We need your help Iowa readers! We visited Iowa last year and got a small sampling of some of the riding possibilities in the state. RAGBRAI is synonymous with bicycling in Iowa, but we want to dig a little deeper and share what people are missing. What surprised us were the sheer number of rail-trails, as well the small businesses and bars that were targeting bicyclists. We’ll be returning in early June to highlight some of the best riding in the state and need your help finding out what we should ride.
Grinding some gravel outside Grinnell with Craig from Bikes to You. Will be glad to visit in the summer!
So if you’re from Iowa or have ridden in Iowa, what is your favorite ride? It can be anything from an epicurean multi-day tour on a rail trail; a scenic day ride on some of Iowa’s gravel roads; or some sort of ride that challenges the expectations people have about Iowa (what’s the hilliest ride in Iowa?). We’re also looking for rides that pass by some great food and beer of course : ) We’re completely open to suggestions. Leave a comment or email us!
Loved discovering lots of bike friendly businesses in Iowa.
Bend, OR is generally considered Central Oregon’s bicycle capital. It has a great cycling culture, plethora of bike shops, and easy access to both mountain bike trails and great road rides. However, this past weekend we explored a town not too far away from Bend that we feel has the bones to be the next adventure bike capital of Central Oregon – Prineville.
Prineville is already on the map, so to speak, for bicycling. It is directly on both the Adventure Cycling TransAM route as well as the Oregon Outback. It has a great local brewery, Solstice Brewing Company, and most recently a local bicycle shop again, The Good Bike Co. Several community members are aware of the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville, as seen by a recent Ford Foundation leadership class choosing bike racks as their signature project. In Prineville, all the ingredients are finally coming together.
Riding the North Star
We’ve spent a little time in Prineville, but haven’t really delved deep into the cycling in the area until this weekend. We decided to ride one of the RideWithGPS Ambassador Routes in the area called the North Star that was mapped out by James at The Good Bike Co. It is a 45-mile loop starting and ending in downtown Prineville, and traversing fantastic country roads and mixed terrain in the local Ochoco Mountains. We were joined by Laura’s brother and sister-in-law, who are Bend residents and also curious about the riding possibilities out of Prineville.
We started at around 11am from Good Bike Co and rolled North on Main St, which eventually becomes McKay Rd (pronounced “mc-KAI” by the locals). Main St has an ample bike lane out of town, which we appreciated. After passing some businesses and residential areas, the land opens up considerably. You find yourself surrounded on either side by ranches and farms. By mile 5, you are on a gentle country road that looks as pastoral as anything you’ll ever see. The traffic was extremely light and the few cars that passed went out of their way to pass safely.
The fun starts at around mile 13 when you are on NF-33 and the pavement turns into dirt. The road surface on the ascent was pretty hard-packed and surprisingly smooth. Laura rode 28mm Panaracer Gravel Kings which have a fairly fine file tread pattern and didn’t have a problem. The only tricky part was near the summit where the road was wet from melting snow. It made for a tacky surface. If we had wetter conditions, it wouldn’t have been as pleasant, since we no doubt would have been slogging through a lot of mud. The climb was pleasantly shaded and ran alongside McKay Creek that was flowing with water. James told us that it is seasonal and generally dries up in the Summer, so its not a reliable source of water later in the year. You’ll also notice quite a number of primitive camping areas along the road (mental note for future bike tours in the area).
The descent was fun and fast. It is on the downhill that you finally get a few views of the surrounding mountains, so be sure to stop and take it in. Just before we hit pavement again we passed Wildcat campground, an established Forest Service campground with a vault toilet and supposedly drinking water (as per the Forest Service website), although we didn’t confirm it. As you make your way back to civilization, you’ll pass an impressive monolith of rock known as Steins Pillar that juts out above the treeline like a prehistoric skyscraper.
At about mile 31, you’re back on a paved country road that gently descends towards HWY 26. Once you hit the highway, it is a straight shot back into town. There is generally a pretty good shoulder the whole way. If it’s hot or if you are running low on drinking water, a stop at the reservoir is in order.
This was one of our first longer rides in the greater Prineville area and we were pretty impressed with how quickly you could get out into the wilderness on your bike. While Prineville isn’t the first bikey town that leaps into your head when you think of Central Oregon, we did see a handful of other cyclists on the road (we even spotted a group wearing some jerseys from a Bend bike shop). This route is great for beginner to intermediate riders. The elevation is gained pretty gradually except for a few stretches of 7-8% near the top. Once you are pass the summit, the route is generally trending downhill, giving your legs a rest. It’s the perfect length for a day ride in the area if you are passing through town.
The Good Bike Co.
While in Prineville, we got a chance to talk with James and Natalie, the owners of the The Good Bike Co. The shop is centrally located and the building used to be an old car service station. Because of this, there is a huge outdoor awning which provides shade for the outdoor seating. The Good Bike Co. is a next-wave bike shop, serving beer and coffee, in an unlikely place. They have a great outdoor patio where James envisions many a cross-country bike tourist or day rider will find themselves after a long ride.
