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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2022

Anatomy of a Tour

I’m just home from an excellent summer bike tour with my mates from the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. We put on one or sometimes two of these week-long tours every summer—sometime between May and September—and I have been involved in some leadership role in most of them, almost 40 tours down the years, beginning back in 1995.

I’ve written in this space in the past about what we call cooperative touring: all the participants assisting with the many chores needed to keep the tour moving every day. (These are usually, mostly campground-based tours.) Cooperative touring is something I learned from one of our club members who had formerly been a member of the Sacramento Wheelmen, where such tours have been a staple of their summer season for years.

MapIn scrolling back through the archives of this column, looking for that cooperative touring piece, I discovered that the last time I had written about club tours was in September, 2007 reviewing the Northern Oregon Tour. Funny thing about that: this recently-run tour was The Northern Oregon Tour Redux, a reinvented reprise of the 2007 tour. It’s no accident that both of these related tours should inspire me to write about them. They were both epic tours in their own ways, both worthy of some ink. The link for the first tour takes you back to my article in this space about that tour. The link for the second tour takes you to the preview book (a pdf) I prepared for the reinvented tour of 2022. That links to the page at the SRCC website for the tour. Now that the tour is over and done with, I’m not sure how long they’ll keep the site active. If you ever find the link has dried up, drop me a note and I’ll send you the book. Or just content yourself with whatever is in this article.

This isn’t really a guidebook-style overview of the tour. That’s what the preview book is for. I see this column as more of a look at how the tour actually played out, with its good points and its challenges and struggles. I’ve already gone into some detail on cooperative touring in that prior column in 2005: how they work and why we like them. I will only add that we started the tour with 43 participants, two of whom were our paid staff of what we call food wranglers. They do all the food shopping, oversee the cooking, and also drive our two small rented trucks between our overnights each day. We also run one sag wagon, with the sagging shared by two riders taking turns: one day of riding, then a day in the sag.

This tour was originally scheduled for August of 2020 but of course had to be scrubbed because of COVID. We had all our camps and other details nailed down for that one but around March of 2020 the future began to look grim and we warned our participants that it was unlikely to happen. It was a terrible disappointment for all of us to have to cancel that tour. Now, finally, with vaccines and with life more or less back to normal, we were finally ready to try again. 

A huge amount of work goes into a tour before it ever hits the road. Countless hours of route planning and scouting, which typically will entail at least a couple of trips to the region to drive or ride the routes. Then preparing the maps and route slips and elevation profiles. This is becoming less important as more people use Garmin or Wahoo or some other mapping app on their bikes. But we still like to do it and there are still many riders who rely on the old hard copy materials.

Then there are all the logistical chores, from booking campsites or motels to arranging car pools, renting trucks, planning the shopping, gathering all the support equipment at the club warehouse. Just rattling off these few sentences does not begin to encompass all the hours of hard slogging and discussion and problem solving that go into getting our show on the road. Then there’s the crucial budget crunching: how much is the tour going to cost and how much do we charge our member participants? Two of us are co-chairs and receive free entries for our time and trouble, which probably works out to about 25 cents an hour, if that. 

The really hard, hands-on work begins on the Friday before our Saturday departure, when we pick up the two trucks and begin outfitting them for the trip. One truck is our kitchen truck, with all the food and cooking equipment. It’s packed to the roof by the time we’ve loaded everything. The other is the luggage truck, which takes all personal gear, including any bikes people can’t take on their own cars. This year we had 17 carloads of people converging on the start at Silver Falls State Park, east of Salem. Some were self-contained but many had gear or bikes that had to go in the truck. We had arranged with the rangers there to have all the cars stored for the week in a secure, gated lot in the park (for a fee).

The first minor glitch was that one of our two trucks wasn’t in Santa Rosa on Friday morning. We had to send two people to Berkeley to pick it up, a two-hour round trip. That might now be seen as an omen of things to come. Anyway, we spent a long, hot day prepping and loading both trucks. While some of us were working on that front, another team was at Costco and Trader Joe’s, running up hefty tabs on the food we’d be consuming for the next week. All that food, from sodas and waters to tri-tip and chicken to oatmeal and croissants, had to be organized into daily rations according to our menu plans, then iced down (if perishable) and stored in the trucks. It was a long day for many of us.

