It was April or May when I registered for Unpaved Pennsylvania. Jason Malec, a friend and Flaanimal pilot form Philadelphia had invited me to the ride, or was it a race? I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that Jason said that the day would be super challenging, beautiful, and would fill up quickly. There wasn’t much time to consider whether or not to go so I made haste to put my name on the starter’s list.
Unpaved offered a 50, 90, and 120 mile course this year so I said to myself “bring it on” and signed up fort 120. Deep inside I felt some unease about that distance. For me 120 miles is something you do in the spring and summer when your fitness is full gas. As fall approaches that fitness tends to evaporate as short days and waning motivation set in.
The five months between May and October were wall to wall busy for me this year. Rodeo keeps growing at a velocity that I struggle to keep up with and that pace kept my horizon very short for those interim months. I worked hard and kept my head down. I remember thinking that somewhere off in the fuzzy future I had signed up for an event on the other side of the country, on the other side of the summer, but that future was too far off to think about. Unpaved preparations such as airplane tickets and lodging were put off until “next week” and next week itself was put off until next month.
Next week and next month passed, and then yet a few more months passed and Unpaved was imminent. I was already considering passing on the ride when a note from Jason landed in my inbox announcing that he was moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta and wouldn’t be able to make the event. I was sorry to miss riding with him but his cancellation gave me an out! I wanted to be done with big difficult rides for a while. I hadn’t put in any training miles more than commuting to work and back. Canceling felt more and more appealing.
Someone, I can’t remember who, asked me this year why Rodeo had to be so Colorado-centric all the time. Apparently from the outside-in it appeared to this person that we mostly only talked about our home state. Is that true? I don’t know, but the accusation makes me feel defensive. As much as I would like to be able to send riders to Texas, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Vermont or even Peru, Italy, Japan, or New Zealand, we just don’t have the resources that it takes to do so. So we play in our own back yard most of the time – and we do have a great back yard! But beyond feeling defensive I also felt challenged. I am not the sum of Rodeo but perhaps I need to get out more.
This is the feeling that pushed me back from the brink of canceling the trip to Unpaved. I love riding bikes in new places and I love riding with a bunch of people I’ve never met before. In my experience great things happen when you stick your nose into the unknown wind a little bit. Unpaved had a sense of that wind to it, and it delivered on that potential for great things happening in short order. I made my way across the country via airplane, rented a car in Philadelphia, and drove over rolling mountains to the Susquehanna valley where the ride began. As I sat in a restaurant on the main street of Lewisburg eating dinner by myself a friend and Traildonkey owner Jack Howard Potter somehow recognized me through the window and popped in to say hi. We were so excited to run into each other! I had no idea Jack was going to Unpaved and he didn’t know that I was going, yet from across the country we had managed to connect right before the pre ride meeting. We high fived, caught up, and headed to the theater to listen to the presentation. I was pretty pumped because I had quickly gone from feeling pretty alone and far from home to being in the company of a friend in no time flat. The friend count continued to rise from that moment forward as my bunk mate and Donkey owner Blaise arrived from DC. I had only met Blaise a couple of times previously but we had just delivered him his new bike a month earlier. It is great get to know a member of the Rodeo family like Blaise in person instead of via email.
The next morning as I pulled into the parking lot at the starting line a flash of orange caught my eye. I noticed a distinctive Traildonkey belonging to Al Meder. Al had adopted a Donkey earlier in the year and had immediately ridden it across the country self supported. He then went on to win the Trans South Dakota on it. I walked over to say hi. I always struggle with how to introduce myself to Rodeo bike owners that I haven’t met yet and who don’t know who I am. “Hi I’m Stephen, I own Rodeo Labs” doesn’t have a nice ring so I never use that line. Instead I went with “Hi I’m Stephen, I started Rodeo Labs, and I was super excited when I recognized your bike, I think you might be Al!”
It is difficult to describe the surreal feeling of meeting someone who owns one of our bikes for the first time. A lot of what we do at Rodeo happens in Denver and a lot of interactions with our customers happen across the internet. I don’t often get to look someone in the eye, say thanks, and shake their hand. So when the moment does arrive it all feels very overwhelming to me. I’m very shy by default but the excitement of the moment overpowers the shyness and forces me out of my shell. Not a day goes by where I take for granted that enough people chose to adopt our bikes that we get to do all of this amazing bike thing for a living.
I chatted a bit with Al. This ride had to be small potatoes to him compared to his summer epics but we both compared notes about pacing and clothing on that chilly morning. I retreated for the comfort of the heated community center near the start line while I waited the final minutes for the start.
