The Oregon Outback
VeloDirt founder and “race” organizer Donnie Kolb jokingly said something along the lines of, “this will probably go down in history as the most-documented bikepacking event ever.” I think he was correct by a landslide.
This being a Portland-based “ultra endurance ‘race,'” it was more about having a DSLR than a SPOT tracker. But there’s no reason to be cynical, because this shit was real, and I was there, maan! We filtered water. We camped under the trees and stars. We beheld sensational vistas. We rode hard and yes we grammed hard.
There will be many blog posts, but here’s my take.
- 360-odd miles were covered in three days, finishing before my goal of “riding Gordon Ridge at sunset.” I’m estimating that my actual riding time was about 31 hours, based on my teammate Shawn’s 28. But I have no way to substantiate this claim as I had no Garmin (nor do I get the feather in my cap on Strava):
- Thinking about the actual ride time definitely makes you think, “hell, if the winner rode it in 28 hours and I was only riding for 31, why not ditch all my shit and hit this one straight-through next year?”
- I rode my 1×10 Simple Bicycle Co mountain bike with 42mm Compass rando tires. The bike was great, but I could have gone for more hand positions, a little more gear range, and different tires. I found the tires lacking in both tread and girth, and would go with very fast MTB tires next time (which numerous people recommended beforehand). I was sliding around on off-camber gravel and sinking into the red volcanic sand that was aptly described as “riding through grape nuts.” Then again, I’ll probably be saying the same thing about my Thunder Burts next year..
- It doesn’t matter that any of my bike stuff was “wrong.” This ride was perfect.
- I love all of you who shared this experience with me, and I can’t stop looking at your #hashtags.
The Oregon Outback route cuts straight through the middle of the state, sort of doing the ultra partytime version of Highway 97, but 20 miles further East and going through hundreds of times better scenery. The highlights, for me, in order, were:
- The OC&E Woods Line: a railroad-grade rails to trail that meanders uphill at about a 2% grade for 72 miles. Sometimes it’s double-track through the woods. Sometimes it’s cow trail through ranches. Sometimes it’s grape nuts/kitty litter through forests, alongside streams with all the water you can filter.
- Fort Rock: you come over a rise in the sagebrush prairie and you behold a rock semi-circle that is 200 feet high and 1500 feet across. It looks like an ancient alien space ship. The landscape is so stark that you can see Fort Rock for 10 miles coming in, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it the entire time.
- The Crooked River Highway: In retrospect, the Crooked River Highway seems almost trite – like something that just any jackass in a Ford Explorer could drive to anytime. But it was a sight for sore eyes after the hot, Nevada-esque prairie I’d just been through for the few hours before.
- The Ococho Mountains: The Ocochos were an incredible oasis after the deserts around the Crooked River. This is definitely an area to come and explore again (and perhaps even relive this climb on a road bike)
- Divide/Cold Camp Road: The things that made this road cool were not the things that make blog posts cool. I’m not sure how to describe this road other than just being sort of a dream gravel road – sinewy, high, always interesting, and beautiful. I counted ten snow-covered peaks from Cold Creek.
- I have no idea how many people “raced,” but I keep hearing the number “150+.” So, a lot of people.
- We had our own train car from Portland to Klamath falls.
- I was probably the only sober person in the car.
- If you got lonely in the middle of nowhere, out on a gravel road surrounded by nothing, all you had to do was stop for ten minutes and you’d find a friend.
- It was like Velodirt Goes to Summer Camp (sadly without getting to sleeping bag spoon any of the out-of-town babes)
I meticulously instagrammed and weighed every item I took on the trip, and my base packed weight (including all bags and contents, but not including food, water, or riding clothes) was 18.825lb. I started with about 4lb of food and electrolyte stuff, and I probably just added to that throughout the trip. I had the capacity to carry 11.25lb of water, and I did on Day 2. So that’s 34lb of shit lashed to my (21.625lb) bike. Now I know what it would feel like to weigh 174lb..
Here are some gear observations I made:
- As much as I’m morally opposed to spending shit-tons of money, I sorta wish I could buy everything over again and just spring for the best versions of tents/bags/pads/clothes so I could save a few pounds AND a bunch of space!
- All the cargo is definitely a good argument for going ultralight, straight through, with an emergency bivy and a bunch of caffeine pills.
- The modern bikepacking bags (like the Relevate bags I had) do a fairly amazing job of cramming and jamming all this shit into efficient spaces that really ride a lot better than a loaded touring bike does.
- Packing everything in that tight makes accessing stuff a huge pain in the ass. You really need like five accessory bags strapped to your bike to keep everything organized and not lose hours digging through the contents of your seat bag, strewn across a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, looking for your Advil.
- Bikepacking is FUCKING EXPENSIVE! I definitely need to shut the fuck up about wanting lighter/smaller stuff. It’s a trap! Also, if you want to borrow/buy anything off me, holler!
I rode a normal mountain bike with a rigid fork and 42mm randonneur tires (which measured to about 39 on my not-very-wide rims). My teammate Shawn rode a similar setup, but with very light mountain bike tires and a bunch of stuff glued onto it. I’d say he won out on the tire decision, but we both got flats. Here’s my takeaway:
- Even though Jan Heine said his Compass Babyshoes (same tire I had) were perfect, and got zero flats, I don’t agree. I think they were too narrow – pizza-cutting the deep lava sand sections. And I could have gone for some side-knobs on some of the loose, off-camber gravel. I’m in my element with my tires sliding, but it’s nerve-wracking with the strange handling from all the gear, especially the swinging seat bag. Which reminds me:
- I was extremely jealous of Rick Hunter’s Porcelain Rocket seatbag with a bar stabilizer. Mine swung all over the damn place!
