The excuse for heading out there was the Singlespeed World Champs, held in Napa. An expensive trip to make, so I thought it best to make the most of it and head to the trails and towns I've been fantasizing about for years.
A full set of photos can be found here:
Make yourself a cup of tea and settle down with a packet of your favourite biscuits...
Fly into San Francisco, phone doesn't seem to work which is good in some ways as it means I'm forced into being off the radar for a few weeks. There are many places to use a wifi connection, but they all assume you have your laptop to hand which I don't - they don't really have public use PCs here (none that I find anyway). I head up to Fisherman's Wharf near the Golden Gate Bridge to meet Jenn and catch up as she happens to be in town. I stay at the hostel there having stayed up to a reasonable hour to combat the jetlag.
Drive North. I have a morally reprehensible Jeep, but it feels small compared to most things on the road here and does mean I can easily throw the bike in the back (once I pick it up – another very exciting part of this trip is that I'm receiving a new bike too). A long drive to Eureka on the Norcal coast, then inland to Medford in southern Oregon, through beautiful redwood forest and increasing heat - it gets up to 109º in the afternoon and is apparently the hottest place in the US! The road is frequently so twisting it has cambered 'berms' as it curves between the giant trees.
I arrive at Jeff Jones' house early evening after driving down miles of dirt track to get to his beardy-man-shack-in-the-woods (it's actually a beautiful, large house with a workshop built into the garage). I'm picking up my bike here and he's out testing/bedding it in (just a small part of the expansive service that Jeff offers), so I hang out with his wife Sheila and their lovely kids (and gorgeous kittens). Jeff arrives and we ride around his 'grounds' (ie trails from the door) briefly before dark. I sleep in Korben's room (Jeff's son) as he sleeps feral style somewhere in the house.
We head out to ride Jeff’s local trails. It's still terrifically hot – ironically I'd headed for Oregon rather than Fruita/Moab to avoid the desert heat. The ride consists of two longish sections of fireroad between two fantastic sections of singletrack. In some ways reminiscent of the more fun trails of the Surrey hills (my usual playground), but less ridden, hotter and with the odd bridge/stunt. Just wonderful stuff; the top trail was last ridden by Jeff over a week ago and no-one since so there’s lots of leaf litter to be scattered by our (very big and fat) tyres. Jeff is clearly loving the descents, he’s a very skilled rider; at one point he goes into a hairpin, turns the wrong way (ie into the ‘elbow’ of the turn) spins 180º on the front wheel, hops onto the back wheel and off down the trail, all quicker than I can do just making the turn normally. Mossy waterfalls, endless singletrack, steep wooden ‘features’ and a gap jump (he rides it, I don’t. obviously) and we’re back at the car via a secret exit from the woods to conceal the trail.
The new bike is a lot of fun too – it has a huge Pugsley style front tyre that makes small rocks and roots disappear. I eventually remember what it reminds me of; those big, bouncy tyres on the front of wheelbarrows!
I drop Jeff back and head further North. I get to the coast via a beautiful river valley, stopping to read on a jetty on a bend in the wide Umpqua river in the afternoon sun before passing the Dean Creek Elk Reserve – well named and the elk are in abundance. The coast is heavy with misty and much cooler than where I've come from – the coastal mountains ensure a very different climate. Cornish-like views (where there are any – the road frequently plunges into fog banks) and winding roads head directly north. I travel until dark aiming to find a nice spot not too far from Portland, but find that there is basically no accommodation free on the coast at all – it's holiday season and everyone is escaping the oppressive heat. The kindly people at a family run Motel find me a room which has no bed, but a big sofa (despite the RV users next door trying to bust the door in during the night to use the bathroom).
Stop off at Manzanita for a great breakfast and a wander on the mist-shrouded beach – a really pretty and appealing little beach town. Then a bit further up the coast to the bigger town of Cannon Beach - the mist slowly lifts to reveal giant guano-encrusted rocks and beach-cruiser recumbents.
