Keystone Gravel.

GRAVELDURO: “Big gravel road ride + enduro-style shredth” 

gravel

I knew the day was going to be special when Donnie fought back tears at the riders meeting, overcome with emotion at the turnout of people for the inaugural Keystone Gravel, and, I’m sure, a sense of relief that it was all happening as planned with no major disasters. It was clear how much love and passion he had put into the creation of this event, and we were all full of excitement and anticipation for what this course had in store.

The night before, just after dark, we’d arrived at Mud Run Farm, Donnie’s home and event venue project that is nestled in a beautiful micro-valley amidst the mountains north of Jersey Shore, PA. We camped in a field overlooking the barn and farmhouse, and awoke with the sun, ready for an epic day of riding.

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Back at the riders meeting, goosebumps ran up my arms—not from the cold, but from the energy emanating from Donnie and the group of cyclists surrounding me. “Have fun, be safe, and enjoy my world,” he said just before we rolled out.

meeting

It turns out that Donnie’s World is one full of kick-ass climbs and rewarding descents, grassy singletrack through lush valleys and enchanted forests, good people who volunteer their time to serve us gourmet brownies and waffles and cold brew coffee, and cheer us on as we make our way through the 60-mile loop. It’s a beautiful world for bicycle-enthusiasts, and there was no shortage of positive vibes and smiles all day long.

From the Farm, we started as a pack. There was some jockeying for position as the faster folks sped ahead to get in front for the upcoming climb, but because this was not a race in it’s traditional definition, there wasn’t as much pressure to be first, or cutting people off in order to get there. “Don’t be douchey” read the instructions on the event page.

rollout

We reached a road where Donnie was standing, waving an orange flag, signaling for us to cross. “You rock, Donnie!” yelled Caleb as we blasted through the intersection. I kept my body loose as we hit gravel, which soon became chunky and rutted. The road narrowed and we bottlenecked. The grade became steeper, and people began spinning out, including a big group right in front of me. I couldn’t trackstand long enough and I too had to jump off my bike. I walked for a minute until the road leveled out slightly, and waited for those still pedaling to pass.

That first climb spread the group out. Caleb, Nate, and I had agreed that we would stay together for the duration of the ride, but at many times throughout, we each might pedal at our own pace and then the faster person would wait at intersections or the end of competitive segments. This worked well throughout the 60 miles. Caleb and Nate were both faster on the downhills and the flat sections, but I would always end up passing them on the climbs.

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We kept climbing for a while, but it was rolling, with breaks in between steeper sections. The landscape was pristine, except for the occasional gas drill pad, each of which was an unfortunate reminder of the fracking boom, and of man’s greed and disregard for the natural world.

After 17 miles and a descent down to Little Pine State Park, we were rewarded at the first aid station with Belgian waffles, homemade peanut butter and jam, and cold brew coffee from Alabaster. I was surprised to roll into the aid station and see almost everyone who was ahead of us still there—totally unlike a normal race, where everyone tries to stuff as many calories and liquids into their face as they can in the shortest amount of time and then take off again as quickly as possible. Everybody was hanging out, taking their time enjoying some coffee and waffles. NICA kids were there, volunteering and collecting donations for their team, which would have its first race the next day.

wafflefairies

WAFFLES! 

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Load them up!

We went through the line twice. The honey-infused peanut butter, made by Donnie’s wife Andrea, was so delicious I could eat the whole tub with a spoon. Eventually, we made our way back to the bikes and started towards the “Rhythm Section” of the ride, which consisted of rolling, wide singletrack strewn with sticks and small, loose rocks. It was wildly fun on my gravel bike, though I prioritized not crashing over going fast. The trees opened up into fields, and a view of the next mountain we needed to climb, the infamous Schoolhouse Hollow.

But first, we had to get through the stream crossing, where inner-tube-clad volunteers handed out Fireball shots and slapped riders with a pool noodle if they didn’t make it across. I heard people heckling and cheering my name as I pedaled furiously through the creek. I almost made it to the other side, but came up short by a foot or two. This was apparently good enough to avoid a noodle-pummeling.

