Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

The Oregon Outback was the hardest — and best — ride I’ve ever done

Posted by on May 27th, 2015 at 12:34 pm

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Somewhere south of Prineville.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

This coverage of the Oregon Outback is sponsored by 21st Avenue Bicycles and Mountain Shop. If you are bikepacking-curious or need to get equipped for an upcoming adventure, stop into these great Portland stores for expert advice and reliable gear.

In the past 38 years or so (since I learned to ride a bike when I was two), I have done a lot of memorable things on bicycles.

But none compare to what I just returned home from: a 365-mile unsupported odyssey through some of the most remote parts of Oregon on a ride known in bikepacking circles simply as “the Outback,” followed by a 140 ride back home to Portland.

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506 miles and 42 hours of riding made for an absolutely unforgettable three days. You can view route details at RideWithGPS.com.

You might recall the guest article and photos we shared two years ago by one of the pioneers of this route, Gabriel Amadeus. He and Donnie Kolb of VeloDirt fame stitched out a ride through the dirt backroads of central Oregon and it’s quickly become almost a rite of passage for bikepackers. People ride it year-round and each Memorial Day weekend word spreads through social media and a larger group tackles it together on an unofficial “event” that has turned into a cycling version of Cannonball Run.

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On Friday morning at 7:00 am about 200 people rolled into the start at Klamath Falls. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Unfortunately I missed the start by about 15 minutes so I scrambled out of town by myself under grey and drizzly skies. It was a very uneventful beginning.

Coming into this ride I had no idea what to expect. I had never done anything quite like it. I’ve done plenty of long, hard rides, and several self-supported tours. But the Outback is different. It’s nearly all dirt roads (just 25% is paved) and towns with services are few and far between. Yet, while there’s no official support, knowing there are so many other riders on the route with you is very reassuring. Think of it as a community-supported ride.

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Speaking of those other riders, what an interesting bunch they were. Coming from the back of the pack I was able to ride by quite a few of them in those first few hours. I saw all types of riders and bikes. Many people were on mountain bikes and there are a lot of the traditional pannier/rack set-ups. People aiming to go faster opted for cyclocross or other drop-bar style bikes with frame bags. Portlander Mike Cobb was riding a fixed gear road bike with just a few small bags. I marveled at his spartan approach and his ability to turn his cranks up the dirt and rocky roads. There where also a few guys from Los Angeles who rode it on tall bikes (I never did actually see them, only heard about their exploits).

And everyone was on their own pace. Some planned on 50-60 miles per day with parties in camp each night, a handful of riders attempted to “race” it by riding all the way through with only short breaks.

That’s one thing I love about the Outback: everyone approaches it on their own terms. The common thread is that it’s all about enjoying the ride and having fun.

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Early on the OC & E trail. Those clouds would produce serious rain in the next few hours.
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Nick Wood and his crew from 21st Avenue Bicycles.
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Taking refuge from one of Friday’s downpours.
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The route begins with 70 miles on the OC & E Woods Line State Trail, a 100 year-old former rail line that once supported the area’s logging industry. While it’s paved for some of the way, the trail is much more demanding than its page on the Oregon State Parks website makes it out to be — especially in the unexpectedly wet conditions we faced as we rode through the marshy Sprague River Valley.

The rain was a big story at this year’s Outback. I, like most people I talked with, expected a few scattered showers (as per the forecast) but was not prepared (mentally) for hours of rain and at times a straight-up torrent. That made the OC & E section more challenging than expected as our tires sank into soft, moist dirt.

I was soaked to the bone on the first day of riding. But not once did I feel bad about it.

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Very glad I packed my Mission Workshop Meridian jacket. Very impressive in the rain.

It’s one thing to get wet commuting home from work; but being out there in such a beautiful place on such a grand adventure, the rain just became another part of the experience. In some ways I feel like rain brings me closer to the environment I’m riding through. And on a ride like this, wet weather has advantages. For one, it made tire tracks easier to follow. The rain also tamped down dusty sections and firmed up loose stuff that (I heard) last year was much more difficult to ride.

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Without having the route on GPS, I would question whether this was the right way! Sure doesn’t look like much of a “trail” to me.
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On Summer Lake in Fremont National Forest.

As Friday wore on I decided to ride at least to Silver Lake, about 120 miles into the route and a popular place for those on a three-day schedule. Silver Lake also has the first store directly on the route and at this point in our ride — with lots of rain and some real miles in our legs — it was a must stop. My impromptu riding partner David Boerner and I rolled up to the store around 5:30 pm and filled a bag with drinks and food. Doritos, coffee, trail mix, fruit, cheese — whatever we could find. As we sat on a curb trying to warm up other riders rolled in and did the same thing. One guy was shivering so much his foot-long hot dog nearly slipped out of the bun.

