RAO Report, Part I
This thing started last fall when my friend Lonnie Morse had
the hare-brained thought that it would be a good idea for OHPV to put together
one or two or even three teams of intrepid bent riders and maybe give this Race
Across Oregon thing a go. The idea was met with the genial approval of those
who have no idea what they're getting into. The original thought was to have an
"A" team of our club's strongest riders, a "B" team
composed of a bunch who just wanted to do it for fun, and a women's team, if we
could find enough interested females to ride.
Well, the women had better sense, and Lonnie, who would have otherwise been the soul of the "B" team, had no sooner planted the idea than he up and decided to flee to the other coast to do a cross-country tour. But John "Johnny Quest" Williams grabbed onto the idea and ran with it. I'd like to thank John for laying so much of the foundation for our team -- he got the ball rolling, got the riders meeting together, and started meeting with RAO veterans and officials.
I'm not sure now that I gave much thought to where our support crew would come from, or even just what a realistic support crew was for a 4 man relay team. Maybe I just imagined Cheech & Chong in a beat-up VW bus, barreling along the back roads of Oregon, nose buried in a map, and 3 exhausted riders huddled in the back. I do know that as John met with folks with RAO experience, he was quickly disabused of whatever equivalent image was in his own head. John soon realized that the crew was going to be an equal partner with us riders in our success or failure. In mid-April, John had the good sense to nominate our friend and fellow OHPV member Robert Johnson to be the team’s directeur sportif.
Under Robert's guidance, and building on the work John had done, things really took off. We had a full crew by the end of April, we had vehicles lined up, and we had course notes from previous years' teams. The individual riders had been piling up the miles all year -- thanks to an unseasonably warm snap in February and March -- but the team took the opportunity to all train together around Hagg Lake on a warm spring evening, practice which included transitions between riders and pace vehicle driving.
I missed this team-building exercise, though, as I was off on an important mission. I realized several months earlier that a self-contained tour of the course would be a really good idea. Not only would I get first-hand experience of the course that I could report back to my teammates (and Robert especially), it would be excellent training, and a whole heck of a lot of fun, to boot. So with a couple weeks to go before the race, my girlfriend and I loaded up our Tour Easies and took a week to ride the back roads of Eastern Oregon that the race would cover. I'm really glad we did, as it was a fantastic opportunity to get a sense of the character of the places and the scenery that just isn't possible at race pace. And the ride did provide excellent training, even though I would be riding the bulk of the race on a different bike.
My reconnaissance let our team formulate a strategy that wed the riders perfectly to the terrain. When I heard the upright teams talking about strategy, most of what I heard was about how they would do pulls of this length in certain situations, and maybe shorter pulls going uphill, etc. We had far more tools in our chest. Our four riders were able to choose from a socked Gold Rush and TourEasy, a T-Bone, a VK2 lowracer, a Challenge Seiran SL, a Bacchetta Corsa, a home-built carbon Highracer, a Hase Kettweisel, and a Quest velomobile. Because we had first-hand knowledge of the course, we could perfectly match a bike and rider to fit the situation.
RAO Report, Part II
The gun went off, and things got started. We selected Keith to be our man off the line, because we figured we could count on him not to blow himself up early in the race. I know I would very likely have tried to ride out the butterflies in my stomach by needlessly chasing the roadies. Keith did a bang up job for us, but lost some time when his pedal came off; it hadn't been tightened properly. John took over for him, and made a game-time decision to use the Quest on a segment that was a steeper climb than it looked, which lost a little more time. We were pretty far back in the standings when we passed through Sandy. But then Rand Milam took over, and gave us a really strong pull on a section with an exciting downhill followed by a 2-3% climb, passing the 4 rearmost teams, and we were in it again. The good ship RAO Speedwagon had righted itself.
