I survived two-days of soggy, rainy weather in Oregon during Odyssey of the VOG, a multi-day 350-mile bikepacking race with nearly 32,000 total elevation gain.
During spring, the calendar of biking events is pretty stacked. My BFF, the Honorable Right Reverend Steven T. Carver, Extraordinaire (Steve Carver) and Irina Carver had a “beh-beh“ last year, so I thought to myself, “Self? (That’s what I call myself) Let’s go to Salem, Oregon, to visit them’nz guys. And while we’re at it, give that Odyssey of the VOG thing a whirl.” (As advertised, the baby Elouise Carver is legitimately the cutest child ever to crawl the earth.)
Bright and early on May 28, 2022, race day, my wife, Lynn Short, drove me to the VOG start area. The clouds had yet to uncork the torrents of rain promised by the miserable forecast. So I was free to load Hagar the Horrible (my bike) with all the necessary boat anchors and bench vises I’d need for the ride.
A gaggle of riders gathered at the grange in the farmlands west of Salem to kick this thing off. (Trackleaders states it was 20 riders, but it looked like more than 30 riders to me.) I engaged in the obligatory rider schmoozing and handed out of Gravel Braintrust stickers before the race began.
The rather horrible rain forecast had not delivered yet. The pre-ride preparations weren’t hurried, and I didn’t do something dumb like ride off without rain gear or food for the entire day. There was a coffee sponsor with a table set up, so this day was off to a great start.
The proverbial gun went off and the hammer group went down the road, while I rode at a more restrained pace – not that I could have kept up even if I wasn’t loaded a little heavy.
It was pretty impressive how light almost everyone was packed. I assumed there were at least a few riders subscribing to the “ride hard to stay warm” tactic. Which is a terrible idea when there are plenty of 10+ mile descents that I know I’ll be descending in the cold, cold rain.
I brought all the rain gear, 4 pairs of gloves, and a 17° sleeping bag with a bivy sack with an inflatable Barney pad. I had a delusional idea that I might ride this thing straight through without stopping, but I also wanted to be prepared in case I did stop. If I lay down, I want to be comfortable.
Yes, this is a race, but it’s also a vacation, and I’m getting a solid 8 hours of sleep if I stop.
I fell in early with a few riders, among them was a local dude by the name of Roman. We were both on Team K-Lite, and by that I mean that we were both wearing K-Lite cycling caps that we hadn’t ordered from Jefe Bikes, the US. K-Lite distributor, but received anyway, and that’s definite grounds for being BFFs in ultra bikepacking circles.
Mountains & Valleys
I rode the first climb with Trish – her husband, Ben, is one of the organizers of the VOG – so she had some solid route intel. Ketl Rodakowski came rolling up deep into the steep part of the climb – the same Ketl from Olympia who made elk bibmbap after the Evergreen Grinder and duck egg omelettes after Cascadia Super Gravel. This was my first time actually riding with him.
We were waiting for Charlie Kramer to come blazing past us – apparently Charlie didn’t quite have his bike packed when the ride started. But he’s one seriously strong dude, so we didn’t think it would be too long before we saw him.
You learn different things about a friend when you hang out with them on a bike ride as opposed to their kitchen. So after rolling along the ridge for a while, we hit the first big descent, and that’s where I learned that Ketl descends like a goddamn maniac. Of course, I do too, so down the mountain we went, hooting and hollering the whole way.
The road surface was pretty far from smooth, and we passed a few more sensible riders like they were going backwards as well as a few others fixing flat tires. Sadly, such races aren’t won by bombing down the descents, but they are definitely made more fun that way.
We continued riding together up the next valley until we could kid ourselves no longer that the mist we’d been riding through hadn’t become rain and would stay that way for the foreseeable future. We stopped to dig out rain gear; I got going first and rode on figuring I’d see them later when Charlie caught up.
