Over the last two years, we’ve been exploring how bicycling can help small towns. It was a simple idea that we saw manifested in myriad ways when we were on the road. Fortunately, we’ve been involved in some really amazing projects that are institutionalizing the idea, like Oregon’s Scenic Bikeways and statewide Bike Friendly Business program. All of these projects have the goal to boost, revitalize, and enrich the rural communities in Oregon by bringing people through on bicycle. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of Oregon’s great rural bike advocates to see how bike tourism manifests itself in reality.
Recently, we had a gap between some projects, so we decided to hit the road on a bike tourism study tour, and interview some rural bike advocates to hear about their challenges, successes, and lessons learned during this grand experiment. These were our biggest insights from the interviews:
#1 Bike Tourism is Outdoor Recreation.
Kim and Anita Metlin live in La Grande, OR and are the proponents of the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway. When we asked them what they had learned over the last few years, Kim put it best when he said, “No one is going to drive out to the middle of nowhere to do a two-hour bike ride.” For an area to be a successful bike tourism draw, it has to offer a wide range of experiences – everything from road riding, mountain biking, gravel grinding, etc. But beyond just biking assets, an area has to also promote other related-but-non-cycling activities in tandem (camping, hiking, rafting, fishing, arts, beer, etc.). We often think of bicyclists in a vacuum, but bicyclists don’t ride bikes 100% of the time – they have other interests as well. People who ride bikes are active travelers and it makes perfect sense to market a region’s other outdoor recreation activities to them as well.
Kim and Anita’s recent venture is a pedal-powered rail car that runs on unused county-owned railroad. Currently, they operate during the summer months, Friday to Sunday, and offer three guided departure times. They built 10 rail riders and have a capacity to take groups as large as 20 people at one time. The ride takes you from Joseph to Enterprise (with a beer stop at Terminal Gravity for adult guests). What was initially meant to be a way to whimsically enjoy retirement has become quite the busy operation.
When we visited, they had all-but-one pedal rail car booked for a family reunion! We chatted with people from Seattle and Bend and Texas who made the trip out to try their wacky contraption. This brought to light something else about bike tourism – activities for all ages and abilities. They’ve had kids as young as four and adults in their 90s on the rail riders. It might be the case that only one or two in a party identify as cycling enthusiasts, but something like the pedal rail car allows other members of the party to enjoy the area as well.
#2 It’s about the Journey AND the Destination.
Bike tourism is unique in that the journey is an integral part of the experience. We’ve driven on roads and through towns in a car that we also biked through and the difference was startling. From behind a windshield, small towns are less memorable as they pass by in the blink of an eye. On a bike, you feel like you get a more intimate understanding of a place and notice all the little details. That said, there is something to be said about the importance of building and marketing a destination that is welcoming of cyclists, particularly in remote rural areas.
We interviewed Phil Carlson who launched Treo Bike Tours a few years ago as an offshoot of his successful bird hunting business. He was looking for a way to generate income when hunting wasn’t in season and he saw opportunity in bicycling. Phil’s property is down a four-mile gravel road from the ghost town of Hardman, Oregon. His lodge is an island unto itself which he is fashioning as a cycling destination. While he initially marketed the road riding opportunities, he discovered he was surrounded by another great asset – gravel roads. There are literally days worth of gravel (and pavement) riding to be done around his lodge. Phil’s bike tourism model is to create an all-inclusive bicycling destination. His lodge is outfitted with several cozy rooms, a common area with a pool table and fireplace, craft beers on tap (an IPA and a dark IPA when we were there), a hot tub, and even a pistol and rifle range. Not too far from the lodge is a saloon made for late nights of playing cards by candle light and drinking beer. When you book a tour, all meals, snacks, and ride support are included. For visitors flying into Portland (or Portland area residents), he offers direct pickup from the city (no need to drive!) in his fully outfitted shuttle bus and trailer. As soon as you get out to the country, you can start riding and enjoying some of Oregon’s great rural roads.
