Oregon Outback and The Long Way Back

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Last week, I rode the 363-mile Oregon Outback gravel road race/ride. It was an epic adventure, and a full report will come soon, either here or in Bicycle Quarterly. In the mean time, you can enjoy first-finisher Ira Ryan’s report here.

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I saw Ira’s tire tracks much of the time, and he even wrote “Go Jan!” in the gravel during one particularly hard stretch toward the finish. Thank you, Ira!

I finished second, a bit less than two hours after Ira. My goal was to beat 30 hours, and I made it with 2 minutes to spare. (I took the photo above after trying to find somebody at the finish, but realized as an “unorganized” event, there wasn’t anybody there.)

After resting for 30 minutes, it was time to take stock. I was 100 miles from the next train station in Portland, and the wind was howling up the Columbia Gorge. Riding into that wind would not be fun. And on Memorial Day weekend, the trains (or at least the bike spaces) might be fully booked. There was some vague talk about a shuttle to Portland from a bike shop nearby, but I didn’t know the details, nor the schedule.

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My bike was in great shape, having survived the challenges of the Oregon Outback better than its rider. Not a single flat on the Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralight tires, nothing broke or fell off during hundreds of miles of rattling and bouncing from rock to rock.

The chain squeaked because it was so dry – I should have lubed it before the event! And the spare spokes that I had attached to my fender stays with cloth handlebar tape were gone. The vibrations had worn through the tape, and the spokes had fallen off. That shows how punishing this ride was, but neither were significant issues…

Before I left Seattle, I had heard that Chinook Pass was to open this weekend. So I chose Option 2: just ride home. I figured I could cover the roughly 350 km (220 miles) in two days.

As I was about to cross the Columbia River, I ran into a group of bicycle tourists. One of them, a Bicycle Quarterly reader, recognized my bike and offered some chain lube, which was greatly appreciated. The climb out of the Columbia River Gorge was slow into the howling winds, but the shower and bed in Goldendale’s nice motel were welcome.

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I only had brought maps for the course of the Oregon Outback, but at the upper edge of the last map, I could see some small roads going through the Simcoe Mountains as an alternative to the busy Highway 97. It was an easy choice…

So I found myself on the edge of town, heading into the hills. Ahead was a gorgeous view of Mount Adams. Wildflowers were in full bloom. Life was good.

I had planned to re-inflate my tires to their “road” pressures, but had been too tired the night before. Now I was glad…

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After a few hours of riding on empty roads, I came to the boundary of the Yakima Indian Reservation. The signs had very specific instructions on what was not allowed: Hunting? No. Alcohol or controlled substances? No. Firearms? No. Sightseeing? Well, I was just traveling through. I thought I passed the entrance exam and continued along the inviting road.

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I didn’t see anybody for the next few hours. From time to time, I caught a glimpse of Mount Adams in the distance, so I knew I was still traveling in roughly the right north-easterly direction. (I was off my maps by now.) After a few hours of riding, I got on pavement again, and then saw a sign for a gate ahead.

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At the guard station, I was detained by two officers of the tribal police. It turns out that these mountains are restricted tribal land of the Yakima Nation, and non-members of the tribe are not allowed there. The officers were surprised to see a cyclists: “That is definitely a first!” They radioed the head game warden to come and deal with me. They were friendly, and we chatted for an hour while we waited.

Things became a little more tense when the head warden arrived, radioed for a case number for trespass, and wrote me a ticket for $ 100. I don’t think any of us expected that, since I had no ill intent. If I wanted to argue my case, I could take it to tribal court. At least I was free, and allowed to continue… and the game wardens had mapped me a nice route through the reservation.

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Eastern Washington has a feel of the “Old West” to it, and nowhere more so than on the reservation. When I passed this man looking for a ride at this lonesome intersection, I called out: “Hi!” His reply was “I don’t get high!” His joke had me smile for miles thereafter.

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Food is a problem east of the Cascades – Coca-Cola, potato chips and candy bars get old very quickly. Fortunately, this fruit stand had fresh cherries. I bought a container, put it in my handlebar bag, and ate them while riding through the afternoon heat. Like Hänsel and Gretel, you could follow my tracks by the cherry pits I left behind.

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Trying to get around Yakima, I got a bit lost as I went up the wrong canyon, although the lovely roads made the detour well worth the while. Finally, I found my way to Cowiche. A few sprinkles fell as a huge thunderstorm passed to my East.

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I had a final fright when the road to Naches was closed – which would have meant a long, long detour most of the way to Yakima, and then riding back on the busy roads I was trying to avoid. But the repaving was done, and I was able to pass through on a road that just lacked striping. I was even more lucky to find a hotel room in Naches…

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The next day took me across the Cascades. Chinook Pass is a long slog – 80 km (50 miles) uphill. Clouds were covering the mountains, but there also were sunbreaks. The rainbows were beautiful. I only got hit by a few sprinkles, but the roads were wet, so I was glad to have fenders on my bike – even though they had been of little use during the Oregon Outback.

