A Field Guide to the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder
By Zachary Morvant
Postcards from the Oregon Trail
My dearest Bridget, it has been 3 days since we departed Bend on our grand adventure. One of the oxen has already fallen ill…
OK, maybe the oxen weren’t ill. Hell, maybe there weren’t any oxen, unless I was hallucinating them. But my legs were definitely feeling the burn on day 3 of the five-day Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder Stage Race (which is admittedly a massive mouthful of a name, even for an ox, so we’ll call it by its acronym — OTGG — for the remainder of this here piece).
If you haven’t heard of it, OTGG bills itself as “The Grand Tour of Gravel,” and by the numbers alone it’s hard to argue with that moniker. Depending on which option you pick (Pioneer or Settler) you’re signing up for five days of racing through Oregon’s portion of the Cascade Range, featuring 312–363 miles and 24,867–33,560 feet of climbing. The overwhelming majority of it is off-road.
Riders at the start line. Photo: Adam Lapierre.
It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. It’s brutal. It’s a truly unique experience that I highly recommend if you enjoy challenging days of gravel riding followed by dips in rivers, hangs with good people, and copious amounts of food. (And, if you partake, maybe some beer and whiskey.)
All that said, a unique event has its own unique requirements. To that end I’ve endeavored to create a guide that contains useful tips for OTTG, whether you’re a seasoned stage racer, novice gravelleur, or something in between. (Author’s note: special thanks to Michael Claudio, an accomplished road and gravel racer who’s done OTGG for several years now, and provided much of the information contained herein.)
Planning & pre-trip
Registration: Pioneer or Settler? The easiest way to explain the difference between the two categories? Pioneers are more race- and competition-oriented (this field is often stacked with some world-class pros in addition to pro-tenders like your humble author), plus ride longer routes. Settlers are more for folks who’d rather just enjoy the ride without stressing about competing. One thing that Pioneers and Settlers share: both groups will have a blast.
Bin it to win it: As you ride through the Cascades, a finely tuned logistical machine transports all of your stuff — as long as it fits into a provided bin with a 50-pound limit. When you register, you’ll have the option to purchase a second bin. Doing this makes packing much less stressful, and allows you to conveniently sort items however you see fit (clean/dirty, bike/camping, etc.)
Massages: Speaking of luxuries, you may even have the option to book 20-minute massages after each day’s ride! If you, like me, enjoy a brief relaxation and recovery aid in this vein, it’s worth it. Book them early; they fill up fast.
Taking your time: Give yourself enough time to enjoy the whole trip. Five days of riding is a big commitment, and when you have to travel to and from the race, your total time for this adventure can stretch into a week or more. I succeeded on the front end, giving myself a couple of days to hang out in Bend, Oregon and not feel rushed. However, I was slated to start a new job back in California the day after the race — unable to negotiate that point — and so I went straight from the finish line, to lunch, to a nine-hour drive home. (OK, maybe I stopped for the traditional post-race dip in an alpine lake — invigorating and a decent way to feel fresh-ish before my journey.) My preference would have been to relax and unwind in Oregon for at least one more day, but c’est la vie.
Riders on course in the Cascades. Photo: Adam Lapierre.
Equipment and gear
Wheels & tires: If there’s one thing gravel riders love to nerd out on, it’s tires. Choosing one type of tire for five days of adventure can be difficult, but the Breakaway Promotions crew (who runs OTGG) makes it a bit easier by transporting one additional wheelset for you, free of charge. While not essential, bringing an extra wheelset is highly recommended for a couple of reasons: one being a different flavor of rubber you can swap to if you prefer a different tread or volume, and the other being an insurance policy. With all the rough terrain, tires (and rims) are subjected to lots of stress and being in the mountains with one broken wheelset and no backup can suck the fun out of your trip.
