Oregon Emerald Outback 2019
On May 3rd 2019 I left Portland with a bunch of dudes determined to finish the Oregon Emerald Outback, a 570 mile race with 55,000 or so feet of climbing. We didn’t make it to the finish line, in fact we didn’t even really come close, but we rode hard and suffered in garbage bags for eight days and had a blast. Heres the route we ended up taking:
Day zero was pretty much what you’d expect, a lot of frantic getting used to the bikes and realizing we were strapped in for the long haul with no quick way out. We met up at Dragonfly Coffee and hung out for probably way too long before actually leaving. None of us were really in a hurry to do a fully loaded century up to Astoria, along highway 30.
We eventually left and rode for a good two hours or so before stopping to eat and pee, chew on some flavorless Gu packets, or whatever. We’d more or less repeat that pattern all day, stopping to eat and do something other than ride. We weren’t really in any hurry.
We got to Astoria after a mostly uneventful day. The most fun part was probably getting overcaffinated inside a gazebo next to a coffee drive-through in Rainier, Oregon. There was a bit of elevation on the rest of the climb, 4000 feet or so, but it wasn’t bad. Especially after what we’d have to go through later.
We had a pretty interesting hike up to our AirBnB, which involved going through what we thought was some people’s backyards and what not, but we got there eventually. We didn’t really get to enjoy it however, as the OEO riders meetup was right afterward. We dropped some bags off and turned right around and headed for the brewery where we go to the meet Benjamin, the guy doing the whole thing, and the one other rider that wasn’t in our group, Dan. Dan would end up doing very well on his full suspension bike. We scoffed a bit at what seemed like overkill at the time, but he’d prove far more capable at the kind of terrain we were going to be doing.
We headed backed to the AirBnB after talking for a while (and a quick stop at McDonald’s for a bunch of garbage food), showered and kind of got ready. Everyone was destroyed from the day’s ride, but we watched most of The Goonies anyway. When in Astoria, you kind of have to.
I melted my Chamois a little bit trying to dry it near a fire, and fell asleep on the floor, which was surprisingly comfy.
Day 1 was the hardest day for a lot of reasons which I’ll get into. We got up really early and drank as many of our host-provided nespresso pods as we could stomach, then hit up a McDonald’s for a top-off. We’d kind of pushed the start for the ride to 9:30AM, which was probably a mistake, but it felt good after riding all the way to Astoria the day before.
We rode up to the Astoria Column, where the ride was leaving, had a short interview with a reporter and then we were off. The article makes us sound much more prepared and ultra-endurancy than we really were.
It was clear almost immediately that we were underbiking and also over-encumbered. The gravel was super chunky, and we were pushing heavy, loaded bikes up hills on gears that just never seemed small enough. The descents were also less than enjoyable because of how loose the gravel was. Dan was of course cruising through everything on his mountain bike. We never saw him again after that day.
It was a beautiful ride, and we got onto gravel and into the woods (clear cut logging stuff, mostly) very quickly. We passed a couple of small stores, but didn’t really take advantage of them beceause we were pretty well supplied.
The day got really tough around 5 or 6 PM when we finally encountered Tin Shack. The Tin Shack climb is the longest, roughest, steepest climb I’ve ever seen. It averages 17% for about five miles, and there was a lot of bike pushing, general defeatism and swearing. It just kept going, and going and going and going. It was brutal.
The next fifteen miles after that are no cake-walk either. We ran into Benjamin, who was having to walk a lot of the course because the bike he’d brought didn’t have a good climbing gear. It was pretty cool to run into him in the dark though, we could see his light from a ways away. We rode and walked together for a while before he slammed his way down some of the descents. We didn’t see him after that either.
What we thought was going to take two hours ended up taking five. It was absolutely brutal, and to cap it off we had a couple mechanicals, then had to descend two or three thousand feet in the dark on a motocross trail, listening to coyotes howl. I think each of us fell at least once, it was nasty. My brake-levers were fully to the bar by the end of the night, and we were totally covered in dust. It would later become a daily ritual to readjust my brakes because I was burning through so much pad every day.
