Odyssey of the VOG Individual Time Trial: Race Report
350+ miles. 32,000+ feet of climbing. 65% gravel. On paper, the Odyssey of the VOG is a beast of a ride. While there is some undulating respite within the route, much of the climbing comes in 2,000+ foot increments. For those of you who don’t count your climbs in feet, just know that 2,000+ foot climbs are no joke.
That being said, the Odyssey of the VOG is definitely a climber’s route. It caters to the uneven pedal cadence and dancing-out-of-the-saddle style of riding associated with steep, loose grades.
Side note: it just so happens that I love this style of riding.
In summary, the Odyssey of the VOG is a gravel route aimed at challenging local Pacific Northwesterners to test their abilities. Our writeup on bikepacking.com sums it up well:
Although we both have ridden most all of the route in increments, neither Seth (fellow route builder) or I had completed it in full prior to our ITT attempt this past weekend. There were a number of reasons we wanted to go test out the route a few weeks prior to the event:
- Verify that our route map was 100% accurate
- Identify any active logging sections en route
- Experience just how challenging this route is for ourselves
After we both completed this ride Sunday afternoon, I’d say that on the whole we feel like the mission was successfully accomplished. The route is accurate (added a few POI’s, but otherwise good), no major logging on route, and we can successfully empathize with all fellow VOG riders, AKA VOG’ers.
What follows is a breakdown of my Individual Time Trial (ITT) experience on course. Enjoy!
BUT FIRST… a Packing Video
Before I jump into the race report, if you are interested in how Seth and I pack our bikes for a ride like this, check out our gear breakdown video below. I promise it’s nothing fancy – we made it the day after the ITT and were still floating in a fog of sleep deprivation and overuse injuries, but it will give some idea of what we brought along for those that are curious:
The Odyssey of the VOG is a 350+ mile route with about 32,000 total feet of elevation gain. The terrain ranges from smooth tarmac to plum-sized boulder-gravel, but most of the route is somewhere in between, a rideable but often vibration-heavy gravel that is synonymous with the timber roads of the Oregon Coast range.
ITT Race Report: Planning and Prep
In planning our ITT attempts, the mental math for the route was important. 350 miles almost on the dot makes breaking down times pretty easy. If we were able to average 10 mph on course – which includes resupplies in towns, water filtering, breaks, and possible sleep (at least for one of us) – it would take a total of 35 hours. To the bikepacking neophytes out there, they may see 10 mph and scoff.
And in normal circumstances, sure – 10 mph is not a fast average. But when you factor in a loaded down bike with all your gear, gravel vs. road surfaces, feet climbed per 10 miles, resupply stops and all breaks being included in your overall average (no auto-pause for snack breaks allowed roadies!), and a running clock that encourages a sleepless night and waning alertness – a 10 mph average begins to sound a bit more ambitious.
And that was the goal both Seth and I set for our ITTs. We knew it would be hard. We knew it would likely mean a sleepless night. But we both are cursed with an inner competitor that likes to set ambitious goals, so 35 hours was the rough draft plan.
Setting a leave time also involved some back and forth. We both knew we wanted to finish sometime Sunday afternoon (as long as everything went according to plan), so the earlier the better was our initial thought. We started out with a tentative plan to leave at 4am, but sometime the week before our ITT, we decided that 4am was just too early and would cut down on our sleep the night before. 5am would allow both of us to get a solid 6 hours of sleep the night before the event – enough to feel rested and ready come the morning. So 5am became our official leave time.
Seth came over to my place the night before so that he could be a little closer to the start line in the morning and so that he could catch a ride with me to the start. My partner, Trish, drove us to the start so that we wouldn’t have to leave a car overnight and agreed to pick us both up because she is selfless and thoughtful like that.
