Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
In central Oregon lies possibly the most laid-back boomtown in the country. With a population that has nearly doubled since the start of this century, Bend is an outdoor recreation mecca, drawing a steadily growing population of cyclists and other outdoorspeople with its close proximity to mountain roads, hiking trails and alpine lakes. Those same outdoor perks also support a booming tourism industry in this moderately sized mountain town, with many also drawn by the numerous breweries—Bend boasts the most per capita in the state!
At 3,600 feet of elevation, Bend is the home of many outdoor companies; it’s only natural to set up shop in a place that has easy access to the outdoors, including mountain, road and gravel trails. And it’s the very same reason we have visited, for an adventure with Schwalbe North America.
Bend is the kind of town where the destinations are permanently written on signs at the airport gates, and the baggage handlers practically personally hand you your stuff through the wall at baggage claim. Everyone on board becomes visibly relaxed as soon as the plane parks and the door opens, flooding the cabin with fresh air and the scent of pine needles. We’re worlds away from the morning’s stress of flying out of LAX. Stepping off the plane, the towering peaks of the Three Sisters and Mount Bachelor loom large on the horizon, each still splotched white by snow on this late July day. We’ll soon be heading that way, but first we stop by the home of Schwalbe’s Sean Cochran, a Bend native.
There, we build and tune our bikes, setting up some new rubber in the process. We have some serious gravel on the docket including loose, deep sections on double-digit inclines, so Schwalbe’s 40mm G-One Bite gravel tire is our weapon of choice.
We’re soon joined by Matt Lieto, a gravel racer for the Easton Overland Team and Ironman triathlete whose Strava profile reads: “Cyclist with a triathlon problem.” Matt—whose fitness is currently an order of magnitude or so larger than everyone else’s on this ride, even with a recent arm injury—is gracious enough to lead us on a journey to his sailboat on Elk Lake. This is our journey from door to shore.
We head west out of the city on a paved highway. If we wanted to, we could take the easy way and follow this road all the way to our destination at Elk Lake. But there is no adventure in that, is there? We soon turn off onto a fire road and then take a left to some single track. With that, the adventure has really begun.
“We have a six-week window for this route,” says Matt. “Go too early and it’s covered in snow, too late and the trail dries out and becomes too loose.”
The day will have several chapters on just about every off-road terrain possible. Hard-packed gravel fire roads, partially rutted out, give way to dirt single track through forest, which turns into inches-deep loose gravel climbs, leading to bumpy, technical descents pushing the outer boundaries of gravel bikes. Throughout, Mount Bachelor jumps in and out of view, each time reappearing larger and more striking.
At many times throughout the day, we are thankful for a generous 30 x 34 gear ratio. Sean, who’d borrowed a bike the day before after an unfortunately timed mechanical, is having to rough it out with a gear ratio a bit more at home on the road. Meanwhile, Matt’s heart rate hardly cracks triple digits most of the day. He rides here a lot.
Planning a trip several weeks in advance leaves no control over the weather. And when you travel far for an adventure, you go no matter the conditions. It’s sweltering on this day, with temperatures flirting with the 90-degree Fahrenheit mark. Combine that with the hours of riding through loose, true-gravel slopes and the altitude (at least for those of us who reside at sea level) and we’re soon searching for water refills. The plan was to fill up at one of the many creek crossings still surging with snow melt well into summer. Finding one is no issue. Unfortunately, the factors that make today part of a small window for this route also mean lots of recently melted standing water. We’ve ventured unprepared into a haven for mosquitoes.
They have a full-on feeding frenzy as we attempt to purify the fresh snowmelt. We each fill about half a bottle before the incessant swatting becomes too much. Wipe off one arm and by the time you’ve swatted the other, the first is again covered. With arms marked by small bumps and splattered red with swatches of blood, we forge on.
Lesson learned: Bring bug spray…and more bottles. But, then again, not wanting to get bitten is just about the most effective way there is to gain a second wind. The route is otherwise enjoyable, but there is no more discussion of stopping.
We cross a couple more creeks and eventually join the Cascade Lakes Highway. The off-roading ends for the day and we set off on the final leg of the day for Elk Lake. And though we have left the isolated beauty of the forest, there are still plenty of views on the final stretch to Matt’s boat. But all we can think about is grabbing one of those Bend brews and cooling off in the lake.