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 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2014

Tour de Fronds

I don't usually do plugs for century rides, but I'm making an exception this month. I'm tipping my old chapeau to the Tour de Fronds, a nice little ride in the coastal mountains of Southern Oregon. But before going any further with this, I need to make the disclaimer that I have not actually done the ride.

I led a week-long tour of Southern Oregon a few weeks ago--end of July, beginning of August--and on August 1, our crew of 45 Santa Rosa Cycling Club members did Stage 7 of the tour, riding 71 miles from the town of Powers to the town of Glendale. (You can read more about this tour in the preview book I prepared for the participants. It's available here at my Adventure Velo website. in addition to what you can read about the route in my preview book--including looking at the map and several photos--you can get more involved with it at this Ride With GPS page, where I've drawn up the full Tour de Fronds century route.)

Our stage followed the route of the century ride for approximately it's first 51 miles. We then carried on to Glendale at a point where the century route turns off and loops back toward Powers. The century has a raggedy loop at the far end and a long out-&-back for the first and last miles. When the loop ends at mile 63, the final 40 miles are the same as the first 40, except in the opposite direction. Seeing as how we rode those miles already, albeit in the opposite direction, one way or another, we saw 91 of the century's 103 miles.

As is the practice with most century events, the organizers offer shorter, less ambitious options in case you don't want the full century. And make no mistake: the full century is a substantial challenge. Their website says it has 9700' of elevation gain, and that's exactly what I came up with when I plotted it in Ride With GPS. If that seems too much for you, the various alternatives all explore some of the best miles on offer: the run out and back along the canyon of the South Fork of the Coquille River. But if you have the fitness for the full century, I highly recommend it.

The century starts at Powers County Park, just north of the little town. This is where we camped between Stages 6 and 7 of our tour. It's a nice camp, on the shore of an old mill pond, with good showers and an excellent group-camping area. I learned about this nice campground from the organizers of the century when we first did this route in 2005. I had been swapping e-mails with them again prior to this edition of our tour, so they knew we were coming, and they made us feel right at home with big signs at the entrance to the park welcoming the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. Then Donna Freeman, the Chair of the century, dropped by with a friend in the afternoon to say hello and to pass out Tour de Fronds swag. It was a classic bit of small-town, back-country hospitality.

In case you don't feel inclined to download my Southern Oregon Tour preview book to read about this stage, I will copy the relevant section here, with a few minor edits…

"South of Powers, the road stops being a “highway” and becomes simply Powers South Road. It narrows and wiggles about more, as it becomes more intimately entangled with the South Fork of the Coquille. The river narrows too, or its gorge does. Great masses of rock fill the stream in decorative ways. Birch, alder, and aspen crowd the banks in lovely profusion. This really is one of the prettiest roads I can recall riding. It approaches perfection.

"But wait...there’s more. It gets better. At around mile 17, after a tight hairpin in the bottom of a pocket canyon, the road begins to climb. Turn east at mile 18 and pick up USFS Road 3348 and continue the climb, up into the high hills (still along the Coquille, which turns east with the road). Now we’re climbing in earnest, gaining around 3000' between mile 17 and mile 40. The first three miles are moderately hard work--950' up (5%)--followed by 13 miles of gently uphill rollers and false flats.

"If the run along the lower river canyon was beautiful, this section may require some other adjective that tops “beautiful.” How about sublime? There are several spots where the river, now more of a mountain cascade, can be seen from the road, often doing fancy, show-off bits with glassy green pools and waterfalls, including Upper Coquille River Falls--right next to the road--where it might be worth getting off the bike and exploring. You’ve never seen such a mass of green and fuzzy ferns in one place. The little road is like a tunnel through them. I almost felt as if I were riding in the belly of some great green beast.

"At mile 33, that long, gently uphill run ends with a modest descent of a mile and a half. That little drop into a creek canyon brings us to the real climbing challenge of the day: three and a half miles up with around 1600' of gain to a summit at 3789'. That works out to an average of around 9%, with a number of spots on the high side of 10%. It’s butch.

"Once over the top at mile 39, the roads tilt downhill for most of the rest of the stage. In most exquisite particular, beginning at mile 39, bold descenders will be in heaven: 2400' down in eight miles...nothing but one slinky bend after another, down and down. Good pavement. Great scenery. Added to the wonderful run along the Coquille in the first half of the ride, this downhill quite literally puts the stage over the top in terms of biking delight. It’s about as good as it would be if you drew it up as a fantasy of what a great stage could be."

That's the end of my extract from the tour book. Now, having done the ride again, I can affirm that what I wrote ten years ago is as true as ever and then some. And I should add that traffic over the entire distance is almost nonexistent.

Leaving our stage route and looping back toward Powers means you will now have to climb back out of the canyon into which you descended during those eight wonderful miles of gravity candy. This is the biggest climb of the century: 2400' up in five miles for an average of 9%. This climb and the previous 9% climb--and the rollicking descent in between--are what you miss if you opt for one of the shorter routes. For many people, that would be the wise choice. But if you can handle these big bumps, you will be well rewarded for your effort. This is all great stuff. And when you do get done with that big climb out of the canyon of Cow Creek, you end up back at the top of the previous climb, which now--heading back to the start--becomes the first installment in a series of almost constant downhill dances, all the way to the finish. Some are white-knuckle plunges down the rabbit hole and others are just long, lazy glides through the trees, down the canyon. All of it is superb.

Having not actually done the Tour de Fronds, I can't comment on their level of support. But judging by the cheerful enthusiasm of Donna--the event Chair--I have to think they'll do a decent job, and maybe even an excellent job. But support aside, the real drawing cards here are the quiet, meandering roads and the heavenly scenery. In those respects, it's about as nice as any century I've ever done.

Powers is a long way from almost anywhere. These little roads wiggling around in the Siskiyou National Forest are way out there, about as remote as remote can be. That of course is what makes them such a dream venue for a bike ride. However, it also makes the century a tough sell: all the travel involved. But if you were to combine a day at the century with a day in the nearby seaside resort of Bandon, for instance, you could turn it into a delightful weekend getaway. It's always on a weekend near Summer Solstice. I can think of a lot of worse ways to spend a couple of days. If you do go, look up Donna and tell her Bill sent you.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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