Then a drive into Portland and the Jupiter Hotel in the gently crumbling East part of town. Adjoined is the very cool Doug Fir lounge. It’s still damn hot so I take an easy cruise around the city; wonderful Stumptown coffee is consumed, numerous bike shops visited (River City is particularly great), Powell’s; the biggest independent bookshop in the US is intimidating, but very diverting and then to the park beside the river to take stock.
I return for a meal and a beer at Doug Fir’s ($5 shake yum!) and go to a mystery gig at a venue which is 30yds from my room. The doorman says it’s some kind of bluesy, metally, punky, country stuff which sounds perfect and it’s a fantastic gig. Left Lane Cruiser (punky North Mississippi blues not unlike the Black Keys – playing in London in September), Scott H Birham (filthy one man band Blues) and Bob Log III (nutty punk elvis in a motorbike helmet and silk skinsuit – his speciality is the boobwhisky – I'll let you imagine that one...). Everyone in Portland seems to sport rather beautifully drawn tattoos. Beer, whisky, chat and a late night ensues.
More bike shops in the morning and city riding. I meet Tori in Bike Gallery who holds mechanic workshops at Vanilla, so a quick call and I go over to meet Sacha and Scott. They are finishing this year’s Speedvagens ready for paint the next day along with a couple of other spindly-looking, tattooed bike-welders. Sacha’s dog Charlie wanders about and they give me loads of time and insist I stay despite their obvious busy-ness. A big space and a very pleasant work environment. Obviously I leave wanting a bike...
Portland is already behind me mid-afternoon as I head for Hood River; a town one hour east perched on the Columbia river gorge. It's rather lovely here; small, but sporty with two big bike shops and an excellent brewery/pub - the Full Sail brewery. I can strongly recommend the IPA and Wreck the Halls.
The shops are visited for advice on where to ride and new pink gingham socks purchased (who could resist?!) then I head down to the Surveyor’s Ridge trail adjacent to Mt Hood south of the town. The mountain is mostly shrouded in mist and the warm conditions are perfect. A long fireroad out and a singletrack return (13 miles of continuation singletrack). Forested, but occasionally exposed with massive mountain views and long, fast, swoopy sections of narrow, occasional rocky tech. Awesome. Also, and I notice this in Bend too, the trail smells wonderful; vanilla-sweet - must be a shrub as I don't think it's me or the chipmunks. I see only one person all day; a forester on the fireroad in his truck and this is supposed to be the busiest local trail!
From the trailhead I travel further south to the Timberline lodge where they filmed the exterior shots of The Shining – it's beautiful, but a bit touristy and the internal shots were done at Pinewood anyway so the feel inside is totally different - the desire to ride a tricycle is diminished. It’s up on the shoulder of Mt Hood though so good views up and thick mist below. From here it's further south to Bend through some stunning gorges and open highways. Find the local micro-brew pub (I have a nose for them now) for beer and nosh.
The usual bike shop visits and trail recommendation requests (Sunnyside is particularly good; Jody sets me on the right track). The shops I go to both suggest the same trail and it’s quite astoundingly good. 30 miles of dusty singletrack, big waterfalls, redwoods, high prairie, and a whoop-inducing descent; 9 miles of continuous sinewy trail with jumps and flattering fun all as fast as you can pedal. I was very lucky as this part of the trail had only been re-opened days earlier; it's closed until mid-August for elk-calving! Huge deer wander onto the trail, entirely unbothered by me and we stop to check each other out until I just move on, unused to wildlife that actually hangs around. Bend is a really nice town – it’s considered to be the next Boulder; outdoorsy and vibrant.
I head west to McKenzie river via a demanding, winding road that goes over the McKenzie Pass through a vast, volcanic expanse; as far as the eye can see are black ridges in the now misty murk of dusk - it looks like Mordor! Followed by a long, slow meander down through the thick forest. Little more than an hour's drive has taken me from the edge of the desert to verdant, mossy woodland.