And then we were back at the warehouse at 5 AM on Saturday morning for last-minute chores and then out on the road by 5:45. Our two food wranglers, Bob and Becky, were in the kitchen truck. Long-time tour participant Nathan, an experienced truck driver, was driving the luggage truck. I was in a car with my pal Ed, just having had lunch in Weed and on the road to Yreka, when I got a call from Nathan. The luggage truck was dead on the side of I-5, ten miles south of Dunsmuir. All the fluid had leaked out of the transmission and it had seized up…dead as a doornail.

Now, consider the situation: we have 40 participants en route to the start at the state park. They will mostly arrive around 5 or 6 PM, just in time to make dinner and pitch their tents and turn in. But our truck, with most of their camping gear, plus all three of our propane stoves, is kaput on the side of the road, hundreds of miles away. If we can’t get the gear to them, they have no way to camp for the night. They will have the food in the kitchen truck but no way to cook it. (They improvised a cold dinner, then settled down to wait for us.)

Ed and I doubled back and found the truck, then spent at least two hours on the phone with the truck rental customer service folks…two mostly fruitless hours. They had no replacement trucks anywhere nearby. We were screwed. Without a replacement truck, our tour would be dead on arrival. So I finally decided we needed to race back south to the bigger city of Redding and find another truck if we could. Off we went, with me driving and Ed working the phone, trying to find any truck at all. One dead end after another. No truck, no truck, nope, sorry, nothing… Finally, just as I hit the Redding city limits, he found one lonely U-Haul out at the Redding airport. We grabbed it and headed back north toward the dead truck.

BridgeMeanwhile, another of our car pool gangs had found out about our plight and they were rushing back from Medford to assist. Assist with what? With transferring tons of cargo from the dead truck to the new truck. (Did I mention it was close to 100°?) As I was driving the new truck north, Nathan called to tell me the dead truck was being towed into Lakehead, a little no-place along the interstate. I said I knew where that was and would meet him there. We both pulled in at the same time and the carload of guys who’d doubled back pulled in five minutes later. We backed the two trucks up to each other and ran a ramp across as a bridge, and within less than an hour we had everything out of the dead truck and well stored in the new truck. Finally, we were back on the road, but by now many hours late. Our two cars pulled into the camp just before 11 PM and the big truck rolled in at midnight. We unloaded as quietly as we could and finally got people bedded down in the wee hours of the morning. By breakfast, everything was okay and we were ready and eager to begin Stage 1.

I always say these tours are about problem solving; about meeting the unexpected and figuring out a way forward. We’ve had other truck failures on past tours. Another one near Redding, one in Southern California, one in Southern Utah, one deep in Kings Canyon NP, and one over near Bridgeport on the far side of the Sierra. In every case we’ve managed to get things sorted out and keep our tours on the road. Then there are the other two banes of summer touring: forest fires and highway construction. We’ve had at least a half-dozen tours affected by fires and just about that many derailed by road projects. Some were easy fixes; others quite complex and daunting. But we’ve muddled through them all. I’m proud of that.

The other variable that can make an average tour stage into something quite different is weather. Over those past tours I’ve accumulated over 270 stages. Of those, we’ve only been hit with rain on about five days, and rarely more than just a brief cloudburst or a minor drizzle. Heat though…that has been a more frequent visitor. And so it was on the first stage of this tour: well over 100°. It had been that hot for the preceding couple of weeks and we were dreading doing the whole tour under those conditions. But I guess we caught the last gasp of that heat wave because after that first Sunday ride, it was never more than mid-90s for the duration. Hot but not ridiculous. That first day though was a beast, and it didn’t help that the 64-mile stage turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. It’s part of my job to give the participants a good idea of what to expect on each upcoming stage. For this day, I badly undersold it. I said the many “little” climbs would be like being nibbled to death by ducks. It was more like being torn apart by crocodiles. We all struggled and those of us who are not as fit as we used to be…we were pretty well shattered.

But even in that little corner of hell we found some grace. Slogging up a super steep wall—25%!—I saw a sign on the side of the road: “Hey SRCC riders! Come in for a cold drink!” WTF? One of our earlier riders had talked to this homeowner and he—a mountain biker—had put the sign out. Of course we stopped and were refreshed with fresh fruit, glasses of ice water and our bottles filled with same. Saved my day.

