The Oregon Trail Stage Race

Table of Contents

The Overview

“Will You Survive?” displayed the screen in front of me as I boldly signed up for the hardest, most epic Gravel event in history, to date. Even as I pressed the “Submit” button to finalize my registration, a primal part of my brain was screaming: “What the heck are you DOING?” In the spirit of the early pioneers – I don’t know what I don’t know – and I won’t know until I try. I was boldly going where no off-road riding fool had ever gone before… At least, not for 5 consecutive days.

If you aren’t familiar with the Oregon Trail Gravel Stage Race, that’s not surprising because it is a brand new event! The only reason my husband and I found out about it is because of a post on Facebook. Because the promotion said that you didn’t have to race – I was happy to sign up and give it a try.

Looking back, I’m still on the fence whether I actually regret hitting “Submit” or not. You can sum up The Oregon Trail Gravel Stage Race in one word: GRIT. There was grit in your teeth, you coughed up grit, poured grit out of your shoes and needed grit to get through it. 

This race will be one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life.

To be perfectly honest, now that I know what to expect – I would do it again, with a few distinct and critical modifications. One: I would NOT bring a gravel bike… What?? Yes, you read that correctly – I would bring a hard tail cross country 650B 2″ tire super light mountain bike. This really wasn’t a ‘gravel’ race, or just barely. It was an overland cross country ride that can be summed up thusly:

Enjoyment Factor:

Mountain bikers loved it!
Roadies were not thrilled.
Cycolocrossers were pretty ok with it.

Difficulty Factor:

This event is HARD. Just get your head wrapped around that fact and get on with it. Climbers – skinny, tiny people – loved it … unless they were a roadie at heart. Endurance Mountain Bikers were in their element. This event is not too far removed from the Leadville 100 only you are doing it for 5 days straight. Roadies had the endurance, but suffered in the skills area. Cross riders had a great time, mostly. Touring riders dropped out of the event or were dead last. Every. Single. Day.

Route Conditions:

(These are not exact numbers, BTW)

Day 1: 15% lose gravel/sand, 10% rocky & rutted, 10% WTF sand, 10% paved, 55% great gravel. Unfortunately by the time you got through the first half, you were too baked to enjoy the nice gravel on the second half of the ride. Link to 2019 Day 1 route

Day 2: 100% awesome gravel with minimal pavement. Probably one of the best days if you are a roadie at heart and enjoy climbing. However, the eastern side of the mountains tends to be wetter – and it was. Link to 2019 Day 2 route

Day 3: 20% paved, 30% rocky & rutted, 25% decent gravel, 20% sand. This was the ‘grab bag’ day. Similar to Day 1 – only in reverse with worse sand at the end. Most people enjoyed this stage right up until 20 miles from the finish. At that point, they left their soul somewhere in the lose sand near the finish line. Link to 2019 Day 3 route

Day 4: 80% soul-sucking sand, 10% decent hard-pack, 10% road. Even if you love sand, this day would have tried your patience. Oregon has several distinct climate zones and when you get on the west side of the Cascade mountain range – it’s high alpine desert with very little water. Link to 2019 Day 4 route

Day 5: 20% sand (again), 40% paved, 40% ok gravel. Because of high altitude conditions, the promoters had to redirect the route and the course was ‘not as advertised’. While the stage overview that was posted indicated a maximum of 10% grade – most people reported that it was much, much steeper than that. Link to original 2019 Day 5 route

Every day except day 4 included leg numbing climbs and seriously butt-clenching descents. Basically, you were either riding on great surface around 40% of the time and the rest of the ride you got the grab bag from hell. 

This is event is for you if:

You have mad off-road skills (and I don’t mean gravel). You love descending through some lose gravel or perhaps rocky terrain. You are a good climber.

Views:

Actually noticed a view: less than 10%
Actual views: ~25%
Full-on slog: 65% (it’s a race, not a touring ride)

Support:

If I had one complaint, it would be that the support was mostly focused on the Pros and high-performance riders. Everyone else was predominately ignored. In other words, most of the paying participants felt a bit ‘left out’ on the course. This is NOT an event that you can ‘tour’. There is no proper SAG per se – it’s a race. Don’t sign up if you cannot complete each day in reasonable time. In other words, within 3 hours or less of the Pros.

