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A gravel riding goldmine in eastern Oregon

Posted by on August 12th, 2013 at 11:54 pm

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-23

There’s been a major discovery among the vast golden wheat fields surrounding Hardman, Ione, Heppner, and other cities here in eastern Oregon: gravel roads. Typically considered second class citizens to their paved counterpart, gravel roads are fast becoming the toast of the cycling industry and all lovers of bicycle adventures.

Special coverage sponsored by
Western Bike Works. Join them
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check out their new in-store cafe.

And for Phil Carlson, proprietor of TREO Bike Ranch in Hardman, gravel roads might just be the claim to fame he’s been looking for. Carlson has owned and operated his TREO Ranch since 1988. Over the past few decades, he’s built it up as a bird-hunting business and now it’s one of the most well-established “fee hunting” lodges in the state. But as we’ve reported in the past, his new focus is bicycling. At first, he figured the hundreds of miles of paved roads criss-crossing the towns and valleys where he grew up would be perfect for cycling enthusiasts. Recently however, thanks to a random meeting with Beaverton resident (and gravel riding veteran) Dan Morgan, Carlson is starting to see gravel roads in a new light.

Treo Bike Ranch-210

This is how Dan Morgan looks when he’s
telling you about gravel roads.

Morgan and his crew of riding buddies ride the gravel roads of Washington County every Saturday. This weekend they were at TREO Bike Ranch to sample some of eastern Oregon’s finest. And they weren’t disappointed. Since hearing about TREO here on BikePortland, Morgan has become a student of the area. He’s become a de facto right-hand man of Carlson’s and he’s committed himself to learn every road out here like it were his own back yard.

TREO itself if located on a gravel road, a few miles off of state highway 207. Our daily adventures begin and end on gravel. Most of it is relatively easily to ride; hard-packed with clear lines worn in by truck and farm equipment traffic. Other sections are more demanding with either larger and bumpier rocks or squishier gravel that turns your bike into a hovercraft.

That’s part of the appeal of gravel. Unlike pavement, which never really changes, gravel is something that has to be read, like a kayaker who reads currents of a river. Another appeal of gravel roads is that they take you off the beaten track. There’s a section between Liberty School Road and Ione-Gooseberry Road that Morgan has coined “the canyon of sorrows.” The road winds through a cabin with 3-4 homesteads. Most of the buildings still stand; but they’re completely gutted and long-since abandoned. You can’t help but think of the former residents’ broken dreams and their hard-scrabble existence.

Carlson’s ranch is perfectly situated to introduce people to the charms of gravel riding… And there’s always more to discover.

Check out a few of our discoveries over the past few days…

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-13

Brothers Mike (L) and Greg Gohman on Hardman Ridge Road.
TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-10

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-26

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-11

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-17

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-25

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-27

Valby Church. TREO Ranch owner Phil Carlson grew up near here.
TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-28

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-30

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-32

TREO Bike Ranch Day 1-3

Treo Bike Ranch Day 2-5

All those great gravel roads, and I haven’t even mentioned the perfectly paved ones! There’s so much great riding out here it will take me a few posts to share it all.

Phil and his crew here at TREO are welcoming bike groups through September. At $200 per person per night, you’ll get an all-inclusive experience that’s hard to top. Fully supported riding in an unforgettable landscape, all the food and drink you can handle, and experiences you’ll cherish all year long (until you come back again of course). I simply can’t recommend this place highly enough. Stay tuned to the Front Page for more on TREO and check out for bookings and more info.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • 9watts August 13, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Just think how much fun they could have on mountain bikes…:-)

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    • A.K. August 13, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Weird, they don’t look to be on a mountain. Why would they want to ride a mountain bike?

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    • LoveDoctor August 13, 2013 at 9:40 am

      Obviously, it’s only enjoyable on a gravel-specific bike (see bikesnobnyc for more info). A regular cross bike just won’t do, since the geometry is aggressively relaxed enough.

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      • LoveDoctor August 13, 2013 at 9:41 am

        Snark aside, I’d like to hit up TREO next year since it sounds like a great experience, despite my lack of the proper bike.

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      • 9watts August 13, 2013 at 2:35 pm

        “a gravel-specific bike”

        I’m the last person to recommend a specialized bike for a given surface or terrain. The beauty of mountain bikes (my definition harkens back to the eighties) is that is precisely *not* a specialized bike, but a bike that due to it’s upright sturdy design works well anywhere, on any terrain. My hunch would be that the bikes we see in the photos have more specialized bits going on than a basic mountain–go-everywhere–bike.

