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Through the Forest

From issue 71 • Words by Clive Pursehouse with images by Chris McFarland

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The bacon sizzles as I pour a cup of coffee to the sound of rain. Not that pitter-patter sound that can be so soothing; this is a sound more akin to what Noah probably heard. It’s rain pelting the roof, the sound of the gutters dumping into puddles and standing water outside the kitchen. It’s been that kind of winter in the Pacific Northwest, a soppy one, even by our sick and weary standards. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m trying not to talk myself out of the ride I’ve agreed to do a little bit later this morning.

The Cascadia Super G (“G” for gravel), sponsored by Diamondback, sets off into the Capitol State Forest around Olympia from a shooting range, The Evergreen Sportsmen’s Club (women are welcome). It’s an “open field” gravel race (and ride) through some of the most prodigious working forest in America. Trey Wilson runs the Cascadia Dirt Cup, a mountain bike enduro series that runs from north to south on the western side of the Cascade Range. Wilson is a local to the Olympia area who has embraced the gravel craze. The forest service roads of the Pacific Northwest have few peers when it comes to eye-popping surroundings and lung-popping climbs.

The deluge continues most of the way down I-5. At exit 95 you leave the arterial for the rural South Sound. This area looks like much of rural western Washington, save for one unique characteristic that I’ve not encountered before. A few miles from the start line and the shooting range, I begin to notice mounds just off the roadside. I don’t take note of the first few, but dozens, seemingly, turn to hundreds. This geological anomaly is known as the Mima Mounds. They occur in three or four other parts of the country, but scientists have no real definitive explanation for their existence. The 600-acre Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve protects the mounds for further study and allows for protected habitat for many endangered species of butterfly, including the mardon skipper and the zerene fritillary. I’ve never heard of them either.

The park ing lot for the Super G is a field beside the Sportsmen’s Club. There’s no gunfire when I park and I assume the neighbors like it that way—it’s barely 7:30 in the morning. There are around 100 registered riders for the event, Wilson tells me. For a February race in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impressive. There will no doubt be some no-shows, as this weather is frankly ridiculous. The crowd in the parking lot is a mix of local riders from the South Puget Sound and a lot of familiar faces from the regional cyclocross races. Most of the folks I speak with though have never ridden in the Capitol Forest.

“I’m a big believer in the riding down here, that this area has so much to offer,” Wilson says. “For mountain biking, it’s very obvious, but I saw the Super G and the popularity of a gravel race as a way to perhaps show a new audience what the Capitol Forest is all about.” The Cascadia Super G course is 41 miles long and, quickly, just about 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Wilson had to amend the original course because of deep snow at some of the higher elevations. The Capitol Forest is technically in the Black Hills southwest of Olympia, right around 100,000 acres of working forest and recreational grounds managed in a trust by the Department of Natural Resources. The forest has more than 575 miles of gravel roads and some 160 miles of single track. The trail upkeep is done largely by the Friends of Capitol Forest.

As the open race rolls out, I spy a few local hotshots from the ’cross scene driving the front of this group of about 40. I figure they are out to hurt us. I also determine quickly that I’m not able to hold the wheels of the open racers and probably should have talked Wilson into letting me do the sportive. Before I drop off, I mention to a local friend from the ’cross races that there are a number of legitimate excuses for my poor showing. I pin most of them on my tires, which I make sure to point out are 650s and 40mm: “How am I supposed to carry any speed on all this chip seal?” I bid Moe goodbye and take the turn off of Bordeaux Road onto the E-Line, beginning what will be a long day in the saddle with only a few stragglers as company.

It’s hard to quantify the difficulty of these 40-odd miles. The rain’s a deluge, but there’s camaraderie and, at one aid station, somebody pours me some bourbon into the coffee— which is incredible, roasted locally in Olympia. The weather and gravel combine to see a lot of folks’ days end, and more than a few people lose derailleurs. My front brake pads completely disintegrate—which made the descents more entertaining! In a few places, despite the reroute, there’s snow, more slush than snow, but the 40mm tires make short work of them.

If you’ve seen “Rambo” you have a good sense of what these woods look like. The mist, the massive evergreens and Rambo sort of make a good gravel analogy. You don’t feel welcome in town, maybe they’ve pushed you a little too far and you end up retreating to the woods to make your stand. The gravel roads are your only hope for survival in a world gone mad.

When we arrive back at the Sportsmen’s Club it sounds like the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” is in full throat. (I never understood guns, but I suppose these folks sound like they’re having fun.) After a couple of beers and some home-cooked chili, the memories of those brutal gravel roads quickly become romanticized by the banter inside the Sportsmen’s Club.

This part of the country is undeniably beautiful, and it can be equally harsh. That’s ultimately the beauty of gravel riding—it’s an accentuation of cycling’s greatest assets and pain points. The communing with nature gets turned up to 11 with a ride like this; and so does the suffering. The graveled gradients in the teens only reinforce that. The thick, green forest, moss-covered trunks and sounds of running water (whether it’s a waterfall or just rain) make for a remarkable ride. Gravel has been dismissed as a passing fancy or trend but, honestly, it’s a variation of the words of John Rambo: “In town you’re the law, out here it’s me.”