Unpaved is only in its second year running in 2019. It isn’t a mega event yet even though I expect it will be soon. Yes Ted King and a squad of hitters were there to stamp their names on the leaderboard but the marquee talent didn’t overwhelm the grass roots feel of things The starting line atmosphere felt nothing like the supercharged air at Dirty Kanza in Emporia, Kansas and I liked that. The start went off smoothly and the roll out was neutral. I was nowhere near the front and didn’t care one bit. The early morning fog swirled around us in a way never seen in Colorado. I soaked up the feeling of it all, wishing that it would never burn of.
Miles drifted by as we followed a rail trail through tidy farms and expansive vistas. The colors of fall were just kissing some trees and fully engulfing others creating a beautiful mixed palette that felt dreamlike. Rail trail gave way to a paved road and the pace quickened. Rollers approached and flew by as the effort of the ride now increased. I caught a glance of Al and raced to hide in the draft of the main group for as long as I could. By mile twelve I sensed that I was riding at a pace that I could not sustain for 120 miles so I intentionally sat up off the pedals and let the lead group race off ahead in the distance. That moment had a small sting. Five years ago there is no way would have let the lead of a race disappear without a huge fight, but top speed has been less a priority for me in recent years, and perhaps the wisdom of races already ran was telling me that by pacing myself now I would have more gas in the tank later in the day when I would no doubt need it most.
The hills drew near and I was treated to the first of the day’s significant climbs. The geology of the Susquehanna Valley and Bald Eagle State Forest is punchy with one 500 to 900 foot climb leading into the next and the next and the next. I enjoyed riding under the canopy of the forest in it’s fall form and the road surface felt buttery smooth compared to some of the brutal Colorado mining roads that we frequented so often this summer. Having long since lost contact with the leaders I was in the wonderful position of simply being able to listen to my body and pace my effort to a level that kept things brisk but enjoyable. It was a happy middle ground between the simple joy of riding bikes and the thrill of outright racing.
As is often the case on this sort of ride I eventually found a small group of riders who rode a similar pace to mine and we joined efforts. As we made our way over undulating terrain in focused silence our group grew until we had a solid pack of twenty or more thundering down the road in an efficient paceline. Words are rarely spoken in these pacelines as we all try to hold our efforts and study the rear wheels of the rider in front of us until we are asked to pull through. To my surprise Jeff Kerkove from Colorado was in our group. Jeff was still coming off of the heels of an incredible ride at the 1700km Silk Road mountain race where he finished fifth overall. “I think I’m going too fast” I confided to Jeff, and he replied the same back to me. These sorts of conversations are a hallmark of peloton speak on bike rides. We voice our anxiety out loud hoping that we have what it takes to stay with the group instead of having to pass the miles solo in the wind.
The hills kicked up again and I felt pretty worn down. Keeping up with the group was a great way to pass the miles efficiently but the group was probably about 5-10% faster than I was and I had dug a bit of a hole keeping pace. As the climbing started I once again intentionally throttled back and allowed the group to distance itself from me so that I could listen to my body and find an honest, sustainable pace for the duration of the day. These are the moments where Unpaved was the most sublime for me. It had been since Dirty Kanza that I had asked my body to push a higher effort like this and I loved the familiarity of feeling that exertion once again.
When you are in a ride or race like this you make a million small requests and negotiations with your body throughout the day. “Can we go a little faster” you ask, and your body responds “yes” or “no” in short order. Sometimes your body says no and you push harder anyway, thus digging yourself into a bit of a hole. That debt often comes due later, most often when you are least ready to pay it.
But on this climb I did not go into debt and I really enjoyed staying within my abilities. Riders ebbed and flowed around me. Some disappeared around the bend not to be seen again. Other riders surged up the hill only to sputter and fall back midway into the climb. I was neither fast nor slow. I willed myself up the hill. I was content to find the top when it came.
The descents though! The descents were my time to shine. Maybe it was my slightly larger than necessary tires that helped me fly down the hills, taking the edge off the rocks and terrain. Maybe it was the heft of my not-so-svelte body. Maybe it was the skills honed on the rugged descents of The Rockies over the summer. Whatever it was I just loved bombing those Pennsylvania forest roads with little thought or concern. They were mostly smooth and flowing, but sometimes just technical enough to give others enough pause that I was able to fly by. The yellow canopy of fall color overhead blurred by and the rocks and leaves crunched between my tires, mixed with the sound of the rushing air in my ears.
