Quick background: Cycle Oregon is an annual seven day, 400-500 mile ride in its 21st year. Conceived of as a way to introduce riders to seldom-visited towns and to teach tiny towns about tourism, 2,000 riders pay about $850 to ride fully supported, visiting places where riders typically outnumber residents 10 to 1. The company behind the ride is run as a non-profit and uses profits to fund an endowment that gives out grants every year to towns they visit (help build parks, purchase land set for development, and other civic improvements). It's a wonderful organization and a great way to spend a week in Oregon. Oh, and it sells out in about two weeks, so sign up early for 2009.
The theme of my first Cycle Oregon was anticipation. I had heard about the event in Oregon cycling circles for the past several years and I decided this would finally be the year I'd try it myself. I signed up for the September event in January shortly after it was announced and used it as an incentive to keep training and pushing through the year, knowing that nine months later I was going to be riding 60-something miles a day, every day, for a week. The months ticked by slowly and it hung like a cloud for most of the spring. By summer, I was up to 120 miles of riding a week and feeling pretty good and on target. For a final test of my training and stamina, at the end of August I did my first century (100 mile ride) to ensure I could handle anything that Cycle Oregon could throw at me. The last couple weeks I turned down my training to less than a hundred miles a week and I began packing and buying stuff for the trip (always with an eye on the one bag/65lb limit for all your stuff).
On Saturday September 6th, everything finally came together and me and my old college roommate jumped in my truck and settled in for the 6 hour drive to the start. A long drive through the outskirts of Oregon did nothing to quell my excitement and when we finally got into camp and got everything squared away, I was dying to ride my bike, but we had dinner, announcements, then sleep. It was hard to get any sleep the first night given we sat in a car all day, had a big dinner, and still hadn't gotten to ride yet. Also, being surrounded by 2,000 people snoring, talking, laughing, and zipping all night took some getting used to.
Cycle Oregon is kind of famous for having a lot of climbing, with some past events pushing 30,000 feet of climbing in the span of seven days. This year was not much different; in total I hit around 24,000 feet since I did every possible optional ride (which included a lot of extra climbing).
There are two things that shouldn't scare you from the prospect of having to ride a bike up mountains in Oregon: one is that we never had to climb anything too steep. In my daily training rides, I hit a lot of short, severe climbs that can pitch up over 15%, but the steepest point of a Cycle Oregon route I remember seeing was around 7-8%. We had long climbs though, which was new to me. The second day's ride included five non-stop miles of 5% climbing and while that's a fairly mild pitch it felt like extended torture because it wasn't the typical 1/4 mile climb, then flat, then 1/4 mile climb type of riding I'm used to. The biggest day of climbing included a 20 mile long approach that took us up several thousand feet of a mountain pass, but it was only averaging around 6%, and it was later in the week after I had grown used to climbs.
The second thing that made all the climbing worth it was the descending. It helps if you're familiar with riding your bike above 30mph, but almost every day included a nice long descent where you could really let your bike scream. In my experience riding in Oregon, a lot of the descents I've ridden are in mountain and forest areas with tight switchbacks, requiring heavy braking and good bike control to keep from crashing, but on Cycle Oregon I don't recall ever having to grab both brakes with full force. Instead, I remember the wonderful feeling of screaming down hills with no traffic, few riders around me, and for a moment it felt like being a kid again. The highlight of the entire week in this regard was the descent into the Wallowa Lake area on day five. After climbing three mountain passes over 60 miles, we crossed the last pass and had several miles of uninterrupted descent at over 40mph and it was 15 minutes of pure bliss.
Cycle Oregon typically has rest days and optional legs of each day's trip. When you look at it on paper (especially 9 months ahead of time during short winter days) it seems like an insane amount of riding and my first thought was what kind of psycho gets up every day and does a completely optional 80 mile ride. The first day was easy for us, helping riders settle in for the long week with just 45 miles of riding that included multiple rest stops and lunch along the way. Due to the way the event goes, we had to be out of our tents and ready to roll at 8:30am, and given my average speeds are typically in the 17mph range, it meant even if we slowed down a bit to take photos and smell the roses, we were looking at eating lunch around 10:30am.
We took our time and made plenty of photography stops along the way, but still had an early 11am lunch and we pulled into camp shortly after noon, about an hour before our baggage even arrived. Pretty much everyone else finished the day early along with us, so we spent that first afternoon standing in lines to get our bags, standing in lines to get a shower, and standing in lines to get dinner later on. After the previous day of playing the waiting game before our first ride, I have to admit I was a bit bored by life around camp. It was hot and sunny, there wasn't much shade to be had. Eventually we explored the local town and found a great museum and a few shops.
