Report by Purple Lizard Trail Guru Dave Gantz:
I bought a used gravel bike a couple of years ago. The plan was to use this as my town bike and commuter in bad weather, since the slick tires on my road bike don't jive well with the icy winter conditions of my local bike path. I wasn't trying to spend a lot of money on another bike, but I did need a whip that would survive winter conditions. Two years later, after a few minor upgrades to my bike, I completed my first ever timed bike event: the 54-mile route of unPAved Pennsylvania! The rewarding feelings from this event are immeasurable and inspiring in so many ways: My friends and I sat around the evening after the event discussing winter bike gear needed to be able to prep for more events next year...especially the full 120-mile unPAved route.
Below, I'll quickly break down the journey taken by me and my bike, a journey from a single speed, human powered commuter vehicle to a gravel adventure enabler rolling along with 600 other riders at unPAved Pennsylvania.
After signing on as the third owner of a nice steel frame Surly Crosscheck, I quickly began testing the merits of this 'gravel bike' by taking gravel and dirt trail shortcuts that I knew of along my commuting routes around town. It didn't take long for me to realize the bike I was riding felt very similar to my first rigid frame mountain bike from back in the 90's. Except my new bike has drop handlebars, a more aggressive geometry, and only one gear. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I was joining some after-work group rides put on by my local bike shop, Freeze Thaw Cycles. The rides are a fun, somewhat challenging, and truly rewarding way to end the day. These no-drop rides, in addition to some other group rides with friends, really made me wanting to experience a larger group ride. I wanted a ride that would be a challenge, yet within my capabilities. Then I got word that the inaugural unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley event was happening in Bald Eagle State Forest and I figured this was my ride!
unPAved was offering four different length adventures for the 2018 event: 30-miles, 54-miles, 90-miles, and 120-miles. In order to make a proper decision as to which length I should go for, I took a long summer day and enjoyed some riding in Bald Eagle State Forest. I mapped out a loop which included a few of the toughest hills included in the 120-mile option. Read more about that adventure here: Gravel Grinding Along Ridges and Valleys in Bald Eagle. After a long day scouting sections of the course (including pushing my bike up several hills), I decided the 120-mile challenge was out of my league, but I could challenge myself to completing the 54-mile option of unPAved. After convincing Drew and Emily to join in the event too, I now had a couple of partners to train with me for the event.
I've always been a bicyclist with plenty of riding history both on and off-road, but my main addiction as an adult has been walking in the woods. Anyone who attempts to spend time with me will tell you I have a problem...hiking over 1,000 miles every calendar year doesn't leave too much free time to spend with friends in the front country...
Anyway, being a passionate hiker doesn't directly translate into being a proficient cyclist. I had some work to do if I was going to be fit to ride a single speed 54-miles through the woods of Central Pennsylvania for this unPAved event. The way I see it, I could either get a second job and drop thousands of dollars to buy a lighter, faster bicycle...or I could spend some quality time in the saddle of my current bike. Time on a bike is always better spent then time working to make money for a future bike. So, lunch break rides, or after work rides would often occur on weekdays throughout summer in nearby Rothrock State Forest. Weekend rides were sometimes in my favorite riding area, Black Moshannon State Park. Here, the roads stay on top of the Allegheny Plateau, and provide a flatter terrain for spinning my single-speed steed. Read more about riding here: Cycling Near Black Moshannon State Park.
When looking for longer milage days with no hills, Drew, Emily, and I would head up to the Pine Creek Rail Trail and spin all day long. Gorgeous scenery and plenty of stops along the way help to make this rail trail exciting even on a long day of riding. You can also create distracting challenges, such as our Pine Creek Rail Trail Ice Cream Tour, or veer off the rail trail and hit some of the great gravel roads in the adjacent state forests.
Even though our riding confidence increased drastically throughout the summer, Emily and I were still a bit nervous for the event. We were determined to be prepared for this event though, so even when the dark autumn mornings arrived, we still got out of bed early to spin on our bikes. We only had time for short morning rides on local roads, but we did our best to take the time to put in a few more miles on the saddles whenever we could.