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David Boerner refueling in Silver Lake

North of Silver Lake the road opened up. Way up. David and I rode due north, headed for Fort Rock hopefully by sunset.

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Advertise with BikePortland.
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That’s Fort Rock in the upper left.
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David opted for dinner at The Waterin’ Hole Tavern in Fort Rock (about mile 140) but I wanted to keep riding so I headed north into the Deschutes National Forest. At about 9:30 pm I pulled over and set up camp on a bed of pine needles so soft my tent stakes barely stayed in the ground. It had been a 14-hour day. I fired up my stove, heated up some lentils, threw in some cheese and Doritos, then tucked into my sleeping bag. As I dozed off I heard the familiar sound of bike tires on gravel. It was David. “Hey J Maus!” he yelled as he rolled by, “Looks like you found a nice spot. See you up the road!”

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The next day would be the hardest, but also the most memorable day on a bike I have ever experienced.

My plans for this ride were completely open. I figured I would be somewhere behind the racers and ahead of the folks who would take six days. I wanted to focus on the ride and was ready to push my limits. I also needed to get home and get back to family and work.

With no plan I figured I would just ride and see how things went. I’m not sure when on Saturday I decided to do it, but for some reason I told myself I would finish the entire route. Part of me couldn’t imagine riding 210 miles in one day (that’s 30 miles longer than I’d ever ridden at one time); but another part of me was saying, “Why not?”

So, with my music at full volume (my Buckshot Pro bluetooth speaker/lamp/power-source is one the best things I brought) I pedaled through the red roads and lava fields of the Deschutes National Forest (east of Paulina Lake and La Pine) and set out for Prineville.

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The Crooked River.
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Aptly named Crooked River Highway is full of great views and wildflowers.
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Prineville is the largest town on the route and I made the most of it. I checked out Good Bike Co., a fantastic bike shop that has everything you need to refuel (including good beer), refueled at a market, then had some tacos at a great little Mexican joint (Taqueria Mi Tiendita on Main Street if you’re taking notes). I also took some time to dry out my feet and socks because the shoes I wore (Shimano winter boots) are sealed for warmth and take forever to dry out.

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I was obsessed with getting my feet dry after someone mentioned I probably had early stages of trench foot.

Prineville was at mile 225. I had ridden 75 miles since I left camp and if I wanted to finish I still had about 140 miles to go and it was already 2:30 pm or so. With so much riding left, it would have been easy to get discouraged at this point, but the riding north of Prineville was so inspiring all I wanted to do was keep pedaling to see what was around the next corner.

The farms and ranches were stunning. Some of the greenest pastures and happiest cows I’ve ever seen. And then came the Ochoco National Forest, which gave us a climb and descent that I will never forget.

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Big climb up into the Ochocos.
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Couldn’t take my eyes off all the big ponderosa pines.

At the crest of the Ochoco climb (just over 5,000 feet elevation) I stopped to make a few adjustments when up rattled an old pickup. A man stepped out and asked if I was “One of those guys who left from Klamath Falls yesterday.” We exchanged pleasantries and he filled up one of my bottles. I was in the process of changing socks and told him about my feet. “Want a pair of dry socks?” he asked. This guy was a true trail angel (I declined the socks by the way).

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Then came The Descent. 22 miles or so from the top of the Ochocos to the tiny wild west town of Ashwood. This would have been a memorable descent even if there hadn’t been torrential rains the night before. The conditions we faced were downright epic. Thick and sticky mud bogs, two-feet deep stream crossings, and rockslides. Oh what fun!

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So much for keeping my feet dry.
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Once the road dried out a bit, I was treated to perfect postcard views as I followed Trout Creek to Ashwood.

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As I rolled past Ashwood and tackled a few grueling climbs, the sun was starting to set. I shared the company of my shadow and everything began to turn golden orange.

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And then I ran into Mike Cobb and his fixed gear who I last saw at about mile 20. He was standing in the middle of the road taking photos. We were both feeling very grateful as we pedaled out the miles and had a perfect view of the sun setting over the Cascades.

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As night fell, things got tougher for me. At 9:30 pm, 13 hours after I started riding and a few miles south of Antelope (mile 290 or so), I got a flat. It was a big gash in the sidewall of my tubeless tire. I hoped it would seal up; but of course it didn’t. Luckily I was prepared. I had light, a C02 cartridge, and a spare tube.

