Gravel - Cycle Oregon

Finding heaven on the Hell of the North Plains

Posted by on January 22nd, 2018 at 4:04 pm

And then there was this bright green meadow on our way up to the top of Wildcat Mountain.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Sometimes all it takes to find a good adventure on two wheels is to just look a little harder.

Many of the best roads on Saturday’s Hell of the North Plains ride were in places I’ve ridden or driven near for many years. But somehow, someway, the routefinding raconteurs at Our Mother the Mountain (OMTM) manage to go deeper into (relatively) local backroads than most of us will ever venture on our own.

Over the course of several years, OMTM has garnered quite a following. Led by a few talented people (mostly local music industry creatives Ron Lewis and Ryan Francesconi), OMTM is an Instagram account full of inspirational imagery, a website with loads of tips and great route reports, and an email list where dozens (hundreds?) of people share tips and info about how to get the most out of unpaved road riding.

This was the third annual Hell of the North Plains (the name is a nod to the famously tough Paris-Roubaix road race). In typical fashion, Lewis spent the weeks leading up to Saturday’s ride by building anticipation with teaser messages and photos from recon rides (all their routes are highly vetted). Even with the build-up, I don’t think anyone came away disappointed. I missed the start in downtown North Plains, but I heard around 70-100 people showed up to tackle the 56-mile, 5,400 feet route on a rainy and foggy Saturday morning.

If you missed it, here’s a look at the roads, the people, and the bikes.

The roads (and trails!)

Ron, Ryan, and the OMTM crew really outdid themselves with the route. Even the paved sections at the start were spectacular. About 30 percent of the mileage was paved, the rest was varying types of dirt roads. We rode through everything: peanut-buttery, pine-needle-infested mud; embedded rock gardens; freshly laid gravel that was loose and sharp; fast and hard-packed dirt; double-track; singletrack; and even a bit of hiking at the summit of Wildcat Mountain. (Please note, this route included a short stretch on Sherman’s Mill Road (off of Bacona Road) that went across private property. Ride organizers received permission from the landowner ahead of time.)

Yes, he’s going the right way.

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The People and their bikes

One of the coolest things about unpaved riding is the wide variety of bikes and people that it attracts. I saw everything from fatbikes to a singlespeed cyclocross bike. As for riders, there was a very fast race group that went flying off the front and lots of other “crews” that did the ride at their own pace.

Mielle Blomberg (in pink), fresh off racing at cross nationals in Reno, brought along her crew for a relaxed, shortened version of the route.

Dan Schafer had a rippin’ good time on his fatbike.

Team Velo Cult showed up in force.

Ron Lewis is one of the brains behind OMTM.

Ryan Francesconi is a master route-builder, gravel riding legend, and the man behind the the “Unpaved” Ride with GPS group and email list.

My bike for the day was a bit overkill, but I needed to carry my D-SLR camera and a few “just in case” items. It’s a Salsa Vaya built by 21st Avenue Bicycles with custom bits — the same bike I rode the Oregon Outback on a few years ago.

If you’re curious, the Hell of the North Plains route is a perfect century ride from north Portland. I rode from home and back afterwards and it was 100 miles on the nose (and 9,100 feet of climbing).

Grab the GPS track with full cue sheet for this route at OMTM.cc and get inspired for upcoming rides by following OMTM on Instagram.

Got questions about the ride, the gear I used, or anything else? Ask me in the comments.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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32 Comments
  • maxD January 22, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    That looks like a great ride, and the photography and write-up were fantastic- thanks!

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  • Todd Boulanger January 22, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    Nice drone photos!

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  • wsbob January 22, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    That one loop-de-loop picture with the house on the left side, looks like huge elevation change. Overall, anyone that can enjoy riding in the crappy, muddy, rocky conditions, more power to you.

    Here in town, Saturday wasn’t actually too bad for weather, but in a lot of the pictures, the light looks very low. Dark. The stands of trees in what appears to be some kind of tree farm, or replanted commercial timberland maybe, appear disturbingly monotonous. OMTM’s welcome page has a background photo that seems to be of such a replant. Better than leveling trees for expansive acres of housing, commercial buildings, roads, parking lots, but still, nothing like a real forest. Glad to be able to see the pictures, thanks.

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  • Brian January 22, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    That’s a big day, Jonathan Nice work. And I’m inspired by the great photos and write-up.

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    • BradWagon January 23, 2018 at 11:03 am

      And here I though my 90 mile day would take the cake. Very impressive to climb in and out of town on either end of it Jonathan!

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  • rf January 22, 2018 at 7:06 pm

    wow, these photos are fantastic!

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  • B. Carfree January 22, 2018 at 11:58 pm

    That sort of ride is why I live here (well, a wee bit south of your here, sort of a there). Now I’m hoping I’m all done with the various strains of flu for the year so I can pedal on out to my local mud/gravel/clearcuts/tree farms/beautiful wet side Oregon.

    Beautiful photos. I’m beyond inspired.

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  • Mike Quigley January 23, 2018 at 6:08 am

    Beautiful photos? Masses of people biking through a denuded forest on muddy roads in dreary weather. Beauty definitely IS in the eye of the beholder.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 23, 2018 at 7:48 am

      Yes it is Mike.

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    • BradWagon January 23, 2018 at 9:43 am

      Hahaha, what a wonderful place the internet is.

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    • Jon January 23, 2018 at 9:53 am

      These are working forests and I use my fair share of wood products so I don’t think I can personally complain about logging activity that denudes the forest in places. There was a wide range of terrain on the route including clear cuts, young forests and older forests. Most the forest lands in Oregon with roads on them have been logged in the last 100 years. If you live in the western side of the Cascades rain means green and trees. There is beauty in lush green temperate rain forests just like there is beauty in the brown hills in the east half of the state. Personally I prefer the green over the brown but that is just me. Fenders and proper clothing make rides like this very enjoyable. There was actually only a couple of muddy sections near active logging operations.