I took the baton from Rand at ZigZag ranger station, just a mile or so before the beginning of the steep (6+%) climb up to the first of three Mount Hood passes at Government Camp. I felt good, and immediately settled into my climbing rhythm. The rider for the 5th place team had passed by a minute or two before I took over for Rand, and I spent the next 4 miles slowly reeling him in. His team subbed him out, but I caught his replacement a half mile or so later. He had been a good carrot to chase, but I didn't overdo it, and felt plenty fresh when Keith came in for me again at the Mirror Lake turnoff.
Keith and then Rand each had a pull that went down from a pass and up to the next pass. Both did strong work, and continued to build our momentum. Keith climbed Barlow, where Rand took over and climbed Bennett. Then Rand got the descent on highway 35, which my van experienced in the form of awed descriptions over the radio. There was a nervous moment where we overshot FR 44, but I walked my bike down to the junction in time to relieve Rand.
Robert assigned me FR 44 and it was easily the section that I was most looking forward to. It naturally splits into two sections, an uphill to an unnamed summit and a long descent into Dufur. There's a perfect exchange point at the top, and when I did my tour I thought the descent would be a great place to debut the Quest, because it's never terribly steep, there are a couple rollers in the middle to modulate speed, and all of the turns are entirely manageable. But John just looked at the elevation profile and calculated that he'd be doing 80 mph by the bottom, so he begged off.
So, in an unusual piece of strategy, I was my own relief. When I got to the summit after a bracing 7 mile climb, I jumped off my Seiran, ducked under the body sock of my Tour Easy, and jetted off down the hill. Now, when Robert was assigning legs, I asked for the tough climbs. I wanted them, in part because I knew that I was the best candidate to do them, and by my doing them, we had the best chance to win. By that reasoning, I probably wasn't the best person to ride the drop on FR 44 because I'm not the most fearless or skilled descender, most of the time. But I was glad to get it anyway -- I knew this drop was fun. It was my indulgence, my dessert.
And it what an epic descent it was! All the qualities that made it so suitable for the Quest made it an absolute joy for me on the TE. 17 miles of rippin' downhill, followed by 4 more of flat/slight downhill into town. Right at the beginning of the flat section, I heard a pop and hiss that I would have sworn indicated a flat tire, but the bike still handled fine and I wasn’t riding the rim, so I continued. I started to worry when I reached mile 19 and I still hadn't been overtaken by the vehicle carrying the next rider. Finally, Jim's van went by, just a mile or so from the exchange point. I pulled up, Keith tore off south on 197, and I got in the van.
Keith did an awesome job on his 197 leg. The landscape in that area is huge; you can see where you're going forever, and it's always a long way off. Keith had many unkind words to say about those hills. Rand took over for him near the top and saw the north side of 50 descending into Tygh Valley. It was around this time that I learned that my front tire had flatted, but it hadn’t yet gotten below 30 psi, which is plenty to hold up the light front end of a Tour Easy. They fixed it, but I was scheduled to ride the Seiran for the rest of the race anyway.
I took over for Rand with the news that he had just put us into 4th place, so I wanted to make that stick. I had a devil of a time getting started, though, until I realized I still had my cleat covers on. Then I stomped on up out of Tygh Valley, had a satisfying pull across the plateau at the top, and negotiated the twisty descent into Maupin.
RAO Report, Part III
In the ghost town of Shaniko, John Williams took over again, this time to do a gentle climb followed by a twisty drop to the erstwhile Rajneesh Puram, the town of Antelope, Oregon. John then got me a couple more miles up the base of the next climb, and as he pulled up, in I went.
At this point we were starting to catch up to the solo riders and two man teams, so once again we were sharing the road with other bikes and their support vehicles. The climb out of Antelope switches up a hillside, in and around hollows, and snakes up a creek valley to the pass at the top. So I could see other riders and their crews from a ways off. Racers and their support were virtually the only people on the road, so, if you could imagine rows of hooligans on either side of the road, it wasn’t hard to pretend that this was the Tour, or the Giro, or the Vuelta.
