Culture

The Grind: Oregon Trail gravel stage race

Five days. 30,000 feet of vert. Catered camping. And a plan to race this year with a 250-person cap.

The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

A one-of-a-kind event, the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder stage race was supposed to start today, carrying riders point-to-point on five stages through the Cascade Mountains. But, coronavirus. Still, organizer Chad Sperry plans to proceed later this fall with a 250-person cap, per Oregon’s latest regulations. I checked in with Sperry to talk about how Oregon Trail came to be, as well as the heavy gravel hitters Alison Tetrick and Yuri Hauswald, who did the inaugural Oregon Trail last year.

Chad Sperry heads up Breakaway Promotions, which for nearly two decades put on road stage races like the Tour of Utah, the Cascade Cycling Classic, the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic and no less than 26 national championships for USA Cycling, including mountain bike and cyclocross events. Breakaway has also run operations for Rebecca’s Private Idaho for years, too. That to say, Sperry has a handle on these things. He’s not exactly new to gravel, either, with his company’s Gorge Gravel Grinder going back to 2009.

While gravel races are (or were!) seemingly ubiquitous, what sets Oregon Trail apart is that fact that it’s a point-to-point stage race. Rebecca’s is a three-day event, but with an omnium format, and all stages based out of Sun Valley, which is a cool format in its own right. Oregon Trail is more in the vein of a road stage race, or, perhaps closer, the BC Bike Race, that takes racers to a different location every day, with supported camping for housing along with way.

Oregon Trail takes riders through diverse regions and huge amount of climbing.

Oregon Trail is a timed stage race, like a road event. But, like any gravel event, you can take the racing part as seriously or as frivolously as you like. Tetrick is sold on the format.

“Multiple days on gravel and camping? Yes, please,” said Tetrick, who did her fair of stage races in her years as a pro roadie. “I personally didn’t race the event every day, and that is probably what I loved most. I think it gives the participants the ability to choose when they want to go for it, and choose when they want to take in the sights and sounds. Gravel racing shouldn’t be like a traditional stage race with time cuts and support cars. It should still be an adventure and you get to choose what adventure cocktail you want to serve up to yourself that day. On the rocks and at the front of the race? Or nice and smooth taking selfies with your new best friends in the party wagon? I mean, stop at the aid stations for the chips and bring a flask. Choose your own adventure and know that the choice is never wrong.”

The Oregon Trail covers all manner of settings, from massive mountain climbs to deserts to rainforests to alpine meadows.

“I can’t say this loudly enough or passionately enough,” Hauswald said of Sperry. “He is one of the best promoters out there. He has such a deep experience in events. I’ve done a lot of stage races all over the world. He put on a top-notch event and set a high bar, with a really epic course with layers of pioneer history laid on top of it.”

The origins of the Oregon Trail date back more than 10 years when Sperry and Brad Ross — now a business partner but then owner of Cross Crusade — were drinking beer and talking about a point-to-point cyclocross race. Fast forward to 2019, Sperry had burned out on doing road events and Ross had sold Cross Crusade, and the pair were taking racers over the Oregon Cascades on old wagon roads dating back to the mid-1800s.

Barry Wicks leads a group up, up and away.

Sperry said that while the logistics involved in a point-to-point race are substantially more complicated than a one-day event, the camaraderie that comes from traveling en masse to isolated places is worth it. “It is something so cool and unique, and something that everyone from the top pros down to the person who is just trying to finish commented on. We have a beer garden each night, a top-level caterer. It’s a cool, rolling festival for five days.”

“We had a nightly shuttle back to the start in Bend, for anyone who was sick, or injured, or who had prior commitments. We called it the shuttle of shame, and each person who got on the shuttle got a T shirt that said ‘died of dysentery’ with the Oregon Trail wagon icon,” Sperry said. “People loved it! People were asking to buy it, but we told them, ‘no, you have to ride the shuttle to get the shirt.'”

Last year 300 people did it, and this year the event was tracking towards 450, Sperry said. Now, with the new date of August 19-23 and Oregon allowing events of up to 250 people to happen this summer, Sperry expects a competitive field.

Tetrick, for her part, continues to defend the rider’s right to chill as well as race.

“Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder is a bucket list event for sure. You ford rivers, surf through sand, and crest through the snow. When you arrive back at camp, your tent is set up, food is being prepped, drinks are flowing, and all your personal gear is ready and waiting for you,” she said. “I loved the social aspect of it where we could all sit around camp and eat together and share a frosty pint with expectations of another great day tomorrow. I loved that there was a place for everyone. You can race if you want, but there is always a seat in the party bus, I mean, the party wagon, as well.”

Interested? Check out the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder web site for more info.

The Oregon Trail tackles 350 miles and 30,000 feet of elevation over five days.