There were reasonably stocked aid stations periodically spaced on each route with a mechanic. However, the aid stations were established based on a Pro’s time through the course. When it comes to water and food consumption – that is a factor of time, not distance. Basically, you either can ride like the wind or better carry enough food + water to get you through.

If you needed emergency aid or had an on-course breakdown you either had to hoof it to the next aid station or be prepared for a really long wait. On course Motos were mainly focused on the top riders. Keep in mind that this event is not set up (yet) to handle a bunch of folks that need on-course assistance. There is also little to no cell signal and the organizers did not have radios. 

The Oregon wilderness is a real thing. There’s no Uber. There’s often no cell signal. Prepare yourself accordingly!

If you are considering this event, make your decision wisely! I went on the assumption that, based on the website, you can just ‘ride’ the course. That is certainly an option, but here are some important considerations.

If you want to just ride and not race:

  1. Leave early and skip the chip timing for the event in order to give yourself plenty of time on the course to complete it.
  2. Ride fast because they were not equipped to handle any issues for those taking their time.

The race promoters are accustomed to holding race type events, not Stage races or, most importantly, events that include riders that are not racing. The cut-off times were not always strictly enforced BUT there was no SAG vehicles available for slower riders.

Amenities:

Plenty of great things to say about the event at each camping location. You have VIP tent service available, entertainment, beer most nights, and an excellent dinner as well as breakfast each day. Shower facilities tended to run on the cool side with only two days that actually had hot water. Think of it as invigorating.

They even had a masseuse on site each night which was a huge bonus to keep your tired legs running smoothly. The local brewery was on site for a couple of nights and the coffee bus was there every morning. For a first time event, I would have to say that I am impressed how they handled everything. Not every day went to plan and they worked around it pretty well.

I’m not confident, however, that the promoters focus was on the most important items. While having beer is a great bonus, I’d be happier if they shut the loud music off during the day so we could all take a nap. Stage races are a bit different in nature than single-day events and most people (even the Pros) would appreciate a nap after beating the crap out of themselves day in and day out.

Overall:

Again, this event is a RACE. Even though the organizers advertised this as something you could just ‘ride’ – they aren’t really set up for that. Putting on an event of this magnitude is extremely challenging so my hat goes off to Breakaway Promotions for accomplishing what they did for a first-time point-to-point gravel Stage Race in a relatively remote area of the country. You will have a great time if you have the right perspective and the right training.

Prologue

I’m an aspiring Endurance rider with more issues than National Geographic. I’ve got CSS (chemical sensitivity syndrome), I’m allergic to half of everything, I’ve got chronic low blood sugar and I’ve been diagnosed with asthma.  Remember that last bit … it will play a big part in how this story unfolds. 

Let’s get a few things straight. I’m NOT a Pro – heck I’m not even close. I’m a retired CAT 3 road racer – Sprinter class. I’m 44 (I think), reasonably fit and constantly battling to stay one step ahead of my gazillion health challenges. Plus, I’m SUPER hardheaded… and sometimes oblivious to the obvious. Keep that bit in mind too – it will also play a part in my tale.

“Will You Survive?” said the event webpage. Even after training as much as my life and the weather would allow – I had decided to ‘tour’ this event. After all, the website said that you could just ride it. I had no intentions of racing but I was suffering from the delusion that I could at least finish each day. Life had other ideas.

This story is what Double Trouble. I got to experience, first hand, the Oregon Trail as both a rider and a volunteer. I have a unique perspective on the most difficult event I’ve ever attempted (and witnessed) that might be useful to you, my cycling friend. This is my tale…

Pre-Race Plans

In the weeks leading up to the event, my husband and I focused on training as much as we could. We did back-to-back days of riding on both road and gravel to prepare our bodies for what would be the biggest test of endurance that we’d ever had. Both of us had finished the 100 mile Rebecca’s Private Idaho in 2017, participated in Dirty Kanza and rode across France (1,000 miles) the year prior – so we are no strangers to endurance events. 

While I never doubted that my husband, Steve, (who doesn’t know he has legs) would finish – I was not so confident in my own capabilities. To compound this worry – I also had a strange performance loss that began two weeks prior to the event. Without any explanation to the sudden loss of endurance, operating on hope, I decided to stick to the plan. We landed in Oregon two days before the event and holed up in a sweet Airbnb in Sisters, OR.

