400 miles to go

    Jeff Chamberlain and his wife, Donna, take a training ride for Cycle Oregon with Jeff's brother, Mike Chamberlain, through the foothills from Jacksonville to Talent. - Andy Atkinson

    Trading in his bicycle for a motorcycle 15 years ago, Jeff Chamberlain also gave up annual treks with Cycle Oregon.

    Although he saw most of the state astride a Harley-Davidson or BMW, Chamberlain knew something was missing from his road trips. When Cycle Oregon's 2,000 riders converged five years ago on Jacksonville, Chamberlain again felt the call of the open road — only this time on a bicycle.

    "On a bicycle, you can just see and smell and hear everything around you," says the 64-year-old Medford resident.

    "When they came back to Jacksonville, I thought, 'I'd like to do this again.' "

    While last year's tour through Eastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains reacquainted Chamberlain with the 22-year-old event, this year's journey through the "mythical state of Jefferson" is a homecoming of sorts for Chamberlain and other riders from Jackson and Josephine counties, as well as Northern California. Yet Chamberlain and past participants likely can look forward to an unfamiliar route or two, such as the back-roads traverse from Grave Creek to Sunny Valley.

    "There are places "¦ people have never seen before, even if they've lived here all their lives," Chamberlain says. "They've never been on these roads."

    Craig and Jeanne Gostnell, of Williams, have learned local roads well preparing to ride in every Cycle Oregon since its 1988 inception.

    "I made Craig do it for the first 20 years, and he's gonna make me do it for the next 20," says Jeanne Gostnell.

    This year's tour, with the event's first diversion into California, offers the 61-year-old couple and other longtime riders a welcome change of pace, particularly the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway, which meanders along the Klamath River.

    "Oregon's not that big and, to keep it interesting, we have to explore options like California," says Jerry Norquist, Cycle Oregon's ride director.

    "We've been into Idaho; we've touched Washington before."

    Cycle Oregon began as a way to raise money for small communities and to show off Oregon scenery to cyclists. This year's registration fee was $850. Ride proceeds are placed in a grant fund that disburses approximately $100,000 for projects in the small towns Cycle Oregon visits. The nonprofit organization also pays community groups approximately $120,000 each year for services they provide during the tour.

    "I have developed some favorite, little, small towns "¦ that I never would have gone to otherwise," says Richard Ripper, of Ashland.

    "I'm excited about showing off this part of the state."

    Riding in Cycle Oregon since its fifth year, Ripper, 61, credits the event not only with expanding his horizons of the state from north to south and east to west. He never had an exercise routine before hearing about the tour from a business associate who touted its appeal.

    "Before that, I was not a bike rider," Ripper says. "It's been just a great change in my life."

    Ripper has logged approximately 500 miles this year, mainly bicycle-commuting on the Bear Creek Greenway from Ashland to his optometry office near Providence Medford Medical Center. Some years, he's ridden as many as 1,300 miles preparing for the tour. Cycle Oregon recommends riders start training early, reaching 100 miles per week by mid-summer.

    "You have more fun the more fit you are," Ripper says. "It's made me commit to riding every summer for the last 20 years.

    "That means I'll still be fit when I'm old," he says, adding that his goal is to be the tour's oldest rider some day.

    Chamberlain says he rode last year with Cycle Oregon's oldest participant, an acquaintance who turned 80 during the ride. The Wallowas' hours of "nonstop climbing" didn't deter the Portland man, who finished the event's longest day in about 12 hours, Chamberlain says.

    "Makes me think that when I'm 79 years old, I want to be there, too," Chamberlain says. "And every evening, he was at the wine tent having a good time like everyone else."

    The tour's camaraderie, hospitality and nightly entertainment, including live music, are major points of interest for most riders. Organization and amenities have improved immensely over the past 22 years, Chamberlain and others say.

    "They bring a stage to each city," says 60-year-old Medford resident Steve Edson. "They have a beer garden "¦ pizza and Ben & Jerry's.

    "It's just kind of the whole atmosphere, I guess."

    "Every single night on Cycle Oregon is a party," Chamberlain says.

    The fun will kick off Saturday evening at Medford's Fichtner-Mainwaring Park, where cyclists will camp overnight before departing Sunday morning for the border with California. Yreka, Calif., is the first overnight stop on the seven-day tour that covers more than 400 miles. The distance, cyclists say, baffles anyone who has never ridden that far.

    "You gotta be crazy to ride 400 miles and pay $850 to do it," Edson says.

    "You say, 'Wow, why was I so crazy to do it?' " Chamberlain says. "But I did it."

    Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

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