If you’ve been following along with the Home Version, you know that now is about the time I’m supposed to go on a week-long bike tour typed thing. I’ve planned on taking off time in September since last September, and over the course of the year, the idea of where to go refined itself several times over. I knew that’ I’d like to do something in Central Oregon, but the stops and routing changed like every month or so. By the time August had come, the idea was to start in The Dalles, head down over to Bend, then back over the Cascades to Eugene. While it wouldn’t be a “true” bikepacking trip, I hoped to incorporate a little bit of the Oregon Outback and find as much dirt/gravel as practicable.
Everything was full-speed-ahead with this plan until last weekend, when two unrelated things happened: I had a brutal run at work, nine days straight, with a 14 hour day followed immediately by a 10 hour shift. And the nightmare known as my teeth flared up, putting me in quite a bit of pain for several days. This sapped me of a lot of energy, and I started to doubt my desire–and possibly the physical ability–to pull off something so epic, especially if I needed to get dental work done right away. The pain did subside* but my enthusiasm for tackling the tour I had planned didn’t return, and I didn’t relish 60-80 mile days with several thousand feet of climbing practically every day. So I started to think of something less epic.
And something else happened after the weekend, something that made me rethink the whole idea of the upcoming bike tour. Something that got my enthusiasm level up. Rather than going the more rugged route, why not go in a different direction? With a different bike?
“Wait a second, Shawn”, you are saying to yourself, “you’re going to tour on a three speed? You are crazy!”
Yep, maybe I am.
But maybe I’m also trying to prove a point, while living up to my role as President-For-Life of Society of Three Speeds. I’ve talked the talk, now I need to walk the walk, er, ride the ride. If I’ve been saying “three speeds is all you need”, then maybe I should demonstrate, eh?
While not common these days, three speed tours have happened, especially in eras where the three speed was the best bike you would find. Like England in the 1930’s for instance. And people have toured on three speeds recently, too. For example, this guy did a fairly extensive tour on a Trek Belleville three speed just last year.
And yes, going on the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour in May has definitely inspired me. I managed just fine riding through the rolling terrain around the Mississippi River with just three speeds on 40+ mile days. And heck, a good portion of that time was with the bike stuck in high gear. Sure, I didn’t have a true “touring load” but I knew I could go the distance.
And I’ve been talking about a three speed tour for some time. What better time is now?
Of course, one shouldn’t necessarily approach a three speed tour in the same way as other tours. I didn’t want anything that was going to be excessively hilly or feature real mountain climbs. I may be crazy, but I’m not that crazy. So I needed to look at somewhere that was flat or rolling yet not too over-the-top hilly. Initially I wanted to stay in Oregon but choices were limited. We don’t have too many rail-trails, so I couldn’t build a tour around that. The best option would be something in the Willamette Valley, but it wouldn’t be that long of a tour, and I really wasn’t feeling it.
It would be cool to go back to the Midwest and take advantage of the extensive rail-trail system there. But I don’t have a lot of time nor money for this vacation, so I didn’t want to spend the hundreds of dollars and four days it would require for me to take the Empire Builder back to Minnesota or Wisconsin. Another time, of course. So I decided to look northward. Washington has a pretty good system of rail-trails, especially around the Seattle area. Yeah, I didn’t really want to take the train back up to Seattle so soon, but this would give me the most options for the tour. And then it hit me: if I went to Washington, I could bike part of the Iron Horse trail, a trail I had been meaning to do for some time!
The Iron Horse, or more correctly, the John Wayne Trail, is a rail-trail running west-east across Washington state using the right of way of the former Milwaukee Road railway. While the entire trail runs from the Seattle/Tacoma eastern suburbs to the Idaho border, the most developed section is west of the Columbia River. (The eastern portion is pretty much unimproved, just railroad ballast. I’ve heard of fat bikes riding this section, but anything less would be a grueling mission.) And the nicest section in terms of trail quality is from North Bend east to Easton Lake, the section known as Iron Horse State Park.
The Iron Horse is unpaved but sounds to be mostly crushed limestone (at least west of Easton Lake). Since it’s an old rail line, grades more than 2% are pretty much non-existent.* And while it parallels I-90, most of the route sounds like it’s in the woods and pretty scenic to boot. There are several primitive bike-only campsites along the trail, so I don’t have to worry about where to camp. And the big feature of the trail is the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.5 mile rail tunnel through the pass.
So the question still lingers: Can I do it on my three speed? Well, I’ve ridden the Raleigh Wayfarer all week, and I feel good about it. I’ve whittled down the camp/touring kit, so I can keep the load fairly light. All I’ll need is the small handlebar bag, frame bag, and Carradice Camper Longflap, the same primary setup as the XO-3. (While the XO-3 has a front basket, I have a rear rack on the Wayfarer for extra storage capacity.) With a 46 tooth chainring and 23 tooth cog, my lowest gear is about 39 inches, not a granny gear, but comparable to the lowest gear in the big chainring of the XO-3.*** As long as I keep the steepness to a minimum, I should be okay. And the Panaracer Col de la Vie tires are about the same width as the Schwalbe Little Big Ben, so the “rough stuff” handling will be about the same. (The Col de la Vies are definitely more supple, though.)
So the plan is to ride from Seattle out and up the Iron Horse Trail across Snoqualmie Pass, then turn around at some point (probably a little after Cle Elum), head back to Seattle, then take Amtrak home. While my tour isn’t going to be as epic as the tour initially planned, I still will:
- Cross a mountain pass (albeit a low one)
- Get some gravel in
- Go over to “the dry side”, if only for a little bit
Not too bad for a tour with a three speed that will be using mostly rail-trails, if I don’t say so myself. Of course, I can totally fail halfway through, you can go “I told you so, Shawn!” But even if that does happen (and I hope/doubt that it will), you’ll be reading a tour report about something even more unique than the umpteenth journal this week about a bikepacking trip. And that means something.
I’ll try to post a few times when I’m on the road, but you should definitely check out my flickr photostream which will probably be a bit more up-to-date. A full report will happen when I get back.
Wish me luck!
*To note: I know that dental issues just don’t “go away” on their own. I’ve already seen my dentist once, and have to go back after tour to get work done.
**Most mainline railways don’t want to use anything more than 3% as it would be too taxing on long trains. Logging railways that needed to get deep into the mountains would use steeper grades, though, but not much more than 5%.
***For full comparison, the lowest gear on the XO-3 is about 21 inches.