Since I live locally and wasn't riding the routes that required a pre-ride meeting, we skipped most of the weekend fun leading up to the event. Instead, three of us woke up early on Sunday morning and drove to the event with plenty of time to spare. We arrived to find hundreds of other cyclists picking up event packets, tinkering with their bikes and gear, and warming up in the crisp autumn morning.
Finally the ride was about to start. Although I hadn't yet ridden my bike more than 50 miles on a single gravel outing, my confidence level was high from putting in so many hours on this bike throughout the summer season. I was also relieved to see so many 'common' looking bicyclists in the group. Sure there were plenty of elite looking cyclists sporting bikes and gear worth more than a compact car, but there was also a large contingent of folks riding 'economy conscious' bikes. While some riders had thousands of dollars tied up in their socks, shoe covers, knee warmers, shorts, undershirts, jerseys, arm warmers, gloves, ear warmers, cycling glasses, etc...others simply showed up in warm-up pants and long sleeved t-shirts. The best part? We all showed up for the event and rode together!
Although the event was billed as a race, event organizer Dave Pryor made sure to emphasize the 'adventure' aspect of the day during the pre-start announcement. A friendly mass group start was highly encouraged rather than an aggressive start. The Buffalo Valley Rail Trail also encourages this behavior: the path is only wide enough for 2-3 bikes, so passing would be difficult at best. We rode several miles of the rail trail, meeting and greeting other riders along the way, before veering off onto some paved and semi-paved farm roads.
The farm roads were fun and filled with short hills as we headed in an overall uphill direction towards Bald Eagle State Forest. The riding field also began to open up now that passing was more readily available. Some riders gained momentum on the downhills, but slowed on the uphills, while other riders used the downhills as a break from pushing hard on the climbs. My favorite aspect of this section was the Mennonite family who was watching the ride go by from their front porch and waving to all of the passing cyclists.
We rode through a few muddy sections of a dirt road with standing water before officially entering Bald Eagle State Forest. Our big climb for today's ride began almost immediately after entering the forest. This climb, for us, was the "hard on the legs" part of the "easy on the eyes, hard on the legs" event mantra. It didn't take long for the climb to crush my single speed cadence and level me down to simple gravel grinding. We're talking about a 1,200 ft climb in roughly 3 miles. The gradient for the climb ranged from 6% up to 10.5%! This road also hasn't seen fresh gravel in years. We were basically pedaling up an old dirt road with huge embedded rocks jutting out here and there throughout the climb. The rocks often acted as uphill speed bumps. Needless to say, I didn't get any pics of the climb. I was passed by several fit cyclists though, and I myself passed several cyclists as well. There wasn't much conversation other than a few fallen soldiers asking me, "what gear ratio are you pushing on that bike", to which I honestly responded, "I don't know, but it feels like a hard gear right now!" The idea of evaluating my gear setup before the event never crossed my mind; this was the bike that I owned, so this was the bike I was going to ride, no matter what gear ratio it had. Several folks asked me about this during the ride, so I checked afterward and found I'm running a 39x20 setup. I still don't really know if that is good or bad for a course like this. In my view, this isn't the point: The point of choosing a single speed is to be liberated from the all-consuming thoughts and doubts regarding which gears you may or may not have. The bike didn't determine the outcome of my day; my ability to ride the bike determined the outcome of my day.
Anyway, gaining the ridge was definitely difficult, but at least the top of the climb leveled off gently before slightly descending to a magnificent vista. I was very happy to experience what I considered positive results from all the hill training I had completed leading up to the event: I didn't have to stop or hike-a-bike at all! A few friends from Freeze Thaw Cycles passed us at the top of this ridge, so I hopped on their train and stuck with them for the long fun downhill that ensued.
The descent was fast and fun. A few super sharp turns appeared every now and again just to keep everyone in check. Finally the downhill leveled out a bit, and my friends with the fancy geared bikes sped away while I coasted along still going too fast for my one-gear setup. The next section of the course was a superb, somewhat flat cruise on a wonderful gravel road through the middle of the forest. A few more riders caught up to Drew and I, which provided some nice conversation for a few minutes. I was not prepared for such a nice ride for spinning; long flat roads are hard to come by in this forest. Although this road was new to me, I will definitely be back to enjoy it again!
