tents set up with geometric precision in a High School football field, nearby creek sitting, and a proper feed. “Bad Chad” Sperry and his henchmen were pulling this off—this incredibly complicated project—with aplomb. After dinner, the event’s “Town Crier” (a sidelined with injury Matt Lieto) asked what we were gonna call the sandy crux where Wicks and I had attacked. “Sacagawea’s Sand Trap” I said, to a round of laughter. “Did you guys see that golf ball?”
What started out as overcast skies in Camp on day two turned into a bitter cold day of riding in the mountains. At 5000’ rain was turning to snow, and nobody was dressed for it. On the first long descent, glasses covered in rain and fog, ungloved hands reduced to numb clubs at the controls, Barry forced another split. But it was all three of the Giant boys that joined him this time around. When the descents leveled off, Tristan and Josh pulled harder than Barry or I could. It was apparent that two of the strongest players in this Oregon Trail game were on my own team. At the finish, Josh sprung away to win the stage, and Barry and I again finished together. Eventually we’d have to sort each-other out, but there was plenty of racing left to do. No sense fighting over scraps before the main course.
Friday was the “Queen Stage” of the Oregon Trail. Again we’d traverse an historic wagon road across the Cascade Range. This time, we’d climb much more than we descended though—some 9300’ en route to the high desert of Central Oregon. On the first gigantic
climb, the protagonists that had the most yet to prove rode away together—Strickland, Rathe, and Dillon Caldwell—while Wicks set the pace and a largish group held on. After a fast descent to the second aid station, we stopped for supplies (one of only two stops I’d take all week—so thirsty) and regrouped. Colin and Dillon had been caught, but Rathe was two minutes up the road. As Josh Berry set the tempo up the next climb, I saw Wicks come off his wheel a little. So I surged past them both. Josh eagerly came with me and we rode away together. The last 30 miles was spent riding all-out with Josh. The wagon road section was incredibly fun—packed wet sand with swooping camber changes through remote high alpine lakes rarely seen by man. Returning to the dry East side, it soon transitioned to flatter, softer, straighter roads, where it took everything I had just to hold Josh’s wheel. He’d pull for 5 minutes, I’d pull (slower) for 45 seconds, repeat. We’d close to within a minute or so of Rathe at the finish, but more importantly, we’d put 15 minutes into a flagging Wicks. Tristan Uhl came in solo a scant few minutes behind us—despite being bloody and dusty from a crash, and sporting a left calf swollen to 150% of it’s normal size. He could barely walk. But Tristan can always ride. Tenacious AF, that guy.
Back at the Snack Tent in Camp, a visibly shelled Strickland rolled up and set his bike in the grass. We’d passed him a few hours earlier after his being dropped by Rathe. “That was way harder than Kanza.” He said.
2019 has been called the “Year of the Teams” for gravel events. There’s been concern among many that the laid-back Gravel Scene will be spoiled by bigger budgets and riders from outside the sport showing up to stake their claim. A fear of roadies infiltrating something that the gravel purists hold dear, despite they themselves only recently joining a sport that didn’t exist 5 years ago. Personally I was curious to see how the dynamics might shift, with ProTour racers teaming up at Kanza, and professional looking domestic squads turning up at other big races. From what I’d seen to date, it hadn’t seemed to change things much. But I’ll tell you this: from the end of stage 3, I was really happy to have two strong teammates looking after me on the Oregon Trail. I was cracked, and exposed at times. They were my shelter—and I look forward to returning the favor.
The fourth day was “the rest day” but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. The numbers were small— 50 miles and 2200’ of climbing, but the roads were watt-suckingly soft. I could barely hold onto the lead group. Okay, I got dropped once and Tristan pulled me back up. And it wasn’t the lead group, either, actually—Gerkins was off the front solo already. It was the easy day. It was the least comfortable day. Gerkins won. Tristan nearly caught him. There was a bunch sprint for third. I was the last of the bunch.
The fifth and final day, Josh and Tristan patrolled the front from the gun, driving the lead group for 40 miles to keep the attacks to a minimum. It had been a long time since I worked with teammates like this. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. Our Giant Factory team was owning the front—with Wicks as an honorary member. We probably didn’t have to do so much work, but it felt good. After a while the roads became familiar, as we were passing through my usual training grounds outside of Bend. The final 20 miles were uphill and dirt, and Gerkins and Wicks and Rathe all took turns attacking on some of the steepest pitches of the entire week. Josh would dutifully sit on those moves, and I’d diesel back up to them in due time. Eventually, the elastic would snap, and Gerkins would again prove that he was, indeed, “way stronger than we are.” The last pitch of the week, road 370 took us up beyond 6000’ of elevation and eventually across drifts of summer snow. Josh and I were alone again, but more relaxed this time—riding in third, secure in having finished 1st and 2nd overall in one of the toughest races either of us could remember. Serena would also finish a flawless ride to 2nd overall.
Icy beers were sourced from a nearby van and we sat in the sun at the finish for a long time trading cheers and stories before coasting the final 15 miles into the western themed town of Sisters Oregon. The fitting place we’d began our journey so many miles and so few days before.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.