by Mark Weaver
100 miles of off-road racing. It sounds crazy, and it probably is. How about if you throw in 15,000 feet (!) of climbing? That would be a little tougher, but the riders could still coast down the hills. How about if you make all the downhills vicious, twisty, rooty, rocky, steep, gonzo singletrack from hell? Now you’re talking about the Cream Puff.
The Cascade Cream Puff 100 takes place near Oakridge, Oregon. The surrounding mountains of the Willamette National Forest contain some of the sweetest singletrack in the explored universe. Promoters Richard Sweet and Scott Taylor made excellent use of the terrain in putting together their course. The race consists of a one mile promenade plus three 33 mile loops which start and end at the covered bridge in Westfir, a tiny village two miles from Oakridge. The first lap has 2-3 miles of pavement before the climbing begins, the 2nd and 3rd laps travel the same distance on a rolling singletrack on the other side of the river. After the gentle warmup begins a climb that can best be described as really long. An hour of grinding up a dirt road takes the riders to aid station #2, stocked with food, drink and smiling volunteers.
Another 40 minutes or so of rolling and climbing on dirt roads brings the riders to aid station #3, which is where the fun really starts. Now that you’ve climbed for almost 2 hours, going up somewhere near 4000 feet, you turn off onto a damp, narrow trail into the deep, dark forest and climb some more, only steeper now. The next hour is all rolling, semi-technical singletrack, punctuated by unbelievable views of the surrounding valleys and by a vast assortment of colorful wildflowers. You might as well look at the views since you can’t see the trail in many places due to overhanging vegetation.
Eventually you get dumped back out and aid station #2, going the other way, and you head off down the dirt road for half a mile, cheerfully anticipating the upcoming descent. The trail turns off into the forest again, and riders are treated some more climbing, a short hike around a fallen tree then some flat rocky stuff. Then, finally, the descent begins.
It’s not all one descent. There are several places where you have to pedal for a hundred yards or so, but mostly you go down at blinding speed, dodging in and out of trees and roots, carving switchbacks, bouncing over rocks, skillfully avoiding the poison oak and attempting to stay in control. Cramps in the hands and arms become as much of a problem as the ones in your quads. Just at the point when you think the tendons in your wrists will snap from squeezing the brakes, you plop out onto the pavement for a quick 2-mile spin back to the covered bridge. Depending on your fitness and skill 3-5 demanding hours have elapsed. Now go do it two more times and you too can get a hat.
This year VeloSapiens racer Steve Jakubiak and I went to our 2nd Cream Puff. I had checked the weather on the web and I expected rain, so when he pulled up to my house to pick me up I asked if he had brought a jacket. “I brought another jersey, it’s nice out” was his reply. Luckily I had packed an extra since the good citizens of Oregon apparently forgot to pay their sunshine bill again. It was pouring rain when we arrived at midday on saturday. The miserable weather caused us to abandon our plans to pre-ride the lower half of the course. Steve retired to the hotel to nap and my wife Stacia and I went off in search of the local hot springs, where we lolled about for the rest of the afternoon. We were joined by a contingent of Santa Cruz racers including last year’s winner Rick Hunter as well as this year’s winner Matthew Potter. Later, we picked up our entry packets and chowed down at the pre-race dinner and meeting.
Maybe it’s because one of the promoters, Scott Taylor, actually races the event, but organization and schwag were top-notch in every respect. All entrants received 2 dinners, t-shirts, a souvenir water bottle, a custom button, post-race massage and custom laminated number plates, with the racers’ names printed on them as well. Except for the Gianni Cycles Ring of Fire, I have never been to an event where I so completely got my money’s worth. Entries have doubled each of the last two years and since participation is limited to 100 riders, interested parties should plan to enter early for ‘98.
At 5:15 a.m. 60 sleepy riders gathered in front of the school for last minute instructions. Fortunately the weather was giving us a break for the time being, dry still, but cloudy and threatening. At 5:30 we rolled out to the cheers and encouragement of family, friends and race staff, and to the complete befuddlement of everyone else awake at that hour. I had planned to keep my heart rate below 165 for the first climb, but unfortunately Steve was raging up the hill like a madman. I couldn’t stand the thought of being dropped by him, no matter what the excuse, so I pushed a little harder to stay with him.
The rain had left the ground sticky and soft in parts. Fortunately I was equipped with Bontrager Revolt semi-slick tires, which don’t have enough tread for mud to stick to. Unfortunately they don’t stick to the mud too well either, so when we hit the sketchy singletrack we had to quickly devise new strategies for dealing with the lack of traction. I chose to slow down and be a little more careful and steer well. Steve chose to crash more often. At the end we both concluded that my approach was more successful.
Steve and I separated at this point, due to our divergent steering standards, and I forged on, passing three overeager riders on the way down. At the bottom, I discovered that I was 15 minutes behind the leaders, including crazed single-speeder Stuart Hardenburger. I usually beat him, so I was pretty sure he’d blow up soon and I could reel him in. I was already thinking of witty things to say when I passed him. Alas, it was not to be. Although I got within 10 minutes of him, he pulled away again, earning much respect from all of us. To add insult to injury, local Sacramento single-speed god Scott Shipman caught me just before the descent. I figured I’d at least make him work for it, so I descended as fast as I felt comfortable, taking full advantage of the suspension and steering of my Pro-Flex 857.
I figured he’d catch me on the climb with his 19 lb bike, and hoped I’d be able to stay with him. My lower back was screaming and my legs were hammered, so started climbing in a big gear, standing more often than not, hopping from pedal to pedal with almost-straight legs and letting my weight drive the bike forward. I must have hit upon a particularly efficient technique because I found myself climbing at the same speed as the previous lap, but my heart rate was 15 beats lower. I kept looking back, expecting Scotty, the master of pacing, to come flying up behind me, but somehow I held him off. By the time I reached the top I was so tired it was faster to run up most of the hills than try to ride. At least I could give my quads a break. I was starting to get serious tricep cramps on the descents, so I was riding with my elbows locked half the time (don’t try this at home). At this point I was really glad I’d gone with the steering strategy instead of the crashing one.
Somehow I made it through to aid station #2. Stacia said I looked pretty awful at that point, but I felt great. From that point on you can feel the finish line. I didn’t know much about Scotty’s descending skills, so I still kept an eye out for him, but I flew down the descent at warp speed, following the perfect lines we had laid out on the first lap, before the soft ground had set up a little. Now it was tacky and bermed and just plain fast, so I railed down it with my spirits high. It’s hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment you get from surviving something so difficult. Last year I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish, and when I did I just burst into tears. This year I was pretty sure I could do it, but I knew I’d be mighty proud of that hat that says “finisher” on the back, so my legs found new life for the last few miles.
At the finish I asked who won. Stacia said “It was one of those naked guys.” Relative unknown (to me, apparently not to Stacia) Matthew Potter completed the course in just over 9:40, slower than the course record, but in much slower conditions. Defending champ Rick Hunter had to settle for second. I was 7th overall, and first vet, one minute faster than last year. Steve was 14th, about 40 minutes faster than ‘97. For some reason he was unsatisfied with his crashing approach to the singletrack, so on the last descent he tried flopping on the ground and launching his bike 20 feet through the air into a tree resulting in yet another jacked-up wheel. I strongly advised him to learn how to steer a bicycle before next year’s race. Of course we’re going back.