by Frazer Pehmoeller
Photos by Alvin Gilens
published in February’s Adventure Cyclist magazine.
It’s 2:00 AM, and I have been sleeping like a dog for the past five-plus hours. My dreams are so clear, and all I can picture in my mind is an endless slide show of incredibly diverse landscape paintings, each flashing on the screen in my head for only a few seconds as the next vision demands its own rightful turn in my mind. There are snowcapped mountains, rivers with strong winds
blowing the surrounding vegetation sideways, forests with huge Douglas fir trees and stumps the size of pickup trucks, ocean views with rocky shorelines, desert landscapes with big skies, and a deep, dark forest where the light of the sun barely reaches the forest floor. I wake up. I’m thirsty, very thirsty. I drink two glasses of water and amazingly fall right back to sleep.
At 6:00 AM, the phone rings. It’s my morning wake-up call. I pop out of bed, pull out a rag from my suitcase, and wipe the road dirt from my bike, which has guarded over me all night long, and is leaning against my nightstand. I check the tires, clean off the chain, fill the empty water bottles, and look over the day’s clue sheet. Just another day on the STIHL Tour des Trees. I started cycling only three years ago. Since then, I’ve logged about 13,000 miles and have ridden in the past three STIHL Tour des Trees. Through this annual event, which travels through a different part of the country each year, I’ve had the opportunity to see New England, Illinois, and Virginia. I thought I had already experienced an awful lot.
The 2012 STIHL Tour des Trees ride, however, was different — so different that it led many of my more experienced fellow riders to later term it epic. It was a ride I don’t think I will soon forget.
An Epic Event
Beginning in Portland, Oregon, in August 2012, the STIHL Tour des Trees gave more than 100 cyclists one week to see much of Oregon’s scenic beauty from two wheels. In a counterclockwise loop,we cycled more than 585 miles down Oregon’s craggy coastline, to scenic vineyards in the heart of the Willamette Valley, through the high desert, and along the Columbia River Gorge, and around Mt. Hood. It was spectacular. I thought a lot about this ride over the 24 months leading up to it. I knew it would push all my physical abilities to make the 585-mile trek. I’m not your average rider. Weighing 265 pounds on a six-foot-nine-inch frame, I’m the guy most other riders eye up just before heading into a strong headwind. That’s right, they call me “the wall.”
I have certainly gotten used to my spot on the pace line and have always enjoyed a nice long descent because gravity is my friend. But with a ride that included 37,000 feet of vertical climbing looming ahead, my biggest concern was riding the whole way.
Training for Hill Climbs
I started training for the ride differently. I focused on hill climbs. Every day, I would rush home from work, skip dinner, and then push up the steepest, gnarliest hills I could find around where I live, the rolling hills of New York’s Hudson Valley. Many a motorist must have thought I had a death wish, pushing mile after mile up nine-percent grades in 90-plus degree weather.
I developed my own training plan for this trip: lots of climbing with longer rides on my lighter days. I knew that to be successful, I needed to be strong and steady on the climbs. I also knew that my time in the saddle going up mountain passes would more than make up for endurance training. After breaking seven spokes on my rear wheel and cracking the rim from the force of plowing up steep grades, and with my bike in final repair, I was ready to make the trip west.
Flying into Portland is a great experience. As the pilot started making his final descent, I looked out the window and
there, level with the wing of the plane, was the snowy top of Mt. Hood. My stomach started to jump a little. I had pushed up the steepest hills I could find, but was I ready for the climbing in the Cascade Range? Only time would tell.
I then remembered one of many emails we all received from Paul Wood, our tour director, and the email chain that followed. Many riders had to develop their own type of training because they only had wind resistance or slight inclines to train from in their flatter home locations.
If Andy from Orlando could be ready for this, so could I.
Our “Tree Family” Reunion
My wife (who was accompanying me on the trip but not cycling) and I made our way to Portland to meet up with everyone at the hotel. It’s like a family reunion. My “tree family” includes fellow riders from all over the U.S. and Canada, now all in one place and ready to make our annual journey through a new part of the country. We are all united by a common thread. Most of us work in the green industry and share a deep love of trees and the role trees play in all of our lives. And this was the one week of the year that we could blend our passion for trees with our passion for cycling.
At my day job, I’m an arborist for Bartlett Tree Experts, one of the leading sponsors of Tour des Trees. Although the event began in the arboriculture industry as a way to raise research funding to benefit our work, techniques, safety, and the trees themselves, the STIHL Tour des Trees has now grown to include a diverse array of people from all walks of professional life. This year, we were joined by college professors, theater managers, pharmacists, accountants, yoga teachers, and social workers. Caring for the trees that care for us continues to attract the attention of more and more people across the country, and more and more of us are choosing to join the tour as a way to get involved.
Cycling for a Cause
Each of us on the STIHL Tour des Trees commits not only a week of our lives but also many months to properly train and raise funds to take part in the tour. The event is not only America’s largest fundraiser for tree research but has raised more than $5.5 million to benefit the TREE Fund (Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund) since it began in 1992. This year, the 20th anniversary of the tour, was the biggest event yet, selling out for the first time in tour history.