Although the shop isn’t even a year old, James is finding himself busier than he thought he would be. Since he has opened, locals have been bringing their bikes to be repaired in droves (the unseasonably nice weather has jump-started the riding season). While he is focusing primarily on repairs and service, he has also found himself selling a lot of hard tail mountain bikes to local residents. The local mountain bike advocacy group, COTA, has been hard at work creating a new 3-mile mountain bike trail that you can easily access from town. Since this resource is so close to downtown and doesn’t require a long drive to get to, a lot of Prineville residents have either been dusting off their old mountain bikes or buying new ones.
James hopes to cater to touring cyclists on the TransAm as well as the growing adventure bike segment. He is carrying some pretty interesting products, from Bartender bags from Randy Jo to frame bags from Revelate. Out front, he has a few fat bikes and even a Surly Straggler for rent. He and Natalie are also looking to put on a 100-mile gravel race later in the year!
Beyond just operating the bike shop, James and Natalie are also looking at the bigger picture and the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville. James actively attends the local chamber meetings, is part of a proponent group for a potential Scenic Bikeway, as well as working with other businesses to figure out ways to combine agritourism and bicycle tourism in the area.
Is Pedaling in Prineville’s Future?
We’ve always had a soft spot for Prineville. We had a great welcoming experience as bike tourists there when we were on the TransAm 3 years ago. Since then, we’ve passed through a few times and have always thought that there is great potential for the town to capitalize on bicycling. It seems as if, with the addition of a new bike shop and leadership excited about bicycling, this might be the time for Prineville to create a strong cycling identity and give that other bike/beer Central Oregon town a run for its money.
One of our favorite things about the work we do, is visiting new bicycling destinations. As the idea of bicycle tourism catches on, more towns and cities are becoming aware of the great natural bicycling assets around them. Last year, we had the great opportunity to do some filming in El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM. Though they are two different states with distinct vibes, they are the two closest cities to each other in the enormous Southwest. For us, neither El Paso or Las Cruces were obvious biking destinations. This video project was a great opportunity to sink in, challenge our expectations and find new places to ride.
What immediately struck us about both destinations was the food. We got tipped off to a lot of great local places for Mexican food and were never disappointed. If you go, our all time favorites were the L & J Cafe (great local’s spot in an unlikely location), the Thirsy Monk (craft beer with a view of the Franklin mountains in their patio…also the owners are bike friendly) in El Paso; Andele (amazing Mexican food!) and The Bean Cafe (popular cafe for cyclists) in Las Cruces.
While we didn’t get to do a ton of riding out there (oh the ironies of filming bicycling!), we did get a good sample of the opportunities in the area. The biggest surprise was the mountain biking in El Paso. Living in Portland, where the closest legal mountain biking is an hour drive away, we were blown away at the accessibility of the mountain biking in El Paso. There was some cross country trails right in the middle of town in the Arroyo and a little outside of town you could access the Franklin Mountains which has a multitude of trails! The best resource for mountain biking opportunities in the area is GeoBetty. What we appreciated, since we are mountain biking noobs, is that there was a fair amount of beginner friendly trails to get you started to work up to the more advanced trails.
In Las Cruces we filmed the iconic ride of the area along HWY 28 which goes through groves of pecan orchards. The trees give great shelter during the hot summers and also adds to the desert landscape. We didn’t get a chance to ride any, but we spied a quite a few gravel roads leading into the mountains that begged for more exploration on another trip! A popular road ride is to ride between the two cities along the TransMountain Highway. Although it is along a highway, the road has a good shoulder, is highly popular with cyclists and offers some amazing views of the desert when you get to the summit of the pass!
Before this project, El Paso and Las Cruces didn’t really pop up on our radar as places to go ride a bike on vacation. Having spent a few days there, it has piqued our curiosity and we’re looking forward to returning to do more riding (and they have craft beer! yay!).
The Dalles Mountain 60 is a mixed terrain/gravel route in the Columbia Gorge which is a classic for Oregon cyclists. Mapped out by VeloDirt, curators of dirt bike adventures in Oregon, and run as an unofficial ride for a few years (though they have recently let go of the reins), it has taken on a bit of a mythic status. We deviated slightly from the “official” route near the end to make up some time. Hence 50-ish. We’ve wanted to ride the route for the last few years, but being car-free has made it difficult to get out to The Dalles. There are a few regional buses that go between Portland and The Dalles, but information on whether they take bikes or not is unclear. So when our friends Kelley and Kelly wanted to go ride it, we hopped at the chance.
Kelley suggested we start the route from Deschutes State Park rather than The Dalles (the “official” start of the route), which made perfect sense to us. Looking at the profile, you tackle both Old Moody Road and Dalles Mountain Road within the first half of the ride. This knocks off a majority of the climbing and the steepest parts of the ride fairly early on. We parked and got our bikes ready at Deschutes State Park. Day-use parking is free and there are restrooms. It is important to note that, at this time of year, the flush bathrooms are closed for the season, and water is turned off, so there is only a single port-a-loo.