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Bottoms up! 

We picked up a buddy at the creek, a guy named John who took note of my jersey and asked where Rothrock Outfitters was located. We chatted for a while as we pedaled towards the climb. He’d been to Adventure Fest last year. He was riding a similar pace, so we ended up hanging together most of the rest of the day.

Schoolhouse was brutal, but after all the hype, I had expected it to be worse. Though that’s how I tend to feel about every climb—painful while I’m doing it, but so rewarding at the end that I forget all about the pain. Switchbacks broke up the monotony of spinning (or, in my case, standing and grinding in the lowest gear I had, a 34-28). I kept pace with John for most of the way, every now and then one of us making a frustrated grunt. Near the top, one of the moto sweep volunteers was cheering us on, a little extra motivation to keep pushing. I was surprised that I didn’t have to get off and walk my bike at all. I’d been concerned about my gearing for this ride, but I’m not confident enough about working on my bike to fiddle with things like that easily. When I have to replace the drivetrain I’ll probably put some lower gears on it. Until then, I’ll just “run what I brung.”

justchillin

Made it up Schoolhouse! And I love that everybody is just chilling, not hammering to finish the ride first. 

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The orange cones, that’s how you know it’s Enduro.

The climb up Schoolhouse was totally worth it for what lay on the other side—a gorgeous descent through what we named the “Enchanted Forest” on a grassy doubletrack/wide singletrack trail. The guys took off and I took it easy. A little stream trickled down the mountain to our left. The forest was green and lush. We descended for what seemed like miles, and at the bottom, another aid station and burritos awaited. Freeze Thaw Cycles was also on site to address mechanical issues. We sat in the grass and ate burritos and I raved to Donnie about how awesome everything was.

enchantedforest

Enchanted Forest. 

burritos

Burritos! 

Some riders were jumping on the Rail Trail and heading back to the farm after this aid station, taking part in the “less-suffering”option for the day. The rest of us would immediately tackle another long climb and continue onward for the “full-suffering” ride.

After a brief, but blustery, road section, a volunteer pointed us off the pavement and onto a steep gravel road. She made a joke about it being just a “little rise,” and we all laughed. We knew it was the contrary, more like a never-ending mountain to climb.

This one seemed even more brutal than Schoolhouse, maybe because it was straight and we could see the gravel rising up ahead of us. We saw the mountain we needed to tackle, and then, just when we thought we were at the top, we realized it was a false summit. The trees were beginning to change colors and bits of yellow popped out of a sea of green. Fallen golden leaves lined the road. I kept my focus on the beauty of my surroundings, and just kept pedaling, no matter how slow.

yellow

At the top of the climb, I waited for the rest of my crew. One guy who we kept leapfrogging with was playing tunes from his bluetooth speaker all day, so every now and then, we got a bit of extra musical motivation.

The top of the mountain was rolling. It began to drizzle, but the rain felt good. It wasn’t hot by any means, but it wasn’t cold enough for me to dread getting wet. The gravel ended and the pavement began, and a mile or so down the road, we saw the Purple Lizard truck and a collection of bikes outside the Mountain Top Inn.

“You gotta at least check it out,” Donnie had said last night. “They have taxidermy on the walls.”

Yep, this was true. Deer heads with antlers were mounted above vintage arcade games, and the poor ladies behind the bar were quite overwhelmed with the influx of Lycra-clad, smelly people that had just bombarded the establishment. But they’d been warned, and they took us in stride. I ordered a Yuengling Lager and sipped it while taking in the scene. I can’t remember the last time I drank Lager, but it was perfect for this occasion. It wouldn’t leave me any worse for the wear for the remaining miles, which some people claimed was “mostly downhill” (not exactly the case).