When I reached the summit, Rand took over and began the 10 miles downhill to the John Day River. The crew loaded me and my bike up, and though we were by no means dallying, we didn’t catch Rand until 11 miles later, as he climbed up the bump on the other side of the water. John subbed in for Rand not much further down the road, and found himself mixing it up with one or two riders from other 4 man teams. John did heroic work, but his pull went on for maybe a mile longer than he was anticipating, and he was pretty cooked by the time I subbed in for him, about 200 yards behind the 4th place team.
Just before I did, a race official pulled up and told me that since we were in such close contention with the other team, there would be a preme for the winner of the climb. I knew that climb, and it was one that was on my mind, knowing that it was coming up – I figured it was around 5 miles at an average of 9% grade or so. It’d be tough to catch him, but I’d give it a go.
Well, I got down to work. And around two corners, I found that I was slowly reeling him in. I figured that if I could keep closing at this rate, I’d edge him by the top of the climb. Then I pulled around a third corner, and saw that they had just subbed him out. His replacement managed to put a little daylight between us. I was able to keep the gap pretty constant, but he pulled away just at the top of the climb.
Next came the descent into Fossil, a Rowena-esque tangle of switchbacks and hairpins. We gave it to Keith to do on his Kettweisel, and he had a blast. I still smile at the story of him pointing to the posted 15 mph turn, shrugging, and nailing it at 41. The Kett’s no good at anything other than descending, though, so we put Rand in at Fossil. He pulled us to Butte Creek Pass, and then it was finally time to see what John could give us in the Quest.
The van containing Keith and I had pulled ahead to see if we could find some gas, and because I needed to get staged to relieve John. As we drove down the 11 mile long descent from Butte Creek Pass to Service Creek, I got a little nervous, and started to second guess my judgement. I said that this would be a good drop for the Quest, as it had relatively shallow turns, and was a fairly reasonable grade for much of its length. But as we went down it, I noticed that the steeper section at the top was steeper and longer than I had remembered it, that there were a couple kind of dicey turns, and I started to get a little worried. We were also in the thick of the soloist and 2 person teams, which added another obstacle that John would have to deal with.
I calmed my mind and reminded myself that things look different on a bike, and that John was a skilled pilot of his vehicle. We pulled over at the store at the bottom of the hill to stretch our legs and wait for the streamliner to come by. We also socialized with the crews from a couple of the two-man teams. It was good to have a peaceful moment of downtime – the scenery there in the John Day gorge was beautiful in the early summer dusk. Then the radio crackled to life, and we got word that Mr. Williams was in the process of Seriously Breaking The Speed Limit, and heading our way in a hurry. We all got up and told the curious bystanders who were outside the store to look to the road; they would not want to miss this. Fifteen seconds later or so, the Quest shot around the corner, coming off the hill like a bullet from the barrel of a gun. We later heard that had achieved speeds in the high sixties, and that at the beginning of the hill he had wondered if I thought he was a marked man, suggesting he do this in a streamliner.
John tore along the river for another 12 miles or so, to Spray, where I jumped in at the base of a short hill. I did a rare, mostly level pull in the thickening twilight. I wound the pedals up and the Seiran just loped along like a gazelle – it was good to put my big ring to a little use. Then Keith tagged in for me in total darkness 12 miles later at Kimberly, for a level/rolling pull of his own. That gave me 40 minutes or so to prepare me for the leg that I was dreading the most: the Monument-Long Creek climb.
On my reconnaissance ride, we took one full day to get from Service Creek to Long Creek. The better part of that day was spent negotiating this hill. This is the kind of hill that mountain goats break out ropes and carabiners for. It’s not the steepest climb on the RAO route, but it’s close, and it winds around, switchbacking up the hillside, following the backs of ridges, and just generally continuing for a lot longer than it has any business going on for. On doing it the first time, I wondered aloud what lunatic thought to build a road here? It’s the kind of road where you turn around from time to time, and realize that that tiny point on the road, waaaay down there is where you were halfway up the hill. And all of the height you’ve gained since then doesn’t even represent one quarter of the climb. And it took you an hour to get here from there.