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    • JBone January 23, 2018 at 9:55 am

      Yep, you should head out there with your chainsaw.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 23, 2018 at 10:25 am

      Hi again mike…

      Also keep in mind that — like a ton of other similar riding in our region — these forests are very accessible from inner Portland neighborhoods. I don’t expect pristine wilderness. These are working forests and I think that’s kind of cool. Sure the clear-cuts are depressing sometimes, but the fact that I’m able to access these places is well worth it.

      Not that anyone asked.. but my dream is to work with the logging companies to create better and more robust cycling access in these areas. We could put together bike patrols that would help the logging companies keep track of conditions and stuff like illegal fires and dumping. There could be educational opportunities for riders to learn more about the forest economy (and ecology). The forest companies would get great PR, lots of volunteer help, and stronger ties to the communities they work in.

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    • Middle of the Road Guy January 23, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Try it when it is sunnier then.

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  • JP January 23, 2018 at 8:14 am

    I’m curious what your gearing was for the day. I attempted the ride but found that the cross gearing I was running didn’t work for me, and I took an early bailout. I’d like to take another whack at it with a more thoughtful setup.

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    • Jon January 23, 2018 at 9:12 am

      I was riding an old 26er mtb and had a 44-11 high gear and a 24-32 low gear. There were a couple of places on the climb after crossing HW47 where I was in my low gear. I like to spin up hills so I tend to have lower gears than anyone else I ride with and absolutely hate to push a bike up a hill. I am also not in good shape. If I were in good shape I would have been ok with a 24-28 low gear.

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    • BradWagon January 23, 2018 at 9:46 am

      For another data point I was a cross/gravel 36/46 chainring set and an 11-32 cassette. Granted I was riding the climbs hard and I think only spent a prolonged period of time in my 32 on the Hoffman climb. Definitely not good gearing for someone looking to spin up the steep stuff though.

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      • JP January 24, 2018 at 12:06 pm

        I had the same front setup and an 11-28 on the back. I’m an okay climber, but I’m a small woman and don’t have a lot of raw power. I was mashing at 50 rpm for a lot of the first climb and ended up calling it early because I didn’t think my back could take it. I think I’d like to take another whack at it with a 36 or larger in the back.

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  • Tim K January 23, 2018 at 8:54 am

    JP, I use a wide range compact double set up with a low gear of 30 up front and 36 in the rear (46×11 on the top end). Even the Hoffman climb was doable with this gearing.

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  • Ron K January 23, 2018 at 9:38 am

    So.. What variety of tires was everyone on? Anyone on anything smaller than 35mm?

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    • BradWagon January 23, 2018 at 10:09 am

      I was on 35’s… which were too small for comfort on some of the rough descents. Punctured a brand new tubeless tire bad enough it didn’t seal. Definitely a ride for 40’s or bigger.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 23, 2018 at 10:27 am

      Hi Ron,

      Tire choice really depends on the rider. In general, the more technical skill and off-road experience a person has, the smaller tire they can get away with.

      But in general, 40s are a standard on rides like this. I used 35s on this day because I wanted to use my full-fendered bike and that’s as large as I could fit. Ideally I would have used 40s so I could be less stressed on the descents and rocky bits.

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      • I wear many hats January 25, 2018 at 12:53 pm

        Ditched fenders for year round commuting last winter so I could run 40c tires. I haven’t missed them yet, but I don’t regularly ride in groups in the rain.

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        • Ron K January 25, 2018 at 1:09 pm

          I’m 85% there. My fenders severely limit my tire size and it’s frustrating out here in the relative embarrassment of riches that is the road riding out here in western Washington County. There’s every type of surface out here and it changes frequently. Big tires for a grinder are kind of required if you’re peripatetic with you’re riding habits, but fenders are a gift from the Bicycle Lord for commuting in the winter.
          Hence the conflict.

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          • I wear many hats January 26, 2018 at 9:00 am

            Down tube shield and beaver tail does the trick. It requires booties a little bit more but keeps most of the muck off. PDW has excellent products that work well. It feels like a 3/4 full roadie setup, with no tire size limitations. Going on my second winter on the set up w/o complaints.

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  • Ron K January 23, 2018 at 10:44 am

    That’s sorta what I suspected. I have the same problem with my fenders. I’ve done 35s, but it was sketch on the big gravel. The clearances on my bike don’t allow 40s.

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  • Tim K January 23, 2018 at 11:24 am

    I used the Compass 38s (they have a smooth file tread), they were dreamy plush and I had great control on even the deep gravel. At 40psi, great climbing traction too.The peanut butter mud, however, was a different story. Luckily that was a pretty short section.

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  • Sukho Goff January 23, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    Wow looks awesome. I guess I’m out of the loop, would’ve loved to have ridden this. Really appreciate all the full-wrap fenders out there too. Nothing wrong with keeping your bike (and the people riding behind you) clean. Thanks for the pics!

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  • rf January 23, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    38c minimum tire for this ride. Mountain bike gearing is basically needed.

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    • onegearsneer January 23, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      Except for the brave souls who tackle it on single speeds every year. 🙂

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  • Peter Koonce January 23, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    This is a fantastic route and it looks like a challenge. Can you recommend some shorter cut offs to make it a little more manageable for someone with less time?

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  • Drew January 23, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    This route goes thru private property?
    Sounds like it is off limits to the general public.
    I hope the ridewithgps site does not send anybody thru private property.

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