taxidermy

I left a few sips of my beer unfinished, something I rarely do, and we stepped back outside for the only part of the ride that would take place on a main road. Caleb, Nate, and I pace-lined it to catch up with a group that was slightly ahead of us. The rain, though light, stung our faces as we tucked into aero-mode for the descent. A cross-wind threatened to blow me over, but I kept the bike steady and rolled into the last aid station, which offered sweet, chocolatey, moist brownies. I felt like I could have eaten the whole tray, but I limited myself to just two small ones, and thanked the purveyors profusely. When I learned they were part of the NICA team, I was overwhelmed with pride for the cycling community of the greater Central PA area. What good people we have here. I hoped these kids would find in biking what I have—a sense of purpose, empowerment, confidence, and the simple joy of human-powered movement through the world.

The next part of the ride was, in retrospect, the most brutal. Repeated short climbs and descents can be more tiring than one long uphill, because my legs never have the chance to acclimate to the terrain. The rolling hills went on for what seemed like forever. Finally, a long descent ended with the tent where we were to upload our Strava so that Donnie could see the segments, the results of the “race” portion of the ride.

Officially, the Gravelduro was over. But the ride was not, and we still had to get back to the Farm via a tiny portion of the Pine Creek Rail Trail, some back roads, and one last incredibly steep climb.

 

pinecreekbridge

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Hell yeah, Nate!

The finish was incredibly anticlimactic, just two cones in the field where we all parked our cars. No one was watching. A couple people cheered from their cars as they changed and cracked beers. We headed to our vehicles to do the same.

finish

I had decided at the last minute that I was going to ride in Keystone Gravel. I needed to leave at 6am on Sunday to drive to the airport to head to Interbike, and with the hour and a half drive home Saturday night, I figured it would be too hectic. But the allure of the ride nagged at me, and ultimately, I decided that experiencing Donnie’s World and being a part of a first-ever event was worth the lack of sleep. I made the right decision. I am still aglow from such a great day yesterday, from the rolling party on wheels that is Keystone Gravel, and from the amazing people that made it possible.

Check it out next year. You’ll be glad you did.

partybarn

Hug the lake.

Caleb and I have been talking about doing a century all summer. I’d never done one on my own bike. I’ve done a 100-miler and the 200-mile ride to Thanksgiving on the tandem with Evan, but somehow I feel like that’s different. I needed to do one myself.

Caleb had never done one either. I came up with a route, one with minimal climbing to start. By minimal, I mean a little over 6000′.

We had been trying to get our schedules to align for weeks and they didn’t, until last Wednesday. We both had off. We were doing it.

I slept in town that night after working late at the bar. But I didn’t sleep well, so I woke up early, donned my Lycra outfit and rainbow unicorn fart socks, jumped on my bike, and pedaled the mile up to the coffee shop.

I grabbed a mug of steaming brown magic wake-up juice (aka coffee) and a bagel, and sat down at the counter next to a couple of the lawyers. “Riding somewhere today?” Ray asked. I told him about the century plans. He looked at me like I was crazy. “I don’t even like to drive a hundred miles,” he said. Yeah, me neither.

It was nearing 8 o’clock. I walked outside just as Caleb was coming in. He grabbed a cup of coffee and drank it as I excitedly talked about the ride. I was a little nervous. I’m not sure why.

We jumped on our bikes and pedaled away. Time to do this thing. The sun cast an orange-yellow hue over us as we climbed past the prison. It was hot already. “I’m making it a point to take it easy on the climbs,” I told Caleb. We had many miles to go.

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We caught the rail trail and cruised effortlessly for a while, chatting, passing the occasional fellow cyclist and a group of Wildlife Conservation Officers that looked like they were doing some sort of training that involved running with cumbersome-looking packs. They all looked miserable.