Well, the good news was, there wouldn’t be any turning around and realizing how little distance I’d covered, because this time I was doing it at night. There was nothing to it but to do it, and good things happen when you keep pedaling.
I did my bit, pulling my team up the first 7 miles in the claustrophobic little world that the pace van’s lights illuminated. I pulled over and in went Keith, to finish off the climb and deal with the rollers at the top. Then I staged again on the high plain, entranced by what stars could be seen through the holes in the clouds, and when Keith barreled up, I finished off our tag-team pull from Spray to Long Creek.
Long Creek was a time station, and as Rand streaked up towards the 5000’ summit above Long Creek, we called in with our time. The team rejoiced to find out that we were in 4th place, and what’s more, we were only an hour or so off the pace of the first place team. The elevation profile of the first half of the race looked like a saw blade – we only had half of the race left to catch them, but we had already absorbed the worst the course had to offer, and survived. And we had two long streamliner runs coming up that we had been saving John for. As for me, it was midnight, and I wouldn’t be needed again for another hundred miles or so. I retired to the back of Bill’s pickup to try to get a little sleep over the noise of his turbo-charged diesel engine.
RAO Report, Part IV
Rand got us up to the summit, and Keith got us over the rollers and up to the next one, and it was time for John to get to work. When his streamliner disappeared over the edge of the hill into the thick gloom, I didn’t see him again for another hour and a half.
I tried without success to sleep in the back of that truck, over the roar of the engine. I poked my head up a couple times to see half-recognized landmarks through the darkness, but didn’t really stir again until a couple hours later, when I rousted myself and saw, to my alarm, rock walls all around us.
You see, this 50 mile leg of John’s consisted of a gentle 18 mile downhill followed by 30 flat miles down the John Day River valley. At the end of those 30 miles, though, the John Day River suddenly goes nuts, makes a right turn, and flows right smack up to the ridge that has marked the valley’s northern boundary for all that time. Strangely enough, there is a little notch in the hills right there for it to flow into, called the Picture Canyon. The road follows the river into the canyon. And while there’s a nice, wide turnout on the floodplain just outside the canyon mouth, it’s a very tight fit inside the notch.
So when I rose I realized to my horror that Bill had driven too far, and that there was no way we could retrieve John and deploy the next rider in there. But being in the back of the pickup, there was nothing I could do. Fortunately, Bill soon realized his error, and somehow found a wide enough place on that 2-lane highway to do a 16 point turn with his extended cab truck plus trailer. Turned around, we high-tailed it back, searching frantically for somewhere to stage.
As it turned out, there was a highway junction about a half mile into canyon, with a big piece of shoulder on the north side of that three-way intersection which was just big enough for the truck and trailer to come to rest on. We lowered the trailer’s rear door, got Rand on his bike, and waited.
We didn’t have long to wait. Feeling cocky from having pulled our dinner out of the fire, as John came around the corner out of the night, Bill waved him right up the ramp and into the trailer. Rand’s bike sprang to life and he began his monster, middle-of-the-night 25 mile pull up to Keyes Creek Pass.
John had done those 50 miles at 32 mph, and brought us from an hour out of first to 5 minutes out of first. Now it was up to Rand to keep the pressure on. This would be a tough, long pull for him, though, and midway into it, it started to drizzle. But Rand acquitted himself heroically, and at Keyes Creek Summit, we deployed Keith on the Kettweisel again, to handle the descent into Mitchell. I was to take over at the bottom, and Keith warned me that the Kett absolutely positively did not do hills, and that we were under no circumstances to stage beyond any kind of upward grade at all.
The Oregon slalom:
We heard radio reports of high speeds, and of Keith slaloming all over the road. We even heard that he lost his chain at one point. But apparently he never outstripped his guardian angel, because he got to the bottom in one piece, and I was ready for him.