Even though my bike had gotten lost by UPS for 5 days (drama!), both of our bikes arrived in good condition. We spun out our legs and chilled in the super cute town of Sisters before the big event. For the most part, I tried not to think about anything too much. Worry never helped anyone ride faster, except when you are trying to get home in ahead of a thunderstorm.

Day One

We were as prepared as we could possibly be (or so we thought) as the countdown started and the excitement filled the air in Sisters, Oregon at Village Green Park. We had the best gravel bike we could choose based on the information the webpage gave: 1X Sram systems with 30 tooth chain rings and up to 42 in the rear with 40 mm 700c tires. Those tires started to hum out of town as we zoomed to the start line that would take us over the pass from the arid desert plateau to the east side of the Cascade mountains. 77 miles of riding and over 6,371 ft of climbing was in store for us. 

Almost immediately after crossing the chip timing mat I realized I was in for a REALLY long day in the saddle. Lose sandy and gritty surface lined the road as we ascended towards the pass. It is dang hard to climb in sand – just saying. This road yielded to a rocky and rutted surface with significant grades which I welcomed because it was easier than trying to climb through sand. I even stopped to take pictures as I topped the pass. I was super stoked even though I was slow – I was getting places!

Oh, but I didn’t know sand – not yet! As I trudged upwards I was convinced that I was already on the famous Wagon Road that the race director told us about. Ha! About mile 18 the proverbial crap hit the fan – I entered the Wagon Road. I’m not convinced that you could ever get a wagon down it or anything with 4 wheels except a modified 4X4. I’ve NEVER experienced sand like that (and I hope that I never will again). Hub-deep moon dust from hell. It was pumice and ash – fine, deep, and eats drive drains (and your feet). 

Note: this section is typically only accessed by Motocross riders. The sand is so deep and soft that anything else will truly struggle to get through it.

After 3 miles of one foot out or walking I developed very painful blisters on each heel. Fortunately, aid station 1 had bandages and water – I rolled on feeling a little dehydrated and malnourished but looking forward to a long decent. I was extremely relieved to leave the Wagon Road! When I entered the nice gravel at mile 30 or so I was a bit concerned that I was still feeling light-headed. Every effort made me see spots.

That last bit should have been a clue – but remember the ‘oblivious to the obvious’ comment earlier? Regardless of my body’s distress, I was starting to enjoy myself as the lush vegetation of the eastern side of the Cascades surrounded me. Gentle climbs and nice, hard-packed gravel roads wound through the forest until I heard the crunch of vehicle tires behind me. 

I pulled over and the Medic stopped to ask “How are you feeling?” I tend to be a bit blunt – so I mentioned that I was feeling strangely gassed out. She gave me a look and said, “You might want to make a decision because the next aid station is 25 miles away.” What?? 25 miles?? Crap – I’d already gone a fair distance and I down to my last bottle. I asked about the Sweep and she told me that they had no idea where he was.

Great… That was the end of Day One. 

Hindsight being 20/20, I should have got out at the next aid station and rode my bike for the last 25 miles. At least the evening of Day One was a pleasant one. There was a bike washing station and phone/Garmin charging every night. No music was set up to blast at us yet and the showers were hot. The meals were great and everyone had a nice sleep.

Day One Side Notes:

Even if I had continued, the aid station really was far away. I had consumed so much water because I was attempting to rehydrate after my moon dust experience. Remember, food and water intake are a function of time – not distance. I was taking a lot longer than expected, therefore I was darn near out of water.

Aid station 2 was entirely too far away and most everyone was out of water when they arrived there. Plus, that station ended up running out of water leaving quite a few people either waiting or dried out for the next 10 miles. I hope they fix this issue for next year. Aid station 2 must be earlier than 50 miles out.

Day Two

After a decent night’s sleep in relatively quality tents – I prepared for a better Day Two. I slapped Band-Aids on my blistered heels and planned to eat and drink more often. I was ready to tackle the climbs and have fun on the great gravel roads of the day’s stage… But, Mother Nature had other plans.