While Phil’s focus is on building his business as a destination, small towns and communities can employ similar techniques on a macro scale. Phil’s ranch maintains its rustic personality and character (there are stuffed birds and photographs of hunters on the wall), but he has also incorporated bicycling photos and cycling caps to help cyclists feel at home. Similarly, rural communities don’t have to re-invent themselves into mini-Portlands to entice cyclists, they just have to extend the same sense of welcome as they would to their other guests (though a craft beer or two on tap doesn’t hurt :). In the end, as Phil told us, his business is all about “customer service,” whether it is hunters or bicyclists.
#3 Catalog your bicycle assets. Then share them ONLINE.
On this road trip we ventured outside Oregon, into Washington, and worked our way from Walla Walla, through Ellensburg, and into Wenatchee, where we met with local bike advocates and a chamber representative over beers to talk about bike tourism. There was a lot of interest in the group about promoting Wenatchee as a cycling hotspot. We asked them why and they gave us a great list, from favorite area rides like the Fruit Loop, to local hill climbs, to great country roads that connect to interesting towns like Leavenworth, and the fact that it’s sunny there when it’s winter on the “wet side” of the state. We asked them where a visitor could find this information and they mentioned a few websites of local cycling clubs, but none of them were visitor-facing websites. You had to already know where to look or be a part of the local cycling scene. We suggested that they catalog all of the great riding opportunities and create a purpose-built visitor-facing website for cyclists. It also doesn’t hurt to post routes across several area websites – the more the merrier. We spoke about the pluses and minuses of paper maps. As bike travelers, we love paper maps. They never run out of batteries! BUT, the reality is that people now do most of their vacation planning online. Paper maps are also expensive to do well, and the map occupies a specific temporal/physical space. What are the chances that someone who is bike-curious will check in to the right accommodations with the right person on staff who will think to direct them to the map? In terms of ROI, and for the sake of getting things done quicker, online maps, routes, and trip suggestions spread over multiple sites will yield better results.
By the end of our bike tourism study tour we were both encouraged by what we saw, and we also learned more about the real challenges facing these rural bike advocates. In many ways, people who advocate for rural cycling are pioneers operating with little support from the larger nationwide bicycle advocacy organizations (who are primarily focused on cities). Despite this, they are innovating and coming up with unique solutions to making bicycling work in their small towns.
(If you are a bike advocacy organization or a destination marketing organization and would like to hear us speak about bike tourism, contact us here. We are available to give presentations about the potential of this emergent field of tourism.)
We shot this earlier in the summer but it has finally been released. Like many, we have been guilty of just passing through Madras on our way to Bend. After the filming, we’ve discovered that there are little gems of roads with spectacular views. Also not to mention some surprisingly good food in both Madras and the tiny town of Culver!
Some footage from last winter when we escaped the grey of Portland to ride bikes in San Luis Obispo. The Central Coast is really an undiscovered cycling paradise and offers a ton of scenic riding opportunities in the area, especially for weather weary riders from the Pacific North West in the middle of the big grey.
Austin House Cafe is an oasis for cycling tourists in Oregon. Located on both the Adventure Cycling Trans AM route and the Old West Scenic Bikeway, it sees a fair number of bike tourists every year. We interviewed Jeff and Christy Keffer, the owners of Austin House Cafe, last year to talk with them about how it has been like to have cyclists as customers in rural Oregon. They are definitely worth the visit if you are biking or driving through!
If a mattress store can be a bike friendly business, any business can. We shot this interview last year for another project, but unfortunately it didn’t make the cut. Loathe to have this great interview and footage languish in the digital darkness of a hard drive, I cut together a short profile on Michael Hanna, owner of the The Mattress Lot.
Their business is located a few blocks from where we live and every time I would ride by I’d see their “cyclists welcome” sign. How could a mattress store of all places be bike friendly? After months of riding by, Laura and I finally decided we had to investigate. We chatted with Michael and were fascinated by his story. Perhaps not so coincidentally we also ended up buying a mattress from him
You’ve got to love a brewery whose owners are super excited about bike tourists and bike tourism! We made the bike ride out to Cascade Locks, along the Historic Columbia River Highway, toting our video gear, to interview the founders of Thunder Island Brewery. Dave Lipps, one of the founders, is an avid bicycle tourist himself (who rode across the US and around New Zealand). Because of this perspective, he sees the real potential benefit of trying to capture the bike tourism market.
