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).
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).