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December 21, 2018 11 min read

I've been fascinated by the grand tours, and maybe even more so by events like Paris-Brest-Paris because there's something really interesting that happens mentally when you're physically pushing yourself for a long time, and I also just love seeing lots of scenery. For the most part in my life though, I haven't done that much big mileage. In the last few years especially, my record when it comes to long rides has been spotty at best. Take last year’s failed attempt to ride down to Etna, Ca (a favorite destination of mine) and back, where I was stopped by high temperatures that just toasted me in the heat of the day, and ended up setting me back a bit physically for most of the rest of the summer. Suffice to say that it's been years since I've tried anything very long, so you might say that I had an itch that really felt like it needed a good scratch.

When I realized that I would have a day free last week, I decided to take the opportunity to see if I could actually pull-off a longer ride, because I knew that a visit from family would have me mostly off the bike for the following two weeks. Keeping past failures in mind, I tried to come up with a route that would be long, but not stupidly so, and hard, but not masochistic.

A trend on this ride

Up onto the gravel we go
To do this, I came up with a reasonable route that over the course of about 150 miles would take me south over the mountains into California’s Shasta Valley, by way of the little town of Hornbrook, then east up over the large rounded flank of Ball Mountain, and north a bit to my dangling carrot—as it were—of Dorris, Ca, where I planned to lunch, before setting out west again. On my way home I planned to sample the northern end of the Topsy Turvy Road, aka Topsy Grade before heading back on highway 66 via the Greensprings Highway, into Ashland.

As luck would have it, other obligations got me off to the hilariously late start (for a ride like this) of 9:30am, but I tried to act like I was taking a real ride by making myself two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the best ride fuel known to me). So as the sun rose high into the sky, I headed off, trying to pretend I felt ready for what I was setting out to do.

Mount Shasta in the distance

The first 30 or so miles were easy: I took the lovely old highway 99 up and over Siskiyou Summit, and in order to make better time earlier on, I bypassed the gravel and dirt options in favor of the wide-open speed of the freeway. Because there aren’t any paved roads connecting Hornbrook to Siskiyou Summit, you’re allowed to ride a bike on the interstate there. It’s not something I would choose to do in many places, but this 6 mile or so stretch is really pretty pleasant because it’s mostly down hill, and goes by in no time. After I was off the interstatte, I headed east along small roads through Hornbrook before crossing the Klamath River to connect to the network of small, mostly gravel roads that criss-cross–and in the case of the ones I took–circle the Shasta Valley. With the classic brown-gold hills of Northern California rolling down toward Shasta on my right hand, and the rocky thumb of Pilot Rock sticking up in the near distance on my left, I started climbing through the little rollers the preceded the real climb up Ball Mountain.

Rolling gravel, with Ball Mountain on the left in the distance
I find that I do a lot of thinking on bike rides, and since it seems like most thoughts eventually come around to bikes, I end up thinking about bikes quite a bit on rides. This one being no different, I found myself thinking about tire size fairly often because while I love my 650x42b slick tires, I wondered at many points during the day whether they were really the best choice for this ride. In the freshly graveled rollers leading to the mostly paved climb up Ball Mountain, I had to lower my pressure significantly (I had started out with something silly like 45psi) in order to get any kind of climbing traction, and that meant some pickin’ and grinnin’ while I avoided the larger chunks of gravel in the road. Would something slightly larger, and just a little bit more textured not be a bit better, I wondered?

Looking down from Ball Mountain onto the road that I came in on
Soon though, I was past the gravel and onto pavement again, which made for a really nice climb. The road snakes up the edges of the mountain, and because of the somewhat unusual (at least for the area I ride most) shape of the mountain, it was actually steepest at the bottom, and slowly mellowed as I got to the top—or so it felt to me. In any case, my effort was richly rewarded with views of the epic sort, and I was feeling like I had made the right choice for my route. On the climb, I had the chance to think about a recent change I had made to my bike: the switch from White Industries VBC chainrings to a TSR single-ring setup. I've ridden 1x setups for years on my mountain bikes, but hadn't made the switch on my more roadish bikes until a month or so ago and had been eager to see how it would feel on a longer ride. While it was still early in the ride, the setup was feeling good, giving me the simplicity that I've come to love on my other bikes. I've often wondered if it's odd, but I really notice the extra mental strain of having to just keep track of the gear I'm in and the chainline it creates when using a multi-chainring setup, and have tended to enjoy singlespeeds and 1x setups for challenging rides, but I haven't ever used one for really long day rides. My 44 tooth TSR chainring paired with an 11-36 tooth 10 speed cassette meant that my gear range is pretty limited, but I like to have gears that I actually use rather than ones that I might use once every couple of rides. I wasn't sure how this philosophy would work out on a ride that pushed my limits though.

