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Moon dust in a heat wave: riding the Oregon Trail

Words: Chef Chris Cosentino | Images: Sean Cochran

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I rode the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, a five-day stage race in the Cascade Range, during the craziest heat wave the state had ever experienced. A week before the event I posted on Instagram the rad T-shirts handed out at the end of the race—one for finishers, a different one if you don’t. Most of the folks in my poll expected me not to finish and be the proud recipient of the “you died of dysentery” garment.

The drive from San Francisco to Bend was nine hours straight, showing off an amazing part of the west coast, with farmland, cattle pastures and a logging station with hundreds of logs floating down a river. I also made an obligatory stop in Weed, California, for the gift shop: You know you want “dope on a rope” soap or a Weed T-shirt. On arriving in Bend, I was nervous about all the heat records that were about to be broken. It had been a while since I had saddled up for such a long ride, and the excessive heat was adding to my nervousness.

I had gone over everything a million times in my head: back-up gear, parts, clothing selections, tire choices, tire pressures (I gave up on that and handed it to Team Schwalbe) and, the most important for me, the food on and off the bike. My plan was to race it like a 24-hour solo event, just like the old days. This race is five days so the main plan was not to go all out in the beginning and blow myself up so I would be fried for the next four days. How does that song go? “It’s all about that pace, ’bout that pace,” right? Big miles and elevation each day in a point-to-point event through the Cascades. What could go wrong? Even better, I was planning that everything would go right.

Day 1: June 23

73.9 miles, 6,250 feet of climbing, 5:53 in the saddle.

At the start in Sisters, before handing over our gear crates at the weigh station to make sure they weren’t over 50 pounds, we were reminded of the rules and safety checks. Don’t get hurt because it’s not easy to reach you in some of the remote locations. Remember you’re in the wild and might come across bears, mountain lions or coyotes. Up front on the start line, bursting with energy, were the pros, a who’s who of gravel: Peter Stetina, Carl Decker, Serena Bishop Gordon, Alison Tetrick, Casey Armstrong, Sarah Sturm, Eddie Anderson, the Kona Adventure Team, Geoff Kabush and Barry Wicks.

Interestingly, Wicks was riding flat pedals in custom-painted Velcro Adidas sneakers, alongside a whole slew of road pedals and cleats. There were all sorts of machines: gravel bikes, gravel bikes with suspension forks, fat-tire bikes with electric assist, mountain bikes, skinny tires, fat tires, medium tires. I was ready with food, water, electrolyte mix and a huge smile as we rolled out on a 6-mile neutral start before reaching the dirt…and a full-blown rocket show!

Off the pros went, destination Rainbow, while the rest of us just inhaled their dust for the next five-or-so hours. Climbing to peaks and descending in moon dust scattered with hidden lava rocks took their toll. There were frequent punctures, but I was suffering with my own technical issues. I couldn’t shift into my last two climbing sprockets, so I had no choice but to push some big gears. I’d put a new cassette on my extra wheelset with larger tires and an older chain—amateur move on my part. You always say I wish I had another gear, but this time I had two I just couldn’t use. Lesson learned.

At the top of the first climb the vistas were incredible…and the descent was amazing. This is where I made up for time lost on the climb. With big tires—thanks to Henry and Sean for pushing me onto 50mm Schwalbe G-One Bites—and lower pressure, I had a flawless descent through the moon dust, passing everyone I could. We climbed some more and, oh, descended again. Just past the time check, I saw a rider with a broken derailleur. Two of us took turns pushing him for the next 9 road miles to camp. Stetina was the day’s winner, finishing the 73.5 miles in 3:33. I finished in 5:53.

We got a real sense of the fire devastation in Rainbow. The town was gone and the pine forest looked like rows of black empty telephone poles. It was an eyeopener to see how the fires ravaged this area. And the smell will forever be burned into my memory. Our camp was in the center of a school football field. Once there, I had to find a tent and my gear crate. I took a cold shower and passed my bike to Sean and Henry for a wheel switch for the next day. Mechanical mistakes aside, my smartest pre-race move was making a bunch of food that would be ready to go for Sean, Henry and me.