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In Antelope I caught up to Mike. He showed me a water spigot he’d found so I topped off my bottles and readied for the climb that would take me up to Shaniko. I got to Shaniko around midnight and noticed a handful of tents set up. At this point I had 150 miles in my legs but I was only 60 miles from the finish line. I switched to my dry socks and decided to press on.

This was by far the hardest leg of the journey for me. I left Shaniko feeling great, pedaling fast on smooth pavement and thinking I was almost done. I was wrong. I spent the next five hours talking to myself, singing random things to the stars, thinking rocks and signposts were humans, and riding incessant rolling hills of dusty dirty loose gravel. My view never changed. I felt locked in a gravel prison. Like I was in solitary confinement and the walls were made of gravel.

I was definitely at my limit in this darkness (mentally and physically), but I knew that pedaling was the only way out. Then, at around 4:00 am or so, I noticed the stars were gone. It’s sort of funny, but I was surprised that the sky began to lighten up. “Oh, it’s the sunrise!” I remember thinking. This was new to me: On one bike ride I had watched the sun come up then set, the moon rise then set, and then the sun rise again.

The sun rose just as I started the steep climb up to Gordon Ridge, which stands 2,200 feet above the Columbia River Gorge. I was nearly done! You can almost see the anticipation in my face (mixed with delirium and exhaustion)…

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Then it happened. I made it to the river. I was just a few miles from the end.

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I didn’t want the ride to end. I pulled over one last time and snapped a photo of my companions, the road and the sun.

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I rolled into the Deschutes River Recreation Area around 6:00 am on Sunday morning — 210 miles and nearly 24 hours after I started riding.

I found the first open tent site I could find, stuffed some food in my mouth, then grabbed my sleeping bag and took a nap. I hadn’t made any plans for how I would get home, so I thought I’d rest a bit and see how I felt. Could I ride home?

I spent about five hours bringing myself back to life and freshening up a bit. Then I hit the road again. I found a route on RideWithGPS (via Donnie Kolb) that would take me back to Portland via The Dalles, Hood River, then up and over Lolo Pass into Sandy. I left at about 11:00 am on Sunday morning.

Despite insanely strong winds that dogged me well into the route (even after I turned south from the Gorge), the ride home was fantastic. It was my first time ever on Lolo Pass Road and I got to do it at sunset, then descend into Sandy in the dark.

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A turkey rueben from Big Jim’s Drive In on the eastern edge of The Dalles.
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Love The Dalles.
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Rowena Curves
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Mt. Hood peeks out onto Dee Highway.
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I turned left.

I loved the descent of Lolo Pass Road so much (the climb was neat too) I pulled over and shared a haiku on Instagram (cheesy, I know).

Like a torpedo. Shooting down Lolo Pass Rd. With only my light to see. #oregonoutback #oregonoutbackthenback #haiku

A photo posted by BikePortland-Inform & Inspire (@bikeportland) on

I rolled into my backyard at around 3:00 am on Monday morning. I felt exhausted, inspired, and thankful.

In total it had been about 67 hours since I left Klamath Falls and I had ridden 505 miles, climbed over 28,000 feet and spent 42 hours in the saddle.

As someone who likes pushing myself and going far, the ride stats are fun; but they don’t begin to capture what the Oregon Outback — and all rides like this — are truly about. What then, are they about? Everyone has their own answer to that question, but for me it’s about seeing new places, getting away from civilization, seeing what your body is capable of, and getting to know this great state of ours.

Thanks for coming along.

I would not have been able to do this trip without help from sponsors who supplied my gear — especially my Salsa Vaya with a full set of Revelate bags from 21st Avenue Bicycles. I will share more thoughts about what I used and how it worked in separate product review post.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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54 Comments
  • grumpcyclist May 27, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Could you reformat this article so that the whole thing doesn’t appear on the front page? You have to do a LOT of scrolling to get to the next article.

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    • Jeff May 27, 2015 at 10:39 pm

      Tough sh*t. He had to do a lot of riding to bring you the article.

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  • Kevin Prentice
    Kevin Prentice May 27, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Fantastic writeup Jonathan. And such an awesome accomplishment!

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  • Champs May 27, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I wonder what it is about the Outback that inspires such silly endeavors—and want to do them myself.

    Jonathan: since you’re not too bashful about terrain on your Cielo with 28s, I’m wondering what the bike is. Is that a Fargo, and if so, was it overkill?

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  • Dave May 27, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Long ride + tacos + turkey ruben = GOOD.

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  • Zimmerman May 27, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    This is truly epic. Thanks for sharing it.

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  • Laurie May 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Excellent! Beautiful! Kickass!