The Morning of
Seth and I both woke up at 3:20am to do some final bike checks, bag checks, and body checks. Once everything was ready we loaded up our gear-laden bikes on the Subaru and cruised over to the start line. ITT’s are always a bit strange. We both were ready to roll ten minutes before our proposed lead time, but then felt a bit frantic as we posted our trackleaders link to various social media, fired up the route on our devices, and did some last minute checks that we had everything. We inevitably ended up leaving a few minutes late. But the beauty of the ITT is that the time starts when you do, so… 5:04am was our new ITT start time.
The early morning rollout was a casual affair. We got to the first real hill of the course and both stopped to delayer some clothes. It was from this point on – around mile 11 – where we started our game of hopscotch back and forth.
Riding Styles in Grand Departs
In a ride as long as the Odyssey of the VOG, it’s really important that you ride to your strengths. Seth and I have done one other ITT attempt together – the Oregon Outback – and we rode almost none of it together from the very start. We have different cadences, different places we like to push and hold back, and our bio clocks don’t always sync up. Companionship often comes at the expense of speed, and Seth and I were both trying to set a competitive time out on course this weekend.
That being said, we did a lot of back and forth throughout the first half of the day. After passing the Valley of the Giants turnoff around mile 68, I passed Seth and steadily climbed away from him on a pretty tough 2,000 foot climb. After bombing down the hill I thought I may have enough of a lead on him to resupply in Grand Ronde at mile 90 and still stay ahead.
After a quick resupply, I was shoving some hot gas station food in my face and trying to stuff thousands of calories worth of gummy worms and pastries into my bike bags when I heard, ‘Hi Ben… bye Ben…’ as Seth whizzed by. Apparently Grand Ronde was not part of his resupply strategy. It took me another 5 minutes to get everything in place and get back on the bike.
Having a rough draft plan of where you will stop to resupply on food and water is really important. My rough draft plan was to stop at Grand Ronde (mile 90), Tillamook (mile 160), and Yamhill (mile 270). The 110 miles between Tillamook and Yamhill was going to stretch my setup pretty thin, but the only other option on route is Gaston at mile 260, and the store hours in Gaston weren’t going to work for my goal times (nothing would be open), so Yamhill was my best bet.
With all this in mind, I needed to be able to pack a decent amount of food and water to make it that far without resupply, and while I brought some iodine tablets along in case I needed to grab some creek water along the route, my hope was to make it to my three resupply towns without needing to stop for water in between.
To make all of this possible, I carried 2.5 liters of water and filled up at each resupply, which was enough for me to make it to each spot without running out. No gross iodine tablets in my water for this bikepacking ride!
Since Seth didn’t stop at Grand Ronde, he stopped in Hebo (mile 117), Tillamook (mile 160), and Yamhill (mile 270).
In the end, making smart resupply choices is important. Running out or nearly running out of food and water before each stop is a little risky, but pretty ideal if you’re concerned about bike weight (which can also lead to mechanicals), unnecessary fatigue, joint pain, efficiency, etc. Seth and I opted for pretty light setups and neither of us ever ran out of food or water, but we came pretty close at each stop, which is the goal.
Back to our Game of Hopscotch
After Grand Ronde, the biggest climb of the route begins, at just under 3,000 feet of climbing. It actually is not by any means the toughest climb. It just takes a while. I caught Seth about 2/3 of the way up this hill. We chatted briefly about the ride and then once again settled into our riding paces. It was mid-afternoon on Saturday at this point, and I would not see Seth again until the early morning hours of Sunday.
After bombing an almost 10 mile downhill to Hebo, the VOG follows the Oregon Coast Scenic Byway to Pacific City and eventually Tillamook. This paved section of the route is beautiful as it rolls past views of the ocean, small beach towns, and popular hiking destination like Cape Lookout and Cape Meares. As important, it provides a bit of respite from the constant jostling vibrations of gravel.
Throughout this 40 mile section, I maintained a steady but sustainable pace. Avoiding Zone 3+ except for on the steepest climbs would help me avoid lactic acid buildup in the muscles and keep the pedals moving.