Our week began with a welcome dinner, some words of encouragement and gratitude for the ride ahead, a couple of drinks with friends at the bar, and a quick look at the goody bag filled with cycling apparel, water bottles, helmets, hats, T-shirts, maps, and cue sheets. Then, we, the 100-plus riders and support crew, were ready and anxious to get started the next morning.
Along the Route Through Oregon
Over the next seven days, we rode all over the state. We saw it all: from Banks, a small town outside of Portland to the town of Seaside, down the Pacific Coast Highway, then inland to Grand Ronde where we stayed on a Native American reservation, through a vineyard region, up the back side of Mt. Hood, around, down, and below to the desert, along the south side of the Columbia River Gorge, and back into and around Portland.
We traversed bike trails, city streets, country roads, tunnels, railroad tracks, cattle crossings, highway traffic, switchbacks, and off-road detours with portages over rocks and creeks. We planted trees in every city stop along the way, participated in educational events, sampled local wines, and ate famed Tillamook cheese.
We enjoyed scenic overlooks and postride chocolate milk. We ate like kings and queens at every meal with breakfasts and dinners at evening hotels, restaurants, and once even a fellow rider’s home on the side of a mountain. Throughout the week, every detail of our journey was overseen by the TREE Fund, who made sure we ate well, slept well, and that our luggage arrived at our hotel before we did.
Along the way, we were supported by an amazing group of volunteers, each of whom served up all the CLIF bars, bananas, and Fig Newtons you could possibly and an endless supply of encouragement.
We were escorted by police, local bike clubs, and even local drivers offering to get us moving in the right direction. Drivers of logging trucks, hay trucks, pickup trucks, and families in minivans cheered on our long line of matching, blueoutfitted cyclists.
Planning for a Large-Scale, Weeklong Ride
With more than 100 cyclists, a ride of this scale would simply not be possible without an excellent mechanical support crew and a focus on safety. The STIHL Tour des Trees is open to all those who have a passion for trees and who are interested a week of sightseeing and travel by bike. This means that there is also a wide variety of cycling skill levels, which can present a challenge for support crews. The TREE Fund and its generous sponsors ensure that the STIHL Tour des Trees travels with full mechanical and rider support throughout the entire week. Everything from flat tires to fatigued cyclists is meticulously planned for in advance, and a premium is placed on safety.
Another unique aspect of the STIHL Tour des Trees is its ever-changing location. The tour director typically conducts two visits through the area: one nearly a year before to determine the routes, and a second visit one week out in order to mark the route and ensure that there have been no major changes that would affect the cyclists.
On these scouting trips, the tour director keeps a variety of things in mind. Will the ride be challenging for the hard-core cyclists without alienating those new to a weeklong tour? Are the routes varied from year to year? Do they showcase the best of each region? Above all, is the route safe for all our cyclists? To accomplish this, the tour has built close relationships across
the country with the cyclists who ride Tour des Trees year after year. Since the 2013 ride will travel close to my home in Upstate New York, I will take on the role of chair of the safety task force, ensuring that we deliver another year of phenomenal cycling in the safest way possible.
Patting Yourself on the Back
A ride of this type gives the cyclist many opportunities for a positive experience. The feeling of accomplishment after months of training — when you feel strong in the saddle and you know with confidence that you can meet any challenge — is a great motivator. The camaraderie with other cyclists working as a team to overcome the obstacles and challenges of the course while bonding in friendship is rewarding.
But the STIHL Tour des Trees offers another unique opportunity that other long organized rides typically don’t — we leave something behind. Although the trip is about cycling, the tour is also about trees.
Just about every day, carefully scheduled events were organized at different stops along the route, allowing cyclists to be active participants in tree plantings and educational events for children and adults. Digging a hole, and lifting and planting a tree, all while wearing spandex may seem odd, but completing the process by standing in a circle around the tree, waving dirty arms with complete strangers, all while singing a blessing for the tree’s long-term survival, is what makes the Tour des Trees a one-of-a-kind event.
Why I Ride
I came away with two of my favorite memories from the STIHL Tour des Trees through Oregon. The first memory was of a group of young Native American children from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who more than shared our group’s philosophy of securing sustainable landscapes for future generations, singing one of their tribal songs for us. The second was having the privilege of riding to a children’s hospital in Portland on the final long day and entering a third-floor hospital lounge area to participate in an educational planting event with truly inspirational kids who were battling for their lives.
It may be a cliché, but it’s true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that really counts. Training to cross the finish line only makes it sweeter. The STIHL Tour des Trees in Oregon was an incredible journey, and my experiences and the bonds I made from completing the challenge will last a lifetime. I can hardly wait for next year in Toronto. I know the rest of my “tree family” is looking forward to another big family reunion on bikes.
Frazer Pehmoeller and his wife Jennifer have two daughters, Lindsay and Alyssa, and a dog Rufus who enjoys watching from a trailer during spring training rides. A lifelong athlete, Frazer has held one world record, one American Record, and numerous state records in track and field and strongman competitions.