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).
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 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.
Austin House Cafe is an oasis for cycling tourists in Oregon. Located on both the Adventure Cycling Trans AM route and the Old West Scenic Bikeway, it sees a fair number of bike tourists every year. We interviewed Jeff and Christy Keffer, the owners of Austin House Cafe, last year to talk with them about how it has been like to have cyclists as customers in rural Oregon. They are definitely worth the visit if you are biking or driving through!
If a mattress store can be a bike friendly business, any business can. We shot this interview last year for another project, but unfortunately it didn’t make the cut. Loathe to have this great interview and footage languish in the digital darkness of a hard drive, I cut together a short profile on Michael Hanna, owner of the The Mattress Lot.
Their business is located a few blocks from where we live and every time I would ride by I’d see their “cyclists welcome” sign. How could a mattress store of all places be bike friendly? After months of riding by, Laura and I finally decided we had to investigate. We chatted with Michael and were fascinated by his story. Perhaps not so coincidentally we also ended up buying a mattress from him
You’ve got to love a brewery whose owners are super excited about bike tourists and bike tourism! We made the bike ride out to Cascade Locks, along the Historic Columbia River Highway, toting our video gear, to interview the founders of Thunder Island Brewery. Dave Lipps, one of the founders, is an avid bicycle tourist himself (who rode across the US and around New Zealand). Because of this perspective, he sees the real potential benefit of trying to capture the bike tourism market.
Cascade Locks is a small community that is in the crossroads of lots of outdoor recreation. Not only is it on Adventure Cycling’s Lewis and Clark route, it is situated right in the middle of the Historic Columbia River Highway and is traversed by the Pacific Crest Trail – an outdoor recreation triple threat! The brewery is a huge addition to making Cascade Locks a bike tourism destination. Not only will it provide a treat for through cyclists and hikers (it is conveniently located on the river, right next to some camping options), but it also makes the perfect day trip for Portlanders who want to ride through the Gorge and grab a good beer. Not only are Dave and Dan brewing great beers, they are also committed to and involved in making the community-at-large a more bike friendly place. They’ve worked to get funding for bike racks in town, as well as making the bike-friendly case to other businesses in town.
If you are riding the Lewis and Clark route or just a day or weekend trip through the Gorge, be sure to stop by Thunder Island when you go through Cascade Locks. (Pro Tip: their Mosaic Pale Ale is amazing!)
While the Oregon Outback was kicking off in Klamath Falls, we did a little bikepacking mini adventure of our own on the Deschutes. May is known for the epic salmonfly hatch on the D….which we pretty much missed (one lone stonefly did make an appearance at our camp on our final day of fishing to rub salt in our wounds). That said, it was still a fun trip and is probably the most accessible bikepacking trip in Oregon. We shot some video to make a little vignette of the trip, so grab some popcorn.
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 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.