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After a few hours of gentle climbing in the valley, the road pitched up for the final ascent to the pass. With clouds obscuring the view, it was wintry up here.

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The top: Time to put on every piece of clothing I carried in my handlebar bag!

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On the other side of the pass, it was raining hard, but fortunately, it wasn’t very cold. Once I left the mountains, the sun came out, and it became another transport stage back to Seattle. I missed my goal of getting home in time for dinner by an hour and a half, though…

The trip back added an adventure to the adventure. Thank you to the guys from VeloDirt for putting on the Oregon Outback – definitely one of the most challenging rides I have done – and enticing me to ride all the way from southern Oregon to Seattle over the course of a long weekend.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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58 Responses to Oregon Outback and The Long Way Back

  1. cyclosomatic says:

    Holy cow, adventure indeed! I really like how your story illustrates the flexibility of your bike set-up. Gravel, pavement, desert, mountains; whatever. Just pile stuff into the handlebar bag and keep rolling. I love the whole, ‘Just ride there’ approach.

  2. Nick S. says:

    Following up the Oregon Outback with a ride back to Seattle is quite a feat- someone was in Beast Mode.

    You’d think the reservation would’ve had “no trespassing” signs on the entrance gate. Will it be worth a hundred bucks for you to go argue the ticket? Or are you gonna write that one of as “lesson learned?”

    • I thought about asking for a court date and riding over there to argue my case, but I think it’ll be just a “lesson learned” expense. What bothers me more is that I can’t go back! I respect the Yakima Nation’s sovereignty, but the country there is so beautiful…

      You need to have a tribal member invite you and accompany you to be allowed in there. Unfortunately, my ancestors all lived in Europe…

      • Allan Folz says:

        “What bothers me more is that I can’t go back… You need to have a tribal member invite you”

        A court date sounds like an incontrovertible invitation to me. :)

        On the other hand, what jurisdiction do they have to collect if you are not within the reservation boundaries? Might be worth a little effort to research the nature of the reciprocity agreements between them, Washington State and the US Federal Government.

      • You can enter the reservation, just not the area in the Simcoe Mountains where I happened to ride through…

  3. djconnel says:

    Your stories continue to amaze and impress, this one arguably breaking new ground. One question: you mentioned the strong wind. Do you ever have issues with the handlebar bag causing steering instabilities (not full shimmy) when descending in cross-winds? If so, do you know the solution? I know you’ve written about needle bearing headsets and shimmy, but this is more a loss of control than an obvious oscillation.

    • I find that my bike, with its low-trail geometry, is not affected much by cross-winds. I can get in the aero tuck even on windy days. The exception was one day in the North Cascades, where I needed to get into the drops and actually hold the bars against the force of the wind – but that day, others had trouble staying upright.

      Tony Foale explained in his book on motorcycle handling how trail turns around with cross-wind, giving the wind force more leverage over the steering. So the more trail your bike has, the less stable it’ll be in crosswinds.

      As to the handlebar bag, it’s hard to say – I don’t notice a difference.

      • djconnel says:

        Thanks! Yes, you’ve written good stuff in Bicycle Quarterly in the past on trail versus cross-winds: very intuitive: the lever arm for wind to steer the bike is proportional to trail.

        The trail on the bike is 39 mm nominal, 36 mm measured. So I think excess trail isn’t the problem. I should experiment with and w/o the bag.

  4. Gabe says:

    Congrats! Sounds like a really fun time.

  5. Greg says:

    Have you ever considered a paying gig as a durability tester for new bicycle components? ;-)

  6. Jan: I admire your respect for the Yakima Nation’s sovereignty and your positive attitude about the incident.

  7. Tim Evans says:

    Thanks for sharing, and thanks for the inclusion of the three full size photos. Dark storm clouds behind the sun lit barn are really impressive in that large photo. Somehow I doubt that’s what you intended, but it was a pleasant surprise anyway!

  8. Andrew F. says:

    I’m very impressed that you didn’t get any flats. Do you have a rough idea what pressure you were using? It sounds like some of the roads had big rocks that would make pinch flatting a concern.

    Also, I would not have expected an extra-light tire to hold up under these conditions. I know of a couple of much stouter seeming tires that gave out on folks during the ride.

    • I was running about 35 psi in the rear, and a bit less in the front. I felt the rear rim bottom out twice, and was concerned about pinch-flats each time, but I was lucky. I try to ride “light,” so the wheels can deflect when they hit big rocks, rather than slash the sidewalls, but in the end, it comes down to a matter of bad luck if you cut a sidewall.