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      • wsbob August 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm

        I rarely read bikesnob, but your mention got me curious. He was funny here:

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      • longgone August 14, 2013 at 8:18 am

        Not all gravel roads are the same.
        BikeSnob can be funny at times, but one has to wonder about his motive to constantly belittle, berate, and divide.
        I could give two hoots what he say’s 90% of the time.
        Had he been around in the 80’s-90’s, at the advent of the Flint Hills Death Ride, he would have certainly got caught up in the technical debates to solve the issue of going fast there.
        200 miles in August, 108 degree temps with 72% humidity..
        It is an event one wished to finish as fast as possible, and many people fretted over bike set up and choice.
        Some of the “gravel” roads in the event included areas that were lined with old wagon wheel ruts.and other unpleasantness.
        My choice?
        1969 Raleigh Rampar three speed frame. Brooks B-67 sprung. Phil hubs fixed. 62 gear inch. 700×38 Continental Top Touring 2000’s at 78 psi. 175mm cranks. Nitto Dirt Drop bars…and go!
        Frankly, if “gravel travel” is the next big trend, i will be happy..’cause that means more peeps will be doing some of my favorite types of riding.
        BikeSnob can eat it. IMO…or go try Dirty Kanza 200 next year.I will pay his entry fee.

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    • Pete August 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Seems like a timely article with this trend of new ‘Gran Fondo’ bikes designed to absorb buzz and accommodate larger tires while still not being cross bikes (like the BMC GF01, new Synapse, etc). One of my cycling buddies is a project engineer in public works for one of Portland’s neighboring cities and is leaning toward one of these under the belief that with modern highway funding, ‘chipseal is the new asphalt.’…

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  • Evan August 13, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Out here in Pendleton we’ve got great gravel in all directions. You can mix up the road and gravel to your personal preference for difficulty and distance. If you really want a challenge, try climbing Kanine Ridge or Fisher Road east of town on a road bike with big fatties. I would not recommend riding back down on anything but a mountain bike though.

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  • Spiffy August 13, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I rode a lot of gravel roads in Kansas a couple decades ago… really low traffic and great scenery (for Kansas)… the occasional dust cloud from a passing vehicle is usually the worst part… certainly don’t want to be going full speed since falling in gravel is not fun…

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    • Pete Jensen August 13, 2013 at 11:32 am

      But falling on tarmac is?!!

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  • Sunny August 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    29’er or switch out the drops for wide mtb bars for control. Makes the riding much more pleasant and comfortable instead of white-knuckle.

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  • Emily G August 13, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Hm, what’s the minimum width for tires on a non-gravel-specific bike? I’m running 700c x 32 on my touring bike, is that big enough?

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    • Pete August 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      All depends on how much they’re inflated, how fast you’re going, and how well you can balance! 🙂

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    • James M Fisher August 15, 2013 at 9:03 am

      I ride 700-38 on my Natureboy for gravel. I am light enough I can drop the pressure to match conditions.

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  • Dan Morgan August 13, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Emily, The group rode everything from 700×28’s up to 700×40. The 40 tire was really not necessary but we like to test out different widths and pressures to see how they perform. Pete is correct pressure is as important as you want the “tire drop” to be enough to roll over the gravel instead of plow through it but high enough not to cause a pinch flat.

    I have to add, none of the bikes were laterally stiff and vertically compliant and they worked just as well on asphalt or gravel in Portland or Kansas…..

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  • longgone August 14, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Calfee Adventure Disc 650B fits 42’s….nice.

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  • Sandi Richardson August 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I am so glad people are finding out about us….Some time ask Phil about his bike riding. We had the the bikes with the hard rubber tires. Yes, road rash was common….raise them tough out on farm. You could not ask for better customer service. Oh yea, l am the oldest sister. Stop in Condon for the best bowl of soup ever. Sandi’s Soup….

