Sip and Pedal: Tour offers glimpse of Gorge from bicycle seat

Credit: Photo provided by MountNBarreL

HOOD RIVER – There is something about the Columbia Gorge that inspires Ali McLaughlin.

It was during a biking adventure that included wine tasting that a question popped into her head: How could she combine her passion for bike riding and her love of good wine?

McLaughlin knew it would be a niche market but how and what would it be.

And from that bike trail came the answer: MountNbarreL –a unique business puts visitors on bicycles and takes them through different parts of the Gorge. As they ride through the area, McLaughlin has them stop at wineries, u-pick farms and local historical stops.

“Everything came together at one time,” McLaughlin said, and the company officially started in November 2015, and McLaughlin gave her first tour in March 2016.

In her short two years, McLaughlin has accomplished a lot. At the end of last season, she offered two tours. The first called the OG – short for Oak Grove. On this tour, McLaughlin takes her riders on a 6-to-7-mile ride that stops at wineries like Marchesi, Viento, Cathedral Ridge and Phelps Creek as well as stop at the Oak Grove Mercantile. The second tour is called the PG Tour and is an 8-mile ride in the Pine Grove area that include stops at Mt. Hood Winery, Wy’east, the Gorge White House and Packer Orchards.

This year, she is expanding her tours into the Lyle, Wash., area, offering stops at COR Cellars, Tetrahedron and Idiot’s Grace/Memaloose.

With bike tours, there are challenges and concerns. The goal is for everyone to have a good time, so McLaughlin tries to make sure everyone’s needs are addressed. She knows not everyone is an experienced bike rider or may have other challenges. If there is a need – and it is a large group – McLaughlin tries to offer e-bikes or a shuttle.

As for being on the road, “safety is number one,” she said. On the Pine Grove Tour, for instance, McLaughlin has developed understandings with property owners to use private roads through the orchards.

While giving riders a special treat of seeing the fruit trees up close and taking in the beauty of the orchard, McLaughlin can keep her tour off busy Highway 35. In addition to property owners, McLaughlin works with the county and local businesses to create safe routes for her tours.

Conditions can also be a safety concern. During the Eagle Creek Fire, McLaughlin had to cancel a few tours since the fire and smoke affected a few of the trails used on the tour.

“It was scary,” she said.

Though some tours canceled, there were others that went on despite the fire. Those riders got to see the firefighter staging area near the Hood River Golf Course and got to see the firefighters get ready. It was on that tour that riders experienced the concern and upheaval that local vineyard owners faced as the Eagle Creek Fire crept closer to their vineyards.

The work is gratifying for McLaughlin. Her customers are happy at the end of the tour because they have had a good time. Some have returned with other friends to do the tour again. She has netted 29 five-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

In 2016, MountNbarreL was named New Business of the Year by the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce. In 2017, her company received a Best of the Gorge nod.

Since she started, she has shown visitors from more than 10 countries and 28 states the beauty of the of the Columbia Gorge.

Part of what makes McLaughlin and her MountNbarreL successful is her desire to keep things local and develop strong partnerships within the community.

“Every tour supports six local businesses,” McLaughlin said.

It starts with how she maintains her bicycle fleet. Joe Meldrum, owner of Gorge Bike Repair, started working with McLauglin two years ago. He said his biggest role is maintaining her fleet of bicycles including adjustments and semi-annual tune-ups.

“I also have done an on-call type of service during the tours,” he said, explaining that he has a mobile bike shop van that lets him respond to issues on the spot.

The experience has shown him the type of take-charge person McLaughlin is.

“I’m impressed with the way she can wrangle together a large group of people and lead them on a bike tour,” Meldrum said.

With the vineyards and u-pick farms, McLaughlin cultivated a relationship with each owner. Through that relationship, she can develop a more personal experience for her tours. At a vineyard like Phelps Creek, riders get to meet the owner and get an intimate look at the vineyard.

During the Eagle Creek Fire, riders arrived at the vineyard and found barrels at the bottom of the road and the owner trying to figure out what to do as the fire moved closer.

“It was very emotional,” McLaughlin said.

At Wilinda Blueberry Patch, McLaughlin’s tour group will meet with the owner and learn how she is working to help women in Africa by selling baskets made by Ugandan women.

McLaughlin said last year, one of her groups sat on the back porch with the berry patch owner and listened to stories about the baskets and the women involved in the Support Fistula Repair project.

Partnerships go beyond the bikes and locations. MountNbarreL offers food pairings at some of the wine stops, lunch and snacks. It is important to McLaughlin that the food be local. She has worked with local restaurants and food suppliers like Farmstand in the Gorge, Gorge White House, the Lyle Hotel and White Salmon Bakery.

She works with Stave and Stone and Hood River Lavender Farms for a farm-to-table dinner.

Being successful and offering a unique experience to tourist is a team effort, McLaughlin said.

“By working together, we are unstoppable,” she said.

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