Cascade Locks is a small community that is in the crossroads of lots of outdoor recreation. Not only is it on Adventure Cycling’s Lewis and Clark route, it is situated right in the middle of the Historic Columbia River Highway and is traversed by the Pacific Crest Trail – an outdoor recreation triple threat! The brewery is a huge addition to making Cascade Locks a bike tourism destination. Not only will it provide a treat for through cyclists and hikers (it is conveniently located on the river, right next to some camping options), but it also makes the perfect day trip for Portlanders who want to ride through the Gorge and grab a good beer. Not only are Dave and Dan brewing great beers, they are also committed to and involved in making the community-at-large a more bike friendly place. They’ve worked to get funding for bike racks in town, as well as making the bike-friendly case to other businesses in town.
If you are riding the Lewis and Clark route or just a day or weekend trip through the Gorge, be sure to stop by Thunder Island when you go through Cascade Locks. (Pro Tip: their Mosaic Pale Ale is amazing!)
While the Oregon Outback was kicking off in Klamath Falls, we did a little bikepacking mini adventure of our own on the Deschutes. May is known for the epic salmonfly hatch on the D….which we pretty much missed (one lone stonefly did make an appearance at our camp on our final day of fishing to rub salt in our wounds). That said, it was still a fun trip and is probably the most accessible bikepacking trip in Oregon. We shot some video to make a little vignette of the trip, so grab some popcorn.
You know the state you live in is serious about bike tourism when it has a dedicated “gravel working group,” whose mission is to catalog and figure out how to promote its thousands of miles of gravel roads. This past weekend, we made the trek out to John Day, in Eastern Oregon; where Mike Cosgrove, one of the region’s most passionate rural bike advocates, wanted to show us a fraction of the thousands of miles of non-paved and mixed-terrain riding opportunities in the area. We went out there with a member of Travel Oregon’s destination development team and a marketing person from Chris King to see what the region had to offer.
Mike Cosgrove, rural bike provocateur, standing by his magic bike bus.
Mike, always one to take initiative, created a brochure advertising the 10,000 miles of gravel roads that can be found in the John Day area.
Before we get to the gravel, this bus / #adventuremobile deserves mention. It is an old Blue Bird school bus transformed into a crazy multi-colored Ken Kesey fun mobile, if Ken and the Merry Pranksters rode bikes. Definitely not what you’d expect to find out in Eastern Oregon. On the outside of the bus is a bright mural of mountains and rivers with a few wagon wheels and half a bicycle thrown in. When Mike isn’t shuttling some bikey ne’er-do-wells from Portland out into the middle of the forest, he uses the bus for rural Safe Routes to School and bike education programs.
How’s this for an #adventuremobile.
Our rough plan for the weekend was to have a mini tour de gravel in the John Day area. Mike had proposed three routes of varying lengths and difficulties over a multitude of riding surfaces, to figure out what sort of gravel riding would be best suited for cyclists. We arrived in the afternoon on the first day and had lunch at the diner in Dayville, with three local cyclists who looked at us with some skepticism when we told them that riding off pavement was a thing.
After lunch, we all hopped into the bike bus and Mike drove us up some delightfully empty paved roads until we hit some gravel. We unloaded the bikes and immediately put on some warmer clothes. We had gained a lot of elevation and the sky was looking somewhat ominous. What was drizzle down in Dayville had transformed into “graupel” at elevation, round icy pellets falling from the sky that had the knack of hitting you in the face. Thankfully, the first part of the ride was all uphill which gave us a chance to heat up and keep warm. The riding was really a picture perfect stretch of what you would expect for gravel riding in Oregon’s many forest service and logging roads. Low traffic. Unpaved and gravelly but a highly rideable surface. The road also offered peeks at the surrounding mountains and valleys when the weather cooperated.
Dylan, from Chris King, enjoying one of the sweet early stretches of gravel.
The road descended and we were met by Mike and the bike bus at the bottom of the hill. The next part, we were warned, might be a little bit muddy, especially with the recent storm. We were having such an awesome ride the last few miles, that we wondered how bad could it be? It turns out, pretty bad. We pushed on, past a gate to a road that was no longer maintained. The first quarter mile or so was mushy but rideable. We were in an obvious low part of the terrain judging by the small swimming pools that were forming in the middle of the “road”. About a mile in, I noticed my tires had apparently lost all traction. The mud was so thick and sticky that it clogged up the treads on my tire and I was essentially riding a 29+ mud tire slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point, while avoiding a rock, I slipped and fell on my side. At least the mud was soft-ish.
