Lakes Loop

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At the bottom of Oregon and the southern end of the Rouge Valley is a small town called Ashland. It sits just off Interstate 5, fifteen miles North of the California-Oregon border, on top of a rolling hill-top in the flat-bottom of a long, narrow half-pipe-shaped mountain valley. Surrounded by orchards and forests. Ashland is host to a large annual Shakespeare festival.

Lakes loop is a 98-mile figure-eight with 6,000ft of climbing. The first and most difficult climb, Green Springs, comes fifteen miles into the ride and doles out three thousand feet, turn by turn, in a steady, eight-mile sitting. Over the top, the ride trundles through a massive mountain-top basin covered in small rippled hills, manzanita blooms, pine forests, cow pasture, wetlands and lakes. All of it connected by a network of charming roads, ascending and descending, from one feature to the next. It’s a near-magical alpine universe monitored, from a distance, by several proud, looming snow-white peaks.
The ride ends with a 12-mile plummet, delivered in pitches and banks and straights that leap and plunge respectively, back down the mountain and into town.

The ride starts in earnest beyond the valley and orchards to the east of town, past several miles of foothills which flex and posture impressively with several long-ish grinds and quick heartspikes. Past Emigrant Lake, quiet and still, and the bridge over Emigrant Creek. Green Springs Highway climbs, a continuous series of exaggerated, long-reaching lefts and rights, up an impressive mountain wall.

From the road. Your left alternates between near-vertical cliffs spilling rocks into the odd turn-out where short breaks in the steep allow flat to form. And banked hills riddled with ‘valleyettes’ ending in green, cool, crooks populated by trees and brush. To the right, in the direction of town, impossibly green and lush, vertiginous and ripe. Old and Middle-Earth-ish, much like Scotland, speckled with cows and rocky groves, littered with bright red barns and laced with white wooden fences. Just out of reach, the foothills chase the mountain into the weather above. On more precarious corners featuring precipitous drops, chain-link nets forty feet high, like baseball backdrops, edge the pavement to catch rocks, motorcycles and the occasional errant automobile. At the top, 4,875ft above sea level in the gravel headwaters of Soda Mountain Road, the temperature drops.

After a brief descent and a quick enough skirt of Hyatt Reservoir, 20 miles in, the ride continues, simultaneously rolling and stepping along Hyatt Lake Road. Dense pine forest crowds-in eagerly and the air is decidedly alpine, biting and unpasteurized. The road itself is a narrow, chip-seal path. The mood is volcanic, a convergence of east slope and west slope attitudes regarding water and color, a deep-green loamy-red amalgamation. The drop into Howard Prairie Recreation Area feels like riding a bike down a big hill into the garden of Eden. It’s like a massive white sheet covering a brand new world has only just been removed to reveal– ‘ta-da’ – the archetypal mountain scene inhabited by Plato’s peaks, lakes and rivers. The reservoir is large and blue. Empty wooden docks punctuate the periodic gravel turnouts-cum-parking lots which appear in irregular intervals along the road.

Thirty-three miles in, Rouge River National Forest Road, abandoned and expertly paved, travels a quiet nether world, organically shifting between forests, pastures and highland wetlands. Dead Indian Memorial Road, steep and scenic, is literally and figuratively, breath taking. Like riding through a postcard or summer snow-globe. Round hills, French speaking cows, an old timey wooden fence, all of it framed by Mt McLaughlin, a perfect white triangle, peering over the trees.

The route continues to climb and roll through dense woods past large piles of volcanic rock extruded and frozen like troll-sized cairns. A quick grind on Highway 140 is hot but necessary. It’s slow, steady and constant ending with a turn at Lake of the Wood Road 10-miles later. This skinny little state park road lies, where the road is lowest and most level, with its head barely above water. On either side, high altitude lakes flush with snow-melt and recent rains, reach out to each other from across the road. Lake of the Wood Resort, 57 miles in, is a deep glassy navy-black. A general store and restaurant-bar mingle with several hundred campsites.

The trip back through the valley begins wooded, cool and tricky with a few short but sincere climbs. Eventually, a long ramp-like descent arrives, steady and straight, falling with a big-ring assist, past a glorious arrangement of iconic Cascadia. At mile 67, Dead Indian Memorial Road, now in reverse, is once again postcard perfect.

The climb out is a stalwart, five-mile march up the backside of the front range to the crest and a lengthy descent. The promise of near-completion, pushes like a tailwind up the last steady hill before the end.

The road pauses at the summit for four hundred or so yards before giving way to a 12-mile downhill romp. Rarely straight, often slight, and regularly head first into a headwind that feels like a force field, hot and practically impenetrable. The finish is a stomping, jamming, and pedaling affair.

Ashland

Green Springs HWY

Ride Faster

Lake of the Woods

We come to a turn-out at the top in ones and twos. First Ben, quickly followed by a not-nearly fast enough Ira. Then me, barely ahead of Ryan, the result of our laughable slow motion up-hill-race-sprint which neither of us won, I just lost less. Then Greg and, finally, a grinning Tony.