  9. KRhea says:

    For an adventure of that length, what exactly are you or did you carry in your handlebar bag? Obviously nothing to sleep in, on or under that’s for sure but is there anything other then “emergency” items like a jacket, gloves and hat maybe plus some fuel. Great write-up and kudos for how you handled the reservation experience. Not everyone would of had your outlook, especially after already riding so many miles and just wanting to be back home. Congrats as well on your second place finish!

    • For the event, food was the main issue. I carried 8 bottles of Ensure Plus meal replacement, 6 Clif Bars, a package of Clif Bloks, four packs of GU and two bars of chocolate. Spare clothing consisted of a long-sleeve wool jersey, wool tights, a lightweight rain shell and shell mittens. Plus shorts and underwear as “street clothing.” Tools were three Mafac wrenches, spoke wrench, tire levers, two spare tubes, glueless patch kit, three zip ties. Add toilet paper, sunscreen, toothbrush, dental floss, a few Ibuprofen and an emergency space blanket, plus maps and a pen and money, and you pretty much have all I carried.

      • jimmythefly says:

        I am surprised to not see a spare tire or boot on the list. Didn’t you carry a spare on PBP?

      • I did carry a few pieces of casing taken from an old Challenge Paris-Roubaix tire, which can be used to boot a tire. No, I did not carry a spare tire in PBP, either. So far, I’ve never been stranded with a tire I could not fix with a Clif Bar wrapper…

  10. Ciaran Connelly says:

    Will you provide us with a packing list? I’m curious what you considered necessary and unnecessary for such an impressive and adventurous ride.

  11. Bruce Hodson says:

    Chapeau, kind sir! Three Hundred Sixty-three mile alley cat (or a 600km unrecognized permanent), then a 220 miler home. Not many (any) others pull this kind of thing off. I wonder if Jay Petervary would try it?

  12. Bill Winslow says:

    Wow Jan…I also read you rode with a broken hand ?! Simply amazing. How did you fuel yourself during the ride? Amazing feat of streangth, and both mental and physical endurance.

  13. Chris Lowe says:

    I like that you refer to Ira as “first finisher” rather than “winner”. It’s a small issue of semantics but anyone who finished that ride is a winner in my book.

  14. Bill Gobie says:

    But you do have an invitation to go back — the summons!

    I would not be as sanguine as you about the ticket. Surely you are not the first well-intentioned traveler mislead by that sign. The tribe could make the entrance requirements plain, if it sincerely wants to. Further, if the roads were built with federal money, and I bet they were, it seems to me the public should have the right to traverse them. If the tribe wants to prohibit leaving the roads, fine.

    Otherwise, what a wonderful trip! I’ve been eager to hear about your experience since you wrote about entering the Outback. Evidently you had no problems with goathead thorns. Do you know how other riders faired?

    • Regarding the tribal lands, it’s clear that this isn’t a money-making trap, but a little-used entrance to the reservation. I am actually glad the situation was ambiguous – if I had come to a clear sign, it would have meant back-tracking for 2 hours or so, then taking the highway.

      Regarding goatheads, no, I had no problems with them. I hope we’ll get more reports from other riders as they emerge from the “wilderness”.

      • Fred Blasdel says:

        There’s an obscene number of goatheads if you rode up the Deschutes River Trail at the finish, but the course itself seemed to be completely free of them

  15. Paul Ahart says:

    Wow, what a great adventure. I got excited reading about the upcoming ride on the Velo Dirt website during the winter, and had to get a good map of the area with the hope of doing it myself some day.
    Your ride certainly was a “technical trial” for your bike. I’m so impressed by the durability of your tires and the fact that nothing fell off (except a few spare spokes) during that jarring journey.
    Well done and congratulations, capped by riding the Herse home after the adventure, and getting a bit more adventure on the way.

  16. thebvo says:

    Wow! That is certainly an amazing feat of super human cyclisticism!
    I’ve been following the event via Instagram, and it sure looks like fun!
    Did you use a different front wheel for this event? Por que?

    • The Synergy rim on the wheel I usually use developed a hairline crack – it seems like the walls are pretty thin, and even though I don’t brake much, I’ve worn it out. So I took the front wheel from my Urban Bike. It’s nice to have a standard wheel size…

  17. This really goes to show that you only need onw bike to “do-it-all”.

    It also reinforces my view that modern cycling products are looking to solve a problem that does not exist and that a 650b bike built with classic techniques is any match for the latest and greatest the cycling manufacturing industry has to offer. I’m not knocking R&D and innovation but I feel tht the limiting factor on any bike is the rider.