Keep in mind the epiphany I had 2 weeks ago that I’ve never been on a ride with Charlie that wasn’t the hardest, gnarliest thing I’ve done all year. That 100 mile snow drag from 2 weeks back would be hard to surpass, but given the grim weather forecast for the VOG, it was a definite possibility to keep this streak going.
Somewhere in that valley I passed Joe Bush who was installing a tube. Later on the next steep climb, I met a young dude named Sam who was riding a sweet classic cyclocross bike with 35 mm tires that looked more like 23s. He’s a much stronger rider, so he passed me anytime the road smoothed out.
The route, as I may have mentioned, was rather consistently chunky, so we leap frogged each other frequently and carried on a good conversation.
I wondered how many spare brake pads Sam had brought for his cantilever brakes. Those brakes can’t be beaten in dry conditions, but the pads melt off rather quickly in the rain. Throw gravel and grit into the mix and those suckers vanish almost instantly.
We rode into Black Rock mountain bike park at some point, one of my haunts back in my Portland days. I lived in Oregon for 13 years, so unexpected familiar places would become a theme on the VOG.
After Falls City
Later, on a climb out of Falls City, a dude riding a sweet titanium gravel bike – made by a small-frame builder and bike shop in Seattle, ironically named Good Weather – slowed down to ride with me and wait for his buddy Joe to catch up after his flat tire incident. I’ll call him “GW,” because I never caught his name.
We got to chatting and G-dub was swerving all over the road to maintain my snail’s pace, while I was plowing straight up the mountain. He asked how the hell I was doing this, and I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment.
I was riding a Chamois Hagar (pronounced “Shammy”) by Evil Bikes. The name is a play on the chamois butt pad in the seat of a pair of bike shorts and Sammy Hagar, the iconic hair metal butt-rocker from the 80s.
The bike has some weird shit going on in terms of its geometry that has earned it a reputation among its critics who have never ridden it as “un-turnable.” Conversely, it should also have this other problem called “wheel-flop,” which basically means that if you point the bike uphill the front wheel will flop to the left or the right depending upon the angle of the grade.
So, those Horrible Chamois Hagars have earned their unrideable reputation through ignorance. To be fair, if you’re throwing down 5 Gs on a gravel bike, very few folks will choose a bike that’s far outside the norm almost to the point of absurdity. Also, most gravel riders don’t require the kind of trail ripping from a bike that I generally get into.
I own 3 gravel bikes, which includes an Open UP and a Salsa Cutthroat. These are 3 very different bikes, but Hagar the Horrible is the best handler of them all. Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that G-dub’s Good Weather was wheel-flopping, he was clearly riding a little too slowly for his gearing.
Oregon Coast Range
The route continued over another mountain, and down and up a couple more long valleys following crystal clear creeks and rivers shaded by the dense mossy and intensely green forest of the Oregon Coast Range.
At one point I had been walking for a long time out of a steep, steep valley when a dude in a jeep who’d passed me at the bottom of the climb stopped on his way back down to ask if I knew where the Valley of the Giants was. It’s an old-growth forest for which the VOG is named.
Me: “I have no idea, but apparently it’s somewhere in the next… [checks bike computer] 280 miles.”
I paused to grab a PBJ at the top of the climb and take in the view of a great green misty valley with glimpses of the gravel road I’d be descending. Half of this valley had been clear cut, so presumably this was not the Valley of the Giants I was looking upon.
I’d been riding solo for a long time when I was walking up the next big steep climb and began catching glimpses of G-dub’s yellow rain jacket ahead on the next switchback. I did not expect to see him so close by. I perked up at the prospect of descending the next hill with him, but as I approached the summit, my Wahoo bike computer died.
Why they don’t put a battery indicator on the navigation screen or have a pop-up warning when it’s about to die is beyond me. They thought of a lot of other crap. I plugged it into the cache battery and prayed for that thing to reboot quickly.
