I was that guy. You know, the idiot that you read about who gets into a situation way over his head and you're left wondering, "How the hell could anyone be so friggin' stupid?" Yeah, well, what started out as a nice spring ride through Oregon's Cascade mountains almost exactly one year ago was followed by me, a little lycra-clad bike racer, hiking uphill through five-feet-deep soft snow, road bike in tow, before hitching a ride on the back of a snowmobile. This tops the list of absurd things that I've encountered while cycling - or, generally, have done in my life.
Just the day before I'd done a nice, controlled ride from Sunriver up to Mount Bachelor. It was a lovely, steady climb to the base of the ski area with a gain of maybe 4,000 feet. Conditions certainly changed en route; I was greeted by a lot more roadside snow than I'd anticipated and a biting snow squall to boot. The end result was a 40-some-odd mile round trip, a good little workout, the mandatory shot of my bike perched in a big snow pile in front of a chairlift, and a nice, albeit tame, story of adventure.
It was last May and I was visiting Sunriver for a couple of days with my girlfriend, Erin, who had work obligations with a local school district. When I got back to our cabin, I started looking over maps for day two's adventures. The weather reports were calling for warm temps and I was pretty excited about further explorations. I'd just finished the epic Tour of the Gila bike race in Silver City, New Mexico, going up against the likes of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis, and should have been in R&R mode with my training. But I couldn't resist.
Turns out that the road I'd taken up to Bachelor was a section of what looked like a fantastic 65-or-so mile (eyeballed guesstimation) loop, predominantly on the Cascade Lakes Highway. I elected to wind around clockwise so that I'd approach Bachelor from the opposite direction as the previous ride- - a fateful decision.
I was off to a late start, after 2 p.m., but it was a glorious day, perfect for a bike cruise. The rolling country road had minimal traffic, in part due to the intermittent construction zones where mile-long sections of asphalt had been removed giving way to rough dirt roads before being repaved. Other than the mandatory breaks - only one direction of traffic was allowed on these stretches at a time - the hard packed dirt segments were fun, added to the sense of adventure, and made me feel "rugged."
About 45 or 50 miles into my ride, there was yet another reason for the low volume of traffic - cones across the road and a "road closed" sign. A 90-plus-mile roundtrip ride was more than I was looking for and I hoped that, a little further on, the road might be impassable to cars, but that I'd sidestep this section and continue on my way.
The change in elevation was subtle, but the roadside snow piles grew progressively deeper, almost to shoulder-level. The road was well plowed and the quietness and absence of vehicles on the mountain road was incredible - the setting was straight out of a Giro d'Italia mountain stage.
All was fine n' dandy for several more miles until I came across two tractor/snowplows parked in the middle of the road. The way beyond was plowed, but the going now had a slushy covering over the top. The warm weather meant this was rideable, but that I needed to take advantage of the warm afternoon and get on through before it froze over. I estimated (wrongly) that there were only a handful of miles to go to Bachelor.
OK, full disclosure. To make matters, and the whole image, worse, I was also sending cell phone updates to Erin, who by now was waiting for me in the Bachelor parking lot, and using my iPhone semi-GPS to make sure I was on course. Keep in mind, this thing is better suited for finding lattes downtown than in aiding in any sort of mountaineering effort.
Things took a turn for the absurd when my "road," gradually turned into full-on deep snow. I alternated between jogging with the bike and walking, convinced that I was still better off moving forward than turning around and heading all the way back in the dark. In case you had any question, ultra-light road bike shoes don't make ideal snow excursion footwear. And my lightweight vest accompanied by matching Ten Speed Drive team-edition arm and leg warmers probably weren't going to cut it for late-night winter exposure. I passed some cabins, which were closed for the winter, near where the road transitioned from rideable to hiking and had them in the back of my mind as a last ditch plan. Of course, that would likely mean loved ones growing really worried, search crews, a whole bunch of embarrassment and, assuredly, becoming "that jackass."
I did my best to step lightly and use the bike to help me from sinking down to my knees in the snow. The ridiculousness grew as I heard faint sounds of snowmobiles and realized that there were increasingly more cross-country ski tracks around. I estimated a two to two-and-a-half mile trudge. Amazingly enough, I had cell reception the whole way and realized that, at about 6:10 p.m., after already covering a couple of miles, I still had more than two mountainous, tough-going miles to go. The good news: I'd make it before dark and wouldn't make the news for either freezing to death in spandex or a ridiculous search and rescue mission. The bad news? It was gonna suck.
Turns out that my rescue chariot was not far away. Erin sweet-talked one of the snowmobilers, all of whom were getting ready to pack up and head for home, into tracking me down. The conversation went something like:
Snowmobile dude and lady friend (incredulous): There's a guy riding a mountain bike in this?
Erin (worriedly): In this, yes. But... he's not on a mountain bike.
Minutes later a winter-leather-clad dude revved my way, taking a stylish little jump at the side of the trail before pulling up in front of me.
The next scene will stay with me for a while. As he came to a stop and tilted his face shield and helmet back onto the crown of his head, exposing long red hair straight out of a wintry version of Braveheart, he greeted me affably enough after giving my get-up, and predicament, a quick once over. "I like your style," he said.
We skimmed quickly over the rest of the trail home, me gripping my rescuer for dear life, past the understandably confused stares of a group of cross-country skiers. I held the bike over my right shoulder, holding the handlebars cyclocross style. It's a great position for running with the bike, but the bucking, jarring snow machine ride caused the bike's top tube to dig a nice bruise into my deltoid and almost sent me sprawling headfirst into the snow. For this, at least, I was prepared, with bike helmet firmly in place.