At just short of 50 miles, I stopped for sandwich #1. This would be the biggest climb of the day, taking me from somewhere around 2500 feet, to about 6400, and I thought it would probably be smart to take a little break on the way up…and because I had left so late it was near lunch time, so I was hungry! Ever aware of my limited daylight, I didn’t rest for long though. A few minutes sitting on a stump eating my sandwich, and a few more lying horizontal while I tried to find the position with the fewest pine needles stabbing me, was enough to have me feeling ready to continue.

After climbing up through an increasingly rocky forest, I turned off on the first gravel since leaving the valley. Unlike those in the valley though, this was just a rough, chunky rocky road, and once again, my thoughts turned to my tires (yep, there’s a bit of a theme here, and one that would continue through the rest of the day). But after no more than a mile, I connected with another road that, though broken, had some pavement on it. Up there, the trees opened up in places into beautiful little mountain meadows—some with springs, and some with wildflowers—and I was very happy to have made it up there to see this new-to-me area. But the top didn’t last long and soon my road turned down, and as soon as it did, the pavement got some holes in it. Then as it turned down more steeply the holes got larger so that it was more gravel with a few patches of pavement here and there, and then finally it gave up all pretense of being paved, and was just a gravel road. I’ll let you guess where my thoughts led me.

Butte Valley seen through a clear cut
After bouncing along for long enough to ensure that my bike was thoroughly coated in dirt, I popped out on the pavement of School House Road, and started my 20 mile cruise along the flatlands of Butte Valley into Dorris. I was happy to find that even though I had a slightly more limited gear range because of my 1x drivetrain, I had a high-enough gear to move across the valley at a reasonable pace.

Dropping into Butte Valley

Green fields in Butte Valley


Sagebrush with Mount Shasta in the background

Smooth pavement in Butte Valley

Cloud-shadows and sunlight chasing each other across the landscape

Butte Valley looks like a perfect example of what happens when you add water to a semi-desert landscape: the lush green fields are surrounded by wide swaths of sagebrush growing out of the multi-colored soil. It’s quite pretty, and being flat, I was glad that I only had a side wind as I headed toward what I hoped would be a tasty burrito at one of the town’s two Mexican restaurants.

First look at Dorris
Thankfully, finding one of them was about as easy as could be since it was almost the first thing I came to upon entering the small town, and I was soon munching on what I would say was a not-half-bad burrito. Well done, Dorris, and well done El Tapatio! But while Dorris may be able to produce a good burrito, I can’t say the same for markets. The only market in town appeared to be closing, with many of the shelves empty or with turned-over boxes sitting on them, I ended up finding a gas station to get a bottle of V8 and an ice cream bar (just to make sure I was as stuffed as humanly possible). Is this what people are talking about when they talk about food deserts?, I wondered as I swung a leg over my bike.

Leaving Dorris

Heading west

Pavement ending again
So, with a heavy belly I pedaled out of Dorris, heading west into what had become a strong headwind. After a few miles, the road turned to gravel, then the gravel turned to red cinders, then the cinders turned to rocks and dried mud holes. Then I teed onto Topsy Grade, and really started thinking about my tires again.