Our next door tent neighbor didn't arrive until the early evening, and she shared tales of crazy adventures in all the little towns we passed earlier in the day. She met locals, sang in an ice cream store, swam in a hot spring, and rode a couple dozen extra miles along the way. Since she pulled into camp later in the day, her bags were waiting at her tent, the showers were open and free of lines, and she could waltz right over and eat dinner without delay.
We instantly realized that she'd done this five times before and had figured it out. I think she sensed that and shared with us the most important lesson I learned all week:
No matter how much your body might hurt riding long distances, being in the saddle beats standing around in camp any day.
It was an epiphany. We were on vacation. We were riding in some of the most beautiful country in America, fully supported with water, snacks, and meals every 20 miles. It was better to enjoy every mile of it than just mill around a nylon tent city all day.
From that first day, we chose to do all the options ahead, eventually riding three 80 mile days, a 60 mile day, two 50 mile days, and a 35 mile day to rest. We rode into towns, patronized local businesses, drank some beer, ate some pizza, and had a wonderful time. The long riding days felt fine on my body and it meant we cut our "bored in camp" time to a minimum. Every day started to have a rhythm: up at 7am, get breakfast and get suited up, on the road after 8am, ride until 5pm, shower, dinner, hang around town for an hour or two, then back to bed by 9pm to do it all over again.
I had an incredible week and will definitely be doing this ride again, and I now understand why people do it five times, ten times, or even 21 times (in any crowd of riders it seemed maybe 10-20% were first timers, the rest were all seasoned veterans).
The ride is the most incredibly well-planned bike event I've ever been a part of. I've done a bit of racing and a lot of charity and distance rides and things like the frequency of stops, quality of food, etc. vary widely. Cycle Oregon routes typically gave us a break every 20 miles or so with water and ample snacks, decent lunches with plenty of options, and great varied dinners. There was also an ever-present beer garden with great pizza if you got into camp early and needed a snack (which I did since we were burning several thousand extra calories a day). There was also a large area for vendors at each camp so you could buy bike parts like tubes/tires, clothing like a sweater or wind vest, stuff like sun-block, and even food like ice cream and high quality coffee.
The Cycle Oregon organizers did a good job of hiding the sheer amount of infrastructure a virtual moving city of 2,000 people requires. We were frequently camping in places where riders outnumbered local residents by 10 to 1 or more, so we required our own showers and toilets on trucks, there were mobile kitchens to prepare the food, there were half a dozen semi-truck trailers just to cart our tents and bags from camp location to camp location. It wasn't until the third or fourth day that I realized what an immense operation it all was because we camped in a place with just one huge parking lot, and I could see just how many trucks and equipment it all took to support us.
Another highlight was made possible by little name plates most riders put on the backs of their seats. Much like you had when you were five years old on your first bike, these plates usually said your first name and your city/state you were from. They were like a Hello My Name Is... nametag to all the riders that would pass you on any given day and I struck up dozens of conversations with strangers each day that wanted to talk about the area of Oregon I hail from. I also loved going into the small towns and meeting locals and all the random things that happened at each stop.
I absolutely loved touring the countryside at 16mph on a bike versus 65mph in a car. There really is a night-and-day difference between the two. When I'm driving, I'll typically see beautiful scenes and views and I'll think "I should stop and maybe take a photo of that" but I rarely do, even on road trips. On a bike, it's not a big deal to pull off the side of the road and take a few shots, so I did it all the time, taking over a thousand photos over the course of the week. It's important to share that I enjoyed my time the most when we were riding at a leisurely pace of 15-16mph (Cycle Oregon is a ride, not a race) and when we'd join a 20+mph paceline every once in a while I quickly realized I'd do nothing but stare at the back tire six inches ahead of me to make sure I didn't crash and I'd miss a lot of the scenery along the way.
I never understood the lure of long distance bike touring until I did this event. A member of MetaFilter recent rode from Florida to Maine, then across to Seattle all in the span of a few short months. The idea of riding 5,000 miles in a few months just sounded painful, and camping and carrying all your gear seemed like no picnic. Even though Cycle Oregon is far from real touring, being a fully supported ride with posh tents and nice food, every day contained numerous adventures, new experiences, and new acquaintances. I felt like after a lifetime of doing road trips by car and having maybe one or two interesting moments a day take place during those trips, on a bike it felt like one or two interesting things happened per hour of the day. I began to understand why people like Ian Hibell did what they did — by the fifth day of the trip I never wanted the trip to end. I could have rode my bike clear across the country over months of daily riding if the Cycle Oregon folks had planned it all out for me.
