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).
When I last looked at the weather for Minneapolis, it promised a whopping 5 degrees when we arrive this afternoon. It’s not lost on us that this may not the best time of year to visit, especially since we don’t really like the cold. But it is when QBP is hosting Frostbike, so we’re packing all of our layers (literally) and planning to make the best of the silly cold weather.
We’re looking forward to meeting (and meeting again) the good folks at Salsa (and Surly and Cogburn), and maybe tossing around some new project ideas. We’re looking forward to seeing some of the behind-the-scenes, and getting a glimpse into what’s coming up. And, despite the cold, we’re looking forward to exploring a bit of Minneapolis, although we have conceded that biking in this weather is not in the cards for this trip (unless anyone wants to lend us proper snow biking gear).
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.
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.