Laura and I rode our Vayas. Though we’ve typically used them as loaded tourers, they actually have quite a gravel pedigree. Before Salsa’s Warbird came out, many a rider had used the Vaya as their gravel steed. I removed all the racks on mine and used a pair of Revelate Mountain Feedbags at the cockpit and an Arkel Randonneur Rack and Tailrider to carry everything else. I’ve used the Arkel rack and bag system on a few mixed terrain adventures, so I knew it would be up to the task. Another important change was that Laura and I were both carrying a 40oz Klean Kanteen and another 26oz water bottle. There are no services once you get on the dirt, so it helps to carry enough hydration. For tires, we were riding the minimum you would want to ride on the route. Laura had 28mm Panaracer Gravel Kings and I had 28mm Clement LGGs. They have a file tread so not much traction on steep dirt climbs. Most of our climbing was seated. It would have been nice to have something in the 30mm range with a bit more tread (something like the Panaracer Gravel Kings in a 32), so standing climbing would have been possible.
From Deschutes State Park, it is a short ride to the first climb of the day – Old Moody Road. It is a steep gravel climb with grade pitches in the 14-15% range. If you start from The Dalles, you face Old Moody Road at the end of the ride, which makes it a lot tougher. But since we were fresh from the start, we were able to enjoy the grind up to the top. After you summit Old Moody, it is rolling terrain past farms and a few settlements. The landscape (especially in the Spring) is really picturesque and pastoral. The gravel ends when you get to 15 Mile Road, which is a beautiful little country road that follows the curve of a little creek. The beauty of this route is that most of the riding (even the paved portions…though there are some caveats) is generally pretty good.
The pastoral-ness is suddenly lost when you enter The Dalles proper. There is the issue of crossing the Columbia River to the Washington side for the big climb of the day. After a quick stop at the Chevron, we took the lane on the bridge (there is a sidewalk on THIS bridge) and made haste to cross it. We had a semi-truck wait patiently for a while before deciding to pass us using the oncoming lane. We did this ride on a Sunday mid-morning so traffic was generally light. On the Washington side, there was a little more highway riding (Hwy 197 to SR-14) but, thankfully, both highways on this stretch have a pretty good shoulder. After a couple miles, you make a left on to the gravel Dalles Mountain Road.
DMR is really the main course of this ride with Old Moody Road providing a spicy little appetizer. It is a long meandering climb. The sort where you wonder if it is going to end around the next corner, only to find that it continues up from there. Fortunately, unlike Old Moody Road, the grades are less steep (mostly in the 6-7% range with a few extended 8-9% stretches). The gravel, when we rode it, was in perfect conditions. After a rain storm, it can be a tire clogging muddy mess. Kelly rode it with a group of friends last year and they had to use their tire levers to scrape off mud every 25ft. About halfway up the climb is a State Park (day-use only, parking, pit-toilet) with some access to mountain biking trails. It makes a good place for a picnic.
From there, it’s still a long grunt up to the top, but the landscape and views become exponentially better. Looking across the river, you see endless rolling hills on the Oregon side. Eventually, you reach the peak (marked by some sort of radio tower), and it is a steep dirt descent down the other side. The gravel on THIS side was a lot thicker and sketchier. Once you reach the bottom of the dirt descent, there are a number of paved and unpaved country roads to navigate until you get to the highway.
By this time on our ride, it was starting to get dark. We were going at a meandering pace and were now trying to get back to the Oregon side before dark. It’s a good idea to have lights and a mirror for this stretch of the ride. We bombed down Hwy 97. Thankfully, the traffic was really light. We deviated from the official route again and curtailed the Maryhill Stone Henge visit, opting for more fast descending to cross the river (hence 50-ish). Once we were at river level, we had to cross the Columbia river again to Biggs Junction. This bridge sucks. It’s narrow and there is no sidewalk. We were riding in the lane on the bridge when a semi-truck decided to pass us in the same lane with on-coming traffic. Not the best feeling to have an 18-wheeler pass you within inches of your shoulder. Jerk. The best advice for this bridge is to wait for a gap, un-apologetically take the lane, and jam across at full tilt.
We had originally planned for a snack at Biggs, but decided to jam post-haste back to Deschutes State Park and get a meal in the Dalles. From Biggs, it is a straight shot on a frontage road back to the state park. On a windy day, it would suck, but we had been fortunate all day. We made good time and made it back to the vehicles just before it got too dark to see.
This ride has a bit of mythic status with Portland area riders. It is definitely an amazing route with some challenging climbs and rewarding vistas. Some of the views you see are simply unreal. The two bridge crossings and the highway descent are the sketchiest parts of the ride, but are thankfully short. It is a good idea to bring everything you need to be properly fed, hydrated, and fix your bike on the route. Windy or wet days will increase the difficulty of the route exponentially. There is little shade so bring sunscreen or long sleeves. The Vayas handled the terrain beautifully. We run a mountain double (40-28) in the front and a 12-36 cassette in the back, so were able to spin up everything. The 28mm tires were the right tire for about 80% of the ride. There were some soupier sections where we could have gone a little wider but, for the most part, 28mm was an ok choice. Disc brakes were definitely great for keeping our speed in check (especially on the highway downhill), but rim brakes would be fine too. Starting this ride from Deschutes State Park, we feel, is an awesome way to tackle the ride. You dispatch the steep Old Moody Road when your legs are fresh and the miles at the end of the day are generally rolling to downhill. If you’re visiting Oregon and are looking for a great mixed terrain ride that gives you a taste of the drier parts of the state, then definitely do this ride!