The climbs of Unpaved were where I had to be careful to listen to the subtle cues of my non superhuman fitness, but the descents were where I was comfortable and free to let my Donkey run.
The second aid station of the day came into view. The first I had passed without stopping but I had come to this ride under prepared in the calories department so I loaded up on gummies and gels. I indulged in a few cups of Coca Cola, it’s salt, sugar, and caffeine were a welcome shot in the system in advance of the next section of the ride that lay before me. What came next was dubbed “The Difference” by the organizers of the race.
For those riders doing the 90 mile route this section of the course was bypassed but for the riders of the 120 this would be the crux of the day. The Difference was approximately 30 miles in length and climbed approximately 3000 feet in those thirty miles. A common gauge I use for evaluating the difficulty of a ride is the ratio of climbing to distance traveled. Any ride climbing 1000 feet or more in 10 miles is officially a tough ride in my book. What made The Difference even more interesting was a 3-5 mile section of unusually savage road surface. We had been riding flowing, smooth gravel all day long but this section on The Difference was littered by unending sharp rocks, more jagged than round, ranging from small to football sized. Once up the first climb of The Difference one took a hard left onto this section of the course and all hell more or less broke loose. I had been dropped by all of the riders around me leading up to this section but as soon as I began to weave my way through this technical extended rock garden these same riders came back into view. For the second time in the day I found a section of the course where I felt at home because of the similarity of the conditions to my home state of Colorado. I set to work making up time that I had given up elsewhere.
I passed one, two , five, ten riders while descending. The rocks were hilarious and jarring but that challenge to find a somewhat smooth and navigable line was incredibly entertaining. If a rider appeared further down the hill I was emboldened to try to catch them. I would speed up and then hit any number of extra large, extra rugged rocks and decide to slow back down a bit. More than once I smacked my rims and bottomed out my tires but thankfully nothing pinched and no flats were sustained. For that I was grateful.
I exited the bottom of the descent fully grinning ear to ear. What a blast! Yes I was definitely sore and yes that took some spit out of me in a way that climbing doesn’t, but it was oh so worth it and I felt back in the hunt for a respectable if not outstanding race result if I could just keep this up for the rest of the day.
The climbing started again. And with it spirits descended a bit. I’d had my fun and now there was the price to pay. I had to crawl over a series of a few more long gradual climbs in order to complete this loop that I was on. I switched on a water bottle sized speaker that I had bought just for this ride. I had guessed that I would be alone for most of the day and I wanted to experiment with having music as a companion. Instead of riding alone I now had Norah Jones, Nick Drake, Missy Elliot, Josh Garrels, Kraftwork, and others to keep me company. Confession: Having a bit of music along on an all day ride is a total blast. A slow thoughtful song can be meditative on a climb and a pumping upbeat song can motivate you and give you a rhythm to move to when you need one most. I was careful to turn the volume down I came across other riders. I didn’t want to be “that guy” having a private party that nobody else wanted to be at. Long rides have a way of stretching groups out into a staggered series of solo riders, and Unpaved made sure that I had an abundance of time to myself.
Soon The Unpaved Difference came to and end at aid station three. My chain sounded like hell as a result of a number of high speed puddle immersions so I handed my bike to the kind mechanics at the neutral support tent. I beelined back for more cups of coke and more gummies. Someone out of nowhere shouted my name.
“Stephen?” they asked?
“That’s me!” I responded. I wasn’t sure who was asking.
“I’m Bina Bilenky, I run Philly Bike Expo” responded the woman. “Rodeo is an exhibitor, I wanted to say hi!”.
I was amazed! How did anyone know who I was out here? Maybe it was my bike which is painted in a pretty unique paint job? Whatever the case it was great to meet a friendly face out here and make a real life connection! Bina grabbed a photo for the Philly Expo social media and I prepared to depart back onto the course. I had worked hard to make good progress and I didn’t want to spend too much time standing around.
“Stephen?” another voice asked? Wow. Someone else? This time to my surprise it was Michelle Handren, another Traildonkey owner who as it turns out now lives in Philadelphia. I hadn’t spoken to Michelle for over a year and was so excited to meet another member of the Rodeo extended family. We caught up a little bit, asked someone to help grab a photo of us, and made plans to catch up more at the finish.
What a blast that was! It is such an incredible feeling to be out on a ride with a thousand strangers in a new part of the country and run into people you know or people that you want to meet. Its a show stopper for me to see our bikes out being ridden in awesome places and to be told by their owners that they are having a blast and loving the ride.
