Taking it to the limit: Gravity bikers find perfect place for road rush

Justin Black, owner of Dr. Roscoe’s Holistic Bicycle Repair, leads a pack of gravity bikers consisting of Corey and Jen Rathgeber and Josh Lewis down Courtney Road last Thursday. Black organizes rides through the Columbia Gorge Gravity Bike Association Facebook page when weather and road conditions permit and builds the gravity bikes in his shop.

On any given day, Courtney Road can be associated with beautiful views of the Gorge and the Coyote Wall trailhead at its base.

The road itself is long, steep in some places, and twists along the hillside through an assortment of sharp curves that the few motorists on it are encouraged to take at 10 miles per hour.

In a way, it’s the perfect place for gravity biking.

Higher up there might be ice and those sharp curves might have a sprinkling of gravel here and there that threaten a gravity biker’s ability to cling to the pavement when they speed through turns while kneeling heavily on the padded front pegs of the bike, which has no peddles.

But as long as the road conditions permit, rides shall happen.

“If we were able to accelerate through the turns we’d be able to go even faster,” said Justin Black, owner of Dr. Roscoe’s Holistic Bicycle Repair in Bingen.

Black organizes rides through the Columbia Gorge Gravity Bike Association Facebook page when the weather and road conditions are agreeable. In the most recent ride last Thursday, riders met at Black’s new shop on Steuben Street, loaded his blue Chevy Astro with gear, and made their way up Courtney Road.

After seeing the sport at the Maryhill Festival of Speed a few years ago, Black decided to try it for himself. He builds all of the bikes himself at Dr. Roscoe’s and said around 24 people have made it out for rides since he established the Facebook page last year.

“One day I had this BMX bike I didn’t know what to do with, so I turned it into a gravity bike and talked a bunch of suckers into doing it with me,” Black said.

On the way up the hill, riders take jabs at each other, remembering some of the more gnarly wrecks during previous excursions. There was the time someone flew over the handlebars into the ditch, another rider suffered from road rash of the chin, but everyone tells the tales of carnage with an air of frivolity, as safety is still the name of the game.

The No. 1 rule: Stay in your lane through turns. There’s always the possibility of on-coming traffic.

At the top, where the pavement stops and gravel road begins, riders suit up in Carhartt coveralls, full face helmets, and thick gloves. The four bikes are taken out and everyone leans forward, ready to go.

But then a car creeps up behind the group, so they move out of the way and wait a few minutes so no one catches up with it down the hill.

“Our biggest problem is cars in front of us. We don’t slow cars down, cars slow us down,” Black said.

After the offending car has gone a sufficient distance down the hill, the group of four leans forward and pushes off, everyone tucking their feet behind the back pegs of the bike so no toes drag through the steep parts of the hill.

The gravity bikes have brakes, but riders don’t use them too often. Most take Courtney Road’s sharp curves similar to how a rider on a crotch rocket would: leaning into the turn, using the hill to their advantage.

During the winter months, ice and gravel tend to dictate how fast gravity bikers can go, but when the weather warms up Black said riders can really let loose.

“It depends on the road. My top speed was pretty darn close to 60,” he said.

After the rush of flying through the turns of Courtney Road, the group reconvenes at the bottom of the hill. Someone starts the ride by leading the group in Black’s van, but it’s usually passed before reaching the bottom.

When the four Carhartt coveralls, four gravity bikes, helmets, gloves, and riders are all collected, it’s time to head back up the hill for one more go at yet another exhilarating sport in the Columbia River Gorge.

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