Mild discomfort in my left knee also became evident as I rode along the scenic bikeway between Pacific City and Tillamook, which would steadily grow worse throughout the ride.
Tillamook – What NOT to do at a Resupply
Once I arrived in Tillamook, I rode slightly off course to Center Market for a quick resupply. There were a number of things I wanted to do at this resupply: lube my bike chain, clean up my shammy with a wet wipe in the bathroom, buy some cans of coffee, and fill up on food and water for the big 110 mile push to Yamhill. The shop-owner said that, unfortunately, their bathroom wasn’t open to the public due to COVID restrictions, so the shammy cleaning would have to wait.
The shop-owner was also VERY interested in what I was doing and followed me around the shop asking questions:
How far are you riding again?
NOO, that’s too far. Where will you stay to sleep?
I’m actually planning to ride through the night [friendly smile].
No no no… Too dangerous. You must sleep. And the traffic.
Oh, I won’t see any traffic. I’ll be riding on gravel and dirt roads in the Tillamook Forest.
No! You cannot ride through the forest at night! Much too dangerous.
…. continue ad nauseam.
He was a very friendly and gregarious man, but I was flustered in the store as I tried to remember the things I needed grab. I got out of the store after about 10 minutes, much longer than a normal stop, and frantically packed everything on the bike.
10 miles out of Tillamook and on the doorstep of my next big climbing cycle, I took stock of my food supply: various types of gummies, candy bars, nuts, yogurt pretzels, and shredded Tillamook cheese (no idea).
And it dawned on me.
I forgot to grab cans of doubleshot coffee. Caffeine was my ONE strategy for night time riding. My defense against fatigue. This was a huge error on my part.
Night Riding in the Tillamook Forest
I found a quiet spot along the Kilchis River Forest Road to clean my shammy, barely beating the descending darkness as I began a slow climb away from Tillamook. With the flats of the scenic bikeway behind me, Tillamook Forest had three major climbs to conquer, less total elevation than the Siletz portion of the route from Falls City to Hebo, but still formidable. And with my knee now causing me moderate discomfort, I knew that one of those climbs was going to include some hike-a-bike.
I don’t do a lot of night riding, but whenever I do, I find it invigorating. The forest was incredibly quiet as I climbed and descended isolated gravel roads, with a light sprinkle of precipitation falling most of the night.
In this section, anything above 1,500 feet throughout this portion of riding was covered in dense mist, so dense that my headlight and bike light felt blinding as they reflected off the mist and into my face. In these sections, I had to ride very slow to avoid potholes and other hazards on the road, which was frustrating since I wanted to keep my pace high and set a competitive overall time for the course.
But weather is always a factor in these races and what keeps us coming back. Regardless, this was a factor in my overall time and is an opportunity for future riders of the VOG to make up time on the course.
The Sleep Monster – Lost Boys and Domestic Cats
The mind is a beautiful and terrible place, and can mentally make mountains out of mole hills and domestic cats out of trash heaps. Around 11pm, my mental fatigue was finally catching up to me, and my battle with the sleep monster began. With no caffeine defenses in my arsenal (remember my Tillamook snafu?), I had to rely on my own savvy and guile to thwart the sleep monster’s advances. Spoiler alert: I lose. But here are the fatigue stages I experienced as I battled it out with the sleep monster:
- Stage 1: Heavy eyelids
- I intentionally open my eyes wider than normal
- I blink really hard
- I move my eyeballs in wide circles
SLEEP MONSTER PROGRESSES
- Stage 2: Head nodding and temporary loss of consciousness
- I become conscious again with a flood of adrenaline and freak out – DID I JUST FALL ASLEEP FOR A SECOND? SNAP OUT OF IT, BEN!