The day ostensibly over, with all major efforts either made or unmakeable to start with, the mood was good as we breathed and dried through the last break before the ride finale, a 12-mile descent. We sat in the dirt and hanged about our bikes. We ate fruit, unfurled stowaways and stretched. There was even some innocuous chatter about the nature of the descent. How long exactly, what grade, the road surface?

Then Greg, unintentionally violating the group solidarity beaten into us by two longish major climbs and ninety miles of riding, asked a not so harmless question. “Hey Ryan,” he said, “where’s the town limit sign. Is it maybe at the bottom or somewhere thereabouts?” Where’s the town limit sign, was he serious? A truce had already been called, one signed by my lactic legs and ratified by the late afternoon sun casting our tired, leaning shadows into the dirt.

And with that, an energetic shift was felt throughout our makeshift parking lot, one almost palpable in the air above Dead Indian Summit. Backs straightened, helmets were fastened and pedals went smack, smack, smack. Where previously, a group of friends had been sharing a languid afternoon cool-down before an easy roll into town, all that remained was a still billowing cloud of sunlight-streaked dust. In the distance, almost out of sight, the sound of the sulfur Stowaway, short, tight and tidy, flapping violently, echoed off the hillside.

I descend under the influence of one of two attitudes, they co-exist on opposite sides of the mortality spectrum. The first is rationality; I have a wife and kids and I’m 36-years old. Crashing out at 42 miles per hour is too great a risk simply to earn ‘first one down the mountain’ bragging rights. Unless it’s a race or someone attractive is watching and cares – neither situation I have much experience with – then why bother? Especially considering no major amount of time can be lost or gained when optimal drafting is in effect. I can’t remember when it was exactly but a few years ago, I cancelled my subscription to adrenalin.

The second attitude is primal, reckless and stupid and can’t be reasoned with. When it comes, it comes so completely as to permeate every cell and override every neuron in the pursuit of one thing. Speed. And it’s focus, in this case, is the now mythologized Ashland City Limit sign. It’s a state of consciousness I call “Mongo”. And right now, Mongo is pulling through a banking left turn at 46 miles per hour.

What makes this descent so noteworthy is that with exception of Ben Lieberson, not totally unsusceptible but certainly a bit more reserved, Mongo comes upon us collectively, the whole group possessed by the possibility of a road sign at the bottom of a mountain. Rides ending with a descent and city limit signs are commonplace and in the absence of aggravated chiding while climbing, we don’t generally race amongst ourselves. But whether its was celestial alignment or some kind of infection, we crowd-attacked the road, the hill and each other in a display part feeding frenzy, part Road Warrior, part 12-year old boys in a neighborhood BMX race.

Drafting around bends and into turns with only inches between tires and bars, the classic pace line rotation formed, exploded, and reformed hundred times over. Challenges came from the right, through scree and loose gravel and to the left in the on-coming traffic lane where carless straights confirmed ownership of the road. Elbows brushed and bumped in slow-motion focus, framed in a grey, yellow-flecked warp-speed blur. A rhythm formed between periods of rest, spent coasting in a quiet line, one buffeted on the edges by increasingly warm valley air. The tunneled sound of Chris King hubs buzzing. And just before every turn, the frenetic moments of digging and fighting, measured in wheel lengths, for an inside-line advantage. All of us plotting and mapping, timing the apex. Feeling-out the surface. Leaning further and further with less regard, more confidence or both.

I sprinted until I was raw and burning and sure that I had shaken the field. I did this five times, maybe seven, before I realized that no matter how hard I worked, or what I was willing to gamble, someone was always right behind me with a smile on their face. And if it was Tony, a wink and a grin too, his face hanging over the front of his bike, eyes peering intently, manically from just beneath the brim of his hat.

Near the bottom, I skipped my wheel leaving a turn. It could have been reflective paint or a rock. But whatever it was, I skipped from straight to sideways, 45 degrees, and snapped back to attention, vertical, in the same instant. I looked back, seeking verification that I was still living and for some explanation as to what just happened. Tony’s grin was still there, though now crowded slightly by the surprise and wonder that registered on the rest of his face.

We became colors, coming into and out of focus. A white blur would materialize into Ryan as he passed. Greg would drift back into black. A half-blue, half-Ira, hanging back and to the left. This went on, all of it, for what seemed like hours. Sweaty faces and diminished posture, shorter and shorter pulls and counter attacks, all evidence that the tired we felt before the drop was nothing compared to our current shelled emptiness. We finally landed, mostly together, and in the end there was either no city limit sign; or else we passed it and nobody had noticed.

Greg, feeling robbed, rode off the front and meaninglessly attacked a freeway overpass. Before rolling over the far side he looked back and smiled.

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