In Williamsburg, I topped off my water bottle at the gas station. I knew The Cove would be hot, and trending uphill. The smells of farm country permeated my nostrils. The air was thick and humid. We were surrounded by fields, tractors, and silos. Off the main road, we found demo derby car central. At least 10 smashed-up cars with numbers painted on them adorned a lawn and rested on a flatbed trailer. There were a lot of short, steep climbs. That’s central Pennsylvania. Even when you’re in a valley, there’s still climbing to be had.

democars

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At the main intersection in Martinsburg, I pointed out Mamie’s. They have the best doughnuts. Caleb asked me repeatedly if we had to climb Cove Mountain. I reassured him that we didn’t. Instead, before we got to the formidable uphill, we made a right and continued down the valley, past more farms, little general stores, and Mennonite schools. The kids were outside. I waved, and a few waved back.

We were around mile 40, and I was feeling good. Caleb, on the other hand, wasn’t faring so well. He was beginning to have debilitating stomach cramps, and started lagging behind. I cooled off my pace. We stopped for a snack. He thought if he got some food in him, he’d feel better. We hopped on Rt. 36 to sneak around the mountain. It was a bigger highway than I’d realized, and we got buzzed by a few tractor-trailers during the brief period of time we were on the main road.

Back on less-traveled pavement, corn once again dominated the scene. We stopped at the top of a climb in a wall of green stalks reaching for the sky, and Caleb laid down in the middle of the road. A friendly woman in an SUV came across us and stopped, a frantic expression crossing her face. I quickly assured her that we were okay. “He just likes lying in the road,” I said jokingly.

Another minute, and he was up and at ’em. “If I stay there too long I’ll fall asleep,” he said.

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As we cruised into Hopewell, Caleb told me he was thinking of bagging the ride. His stomach and back pains were getting to be too much to bear. He didn’t think a substantial meal would help.  We circled through town, seeing nothing but houses and a car repair garage. Caleb mentioned that he saw a little convenience store back on Rt. 26. We backtracked to it and discovered that we had no cell service, so we asked to use the landline to call for a ride.

Caleb kept reiterating that I should finish. I planned on it. I still felt good, 60 miles in.

I asked a woman in the store if there was somewhere I could fill my water bottles. She pulled a jug out of the cooler and topped them both off for me. “Where are you headed?”

“Huntingdon,” I replied. “Y’all better hurry,” she said. “It’s supposed to storm.”

I grabbed a slice of pizza and waited outside on a little picnic table with Caleb until Brent showed up. We bid our goodbyes and I got back on the bike.

texaco

Now alone, I considered changing my planned route. I was feeling great before we stopped at the convenience store, so I was thinking maybe I should add a few extra miles and more climbing. The desire to go up to Broad Top was strong. The roads would be new to me, and I’d always wanted to ride in that area.

I used the Huntingdon and Broad Top rail trail to get from Hopewell to Riddlesburg, then made a right on Six Mile Run Road, which headed up the mountain to Broad Top. I’d looked at the map on my phone as we were waiting for the sag wagon, so I knew that there were “bailout” points along the way if I changed my mind. I started up the mountain and decided to take my first left. It was really hot. My legs didn’t feel as good as they did before we stopped. Some d-bag beeped aggressively at me and I decided that I wanted to get off the main road. So I ducked onto a little back road that was barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

But I didn’t avoid the climb. The narrow strip of pavement reached for the sky, and seemed to never end.

Why did I do this? Why didn’t I just stick with my relatively easy route? 

I could have turned around, but I’d made my decision. I was going to keep climbing.

I wished for a granny gear. The 34-28 on my Raleigh Willard is a bit tall sometimes, especially when I’m 65 miles in and it’s 90 degrees and there’s no break in the steepness of the grade. But I made it work, and didn’t walk my bike at all.

I spent most of my time standing and mashing, alternated with sitting briefly and turning a few really slow pedal strokes to rest my back when I could.

Somehow, I made it to the top. I had never been here before, so I wasn’t sure it was the top, but soon it became clear that I’d now be going down for a while. I hadn’t yet seen a single car on this road. I dropped into Coalmont and got back on my previously-planned route. My little detour didn’t add much mileage, but it definitely added some extra climbing.

