Race Report: Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder
Words: Morgan Cabot
Photos: David Gillam
I got pretty excited when I first heard about the inaugural Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, an epic gravel adventure set in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Traversing through Central Oregon’s high desert, the course included places like Sisters, McKenzie, Oakridge, Gilchrist and Bend. The race would merge two of my favorite disciplines - gravel racing and stage racing. Even better, the event registration included camping and food, making the 400 mile point-to-point gravel race arguably more of a bike-vacation.
The adventure would take place over 5 days from June 19-23. By then we would have completed another event in the same region organized by the same promoters. The Cascade Gravel Grinder, a 3-day omnium, was one of the hardest stage races I had ever done. With just 6 weeks to go until the OTGG, a certain amount of training panic set in. Fortunately, training meant spending 5+ hours days adventuring through the trails and forests with friends.
BIKE Trek Checkpoint SL6, entirely stock except the saddle and tires. The easiest gear is a 34-34, which saw a lot of use.
FRONT TIRE 38mm Schwalbe G One tubeless
REAR TIRE Panracer Gravelking SK+ 43mm tubeless, a last minute switch after some struggles with constant flats on my G One. It was burly and bombproof, and at 540gr per tire I’d hope so!
EQUIPMENT Hand pump and large saddle bag with two tubes, two CO2 canisters and other tools (my partner Dave carried the plugs and we rode together)
HYDRATION Two bottles and a hydration pack with a 2L bladder for 3 of 5 stages
SHADES Oakley Windjacket glasses - these ended up being super helpful for keeping the dust out of my eyes due to the enormous frames and the seal at the top
APPAREL A mix of Gloman Jakroo kit and 7mesh kit, comfortable shorts and jerseys were key in keeping the skin happy
Unlike most stage races, the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder entry fee included camping and meals for the entire event. Once you paid your entry fee and traveled to the event, you wouldn't have to pay for anything else (excluding the on-site daily massages). There was the option to pay extra for “VIP” tent service, where the tent was provided for you, in addition to set up and tear down each day.
My favorite part of camp was the Autobahn coffee van, a one-man operation serving up to 47 gallons of amazing coffee per day. There was also the option to purchase espresso drinks, cold brew and delicious kombucha. A catering crew served breakfast and dinner for 300 very hungry cyclists, certainly needed as my Garmin tells me I was burning anywhere from 3000 to 5000 calories per day.
Each stage featured a neutral roll out to a timing mat where the GC time started, and a second timing mat before the actual finish at camp. This ensured that the racing took place on gravel, with neutral paved sections that offered a warm up and cool down.
Over the 5 stages, my GC time was about 21h45, with a total ride time around 25h.
CHIP TIME: 4h50min
We were told the course would feature a long stretch of sand, as well as authentic wagon roads described as technical. “They suck” we were warned. A seemingly endless sandpit came early, and we laughed at the ridiculousness of trying to ride in a straight line while the bikes wanted to do anything but. Thankfully someone eventually pointed out to me that my front axle had come completely loose, so I had a scapegoat for the amount of flailing I had been doing…
I can best describe the wagon road as a sandpit/rock garden hybrid through 10+km of rolling hills. How 19th century wagons ever made it through there is beyond me. There was a fair amount of tipping over and dismounting on my part, and around 40-45km in we popped out onto a gravel road that felt like a smooth highway. The rest of the stage was uneventful in comparison, featuring lots of big rolling hills and fast descents, all on gravel. We stopped at all the aid stations, enjoying lots of water and snacks to keep us going. The finish was downhill with its fair share of bone rattling washboard to make sure our bodies were really feeling it after nearly 5h on the bike.
CHIP TIME: 3h57MIN
On a chill morning we were woken up by the sound of rain hitting our tent, somewhat unexpected for Central Oregon in the summer with a forecast of around 30C/85F and sun every day. I opted for arm warmers and my 7mesh lightweight shell, hoping these and some constant pedaling would keep me warm. Fortunately, stage 2 began with a 30km gravel climb… only to be greeted at the summit with lightly falling snow. The course felt like it was all hills, yet mercifully sand free. On one fast descent some unexpected deep ruts on an otherwise smooth gravel road took out contender Sarah Sturm among others. We rolled through carefully, witnessing that most injuries turned out to be relatively minor.