At that point it was around 3:30 AM, literally the darkest hour before the dawn. It was raining. And it was my job to do this 12 mile climb from Mitchell to the top of Ochoco pass. I was still strong, but I was not climbing with the zest and verve that I had been even as recently as Monument. This was a tough climb in tough conditions, and I just ground it out. Midway up, I was passed by an upright team, and I didn’t have anything to give to hold them off. I just kept the cranks turning at a steady pace as they slowly, slowly pulled away from me. I could see they were taking extremely short pulls, maybe a half mile per rider. Even so, they stayed in sight for a good long time.
As I approached the summit, the sky gradually lightened. Robert in the pace car pulled alongside and offered to let me rest a few minutes. I refused, knowing that it wouldn’t really do anything to change the lead in my legs or the cloud in my head. I just had to keep pedaling, and eventually I would be done.
I did, and it was. I achieved the peaceful, pine covered Ochoco Pass summit to find the whole team there, and John got rolling to start his second long pull in the Quest. The only thing on my mind was how cooked I was. I had done all but one of the legs that Robert had pre-scheduled me to do, but that didn’t include the final 35 miles up the mountain, which we would assign based on who could give what. I just babbled about how I didn’t think I had anything left to give for the final ascent and how I had not been able to sleep and didn’t think I would find a way to. It was like I had physically made it up Ochoco, but left my spirit down in the valley. My friend Bruce took me by the shoulders and told me that I had done a great job, that I could rest now, and that if I just leaned back and shut my eyes, that sleep would come.
He turned out to be right. We loaded up Jim’s van and got ready to push onward, but found that it wouldn’t start. We turned off the various gadgets that were draining the electrical system, and tried again to no avail. Tom mentioned that with lead acid batteries, if you just let them sit for a little while, they’ll build up a charge. So we made certain that every last possible electrical drain was disengaged, and sat in the quiet for a few minutes. It seemed a strange way to race, sitting there, listening to the rain on the roof, surrounded by all this natural beauty in the dawn light. Finally, Jim turned the key and the engine, much to our relief, came to life. We pressed on to rejoin the others, and as we did, I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes, and dozed off to sleep.
RAO Report, Part V
Between the half-hour of sleep and that news, I felt like a new man. I was ready to go again. Keith and I each did a short pull in the middle of John’s run to get him over a couple of nasty little bumps that would not have been fun to crank that streamliner up, and our team roared into Madras. Keith did the climb out of Madras followed by the insane descent into Warm Springs. You’re riding along through table-top flat farmland, mountains in the distance, when the road falls away… and all of a sudden you find yourself in the low fifties screaming down a road that winds down the canyon wall above the Deschutes River.
I took over for Keith in Warm Springs, and did a short, satisfying pull up through the village to the base of the next hill. Keith came in for me, but the hill proved to be a little too much for him; he started seeing things, so we put Rand in for him. Rand did the rest of the climb and handled the switchbacks down to Kah-Nee-Ta, where I came in again. The scenery on the Warm Springs reservation was otherworldly. My leg started at the bottom of a canyon with walls of terra cotta hues, and wound its way up a hillside at the other end. It was at that point that our team finally started getting coverage from the videographer who was documenting the race, and I must admit that my vanity gave me a little something extra on that hill.
After a couple switchbacks, a rested and renewed Keith relieved me, finishing off the last couple miles of the hill. When I pulled off, there was also a race official there, who asked if I had done Ochoco for our team. I replied that I had. She said that by hanging on so long I had scared the crap out of the team that had passed me in the night. “We just could not drop that guy!” they had exclaimed to her. So she awarded me a beef stick, which they give for extra competitive racing.
In the meanwhile, Keith achieved the top of the climb out of Kah-Nee-Ta, and was rewarded by a face full of wind. So Rand came in again, and hauled off across the plateau at the top. The road does a hard right after a few miles, so the facewind that Keith got became a tailwind in short order, and Rand roared across the desert landscape, through the town of Simnasho, and up a short hill. There I tagged in on a section of road that winds through a field of lupines and balsamroot. I got my own taste of the tailwind, and spun out my top gear of 53/12 in short order (on level ground, no less!) I actually had a pretty decent length pull, but the miles just flew by. My leg ended with a half mile climb (that I flew up; tailwinds have a way of making you feel like superman) followed by a twisty drop. We staged the Quest there, in the middle of a downhill, so that I could handle the fast and twisty section at the top, and John could still get some benefit from the grade at the bottom. We wanted to get the streamliner in, just one more time, for that final dagger thrust.