One rider had a nasty accident right near the finish: a shattered carbon-fiber rim in a pothole lurking in the shade on a tricky downhill. Lots of road rash, even a faceplant, and that busted rim. There was talk of having to leave the tour but he toughed it out and finished the full tour, borrowing wheels from each of the sag drivers on the days they weren’t riding. We were fortunate to have three doctors and a nurse among our crew, so any medical issues such as this one received expert attention.

That was all through the pretty, wooded foothills on the west flank of the Cascades, just up out of the fertile valley of the Willamette River. Stage 2 was more of the same but not nearly as hard, nor as hot. So a more pleasant day for everyone. This was our only non-camping night. We stayed at a nice Comfort Inn in the cute town of Troutdale. All our people fanned out through the town in search of dinner, then some of us gathered in the lobby after dinner for more revels. All good. And no problems!

FallsIf you read the preview booklet for this tour or if you know your Oregon geography and history, you know the Columbia River Gorge and the Historic Columbia River Highway and its companion state trails represent something approaching cycling nirvana. It was every bit of that for us on Stages 3 and 4. Words and pictures can barely convey the magical experience of riding along the quaint old highway, past one magnificent waterfall after another. I hooked up with a half a dozen other riders for this section and we just wallowed in the glorious beauty, stopping at almost every waterfall: Latourel, Waukheena, Shepperd’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Multnomah, Horsetail. When we stopped at the pretty little Vista House overlooking the river, we had the added treat of seeing a lovely old paddle-wheel steamer chugging along below us, harking back to the days when the old highway was new.

Year by year, section by section, the state and local agencies have been building more of the beautiful paved trails that replace portions of the historic highway that were demolished back in the 1960s. That ambitious project is almost done, except for the Mitchell Point Tunnel section, just west of Hood River. It’s supposed to be completed next summer but it doesn’t look like they’ll be done by then. They certainly aren’t done now, so we still had to ride for several miles along the shoulder of I-84. Used to be, there was a wide shoulder along that section so riding it wasn’t all that bad. But now? While they’re building us our lovely new paved trail, they have gobbled up almost all of the shoulder for their construction zone, leaving cyclists with maybe two feet between the concrete barriers and the 18-wheelers roaring by at freeway speed. We did not expect that! Nothing for it but to keep tracking down that narrow space and hope the drivers are all paying attention. No accidents for us but a lot of frayed nerves.

We camped that night at the Hood River County Fairgrounds up in the hills above the town of Hood River. A nice site with nice showers close at hand. Our wonderful day in the gorge was slightly dampened by occasional sprinkles and we were still getting a bit of that as we were putting up our tents around the lawn at the fairgrounds, causing us to worry about what the night and the next day would bring. In the end it petered out without really getting us wet and we were treated to a spectacular sunset (and sunrise) over the mountains.

It was here, at the fairgrounds, that COVID decided to crash our party. We had been very scrupulous about everyone being vaxxed and boosted and we felt we were in pretty good shape when we set out. We even bounced one guy off the roster in the week before the tour because he had tested positive. Now one participant informed me she had tested positive and would be leaving the tour. We determined she could get an airporter out of Hood River to the airport in Portland and fly home. Because I knew the local roads, I offered to drive her there before the start of Stage 4. Even though we both wore N95 masks and had the windows open for the 15-minute drive, I still caught the bug, although I didn’t suspect it until the tour was almost over.

Blissfully unaware that I and a few others were probably now incubating the virus, we set out on Stage 4 in good spirits and under blue skies. Stage 4 finished off the second half of the Historic Highway, plus running us along really nice roads in the apple-orchard country above Hood River at the start, and hotter, more arid country south of the river at the finish. It was a gorgeous day…everything one could wish for in a tour stage.

TrailJust about where the Historic Highway ends, west of the town of The Dalles, we peeled off onto the delightful new Riverfront Trail that has been laid out all along the river, bypassing the busy downtown congestion. We loved it, but unfortunately, one of our riders took a tumble on this section and ended up—briefly—in the local ER. He was pretty banged up. No broken bones but lots of bruising around the ribs, to the point where riding wasn’t an option. He stayed with the tour but did the rest of it in the sag wagon. Crashes are another bogey that haunts tours. 40 riders times 400 miles over seven stages equals 16,000 miles, often on sketchy backroads. Two crashes over that distance is not out of the ordinary. On our last tour before COVID—2019—we had two riders felled in accidents who had to abandon the tour. It happens.