Camp that evening was a park/highway rest stop, bordered by a stunning river. The excitement for the evening came when some boxes of oatmeal caught fire from a space heater, causing a small building to also catch on fire where meals were being served (and more critically, where the bathrooms were). After some commotion it was well handled, and we curled up in our tents lulled by the soothing lights of a fire truck. 😉
CHIP TIME: 6h12min
We had been warned several times about this stage, “quite possibly the toughest ride you will ever do in a stage race”. I have honestly never been so terrified of starting a ride. But it’s better to go into a ride over prepared than over confident. We were told tales of “body bags” should a descent be miscalculated, nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and a significant chunk of very technical wagon road for good measure. The stage would offer a net uphill with the finish and camp being at elevation. With another 30km climb to start the day, the group nervously rolled out. In hindsight, probably not the best day for me to start with the weight of five bottles (2L pack + 2 bottles), although in my defense I thought we’d be out there riding for 7-8h.
It turned out that the climb was extremely enjoyable, chatting away with anyone within earshot. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and the descent that followed was not nearly as terrifying as I had thought.
There were multiple very long hills. Safe to say if you like climbing, this was a great stage for you. If you did not have appropriate climbing gears, it may have sucked. I kept it pretty chill on all the huge climbs, concerned about the long stretch of wagon trail still looming ahead.
It turns out that the wagon trail was the best part of the entire 5 days. Maybe we got lucky with the previous day’s rain, giving us more traction and less dust. Either way it was an absolute blast. Certainly technical, but in a way that makes you want to cheer and whoop the entire time.
What followed was a little more soul crushing. A solid stretch of gravel road with nothing but washboard and a bunch of large vehicle traffic drowning us in dust. With another sandpit over the last 10km we made it to the finish after more than 6h of riding! It was the longest, most varied, interesting and fun course of the week by far. Despite the monster day, everyone at camp that evening was raving about the course, until we all passed out about 9:30pm.
CHIP TIME: 3h18min
Described as “moderately easy”, I was a little suspicious but excited for a shorter day. After conservative and very social riding for the first 3 days, we decided to pick up the pace a little for the last two. The course involved about 80km of sand that varied in colour, consistency and depth. Embedded rock gardens even kept the 3h sandpit fresh! After the first day I began to find my groove in the sand. In particular when I realized momentum was my friend, on stage 4 I tried to big-ring the sections as much as I could. It was relatively flat compared to other stages, but the constant battling through loose sandy terrain meant zero respite. The effort reminded me of a TT, constantly pushing a big gear with no rest. Some riders hated it (possibly disappointed by the lack of a “recovery” ride), I loved the steady grind. In the end it was my best finish of the week, rolling in for 5th place out of a competitive group of women.
CHIP TIME: 3h28min
We were warned at the start about foot deep “moon dust”, and I shot quizzical looks at people around me wondering what that meant. It turns out that moon dust is to sand what powdered sugar is to regular sugar. Riding through it creates a fog of dirt, limiting visibility to the riders around you. Fortunately these sections were interspersed with more traditional gravel roads, as well as the first real stretches of paved roads we had seen all week.
I bounced around a few groups, and after one final section of moondust popped out onto a long climb with a headwind. Fortunately I got behind a tall rider who seemed to love climbing. The stage ended with another monster 30km climb, grinding and skidding to our highest elevation yet.
Over the top we were met with massive snow melt puddles and snow banks before a very short descent to the mountain top finish. Where of course we had snacks, water, photos, high fives and the biggest smiles. The downhill paved neutral roll landed us back in Sisters, where we were greeted with music, a BBQ, novelty sized finisher medals and a lot of happy, tired and extremely dirty faces.
Being a first year event, the OTGG is exploring new territory and seemingly trying to find their identity. While marketed as an adventure ride, once the event started it felt more like a pro race with a fondo following. Time will tell if the event continues to attract so many top riders and firmly sit on the “pro gravel calendar”.
The camping overall was a great experience, the camp-related hiccups were fairly obvious right away, and the organizers were quick to acknowledge them and promise improvements for 2020 (or in some cases fix them as the 2019 event progressed). Every day there was well thought out entertainment in the form of games, movies, and delicious beer and whiskey - making it easy to feel rested yet never bored.
Overall, the organizers nailed it with the routes, food, fun and challenge of the ride. It’s certainly no small feat to put together an event of this magnitude, and for an inaugural year they delivered on challenge and adventure. Would I go back again? Absolutely. Would I do what my teammate Uli did, showing up on a borrowed bike in the wrong size, with canti brakes, 33mm clincher tires and zero gravel training? Absolutely not, I honestly don’t know how he did it. Unless you’re superhuman like he is, do not show up unprepared for this event. I was data-less, but it was apparently around 1750 TSS worth of effort, and gravel miles are no joke.