That time when all our bikes communally exploded.
At about mile two I rounded the corner and saw everyone standing around a bike in pretty sad shape. Harry’s derailleur had thrown itself into the rear wheel (perhaps to save itself from the muddy hell we found ourselves in) and broke a spoke and bent his derailleur hanger. While Harry and Dylan tried to bend the frame back into rideable shape with the help of a Leatherman and good ‘ole brute force, I tried to unclog my bike. The mud was so bad at this point it verged on comical. I literally couldn’t push my bike any further. The mud hung in fist size globs at both my brakes, beneath my rear fender and on my rear derailleur. I removed my rear fender and strapped it to my rear rack for the rest of the ride.
This, of course, brought up an interesting lesson about gravel roads and attempting to market them for general consumption. Gravel roads (at least in the PNW), unlike paved roads, have a seasonality. At certain times of the year, the riding is more manageable. During the wetter months or after a storm, you had better be prepared for a long walk in the woods. Also, the word gravel is such an inadequate descriptor for the range of surfaces you could encounter (everything from pea size stuff on up to chunkier loose pieces and the occasional baby head). Another huge consideration, which was staring us at the face at the moment, was that gravel roads are remote and people riding them must be fairly self-sufficient if something goes wrong. This became really obvious as we tried to call Mike and the magic bus and got no signal. We huddled and decided that it would make more sense to push on and continue on with the plan. We had about six miles until we got to a deserted ranch and from there we would be on more rideable roads. What’s six miles anyway?!
From mud to sharp pointy boulders, but the scenery was worth it!
It was slow going for another mile or so and a fair amount of cursing under the breath. It was obvious that we were pretty under-gunned for the terrain, but the saving grace was the absolute beauty of the place. After leaving the low muddy area, we were on a high rocky ridgeline that we were pretty certain no bike had traversed in a really long time. The terrain was the polar opposite of what we had just experienced. Instead of the road surface being softy and muddy, it was full of fist-sized rocks and mini boulders. While we were able to pick through it all with our more road-oriented bikes, the general consensus was that it was verging on cross-country mountain bike territory.
After the ridgeline, we descended to the aptly named Murderers Creek, probably because of the “bridge” we were going to cross. With some good old fashioned teamwork, we moved the remaining boards of wood into something slightly less treacherous and formed a bucket brigade to bring bikes and riders across one at a time. From there, we pedaled a few more miles to a rather picturesque abandoned ranch where bike tires began to puncture left and right. It was as good a time as any for a break.
Totally not sketchy at all.
At this point, it had taken us two hours to go six miles, and the sun was rapidly descending. Another lesson learned is that normal mileage/time computations for paved roads are useless. The six miles we just rode weren’t particularly hilly, but the combination of mud, rock and other obstacles brought us to a crawl. After another river crossing (this time a lot less treacherous, but the water was freezing!), we pedaled hard to where we were suppose to meet Mike hours ago. There was a bit of urgency during the last five miles to get to the bus before it got dark, but the setting sun along the cliff wall and the smoothest gravel we’d seen in a while made it hard not to appreciate the beauty of it all.
By the time we reached the bus, we were all ready for a beer. There was a lot of toasting and laughing and the smiles of people who had just narrowly escaped what could have easily been a bad time. On the bus ride to John Day, the consensus was that the route today was definitely an adventure, but should it be something promoted to other cyclists?
After the first eventful day of riding, Mike and the local cyclists took stock of their routes and re-evaluated where we should ride next. One day took us through a series of beautifully rideable forest service roads up to a fire lookout. Even though it was cold and we got some snow, it seemed like a piece of cake after the ride the day before.
Jim, a local cyclist in Prairie City and avid bike tourist, powers up a hill in the Strawberry Mountains.
On the third day, we rode along the cinder surface of an old railroad grade. It was a little soft and rocky in parts, probably more the terrain of a mountain bike than a traditional touring bike, but still very rideable. It wound through the forest and crossed over creeks that filled in large holding pools of water. The route then joined up with some more logging roads and back to the main paved road where we saw only one other car the entire day.