Sleeping arrangements: Good sleep is key to recovery, and good sleep is easier to get when you’re comfortable. There can be uneven ground at many of the campsites, so a sleeping bag and pad might not cut the mustard. Some folks I saw brought lightweight cots; others had full-blown air mattresses. Pack whatever sleeping equipment works best for your needs. As stated above, procuring an extra storage bin will help make this simpler to pack.
VIP tent service: On a related note, some would say that part of the experience of camping is setting up and breaking down your own tent. Normally, your author agrees. But after a long, hard day of racing — when you’re preoccupied with eating, making sure your bike is in working order for another day of thrashing, and other essential tasks — it’s nice to leave this one to someone else. I paid for this extra luxury and found it worth every penny.
A glimpse of life at camp.
Bike food and tools: There is a cornucopia of food available at camp (great coffee in the morning, too). There are also professional mechanics. However, when you’re out riding, you need to be self-sufficient, so pack whatever you plan to eat (or anticipate needing to fix your bike) while on the trail. And maybe a little extra, especially since there are no easy places to purchase bars, gels, and the like. At a minimum, that means bringing:
- Flat/puncture repair kit
- On-the-bike nutrition for each day
- Chamois cream (if you, like me, need that to get through a long day)
A pump with an accurate gauge is also recommended so that you can dial in your optimal tire pressure each day.
Bike and camp clothing: Seasoned adventurers know — you can never trust the weather in the mountains. And OTGG has experienced everything from extreme heat to rain and snow. (Yes, it has snowed in the Cascades in June in previous years!) Be ready for all of it both on and off the bike with a range of (ideally packable, breathable) clothing. It’s also worth packing a fresh cycling kit for each day of riding if you don’t want to be bothered with doing laundry in the sink (or a river). At the very least, I like a clean chamois for each day to minimize any undercarriage unpleasantries; jerseys can be used for a couple of days if you want to pack a bit lighter.
Medicine: As mentioned above, general stores and resupply points are hard to come by. Bring what you need, and what you think you may need:
- any prescriptions
- allergy medicine
- ibuprofen, aspirin, or your pain medication of choice (cough) for soreness
Swimwear!: Board shorts, bikinis, budgie smugglers — whatever you’re comfortable jumping into a brisk river in. You’ll have lots of time to lounge by the water after most of the days, so enjoy it! On that note, bringing a towel or two for drying off post-river or post-shower is also clutch.
Skills and knowledge
Terrain — sand to snow: Knowing how to ride in a range of conditions will make your journey through the Cascades much smoother. I previously alluded to the swings in weather; this variety is reflected on the ground. While there is lots of prime dirt and “Gucci gravel,” you’ll also experience bumpy volcanic rocks, sand, washboard, and maybe even snow drifts. Being confident on different types of terrain is critical.
Be ready for anything on the Oregon Trail. Photo: Adam Lapierre.
Tire pressure: Like tires themselves, everyone has an opinion on tire pressure. Be sure to bring a floor pump with an accurate gauge (most of them fit in a provided storage bin) so you can be dialed in on the day. If you’re clueless about pressure, SRAM has a solid guide that I use frequently.
Courses: Know before you go. Studying the courses can be easier said than done and conditions can shift at the drop of a hat in the mountains, sometimes resulting in route changes the day before you’re scheduled to ride. Regardless, being as prepared as you can be pays dividends.
Pace yourself: Even experienced riders of multi-day events know that pacing can be tricky. Keep the big picture in mind so you still have some gas in the tank on the final days. This means knowing yourself, listening to your body, and metering your efforts with regards to your goals for the event. For example, it may be tempting to jump into a fast-moving group on day one or two, but if the pace becomes too uncomfortable, saving your energy so you’re still strong on days four and five may be the better move.
Final preparations: Bring your PMA (that’s Positive Mental Attitude) and get ready to have a blast. You’re going to gravel camp this summer! And in this Oregon Trail adventure, sick oxen and death from dysentery aren’t concerns.
Your humble author about to take a cool dip in an alpine lake to end the journey.
For those interested, the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder takes place June 21-25, 2023. More information can be found at: oregontrailgravelgrinder.com
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