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The Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, more affectionately known as gravel summer camp for adults, took place last week over five days and four nights. The racing was aggressive, but the lifestyle and scenery was what we all came for.
I’ve made it very public that the rise of gravel stage races are what I am most excited for this season. Even though there are more prestigious races on the calendar, I cannot deny that this format probably fits me the best, given I made my career out of road stage racing at the highest level.
Rather than a nightly hotel in the team bubble as I was used to in the WorldTour, at this race we journey from campsite to campsite and come together each afternoon to celebrate the day’s accomplishments.
The logistical effort of this event is gargantuan. Not only does Chad and his team have to find a race-worthy route within the right difficulty and distance between sites, they have to create an entire tent city within the space of four hours every day, complete with food, an open bar, bike wash stations, and showers.
The men’s race
Stage 1, on paper, was supposed to favor the mountain bikers. Riders were thrown into the deep end immediately with a climb and descent that was somehow sandy yet chunky. The trick was to find the biggest tires you could muster and to protect the bike.
I was nervous, knowing that I was on the back foot compared to the likes of Geoff Kabush and Carl Decker and I expected to limit my losses and fight back over the week. However, when American young gun Eddie Anderson, a gravel specialist for WorldTour team Alpecin-Fenix, made an early move with obviously the same thought as I to get a head start for the technical terrain to come, I was able to follow and then dispatch him mostly thanks to my wider tire selection.
The MTB specialists found themselves at a disadvantage and it seems they all had to push the pace to make up ground, suffering mechanicals and punctures galore. This allowed me to take the stage win and a healthy 8-minute buffer. I knew I needed to stay vigilant through the remaining four days. In gravel, any number of things can go wrong and an 8-minute lead can be wiped away by a single rock-strike.
Stages 2 and 3 covered harder-packed terrain and almost played out like road races. I was able to take another 30 seconds out of Eddie on stage 2 but then hemorrhaged an embarrassing two minutes to Geoff and Eddie on the daredevil descent finish of stage 3.
Stage 4 and 5 took place over the weekend, as Oregon became one of the hottest places on the continent. The organizer procured more ice and cold drinks than should legally be possible and we all agreed to start at 6 a.m. for the age group racers and 7:30 a.m. for the pros instead of the pre-planned 9 a.m. mass depart.
This had the unintended effect of creating a much more enjoyable experience because pros and age group racers alike were able to cheer and encourage the new friends we’d made over the previous three days. It also kept the aid stations more manageable as there wasn’t as much time between the first and last rider.
Stage 4, being the queen stage, was critical. The 93 miles and 10,000ft of vert in the heat made it extremely taxing. Somehow it still came down to the final five miles. While Eddie and I were comfortably sitting in second and first, respectively, a tight battle was waging for the final podium step between Geoff Kabush and Colombian ex-pat Coulton Hartrich, as well as the always prestigious stage honors.
Coulton made a break for home and while we chased, Geoff mildly overshot a corner just as Eddie was finishing a pull. I saw the moment and sprinted with everything across to Coulton. We formed a quick allegiance and poured on the gas with Coulton taking the stage and me putting a metaphorical bandaid on the downhill scarring of 24 hours earlier.
Stage 5 was the uphill finish and again the heat proved to be more demanding than expected. An uphill finish is always exciting for me and I wanted to put my stamp on the race. I took the win, meanwhile Eddie clawed back from a sandy mishap to save second GC and Geoff fended off multiple attacks from Coulton for third overall.
The women’s race
Most of my Groad Trips center on my inside view of the action from the men’s race. Unfortunately I don’t often see the women’s race unfold. Another boon of the multi-day format was being able to see the women duke it out and hear their stories of glory, or demise, each night at camp.
The women’s race was arguably much more exciting than the men’s, as the jersey came down to the final day of racing. Serena Bishop Gordon, a Bend local and MTB specialist, took a commanding lead on technical stage 1 with CX elite Rebecca Fahringer second and Sarah Sturm third. However the tables turned on stage 2 as Sarah nearly reversed the deficit and came within 10 seconds of Serena! Sarah again took stage 3 and finally nabbed the jersey, despite a ripping descent by Serena to almost catch her by the bottom.
Stage 4 saw Flavia Oliveria take the hardest day while Sarah finally wrestled five minutes from Serena and Rebecca. I was camped near both Sarah and Serena the final evening and both were nervous for the mountain top finish of stage 5. Serena was able to take another stage in her backyard but it came down to a stage of seconds rather than minutes; Sarah stayed stubborn and clinched the GC. A proper battle indeed!
Every day, upon arriving at camp, riders would go about their business pitching their tent, bathing in the river or the provided showers, relaxing in the shade by the complimentary “snack shack,” and generally lounging about socializing over an ice cold beverage or preparing their bike for the following day.
Dinner was highlighted by stage awards each night, and breakfast by unlimited coffee from Autobahn. Indeed one was never left wanting for anything. Wifi hotspots existed for those that needed to plug in, a mass device charging station was available for one’s phone or GPS device, and a local shop provided mechanical service for those in dire need of a real fix.
Gravel is known for its communal coming together. It’s the power of that shared experience that makes all these events so special. At most events it’s quicker conversations between starting, finishing, and awards ceremonies. At the OTGG however, being in the woods for four days together really allowed me to meet, and then re-meet multiple folks from all corners of the gravel community. I got to have real conversations, deep conversations, and make new friends on a more meaningful level.
I survived the Oregon Trail, and I did not die of dysentery. In fact, I amassed a training load that I haven’t experienced since my last stage race back in 2019. Now, it’s time to relax over the 4th of July before building back up for BWR in 3 weeks!