The unPAved as the name implies is a bike race/adventure/journey that takes place in the heart of the Susquehanna River Valley in Central Pennsylvania. As you might guess, it takes place off the beaten path. Covering some of the most scenic areas that the Northeast has to offer. As director, Dave Pryor so eloquently said, “If the climbs don’t take your breath away, the fall foliage will.” (Well I think he said it, because it was on his website…)
As most of you reading this already know, Gravel racing is on the rise. Those bunch of weirdo’s ten years ago who you thought were being lame are now the coolest and hippest around. No longer are they looked at as shirking the road racing scene because it was too “intense”, but instead looked at as innovators. Look no further for this legitimization than World Tour cycling teams planning seasons around having their riders attend such races as Dirty Kanza, Leadville, and The Belgian Waffle Ride to name a few. Gravel is the here and know, and it’s a great time to jump aboard this pirate ship.
Let’s get down to business.
Did the inaugural edition of unPAved Pennsylvania deliver?
You bet it did. With route options ranging from the 30, 54, 90 and the Full 120 there was something for everybody. I have to take a moment here and mention why something like this is so appealing to future-Matt. Future-Matt is expecting his first child, a baby girl at the end of January 2019. Once this little bundle enters the world there is going to be a lot more planning and scheduling involved when I race bikes. With an event like this that is so family friendly (and within 2 hours of my hometown, where my parents still live – shout out to the Finger Lakes of NY) I have a good chance at convincing my wife that a 54 mile off-road gravel ride would be an awesome way for her to break into the bike racing/gravel riding scene. It’s long enough to be a worthy adventure, technical enough to feel proud that she could handle it, but yet not so much that I’d be scared that I am sending her off to impending doom…and the best part is that she can nail down the 54 mile loop and be back in a few hours to our little girl. All the while I will be out hammering away at my pedals, doing my best to defend my title…and hopefully getting back only a couple hours after my wife does. At the end of the day we both get to race our bikes, our child is loved by family all day and we do it all in the awesome community of like minded cyclists. Soooo, how about it honey? 🙂 Sounds perfect, eh?
Getting back on track, my choice at the 2018 unPAved was the 120 “FULL” route. I’m a glutton for miles and hours on the bike and was super excited to mash away through terrain that is very similar to the kind that I grew up around in the Finger Lakes of NY. I had this race circled on my calendar for almost all of 2018, however since I procrastinated the dang thing sold out for the Full edition. Thankfully my good buddy Chris (more on him later) alerted me to this and I was able to find my way into the race via the generous offer of someone who could no longer make the trip. Thank you to Tatsuo and Dave for giving me the chance to take part in the first edition.
Making the trip down on Saturday from Boston was a pretty non-eventful 6.5 hours capped off with a lovely lunch at Friendly’s, the only restaurant I could find within 10 minutes of my hotel. It turns out that at 32 years old, the Friendly’s menu just isn’t as appealing as it was to my 14 year old, American Legion playing self. In any case, my buddy Chris showed up shortly after at our luxurious Hampton Inn and we went out for a spin before heading to registration. One of the most telling signs of being in a truly fantastic places to ride bikes is that without any pre-mapping or anything we stumbled out of the parking lot, took a right hand turn, rode about 1-2 miles on some “busy” road and then immediately found ourselves on a secluded paved climb of a mile or so that ended up dumping us on yet another road that turned into unPAved glory for a solid 45 minutes. That’s what it is like out there in Central PA. Throw a dart out and you’ll hit some epic gravel road that will keep you smiling for miles and miles.
Fast forward to race morning and its 40’ish degrees with the sun just barely starting to creep out. It’s going to be a fantastic day, but admittedly its freezing for a cyclist clad in spandex. The weather will be in the mid 50’s all day, so at a solid effort that will be fine, especially with the 10k or so of vertical gain we would be accumulating over the 120 miles, but for now I’m cold. The mellow vibe that the start of a 120 mile race offers is something that was very welcome when compared to the craziness of the road/crit scene.
Smartly, nicely and thoughtfully, Dave and his crew had us start the race from the beautiful The Miller Center for Recreation and Wellness that was situated right smack dab on a rail trail. The local Bucknell cycling team led out the caravan of riders over the initial 5 miles. Riding 2 wide on the gravel/cinder path, fellow riders chatted, got warmed up and debated the biggest question of them all. Were the big things at the road intersections bollards or barriers. I said barriers, because WTF are bollards? I mean seriously, who screams that out on a bike ride without laughing to themselves. (OK, after reading Wikipedia, it appears these aren’t that strange and its pretty normal and accepted to call them bollards..I guess it had just passed me by in my youth) So yeah, the race had the kind of chill roll-out that a 120 mile race should, and I applaud that.
