Ever had a ride that started with terribly bad luck that quickly changed to good luck? That was my experience at the Oregon Gran Fondo last weekend.
The event was the final round of the Oregon Triple Crown series (read my recaps of round one in Waldport and round two in Oakridge) and I started the day hopeful of becoming a finisher of all three. It was a fun goal I made for myself at the start of the year; a way to force myself to stay in good shape and learn more about three of Oregon’s intriguing small towns.
On that note, I was very impressed with Cottage Grove. It happened to be Friday Art Walk and Main Street was abuzz: The many independent stores and restaurants were full of people; musicians busked on corners; and locals came out in droves to meet up with friends, buy and spy local art, and take advantage of free food and drinks served in nearly every establishment.
For such a small town, Cottage Grove has a wealth of good food and shops. Beyond several solid-looking food carts, there’s Axe & Fiddle Public House on Main Street. With its low ceilings, woodsy interior and bar full of smiling staff and regulars up front, it has the ambiance of a wild west saloon. The beer and cider list is sublime and the menu features many thoughtful and modern choices. Across the street is Jack Sprats, which was so busy I opted for quick baked treats from the counter: a house-made marionberry bar and a peanut butter cookie.
I felt welcomed in Cottage Grove because it seemed like every shop had a “Welcome Oregon Gran Fondo” sign in the window and encouraged us to show our race badges for discounts and freebies (event entry came with a $10 food voucher redeemable at any local restaurant). I also noticed a flyer for the “Mayor’s Bike Ride,” a good sign that cycling is respected.
If you love used bookstores that reflect local culture, Cottage Grove doesn’t disappoint. I recommend Kalapuya Books and Bookmine. It was inside both of these shops I got my first hint that a woman known as Opal Whiteley was a big deal. My hunch was confirmed when I saw the massive mural devoted to her in the main public square. I had to learn more.
Whiteley was a mysterious figure who gained national fame for a diary she wrote about her life growing up in the woods of Cottage Grove. Despite her story becoming a national bestseller in 1920, there were as many questions about its authenticity as there were about the authenticity of Whiteley herself. As I payed for a copy of The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley, (a historic look at her life published by The Lane Historical Society) the owner of Bookmine was thrilled to see I’d taken an interest. She beamed as showed me one of the original copies of Whiteley’s book and gave me flyers with copies of her poems and a walking map of where she lived.
After soaking up history and the vibe of downtown Cottage Grove on Friday, I was up at sunrise on Saturday for the 6:30 am start of the 130-mile “Sherman” route. I chose this route mostly because it was the toughest course offered, but also because it was the only one with sections of unpaved, gravel roads. There were only about 20 of us who lined up on East Main Street. The Sherman route was new this year, and the classic, 117-mile Gran Fondo route still gets all the attention.
I had my Co-Motion Klatch set up as a pavement machine, since I heard there was only about 30 miles of gravel roads and I figured I could manage them on relatively narrow tires. I opted for slick, 32mm wide Sector tubeless tires from Hutchinson.
For us Sherman riders, the adventure began just a few miles out of town when we hit the dirt of Gowdyville Road for a 1,000 feet of climbing along the South Fork of the Siuslaw River. It was a beautiful start to the day. On the descent down to Territorial Hwy, I started to think I was a bit under-tired for the day as I had to ride much slower over the rocks then I prefer.
When we retured to the pavement, something weird happened. There were about three of us on the empty road. I was in the front and suddenly another rider came up from behind me on my right and tried to pass. Before I could avoid him his rear wheel became lodged in my front. “SHHHH! BANG BANG BANG! POP!” was what I heard as I struggled to stay upright and watched his rear wheel skewer decimate my front rim and tire. When I finally stopped I knew it was bad. The wheel was done. Spokes bent and broken. The tire flat. Ugh.
A few minutes later, after the guy made a quick apology and then rode away, I was by myself on the side of the road with no cell service. I was dejected that my weekend had been wasted for just 10 miles of riding. I figured I would hitchhike back to Cottage Grove; if I could find a ride.
Then the first sign of changing luck came into view. A truck driven by a race volunteer pulled up and offered a floor pump. Within minutes we realized he could just drive me back to the start line. The Gran Fondo didn’t start until 8:30 am and I’d still have time to find a loaner wheel if we hurried. Flustered but hopeful as we got back to Cottage Grove, I made a bee line to the big red VeloFix Eugene van. Owner/operator Luke DeMoe didn’t hesitate to help. He had a loaner wheel and swapped my parts and tire over. 15 minutes later I was rolling again — with just a few minutes to spare before the start of the Gran Fondo.
It wasn’t the ride I wanted to do, but it wasn’t too shabby. It’s been years since I spent the day in roadie-mode, gliding along in the draft of a big peloton and taking pulls in a paceline. I connected with a strong group of 7-8 riders and spent most of the day with them. We ticked off the miles and averaged about 20 mph or the first 100 miles as we rolled along rivers, on empty backroads, and up on high ridges.
At the end of the day I finished in 32nd place, about 40 minutes behind the winners. 117 miles in six hours and nine minutes; not bad at all! And a testament to the versatility of my bike, which also handles singletrack and bumpy gravel roads with aplomb (with wider tires of course).
It was a great day on the bike and I was grateful to be out there, especially given my bad luck at the start.
If you’re looking for a memorable event with top-notch support based in a town well worth visiting, put the 2020 Oregon Gran Fondo on your calendar. If you’re curious about riding in the area, check out the routes on RideWithGPS.
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