The skies were growing dark, and thunder rumbled in the distance. I hoped the convenience store lady was right about the rain. I got my wish soon enough. I stopped to turn on my blinky, and continued into the storm. I was at mile 75 and starting to feel tired, but the precipitation helped refresh me, and my the time I got to the gradual gravel climb near Trough Creek, I was feeling good again.

trough

I came out of the back end of the State Forest on a road of red mud and rock and noticed a sign labeling it as a private drive. I checked out the GPS on my phone, and I was still on the planned route. This was listed as a road on the map, and it connected with other roads. I guess I’d see where it went. I passed a man sharpening his chainsaw in the bed of his pickup. He nodded to me. I smiled back, hoping he’d leave me be. He didn’t seem to fazed.

I made it to Cassville and the clouds began to part. I shoved pepperoni and sour gummy worms in my mouth as I pedaled along the back roads paralleling Rt. 829. I could tell that I was beginning to suffer from a caloric deficit. The heat suppressed my appetite, but my body craved the calories. I’d have a real meal soon enough. Just about 15 more miles.

afterrain

The last climb, up Corbin Road, normally isn’t so bad. It would be interesting to see how it would seem after riding 90 miles.

It felt longer than usual, but it is gradual, so I got into a groove and just kept pedaling. I was tired, but nowhere near the breaking point. Nowhere near the “I can’t go on” point. I crested the hill, breathed a sigh of relief, and settled into my drops for the descent. The home stretch.

As I descended the other side of the mountain, it got foggy and began to rain again. The last couple miles of flat pavement were glorious. I did it!

Life in a sauna.

Each year, time seems to go by faster. Sometimes, it scares me how quickly my life seems to be flying by now. When I was a kid, I was always anticipating something—my next birthday, a friend’s party, the last day of school. I wanted to turn 16 and get my drivers license, then I wanted to turn 18, then 21. Now, each birthday seems to come too soon.

Anyway, this summer has flown by, and I realized that I have a stack of unfinished blog posts from various things I’ve done this year, and a hundred more ideas in my head of things I should write about. But realistically, I’m not going to write about them all, because there are always more adventures to be had. So, here’s a summary of some of the highlights, mostly so that I don’t forget them.

This summer was unbelievably hot. Constantly. It started Memorial Day weekend, the weekend of my 26th birthday, and it has not let up. Day after day of temps skyrocketing into the 90s, with high humidity.  Halfway into August, I finally started to get used to it. Normally we’ll have a week or two of 90+ temps, and that’s the big “heat wave.” It seemed like this whole summer was one long heat wave.

birthday

It was a summer of visitors, and riding with new people. In May, my new friend Brendon, who I’d met in Georgia, stayed with us for a night or two to ride Rothrock, and he liked it so much that he came back again just a couple weeks ago. Brendon drives the demo rig for Pivot Cycles, so he spent the summer in the northeast going from event to event. I think our place is going to be a standard stop for him when he’s in the area. He loves riding Rothrock, and I love to see people enjoy endless rock gardens as much as I do. We got to go on a few rides together, and I gave him recommendations for a few other rides in the area that he did on his own.

Brent, this guy who I’d met on the Sojourn last year, messaged me and asked to stay with us for a night while he was on a bike tour from Pittsburgh to Emmaus. We took him to the local tavern and showed him a good time before sending him the scenic way to his next stop.

Trina and the family spent time at our place on a couple different occasions. The kids loved the alpacas and couldn’t wait to feed them every morning. Rural life suited them well, and coming home to a dinner of delicious tacos suited me well.