We got to camp at around 1 in the morning, and didn’t go to sleep until two. It was rough. Coupled with sleeping just an SOL bivy bag with an emergency blanket, and you have a recipe for exhaustion. We were absolutely cooked. 93 miles, 11,000 feet of climbing. We filled up water, ate quickly, and passed out in our body bags.
Day 2 started out rough. None of us woke up until almost nine, by which time Dan and Benjamin were long gone, although we didn’t really know it yet. We tried to salvage some humanity by making coffee and eating and just kind of staring into space for a while. No one had slept well, which was particularly a good sign because it was one of the better night’s of sleep we’d have on the whole trip. You could hear the rustling of bivys all night.
We didn’t leave camp until almost 11:30, so already a lot of the day was burned. I think we all thought we could make up time on flat sections or something, or we’d all already been defeated. Either way we rolled out late.
We had two beautiful miles of highway to shake the legs out, and it was immediately back to a 2,000 foot climb, which was crushing. The temperature extremes were really annoying: it’d be chilly and cold when you woke up and started riding, then you’d hit a monster 45-minute climb and be soaked through with sweat at the “top”. You’d sit there for a second to recuperate and commiserate with everyone else, get cold, and immediately repeat the process. Fun times!
More brutal climbs all day, and a lot of defeated moments. We had one really long, gradual climb, which kind of spread us out a bit. It was really exposed and in the sun so we were absolutely cooked at the top:
The rest of the day was the same: more long climbs, get hot, get cold, sweat, sit down, eat something, etc. The problem was we’d eaten a lot of the snacks intended for today the night before, so some of us were running low. We ended up sharing a lot just to go for another 30 minutes. It’s hard to eat 250 calories an hour when you’re all dying going up a gravel hill.
The final hillclimb of the day defeated us: it looked like we only had a peak or two left and 10 miles or so and we’d be on the highway and able to go to this little Roadhouse we’d been dreaming about all day.
We ended up stopping and calling it next to a small stream on the road. Everyone was too cooked to think or continue, so we just made a fire, strung the hammocks up and had good dinners. I put peanut butter into some dehydrated chilli mix, and it was incredible. Everyone else killed two freeze-dried meals each.
It was a really bad night of sleep: the bivy bags get wet on the inside and we were at elevation, so it was a lot colder than the night before.
Poor Zac had it the worst, I think. He didn’t have as many warm clothes as the rest of us.
“Coffee outside is great until a fly lands in your mug” - Sean
We got up earlyish and packed and ate and were out pretty quickly today. We were excited because we thought we’d somehow passed Ben, so morale was a little higher than the night before. This later on turned out not to be the case, but it was a nice thought.
It was a good thing we hadn’t tried to push all the way to the highway, because the next section was rough. It took us two hours to go eight miles. This was in part because we had three stream crossings, and had to bushwhack through a couple hunter trails. Spencer lost a fender when he was going through some single track and it got wrapped around his wheel.
The best part was when we had to huck the bikes over and through a bunch of felled trees. That part was particularly annoying: Spencer got fed enough to just chuck his panniers down the road, which was amazing.
We eventually made it down to the road, which felt incredible after a long day of walking and pushing and lifting the bikes. We rode down into town, past the Roadhouse (which was closed) and proceeded to spend an hour and $40 each at a small liquor store/market thing. We packed up for two to three days and tried to get enough snacks for more long climbs.
We were kind of iffy on going to the roadhouse now that we had stuff to eat, but we went anyway and had a good time. The hot food was amazing, and everyone really appreciated just sitting down and eating. Casey didn’t finish all of this alfredo and had to pack it up somehow:
We got going late in the afternoon, biking uphill and into the Van Duzer rest area, which was going to be our last good waterstop that we knew about. For some reason the water from the tap tasted like boiled eggs: I put some in my bottle and tried to chlorinate it, but it didn’t help. Zac and Sean were smart enough to go get water from the stream. It’s hard to convey how terrible it is to go get a refreshing sip of water and just have a mouth full of hot egg water.