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  • Michael May 27, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Sounds like you might be ready to start randonneuring.

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  • Matt F May 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Hey I saw you at the store in Silver Lake. Awesome that you pushed through the next night. Great write up. Thanks.

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  • Adam H. May 27, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Sounds like an amazing ride!

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  • Matt May 27, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    Great story. I heard it was a mud fest this year and your pics prove the point! Would love to do this ride. But in September…

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  • Alison Graves May 27, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Awesome coverage, Jonathan! WOW.

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  • ricochet May 27, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Excellent writeup, thanks for sharing.

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  • Ron Richings May 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Quite the ride and adventure. I was talking this morning at the NW Hostel with a guy from Winnipeg who had also done the ride. He enjoyed the ride (may have reminded him of home – at least the type of roads) and must have been riding fairly quickly to be leaving the Hostel around 11 am. Intended to do a bit more riding (!) around town until he caught a 4 pm train back to the ‘peg.

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  • JNE May 27, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Epic!

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  • Gabriel Amadeus May 27, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Dang Jonathan! Way to really knock that ride out of the park! And that trout creek mud looks absolutely horrendous.

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  • Fred May 27, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Nice work Johnathon! I thought I was cranking along taking 3 1/2 days to ride the route. And yes, that mud was unreal along Trout Creek! I lost about 2 hours and a derailleur hanger on that stretch.

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    • SilkySlim May 27, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      Hmmm, maybe that fixed gear really was the right ride on the day…

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  • JV May 27, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    VERY cool.

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  • Rob Chapman May 27, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I spy Maria S. about 4 photos down!

    Congrats man, that Trout Creek to Ashwood section is magical.

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    • hotrodder May 29, 2015 at 6:19 am

      Maria is badass!

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  • Tyler May 27, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Huzzah!

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  • Zach H May 27, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Great story, and a truly amazing accomplishment! Beautiful photos too — can’t wait to get on a ride out there. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  • Fourknees May 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Great write up!

    How did you/others get yourselves and your bikes to Kalamath Falls? (From Portland)

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 27, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Fourknees,

      Many people took Amtrak from Portland with their bikes boxed up in the cargo hold.

      My dad lives in Grants Pass, just about 2 hours west of K-Falls. He drove up to Portland to visit me a few days prior, then he drove me back to K-Falls on Friday morning.

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  • Slow biker May 27, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Hey Jonathan, I would love to see what you brought with you as far as bags, sleeping pad, you know..your kit.
    Looks like there are a lot of bags hanging off your frame!
    Love the Buckshot Pro. Nice touch.

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  • Dan Morgan May 27, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Fantastic coverage and my helmet is off to you for such a great ride!

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  • Mike Cobb May 27, 2015 at 6:34 pm

    I sure enjoyed your company in Outback heaven, Jonathan. Great reporting and fabulous riding.

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  • Alain May 27, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Curious what the fastest ride time was? 2014 Ira Ryan was (1) at 28:04; and Jan Heine (2) at 29:58. Was anyone keeping track for this year’s edition?

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    • Eric H May 28, 2015 at 8:58 am

      You could have followed along live: http://trackleaders.com/oregonoutback15

      But to answer your question, Billy Truelove was this year’s winner at 40 hours and 46 minutes. He was on a 26 hour pace at one point, but the rainstorm that moved in on Friday night slowed him down.

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      • Eric H May 28, 2015 at 9:44 am

        Make that 30 hours. I knew that didn’t look right.

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  • Marion Rice May 27, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    This was an awesome story.. I loved it.. love that you did it.

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  • Mike Sanders May 27, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    The folks at Rails to Trails Conservancy and Adventure Cycling might like your photos and article. RTC could use your OC&E trail pix for Trail Link. Loved the RR cross buck style trailhead sign! Great idea! So could ODOT. I agree, that segment beyond the end of the pavement should be better signposted than it apparently is. That sign pointing to Mitchell looks like it’s been there for 20 years untouched! Well done!

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  • joel maus May 27, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    what the what?? Dude, what a totally insane story/ride!! I can’t even get my head around hat you’ve done- seriously! You are a true warrior and a huge inspiration for pushing on in tough times. Love you, Jonny.

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  • Scott Mizee May 27, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    Fantastic coverage of an epic adventure! Thanks for bringing us along!

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  • Cervelo May 28, 2015 at 12:06 am

    Congratulations on an awesome ride!
    Nice pictures – thanks for sharing.

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  • Tom from Van Isle May 28, 2015 at 8:11 am

    It was good chatting with you in the campground. Inspiring you had the juice to push on to Portland, my legs were done.