Although the first five miles were mellow, you’d be dead wrong if it was setting the tone for the day. Just a few miles later the world would get tipped UP, quickly! At 14 miles in we hit the first climb. My light research on the course told me that it was both one of the steepest and longest of the day. Yup, the first hill we saw was the longest. That sounds about right. Playing off the countless Overlands, Rasputitsa’s and Vermont 50’s I’ve done over the past three years I knew that a similar recipe of success that the leaders always use might have a chance to break things wide open here as well…even if it was only 14 miles into a 120 day. So as the grade increased I looked to make the pace a high tempo effort and a gap opened pretty quickly. Why wouldn’t it though, it was only 14 miles in. What kind of crazy person would try to go clear that early? This guy would! However, I was thankfully and luckily joined by my roomate for the weekend Chris Ganter, who quickly got on my wheel. We rolled together for the next couple of minutes hoping to entice a couple others to join us. Two is nice, but three, four or even five people at this juncture would give us a nice rotation to separate ourselves. In the end only Michael (in the Panaracer kit – see podium pic below) made the bridge, and with that we three amigos were off!
After what for all intents and purposes was a 20 minute power test (see Strava Segment – Brandon to Jonestown) we had a bit of a gap, and hit the downhill pretty hard. As you can see in my beautifully mocked up course profile, the downhill after the initial climb launched us from the rest of the chasers. Rolling that downhill and flat strongly we hit the next set of hills and maintained our gap. Taking turns pulling, the three of us worked really well. Every time Chris started to chat I made sure to up the pace a bit….i mean this is serious business! Ha…i’m kidding. Well kind of 🙂
As we made our way over the course we moved along on the flats and took the hills at a steady tempo. With only three of us, everyone wanted the company of other riders to help move things along and no one made any crazy attacks up the hills. It was as enjoyable as a hard race effort can be….but that’s also because the dream scenario for me in any race is a small break consisting of just a few people who like to do work. (Shrug/sigh)
I don’t precisely remember when we hit it, but somewhere around the 48-50 mile mark we hit some of the gnarliest terrain out there. Full on jeep road/Vermont Pave style stuff. Complete with giant rocks, huge ruts and washed out sections from the rain. Not only was it like this as we nuked it UP but the downhill was just as crazy. Meandering through the minefield of boulders and standing water at light-speed, I was left crossing my fingers and praying that my wheels would not explode. Thankfully the bombproof NEXT wheels Jerry made for me held up like champs. However, even though my wheels made it through, my chain was sucked up into my crank when we exited this treacherous sector. Through amazing foresight by the director, a mechanic was placed at the bottom of the descent. (AKA – the middle of nowhere) God bless them as they were quickly able to fix my mechanical which allowed me to chase back to Chris and Michael within 5 minutes or so. Crisis adverted.
Once I was back on and attached to the other two we hit the meat of the race, miles 60-100 where things would naturally shake themselves out. The climbs now began to be more of a “can you keep up pace” as opposed to “lets keep this together pace”. This went on for a couple climbs and eventually Michael and I shed Chris at around mile 70-75. I’ve got to say that Chris’s effort was massive. Having started a new job this summer and on minimal training he not only made it 70+ miles into a 120 miles race at the pointy end but was able to rally from getting dropped to hold onto third place. He was solo for like 40-45 miles I think. That’s one hell of an effort dude!
Michael and I ran into the next climb together and stuck close. We flew down the descent together at ludicrous speed and finally approached the last climb of the day. Although not as long as the first climb, it was pretty steep and included pitches that were pretty devastating to tired legs. As things go in a 120 mile race, my “break-away” uphill was more or less the equivalent to a turtle speeding away from another turtle who got sidetracked by eating some grass….But really, two tired dudes going up a hill and one of them was able to inch away. Then the inch grew and with that separation comes that little boost of adrenaline that lets you fires on all cylinders to the top of the climb, 95 miles in.
Riding solo over the highest point of the race, I completely blew by the masses of riders from the shorter fields who were grouped together enjoying food and drink while gazing at the beautiful vista. (I should really stop at this next year…maybe…) Still riding on the high of getting free I kept the pedal down as much as possible while covering the final 20 miles. I was flying high and feeling great until about 7-8 miles to go. I had this vision in my brain that once I hit the rail trail it would basically be like I was done. It was good bait for me to chase, however the fact was that once I hit the rail trail I was NOT done. I had those 7-8 miles of flat land riding where I had to produce all the power. I didn’t know what kind of gap I had so as I always say (to myself mostly) “when in doubt, pedal harder”….and so I did.
I crossed the line in just under 7 hours and officially became the first ever champion of unPAved Pennsylvania. I’d like to say I was ceremoniously doused in champagne and put on the shoulders of the adoring fans. Alas, that was not the case this year….but maybe in 2019? What do you say Dave?
Training Peaks Stuff – (The numbers and whatnot)