- I’d like more gear range next time. There was one time up Gosner Road, and another time up Gordon Ridge where I wanted a smaller gear than the 34×36, and there were SEVERAL times that I wanted a bigger gear than my 34×11. Maybe I need to get a double? First I’ll just try a 40 or 42 cog.
- Getting bottle cage bosses mounted on my Chinese carbon fork=boss idea (Thanks L’Ecu!)
- The Simple Bicycle Co 650b rules ass!
THE “RACE” STRATEGIES:
There are several options for “racing” or riding this route. Take heed next year, noob.
Nonstop: Be strong as fuck. Don’t stop for anything other than food and water. Bring a videographer.
Two-day: This would be extremely difficult, but doable by someone strong. You’d probably want a generator hub or a good (500 lumen or better) light with enough battery to run for 10-15 hours.
I’d ride the first day just like we did, eat at Dinner Tree at 5pm, but go REAL EASY on what I ate (and get coffee, of course). I’d save as many rolls as possible, a fair amount of the steak (toss the rest), and the entire baked potato. Fill up with water at Silver Lake Park six miles later (topping off in Fort Rock while taking sunset pix), then ride all night, all the way to the Crooked River at mile 210. After Fort Rock, there isn’t much essential scenery until the Crooked River, in my opinion (remember, I mean COMPARED to the other mind-blowing stuff). Plus, you’d blaze through the super hot/Nevada-esque stretch between Deschutes Forest and Crooked River by cover of night.
You’d get to the Crooked River at about 4am. I’d probably sleep for 3-4 hours, depending on what time I arrived (earlier arrival=more sleep). I’d bring a sleeping bag and an ultralight air pad, but no tent, as there are enough parks and campgrounds in that stretch to find shelter if it’s raining (which seems pretty unlikely). Day two would be 155 miles, leaving at 8am, and certainly riding well into the night on the rollers of despair. Day two would be less logistically difficult as you’d start by eating a big breakfast and loading up with whatever food you needed in Prineville. You’d get to see the Ococho Mountains in daylight, which are not to be missed. And you’d probably make it to Shaniko by 7pm for dinner. Then it would just be the never-ending nightmare rollers of despair for about six more hours until you finished around 2am.
Three-Day: This is what I did and while it was certainly difficult, it did not exactly push the physical limits of the human body. Basically, you just have to wake up early every day (pushing the limits for me already), get moving fairly quickly (totally impossible for me, I found), and not stop for too long. Ride 10-14 hours a day, depending on your pace. Don’t ever push it into the red zone. Don’t try to hold anyone’s wheel when they ride away up a climb. Just keep riding, eating, drinking, taking on electrolytes, and keep your chamois buttered.
Camping for a 3-day strategy is pretty good, with the slight problem (in my opinion), of Day 1 being a bit too easy compared to the rest. It would be great if you could eat at Cowboy Dinner Tree at about 6pm, then ride until dark, camping at Fort Rock. And I honestly think it would work, too. We ran across a water spigot and picnic tables right next to the road coming into Fort Rock, and I doubt you’d run into much trouble if you camped there and just didn’t ask any questions unless the sheriff showed up. Day two camping is sort of a no-brainer in the Ococho Mountains. There are supplies before in Prineville. There’s water. There’s scenery. There are already hundreds of other people camping, so if you ran into any kind of serious emergency situation, you could knock on the nearest camper and ask for a ride to the hospital. There are streams to camp by on either side of the summit for your filtering and camping needs. And if you make it to Skookum, you’ve done the biggest climb on the entire ride before you sleep (which you’ll want to have out of the way before day-three’s much steeper climbing. Ride out day three with a major resupply halfway through in Shaniko, and you’re done!
Four Day: This would be a pretty fun way of doing it, and it would solve the problem of day 1 being too easy. Get a 7pm reservation to Cowboy Dinner Tree if you can hold a 10mph average all day long across cow paths, or just take all your food and camp at Bunyard Crossing or Silver Lake at dark. There’s a store in Silver Lake to eat at in the morning, so resupply your food and water and get ready for a LONG day to either the Crooked River or Prineville. Crooked River is probably more scenic camping, but Prineville has supplies. I’d hold out for Prineville, personally, putting you at 225/360 in only two days! Day three would be your beautisul climbing day with all three of the biggest climbs bringing you to Shaniko at mile 301 and more supplies. Day 4 is only a bit more than 60 miles, but the most disheartening miles by far. Get to the Deschutes with plenty of time to jump in!
Five Days or More? This is too far away from what I did, to have a good idea, but I can definitely say that if you do this in more than four days, you better be REAL careful about your food and water restocking. We only really went through three town with stores on this entire trip, so make sure you start with plenty of food!!!
This ride was totally amazing. I had some of the best times I’ve ever had on a bike, and I can see that everyone else did too. I wish that I could have been simultaneously riding a 2-day pace, a 3-day pace, and a 4-day pace, and ridden with everyone all at once, but I got to have the ride I had and it was perfect.
Massive thanks to Velodirt, Donnie, and Gabe for blazing this trail, then organizing it so we could all do it ourselves.
And finally: GO RIDE THIS ROUTE! There’s no reason to wait until next year’s Oregon Outback (assuming it ever happens again). All the information you need is on the Velodirt website and the hundreds of blogs just like this. You can literally find out EVERYTHING you need ahead of time. But you won’t actually learn a goddamn thing until you go out and see for yourself!