The McKenzie River trail; the original reason I wanted to come to Oregon, so to say I’ve built it up a bit is an understatement. I read about it in a Bike feature 4 years ago and it’s been on my mind ever since in fact I brought that issue and the dog-eared Oregon road trip feature in it with me. The day is cool with low mist and a light drizzle, not ideal perhaps, but very ‘Pacific NorthWest’ I guess.
The trail is meant to be shuttled as it’s not a loop. 27.5 miles of gradual downhill with the odd up starting just north of Clearlake heading over a mix of earth and volcanic rock for the first 12 miles or so before becoming just soil. Just perfect, loamy, grippy, scurfy soil. My motel is situated on the trail about 22 miles from the start. I don’t want to shuttle it and had planned to spin up the road to the start then ride back down which I start doing, but after 100 meters I go back as having passed the inviting trail entrance on my way to the road is too much I’ll ride up it, then back down.
Breakfast and faff have lead to a late start of 10.30ish. The trail starts as it means to go on; snaking singletrack through verdant, damp redwood forest; ferns, thick moss and GREEN! It has been raining for a day or so and the trail has puddles, but is miraculously firm underneath so I just get spattered with a little soil and a lot of pine-needles just fine.
There are many tributary crossings on narrow bridges (simply felled trees with a hand rail attached mostly). The river itself is a boiling, wide, steel-blue affair which I spot people rafting down on a few occasions. The trail undulates very satisfyingly and the fact that I’m mostly climbing is not a problem as it’s a very subtle gradient most of the time. I meet seven people in total, all on the way out, five mtbers and two walkers. All are friendly and we chat about how ace the trail is despite the rain getting heavier (and heavier). I pass several big waterfalls and the famous blue pool an unnatural looking electric blue pool a long drop from the trail. Then it gets volcanic super grippy despite the rain and very satisfying to ride on technical looking, but the big tyres and grip make it mostly doable. I eventually make the top of the trail, already feeling a bit tired and ride the taxing, volcanic trail east of the lake, before heading back.
On the return it’s the same only better as it’s faster with more downhill and I now have my eye in for how to ride this new bike and this particular trail. I insist on riding straight past the motel to get the final section in which is well worth it more bridges, more riverside trail and more fun. I eventually need to put my Joystick on to see the trail as it’s getting dark and I’m starting to fantasize about food. I arrive back, filthy, dog-tired and hungry despite taking loads of snacks and finish my water a mile from home. It’s 9pm and I’ve been out for over 10 hours! Shower, many snacks and sleep. That was a good day.
I intended to ride at Oakridge today which is apparently similar to Mckenzie River, but I’m too tired to enjoy it. I drive past a huge reservoir below the misty, endless forest and get diverted by road works down a dirt track, overtones of Deliverance are dispelled when I eventually emerge into relative civilisation. Finally I get out of the mist and all of a sudden it’s a gloriously hot day. Reading beside a lake I meet two English girls who are travelling and insist that I go to Crater Lake (where they are also heading) as it’s a must-see. They are not wrong. One of the deepest lakes in North America, it sits in an extinct volcano with an island and has views from the rim to Mt Shasta 100 miles to the south with mountain ridges and prairie all around. Astounding.
More driving to Klamath Fall near the California border beside pretty Lake Klamath. It’s all very beautiful with vast open farmland and distant mountains. I find a decadent, but sterile Holiday Inn, eat too much and crash.
Another travel day past Mt Shasta and straight South to Napa for SSWC 2008. Getting hot again and it’s up to the mid nineties by the time I arrive at the Wine Valley Lodge. People! There are lots of friends here: the motel is where many of the British contingent have congregated including fellow VCM member, Marty of the mighty TSPC. We go out for mexican food, cruising on bikes down ‘bike boulevard’ - a road where we ostensibly have priority. Pleasant wooden homes, but a bit up-tight with quite a lot of police presence. We head to a riverside bar to meet more friends then head back to the motel for beers and larks.
