Words: Seb Kemp
Photos: Anthony Smith
It's dark and there are no discernible landmarks to show where we are except the sign from the highway, which states proudly we are entering Bend, Oregon. Bison BC is playing loudly on the stereo of the rented Rambo-mom mobile. The licky-licky brown dog sits front and centre silently directing our movements and moods like a furry tobacco-colored Yoda. Anthony Smith and myself are red eyed and sore. Not from the long drive south to get here, but from the accumulated weariness of a month solid of testing bikes for the Bike magazine Bible of Bike Tests issue. As well as testing many, many bikes, we have tested the health repercussions of consuming almost exclusively bacon, coffee and beer. Not only that, but all whilst sleeping on the hardwood floor of chirpy hate Viking, Grant Gunderson's creative contempt cave for a whole month in the wet season of the Pacific Northwest. (Note: Thank you Grant, without your humorous outlook on racial politics, Canadians and women drivers I think I would of found Bellingham a little liberal.)
Like fattened geese we are headed south to warmer climes, but, to break up the journey, we have allowed ourselves to be pulled into the twister of Sven Martin and the comedy storm of Chris 'Jaymo' Jamieson. Whilst casually telling these two we were planning a drive south back to San Clemente at the end of the 30-day war for biblical justice they both hurriedly exclaimed we must stop off in Bend to see what is on offer. Both Anthony and myself had not visited Bend before so we were open to suggestion. We had heard good things of the riding, the community and the climate, so it seemed like a possibility for us to make the detour for the weekend. Then when Jaymo offered us a nice, clean, fresh laundered bed to fall into and regain some of the many lost night hours of the past month—Bend could have been a run-down town full of bullet tooth women and we would of still headed there in overdrive.
Fortunately for our funny bone, Jaymo was away that weekend, but he still insisted we visit. He made all necessary arrangements for us to be bedded in pristine white sheets upon clouds of marshmallows. Additionally, to make sure we didn't become bedded by run down bullet tooth women, Sven Martin, offered to drag us into his unique circle of chaos for the weekend.
Stupidly we made arrangements with Sven to go ride way too early in the morning. When I awoke, I felt like I was stuck to the sheets (or was it that the sheets were stuck to me?), but we had also made plans to ride with the fellas and fellettes from Cog Wild mountain bike tours (http://www.cogwild.com/). We felt like two lucky young ladies who were able to choose their date for the prom, but our companion conundrum was solved for us when the human gorilla, Sven, jumped out of the back of the giant Cog Wild van. Now, for those of you who have not being acquainted with the South African cyclone that is Sven Martin then you are missing out; missing out on watching one man simultaneously boldly careen through life with the gentile finesse of a pissed off rhino one minute, and then somehow present to the world a non-stop succession of fantastically thoughtful and poignant photographs the next. It is amazing that he allows life to always put him at the butt of its joke, but somehow always come out looking like he was the comic genius behind this particular act of kismet. In fact, I'm pretty sure he is playing along with it all, and like a quick fingered, seasoned hustler he creates a shroud of chaos around him so that it makes the fact he can produce a relentless series of incredible images that document the world of mountain bikers, particularly the sharpest edge of it—the rarified atmosphere of World Cup racers—even more amazing.
We have just enough time to grab a mug of coffee and a pastry before being sucked into the back of the van which is packed to the gunwales with an assortment of local riders. With sleep bunnies still curled up in our eyes we clumsily made introductions. First impressions are important so this was the most significant way to make strangers think we had a lisp and a 30-year concussion. Thank you mornings, making a dick of us since ages ago.
As we were driven towards Mount Bachelor I was given the opportunity to be shaken awake by Lindsey Voreis. Another whirlwind of a person, Lindsey doesn't just characterize an abundance of energy, but positively rains that energy on the people around her. She is lively in the way a Border collie puppy would be if you fed it Cheez-its and M&Ms: wildly overexcited, but a lot of fun. After inhaling just half of my coffee I discarded the rest out of the window before Lindsey and the caffeine created a buzz that would have me picking nits out of the back of strangers hair and howling at the moon.
There was plenty of talk going on at the front of the van about how low the snow line was and after a couple exploratory u-turns we settled on dropping into Funner trail (I think that's what it was called) which led to a road crossing then a short fire-road climb and another trail that I can't remember what it was called which led into Whoops, which we lapped twice because it was more fun than giving a childhood bully a solid-ass whooping.
Side note: Apologies for the terrible metaphors. I'm an Englishman trying to ingratiate oneself with the popular culture and terminology of a North American audience. Sometimes I get a little bit whey and little bit whoo as the expressions and vocabulary gets mixed and mingled. Back in Engurland I would of said something like 'more fun than a spot of bendy flex with the Queens corgis followed by a lovely cup of Bruce', but here I feel the need to curry favor with you, the Atlantic lefties. Left as in on the left hand side of the Atlantic and not meaning political denomination.