I led a couple ladies rides and got some people mountain biking for the first time, which is always an incredibly rewarding experience.

ladies

Peter came back to the area, as he does every summer, and we went for a good ride in Coopers. Peter is 74, and every year, he visits Central PA for a week or two while his son skates at Camp Woodward. He is from Vermont, and rides mountain bikes. I first rode with him last year, when he wanted a ride guide and no one else from the shop was available. I discovered that he’s awesome, and this year, I just wanted to make sure I got out for a day with him. One wasn’t enough, but unfortunately, he was here when my schedule was crazy, and it was all I could swing. I hope to go to Vermont to visit him sometime before next summer.

peter

I also got to spend a lot of time with a visitor from Australia. Becky was also in the area because he son went to Woodward, and I got to ride with her at Allegrippis and Rothrock. She spent the 3rd of July on the roof of Rothrock with us to watch the fireworks, as is our yearly tradition, and she got to go on a couple group rides and meet our wacky crew of bicycle-loving people.

rooftop

The Raystown Mountain Bike Skills Park opened at the beginning of July, after a long and frustrating road. On the day it opened, we all hung out on the deck and grilled and drank and were merry. I followed Jake into the expert line and discovered that it’s not as hard as it looks. I got over my fear of everyone watching me and fell in love with the all-consuming focus and exhilaration of learning how to jump my bike.

brendancalebskillspark

Evan and I went on our first big out-of-state trip together, to Northstar Resort in the Lake Tahoe area of California. We went to a bike show/expo called Saddle Drive, and while we were there for work, we had plenty of fun too. This was the first event like this that I covered for Singletracks, and it required a totally different style of writing than what I usually do—quick, “newsy” articles based on only a short amount of time with a product. There were things I would do differently next time for sure, but all in all, for my first go, I think I did alright. It was also my first time riding lift-accessed trails, which was a pretty cool experience.

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I participated in, and won, a mountain bike race, which I wrote about in detail here.

I started rock climbing and bouldering more seriously than I ever have in the past, and I’m totally addicted to it.

So what’s in store for the coming months?

I’m headed to Interbike in Vegas next week for another work trip, my third one this year, but by far the biggest. It should be interesting. It’ll definitely be a new experience, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot. I haven’t begun to get nervous yet, but that’ll come in a few days, I’m sure.

I need to work on my time management skills so that I’m not freaking out all the time about the things that I should be doing when I’m not doing them, and then procrastinating and wasting precious minutes when I do have the time to get stuff done (this is basically my life lately). I want to maximize my time and my days.

I want to focus on doing some long bike rides (one 50+ miler a week is my goal until the weather gets cold), but also want to keep things balanced and put time into running and climbing as well. I think I might have too many hobbies.

Right now, I’m just looking forward to some cooler days and brilliant foliage. Fall is my favorite season, and I’m ready for it.

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Racing rookie.

I stood, slightly chilly, under the big top tent as the rain poured down outside. My heart was pounding already. My stomach was in a knot. The other ladies all stood in a group, all friends from previous races and events. Most of them raced for the same team. They were all kitted-out, matching bibs and jerseys. I overheard a conversation about a 100k mountain bike race. Holy shit. They’re going to be really fast. 

I stood alone. I’d met some of these girls last night and they were really cool, but I wasn’t brave enough to jump into their conversation. When the rain slowed down a little, I jumped on my bike and pedaled circles around the parking lot, waiting for the start.

I was about to do my first mountain bike race in a very long time. I am calling it my first race ever, because the couple that I did when I was a kid don’t really count. I don’t remember them much at all. The only thing I remember is that I was the only girl. It’s been a long time since then. I had figured racing wasn’t really my thing. Then Annie convinced me to try it. So here I was, in the pouring rain, about to go ride 20 miles of rocks and roots and steep climbs as fast as I possibly could.

5 minutes til start. I found myself a spot in the parking lot, next to Jason. I knew he looked vaguely familiar and then he talked to me and I realized that we knew each other. We exchanged small talk.

30 seconds. He wished me luck, and I returned the regards. We all were lined up. And then we were off.

We briefly rolled downhill and then we climbed up rocky, muddy doubletrack. I wanted to hang back in the beginning of the ride, be careful not to let the adrenaline get the best of me and burn out too early. But I still found myself passing people right off the bat.