I had another epiphany on the way home. As we piled into our cars and headed towards Portland for the long drive home, we saw plenty of other riders on the freeway, at gas stations, and at rest stops for several hours afterwards. When I was about an hour from home I noticed I was following a guy in a truck with two bikes sticking out, both with those Cycle Oregon nameplates on the back. The bikes looked familiar and I realized on the long climb of the last day, I followed that exact bike for a couple miles. What struck me was that in our cars, we couldn't communicate — he couldn't hear me say hi and vice versa — like we could if we were still on our bikes. The isolation of car travel immediately hit home for me.
Overall, it was a really great vacation, it was fun to devote 7 entire days to riding a bike and nothing else (I only spent about ten minutes a day online to see if anything drastic happened), and it was wonderful to discover new places in Oregon I've never visited and probably never would have encountered if it wasn't for Cycle Oregon. It really was seven days of perfect 80F weather riding through amazing vistas away from civilization and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Now that I've done this once and hope to do this many times in the future, I might as well share the things I learned the first time around.
Given the weather was perfect for us (most years have one or two days of cold/wet weather) I packed way too many off-bike clothes. I basically wore a t-shirt and a pair of shorts for maybe 4 hours a day between showering for dinner and going to an early sleep. I didn't need to bring half a dozen shirts, jeans, shorts, and multiple jackets. Some rain gear along with just a shirt or two and a pair of quick-dry shorts would be enough for a week.
I do have to say my lightweight down jacket was an amazing purchase. It worked for 2am trips to the loo, it worked during some cold mornings eating breakfast (in towns at 4100' above sea level), and it wasn't too hot when the evening air was barely cool. I've never owned a down jacket before but the Marmot one I bought at REI was my favorite thing to wear before rides began.
Next time I'll buy a giant waterproof bag used for kayak trips and the like. There wasn't enough room in our tent for two guys and their two giant duffle bags, and outside the tent morning temps were below the dewpoint and got everything a little damp. A waterproof bag outside the tent would have been ideal.
Washing bib shorts and jerseys wasn't too hard, but was a bit of a drag the two times I did it (they provided a hose, buckets, and some powdered detergent). Next year I'll probably just have a jersey/bib-short combo in a huge ziplock bag for each day to make unpacking/sorting/getting dressed easier.
Taking a real camera was worth it for me. I had to use a handlebar bag to house my Canon 5D (I used a single 24mm prime lens to cut down on size/weight) but the extra 3 lbs on my bike was worth it. My photos wouldn't have matched my memories if only used a tiny point and shoot.
Bike-wise, any road bike will work for you. Make sure you get a proper bike fitting from a professional many months in advance. Trust me, but it's worth the $250 or so you'll spend when you're on your bike for 6-8 hours a day. Two water bottles are all you'll need (I never ran out of water even on the hottest climbing day because the water/rest stops were close enough together). You don't need to have a rack or bag to carry stuff because they do gear drops halfway through the ride (you can wear a jacket in the morning, drop it at lunch, and pick up at the end of the day), but a handlebar bag is nice for giving you some storage beyond your jersey pockets as well as a place to see the daily course maps and cue sheets provided. There was a lot of riding in gravel at stops and along roadsides, so use something more robust than your average 700x23mm race tire. I ran 24mm Vittrola Open Pave tires designed to withstand high speeds on cobblestones and didn't flat once in 440 miles. Gearing-wise, I would most definitely recommend running a SRAM 11-28 cassette in the rear to give you the most range possible with standard road gearing and derailleurs, and I ran a compact 50t/34t front sprocket, and the whole setup was plenty low for all the hill climbing (nothing required a triple crank all week).
For a sunny week, the ultimate riding gear was a lightweight nylon vest, arm warmers, then bib shorts, wool base shirt, and jersey. The mornings had a coolness that the arm warmers/vest were perfect for, and you could dump them at a gear drop when the weather warmed up. For rain I was planning on wearing some 3/4 knicker bibs and a nylon shell in place of the vest, which likely would have been enough to stay warm but thankfully the skies stayed blue all week.
Training-wise, if you can ride an average of 60-70 miles a week for 6-9 months before Cycle Oregon starts, and get a couple thousand miles total for the year, you'll do fine on the ride.
Here are my photos from the week. If you cruise the Cycle Oregon tag at Flickr, you can spot a dozen or so other riders that took a lot of photos too.