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  • Joe August 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    car back…. not 🙂

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  • Endanseur August 14, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Just to add that Treo has wonderful bicycling, both paved and gravel, and the hospitality Phil provides is off the charts.
    With respect to gravel riding, Phil invited me and my wife to accommodate Dan Morgan and another couple for some gravel riding. While I’ve done limited gravel riding in the past, my wife and gave it a shot on our tandem. I used Vittoria Randonneur tires, 25c, with about 70 lbs pressure. While it was a bit squirelly in some spots (15% gravel descent on a serpentine road, it worked quite well. With a bit more experience, it would be just fine.
    And did I also say that the road riding is great? The area is surrounded by roads that are part of the Bike Oregon scenic routes. Wonderful place to visit and ride.

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  • Greg Gohman August 14, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Hey Jonathan, love your pics!
    We had a great time and I highly recommend checking it out…
    I definitely want to go back and explore more. You can ride for hours in all directions with fabulous scenery and amazingly quiet roads and diversity. Treo’s hospitality is definitely A+!

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  • VeloDirt August 14, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    People ride bikes on gravel roads? I don’t get it.

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  • TheJ August 14, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Nice article! Being from Heppner originally, I can say that there is some awesome opportunities for riding. However, I will warn the locals have no appreciation for the sport and one should be very cautious riding around EO traffic; no one is used to sharing the road. I can easily imagine a liquored up good ol’ boy taking the back roads at a high rate of speed and plowing into a group (or an individual).

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  • Chainwhipped August 14, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Poke fun all you like, but “gravel bikes” are everything you hoped your ‘cross bike would be, without the jiblet-crunching top tube. In 8 years, we’ll know them simply as “bikes” – kind of the way the typical enthusiast thought of their road bikes in the mid-80’s.

    Gravel riding/racing is about to be a way bigger deal than current ‘cross, XC mtb, and road racing combined. Remember mountain biking in 1994? Gravel racing will be a way bigger deal.

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  • Jenn - Portland Pedal Power August 15, 2013 at 8:06 am

    When we rode with TREO, we were able to a 10 miles portion of gravel on our road bikes. It was not ideal but still possible. Next year, I will take (2) bikes so that I can enjoy the road + gravel experience. Here are some highlights from our trip Jenn – PPP

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  • tnash August 15, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Gravel riding is already over, the next big thing is creek riding. Get a good creek riding bike, a life vest and a sturdy helmet and head on out there, baby

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  • GlowBoy August 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I’ve been enjoying gravel-road riding for many years, and while I’m glad to see it’s getting popular, the new scene seems to be dominated by a serious go-fast mentality.

    I did the Dalles Mountain 60 this spring (having already ridden many of the roads in the area in past years, including most of the DM60 route itself). It was a major hammerfest, seemingly populated mostly by racer types, a surprising number of them on road-racing bikes. I consider myself a reasonably strong rider, but within a few short miles I had fallen of the back and ended up riding alone most of the day. (Which was mostly FINE with me — well, except on the Biggs Bridge, where it would REALLY have been nice to have had some company!)

    I wish my experience of the DM60 were an anomaly, but all the firsthand accounts I’ve heard of the VeloDirt rides say that this one is tame compared with the others. Sure, some rides like the Rapture and the Stampede are brutal and/or long enough that they can’t be finished in a day unless you go all-out. I get that. But gravel-road riding can be a much broader experience than what I’m seeing catch on out there. The DM60 itself can be done at much more a moderate pace than everyone else did, and still get you home hours before dark. Out of two hundred or so riders I seemed to be the only one out there on what I consider an enjoy-the-scenery-and-stop-at-the-overlooks pace, and I’m quite sure I was very DFL as a consequence.

    These rides seem to be attracting lots of super-strong riders, but not the intermediate-strength — but still adventurous — types like myself who want to have fun exploring the dirt roads at less than racer-level speeds. Maybe that will happen as the “sport” matures. For me the whole point of recreational riding of any kind, as with hiking or any of my other favorite outdoor pursuits, is to take it a little bit easy and enjoy being out there. Doesn’t seem like there are many other riders out there who see it my way.

    Ah well, looks like I’ll continue exploring the fun old dirt roads alone, as I always have. At least I’ll have other riders to wave at as they go by.

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    • Dan Morgan August 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm

      We have had similar experiences as well. So, like you we decided to just do group rides so we can stop and take it all in. What you have to get past riding from Treo is that even though most of the routes are loops, you may never finish them. You find that after a half dozen hours in the saddle you are happy to see Phil and his 7/16 inch wrench 🙂

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    • gabriel August 21, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      very well said GB!!

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