As we waited for the race start, the rain began to fall. No big deal – I had a rain vest and a lightweight rain jacket. I would be fine. The temperatures weren’t that chilly and the weather forecast said it would clear around 11:00 am. No worries! I was enjoying the scenery and little punchy climbs as we accented what was one of the toughest climbing days out of the entire stage. 

As an aside, I’d like to mention that I’m NOT a climber. I climb but I’m slow. I figured I had the right gearing and everything would be ok. Remember that asthma thing? Well, I have exercise induced, temperature induced, and dry air induced asthma … The temps started to drop as we climbed and the rain fell even heavier.

About 5 miles from the top I was no longer able to push through the lactic acid dam that was forming in my legs and I couldn’t get enough oxygen. The grade were seriously steeper but, most importantly, two out of three conditions for asthma were met (but I still didn’t realize that asthma was the issue). 

I walked. I rode when I could. I eventually made it to the top of the 18 mile climb. Temps were now at 38 degrees. Someone said they saw snow. I had to get water from the aid station but as soon as I came off my bike I started to shake and I couldn’t stop shaking. We had a serious descent immediately in front of us. I couldn’t even get on my bike and I couldn’t feel my hands.

That was the end of Day Two. 

Day Two Side Notes:

To be fair – no one had a fabulous day and almost everyone was a frozen popsicle. To add insult to injury, the showers were cold. On the plus side, dinner was awesome and we had live entertainment. The evening was truly beautiful with a lovely sunset to distract us from the fact that the dining hall was on fire.

I was sitting in my tent and overheard: “You know that campfire you wanted? Well, they set the dining hall on fire.” Apparently oatmeal next to a space heater is a bad thing. I’m not sure that the town of Oakridge will welcome us back. Bloody nuisance those cyclists.

Day Three

The walking of day two compounded my blisters to the point that I couldn’t wear shoes. I suppose it was a blessing that my feet were so cold the previous day I couldn’t feel them. Day three was touted as the ‘toughest’ stage yet with tons of climbing, more wagon roads (no thanks!) and rocky descents. While I was a long way from being ‘ok’ with sitting out the stage, I knew that it would be a tough day and I needed to heal my feet. 

The great thing about events like this is all the people you meet and make friends with. The nice guy driving the van on Day One, Bob, is a fun character with a slightly irreverent sense of humor – we hit it off immediately. Because he was aware of my plight, he asked if I wanted to hang out in the van with him. Why the heck not?? We headed out after the riders, cracking bad jokes, being politically incorrect, and having a great time.

Because certain parts of the course were Moto-only, we went and set up at the exit from the first big decent from the top. It was interesting to see the variety of responses to the wagon road and the descent. Those that had mountain bike backgrounds LOVED it. Those that were roadies at heart – were terrified

The only thing I was terrified of was the giant mosquitos that hang around the west side of the Cascades. This still puzzles me. The west side is high alpine desert with little to no rainfall in the ‘warmer’ months. So, why are there mosquitos big enough to drain a Bull Moose dry in 4 hours? I’ve never seen mosquitos that BIG before! But, I digress.

My day was spent avoiding mosquitos, chatting with the volunteers and other injured riders while getting more and more frustrated that I couldn’t ride what most riders were extolling as the most awesome part of the whole event. Sadly for those riders, and unbeknownst to me, this was before the 7 miles of sand to the finish. When the battered, exhausted and gritty crew arrived at camp – no one mentioned how awesome the stage was. Amazing what sand can do to your spirit.

That night was another cold shower evening that I gladly skipped. On the bright side, the beer tent was open! Yes! Folks gathered around to tell tall tales and enjoy the evening in anticipation of the ‘easy’ riding day ahead of them. I was also cautiously hopeful that I could wear shoes and join everyone for what was marketed as an easy day… But, Mother Nature had other ideas … again.

Day Four

Morning dawned over the frosted and frozen ground where sleepy and slightly cranky cyclists lay huddled in their tents. The temperatures had dropped to freezing overnight. I was woken to an acute asthma attack about 2:00 am and uncontrolled shivering. Even though I had a 30 degree down bag, I was scared stiff at the high-pitched whine/wheeze coming from my lungs as I struggled for breath. I shoved more clothes on and huddled in my bag, completely covering my head in an attempt to warm the air for my struggling lungs.