Afternoon light

On the cliff above the Klamath River
Topsy Grade is a really beautiful little road that follows the south bank of the Klamath River mostly continuously—though by a few different names—from the intersection of highway 96 and I5 south of Hornbrook all the way up to highway 66 west of Klamath falls. For most of its length it’s gravel, and in its upper reaches it turns into more of a jeep road as it climbs up onto the cliffs high above the river. It was just as it crested the cliffs that I met it, and for the next 10 or so miles it alternated between narrow rocky track and wider gravel logging road, and I thought deeply about my tires in between stops to look at the view. This ended up being the slowest portion of the ride, because even in the flat and descending sections—where I might have gone faster—I found it best to slow down because the thick layer of fluffy dirt hid large, sharp rocks that my tires simply didn’t have enough volume to soak up. Overall though, this was a lovely section: the sun was getting lower, and casting a golden glow over everything, and when I was able to stop and look down in to the valley, I found impressive views of black rock cascading down to the river far below. Quite nice.


Klamath River


The Klamath is dammed in four places, and just a couple of miles before arriving at highway 66, I passed the northernmost of them. The John C. Boyle reservoir—like all of the dams, and the reservoirs they create—is controversial, but the view of Mount McLaughlin over its water was very fine, and made me glad to be arriving there so near sunset. The late hour did get me thinking about how I should go home, and after only a mile or two of hemming and hawing about whether or not to take a more exploratory route, I decided that I had probably seen enough new territory for one day, and it would probably be smarter to just take the slightly more direct, and much more familiar way home along Greenspings Highway.

About a month or so earlier I had ridden the Greenspings Highway, aka Highway 66, out to a point near here with the thought of doing a loop home on a smaller connector, only to be turned around by deep snow, and I had thought of doing the unridden part of that loop as my way home on this ride too. But given my mileage and the time of day, I decided to make use of something else I had learned on that last ride: the ride west on the Greensprings is fast, and feels mostly down hill. It’s also beautiful in the sunset.

Open range
The last 50-ish miles were uneventful, and if I thought about my tires it was just about how nice they felt, and how quietly they rolled along. I eventually turned on my lights, and made it to the final descent into the Rogue Valley just in time to catch the last rays of the sunset reflecting in Emigrant Lake.

Into the sunset
In the end, I rode about 148 miles, and climbed about 11500 feet. I wouldn’t call any of that exceptional by any means, but it was enough to leave me feeling like I had ridden my bike, and enough—I hoped–to get me comfortably through almost two weeks without much of a ride while I visited with my family. Over the course of the day, I got the opportunity to think a lot about my tires and gearing, and I also got to see a wide variety of beautiful scenery. I guess that’s about the most I could have hoped for on a long ride.

From a purely parts perspective, would I have changed anything? The my tires were awesome on the pavement and felt fine on most of the dirt and gravel, but I think I could have gone faster with less work had I been on bigger (though not necessarily much knobbier) tires. I'm still experimenting with different setups to try to find that perfect balance in the middle of my main considerations: wind resistance because of tire size, rolling resistance on all surfaces, ease of riding on rough terrain, and weight. I think that had I not had the very rough sections of Topsy Grade, these tires would have been perfect, but since I did have those sections, a different tire might have been better.

When it comes to gearing, I was quite happy. I had just enough at each end of my gear range, and the system felt good and efficient. Had I been more heavily loaded, I might have wanted either a slightly wider range or maybe a slightly smaller chainring up front. As it was I couldn't have been happier though. Always a stickler for efficiency, I did find myself wondering about how much effect the extra friction (if there is extra friction) of the narrow-wide chainring has once the system is very dirty. When I was climbing the steeper grades (where my chain was more crossed) after riding for hours in the very abrasive cinders, I definitely felt like the drivetrain was grinding more. Would it have been much if any better with a double chainring setup? I really don't know. The TSR chainrings run very smoothly, and on the long ride, I really enjoyed being able to simply shift to an easier or harder gear. I've been riding geared bikes for a long time, grew up with triples, and tend to be very wary of change for change's sake, but from a purely enjoyment-of-riding perspective, the move to 1x systems has been one of my favorite changes in the industry in the last decade or two, so I'm biased here. It's also possible that after a couple more rides on this system, I'll decide that for this bike the double does work better. And that just goes back to one of the other industry-wide moves that I've been really happy about: direct mount chainrings. White Industries VBC chainrings give the opportunity to get some unusual, but very useful gear combinations; but it's also nice to be able to swap out to the dedicated-1x TSR chainring so easily.

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