For this first dinner we got grilled veggies from the caterer to add to our salad along with a duck-and-chickpea ragù and penne pasta. As the food started to come out, so the number of dinner guests grew from three to six. Good thing I made extra. Lots of snacks, non-alcoholic beers (for me) and laughs were enjoyed as people came to the Schwalbe van asking for help with dead tires and broken gear. Our camping neighbors Sarah Sturm and her mom Margie, along with dogs Norm and Tula, officially became part of the group, as did Serena Bishop Gordon. So, we now had two fast-as-hell pro women and a slow old chef trying to relive his glory days. I knew it was going to be a fun week.

On retiring to my tent, those around me were getting settled in theirs. I heard, “Is there enough air in the air mattress?” And then, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I knew then I shouldn’t worry about my snoring, since others probably appreciated it to cancel out the sound of those two folks making love. Don’t campers realize that tent walls are thin?

Day 2: June 24

59 miles, 6,014 feet of climbing, 4:23 in the saddle.

The best part of our avocado-toast-with-eggs-on-top breakfast was Sean’s homemade bread—and plenty of coffee. The camp was buzzing with people repacking, moving gear, filling water bottles, checking tire pressures and temperatures, and discussing how rad the day before had been. It was another neutral road start and riders were again jockeying for position. Not sure why, as we all gathered at the start, with the women taking a nature break on the left, the guys on the right. Typical bike race start.

We left Rainbow and headed through the Willamette National Forest toward Oakridge. My bike was working great. Problem solved with a new set of wheels and 40mm Schwalbe G-One R tires, even though I was shocked by their low pressure. We began with an amazing road climb over a dam and around its lake. All the talk in the group was about how low the water was in the reservoir. This time, there was less moon dust but the descents were just as fast as the heat was quick to rise. We were all looking forward to camping next to the river in Oakridge.

I was sore from not having proper climbing gears on Day 1, but my hydration and food choices were spot on at the feed stops, including dates stuffed with chocolate-covered cashews, lots of bananas, three CamelBak Chase Vests and four large water bottles of electrolyte mix to counter dehydration. Once at camp, it seemed that word had gotten out that I was cooking because we were starting to see more faces show up around dinner time. Day 2 dinner was Italian sausage and broccoli cooked in rice with a big green salad. It was great to see everyone join in dinner talk about the race. Henry and Sean were helping on course on motos, so they were able to see all the action and help with punctures, water and food needs, all the while shooting photos—though they also had some interactions with riders who needed help but were rude to them. Things were getting interesting. The sun and heat were sapping my energy and after dinner and clean up, it was time to crash out.

Day 3: June 25

52.7 miles, 5,249 feet of climbing, 4:23 in the saddle.

This was an out-and-back day, allowing us to stay camped next to the river in Oakridge Park. We hit the road at 9 a.m. after a breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with leftover rice, sausage and broccoli. It was the shortest of the days in the saddle, but the heat was up even higher. I wanted to save some gas for the much longer Day 4, so this loop was a fun one. After passing an old strip mine next to the dam, we headed along the super-low lake. We soon realized that a full-blown car event was also taking place. It turned out to be the Gambler 500, which the organizers describe as “the world’s largest and competitive trail cleanup.” It’s a race in which cheap cars are modified and then race around the hills for two days picking up trash as they race. Hilarious. The car racers were so fun as they cruised by blasting music, offering beers and cheers. And then we climbed.

Oh wait, we had already been climbing slowly but as the pitch went up, the pace picked up and the leaders were soon gone. It was a chance for the rest of us to pick up the pieces and set a pace that worked for us. By now we had a lot of familiar faces riding together. I was in sort of a repeat cycle: climb as best as I can, get passed by everyone, reach the top and then scream down the descents past the same folks who passed me on the uphill. As much as I climb at home, I was not as strong as I wanted to be, so I had to utilize the downhills to catch back up. There’s nothing more important than bragging rights to a 49-year-old chef and former racer turning himself inside out against the pros, right? Well, no. Forget it. I just wanted to have as much fun as possible, not get hurt while laughing with friends, old and new.

