Bend Big Fat Tour Epic Ride

More from the pacific northwest …

During a momentary lapse of sanity I allowed my friend Scott to convince me to sign-up for the 11th annual Bend Big Fat Tour ride. This is a fund-raising event put on by Cog Wild Bicycle Tours, with the money going towards trail building and mountain bike advocacy in Eastern Oregon, via the Central Oregon Trail Alliance. The route was laid-out by Paul Thomasberg, who is one of Cog Wild’s owners and a principal organizer of the event.

This is a 95 mile tour, starting at Paulina Peak and finishing in Sisters, a small town northwest of Bend. It is limited to 50 entries. The ride motto is “No Whiners”.

Wait a minute, 95 miles? In one day? What am I, nuts? Well mostly, but not completely. The insane distance is offset by some important attractions:

. Starts at 8000′ elevation, finishes at 3300′
. Traverses some beautiful scenery
. Contains over 60 miles of single-track
. Is sponsored by Deschutes Brewery

The ride profile:
Ride Elevation change

We left downtown Bend 5:30 Friday morning via a shuttle to the top of Paulina Peak. The temperature dipped into the mid-20’s during the drive up, but we went through a weird thermocline and at the peak it was a balmy 45 degrees. The daytime high was predicted to reach the high 70’s. Unusual for October, but I wasn’t complaining. For those of you who don’t know, the climate on the eastern side of the Cascade range is dry, more like the high desert of New Mexico or Utah.

A map of the trail route.

We hit the trail right at sunrise, about 7:10 am, under clear skies and a strong breeze. The first 12 miles rolled up and down, traversing 180 degrees around the rim of Newberry Crater, a (hopefully) dormant volcano with 2 beautiful lakes down in the crater. The trail ducked in and out of the forest, alternating between fun slaloms in the trees and stunning views highlighted by the sun rising over beautiful mountains and lakes. The endless views in the early morning looked other-worldly, more like a surreal painting than the real physical landscape.

At North Paulina Peak the trail pointed down, descending 3000′ over the next 25 miles. We passed through alpine forests, high meadows, and the huge lava fields of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The lava flows on either side of the trail were dozens of feet high at times, with some fast downhill double-track sections across the lava beds. The trail bed was crushed lava rock, scattered with larger day-ending size chunks. Well, only day-ending if you hit one. We were told it was probably a bad idea to fall in the lava rock, so I was definitely on high alert, trying to maintain that fine line between going fast to cover the miles, but not taking too many chances.

The route crossed Highway 97 at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, where the first aid station was located. After re-watering and eating a bit (they fed us really well), we were off, heading towards the Deschutes River, following along the southwest side of the main lava bed.

It was 20 miles from aid #1 to aid #2. The route began with a fun tight single-track roll through the trees, then into some double-track and dirt road sections. But after crossing the river the next 15 miles of trail was a continuous single-track, climbing about 1000′ feet through a beautiful pine forest. The trail is marked with forest service signs that say “Mountain Bikes Only” (how cool is that!). During this entire trail section I was riding alone in the forest, no one around, no other sounds. Just me, pedaling, whistling, singing, yelling, looking around, pedaling some more, then some more pedaling. What a day!

After a short rest at aid #2, I headed for the climb up the side of Tumalo Falls. Ah, only14 miles to aid #3. But after the first 3 rolling miles the trail climbs 2000′ over the next 6 miles, all single track, much of it soft single track. Having ridden over 60 miles at this point, it was a pretty brutal climb. Once at the top, there were 5 more miles of rolling forest service roads until aid station #3 was in sight.

I hit aid #3 at 5:10pm. The sun was supposed to set at 6:45. The sweep hadn’t left yet, but they were getting ready (drinking Red Bull and eating cookies???). Well it was only a mere 25 miles to the finish: mostly fast downhill, some small climbs, across the paved road and a short trail into Sisters and a cold beer. After a brief discussion with the sweep and the check point guy, I convinced them I could finish. I surely didn’t want to ride the road down to town after that long climb to the top. Besides, I had my crappy little commuter light with me. What could possibleye go wrong?

I felt a real exhilarating rush starting the last section. I knew I was going to finish. Woo Hoo! After a short climb to the ridge top the trail started down. And it turned out to be a wonderfully fun descent, well worth the previous 14 mile battle to get there. Almost 15 miles of pure downhill. This was absolutely the best, most fun and most technical part of the ride. Steep, loamy forest trail, lots of rocks, some drops, some roots, very few switchbacks. The trail followed ridges and creek-filled ravines straight down the side of the mountain. I don’t know how fast I was going, but my eyes were watering most of the time, and the high-speed bouncing around made everything look jittery and out of focus (couldn’t be fatigue, could it?). But nothing says adrenaline high like dodging baby-head rocks at warp speed in waning daylight.

I crossed the last paved road at 6:20pm. This was my final option to bail and take the road into town. I waited there for the sweep riders since it was getting dark. I didn’t know if they still wanted me out on the trail, and I wasn’t sure which way to turn on the road to head back to town. When they didn’t show after several minutes I opted to continue on the trail on the other side of the road.

It started out as a flat single-track winding lazily through the trees, and I thought, “boy, I sure hope there’s some more downhill so I can eat-up the last few miles before dark.” But no, I was under my own power and it was getting darker. At about 6:50 I hit some unseen rocks sneakily placed in plain sight in the middle of the trail and almost bailed-off into the bushes. I had delayed turing on my light as long as possible, but it was so dark now I had no choice.

Once the light was on my universe became a 15” circle of light about 10′ in front of my tire. The only way to tell when I went off the trail was when the branches hit me on the head. My forward progress slowed way down as I stopped at each trail, spur, and road intersection to lift the front of the bike, point the light in the trees, and look for the pink trail marker ribbon. I was completely paranoid that I’d miss a turn and ride the woods around Sisters all night. But each time I began to think I made a wrong turn, there was some more ribbon (whew!). They sure did a nice job marking the route.

At about 7:10, I saw some lights through the trees, and pretty quickly was on a paved road heading into downtown Sisters. I had to stop and ask a gas station guy where the finish line was in town, and fortunately he knew. I was the last rider out on the course, the last finisher. But it didn’t matter. Man that first beer tasted good. We exchanged a few stories about the ride while finishing the beer. Then it was off to Scott’s house just outside of town, some BBQ steaks, and bed.

This was the best ride I’ve ever done. The scenery, the challenge of nearly 100 miles, the weather, the terrain, the endless single-track, the organization, everything about it was great. If you are looking for an epic event that reinforces the comraderie, spirit, pure childish fun, and grassroots nature of mountain biking, give the Bend Big Fat Tour a try. I’ll be there next year.

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