Wahoo will recover the ride info when the battery dies, but it takes about 15 minutes. I canceled that shit because now there was cold whipping wind added to the dumping buckets of rain and I was cooling off fast.
I didn’t dare navigate blind down that mountain because logging roads fan out in all directions at every intersection out there. Nor did I want to dig my phone out, buried in a pack in its waterproof case, and navigate one handed. I’ve really gotta get a phone mount for the bars.
It was a fast 8 mile descent, the Wahoo died again, but I got it going again very quickly and soon I was at the bottom entering the town of Grand Ronde for our first resupply at the 97-mile mark.
I caught up with Sam right as the sun came out, we were both mystified by this strange new sensation called warmth. Sam’s brakes made a terrible sound as we pulled into the gas station. His brakes were completely gone and he very wisely hadn’t brought any spare brake pads.
A friend was there to pick him up within a half hour, and the rest of us felt just a little bit envious. I’ve had a bit of practice at cold weather gas station resupply over this never-ending winter, which can be confusing and time-consuming – you’re not necessarily hungry for what you need, and it’s easy to stand around shivering and burning the hell out of your tongue on hot things from the microwave.
But I was on my A-game and didn’t waste any time getting hot water from the coffee station into my hydro vest, filling electrolyte bottles and getting a bunch of food. G-dub was shivering and eyeballing my rain gear as I prepared to shove off – his buddy Joe had arrived by then.
Things were looking up as I rode off into the next valley. The sun wasn’t out anymore, but I was warm and drying out, having peeled off a couple rain suit layers. I hit the next mountain and climbed in relative comfort for several hours. But in the scheme of things, it wasn’t long before a light mist turned into torrential rain and cold whipping wind.
Another Summit & Town of Hebo
It was dark when I hit the summit where a fast 11-mile paved descent was waiting to chill me to the bone before dropping me into the tiny town of Hebo.
I’d first encountered Hebo in the summer of 1996 on my first Oregonian bike trip. The band I’d been playing with was camping on the coast waiting for a gig at the Grand Theater in Salem, Oregon, the next night. That was a splendid opportunity for an overnight bike trip, and for a 25-year-old Colorado boy (I’m 50 now) with no rain gear to learn about Oregon rain. I won’t bore you here with the weirdness that went down in the bar/restaurant where I went for cover, but I definitely bored Sam. It looks like the old place has long since shut down.
It wasn’t far from there to Pacific City where I decided “Dammit, I’m getting a room!”
A couple miles out of town a dude on a motorcycle passed by, and I wondered how his rain game was going. My own wasn’t going so well, my hands and feet were numb, and my core was on the edge of cold. But I had warmed up a bit since Hebo.
A mile out of town I passed some rental cabins that looked interesting, but one glance at the office told me no one would be answering that phone anytime soon. I pulled up to the gas station in town, quickly grabbing my electrolyte bottles off the bike.
I stepped out of the way as the aforementioned dude on the motorcycle came out. We said hello to each other, and in that time the folks in the gas station had locked the door. Apparently they wanted to go sleep somewhere tonight, too.
Still reluctant to dig out my phone, I asked the dude on the motorcycle if there were any hotels close by. We chatted for a minute, and Adrian (that was his name), said, “Follow me, I’ve got the perfect place for you. We’ve gotta get you out of the cold!” I followed him back the way I had come about a mile, which took some time because Adrian had to stop and say hello to everyone who was outside. And now suddenly the place was crawling with people.
Eventually Adrian led me to the previously-ridden-by-and-fantasized-about cabins. They had been purchased the day before, and he was staying in one until next week when remodeling or more likely demolition – would begin.
He opened a room for me and I pitched my camp on a floor that surpassed the gravel parking lot for filth. But the shower was hot, the heater cranked like you wouldn’t believe, so it didn’t matter that there were no towels.
Some self-supported bikepacking purists might cry foul about receiving outside assistance. But this, my friends, was “trail magic,” and that shit is fair game!