It was back on the gravel and immediately into another 2,000 foot climb, which at this point were all used to. The hard part was doing it with loaded bikes again. It felt unfair and kind of soul-crushing to have to push the bikes with all the food and water on them again.
We pushed for a while, then got to a section where it seemed like the road disappeared: no big deal, we’ve done this kind of thing before. Everyone was over it, but it was nothing new. The problem was it really disappeared. We struggled around for a while, hiked up where we thought the trail was because we knew Dan was ahead of us, and kept thinking we saw boot prints. I ended up going 10 minutes or so up until I came to clean, untouched mud.
It was at this point we didn’t know what to do we checked facebook and saw that Ben had left a message the day before about not coming this way: it was an error on the map. Everyone was really upset. Spencer was getting on the highway no matter what and no one else particularly felt like pushing through on different shitty gravel roads, so we made the difficult decision to bail.
We still had time and a ride in Crescent City in a few days, so we decided to turn it into a 101 trip. Everyone was pretty happy with this, so we immediately got back on the highway and headed for the coast.
We rode for a while and stopped at a KOA for the night. We made food and everyone passed out.
“I thought it was supposed to be easier after we quit” - Zac
“This sleeping like shit thing really takes a toll on you. You feel okay for a while and then just… don’t” - Sean
Sleeping at the KOA was one of the most memorable, terrible nights of sleep of my life. It was really cold, since we were close to the coast now, and the water moisture in the air made everything feel like death. I woke up every hour or so, and I think everyone else did too.
Everyone got up to go hide in the bathroom at least once to sit under the hand-drier and shiver. Zac and I both bailed onto the ground from our hammocks, which was only marginally warmer. I got up really early because I just couldn’t take anymore cold, and just shivered at the table drinking instant coffee until I warmed up. No one else fared any better, and we didn’t leave camp until 11:30AM. Zac, once again, had it the worst.
The KOA charged us $70 for the whole terrible experience. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to one, especially since their breakfast place didn’t open. At all. We basically paid an exhorbitant amount for nothing.
We tried to make it all the way to Coos Bay, a not unreasonable distance of 120 miles, but we couldn’t and just called it at Florence instead, where we got a hotel room.
The riding was pretty standard coast-highway stuff: Slow, gradual climbs on pavement, pretty good shoulders, random, fluctuating weather and nice drivers. It was pleasant but we were all too messed up from the terrible night of sleep to really push on.
We had dinner at Mo’s, ate ice cream from Dairy Queen and then packed our hotel room with bikes. I took the opportunity to was the only chamois I’d brought, which was a thoroughly disgusting experience. It was a pleasant evening for once and people were in pretty good spirits.
“Yeah bikes are cool and all but all I wanna think about is how to keep my bonsai tree alive when I get home” - Casey
“I licked all of the peanut butter out of a zip-loc bag yesterday. I re-heated beans from the day before.” - Sean
Day 5 was great, but difficult. We’d bailed on the OEO, but we still wanted to do something big so we decided to push ourselves as hard as we could, making it all the way to Brookings, OR in one push.
We slept well, got up early, packed quickly and had a big breakfast at a local coffee shop before just hammering down the road. It was on our second climb, and he said he’d rather just go his own pace. This was fine with everybody so we left him and I haven’t seen him since. I texted him today, May 12th, and he said was out there still cruising, so presumably he’s doing well.
We rode all day. In Coos Bay we stopped at a wal-mart and lots of people kept coming by to talk to us, which is fine but we weren’t really in the mood. We just wanted to eat McDonald’s and sit and stare into space.
The low point of the day was getting 100 miles in an realizing you still have 55 more to go. It was rough. We were all cold and beat up and just kind of out it. I watched Zac try to pour electrolyte powder into one of his water bottles; it was windy and he just sprayed it all over himself. Zero reaction other than pure acceptance. It was the funniest thing I’d seen all day and the dam just kind of broke: ultimate defeat but with no choice but to move forward.
