One of the classic bike rides in Portland is to ride portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a 73-mile scenic stretch of road that was once the only way from Portland to points East in the Columbia Gorge. It was designed with the road user’s aesthetic experience in mind, with twists and turns and slowly-revealed vistas. In the 1950s, it was replaced with I-84 and large segments of the highway were destroyed, while other parts were orphaned in the woods. There has been a push over the last two decades to reconnect the remaining sections of road with a state trail corridor. The 73 mile trail corridor is ALMOST complete, but the hardest and toughest 10 miles remain.
Today, you can ride from Portland to the town of Cascade Locks with relative ease (you COULD ride further, but have to navigate some pretty gnarly sections on the shoulder of the interstate). Cascade Locks is notable in that it is one of the few towns that the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. Over the years, the town has begun to embrace its outdoor recreational assets. It hosts an annual Pacific Crest Trail Days Event and even boasts a new mountain bike park, the Easy Climb Trail, on the outskirts of town.
For this trip, we took a slightly different route out to Cascade Locks. We have been itching to take our Warbirds out on a quick overnight and saw it only fitting that they see a little gravel en route. Less known to motorists but popular with Portland cyclists is Alex Barr road, a lightly trafficked gravel road that rises steeply from the Historic Highway towards Larch Mountain.
We wanted to get to the GOOD riding as quickly as possible so we got up relatively early and took MAX to the end of the line in Gresham. About 15 minutes from the transit stop, we were out in bucolic country, crossing the Sandy River and on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
From this point on the Historic Highway it is a steady climb passing through the small communities of Springdale and Corbett. Shoulders are of varying widths, but traffic is generally light and the road sees LOTS of cyclists on the weekends. Any last minute snacks you want for the ride you can pick up at the Corbett Market (the market makes a great lunch time stop on the return trip, especially if you like bbq and fried chicken!). The owners are welcoming and pay to have a portaloo maintained outside for passing cyclists. Whenever we pass by we always make the point of buying something and letting them know we appreciate what they do. From there it is a short ride to Portland Women’s Forum, a little plot of land that was protected from future development by a group of women that banded together so that the views would always be publicly accessible (that’s just how they roll in Oregon!).
Typically, from Portland Women’s Forum, we would usually crest the last little bit of hill and descend to Vista House and continue along the Historic Highway. On this trip, we took the right hand fork on East Larch Mountain Road. After about 3 miles of climbing, we made a left turn down Haines Road, which turns into a fantastic twisty descent to Latourell Creek, only to climb slowly back up again.
Eventually, we hit the intersection of Haines and Alex Barr and the fun began. All this work to ride a short stretch of dirt road. Was it worth it? Heck yes. It is immediately unpaved and drops down to to Historic Highway with a vengeance (lets just say we were glad to be going down the hill with our overnight load on this trip). It twists and turns beneath a tall canopy of trees, offering the occasional view out to the Columbia River. It was a real treat to ride, not only because it was unpaved, but because it gave a different perspective of the Gorge from just riding on the Historic Highway. You forget that people live in the hills or that the Gorge is more than a giant rock face constantly at your side.
This was our first ride with extra gear on the Warbirds. I was borrowing a friend’s Pika seatbag and Laura was using an Arkel Randonneur Rack and Tailrider bag. We had hoped to camp, but our current sleeping bags, pads and tent aren’t quite small enough to work in a bikepacking setup, so we decided to stay indoors and just pack a change of clothes (and some coffee making gear of course).
The Warbirds ride like fast road bikes on pavement, but have the compliance and predictable steering for the rough stuff. The disc brakes were awesome on the descents. If there would be anything we would change on the bikes, it would be to switch to brifters that use internal routing that won’t interfere with a handlebar roll, and a little bit lower gearing. The low gear was 34×30, yielding about 29 gear inches. With our load on the climbs we were almost always at the bottom of our gear range. For longer, extended dirt climbs with gear, we would definitely want to go lower. Future upgrades would be Apex brifters, SRAM’s 48-32 trekking double and a 36t cassette in the rear.
After Alex Barr, we were back on the Historic Highway. While not as exotic after something like Alex Barr, it is still a great ride. Traffic was still fairly light and we rode fast through the undulating terrain to Multnomah Falls. Generally, we try to get pass the falls before noon before traffic gets crazy. Perhaps the least pleasant stretch of the Historic Highway is a few miles on either side of Multnomah Falls. Heading East, once you past Ainsworth State Park, most of the motorized tourist traffic that was visiting Multnomah will have dissipated by then.
