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The Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder is a five-day stage race in the Cascade Mountains near Bend, Oregon. Each day a pro will be reporting to VeloNews from within the event.
The full Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder experience has infected the minds of campers: we’re now three days in and wrapping up our second night at the best campsite of the week, a beautiful city park in the MTB mecca of Oak Ridge, Oregon.
The preceding short stages have given ample time for socializing and fostering a collective camp feeling. As I’ve hoped, this event truly is the reset I have needed. We regroup at stage finishes, high five, trash talk, and spin to camp. The racing has been intense, but it stops at the timing mat and minds quickly turn to the snack-shack, the bb-gun, the cornhole boards, and the river dips.
- Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder stage 1: Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Christopher Blevins set the stage
- Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder stage 2: The mountain bikers are winning
As for the racing, stage 3 brought a twist: billed as the easiest day before the big weekend, in truth it was short but vicious. It was run as a timed segment, much like my own Paydirt event.
The day consisted of a 20-mile neutral roll to Aid 1. There, we regrouped and raced. First, we had a timed seven mile uphill climb. We started in mass and raced to the top as the road got narrower and narrower, morphing from dirt road to double track to overgrown and even single track.
Upon crossing the line, Schwalbe had a taco bar on top of the pass, luring riders with the smell of sizzling al pastor and chicken tacos.
After regrouping we had a timed 10-mile descent on a generally buttery descent but with some loose switchbacks and hidden potholes; we had to switch on our wits.
The men’s race
I will preface this with the fact that cell service is nearly nonexistent here at camp. While it’s providing a refreshing off-grid summer camp vibe, no one knows the time gaps until the timing company pulls out the LCD display. So I write the below without knowing the exact time gaps.
Generally, it’s been a tight battle between Chris Blevins, Howard Grotts, and me. Today, Chris and I were on the receiving end of witnessing a resurgent Howard, one of the most talented climbers ever, find his legs again. He went early on the climb, and while Chris and I looked at each other, he simply disappeared never to be seen again until the top. I tried to put Chris in difficulty multiple times, but instead of gapping him he was able to counter me! We’re truly neck and neck and can’t seem to fully separate ourselves. He started to fade, and by the top I nearly latched onto his wheel, maybe three seconds behind.
On the descent, Chris really made his gains. Being one of the best bike handlers in the world, he put a minute-plus into me. Something I’m not too surprised at and was expecting, and still I feel I had a good downhill for myself. Russell Finsterwald also ripped the downhill, as did Howard and Eddie Anderson. It will be interesting to see the cumulative times for the day from both efforts and study the playing field for this weekend and tomorrow’s Queen Stage.
The women’s race
Sofia Gomez Villafañe continues her dominance. She is out-descending and out-strategizing her competition, with only Oregon-local Sarah Max able to push her on the climbs.
Today’s climb was a bit of an unknown for the ladies, as some of them elected to focus inwardly and treat it like a time trial by starting before or after the main group while others preferred the mass start and external motivation it provides. While Sofia and Sarah have a solid buffer in first and second, the most interesting battle shaping up seems to be for the final podium spot: every day it’s been a game of seconds for the women coming in from third to about sixth position.
I find myself in an extremely dynamic race, sandwiched between two mountain bike legends who also happen to be great friends; Chris and Howard both share the same sponsor and hail from the same hometown.
Currently I’m neck and neck with Chris Blevins. I’ve tried to find a weakness in his armor but have yet to succeed; he’s proven a worthy adversary on the climbs, descents, and tactically. I mean he’s a MTB world champ, so I’m not surprised! I’ve prodded him where I can and in fact have only succeeded in losing some time as he’s quite tactically astute, letting me spend bullets to break him but ultimately using his punch to hit me last.
Howard, as I mentioned, is really finding his legs and I have to ashamedly admit, is the best climber here despite losing time on stage 1. Thus, after today’s descent I find myself solidly in second behind an unbreakable Blevins and nervously ahead of Grotts.
Alas, all these days have been short and we have a very big enduranced-based weekend ahead of us. In gravel, minutes aren’t as safe as on the road, and one bad climb, descent, or mechanical can flip the race.
It’s going to be quite the weekend indeed … but not too cutthroat that we can’t stop and make room for mountaintop taco breaks 🌮.
Pete Stetina is a retired WorldTour pro turned gravel privateer. He recently won BWR Asheville and sits in ninth in the Life Time Grand Prix. He is a frequent contributor to VeloNews.com and lives in Santa Rosa, CA.