Published on May 4, 2020

Exploring the Great Backyard

There were seven of us riding through the lumpy Belgian countryside. Farm roads, bike paths, and no landmark features that could tell you which direction you were heading. “The Kwaremont is 12.5 kilometers that way” the Junior National Team coach, Benjamin Sharp said. He was looking at his GPS watch that simply had a direction and distance. The road veered away from our destination. Two steps forward, one step back. At the next intersection we would take the most logical road that turned towards the mythical climb from the Tour of Flanders. The six young riders were intrigued to see the long drag of a cobbled climb in real life. It was an endurance ride, with a twist of adventure.

That winter at home in Portland, OR, I started using the GPS approach to explore my hometown roads. From my house I had easy access to the West Hills, a ridge that extends from the northwest corner city with many climbs and valley loops. Great riding, but only a fraction of the terrain accessible from Portland. I discovered the ultimate ride mapping website, Ride With GPS. Scouring the map, I made routes into unfamiliar areas that took a little extra time to get through town, but still under an hour to get to good roads. I searched for the squiggly lines that wandered through the hills, connecting nothing directly. I searched for secret shortcuts out of town through neighborhoods, bike paths, and dead-ends. I planned rides that suited my training plan, give or take.

These exploration rides energized my experience with the bike. One ride into a new area only gave me a taste of what was there, I would head home itching to get back. The next time I would build on the route, taking some of the good parts and re-work the lesser sections. An average adventure ride would yield a cool new road, and undoubtedly a promising line on the map that didn’t pan out. It didn’t have to be an enormous ride, even a 50 mile ride from Portland could yield some new roads, or connect known areas in a cool way.

I made maps and followed the breadcrumb track religiously. My rides always ended up being longer and harder than planned. I wasn’t riding just to fill volume in a training plan. For me, the bike was a place to be fiercely competitive in a race and also a way to relax and explore. Over these years I kept getting faster and found my place in professional cycling. If I didn’t have the ability or the desire to find adventure in cycling from my doorstep, it is doubtful that I would have ever raced up the Kwaremont in the Tour of Flanders in 2012 and 2013.

Being cooped up at home due to current events doesn’t mean we have to be trapped. You don’t have to travel to Belgium or Spain or South America, there is your whole backyard to explore from your doorstep.

- Jacob Rathe


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