Back at camp, Serena’s husband, Ben, arrived with their dog, Piper, followed by a nice visit from Serena’s mom. After a cold shower, I roasted a whole beef tri-tip with kale chimichurri, grilled onions and rice, along with some salad. Day 3 dinner hit the spot. It was nice to be able to cook what I wanted to eat. We had a growing tribe and talking about food during riding or lack of food during riding was a big discussion. After Henry showed off his amazing weightlifting shorts, the conversation turned to leg shaving and how far do guys shave their legs or chose not to and why. Then we all started to discuss Sarah’s “knee toupee and mullet” with hopes that it wouldn’t slow her down in the final two stages. The triple-digit heat was really starting to get to us and conversations were getting weird, but it was all in good fun. The sun didn’t go down until about 9:30 but by 9:45 people were out cold.

Day 4: June 26

81.5 miles, 6,883 feet of climbing, 6:46 in the saddle.

Because of the heat wave, we had the option to start at 6 a.m.; but if we chose that early start time, we wouldn’t be counted in the race standings anymore. This early group chose to ride the Settlers route, which had about the same mileage as the main route but with 3,000 fewer feet of climbing. This would allow us to still count as finishers but not be counted in placings, so it seemed like the best bet.

Most of the riders took this option for safety, including Allison Tetrick, Casey Armstrong, Barry Wicks and Kathy Pruitt. It was so damn hot, we decided it was best to ride for fun and not risk our health and wellness. Starting a full 90 minutes before the rest of the racers, I set a goal of trying to reach a certain mileage point before getting passed by the pros—but that got thrown out the window quickly when Stetina came screaming by me and gave me the “Henry Special”—a helping finger-poke in the kidneys to get me rolling faster. I think he called it the Finger of Jesus, all in good fun. The chase group came after him really quick. This men’s pro category was insanely fast: Stetina, Eddie, Kabush, and the Giant Factory Team, all fighting it out.

As I kept pushing forward, I was waiting for the pro women to pass me. And with two of the top women in my camp team, I was hoping I could be of some assistance to them as I reached the long road section into the finish. The heat was beating off the pavement as I crossed the line…and not two minutes later, the pro women come screaming into the finish. It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit and everyone was shot. As Sarah and I rode back to the camping area, we realized that the pavement was literally melting under our tires. We could hear the tar popping as it splashed up on our calves.

Once we got to camp, I was happy to see that the team had set up the rigs in a semi-circle and had positioned the camp in the shade. But when I took off my jersey the crew started laughing. I’d got sunburned through my white jersey and you could see the strap marks from my bib sorts. What a rookie move! I thought I was being smart wearing a thin jersey; now I knew the sunburn was going to suck in the shower, not to mention trying to sleep.

I’d sat down with an n/a beer when Big Tall Wayne came over and grabbed my bike to give it a scrub down and a total check-over. This guy obviously loves what he does, and he is good, really good. He helped so many of the riders, both on the course and off. Of course, Stetina’s bike came first, mostly because he came in well before the rest of us, and he had again won the day. We all got some snacks and cold drinks then left for a hot shower at the local high school. It was high time to get out of the chamois I had been in for almost seven hours. It’s fine until you stop, when it’s hot as hell and you’re basically sitting in a swamp diaper.

Since the next day would be our last day of racing I wanted to make a full-blown meal. We had to be fueled and ready. Day 4 dinner was carrot hummus, grilled chicken, pita, tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, rice seasoned with pesto, carrot, pistachio and mint salad. As the group started in for dinner, we saw the eyes of many getting large with desire, so after our group got enough to eat, Sean opened it up to the collective of folks. Lots of smiles, thank-yous and a real sense of community was felt from all. Sharing a meal is always powerful, but when you add several days of riding your bike together and it becomes even more special. The group of mechanics and support crew was in for the party. It was the last night they’d have to listen to us complain about the heat and being sore, so the music was playing and the beers were flowing. As I drifted off to sleep from heat and exhaustion, I could hear the support crew’s laughter in a chorus of music.

Day 5: June 27

83.3 miles, 6,491 feet of climbing, 6:44 in the saddle.

The final stage went back over the Cascade Range into Sisters where we’d started this crazy journey. It was another scorcher, and we again had an optional 6:30 a.m. start time to beat the heat. The camp was breaking down, the team and support vehicles were packing up as we all got ready to go. It felt bittersweet. The combination of the heat and multiple days had taken its toll, but it felt good to be in the final stretch.

