How do you tell a story from five years ago? How do you describe a memory that looms so large in your head that you’re not sure if you completely remember the “truth”? And, as you search for all the little details, how do you know what you were really scared of and what the lesson really was?
Tonight, I will be one of four storytellers at a bike-themed fundraising event here in Portland. (If you’re in town, join us!) Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working with the creative souls behind the Portland Story Theater, slowly fine-tuning our stories and how to tell them in front of a live audience. And the thing that has struck me most about this process is the way it has dug out all of the details that I haven’t thought about in years, leaving me pondering the “truth” of my memories and the extent of that “truth” that I’m brave enough to share.
Five years ago, we were in the West Texas desert. We were exhausted, and we desperately wanted winter to be over. Yet, we were also in awe of the beautifully rugged landscape and the immense quiet. And set right in the middle of this frontier is the story that I’ll be sharing tonight.
At its core, it’s a story about bravery. Not the “bravado” that Hollywood tries to sell as bravery – but the quiet bravery of being anxious about an impending situation, while not wanting to admit it, and then going ahead because there are no other good options, and finding a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I easily could have missed.
Which means that, as I have found my way to the precise words that I will be stringing together on stage, I have thought a lot about the concept of bravery.
Sometimes we don’t see our own bravery, because we assume that “being brave” means doing something “epic” or “hard-core.” But we’re not all afraid of the same things, so I’ve come to believe that bravery operates on a sliding scale. I didn’t see it at the time, but the more that I think back on our travels and prepare my story for tonight, the more I believe that bike travel is inherently brave. Not because of the unknown or the bears or the strange people – but because traveling by bike has an incredible knack for breaking down barriers and giving us glimpses into worlds that we would never otherwise see – and the simple act of being open to these experiences is bravery.
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.