Manic butterflies in my stomach gurgle and churn my morning coffee and steel oats into, well, I don’t want to even imagine what as I remind myself what I have told my daughters countless times.
When you’re about to experience something really special, your body creates that buzz of excitement inside just to let you know what’s coming, kinda like the previews before a movie or a warmup band.
I try to keep my breakfast down realizing many, many years had passed since I last saddled up for an organized ride that you actually pony up cash to participate in, but I found the mere name of the Oregon Coast Gravel Epic too inviting to pass up.
To be honest, my entry fee was waived because I would write a story about it for a magazine, but again, if there was ever an event that would have me digging into my own pocket, this was it.
I spend most of my cycling hours on Oregon logging roads, climbing deep into the Coastal Mountains, just a stone’s throw from my home. So to get a peek at what other roads I might explore nearer to the coast on the other side of the range? Baby, I was in.
My plan wasn’t to attack this as I would a typical story, donning my reporter persona. That entails wandering around with notebook open, introducing myself to anyone who might look the wee-bit interesting and striking up conversations at every opportunity.
I wanted to just experience it like everyone else, like a typical bike rider.
The small coastal town of Waldport lies on the south end of Alsea Bay — coming from the north you cross a beautiful bridge and slip into the quaint downtown of this city of about 2,200.
With sun poking through the morning haze, quickly I remembered that I’m an extreme introvert when I don’t have my notebook open. Instead of being one with the crowd I felt more like one of one, something I’m very familiar with.
Some 200 faces with sparkling eyes of anticipation hidden behind stylish sunglasses were scattered around the Waldport Community Center straddling bikes of every style imaginable, which is one of the lures of Gravel Grinding.
Despite the industry’s marketing efforts, there doesn’t seem to be a single true definition of what works best at riding primarily on gravel or jumping back-and-forth between that and pavement, so it appears as though everyone is checking out each other’s ride with painstaking focus on the details.
Some ride pure road bikes slightly modified with wider tires and higher gearing.
Some ride mountain bikes with narrower tires.
Some ride straight up road or mountain bikes.
Of course some ride gravel bikes, built specifically for this kind of ride — and those also run the gamut.
I’m surrounded mostly by high quality bikes in the $2,000-and-up price range displaying the latest technology available, which only piles on my self-consciousness since I’ve never dished out $2K for a bike.
I roll around on a ‘96 Cannondale US Olympic mountain bike with 2-inch slicks I bought for $150 on craigslist — it’s bright red-white-and-blue paint scheme draws plenty of attention. After a few minutes of raised eyebrows, whispers and some light-hearted chuckles as I glide past, I decide to embrace my weirdness. Unless there’s a unicyclist here, I’ll steal the show.
Again, this is typical fare for me.
Aside from committing to an organized ride, another first-in-forever was actually training for a ride. Since I don’t track my miles, I really have no idea if I can actually finish the 38-mile shorter route.
I hammered the hills on my regular rides as much as I could and tried to extend my time on the bike from 3 to 4 hours to 5 and 6. Frankly, I’m clueless how long it might take.
Whatever dreams I had of shocking myself and anyone paying attention to me with an amazing time evaporate like coastal fog as I stand at the front of the starting gate taking video of the 200-plus cyclists as they breeze past me and begin ascending the hill out of town.
I stow away my camera, and pedal off alone. With everyone packing the right lane on the immediate climb, it’s a quick wake-up call. Some who started over-confidently near the front slowly fade to the back as everyone sorts themselves out.
Eventually I find myself surrounded by others who are going my speed, my pace. That’s when the small talk kicks in. I point out the huge old growth trunk just a few feet into the forest to a couple on a tandem as they slowly fade backward. We talk about forests and trees for a bit, then they are gone.
On the first long climb, I settle in alongside Amber. We seem to be climbing at the same speed, enjoying our mountain bike gearing that allows us to spin more while some with road gearing grind their way slowly to the top. I can almost feel the ache of their knees.
After 10 minutes or so of climbing, Amber confides that she’s actually enjoying the pain and suffering. Last year she had to walk her bike up this climb.
I cheer her on. These are the stories that unfold behind the shades, moments of personal victories and growth. I envy her, hoping I’ll have something to buoy my spirits sometime today.
Caught up in the energy, I pull to the side for more photos and video. Later I spend enough time at the rest stop that my sweat cools while listening to debates about what to eat and what to drink as I shoot more pics.
I’m in no hurry. I roll off alone, chit-chat with some others I catch up to, then as the minutes roll on and on I find more than a few miles of solitude. Again, so familiar.
An hour later I’m climbing the final ascent, and signs remind us this is called “Mt. Hubris.”
I never catch his name, but learn that the guy I’m climbing with, who’s on his carbon fiber road bike that weighs about as much as my backpack, was into cycling big time in his 30s and 40s. He took cycling back up in his 70s. I never hear if that was last year, 5 years, or 10 years ago. No matter, his story is inspiring because in any of those cases he has a number of years on me and is really kicking my ass until he decides to pull over for a drink.
I ride up to a young man walking his bike up the hill. He hears the crunch of gravel beneath my tires and turns to plead jokingly, “Don’t judge me …”
I simply respond that we’ve all been there, wishing we had just a little more fitness and stamina, fearful of judgement. I chuckle because, yeah, I was there few hours ago at the starting line.
Just when I’m feeling good about myself, guessing the end is near and I’ll likely survive without SAG retrieval, I hear a shout and my name called out.
In a flash, Rob English zips past me in a blur. Yep, custom bike builder Rob English. He’s one of the top racers in Oregon. I worked with Rob at Bike Friday. He’s obviously on his way to winning the 60-mile event.
I laugh to myself, my imagination again in control of the math. Hmmm, so Rob could give me a 35-mile head start in a 60-mile race and still kill me … Wow!
The top eight or so racers in the 60-mile zoom past as the humbling climb continues. I eventually get my time recorded, and descend to a final four-mile ride along the coast on Highway 101, enjoying the sound of the surf and the scent of sea air.
I think of the brilliance of having the time recorded deep in the woods to allow for everyone to savor this cool-down with the beauty of the Oregon Coast calming any frayed nerves.
It’s been a long day, but a good one.
I’ve shared the ride with others. I exceeded what limited expectations I had for myself: I finished. I know my time but have no clue of any context — until, of course, I learn it’s posted on the internet for eternity. I get no asterisk to explain I didn’t just ride I was working.
But hey, when I peruse the results I see I coulda won the 75-plus age group! Just gotta keep this fitness for the next 15-20 years!
If you’re interested, this year’s Oregon Coast Epic will be May 6.
Time to ride.
Sounds like a great time!!!!
Mike Ripley puts on some sweet events