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  • Doug Rosser May 28, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Definitely interested in hearing how your Shimano winter/waterproof shoes held up! I have the same model and love them.

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    • Eric May 28, 2015 at 11:35 am

      Seems like a more breathable shoe + neoprene booties might be more versatile for such a long ride with unpredictable conditions and trying to pack light.

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  • david hart May 28, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Good read! Man, I can smell your feet through the photos! Nice to challenge yourself, you just stepped up your game.

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  • Cervelo May 28, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Since you are in good shape, if you don’t already do it, and if you like being out in awesome nature, you might want to try backpacking in the wilderness. Just for a change of pace and to add to cycling adventures. Some of the differences are:
    1 – no civilization in the wilderness (no showers, no medical help, no cafes)
    2 – you have to carry your gear – no bike to help
    3 – no motorized vehicles
    4 – max group size allowed in designated wilderness is 12
    5 – if you plan it right (weekdays) you can have total solitude

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  • Eric Iverson May 28, 2015 at 11:11 am

    “This was by far the hardest leg of the journey for me. I left Shaniko feeling great, pedaling fast on smooth pavement and thinking I was almost done. I was wrong. I spent the next five hours talking to myself, singing random things to the stars, thinking rocks and signposts were humans, and riding incessant rolling hills of dusty dirty loose gravel. My view never changed. I felt locked in a gravel prison. Like I was in solitary confinement and the walls were made of gravel.”

    Totally. Great writing. Shaniko to the Columbia was the hardest mental battle for me. I was hoping to see you when you caught up with #TeamGrilledByBike, who started on Thursday and did this in 6 days. Can’t imagine going any faster. Wow. Nice work J-Maus!

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  • JF May 28, 2015 at 11:39 am

    You are a bad-ass. Wow. That ride is on my bucket list for sure. Just the ride from HR over Lolo to Portland is huge. Never mind doing that after such an epic ride. Great, great write up (and pics).

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  • Tim May 28, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Fantastic pics, story and congrats on an amazing accomplishment!

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  • Michael May 28, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    As one of the Trans Iowa riders said in the movie 300 Miles of Gravel: [riding all day and all night] “…is like riding around the dark side of the moon.” It really is.

    Well done.

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  • jered bogli May 28, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Nice work Jonathan. Bummed I didn’t see you out there. I totally agree about Shaniko to the end. I’d even ridden that stretch on a shakedown ride and it still destroyed me – gordon ridge climb dread. Prineville to Shaniko was by far my favorite stretch. I’m planning on going back to ride the Ashwood/shaniko climbs again – so much fun!! EPIC ADVENTURE and great folks along the way.

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  • Tom May 28, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    J-the-crusher! I never done anything like this (4.5 days for me); and the view & feel from the saddle still hitting me like lovely flashbacks. I came away from the outback wanting more and appreciating what a beautiful state we live in. Thanks for the great write up and added history. BTW, 21st Ave build up an awesome Surly LHT, 26 to 650b for me. It was a champ and they are a great shop.

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  • Bradley May 29, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Hi J- Fantastic write-up and adventure! This is a little personal, but I’m curious to know how your butt held up over the ride? That’s a long time in the saddle, especially over bumpy terrain. Did the Brooks Cambium keep you comfortable? Did you experience any numbness? (I’m looking into purchasing the saddle for the D2R2 ride in MA later this year.) Again, I apologize beforehand if it’s a tad too personal. Anyhow, thanks again for sharing your story.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 29, 2015 at 10:44 am

      Ha! Thanks for the question Bradley. My butt held up pretty darn well considering. I really like the Cambium saddle. No numbness at all and no chafing or blisters to speak of. I did have a bunch of… let’s call them.. “hot spots” on my butt bones, but they went away quickly.

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  • Donnie May 30, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    Well played sir, well played… Really glad you enjoyed it. I know you don’t get a lot of time for such frivolities, so I was hoping for the best. Right on!

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  • Kent Vickery February 4, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    I’m doing this ride in early May… Any ideas on what kind of food to bring. Just 2 of us going. Just looking for light weight and filling. Night 2 brings us to the cowboy dinner train. I would be greatful for any info. Thanks

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  • Larry Brenize May 3, 2017 at 10:36 am

    I am not new to cycling but new to gravel grinding. I have done the 1200k rando rides and like somebody else said you would fit in just fine. That was some bad ass riding the last day when you decided to right straight thru. i would be interested in how much food or water you carried and how much food is available along the route except for the salsa chips. lol I entered my first grave grinding ride The Farmer’s Daughter in Chatham NY Keep riding. Zman

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