Riding along a rocky old railroad grade.
A few creeks formed large holding pools of water along the railroad grade.
After three full days of riding and learning about the area from local cyclists, our heads were exploding with all the possibilities of mixed terrain riding out in Eastern Oregon. You could probably basecamp in John Day and spend three weeks riding in the area and barely scratch the surface of what was out there. There is everything from quiet paved roads, to remote forest service and logging roads, to stretches of right of way that would barely qualify as a road!
The challenge from the gravel working group’s perspective is to make sense of it all. What would be fun for one rider would be hell for another. Do you classify riding surfaces with a number system or minimum tire width recommendations? What percentage of a ride must be gravel for it to be considered a gravel ride? How do you adequately communicate how remote these areas are? How do you deal with the seasonality of gravel roads? We came away with as many questions as we did answers, and it forced us to really examine, from a bike tourism perspective, what would be a good route that you would want to promote.
All’s well that ends well. Trying beers at 1188, the new micro brewery in John Day!
By the end of the three days, we were excited by the possibilities of mixed terrain riding in Oregon. Oregon has some great paved roads; but if you add the forest service roads, publicly accessible logging roads, gravel roads and everything in between, the potential network is really mind blowing. The gravel working group is still defining its role and trying to figure out how to make sense of it all and what best practices would be; but whatever happens, our eyes have definitely been opened to fun and challenging new routes in Eastern Oregon that we will have to return to ride.
The last of the Scenic Bikeway videos we filmed last year has been released! The Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway is unique in that it is in Portland’s backyard and is probably the most easily accessible among the bikeways. One of the aspects we are most proud of about the video is incorporating transit into the tourism experience! Long time readers know that we are huge fans of mixing modes on bike trips. In fact our first ever bike tour involved using Amtrak to get out to Central California and ride out through wine country around Solvang.
Transit is an often overlooked asset when it comes to tourism and especially bike tourism. It is one of those things that gets lumped into the “quality of life” silo of residents and is not viewed as something that would be appealing to outside visitors. Personally, when we are on a bike vacation we want to be riding a bike and not driving a car. For us, a successful bike destination allows the visitor to travel to, from and around the region with a bike without having to drive. This means a system of regional buses or trains that accommodate bikes without hesitation. When we’ve brought up the importance of transit in a tourism context at conferences in the US we get some odd looks. However, if you think about the prototypical romantic post-college European travel experience of hopping trains, subways and buses that all occurs on…you guessed it transit!
Or in more simpler terms: one person’s transit system is another persons tourism experience.
If you live in Portland or are visiting town, the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway is transit accessible with a bike. We loved working on this video because it highlights some great assets in the region like the Banks-Vernonia Trail (one of the best in Oregon) and the relatively new Stub Stewart State Park (which incidentally also has some single track for mountain biking!). However, we are most excited because it shows what we think could be a successful model for bike tourism in the future – a fluid incorporation of travel modes. On a macro scale, imagine if Amtrak got its act together and allowed more roll-on service to identified biking and outdoor destinations; or if all regional bus carriers had bike racks and more sensible bike policies? The beauty of this is that would not only benefit local residents but make travel by outside visitors with bikes easier and more enjoyable! One can dream and this is our small contribution to that bigger vision.
The Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway video is finally out! This is a great ride for someone that wants to explore the rugged country of Eastern, Oregon but wants a good craft beer at the end of your ride. It is unique to other Scenic Bikeways because it is a figure 8 route so you can slice the pie any number of ways depending on how much mileage you want to do. Baker City, one of the ride’s anchors also happens to be on the Adventure Cycling TransAm Route. If you are riding across the country and want to dig a little deeper into the area this is a great route.
Some great bike friendly businesses in Baker City are Barley Browns (awesome brew pub!), Paizzano’s Pizza and the Geiser Grand. Catherine Creek State Park was a gem of a campground on route that is about as idyllic as it gets. The small town of Union has a great hardware store and serves espresso and coffee drinks as well! If you want to experience Eastern Oregon on bike, but don’t quite want to carry all your camping gear this Scenic Bikeway is a great option.