Arriving at the start in North Plains with thirty minutes to spare, I'm surprised to find the two block stretch comprising downtown teeming with cyclists, event traffic and riders in various stages of dress, prep, coffee and gear talk. It is a healthy turnout for the season opener and well, it isn't even raining...yet.
I say a round of hellos and gladly accept a generous mug of turmeric golden milk on account of being somewhat under the weather. Having resigned myself to max level rain gear, I am torn by the lack of immediate storm clouds and unseasonably warm weather. I opt for a layer of ShowersPass Skyline rain pants, Giro gaiters and a loaner 7Mesh Oro Shakedry ultralight rain shell, which I am very curious to put to the test should we eventually see rain.
My buddies Ryan Francesconi and David Wilcox, having a 30 mile head start riding from home, arrive in the nick of time for the 9am kickoff. The overall turnout having grown to some 80-100 riders deep this year, I find it a bit tricky to corral or address the entire group from any one spot, so with an unceremonious shrug we roll out. As tends to happen on this particular course, a chatty peloton takes shape for the first ten miles of dead flat. Pavement turns to gravel farm road turns to bucolic rolling hills and then BAMM!! The pack explodes as soon as we hit the first climb. The lead group disappears around the bend and the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief and settle into our own respective paces.
Outside of Kansas City the rollers intensify into crests and troughs undulating westward, farm fields and orchards rising and falling to densely wooded creek-lined valleys. Ridges materialize then vanish in the mist, an impressionistic blur of muted winter tones as if transported through a Courbet landscape, the quintessential best of winter in Oregon. We cross Highway 6, descending one last mammoth roller before transitioning from old world pastoralia into the dank, dripping pinebristled fringes of the Coast Range. Climbing steeply through switchbacks of tightly packed evergreen, the sweat begins in earnest. Gloves come off. Layers are shed. Riders spread out as the track weaves upward around gates, skirting landslides and patches of clearcut. We regroup briefly as the climb plateaus, snacks are shared and layers adjusted. Though it doesn't seem to be actively raining per se, the heavy atmosphere, mild temps and long climb has made soaking through from the inside a more immediate concern.
Approaching Wildcat Mountain the mood turns a bit ominous. Temperatures are dropping with elevation and the clouds precipitate a fine mist rendering glasses useless. The Wildcat Mountain passage, always wily and unpredictable, is true to form today as an enormous deer bursts from the underbrush into the road directly in front of us before vanishing into the trees on the other side. Hearts racing, we push up and over Wildcat's aggregate of loamy forest road, singletrack and active logging slurry into a four mile roller coaster of banked descending. Whoops of joy erupt from a spirited follow-the-leader chase down the mountain.
Winding northward via Strassel Road, we find gravel the consistency of congealing peanut butter, thick, sticky and soft, each pedalstroke proving to be a bit more taxing than expected. Nevertheless we grind steadily upward into the tangly wilds through thick forests, patchwork logging parcels and increasingly steady rain. I am quite happy with the performance of the Oro rain shell, which has been beading water consistently throughout the day. Internal temps easily regulated via zipper and rear venting, I frankly forgot I was wearing a rain jacket most of the time. Of course, the Skyline pants, part of my go-to wet weather lineup, are solid as always.
Around mile 30 we bog down in a treacherous stretch of goopy, clingy fudgelike clay, incapacitating many full-fendered riders. Once extricated we push through a strange and wonderfully elven passageway hidden by thick overhanging brush leading to a land bridge over Highway 26 along the wooded topside of the Dennis L. Edwards tunnel.
The landscape north of 26 feels somehow more lonely, wild and mysterious. Socked in by a heavy blue-gray mist we persevere up a few more punchy climbs to top out at 1500 feet. Temperatures are now hovering in the mid 30's with a steady drizzle. Faces are grim, giddy chatter replaced by groans, labored sighs and muttered curses. But at least now we finally get to descend!
The next three miles are an icy blur of chunky gravel, sharp rocks, mudsplatter, hot corners and near misses. I am thankful to be running 2.1" tires as I pass several flatted riders on the way down. Skidding a hard right into a small forested tunnel of elegantly needled loam, I am perplexed by the proliferation of impeccably maintained forest track throughout Oregon's Coast Range that seems to serve no discernible purpose. Local quad trail? Abandoned moto track? Dog-walking footpath? Mushroom hunting thoroughfare? None of it really adds up, but I'm certainly not going to complain about these idyllic slices of joy.
At the critical juncture with the Banks-Vernonia trail riders face two options: right turn and it's smooth sailing directly back to North Plains. Push on to the Hoffberg climb, Bacona and Sherman's Mill and commit to a longer day with a decent chance of soakthrough and a guarantee of suffering. Though I'm beginning to feel the cold in my chest, It seems like I've got the legs, so it is decided to push on. Hofferhorn, H2, Hoffberg...nicknames for Hoffman Road, an onerously steep, twisting climb skirting the northern edge of Stub Stewart State Park that, though only 2 miles in length and averaging around 10%, has the tendency to extinguish optimism and sour the spirit. It's not necessarily that hard per se, just harder than you want it to be and today is certainly no exception. In fact, as the gradient pitches up, it seems more tedious than usual due to a very recent resurfacing. The loose rock and wet sandy slurry turn an already difficult climb into a slowgoing chore. I am thankful at having upgraded my gearing into MTB range with a 42/28 crank up front. It is very likely the only reason I'm able to spin up the climb past half a dozen others huffing it on foot.
Cresting the Hoffberg, we are greeted by a harsh easterly wind. At 1864 feet, we push east beyond the high point of the course into an incisive chill. It is disappointing to discover that much of this upper Bacona area which used to feel so wild and lush only two or three years ago is now blighted with extensive clearcutting. Ryan and I pause for a sandwich break at the junction with Sherman's Mill while our comrades vanish into the dripping fog. Sherman's Mill Road is a quiet, winding connector linking Bacona with upper Dairy Creek beset with chunky rock, precipitously steep angles and stretches of gated private property. Run from west to east, it makes for a rousing 1100 foot elevation drop over the course of 5 miles. We pound the descent fast and loose, soon rejoining other riders. An otherworldly mist lends our journey a post-apocalyptic flavor. Having received permission from the land owner, Mike Jamison, we find the private property gate graciously open to accommodate our passage.
Returning to tarmac, Dairy Creek Road feels like quite possibly smoothest pavement we've touched all week. Contrast can be a funny thing. We tuck into an agreeable paceline and motor back toward North Plains, spurred on by talk of cold beer, hot food and dry clothes. One last stretch of punchy gravel stands between here and North Plains. My inner monologue suggests skipping it and beelining back. Alas, I'm at the tail end of the group and that group is veering a hard left into the punchy gravel. I guess it could be worse. Having dropped beneath the cloud layers, everything suddenly feels warm, bright and inviting as we roll back into the bucolic agricultural patchwork of the upper Tualitin Valley. The efficiency of the teamwork is surprising and before long we are zigzagging past Witch Hollow then Pumpkin Ridge and on into the quiet outskirts of North Plains to some well-earned beer, pizza, hangtime, high-fives and maybe a little more beer!