I left the aid station energized. I could feel a very large reservoir of fatigue building behind a very weak dam of sugar, caffeine, and stoke. I couldn’t tell when the dam would break but I desperately hoped I could make it to the finish before it did.
Miles passed in even more endless tunnels of fall color. 90 mile riders now outnumbered 120 mile riders out on the road and I had no idea if I was moving at a good pace or a slow one in relation to the rest in my category. I didn’t recognize anyone anymore. The miles became foggy and time stretched out. The finish felt very far of.
Soon I heard riders arrive on my rear wheel in a hurry. The made their way around me and I recognized two guys that I had ridden with earlier in the day. One faded behind almost as quickly as he arrived but the other was quite strong. We said nothing to each other as we passed the miles. Sometimes he set the pace, sometimes I did. We weren’t racing each other but we paid careful attention to stick to each other’s wheels out of a passive sense of collaboration and competition.
Being an introvert I probably would have finished the entire ride in silence but Anthony broke the silence with an introduction.
“I’m Anthony Eisley” he offered. We struck up a conversation and talked about who we were. You can get a sense of a rider at a glance if you spend enough time in the peloton and Anthony was full of clues: Crisp kit, smooth cadence, shaved legs, strong climbing. Anthony was a bike racer. He was on a cross bike so I guessed that he was newer to gravel racing and asked him about it. His story turned out to be pretty amazing. A year prior he had been out in his yard working when a random tree branch fell out of a tree and struck him in the head. It could easily have killed him. He spent 2-3 months recovering in the hospital and the months following back trying to recover and rebuild among other things the cyclist that he used to be. “This is one of the first rides I’ve felt like myself since the accident” he said. I was blown away. I was struck that we ride with people all the time. Some we know, some we don’t, some we never even say hi to. A simple introduction can break that ice and open up an incredible conversation. I made a note to myself to speak up more. Being shy is not a virtue. I’d love to overcome shyness more.
Conversation passed the miles much better than silence did. On the way up the final large climb of the day Jeff reappeared on our wheels and started taking pulls on the front. “I finally feel good!” he said. Leave it to the guy who finished the 1700km bikepacking race to finally start feeling good 100 miles into the ride. I on the other hand felt worse and worse. I got more quiet. I took fewer pulls.
The Salsa Cycles Chaise appeared near the top of the final climb. I was surprised to see some 120 mile riders skip it and stay on the gas. That did no compute. Nobody at our pace was going to win the race. A trophy photo on that legendary couch is quickly becoming a thing of pilgrimage. You can sit on it and get your photo taken in a boring pose but the quest to find the most creative or interesting pose reaches new heights with every event that The Chaise shows up to. After the race I tracked down photos of as many Rodeo owners on the unPaved chaise as possible. It seems like everyone was smiling!
I had only one pose in mind: Macaulay Culkin from the cover of the Home Alone movie poster. He was expressing the shock of being left home alone at Christmas by his parents and I was expressing the shock that my system was experiencing this late in the ride.
Back on the bike tucked safely behind Anthony and Jeff my dam of fatigue finally broke. Sugar only gets you so far on a ride like this. At some point the lack of proper training will play out the way it must. Unpaved hurt! I crumbled. I stopped taking pulls. I sat in.Gravel turned to pavement. Unrelenting pavement with dozens of tiny punchy climbs. They hurt. Pavement again became unpaved as we re-joined the rail trail for the final ten miles back to the finish. Jeff and Anthony continued to pull. Strangers joined our effort. I felt embarrassed to be so tired so I put in one or two short, wimpy pulls as my final contribution to the group effort.
The finish banner came and went. Unpaved was complete. I had made it. We had made it.
At the end of road races people often jump in their cars and leave within minutes of finishing their event. Gravel seems to be different. It feels more like old school mountain bike racing than road racing. People stay at the finish and mingle. At Unpaved people stayed into the night. I ran into more people I knew and didn’t know. Brian Biggs, Melainie Thompson, James Podziomek, Paul Daniels, The Kerkoves, The Kings, Mark from Philly Bike Expo, and others. In all I met about a dozen Rodeo owners at Unpaed and another dozen people from the extended bike family. For me each connection was meaningful.
Sticking your nose in the wind is a necessary component of adventure. Some adventures are had on remote mountain tops in The Rockies and other adventures are had in less remote but no less invigorating places like Pennsylvania. I think back about how I almost canceled my trip to Unpaved and how close I came to missing out on riding in such a beautiful place and meeting so many great people. My takeaway from this trip: When in doubt go. When unmotivated push through it. Try new things. Go new places. The rewards are worth the effort.