The trails are fast and furious, as are the locals we tagged along with. It's not often you have ladies drop-in in front of you who can keep abreast of the situation. Anka Martin was happy to be getting some riding in after a busy summer of travel it showed on the bike. All the lady folk we were riding with were not afraid to drop the hammer. They carved the corners like a spoon through soup and were fitter than a butcher's dog.
Ok, now I'm just f-ing about, I'm going to put the metaphors in the trunk and let the story take the drivers seat.
During the Bible month we had each found a few favorite bikes and, in order to save them from being boxed back up and thrown back to their rightful owners, were transporting said favorite bikes from the Bible back to San Clemente. Anthony had reclaimed 'his' Banshee Spitfire and I had taken an unsavory liking to the Rocky Mountain Element 70 MSL. Not unsavory in the dark alley, chloroform and long jacket sense, but unsavory in the, salty sometime bike writer who has gone sweet on a bike kind of way. I didn't expect to like the Element as much as I did, and I was happy we had commandeered this particular bike. For one, the trails in Bend (or at least the ones the snow line allowed us to ride) are pretty flat, smooth and wide open so a big toothy chainring (as is fitted on the Element) is useful for opening up the legs and lugs across a blurring forest floor of pine needles. The second titillating trait of the Element is the geometry feels as comfortable thrashing mile upon mile of XC grade as it does cutting loose on corners, pumping berms, weaving through rocky chutes and getting airborne.
After a galloping gale of a ride through the lower Bend trail network it was time for a hearty lunch and there just so happened to be a burrito joint at the trails end. Chow down and feet up for the afternoon before the Svendalini comes knocking at the apartment door, wanting to play some more.
Bend is also home to some of the most incredible public jump lines I have ever seen. Part BMX trails, part slalom, part sculpted Japanese garden, these finely rounded and shapely humps are an oasis in the surrounding flat pine forest. But like a well-sculpted set of silicone bumpers these things aren't just for looking at, and, after a bit of fondling, I can safely report that they work very well indeed. A real trail builder is one who can see the imaginary lines and maths of physics – speed, spacing, angles and trajectory – that make jumps simply wrong or work simply. Jim Karn, the main man responsible for the jumps, is certainly one of those.
Sven broke out his old 4X bike from way back when his work tool was his bikes and not just his camera. I could easily say Sven used to be fast, but this would be a distortion of the truth. The real fact of the matter is that Sven still is fast and skilled. His style is powerful and wild; watching him is a thrill as you feel he is either going to destroy the trail in a way previously thought far fetched, or he is going to comically blow up and/or blow out. Either way it is captivating spectating and this rush is multiplied if you are following him down a trail. You are given a front row seat at a three-dimensional King Kong vs. Godzilla viewing, except the action could actually jump from the screen at any minute and swallow you up into it's turbulent tumbling mess. However, this time Sven showed that old dogs don't need to lie down, and pumped and flowed his way through the trails with a grace and gusto that is more akin to a primate fluidly swinging through tree tops. But like I said, the trails are built well.
That evening, we were shown around the city and ended up in a former convent that is now a bar called McMenamins and contains a lounge cinema, cigar lounge, live music room, and Turkish baths. Yes, Turkish baths, that is right, I repeat Turkish baths in a bar. Nuts. Even better were the locally brewed beers served from clean taps, but we didn't indulge too much because there were too few hours of luxuriating in a big soft bed before we had to wake early to drive 14 hours south to the cultural abyss of San Clemente.
There is a lot more to the riding than I can convey in this grainy overview of Bend. We lucked out with the weather to some extend as it was blue skied and full of fall's leisurely warmth, but at the same time the advancing snow line and the short time we gave ourselves meant we barely grazed the upper epidermis of this tidy little town on the Oregon high plains. There are many more trails to travel upon and please don't take my narrow description of the trails we rode to be indicative of all the riding there. I am assured there is more.
Even more so, as we left on Highway 97, we were left feeling like there was far more to understand about this funny little pristine town. All throughout the weekend we were told that the town had grown exponentially in very recent times. Property developers, real estate speculators and municipality administration had colluded to artificially create, or at least accelerate, the prospects of this former logging town. It was touted as an outdoor gateway, and many people moved there to take advantage of the space and accessibility to this bountiful sporty space, but now many properties lie dormant hoping for sale. There are few jobs in Bend as there is no industry to speak of. Some people came and have left, others looked but realized that the dream was unattainable. Real estate prices have fallen as a surplus of property versus demand occurred. There are some people that can take advantage of this situation, but they have to be people who work independently, remotely, or who own or run their own business. And from the select crew of locals we met, this generally meant most people were outgoing and driven–be it outdoors, indoors or anywhere they could stamp a little bit of creativity, and have fun doing so.
Bend is certainly a place I would have to visit further in order to get a better handle on it. The people are warm, the riding is plentiful, and I now know where to watch an old movie in an even older couch whilst chomping on a pizza and gulping a local beer.