Our recorded GPS route here.
Follow the Beards
Laura and I are walking aimlessly at MSP airport. We are clearly looking lost. A woman’s voice calls out and says, “You must be Frostbikers.” I do a quick mental inventory and figure it is the Ortlieb backpacks that gives us away. It is Kathleen from FreeRangeCycles, a sweet bicycle commuting and touring shop in Seattle. We tell her that we’re looking for the lightrail into downtown. She says she heard that there is a shuttle for Frostbikers. We kill time talking about randonneuring bikes (her passion), wondering if we are in the right place for a shuttle that may or may not appear. Suddenly, when doubt is at its highwater mark, they appear, a group of twenty or so men with various degrees of beard walking with purpose. We had found our tribe. Without thinking or breaking a step, I say, “follow them!”
The Minneapolis Marrriot is decorated with giant snow flakes. At check-in, you are a given a choice between four beanie hats. At any other tradeshow, they would be seen as a cute giveaway, but with the weather hovering around -6 outside, the ill-prepared in attendance take them graciously. Scanning the crowd, there are hundreds of bicycle shop owners and employees from around the country. It is a winter gathering of the two-wheeled tribes and it is glorious. Working our way through the crowd and eyeballing name tags, there are people from shops that we’ve visited in our travels – (Bike Effect, The Mob Shop, Kyles Bikes) – and ones that we’ve only known through social media (North Central Cyclery, Angry Catfish, Topanga Creek Bicycles, Harris Cyclery).
Frostbike, someone described to us, is “a Midwestern Interbike.” People are friendlier and it doesn’t have the same frenetic craziness and over-the-top displays. “It draws primarily midwesterners, so the people are nicer.” While chatting with the different dealers and vendors, we definitely found that to be the case. Business meetings were being conducted, bikes and parts were being ordered, but people were a lot more relaxed and social.
Aside from unveiling new bikes and products, Frostbike also has several seminars for the attendees. This year, there was everything from technical sessions for shop mechanics; to Jay Petervary talking about bikepacking; to QBP’s Director of Marketing, Ryan Johnson, presenting about branding. We attended the branding session and got more out of that hour session than any other all-day branding workshop. Ryan shared some of the techniques and frameworks that QBP uses to differentiate their different brands and how it could be applied to bike shops. If you are a bike dealer and have the opportunity to attend, the breakout sessions have lots of great content.
Salsa Steals the Show
Of course, one of the big reasons people go to these things is for product unveils. Perhaps the biggest news was at the Salsa display, where people gathered with baited breath to see what lay beneath the covers. Salsa debuted two new bikes: an updated Warbird, as well as the tandem 29er Powderkeg. By now all the specs have been published, so we won’t go into that minutiae. I will say that the Warbird is a stunning bike in person. The bridgeless seatstays are not only beautiful to behold, but offer big tire and mud clearances and purportedly smooth out the ride. The colors are eye-catching (yay there is an orange one!), and they have a nice understated nature to them with the bold tri-color bands. Salsa positions the Warbird as an almost strictly race-day gravel event bike (hence the lack of any mounting points for fenders or racks), but I like to see it as a sort of all-roads go-fast bike. A Vaya that has shed a few pounds and with a little more get up and go. The sort of bike that you take on a spirited road ride with friends as well as explore rougher forest and gravel roads with.
In addition to the new bikes, Salsa also had on display their new Anything Cage HDs and matching dry bags. They also had their new waterproof roll top panniers at their booth, a nod to those who aren’t going completely rackless on tour.
Other products we personally found interesting on the Expo floor included the popular Clement LGG, which is coming out in a wider 32mm flavor (I have the 28mm version on a bike and love it). And the Rocket Ratchet Lite, which I recently bought, is getting an upgrade (Rocket Ratchet Lite DX) and will come with two tire levers and a bit extender. Velo Orange showed off a seat post with easy adjustability. Instead of fiddling with bolts from the bottom, all adjustments are made from an easy to access side facing bolt.
One of the fun things we got to participate in was a panel specifically for Salsa’s international distributors. The theme was “adventure by bike” and we shared some bar stools with some amazing folks. There was Jim Cummins, one of the organizers of the Dirty Kanza 200; Jay Petervary, one of the most accomplished endurance cyclists in the world, and Ben Weaver, a talented folk musician who recently toured by bike from Minneapolis to New Orleans and played shows along the way. What was fascinating was that, although we were speaking from completely different aspects of bicycling, we all saw the bicycle as personally transformative and wanted to inspire others to ride.