I had never had an actually asthma attack before and this scared the crap out of me. I had brought my emergency inhaler on the trip but, since I never use it, I left it at the Airbnb (what a stupid idea). Eventually, the struggle to breathe eased and I dozed fitfully until the sun cautiously peeked over the treetops.

As the camp slowly and painfully awoke, the realization finally hit me like a runaway train that I had a triple threat asthma condition.  Simply being in Oregon with the dry and cold was triggering the worst of it. While I had been diagnosed for asthma – I’d never actually experienced a full-on attack, just restrictions. I also have breathing restrictions as soon as I start exercising. I thought that my little bronchial spasm inhibitor inhaler was enough. I was WRONG.

To make matters worse, I found out that I still wasn’t able to wear bike shoes. Thank goodness I had packed my Crocs for camp. I didn’t know what to do… I didn’t want to drop out of the event, but I didn’t have the inhaler I obviously needed plus my heels were hamburger. The only recourse I had was to toss in the towel and go back to Sisters, OR.

As I slunk off to wait for the shuttle to the next camp, Bob noticed me. “Hey, Lackey Two (my new nickname) – what are you doing today?” I told him and he said that I was welcome to hang out with him. Well, why not? No sense in moping around and feeling sorry for myself. I may as well hang out with my new friend. By that time, I’d gotten to know him as well as most of the medic staff pretty well. 

While it hurt my heart to see all the riders getting ready to head out – I was determined to make the best of what I had. Bob and I set out after the final riders as on-course support. Almost immediately I realized that I wasn’t sitting out an easy stage. This stage wasn’t much for climbing, but what it lacked in climbing it made up for in SAND. Miles and miles of sand with lose gravel descents and only a short 15 mile break in the middle on cinder packed roads. 

Dust rose over the riders. It was dry. Dry, dry, dry… The sun beat down on them as they toiled through the sand dragging at their tired legs. I was exhausted just watching! When Bob and I finally arrived in camp – I made a decision. I needed my rescue inhaler in order to ride; which I didn’t have with me because I was oblivious to the obvious. I needed moleskin on my heels to wear shoes – which wasn’t available. I was out. Out of the event. My husband bravely and stubbornly finished every stage so far. I knew he would be fine for the final day and I would be there to greet him when he finished.

If you cannot finish the event – the Oregon Trail T-Shirt says: “You died of dysentery”… The Oregon Trail didn’t beat me exactly. My own ignorance and obviousness to the obvious signs of worsening asthma DID. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. Why the heck would you bring a rescue inhaler to Oregon and then not pack it on the event?? 

After dinner and great conversations with new friends – I got on the Shuttle of Shame back to Sisters where a HOT shower and SOFT bed awaited me … and my inhaler … and moleskin. I was also determined to see if it was really asthma or if I just sucked. I knew that I wasn’t in race shape, but it would be nice to know if I could increase my performance if I had oxygen. I planned to ride the next day. Not just any ride. I was going to tackle a climb while the Oregon Trail riders tackled the final stage into Sisters. I was going to see if the trail defeated me or if I defeated myself.

Day Five

The day dawned bright and beautiful for the final stage into Sisters, OR. The event organizers had to do some minor rerouting due to snow in the higher elevations that blocked the trail. Instead of 70 miles – the final day was now 76 miles. Instead of a max grade of 10% – it was now a max grade of +18%. But, the riders didn’t know that until the hit the wall of the final climb. It was a tough day but the defiant would be rewarded by a sweeping 17 mile descent into town on pavement. 

Me – I was luxuriating in a soft warm bed. I didn’t have to pack up. I didn’t have to lug a 60 lb tote across a football field. I didn’t have to stand outside waiting in line for one of only 3 flush toilets. I had a warm shower and breakfast that I didn’t have to stand around for. I was in heaven. When I eventually got out of bed and ate breakfast – I prepped for my climb of the day.

I finished getting ready and stood there staring at my ’emergency’ inhaler. Why did I have such a resistance to using this? For one, I’m not big into doping. For another, I’m allergic to sulfites which is the base of the steroid. Plus, I had NEVER used it before! What if I blew up or something?? Finally I got over myself and took a tiny huff. I was too worried to do it properly just in case I reacted badly to the drug. 