Eventually, you reach the paved trail section that is free from motorized traffic and it is smooth sailing into Cascade Locks. The new section of trail is wonderful, with several bridge crossings. It’s hard to imagine that not too long ago you had to endure riding on I-84 to get to Cascade Locks!
The first order of business when one enters Cascade Locks is to go to the East Wind, a tiny throwback drive-in known for its soft-served ice cream. Fortunately, the line wasn’t too long and we ordered some bacon cheesburgers, because science. After protein-loading, we checked in to the Columbia Gorge Motel to get cleaned up and head over to Thunder Island Brewing. If you want to camp, you’re in luck, because the camping option in town is literally a stone’s throw from the brewery as well.
If you’ve never been, having a beer in the outdoor patio of Thunder Island Brewery might seriously be the best place to have a beer in the Gorge. You’re far enough away from the main drag to not hear the traffic, a grove of trees provides shade in the middle of the day and you look out directly to the mighty Columbia River. The owners are also avid bike tourists themselves (they helped to spearhead getting the fancy new bike racks you will see all over town), and they have racks conveniently positioned in a place of honor right at the entrance. After a few beers, we had dinner at Cascade Locks Ale House (another bike friendly business) which has solid pub food and lots of craft beer on tap. Bike touring tip: they have an outside patio in the back where you can eat and watch your bike if you didn’t arrive with a lock.
We got up early the next morning and got ready to head out of town, but not before we stopped to get some of the best corned beef and hash in Oregon at the Charburger. I know that’s a bold statement, but every time we’ve had the opportunity to have breakfast there, it does not disappoint! Also, the views of the river from inside are pretty remarkable.
We pedaled out of town well-fueled and backtracked along the Historic Highway to Gresham. This of course included the climb up to Vista House and Women’s Forum, which actually aren’t too bad on lightly-loaded bikes. We got to the MAX station at around noon and by around 1pm we were back at our apartment.
If you’re visiting Portland and have the time to either go out for a long day ride or want to do an overnighter in one of Oregon’s iconic natural wonders, this is your ride. You get a little flavor of the small communities along the way, ride on a historic highway that became the model for the nation’s National Park roads AND end the day with a cold beer with a view!
-If you choose to take the gravel option and are on loaded bikes, a minimum of 28-32mmm tires are recommended.
-To avoid the traffic at Multnomah falls, leave early and plan to pass through that section before noon.
-If you have a flexible schedule, ride it mid-week and you’ll have the roads mostly to yourselves.
-Things you have to eat: soft serve at East Wind, beers on the patio at Thunder Island Brewing, burgers at Cascade Locks Ale House and corned beef hash at Charburger!
-Don’t have a “gravel bike” or fancy bikepacking bags? No problem. The Mountain Shop is now renting bikes and all the doodads to strap to your bike.
For more bike travel ideas, check out other posts in our Rode Trip series!
There is nothing quite like new bike day, is there? The hand wringing anticipation as you wait for the call from the bike shop that your bike is ready to go home with you. The simultaneously familiar and strange feeling of throwing a leg over a new bike and pedaling it home for the first time. This weekend, we added two new bikes to the flock – Salsa Warbirds.
The Warbirds are Salsa’s dedicated gravel racer and for some readers will seem like an unlikely departure for us (it doesn’t even have fender mounts!). But let me explain. Over the years, our interests and style of riding has changed over time. To paraphrase much wiser men/women than I: mutability is the only constant. Many will remember that we started with traditional fully loaded touring rigs, segued into lighter multi-modal touring with Bromptons, and for the last 3 years have been doing shorter trips with less overall gear on our Vayas.
While not quite ultra light, we’ve learned to pare down quite a bit! Check out our Gravel Getaway story.
We’ve also started doing more road rides and venturing into gravel riding. Fatbiking and bikepacking have exploded onto the scene, but since we choose to be car free in Portland, getting out to where those bikes really come to their own means a lot of pavement riding or navigating a Rube Goldberg puzzle of light rail and regional buses.
This is where the Warbirds come in. They are a better fit with our preference for trips that originate from our doorstep. We plan to experiment with a rackless softbag/bikepacking system on the Warbirds for mixed terrain, multi-day tours. There are so many backroads to interesting destinations and classic mixed terrain routes from Portland that we haven’t really explored yet.
