When you move to Portland, they warn you about the rain. The lore, as told by local riders astride fully-fendered road bikes, is that it’s frequent and heavy, and liable to surprise you at a moment’s notice, no matter the season. In the city, the talk is about precipitation, but here’s what they don’t talk about: just over an hour’s drive east of the city is the beginning of a high desert that stretches across much of the state, with the sort of balmy temperatures and aridity that are hard to believe when you’re cowering from Portland’s latest downpour under a grocery store’s awning.
It’s this desert that’s home to the Oregon Stampede, 124 miles of gravel roads, grinding climbs, and little potable water. Its creator is Donnie Kolb, a local rider who can begin a conversation on riding in Oregon’s desert, and within a minute or two be telling you about working as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Alaska, or how to learn ice climbing, or how skiing down from the summit of Mt Hood is well worth the six-hour hike it takes to get up there.
Donnie’s best way of explaining the expanse of Oregon’s desert is with Google Maps. Want to know where the desert is? Press the ‘satellite’ button on the map page – zoom out far enough, and there’s an unmissable divide that runs north to south down the state. West of that line is luscious and green, while the east looks like the color of an over-baked cookie.
He hosted the Stampede yearly [this year’s edition was put on by Portland’s excellent 21st Ave Bikes] and over its eight editions the ride has developed a small mystique around its difficulty, weather conditions, and some of the idiosyncratic types who take to the start line each year. “Putting on the first edition feels like a really long time ago now. This was before the days of Ride with GPS and all those services, so I just took two pages of the Oregon Gazetteer [the State’s preferred topographical map] and highlighted the roads and tracks. I made a stack of photocopies, then emailed every bike shop in town to tell them about it.”
“There are people who do it competitively, but most are just interested in surviving.” One of those survivors is Rapha’s Tim Coghlan, who has toed the line of every edition of the Stampede. One look at Tim is all you need to know that he is almost singularly unsuited to high temperatures. He doesn’t argue this point.
“When it gets scorching hot, I just throw up. It’s just what my body does. Some years, it’s been so hot that the sweat doesn’t even have time to sit on your skin, it just evaporates immediately. That’s when you know it’s bad.” Tim’s recounting of his rides at the Stampede can, if interpreted the wrong way, sound a bit like the plot of a horror film, but there’s a reason he returns every year. “I just like the idea that you ride as hard as you can for as long as you can. If you want to go fast, there’ll always be someone there a bit faster than you for you to chase, or you can just ride hard in a unique landscape.”
Over the years, the kit and equipment has changed. The first couple of editions featured a number of what Tim describes as the “camping cup and cut-off jeans” crew, but the majority are now clad in lightweight synthetic jerseys and lightweight shorts. “There’s nothing that is going to make you magically cooler,” explains Donnie, “but you’ve got to find kit that’ll take some of the moisture away from your skin. Having said that, if you come across a cool, clean creek, take that jersey and soak in it in the water and get it straight back on.”
Much of the attraction of rides like the Stampede (especially when compared to the flying-elbows action of a local criterium) is its implied connection to Robinson Crusoe-style isolation and adventure. What do we find out in the desert? Not much, usually, and I hazard a guess that this is kind of the point. “I guess that the interesting thing is you never really know what’s going to happen. It’s rarely just ‘another ride’.”