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.
Let’s be honest, when most of us think about Mississippi, we don’t immediately think ‘Hey, that sounds like a good cycling destination.’ Truth or not, perception is powerful – which is why we jumped at the chance to consult with the town of Ridgeland, one of only two Bicycle-Friendly Communities in all of Mississippi.
We first met Mina at last year’s National Bicycle Tourism Conference. We were so surprised and impressed to see a small-town tourism professional from Mississippi that we couldn’t not find out all about Ridgeland and why they were thinking about bike tourism.
It turns out that the Mayor of Ridgeland, Gene McGee, is an avid cyclist. We’ve seen our fair share of politicians who dig out their dusty bikes whenever the press cameras show up – but this is not Mayor McGee, who hits the pavement for his daily rides whether or not anyone’s watching. The joke, we were told, is that any new ideas for the city had better include bikes.
Ridgeland is also conveniently located along the Natchez Trace, which is one of those great bucket list routes. Every year, Ridgeland sees hundreds of people ride by without stopping, pedaling as fast as possible because there’s too much traffic and everyone says to just get out of Dodge. If only those touring cyclists knew about the nearly-parallel, off-road, multi-use path that local cyclists credit with an increasing interest in biking.
In short, Ridgeland has all the makings of a perfect bike tourism storm. So we flew out for a whirlwind weekend in early May – and came back excited to see what they create.
The anchor for the weekend was the Natchez Trace Century Ride. The good folks at Indian Cycles set us up on a pair of zippy road bikes, and we rode a portion of the century route. The ride may be named for the Trace, but the majority of the ride ventures away from the parkway, following small country roads through equally small towns and beside the Ross Barnett Reservoir (populated, we hear, with its fair share of gators).
Four years ago, we crossed the Mississippi River into Vicksburg, pedaled into the Jackson area, and rode the Natchez Trace into Nashville. We may have spent two weeks in Mississippi, but most of it was either in urban Jackson or along the Trace. The century ride gave us the opportunity to ride into the country and really experience the area. The century ride also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the tree-lined streets and wave at the kids who were watching the riders go by – with the help and support of dozens of volunteers running rest stops and local police stopping traffic at busy intersections.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, though, the best part of the century ride was the hospitality. The century ride treats all riders to a kick-off party the night before the ride, lunch after the ride, and a catered event that evening. This is not a ‘come, ride, get out’ sort of event, this is an invitation to linger and learn more.
Oh, and there were the delightful women in Pelahatchie who could hardly believe that we don’t say “y’all” on the West Coast.
The rest of our weekend in Ridgeland was spent exploring possible day ride routes, touring the mountain bike park, riding the multi-use trail with the Mayor, talking with local cyclists, brainstorming new ideas, presenting about bike tourism, and eating way too much good food.
Granted, we also heard from folks who ride at 4am to avoid the traffic, or who always go out in a big group because ‘you never know what can happen’ – so there is still a lot of work to do. But, bicycling is on the rise in Ridgeland, and there’s a lot of genuine interest in embracing cycling as both a quality of life benefit and a tourism asset – and that’s where good things start.
Four years ago, when we rode through the South, we never thought these places would prick up their ears to the benefits of bicycling – and, yet, that’s exactly what’s starting to happen. One of the things that we tell small towns is that bike tourism allows them to embrace who they are, rather than needing to become “like Portland.” In the South, this makes even more sense, because just being “the South” is enough of an intrigue for those of us who don’t live there. Don’t believe me? Just imagine how good fried chicken and boiled shrimp will taste after a long bike ride.
After a great weekend in Ridgeland, seeing first-hand the growing momentum around bikes, we’re excited to see what they create, and how they help lead the rest of the South.
Over the past two years, as we’ve worked on bike tourism initiatives with Travel Oregon, we’ve been able to ground-truth our ideas about bicycle travel as an economic development vehicle. We’ve also taken every opportunity to learn more about the tourism world – and how to talk to tourism professionals about bikes.
At the end of April, we had the great fortune to immerse ourselves a little deeper into Oregon tourism. First up was the Rural Tourism Gathering, which was a sort of 2.0 program for community members who had previously participated in one of Travel Oregon’s award-winning Rural Tourism (or Bike Tourism) Studios. A few days later, we attended the Oregon Governor’s Conference on Tourism. In both instances, our main goal was simply to learn and absorb.
What did we take away?
First, and foremost, was the reminder that successful destination development is all about relationship-building: making those connections with the people in your community and neighboring communities, so that it’s a group effort. In small towns and rural regions, this becomes even more important, because it creates a larger talent pool to draw from, and helps lift the entire region.
Which leads into the idea of “coopetition.” By promoting the region rather than just your own small hamlet, you pool resources, and draw a larger number of visitors to spend a larger amount of time/money in the region. Work together to bring folks to the region first, then distinguish yourself from other establishments.
We also learned about the way that tourism promotion is changing. Whereas travel marketing has traditionally been confined to travel-specific publications and focused on selling flights and hotels, it is increasingly focused on lifestyle and the experiences someone can have related to that lifestyle. In other words: “visitors want to travel to where their people are,” and it’s increasingly important to facilitate that connection. Travel Oregon sees articles about the culture of Oregon mountain biking as potentially just as influential as articles about specific restaurants.
And, lastly, we were delighted to hear discussion of the importance of video. In the opening morning remarks of the Governor’s Conference, we learned that 64% of visitors said their travel decisions were influenced by online video content.
What does this mean for bike tourism?
In terms of building and promoting bike tourism, we’re realizing more and more that the tourism aspect is just as important (if not more so) than the bicycling aspect – because simply offering good roads or trails does not secure a positive travel experience. The most successful bike tourism initiatives are collaborative efforts between tourism, business owners, community members, and bike advocates. Bike tourism is about the biking, but it’s also about being a tourist and having a positive travel experience. Or, as Phil Carlson from TREO Ranch put it: “It’s just hospitality, the bicycle is the draw.”
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.