I slept the sleep of the dead for a solid 8 hours. I didn’t set an alarm – I didn’t care how many riders passed me with an early morning departure. I was rested, my stuff was dry, and miraculously it wasn’t raining, except in 5-minute intervals after leaving town.
I hit the “sorry closed” gas station for breakfast and caught a glimpse of G-dub packing his bike. “Sweet! Those guys got a room last night too!” Well, they got the back of someone’s SUV. Trail magic, you’ve gotta love it!
Odyssey Day 2
I had 222 more miles left to go, having bitten off probably 128 yesterday.
I stopped by the iconic beach at Cape Kiwanda, still not digging my phone out for a picture, and on up the road I pedaled – applying and removing the rain jacket as necessary.
I passed the exit to Cape Lookout. That was where I’d gotten drenched by my first Oregon rain all those years ago, when I was half the age and more than twice as dumb as I am now. I sometimes wish I knew now what I didn’t know then and only thought I knew later.
A quick 60 miles later, and I was in Tillamook for my last resupply. I can still see the bag of cheese curds and jerky I didn’t get at the gas station, thinking I would stop on my way out of town at the Tillamook Creamery for some of their delightful squeaky cheese curds.
But when I saw the line from a walk-up window that stretched all the way down to the Mexican border, I decided to go curdless. The global pandemic and Memorial Day weekend had dashed my hopes for cheese curds on the rocks.
There would be no more resupply on this strange wet odyssey until 20 miles from the finish. by then I would not stop in DuBois. And I would only weep openly at the smell of pizza.
Another green valley, another gigantic climb – this time with no rain at the top. Somewhere in there I met a couple day riders from Portland on gravel bikes. Yet another dopamine bump!
The next humongous climb had rain waiting for me at the top. By this time I had perfected my technique of layering up and eating something before I was finished climbing, so I would be good and warm for the descent.
The next valley through the ATV park had some delightful creeks with swimming holes that were calling for me to return in the dog days of summer for a dip.
I ran out of daylight on the next climb and it seemed as though the rain was here to stay. I was wearing my warm layer under the rain jacket, and my hands warmed up in the wetsuit gloves I’d been wearing in the rain.
Normally you have to pee in wetsuit gloves for them to keep your hands warm – as I learned in my bygone days, not as a surfer, per se, but as someone who surfed occasionally. Half of the surfers in Oregon pee in their wetsuits to stay warm, the other half lie about it.
But there I was with warm hands in pee-free neoprene gloves. My feet were another story. They probably smelled worse than pee at this point, but were pretty far from warm.
I rolled along the ridge next to Barney Lake, thinking more than once that this would be an excellent place to “Barney.” Barney is an old Colorado raft guide term for camping, named after one guide’s van that he called Barney – “Hey, I’m gonna go Barney out, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Barney” eventually became a term for any place that you sleep, as well as a verb. I hope it catches on in the bikepacking world. Tell your friends.
No More Rain
As if by magic, I rode out of the rain toward the bottom of that mountain descent and found myself climbing steep farm roads in dusty ball bearing gravel outside of…well, I had no idea where the hell I was.
I did notice that I was going farther and farther north. I knew full well that the end of this loop was far to the south, and I was dangerously close to breaking my cardinal rule of ultra cycling: do not let yourself think for a moment that you should be somewhere other than where you are, or going some direction other than the one the GPS breadcrumb trail is taking you.
But soon I was zooming on a paved road around a lake that was hauntingly familiar. But it couldn’t be – that lake is all the way up by Portland for crying out loud. The memory gave me a good little dopamine bump though, and I carried on.
Another rider soon came zooming up behind me – it was Joe. He’d lost track of G-dub somewhere on the last rainy descent, and they were both wondering if the other had crashed. I rode with Joe into the tiny town of Argent where Joe and G-dub planned to meet up and “Barney out” in a baseball field until morning.