    You’ve certainly shown you can mix it with any genre of cycling and the enjoyment that comes across in your blog postings is what makes me return here often to read of your adventures.

    • I agree that it is amazing what a well-designed bicycle can do. The key really are the advances in our understanding of tires – the 42 mm-wide tires on my bike roll as well as a good racing tire, so I am not giving up anything on smooth roads. You could get similar performance and enjoyment from other wheel sizes and bikes – witness Ira Ryan’s 700C cyclocross bike.

      The one caveat to the “one-bike” idea is carrying weight. My bike does well with a handlebar bag or even a light load in front panniers, but anything more requires a stiffer frame…

  18. heather says:

    Wow. I read Ira Ryan’s post after yours and it was so different. The route sounded gruelling, and you barely give it a paragraph, other than mentioning you came in second. Instead, you write about the route you took HOME, while everyone else was likely sprawled out on the ground and being driven home. Thanks for the description of your wonderful adventure…the snow looks beautiful.

  19. stevep33 says:

    Do you happen to know what 700×38 tires Ira rolled?

    • jimmythefly says:

      Paselas of some sort. Not sure from pics if they were tourguard and/or what bead type.

  20. Great story! The $100 ticket seems like a drag, but it certainly discourages your readers from following your route. It seems worthwhile for what you got, though, and they didn’t truck you back to the entrance you came in! I’m looking forward to reading Ira’s tale.

  21. Michael says:

    Jan,
    What would you say the weight of the fully loaded bag was, and what rack were you using that could support that kind of weight?

    • I didn’t weigh the bag, but it was probably about 7 kg (15 pounds) at the start. Most of that weight was food. During my ride home, my bag was a lot lighter, since it held little food, and only my spare clothes and camera.

      The rack is a custom rack made by Alex Wetmore and myself, from very lightweight tubing. It’s inspired by the racks René Herse made for his bikes, combining the aspects of several of his designs. It’s very light (168 grams before chrome-plating including the rack part of the decaleur). It obtains its strength from triangulation and smart design, not bulk and heft.

      I was mostly concerned about the decaleur, since I’ve seen so many of them break, but mine uses the rear rack uprights, with the important difference that the top is tied into the stem. That makes it very strong, since the bag isn’t cantilevered off into space.

  22. Holy cow, this is one of the best ride reports I’ve read! You made it sound spectacular! Such wonderful, dramatic scenery!

  23. guest says:

    If you take it to tribal court, you could visit the area again by bicycle…

  24. Harold Bielstein says:

    Great write-up on the event and especially on your ride back home! I wonder if you could provide a map of the route you took to get back?

  25. I’ve read the account twice now, and I’ll probably read it some more. Amazing adventure. I would love to get to that point where time and distance are no longer an issue as long as I can keep riding.

  26. Bill Gibson says:

    What a great way to start the summer stories! I love that there were a range of riders with different objectives and different bicycle choices, including Jan’s and Ira’s. May they all report their experiences. I wish someone had ridden a Pugsley-type fat tire bike, which is one way to deal with the soft and rough roads, and could report on its advantages and limitations. I love adventures that start and end out your back door! Most limits are in thoughts, although my body has bumped up against limits, too! Recover well, and may we all enjoy tailwinds, quiet roads, and long climbs uphill, into the wind. Lots of sun, rain, and stars, too.

  27. Aaron Young says:

    Jan, thank you for the ride report. I rode to the Deschutes River Campground and camped Saturday night. I suppose I missed seeing you cruise through by a few hours.

    I’m glad you didn’t get any goathead flats on the Deschutes River Trail. I rode the northern-most section of the trial a few weeks back with some friends and we turned around somewhere between mile 12-14 after everyone in our party had at least one flat from the multiple goatheads in each of our much-beefier tires. Perhaps we were clearing the path for those who came after. :)

    Thank you for the inspiration to seek out adventure.

  28. Tim Bird says:

    Great story Jan – getting detained by the police puts it right up there! True cycling adventure! Chapeau…

  29. Preston Grant says:

    Wonderful and entertaining account, Jan. BTW, my wife did her first ride with her new Loup Loup Pass 650bx38mm tires, and she was enthusiastic about the comfort.

  30. David Pearce says:

    Wow! Snow! You are quite a piece of work there, Jan Heine! :-)

  31. Jan–this is truly impressive and very inspiring. Nice post!

  32. Ford Kanzler says:

    Great info on packed item you carried. Wondering if a bike multi-tool is ever included? Seems like Mafac wrenches and tire levers is pretty limiting.

    • No multi-tool. I find them to be heavy, have lots of things I don’t need, and not the tools that I do need. The Mafac wrenches pretty much adjust everything important on my bike. When I built it, I made sure not to mix too many bolt sizes.

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