News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Gravel riders grind it out in Sisters

Who are these guys? That was the question being asked all weekend as Sisters area campgrounds filled to overflowing and hotels put out No Vacancy signs. Some 443 cyclists entered the Cascade Gravel Grinder, the second stage in a four-stage gravel bike extravaganza that began with The Gorge Gravel Grinder April 24, in Dufor, Oregon.

The next leg, and a barn-burner, promoters promise, is the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder that brings it all back to Sisters June 22-26, with five days of gravel racing, four nights of camping and 350 “unbelievable” miles.

These are serious but fun-loving enthusiasts who aren’t afraid — thrilled, in fact, with the perils and challenges.

The final stage is in Prineville: the Ochoco Gravel Grinder, July 16-17.

The three-day event concluded Sunday here saw riders from as far as Vermont, New York, Florida, Hawaii and Alaska. Twelve riders from four Canadian provinces competed. In total grinders are estimated to have spent $400,000 in Sisters.

It was all smiles as Sunday’s races ended, the fourth and fifth runs in three days. Friday was a 6.8-mile time trial that started at Virginia Meisner Sno-Park although the event’s organizer’s didn’t expect the snow depths they encountered.

“We never imagined needing snow blowers and shovels,” said Colleen Quindlen, from Breakaway Promotions. “The parking lot was snowed in and we were scrambling.”

Saturday — “Bust Your Butte” — was a choice of a Small Grinder that started and ended at Kapka Sno-Park, a 44.3-mile affair of which 63 percent was on gravel and a gut-busting 3,357-foot elevation gain. Or, The Big Grinder, which was 55.1 miles, 70 percent gravel, and a whopping 4,020-foot gain. The weather was dreadful, Quindlen said, with a mixture of rain, sleet, some snow, and unforgiving rain, none of which deterred any riders.

Sunday’s “Three Creeks” segment was a cakewalk in comparison, riders who raced Saturday reported. Starting at Sisters High School and ending at Village Green Park in full sun, the Small Grinder took riders 54 miles, 92 percent of which was gravel and a heart-pumping 3,954-foot elevation gain. The “big” riders took the 75-mile course, 94 percent gravel and a grueling 6,008-foot total gain.

Gravel is certainly a buzzword in Sisters cycling these days, with many asphalt roadies discovering the joys of off-road riding. Many non-riders assume that gravel bikes are just road bikes with slightly wider tires.

Take a cyclo-cross bike, a mountain bike, and a road bike, put them in a blender and you get the gravel bike, or as some say, an adventure bike. Modern-day gravel bikes are designed for off-road riding. Everything from soft sand to chunky gravel and milder singletrack is included, with extra emphasis on comfort and handling, thanks to wider tires and friendlier geometry.

They are drop-bar in design like a traditional road bike. It is argued that gravel bikes aren’t even necessary, that a cyclo-cross bike — built to race on courses that often traverse muddy fields, grass or sometimes sand — could accomplish the same things. Gravel bikes share many key features from both types of bikes, but eliminate the ones they don’t need.

All gravel bikes feature disc brakes, and those with hydraulic discs provide more stopping power, which gives more confidence off-road and are useful in mixed conditions.

It was only 2012, 10 years ago, that gravel bikes hit the market. They are constantly evolving as manufacturers seek the edge in gaining market share. Both Sisters bike shops — Blazin Saddles and Eurosports — have a good stock of gravel bikes and an even bigger store of knowledge. Be warned: It’s not impossible to spend over $3,000 on a top-of-the-line model. You can also go home less than $1,000 lighter and get a great ride, both say.

Barbara Bialokz and David McLeod came to Sisters from Vancouver, BC, and took up residence for five days at Sisters Creekside Campground where they and dozens, as many as a hundred more riders, made friendships and socialized before, after, and in-between races.

“This is such a great little town, so clean and friendly. So much to offer. We were surprised,” Bialokz said, with nodding approval from McLeod as each enjoyed a hearty smorgasbord and beer at the event’s conclusion and après party at Village Green. The event included music, awards, and games.

Their enthusiasm for the event and Sisters was echoed by riders from 20 states. Some 25 percent of the entrants were women “which is really high for a gravel event,” according to Quindlen. Ages ranged from 17 to 75.


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