It was a great treat to hear Jim Cummins talk about the Dirty Kanza 200, not only from the rider perspective but from the economic perspective as well. Since they moved the race start from the outskirts of Emporia to downtown, it has been embraced by local businesses and provides a great economic boon to the area. He spoke about rider trading cards that they created which was an innovative way to involve the community and local businesses. One of his favorite accomplishments as race director for the Dirty Kanza 200 is the fact that it has been embraced by the community. He told us that when he first started riding around Emporia with a friend, he lamented not having many people to ride with. Now, more than 100 residents from Emporia have registered in the race.
The panel ended with Ben Weaver playing a few songs from his latest album that were inspired by traveling by bike.
Connecting the Dots
One morning, Laura and I decided to have a little #coffeeoutside session in our hotel room before heading to QBP headquarters for the expo. Although it was organized informally via Instagram at the 11th hour, we had a great crew of bikey coffee nerds show up. There was Chase, who is opening up a lifestyle bike shop/cafe with a focus on bike travel in Los Angeles; our friend Arleigh from BikeShopGirl.com; Scott from Salvagetti Bicycles in Denver, CO; our friend Adam from Bicycle Times; Lucas from Bunyan Velo, and Carl from Monkey Wrench Bicycles in Lincoln, NE.
The whole Frostbike experience was a lot like this for us. We met shop owners who we had met in the past and learned about new shops that were just opening. We also ran into quite a few readers, which was a treat since most of our interaction with our readers is just online. We talked to shop owners and employees around the country, trying to get a sense of the popularity of bicycle travel. We also listened about what they thought were the gaps and obstacles to its growth. For us, it was a fascinating anthropological look at the current state of biking.
After the official programming of Frostbike ended, Laura and I made a tour of Minneapolis bike shops that we’ve always wanted to check out. There was One on One, regarded as one of the first bicycle/coffee shops in Minneapolis (and the country?). They played host to an after party for Frostbikers which involved some sub-zero mini bike races in the alley. We stopped by Angry Catfish, a beautifully curated shop that not only serves up great coffee (Intelligentsia) but lots of high end soft goods and bikes. If you’re a bike nerd, it is a must. Around the corner from ACF is Mend Provisions, a next generation lifestyle fly fishing store. We went to Calhoun Cycles, a great commuter/folding bike/cargo bike focused shop (which coincidentally shared space with a coffee shop). We crammed as much as we could into the time remaining, all the while trying not to freeze our faces off. Minneapolis definitely requires another longer (and warmer) visit. Before flying back to Portland, we had lunch with some of the Salsa Cycles crew to talk about some future plans. Great things are afoot. We’ll leave it at that.
When we first got invited as media to Frostbike, the idea of visiting Minneapolis in February didn’t sound very appealing. We weren’t dealers or strictly a product review site anymore, but we are glad we went (and we hope you appreciate this different non-spec focused look at the event). The big takeaways we came away with is that the new generation of bike shop owners are eager to change the experience of what a bike shop is and that bicycle touring and travel is alive and well. If you get a chance to go as a dealer or shop employee it will be worth your while (just bring a coat…or several).
To say that Oregonians are spoiled with great outdoor recreation opportunities is a bit of an understatement. Even in Portland, the most populated city in the state, there are some pretty awesome mini bike adventures not too far out of town. We decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm and sunny weather this week to do our February bike overnight for the #BikeTourR12 Challenge. I knew I wanted to get some fishing in so we chose Oxbow Park that is situated right along the Sandy River.
There are many ways to get there, but our current favorite way is a little meandering route that puts you on some quaint country roads that pass plant nurseries and farms. You can do this ride two ways depending on how much riding you want to do. You can take the long way from Portland via the Springwater Corridor or you can take the MAX out to Gresham and ride from the end of the line, which is what we did this time.
Once you get off the MAX, there is a little suburban unpleasantness to ride through but plenty of opportunity to pick up some last minute supplies you might have forgotten (Walgreens, Market 7, etc.,). After about 2 miles, you get on the Springwater Trail that parallels SE Telford Road. It runs along Johnson Creek, which this time of year has a pretty good flow of water through it. A little before mile 4, you leave the trail and get on Stone Rd. and deal with the only bit of traffic unpleasantness on the route, crossing Hwy 26. It is a big 4-lane highway, with no signals at that intersection, making it tricky to cross when it is busy. On the way to Oxbow, we were lucky that there wasn’t much traffic so we made it across fairly easily. Coming back, there was more traffic, so we had to cross it in two stages. We waited until the traffic on our side was clear then rode to the painted traffic island by the left turn pocket; when that side of traffic was clear we crossed the rest of the way. It is not ideal, but if you cross in two stages it is easily manageable. Once you get past that nastiness you are on a gem of a country road that is very lightly trafficked. You eventually get on Dodge Park Blvd, a long straight country road that on a clear day will give you great views of Mt. Hood in the distance. There is a country market and restaurant along the way that always smells like it has some awesome BBQ cooking that we quite haven’t made it to yet. Once you are on Hosner it is a straight shot to Oxbow Park.