- I whistle and sing
- I brush my teeth (I brushed my teeth 5 or 6 times within the span of a couple hours of battle with the sleep monster)
- I talk to myself
SLEEP MONSTER PROGRESSES
- Stage 3: Start seeing things that just don’t make sense…
Stage 3 is where things got weird. At one point, I looked up from one of my teeth-brushing episodes and saw a white Department of Forestry sign with a picture of a young adolescent boy on it. My mind went down the rabbit hole…
I wonder why the Department of Forestry has white metal signs with adolescent boys on them? Maybe they partnered with those missing persons advertisements that used to be on milk cartons. Yeah, that makes sense. I bet the milk industry and the Department of Forestry are teaming up in the fight against lost boys.Ben’s addled mind
When I abandoned my mental reverie and looked at the sign again, it had the number 2 on it. Oops, my mistake.
Another odd moment came when I saw a domestic cat laying in the middle of the road. My mind went down the rabbit hole…
I wonder why there’s a domestic cat out in the middle of the forest? The Department of Forestry must allow people to buy out small plots of land out here. PFFFFTTT! GET OUT OF THE WAY! SHOO!Ben’s addled mind
As I continue to make loud noises to get the cat to move and look up again, I realize the domestic cat is actually a box with some black markings on the bottom; trash in the road.
Succumbing to the Sleep Monster
With no caffeine, a progressively more painful knee, and a final scare where I nailed a big pothole in one of my temporary snoozes on the bike, it became clear to me that a short nap was necessary. I settled my mind on stopping immediately at the next grassy patch of ground I saw next to the road and, within minutes, found a spot, pulled out the emergency bivvy, and was out.
When I woke up to my alarm I was immediately in pack mode. As I stood up to begin folding up my bivvy, however, I saw Seth’s headlight slowly making its way up the hill towards me. DAMMIT. I needed to move fast.
Seth and I chatted for a bit – mostly about how tired we were – before he carried on with the climb and I carried on with my packing. It was at this point that I realized my knee was in bad shape. It felt incredibly stiff as I packed the last of my things, and once back on the bike and pedaling, it was quite painful to put any kind of pressure on the pedals.
My mind went to a dark place for a few minutes, wondering whether I would need to call Trish and scratch from the ride. But after 20 minutes of riding, the knee had warmed up enough for me to apply decent pressure on the pedals, with only the occasional twinge of pain.
And just like that it was settled in my mind like a simple logic equation: If I stop for any length of time, then my knee is going to cause me a lot of pain; therefore no more stops.
The Push to Yamhill, Powered by a Breakfast of Champions
After climbing the last hill in the Tillamook section of the route, passing Seth somewhere along that final climb, the terrain flattens out as it skirts around Barney Reservoir. The gravel quality also worsens. It is always frustrating when you get to a section of riding where on paper (or Garmin) it looks to be fast riding but in reality you are forced to continue at a slow pace, and that was the case for me as I carried on around the flats of Barney Reservoir. But my alertness and riding efficiency had improved immensely after my hour nap, so I couldn’t complain too much.
Eventually the route drops fast and the gravel improves. After a few unexpected punchy climbs in the growing light of morning, I arrived at Hagg Lake and what I knew meant some reprieve from gravel riding for a while. I used the predictable rollers and smooth pavement of Hagg Lake to take stock of my food and water situation:
I definitely was good on water. I had over a liter left with only 25 miles to go to Yamhill. It was time to start guzzling because clearly I hadn’t been hydrating enough through the night.
For food, I was getting a bit low. I had a few gummy worms left, and two fig bars. I had been pounding food so far on this ride and feeling great as a result, so I would definitely burn through this by the time I got to Yamhill, but that was fine. And then I remembered.
I had an entire bag of shredded cheese in my framebag. BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS! I unzipped the framebag, careful not to let any of my empty wrappers and other trash fall out in the process until I grasped the holy grail of breakfast surprises: Tillamook Mexican 4-Cheese Blend Thick Cut Shredded cheese.