We’re also eying some gravel rides and events, for research purposes, of course :), to understand what this “new” kind of riding means in terms of bicycle tourism and rural communities. One of the rides we’re looking at in particular is put on by Bicycle Rides Northwest, which features 3 days of gravel riding out of a basecamp along an awesome flyfishing river! Of course, we could use the Vaya for a lot of this, but they are our daily drivers and loaded tourers. For more spirited gravel rides, we find ourselves constantly taking off the racks and then putting them on afterwards. I’m a bit weary that we’ll strip out a bolt one of these days so it’s great to have a dedicated rackless go-fast bike.
Enough of the why and more of the how’s it ride?! Just as a note, we’ve only put in a few short rides and are still dialing in the fit, so these are pretty early impressions. We both have the Tiagra versions of the Warbird which come in a glossy orange and a more muted “army green.” Orange is my favorite color and the orange on the new Warbird is sublime and reminiscent of the orange waterproof Field Notes notebooks. The army green has a matte finish and evokes a more utilitarian version of Bianchi’s Celeste.
The bikes are outfitted with Tiagra throughout. The rear cassette is 12-30, fine for unloaded riding, but we might look at options to put in a 12-34 in the future. The crankset is a 46-34 cross crankset, which we actually quite like. The 46 is a sensible size chainring size for the kind of riding we do and lets us stay in the “big ring” a lot longer.
The handlebars are Salsa Cowbells, which we love and are on our Vayas. They have a very usable shallow drop and a bit of flair so they are pretty functional, even for cyclists that aren’t contortionists. The Warbirds came stock with WTB Silverados which many people like, but which we found a bit narrow for our anatomies, so Laura installed a Charge Ladle and I put on a 143mm Toupe harvested from another bike. As mentioned earlier, the Warbird has no eyelets for racks or fenders. For some, this will be a deal breaker. We knew about this limitation and since we have fully fendered Vayas, if the weather really got that wet out we’d have other options.
For our first ride we took them out to Forest Park, Portland’s local mixed terrain playground. The surface in Forest Park varies based on the amount of recent rain. When it is dry, there are some head rattling stretches with fist sized rocks. Just after a rain, you can get some muddy sections. The day we went, it was somewhere in the middle. Some of the rocky portions had been smoothed over with dirt and there were a few muddy patches but nothing too severe. The main road through the park is also generally climbing anywhere from a 2-3% to some 7-8% grade.
The first thing we noticed immediately was how the bike seemed to dull the rough surface. That’s not to say that it magically made everything buttery smooth, but the bike was working to take the sting out of the ride. We plan to ride the route again with various tires to see how much is a function of the rubber (35mm Sammy Slicks) and how much is the function of the bike. Another very noticeable difference from the Vaya was the Warbird’s willingness to climb.
The rear end of the bike felt a lot more taut and responsive to standing and seated efforts, due to the shorter and flattened chainstays. While not as responsive a climber as a pure-bred carbon roadie, it definitely had more get up and go than our Vaya and All-City Space Horse. The front end of the bike is mellow and predictable which is always welcome on bumpy road surfaces. Most interestingly is how well the bike descends on dirt, the mild mannered front end lends a lot of confidence on mixed terrain descents.
So far, in the short time we’ve ridden the Warbirds, the bikes are undeniably a blast to ride. If the Vayas are about going the distance, the Warbirds are about going fast. We’re looking forward to really dialing them in during the next few months and figuring out how to pack our gear without racks! So stay tuned!
We need your help Iowa readers! We visited Iowa last year and got a small sampling of some of the riding possibilities in the state. RAGBRAI is synonymous with bicycling in Iowa, but we want to dig a little deeper and share what people are missing. What surprised us were the sheer number of rail-trails, as well the small businesses and bars that were targeting bicyclists. We’ll be returning in early June to highlight some of the best riding in the state and need your help finding out what we should ride.
Grinding some gravel outside Grinnell with Craig from Bikes to You. Will be glad to visit in the summer!
So if you’re from Iowa or have ridden in Iowa, what is your favorite ride? It can be anything from an epicurean multi-day tour on a rail trail; a scenic day ride on some of Iowa’s gravel roads; or some sort of ride that challenges the expectations people have about Iowa (what’s the hilliest ride in Iowa?). We’re also looking for rides that pass by some great food and beer of course : ) We’re completely open to suggestions. Leave a comment or email us!
Loved discovering lots of bike friendly businesses in Iowa.