After a few climbs that seemed longer than I expected, we abruptly made it to our first aid station at Hobo Vista. Happy Valley Brewing Company was at the vista with refreshments to help refuel us for the rest of the ride! Most riders stopped for at least a few minutes to enjoy a break and refueling at the vista. We probably stayed 5-10 minutes...just a bit longer than we should have...as we headed out for more downhill after the vista. It was a cool day in the forest, and just a 5 minute break before a fast descent cooled me down more than I wished. The aid station did cause us to see some new riders, some of whom we rode with for a few miles afterwards.
We hit my favorite descent of the whole day just before we exited the forest. This descent featured difficulties such as loose gravel, gnarly turns, and other bicyclists! Drew flew down the hill, I did my best to to keep up with him, and a third rider followed behind me. Actually, the speed was sort of nice, since my forearms were burning from grasping the breaks during the steep descent (my bike still sports V-brakes). It was a really enjoyable downhill, even if I did get a bit squirrelly on the outside edge of one of the turns.
The bottom of the descent spit us out on paved roads again. Now we were out of the forest and heading back towards the valley. Drew and I chatted with another rider from Reading, PA about the awesome descent we just enjoyed. We made good time on the downhill, and caught some tired riders on a few of the short uphills along the paved roads. From here we made a few turns and ended up riding through a historic covered bridge, which is also a noted Lizard Spot on the Bald Eagle Forest Lizard Map.
The second aid station, manned by the folks from Philly Bike Expo, featured hot apple cider and a bunch of fun snacks. We stopped here for a quick snack before the final spin along the rail trail back to the Miller Center. Besides feeling a bit cold, I was still in good condition, so we kept the pace fast as we spun several miles to the finish line. Our friend Misha showed up alongside us on his bike with just a few miles left on the course. Misha had been volunteering for the event all day, and was riding back to the finish line. It was great to ride with him and catch up at the end of the event!
Soon enough we rolled through the finish line, successfully completing the 54-mile course! My girlfriend was right there, having already finished the 30-mile option. This was also her first bike event, and she crushed it (and had a blast while doing so)! We immediately went into the Miller Center to find out how our other friends had faired during the day. Although plenty of food was available for the riders, we opted to only stay for a few minutes before loading up the car and heading for a local craft brewery for a late lunch. Here, we filled the bar with other cyclists from the event, ate warm food, and discussed the wonderful experience we had at unPAved Pennsylvania!
That evening, we held a lighthearted debrief meeting of the event. All three of us agreed that it was a good time, and all three of us were immediately inspired to complete additional riding events for 2019. I of course suggested lofty goals such as completing a 200-mile event...that is of course until the endorphins wore down and I realized how sore I was after 54-miles. Emily was a bit more level-headed and suggested a few more personal goals before the end of 2018. We hit one of those goals last week when she completed her first century ride. We've been still getting out after work, in the dark cold hours of the evening, to complete a few local loops before the weather gets really cold. Then again, we were also in our local bike shop just last night scoping out winter biking shoes, so our season may continue a bit longer...
unPAved Pennsylvania was an excellent event! For me, the event was the perfect mix of a serious yet fun group event. I worked hard enough to finish 40-something out of 150 riders, yet it was also laid-back enough that we took breaks at vistas, spent plenty of time meeting and riding with other cyclists, and of course waving to local families and volunteers. Knowing that events like this are so welcoming and fun, I may even consider investing in one of those fancy bikes with multiple gears and disc brakes! No matter what bike I may own next fall, I can't wait to ride this event. If I work hard enough, maybe I'll even be able to complete the full 120-mile route for 2019!
I held my breath with each up and down, stopping every so often to let out some tears. The creek was rushing and beautiful this morning. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and the temperature was perfect. Approaching the finish, I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Before the last climb, I took one more glance at the water and smelled the pine that surrounded me. I will always belong out here. The forest took care of me this week, I will forever be thankful.