Onward to Yamhill
I rode on to Yamhill for water, on the way, Jason Pevey, a dude I’d met when Ketl and I were riding together, passed me, confirming that that giant lake was, in fact, Hagg Lake. “Goddammit, that was a day ride when I lived in Portland!!”
Then I began to relive the memories of taking our friend Serge on a ride out there, telling him it would be a 20-mile ride if we took the MAX train to the end of the line. It was 55 miles, and Serge was pretty cracked. Carver and I took turns pushing him up the hills on the last half of the ride. Wow, Lynn was on that ride too! Serge would later become more of a proper cyclist than I ever would.
I coasted on that dopamine bump into Yamhill where I refilled my water from a church hose nozzle hidden in the bushes. That dopamine bump carried me over a few small gravel climbs into the hills west of McMinnville where it was suddenly daytime again.
Nestucca Pass and River valley
But it didn’t quite carry over the next big ball buster of a paved climb over the impossibly tall Nestucca Pass, to an equally impossibly long, beautiful and cold descent down the Nestucca River valley. When that valley and its heart rending greenery finally came to an end, I headed up the last major climb, that proved to be one serious muddy crank bender.
At this point I was getting hungry while at the same time not wanting to eat. My stomach wasn’t feeling weird, it’s just that I wanted to destroy some Thai food with a clean slate when this thing was over. I wasn’t feeling bonky, but I was still a little far out to ride it in on fumes, so I mixed up a bottle of Hammer Recoverite and drank that down.
At some interminable point, the rolling ridge traverse ended and presented me with my final big descent, on pavement no less! I was pulling Gs around a turn at 44 mph near the bottom when I saw Seth – yes, VOG organizer Seth – parked in the perfect spot with an ain’t-no-messin’-around DSLR camera snapping pictures of me turning the bike that cannot be turned.
That hill down, there was one more small bump in the elevation profile to climb over. There was a sign at the bottom that said the hill was a mile long.
“Hey, that’s Ginger Hill!” Ginger Hill is a steep mile long hill back in Pennsyltucky that I often rode up, and especially down, on my BMX bike when I was a kid. Turns out that’s still a pretty big hill.
The top of that hill eventually came, and I rolled into the final town of Sheridan with a tailwind. The siren song of a grocery store during business hours had a strong pull, but not even the smell of the pizza place could pull me out of my home stretch revery. Although it did make me cry some salty joyful tears at a volume that, no doubt, had a few of the townsfolk questioning the sanity of this filthy guy on the bike passing through.
Almost to the finish
11 miles from the finish I saw another biker coming my way. When I saw that it was Lynn sneaking out to ride me in, the flood gates let loose and I sobbed in her arms. That’s kind of why I do this stuff – I can let myself feel my feelings in a way that’s difficult to access under normal circumstances.
We rode along holding hands, when a drone came buzzing overhead. Seth was at it again! I can’t wait to see the documentary this guy puts together!
3 miles from the finish, Roman came out to ride me in. He had scratched out the first night, realizing he’d packed for much nicer weather than we got. It was his first ultra, and I have no doubt he’ll be back for more.
Back at the grange, Roman handed me a lager of some kind that knocked my wet smelly fetid socks off. Oh, those cold horror show feet!
The Thai food I’d been dreaming about for the previous 3 hours had become a reality as well as a sweet, sweet slumber after a 30-hour slog and my biggest day of climbing ever.
Big thanks to Seth DuBois and Ben Handrich for putting this thing together, and all their friends who helped. Thanks to Joshua Kyle Hess at Mojo Cyclery for getting Hagar the Horrible running smooth. And big smooches to Lynder-Hözen Riding Through the Land for dragging me down there and back again for one big VOGging odyssey!
Justin Short rides year-round and writes the Everyday Cyclist column, where he shares advice, recommendations, funny anecdotes about his biking adventures, and stories about the Inland Northwest biking community.