The Best Bike for NE Oregon? How a 'cross bike will expand your horizons, literally.

Originally published in Oregon Cycling Magazine, September 2007, vol. 16, no.7.

If a cyclist was allotted only one bike to ride in Northeast Oregon, it ought to be a cyclocross bike. This type of bike is best suited for handling the roads and weather conditions of the region. Here is the scenario: a cyclist is enjoying a nice paved road through some scenic countryside. Then, the pavement abruptly ends. Instead of turning around, the rider equipped with a cyclocross bike continues on. In this story, the cyclist benefits from more miles of enjoyable riding; but more importantly, he or she avoids falling prey to cyclist’s most dreaded course, the out-and-back.

Road considerations

Statistics from the Association of Oregon Counties show that counties in Northeast Oregon rank as some of the highest in the state for total road mileage. However, a high percentage of these roads are gravel. Pendleton’s Umatilla County has the most road in Oregon with 1,581 miles, of which 1,067 are gravel. This is completely the opposite of second place, Eugene’s Lane County, which only has 171 unpaved miles of 1,441 total. Other prominent counties in Northeast Oregon also have more unpaved roads than paved: Baker City’s Baker County with 649 of 837; Enterprise’s Wallowa County with 482 of 597; and La Grande’s Union County with 370 of 564 miles. Between the gravel roads and low-traffic paved roads, a cyclist with a cyclocross bike in Northeast Oregon enjoys as many (or more) riding options as cyclists elsewhere.

In fact, a cyclocross bike can take a rider on 7,355 miles of unpaved road across all of Eastern Oregon. That is the equivalent of riding across the United States and back. These gravel roads beckon the rider who is armed with a cyclocross bike. Most county-maintained gravel roads are relatively smooth, sometimes smoother than the chip seal used for pavement. The gravel roads are usually at their best shortly after a good rain, when the auto grooves pack down hard and dry out. This creates good riding surfaces in the winter months, even when the ground freezes. Occasionally the roads are temporarily ruined by county graders, during fall or spring maintenance. After this process, it takes a few days of auto traffic for enjoyable riding to return. Conversely, maintenance that involves “dust abatement” (oiling) on select roads in the summer creates a very smooth and dust-free road.

Limited traffic is another benefit of unpaved roads. Riders will likely wonder how the auto tire grooves develop, since motor vehicles are rarely seen. An occasional farm truck or combine will pass for a total car count of 0-2 per hour of riding on most roads.

Diversify your portfolio

Cyclocross bikes are the Swiss army knives of the cycling world. These can easily be converted into road-specific bikes by simply swapping wheels or changing to smooth tires. That said, many of the gravel roads in Northeast Oregon can be ridden on a regular road bike fitted with sturdy tires (size 700x25 or 700x23c), provided the rider can stomach a few paint chips from the rock kick-up. The main advantage of the cyclocross frame is the ability to run wider tires for a smoother ride and better traction. And the obvious: cyclocross bikes clear mud better. Furthermore, the cyclocross bike can accept studded tires. Many of the county roads are plowed after winter storms. A cyclist dare not venture onto the main roads after a snowstorm due to inconsistent shoulder availability, rock fling from cars, and caution-less drivers running studded tires. By contrast, a plowed county road offers the smoothest surface known to bike without any traffic to worry about. Riding a plowed winter road is a very serene experience.

The aforementioned combination of factors makes a cyclocross bike the most versatile machinery for year-around riding. During the winter months, a rider will more often enjoy the open air instead of a stuffy indoor trainer. The rider is more likely to venture out in the fall and spring rainstorms on a cyclocross bike. Later in the spring, the mountain snow melts allowing for enjoyment of cooler temperatures on the infinite logging roads of the Blue Mountains. In short, the cyclocross bike diversifies the rider’s portfolio of options.

Now that the utility of a cyclocross bike has been established, what riding techniques should be used out on the open gravel? One of the keys is to look ahead, always plotting a good line of travel. This is much more important than it is with road riding. Big chunks of gravel and deep sections of gravel must be avoided. It is important to find a groove, even if it means temporarily jumping over to the left side of the road. A temporary left-side riding maneuver seems to agree with Oregon law (ORS 814.430) regarding exceptions to the requirement to ride “as close as practicable” to the right side of the road under the following circumstance:

When reasonably necessary to avoid hazardous conditions including, . . .surface hazards or other conditions that make continued operation along the right curb or edge unsafe or to avoid unsafe operation in a lane on the roadway that is too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to travel safely side by side.

Another technique for better control is to sit back on the bike. The Paris-Roubaix racers demonstrate this very well on the cobble sections. Hands should be moved to grip the top bar to allow sitting back on the saddle. This keeps weight more evenly distributed on the bike. If deep gravel or squirreliness is experienced, calmness should prevail. Some drifting of the front wheel will occur in gravel, but staying back and continuing to pedal usually results in riding through the issue unscathed. Occasionally, coasting to a stop is warranted.

Often the worst thing to do is hit the brakes (another reason to keep hands on the top bar) or turn the handlebars to steer out of the situation. For further control and comfort, tires should be inflated only to their lowest acceptable pressure.

In summary, a cyclocross bike allows cyclists to more fully appreciate riding in Northeast Oregon. Riding only paved roads ignores the essence of the road networks in the region.

Brian Sather is an Associate Professor of Physical Activities & Health at Eastern Oregon University. For further information on cycling in NE Oregon, visit his website at LaGrandeRide.com