As my husband was riding through sand and just narrowly avoided being lost like around 20 other people – I got on my bike and I started the climb to Trout Butte from Sisters. If you’ve never been in Sisters to ride a bike, the climbing starts as soon as you leave town. At first it’s gentle and then later it starts getting serious. I did a bit of exploring before I found the road I was looking for, met some friendly cross-country riders, and then got down to business. 

I started my climb. Over 30 miles away, my husband started his climb on the final ascent of the day. I was nervous. My mojo had been wrecked. My self-confidence was pretty low. I had a “Died of Dysentery” T-Shirt. But, as I climbed I noticed that I could breathe! My legs weren’t jamming up with lactic acid. I could get oxygen to my muscles. Yes, climbing tingled – I could feel the work, but it wasn’t debilitating. The higher I rose, slowly the fear started to subside. Grades that previously looked like obstacles were now obtainable. 

I CAN DO THIS!!!

While I didn’t finish The Oregon Trail Stage Race. I did find out WHY I suffered so badly on climbs. Why my legs seized up and I couldn’t get enough air. Why I was seeing spots after the big climb on Day One and WHY I was feeling so tired when everyone else could keep pushing. I’ve had my butt handed to me time and time again. I know when I’m defeated but I’m not one to stay knocked down. I’ve always kept trying. I know I’ve got challenges, but I don’t like excuses. 

That final day, when other Oregon Trail riders were reaching the finish line at the top – I reached my own finish line in the wilds of the forest on a climb by myself. If you cannot breathe – you cannot ride well. I had been punishing myself for years with my own ignorance of what was actually wrong. Now I knew what it was like to be able to use the muscles that I trained and honed. I’m still not a Pro and I will not ever be the fastest … but now I can RIDE.

I still descend like a timid fool though…

The End of an Epic Event

I rolled back into town anxious to see who was finishing. We had figured on 3:00 as a finish time for my hubby. The nice thing about climbing from the word ‘go’ is that you get to ride like the wind all the way back to the start. I arrived at the park in time to see the Pros crossing the finish line. I grabbed some grub and my infamous T-Shirt. I got ready to see Steve finish. 

I knew I didn’t have much time – my husband descends much faster than I do (almost anyone does to be honest). Sure enough, at 3:00, almost to the minute – Steve rolled across the finish line to receive his finisher medal and badge. I’m so darn proud of him and anyone that completed what is probably one of the most grueling events in off-road cycling.

Rider Notes

“How in the world can you train for something like this when we live in Houston, TX?” said my husband one day during the event. My answer: easy – you get yourself a Smart Trainer and you do long endurance climbs at home. It’s not fun or even remotely exciting, but it’s necessary. If you don’t have the luxury of going to a climbing camp around 3 weeks before the event, that’s the best you can do.

To complete an event like this, you have to train and you have to be in the best of health. Do not, I repeat DO NOT try to do something like this if you have a sudden mysterious loss of performance right before the event (like I did) or go in injured. You will not have a good experience.

Like I said at the beginning of this write-up – I’d do it again, only with a different bike. Some of the top finishers were on mountain bikes, although they were CAT 1 riders. At the very least, I would come with two different sets of wheels – one for the east side of the mountains and one for the west.

Oregon has several distinct climate zones. On the eastern seaboard it’s wet (really wet) and foggy. The middle valley is a mix and is fairly normal-ish. The eastern side of the Cascades have great gravel roads for the most part, but they can also be wet. While not quite as damp as the seaboard, the weather there tends towards rain, so be prepared. When you cross over to the western high alpine desert plateau – everything changes. That area is more volcanic than the rest of the state and can be very dry. Very dry. Expect sand, pumice and lose rock.

The Oregon Trail Stage Race will be held again next year but it may not be the same route. It’s a great idea to do your research into the geology of the area to understand what the roads might be like. The race promoters won’t necessarily advertise the real conditions. Had I known how much sand there was likely to be, I would have prepared differently.

Would I recommend it? Yes and no. If you want an epic experience – this is pretty darn EPIC. If you want to see scenery or have a vacation, sign up for a bike tour – this is not for you. Maybe that will change as they get more familiar with planning a Staged event and decide if they want to focus on the racing or the ‘riding’. All in all, it’s an incredible experience!

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