We really lucked out with the wind at our backs and we were able to hold 20MPH for a long time, with realtively no effort. Lots of staring at wheels and listening to music.
We pulled into Brookings just as it got dark; Sean and I sprinted for the finish and he won. I wanted to throw up and eat and sleep all at the same time. We tried to find food, but literally every place in Brookings closes at nine, even the taco bell. We were feeling pretty defeated when we lucked out and found an expensive pub that was still serving food.
We got another hotel, this time a lot less nice, and passed out pretty quickly.
We’d made it almost all the way to California, so we slept in and enjoyed ourselves. I’d gotten some achilles tendonitis, so I wasn’t feeling great, and everyone else was feeling pretty tender in general as well.
We had a nice greasy breakfast, then slow-rolled to Crescent City. The weather got grayer, colder and windier as we approached. Casey had wanted to get to the beach as a symbolic victory, but none of us were feeling it.
After huddling in a small mexican restaurant for lunch, we explored the town and then decided to bail to find a good campsite. There was one on the map pretty far inland, inside the redwoods, so we decided to head for it. A couple of rangers helped us out, and we managed to find the right road.
We weren’t feeling it and the road started with what seemed like a big climb, but it mellowed out after only a couple hundred feet and we ended up having a really pleasant ride on super hard-packed gravel: almost pavement. The redwoods all around us were awesome and it was a great little ender to the trip.
When we got out of the woods it was nice and sunny, with little indication of the weather on the otherside of the trees. We camped in a really nice state park and had a great evening. No bears, a good fire and everyone full of food. I ate a lot of mashed potatoes.
The final day: We got up early, slammed back out along the road we’d taken to get in as one last hurrah, and met up with our ride back to Portland at a Denny’s. These things always seem to end at a Denny’s.
It seemed underwhelming to be in a car headed back to Portland, but that was it. The ride just ended. Whatever state we had been in on the way there evaporated. All that was left was a gnawing hunger and some screwed up ankles, and the dust on our bikes.
I know I’ll be going back; I already know how I want to build up my bike. Apparently the course mellows out on the second half, but we didn’t get there so I don’t know. It might be one of those rare times where I think a 2x drivetrain might work better. We’re all definitely bringing bigger tires.
There were a lot of low moments and a few high moments, but the biggest part was the mental training. Mileage doesn’t mean anything, temperatures don’t mean anything, you can sleep anywhere and be cold and it’s fine, elevation doesn’t matter, it’s all about pushing through. This was a really important ride to realize a lot of those things, or at least re-realize some of them. I can’t wait to do more stupid, long rides in the future.
Below is the packing lists and everything I had up here before the coverage.
May 3rd - 10th, 2019
We bike to Astoria, stay the night and then start the actual race at 6:30AM the next day. 600 miles. 120 miles a day, for five days. BRUTAL.
Bike to Medford, take the train home. Easy!
- Instant Coffee
- Dark Chocolate
- Whatever you can find at gas stations
OMTM has a great guide on wet, ugly riding.
- Two water bottles. Maybe third?
- Multitool w/ Pliers
- Tire Levers
- Spare Chain Links
- Small Pump
- 2x Spare Tubes
- Salt tablets
- Nut butter chafe stuff
- Spot tracker
- Firemaking Stuff
- Saddle Bag
- Cooking Stuff
- Handlebar Bag
- Small Garmin with route loaded
- Bike Lights
- Front and rear
- Quick access bag
- Small First-aid Kit
- Salt Tablets
- Nut butter/Aquaphor
- Water Filter + squeeze bag
- NUUN/Skratch Packets
- Spot tracker
- USB Battery
- Garmin Watch Cable
- iPhone cable
- Regular USB Cable
- Solar Panel
- Emergency Blanket
- Long Music playlists
- GaiaGPS loaded with Route
- Picture of my family
- Garmin Watch
- Waterproof/resistant Gloves
- Packable Puffy
- Wool Hat
- Waterproof, Ventable jacket
- 2x Pairs Wool Socks
- Waterproof Socks
- 2x Wool Baselayers
- Waterproof Pants
- Long Thermal Bib