Now is probably a good time to talk about The Hill. The Hill is about 1.6 miles and drops/climbs (depending if you are going in or out of the park) 600 feet to river level. It is steep. There are short stretches of 14-15% that make it a memorable experience either way you ride it. There are occasionally some rough patches on the road so keep your eyes peeled and speed in check coming down. The Hill, unfortunately, deters people from attempting to bikecamp at Oxbow more often. It is a tough hill to ride up, but it is short in the grand scheme of things and there is no shame if one decided to take in a bit more of the scenery and walk up it. It doesn’t go on forever (even though it may feel like it when you are pedaling).
After descending The Hill, you’ll pass the entrance to the park (bikes enter for free!). Past the entrance there are about two more miles until you get to the actual campsites. The road through the park is a fun little ride that rolls and curves with great views of the Sandy River below. The campsites were blissfully empty when we arrived. During peak summer months, they fill up easily on the weekends. If you have a flexible schedule, mid-week during shoulder seasons are best for peace and quiet. Campsites cost $22 per site and firewood is $5 a bundle. We had stopped at a convenience store to pull cash, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that the rangers at Oxbow now take credit cards! The rangers on duty were exceptionally nice! Seeing that we were on bikes, they offered to drop some wood off with their truck.
After we got our tent set up and afternoon coffee made, we soft pedaled down to the boat ramp along the Sandy. There is a big swath of pebbly beach and we walked down a little ways with the bikes to find an empty spot. Laura wrote in her journal and I donned the waders and boots. The Sandy River is a well regarded steelhead river. During steelhead season you’ll see people floating down the river fishing every few minutes like a ride in Disneyland. Oxbow Park is unique in that it has a lot of bank fishing opportunities for steelhead. I’ve come out to Oxbow about half a dozen times exploring a few hundred feet with each visit. For the bank fisherman, you could spend years unlocking the nuances of the different runs in the park. I haven’t quite spent that much time there, so I’m still bumbling along trying to figure out where the good water is.
Steelhead are notoriously fickle fish (affectionately called “fish of a thousand casts”, though by the count I’m more than overdue), and many a fisherman has gone through an entire season without bringing one in. At worst it is an absolutely maddening Quixotic experience standing waist deep in cold water, swinging rod and reel in the air like a daft magician trying to conjure up a giant rabbit. But even in those moments where you question your sanity about the whole endeavor, it still beats a lot of other things you could be doing with your time. It felt oddly good to stand there with the warmth of the sun on my face, slowly working down river to the cadence of a snap-T cast as my left foot went slowly numb from the frigid water (have to find that hole in my wader that time). That’s why its called fishing and not catching, right?
Once the sun dipped below the trees we started a campfire, made dinner and enjoyed the rare clear February evening in Oregon. Morning was leisurely and included a healthy sized campfire and multiple cups of coffee. We packed up and rode out around 10:30am and took the same route home and were back home by 1:30pm.
The Oxbow Overnighter is a great beginner-intermediate ride. What prevents it from being completely beginner/family-friendly is the crossing at Hwy 26 and The Hill. Though not particularly harrowing, those two features demand a little more attention. It is a remarkable destination that you can reach in fairly short order from Portland by bike and MAX. On longer summer days, it begs to be ridden the entire way from Portland. The Sandy River is a great attraction and if you like to fish as well as bike, this trip offers both great rural riding and a chance to hook into some amazing fish.
This weekend, despite very uninviting weather, we made our way to Vernonia for another gravel recon ride with some members of Travel Oregon’s Gravel Working Group. The goal of these gatherings, aside from pedaling on some amazing gravel roads, is to try to develop a sense of what makes a great gravel ride for visiting cyclists and discuss some of the issues surrounding gravel tourism. This weekend’s ride started near Vernonia, OR (one of the bookend towns on the Banks-Vernonia Rail Trail).
We met at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus, a beautifully appointed European style resort. Glen and Sandy are avid cyclists and based the lodge around some cycling lodges in Europe. It has an amazing yoga room, a mini tavern in a barn and a soaking pool that overlooks the property. Sandy is an excellent cook and provides breakfast and dinner for guests and takes into consideration any and all dietary restrictions. Their hope is that people will plan to basecamp at their property and tackle any number of the paved and non-paved roads in the surrounding mountains.
The weather was foreboding but we decided to ride anyway (it couldn’t possibly rain the WHOLE time could it?). We had a good group of people from Evan Ross who owns Cycle Portland Bicycle Tours; to Lisa Luna who is in charge of the adventure biking programs at Mountain Shop, an outdoor store in Portland that also rents gravel bikes, fat bikes and bikepacking bags.
For those interested in the route, you can find it here. A few route notes: 1) it’s a partial route since my Garmin apparently wasn’t recording, but you can pretty easily see the intended start/stop point 2) this variation of the route begins at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus 3) if you don’t intend to stay at the Coast Mountain Sport Haus, begin your ride from Vernonia and connect to the route there 4) we rode it counter-clockwise but it is a better ride going clockwise because the climbs are more gradual and descents are smoother in that direction. Vernonia based route here.