The final miles of Stage 4 were through wheat fields around the tiny town of Dufur, our overnight destination. While I was relaxing in their shady city park, after a nice shower, I saw a county sheriff coming my way. He said he’d had complaints from the truckers driving the wheat trucks along the little roads…they came upon cyclists and were concerned about safety. We had not realized it was the middle of wheat harvest. We saw many wheat trucks—like overgrown dump trucks—unloading at the grain silos in Dufur but none of us could recall an encounter with one out on the roads. But I wasn’t going to give the sheriff any pushback on any of it. My job was to hear what he had to say and agree to be very careful on the next day’s ride. By the time he was done delivering his message, we were on good terms. He was satisfied that we were responsible adults and he could tell the complainers that he’d delivered the message. We didn’t see a single wheat truck the next morning. Much ado about nothing perhaps, but a reminder that when you ride in far-off places where bikes are seldom seen, you can expect to surprise and possibly upset a few locals.

The last three stages of the tour looped us back around to Silver Falls State Park. Stages 5 and 6 were deep in the Mt Hood National Forest…deep, deep in the trees. Lots of climbing on Stage 5 and more descending on Stage 6. Some very quiet backroads and some busier highways. All in all, not as wonderful as the days in the gorge—very little would match up with that—but still quality bike-touring. FallsOvernights after both stages were primitive USFS camps without showers. Lakes were available nearby if you were willing to hike a little. We had worked hard ahead of time to get our portable shower in good working order but in the end the camps didn’t have enough water pressure to run it. You do your best to plan for whatever might come up and then you get thrown a curve you’re not expecting…low water pressure. So showers were not available, but I never heard one word of grousing about it. Everyone understood the problem and simply shrugged it off. Jumped in the lakes or found ways to take washcloth baths. It’s part of why I like our cooperative touring ethos: everyone understands that we’re all in this together, all doing the best we can to have a successful tour. No pampered princesses.

The final day was down out of the deep fir forest and back to that mix of woods and farm fields that had been our bill of fare on the first two days, back through the foothills above the Willamette Valley. That included several miles of quite steep climbing near the end of the stage. There were two short pitches that flirted with 20% and several more in the mid-teens. It wore this old plugger down considerably at the end of the week. But we all got ‘er done with some reserves left and many people took time that afternoon to hike to at least a few of the waterfalls for which Silver Falls State Park is so famous. A nice finish to a delightful week.

Many of the car pool crews left on Saturday afternoon, planning to drive part way home and find motels down around Ashland or Medford. The rest of us drove home on Sunday and were back at the club warehouse by 5 PM or so. Some cursory clean-up that evening and then a bigger, more complete clean-up of all the equipment on Monday. It’s amazing how dirty the ice chests and kitchen equipment get over a week of living rough. But with a good crew on hand, everything was clean and stored away by midday Monday. This is a good spot to tip the hat to the crew that helps keep our warehouse running smoothly. None of this touring could get off the ground without what the warehouse has in store, not only for us but more importantly for supporting the Wine Country Century, the Terrible Two, Levi’s Gran Fondo, Tour de Fuzz, the Giro Bello, etc, etc. And none of that would happen without the volunteers who keep the warehouse in good shape. 

By Sunday night I had tested positive for the virus and so missed the clean-up day. Eventually we had eight people test positive but only two of them during the tour. The rest of us only thought to test when we got home. Only one person has felt really funky. The rest of us got small doses and have weathered the storm, with the help of Paxlovid in my case. In light of the ever-evolving virus, it’s almost inevitable a few of us would catch the bug, in spite of all our precautions. It is, for now anyway, our new normal.

So…not a real description of each stage but rather a behind-the-scenes look at what a tour involves and how it evolves over the course of the week, for better or worse. Our tour could have ended before it began if we hadn’t found that one available truck in Redding. We could have had baking heat all week or perhaps that little bit of drizzle in the gorge could have blown up into torrential rains. We had another crisis with a closed road on Stage 6 that I’m not even going to get into here, but it could have turned into a major catastrophe if we hadn’t come up with a good work-around. More of that in-the-moment problem solving. COVID might have never put in an appearance or it might have swept through the entire group. Every tour is different. Every one has its own challenges and its own rewards. Reading this and thinking about some of the speed bumps we dealt with this time around, you might wonder if it’s all worth it. All I can say is: look at our roster. Of the 43 participants, there were only five newbies. All the others were coming back for more after having done many past tours. We must be doing something right if all these folks keep coming back.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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