Oversleep, but fortunately Andy Gowan wakes me with a bang on the door for the appointed ride. Drive over to Santa Rosa with Andy, Sam, Simon and Hamish to ride the Annadale trails that Sam was shown by Jacqui Phelan. It’s beautifully hot and the trails are dusty; a mix of smooth singletrack, rocky ups and downs, mostly wooded and shady, but occasionally exposed to the sun and a whole lot of fun (despite the fear of mountain lions after seeing warning signs at the trail head – I make sure to freewheel often to make use of a buzzing hub). Bikes become coated orange and we’re all appropriately astonished and pleased to be knocking off clumps of dust from our bikes.
Back to base then off to the race course to register. It’s a two mile pedal over the river up to the base of the hills. Some friends have just pre-ridden some of the course apparently it’s fun, rocky and hot – there’s a thing. Free t-shirt, bottle and nice socks make it all good. The usual singlespeed nut-bags are clearly present and all seems set for tomorrow.
Back to the WVL for more beer, a big BBQ (faithfully tended by our resident Barbie expert, Sam - he is Australian after all). Damo reverses his car up to the pool and plays AC/DC and things get a bit raucous. Probably a bit annoying for the non-cycling motel residents...
Race Day! Race start is 10 to get at least a little racing in before it gets buggerationally hot. The usual requirement to leave the bikes scattered around a field is honoured, but no bike-brand piles are made. We have to run around a horse corral before finding bikes and making our way up a long fireroad for the first mini-lap; a shortened circuit with a big climb and a tricky descent to spread everyone out which works a treat. Talk had been of much up 'n' down, proper rocky technical riding and a generally tough day out. I went into the race a bit fearful of exposing my jey-underbelly when it came to the rocks, but all worked out just fine.
On the first proper lap I get a bit clumsy down a rocky descent and feel the rear rim bang off a rock through the tyre. Moments later it’s clear that I haven’t gotten away with it and a snakebite needs fixing. A stream of friends and strangers pass all offering help and enquiring if I’m OK - this was one of the friendliest races I can remember with uniform courtesy and most people clearly enjoying the course. I don't think I've ever seen so many spectators scattered around a course, with beer being handed up, cheer-leaders slapping arses and giving out kisses as well as all the trickier sections being lined with people offering encouragement and suggesting line options. Drenched in sweat and coated in dust I feel like a fish ready for the fryer by the end of the third proper lap. Much more fun than racing is supposed to be and so much better for it - Curtis Inglis and his cohorts have done a fantastic job – thanks guys!
Our loose gang sit around in the sun drinking free wine (apparently from the vineyard owned by the Clif of Clif Bar fame - the owners father) and soaking up the sun (or hiding in the shade) while prizes are awarded. Shaggy and Phil, among others, were rewarded handsomely for racing in 'tighty whiteys' (big, white, old-man pants) although I suspect we fellow racers were probably more deserving of a prize having had to look at them for most of the day! Derbying and burritos then it's time to head back. There's a party in town, bowling and the decider for next year's race, but I head up to Debbie, Russell and Zuzu's beautiful house in the hill's north of town for a barbie with more friends. A great day.
(photo courtesy of Steve Makin)
Today is wine-tasting day and we meet at a great deli for breakfast before 10 of us head out down the back lanes between the vineyards North of town, visiting five wineries and generally having a very mellow and thoroughly pleasant day. I hired a town bike as Jeff was packing up my bike (totally decadent, but he does a way better job than I and brought down a box specially). More barbeque and a cooling swim and it's finally almost over.
A comparatively early start is required in order to head across to San Francisco for the flight home. Jams on the Bay Bridge give time to look across at the Golden Gate bridge – for once not shrouded in mist and the skyscrapers of downtown.
We land at 7.30am and I leave straight for work to 1000 emails, typing replies with orange dust still under my nails.
So, anyone fancy going back with me next year?!