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!).
Back in 2008, when we were first getting into bike touring, I ordered Laura a pair of Ortlieb Bike-packers for her birthday. They were going to take a few days to arrive and, not wanting to be empty-handed on the special day, I printed out a photo of two small panniers and put them in an envelope. The Ortliebs eventually showed up and we did several short tours around California. Little did we know that the next year we would end up selling or giving away most of what we owned to travel by bike for three years. We’ve used Ortliebs for a long time and, while we’ve also used bags from different makers and manufacturers, they will always have a special place in our heart.
When we got an email from a long time acquaintance at OrtliebUSA about the possibility to shoot images for their next catalog, we leaped at the chance. This was a brand that we had used and loved for many years and now we had the chance to help with their new marketing. Heck yeah! The funny thing is that, when we were on the road traveling, I had mused about how it would be a “dream gig” to shoot for Ortlieb.
Sometimes you get what you ask for, it just takes a couple of years. And in hindsight, I’m glad it did take a couple of years to come together. It took the knowledge of shooting and logistics that we’ve learned over the last few years to pull it all together. If it weren’t for our experience with filming the Oregon Scenic Bikeways and learning how to scout locations, plan shoot days, work with talent, and make the impromptu creative decisions that brings some magic to an image, we probably never would have been able to pull it off.
The weeks leading up to the shoot, we rode bikes all over Portland looking for places we could stage vignettes; we spent three days on the coast looking for JUST the right spot where we could shoot, capture the rocky coast AND be away from traffic; and I did test after test of different angles to figure out how best to shoot the bags. In all the pre-production, we even dug out Laura’s blue panniers to better visualize. Of course, they’ve seen better days. The color has faded, a few of the buckles have snapped, but to their credit, they are still waterproof and work just fine.
When the first of seven days of shooting came around, I was nervous. Two people from Germany had flown into town to art direct and guide the shoot. We had discussed the new look they were trying to achieve, looked at samples their graphic designer sent, and talked about what they liked and what they didn’t like. When the talent and U-Haul full of product and bikes showed up the first morning, it was more or less full-tilt from the second we opened the cargo door to when we shut it at 8pm that evening.
The amount of product we had to shoot (from bike bags to hiking backpacks to kayak gear) was overwhelming to think about all at once. The most I could do was concentrate on the products at the moment. We did shots with motion blur, shots that were perfectly crisp, that showed details, that told a story, etc. I shot wide, then medium, then close-up. I was juggling two Nikons and four lenses, carefully pacing the amount of memory cards we had. There were some shots that we tried over and over to get and some that we got on the first try. Some vignettes were pre-planned, some we discovered along the course of the day. The whole week, there was a constant tension of following the schedule but also being able to try something on a whim. It was chaotic, stressful, challenging, and fun, all at once.
Throughout the whirlwind, we found a renewed respect and appreciation for Ortlieb as a company. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to think of them as an enormous corporation, since their products are simply everywhere. But we learned that they are actually a relatively small company, all based in one location, where they design, build, and distribute their products. When they first started, no one was making waterproof panniers like they wanted, so they made their own machines! We learned that it wasn’t uncommon for people to work 15 or 20 years (or more) with the company. We also learned why their products can cost so much – they want to keep everything German-made and pay their employees a living wage. And we learned that, every year at Christmas, they buy cookies from a bakery in the town where they’re based, and ship them to their distributors as a sign of thanks.
By the end of the shoot, we had photographed in Portland, in the Columbia River Gorge, along the Deschutes River, and on the Oregon Coast. It was a whirlwind shoot and, when it was over, we were all pretty spent. We saw Rolf and Kristin off at the airport, on their way back to Germany (where they had to quickly prepare for Eurobike), and there were hugs all around. The shoot was hard, no doubt, but we were happy with the images we captured and are looking forward to seeing them in their marketing materials in the next year. For me, it was a “dream gig” that eventually came true. But perhaps more interesting was meeting the people behind the company and learning the human side of those little paper panniers I had cut out years ago.
We are headed to El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM from October 1st to 6th to do filming about bicycling in the area. We want to know what the best local ride is and why you like riding there. If you’re a cyclist in either town (or points in between) and would like to be part of the project send us an email! We are looking for all types of cyclists to be part of the video. We’ll need some people to do a short 10 minute interview about their favorite ride and some b-roll riding and hanging out around town.
If you’re interested and love cycling in the area and want to help us out, contact us today!
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.