I opened the bag and began grabbing cheese by the handful. There was no pretty way to do this on the bike, so like a Claw Machine in an arcade clumsily dropping the prize stuffed animal into the chute, my hand would unhinge a load of shredded cheese into the chute of my mouth, getting about 75% of the shredded morsels in, with the other 25% sprinkling across my clothes, my bike, and the ground. It was barbaric. Crude. Clumsy. And delicious.
I was careful to stop my claw machine food shoveling tactic when cars would pass. No need to be a barbarian among common civilians. But as soon as the domestic lifers were out of sight, the claw machine picked up where it left off, until the bag was empty and I had enjoyed one of the most gratifying bikepacking breakfasts of all time.
And with the end of my cheese breakfast came (eventually) Yamhill and the final 80 mile push to the end.
A Bit of Mange ’til the Grange – a Hygiene Manifesto
After resupplying, throwing down a long-needed Starbucks doubleshot and storing one for the road, I headed away from Yamhill and the final two major climbs of the route. I knew both of these climbs decently well and knew there wasn’t much to worry about – the hardest hills were behind me. My hope by Yamhill was the I could really turn up the watts and hammer it to the finish line. Unfortunately, my knee had other plans. Outside of the knee pain I felt great physically, though, and the coffee went straight to my energy stores, so as I began the first of two long climbs, I was in high spirits.
At this point in a trip many bikers would be suffering from saddle sores and skin irritations, so let’s talk about biker mange. At this point I was 270+ miles into a 350 mile ride, hadn’t showered, and although temps had been comfortable for most of the ride, I had still sweat a fair amount.
After Tillamook I did stop to clean my shammy shorts up on the inside as well as I could with a wet wipe, which makes a huge difference. Many people are firm believers in various ointments and Chamois creams that they apply regularly and liberally to their nether regions. That’s not my jam.
Personally, here’s my take on bike hygiene – a hygiene manifesto:
I think that the dreaded saddle sores and skin irritations that plague many bikers are caused by the buildup of sweat salt that, when hardened, slowly makes little micro cuts in the skin and, thus, irritations, infections, and problems. Instead of mixing a buttery goop (chamois cream) into those salt deposits, which just adds another ingredient to the already disgusting fluid cocktail buildup, cleaning off the salt deposits with a wet wipe or in a stream give you a bit of a factory reset. If you can clean your nether regions a bit as well, that just furthers the reset and slows the buildup of irritated and possibly damaging salts wreaking havoc below decks.
While I definitely could have done a better job cleaning my Shammy in the night and had some itchy annoyances in various places, overall I felt pretty good about my below-decks status and the final 80 miles were not painful as a result. I was able to focus on the climbs, my power output, my bum knee, eating/drinking, and other sundries unrelated to my bum and how long I could sit on it before the peons in the bowels of the orlop deck yelled, ‘FIRE BELOW DECKS CAPTAIN!’
So there you go.
The last climb before Sheridan drags a bit as the top has a whole 4 or 5 monotonous mini climbs and descents, but after finally getting to Bible Creek Road’s absolute ripper of a descent and climbing the final short, punchy climb of the route, I rode through Sheridan and knew that, with 20 miles to go, all I had left was a flat dragstrip finish. I somehow hit a weird vortex of headwind blowing from the Southeast, which defied the usual wind patterns, but as I spun out the last miles, not even a headwind could bring me down.
Overall it was a clean ITT for me and I feel pretty good about it. The knee pain was a major nuisance and I am headed to the doctor 6 days post-race to get it checked out as the swelling hasn’t gone down; the mist at the top of the Tillamook climbs also caused a bit of a delay; and of course, my error in not snagging caffeine in Tillamook and the resulting hour-long nap was perhaps my biggest slow-down of all.
But as I rolled up to the Grange and hit pause on the Garmin, I felt good. I felt accomplished. 34 hours, 7 minutes will get beaten in the mass-start, for sure, but it was a good, competitive time for other riders to base their own goals around, and I personally look forward to beating it next year, because I’m a competitor at heart and my favorite person to compete with in these events is myself.