In terms of other things to expect, bring everything you need to fix your bike. This area is pretty remote and any bike malfunction will result in a very long walk. In fact, it would be a good idea to bring a few riding pals along for the ride. Cross bikes or all-road bikes are ideal. You probably want no smaller than a 32mm tire. If you have good bike handling skills and aren’t afraid of a little gravel surfing, you could ride it with 28mm tires as well. I rode it with 33.3 Jack Browns and it was perfect except for one steep climb with some wet and loose gravel. The terrain is really varied. There are a few fast smooth dirt sections but there are also parts where it is loose, chunky and deep as well as one stretch with good fist-sized rocks. You will also have to walk around a few gates. Not a big deal. It is legal recreational access and the gates are there to dissuade motor vehicle use. Although there is some climbing on this route, everything is pretty reasonable. In fact, a vast majority of the ride is on some nice rollers. There are no services once you leave the highway so bring all the food and water you’ll need. In terms of navigation, a GPS with the route pre-loaded is necessary. There are a lot of logging roads you’ll cross and a GPS with the route will keep you on the right “road.”
Enough disclaimer. Once you leave the Nehalem Highway, you’ll be treated to splendidly quiet roads. We were riding with a group, so we didn’t stop as often as we usually would to take photos. Highlights include the several creek crossings on the route. Everything was pretty high and brown because of the recent rains, but I can imagine during the summer they are clear and inviting. A lot of the roads had trees lining the route like sentries. At other spots, logging activity was clearly visible with barren hillsides that atleast afforded some great views of neighboring peaks. On some parts of the routes you’ll pass pastoral scenes of barns and small farms with cows watching you with curiosity as you roll by. What was enjoyable about the ride was how remote it felt even though it was relatively close to Portland. Modern civilization seemed distant and often the only sounds were of nearby creeks and that Rice Krispies sound your tire makes on dirt and gravel. In short, despite the weather, the riding was pretty awesome.
Compared to the Banks Gravel Loop that we rode a few weeks ago out of Stub Stewart, this ride felt a little more remote and rugged. There wasn’t as much climbing, but the surface of the roads made it seem a little more technically challenging (especially on the descents). It is also longer with less services than the Banks ride, so it is a good idea to pack a sandwich for a creek side picnic or a few bars in your jersey pocket.
The ride ended at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus where Sandy had prepared an awesome post-ride spread (complete with chilled beers in a bucket). When everyone came in, we ate and chatted about the ride. Some of us already scheming to ride this route again when we have better weather.
Also check out BikePortland’s account of riding this route a few years ago.
Stub Stewart State Park is a well-known bike touring destination for Portland-area bicyclists. Located off the Banks-Vernonia Trail, it is a relaxing car-free experience to gently ride up the rail trail through the forests in the foothills of the coast range. It is also featured in the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway video we filmed. We’ve ridden there about a dozen times and have always treated “Stub,” as it is affectionately called, as an end destination for a quick bike overnight.
Over the last year or so, we’ve become more interested in mixed terrain road riding. After joining the Gravel Working Group on a recon ride a few weeks ago, and getting a sample of some of the great quiet roads in the area, we decided to try treating Stub as a basecamp for further adventure.
Usually, we take the Max out to Hillsboro and ride this route, which puts you on about 10 miles of quiet country roads before the start of the Banks-Vernonia Trail. We actually prefer this route to the official Scenic Bikeway route. It is a bit shorter, a lot less traffic, with fewer major street crossings. If you’re a beginner bike tourist or even a family, it is probably the recommended route.
We wanted a few more miles in our legs so we took this route from Portland all the way to Stub. It was our first time riding there without taking MAX. You essentially leave Portland on HWY 30, climb over the West Hills via Saltzman, ride about a mile on Skyline, descend via Springville, and weave your way through a strange tapestry of suburban trails to country roads.
The route was circuitous and strange, but generally low stress. At one point, you make a left on a gravel service road for 500 feet beneath some power lines. It looks like you are going the wrong way, but you’re not. If you attempt this route, I’d highly recommend taking a GPS, especially if you are not familiar with the trail system. When you get to Banks, it is pretty straight-forward. Hop on the trail and head into the hills.
If you need a lunch break, the Banks Cafe makes some solid hamburgers (GF bread available), has free wi-fi and even some craft beers on tap! Not bad for a tiny town. A little further down the street is the Trailhead Cafe with a green bike out front. They have coffee and focus on more breakfast-type items (the breakfast burrito was a good 2nd breakfast for the ride back to PDX).
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about Stub is its cabins! We’ve tented at Stub, but during the colder months, the cabins are really the best option. They are all wood and are outfitted with a futon, bunk-bed, a small dining table, and lamp. The have heat and electricity inside, as well as a fire ring (wood is available from the camp host) and picnic table outside. Bathrooms and hot showers are a short walk to a separate building. They all have a porch with a bench that overlook the coastal range (for best views, book cabins 11 or 12!).
If you are into mountain biking, there is a trail network that you can connect to from the cabins. If you are into disc golf, a short walk down the hill and you are on the course. The price is more than reasonable at $44 a night. They are popular during the summer months and weekends, but if you have a flexible schedule, going midweek almost ensures you’ll have a quiet stay.