It turned out to be a good move. We passed a couple of the faster two man teams on this stretch, and they were really struggling. When the road turned to the west, the wind was in our face once again, and the Quest had a huge advantage over the uprights.
Excluding the snafu with Keith back in Warm Springs, we had been clicking for quite some time, but starting with the transition at Pine Grove, we were really firing on all cylinders. John finished his Quest run by swooping up the ramp into the trailer. Keith gave us three solid miles of climbing out of Pine Grove. Rand finished the first climb on 216, and got some sweeping downhills. I did the last climb on 216, followed by a few miles on highway 26, where I caught the last rider (on a two-man team) in front of us. John tagged in and did a substantial part of the climb up to Blue Box pass on the carbon highracer. Keith subbed for John, finished the pass, and took us down to the final check point, 10 miles from the finish line.
I was amazed by our team’s performance in this stretch. From the tour, I remembered this climb up the side of the mountain as being a fairly long slog. But with each of us doing short, intense pulls, we covered a lot of ground in a hurry. Keith protested that he could have easily handled a longer leg, but Robert put in Rand for the stretch of highway from the highway 35 junction back up to Government Camp.
The weather was getting pretty messy, but Rand made the most of it, and powered up past a gathering spectators and crews to the turn-off for Timberline. The shoulders were pretty crowded in this stretch, and we had some difficulty finding a place to pull of and get my bike set up. We improvised, but I wasn’t quite ready to take over when Rand pulled up. We didn’t lose much time before I got on the bike, though.
Good God, the road up to Timberline Lodge was steep. My Seiran SL sports a 53/39/26 triple with a 12-27 cassette. I had done the race up to this point using just the 53 and 39 tooth chainrings. I was moderately tempted to get into the 26 for the first time, but decided against it. I figured I’d do the first two miles of Timberline road, and then my teammates would each do a mile or so and we’d be done. I was gutting my way up the slope in my 39 x 27, and Robert pulled up alongside me. He asked if – hypothetically – if Rand and John were cooked, how did I feel about finishing off the race with just me and Keith? I let fly with a string of obscenities, which Robert took as a “no, thanks.”
Not much further up the road, though, the grade went from “holy *&%#”, this is *#&$# steep!” to just being “man, this is a pretty stiff climb.” My legs warmed up and I started to feel better. And I realized that this race had sucked me in – I had started out just wanting to finish and have fun, and when it looked like we might get the lead, I wasn’t sure I wanted the expectations that would go with it. But now that we were right there, and first place was ours for the taking, I would be damned before I let us lose in the final stretch.
So when they staged Keith after I had done 2 miles, I waved him off, and said that I was going to do another mile. I did that, and then Rand came in for a mile. While he was on the road, I radioed Robert and told him that I could finish this sucker off if he needed me to. Keith came in for Rand, and gave us just under a mile, and then I came back in to finish it off.
As we climbed the road, the weather changed from messy to snowy, and everything took on a frosted appearance. As Rand put it, the white-tinged trees gave the impression of having been transported into some lost samurai epic. The road got steep again, and I could see where it switched back above me. I didn’t care; the end was in sight, and we were going to win this thing. Just before the finish line, Keith and Rand joined me so that we could all go across together (John was too spent to get onto the bike again). As the three of us climbed up the last stretch before Timberline’s parking lot, my girlfriend Carolyn came running up to meet us. “You’re almost there. Just around the corner!” she exhorted us. I didn’t see anything. I was expecting an actual gate, maybe, with a banner above it. It was just a collection of race officials, though, holding a yellow tape. Oh well. It didn’t matter what the finish line looked like. All that mattered was that we crossed it, and that we crossed it first.