This last day was a real monster, back to the high plains with that moon dust again but also lots of great climbing and incredible vistas. The pros flew by me like I was standing still while I was in a long sand section; did I mention there was a sand section? Yeah, deep sand, too. As I came out of it to the main road climb, I was able to pedal with one leg and remove about one cup of sand from each shoe as I alternated. After the super-fast road section, we went back into the forest and more climbing; a fun section but a bit exposed.

The sun was catching up to me at this point and my body was rebelling. But then came the best part; the moto chasing the pros came by and Henry had an ice bag for my back and most importantly a few “shit tickets,” a.k.a., toilet paper. I hoped I wouldn’t need them, but my stomach was not happy. I doubled my intake of water hoping to hold down a fraction of it. We were all looking forward to the finish especially since the heat was getting crazy. As I came out of the forest double-track, I found myself coming through a town and crossing a stream onto a steep Jeep road. There was a full aid station and folks were jumping in the water for relief, but just as fast as you cooled down you would dry off. I soaked my cap in ice water, threw some loose ice down my back and got back on the bike for a big climb to the peak.

The Jeep roads were crowded with people going camping and driving out to lakes. As we climbed, it seemed to be never-ending, with multiple false peaks that kept tricking our minds. At that point I was fried but pushing hard to get to the finish. As soon as I got a downhill, I tried to use that as a way to cool down and catch up to all those who passed me climbing. I still don’t know why I thought this was a good plan; I wasn’t going to be winning anything. I guess I was just putting a Band-Aid on my wounded pride. Maybe it was the chase-the-rabbit syndrome but it was working to get me to the finish.

As I thought I was cresting the mountain there was a forest crew removing trees and debris. They all stopped and cheered us as we passed. It was a nice gesture; they were hot and I think they saw that we were in the same boat. If they only knew. Once at the peak, it was another moon-dust bowl, back to where we started. I was so glad I ran the big tires again; being able to float over this fluff on the descent was magical. I bounced over the rocks picking the fastest line to the start of the last climb up to the finish line. It was not that long but it was fully exposed and took us to the top and the lake.

There were cars coming up to the lake with campers and day hikers so there was dust everywhere. Riders descending into town were cheering as the riders climbed to the finish. Did I mention it was hot? I mean scorching hot: 112 degrees! We were cooking out there. But as I crossed the finish line, both Henry and Sean were there to greet me with cold water, n/a beer and a photo of me crossing the line in exhaustion. I was so tired I didn’t even want to do the small descent to the lake to cool off because I didn’t think I’d be able to climb back up the road. Views from the top as far as the Cascade Range were stunning.

Last up was the 15-mile road descent into Sisters to get some lunch and call it a week.  When we crossed the arch into Sisters it hit me how incredible this week had been: the amazing support and friendships, both old and new and the fact that I was actually able to finish this event. I was not the fastest nor the slowest, but the best I was able to be. As I sat in the shade shoveling in food and water, watching the awards ceremony and holding my finisher’s T-shirt with pride, I reminded myself that setting goals is great but accomplishing them is amazing. Henry headed home and Sean and I grabbed my gear and drove back to Bend, but not before hitting an amazing local fruit stand. I housed four baskets of blackberries and babbled to Sean, hoping I didn’t sound too incoherent.

After an early-to-bed night, the drive back to San Francisco was as beautiful as a drive can be with so many different landscapes, including high plains, mountains and Crater Lake. Heading into California, I saw Mount Shasta covered in a cloud of black smoke. The sun disappeared and my automatic car lights turned on. It was scary. A single dry lightning strike started a fire and again I realized how small I am in this world and how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to do what I just did.

I learned a lot on this adventure. Gravel racing is rad—no judgment, just lots of fun, sweat and being outdoors. But, fuck, you already knew that. My biggest takeaway from this is that I am not the old me, just an older version of me, and that’s okay. I will never be as fast as before, and that’s okay too. I just love the adventure of pushing myself farther than I think I can go. That has been a constant thread through my life. When I set my mind to do something, I will damn well make sure I can. Thanks to Chad Sperry and his entire crew for putting on an amazing event; to Sean and Henry for being the most amazing support crew; and to all the folks out there who joined this incredible adventure. I look forward to seeing you all again in 2022.

Follow Chris on Instagram here.
Here’s his website.