As a side note, there are no kitchen facilities, so bring your camp cooking gear. We brought along a small electric kettle, which was awesome for not only making coffee, but for cooking dehydrated mashed potatoes and oatmeal.
The only caveat is that, if you come on bike, be prepared for a one mile slog up-hill to get to the cabin village. While nothing terrible, the road from the trail to the cabins tops out at about 9% grade. If you are hauling kids or a super heavy load, there’s no shame in walking and enjoying the view.
For us, riding in the area around Banks and Vernonia is relatively undiscovered terrain. We are car-free, so just getting out to Stub is essentially a day ride. By treating the cabins as a basecamp, it has opened up our range of roads to explore. There are two routes that have been mapped out in the area by a friend of ours, a local gravel road connoisseur. One of them starts from Banks, and a slightly longer one starts from Vernonia.
Having ridden the one from Banks with the recon group and knowing that it was a good ride, we opted for a modified version of that one. We had a chilly descent down to the Manning Trailhead and picked up the route there. After crossing the 26, we hopped on Hayward Rd, which essentially climbs in earnest. It is initially paved but quickly turns into a great gravel country road. It is important to note that, although the roads seem blissfully empty, you should still generally be aware of the errant vehicle which will definitely not be expecting you.
There are a few houses and small farms along the route and more than a few dogs. For the most part they kept away, but there is a chocolate brown boxer that lives at the top of a hill that got a little bitey during the recon ride a few weeks ago. I was carrying a friend’s Dazzer as insurance. If you are uncomfortable around dogs, this is worth noting. Generally, having some sort of deterrent or plan if a dog gets a little over anxious is a good idea.
The route climbs at a fairly steady pace, with the occasional 14% grade spike. You’ll meander along a rolling ridge before a fast descent to Cedar Canyon Rd that you take into Banks.
The gravel roads this time of year are hard packed and fast! Conditions will change as things dry out, or if there are logging trucks using the roads. I was riding on 33.3mm Jack Brown tires and they were perfect. Laura was riding on 28mm Panaracer GravelKings, which is probably as small as you’d want to go.
After another lunch in Banks, we headed back up to the cabin. Although it was sunny, it was still cold, so we decided to call it a day. The area definitely calls for more exploration when the weather is warmer and the days are a little longer. The next day, we left Stub and rode back to the Hillsboro MAX station and took it back to Portland.
Stub Stewart is a great bike touring destination, but it is also an ideal basecamp for gravel rides. We, admittedly, barely scratched the surface, but are planning to go back again and spend more time riding other routes. It is easy to imagine some awesome 3-night cabin stays in the summer when the days are long, riding loops around the area and ending every evening with a campfire, cold beers, and watching the sunset behind the mountains!
Bicycle adventures come in all shapes and sizes. From epic multi-month tours on dirt roads in remote places, to shorter trips not too far from town. Since putting down some roots in Portland to get serious about promoting bicycle tourism, our trips have been of the far shorter variety. I had coffee with our friend Joshua Bryant a local frame builder in town the other day. He had just come back from a snowy bike overnight testing out his latest creation, the NFD (National Forest Development) bike. We talked briefly about the idea of doing a bike tour every month, calling it an “S24O R-12″ or something like that.
For the non bike geeks out there “S24O” is a bike tour that you complete in less than 24 hours. You essentially ride out in the afternoon, overnight somewhere and come back the next morning. “R-12” is a term borrowed from the randonneuring community, that denotes a rider that completes a randonneuring event of 200k or longer in 12 consecutive months.
What I’m proposing is nothing as rigid or stringent, but just a little impetus to get people “out there” on the bike. Looking back (way back), I had set this as a New Year’s resolution in 2008, little did I know where it would take us. It seems like a good time to take on this resolution again. Who’s with us?!
So here’s the ground rules.
-You must complete one overnight bike trip per month for 12 consecutive months.
-Since this whole challenge thing is starting mid-January, you can double up in February.
-You can stay for more than one night.
-While tenting is preferred, an overnight to a cabin or yurt is perfectly acceptable especially in the colder months.
-Bikepacking or bike touring or bike whatevering is OK!
-There is no minimum or maximum distance you have to ride.
-You must have fun. This is not meant to be a death march.
-If you use Instagram, tag your photos #BikeTourR12 (to avoid a nonsensical hashtag like S24OR12 or something).
-Post some photos to the Bike Tour a Month Flickr Group! Prep and gear photos are totally OK and encouraged.
-Use the tag #BikeTourR12
That’s it! Again, this is really meant to just get us out there having fun.
This month, we are biking out to Stub Stewart State Park this week to stay in a cabin. We’ve toured there before and have usually treated it as the end destination. This time, we’re spending a few days there so we can use it to explore some local gravel roads. We’ll put up a separate post about that when we get back. If you want to follow along on Instagram we’re using the tag #gravelgetaway.
How much information can you share in 15 seconds? During the winter months we have more editing than filming and riding going on. Always one to keep honing our storytelling skills, we’ve started a mini project on our Instagram account reviewing products in 15 seconds! Check out the first one below and follow the hashtag #Reviewedin15Seconds.