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Photo: Derek Bissett

Over the dam, and into the woods. I got ahead of another couple people when the techy stuff began. My plus tires did the job in the wet conditions. The wet logs seemed sketchy but I tried them anyway and made it over most of them with no issues. I tried to keep a consistent, moderate pace. I was excited now, still feeling slightly nervous I suppose, but it was definitely an excited nervous. I wanted to do well. My goal was to just have fun and ride my best, but of course I knew that if I messed stuff up that I knew I could clean, or blew up too early, or otherwise rode in a way that I knew was less than I best that I could, I’d be disappointed. I felt really good physically, so that was a good start.

It was really nice to ride in wet conditions again. It’s been so dry in Central PA, I’d forgotten what riding in the rain feels like. The mud wasn’t bad, and the rocks were a little slick but not as much as I’d anticipated. Crack Trail was lots of fun, one of my favorite parts of the race. My adrenaline was going, I was still fresh, and still taking it sort of easy. The bridges through the rock cracks were super slippery, so I opted to walk rather than ride them, and even that was a challenge. There were a couple other rocks gardens that I had ridden last time I was at Big Bear that I decided to walk today. Not crashing was another goal.

By the end of Crack, I’d passed all the other ladies, but I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t pay any attention to who was in front of me or behind me at the start, so I had no idea how many people were ahead. I’d passed a few guys too.

Somewhere around mile 5 or so, we did a climb known affectionately as “soul sucker.” I didn’t remember it from riding with Annie and Jeff back in June, and I realized that we hadn’t ridden the second part of Crack then, for good reason. It really was a soul sucker. This is when I started to wonder how far in we were. I knew we would pass 3 aid stations, and we hadn’t even passed the first one yet. It felt like we’d done 10 miles, but I knew we hadn’t.

I tailed a guy on the doubletrack past the first aid station, waving and saying hello to the volunteers standing there, but not stopping. I had plenty of water and some food if I needed it, but I wasn’t hungry yet.

I’d waffled back and forth between wearing my Camelbak and just stuffing a bottle in my frame bag, and opted for the Camelbak because I figured I’d stay better hydrated with the easy-access drinking. And I wouldn’t have to stop to fill up. I’ve been riding with the pack all the time lately anyway, so why switch it up? They say don’t do anything differently on race day.

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Photo: Derek Bissett

Past the aid station, the course turned to singletrack again. This part in the middle of the ride is a blur. I don’t remember exactly what trails we rode. I don’t remember exactly who I saw. I know I leapfrogged with one guy for a while—he’d get ahead on the descents and then he let me go ahead for the climbs. We really didn’t talk a whole lot. It was hard to talk and try to navigate these trails. But it was nice to have some company and someone riding a similar pace. I eventually lost him on one of the longer climbs just past the second aid station, and I was alone.

I didn’t see anyone else on the trail for the entire rest of the race. It was weird, knowing there were so many other people out there, but not seeing a soul. Sometimes, I forgot that I was racing. I found myself spacing out, and I had to remind myself to focus and keep pedaling hard. At this point, I knew that unless someone passed me, I was on the podium. I still didn’t know that I was first. That’s probably a good thing. Earlier, I’d passed Annie taking pictures, and she told me that I was doing great. She didn’t tell me that I was ahead, even though she knew I was. I later thanked her, knowing that I’d have felt a lot more pressure if I’d known it at the time. I was still just having fun, going for a mountain bike ride in the woods on some sweet trails in West Virginia on a wet, humid Saturday. No big deal.

I rode alone through the ferns, the pines, and down the bone-rattling descent towards the campground. I knew I had to be close to the finish. Soon, I saw the signs: Ultra 2nd Lap, and 1 mile to finish. On my drive down the night before, I had thought about switching to the 40-mile Ultra course, because the idea of challenging myself just to finish something appealed to me more than trying to race other people and do a distance that I knew I could do. But at this moment, I was so glad I had stuck with the 20-miler. I was worked. I don’t doubt that I would somehow finish the 40 miles, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And trying to go fast was a lot more fun than I thought it would be.

The last bit to the finish was the reverse of the start. I pedaled across that orange line painted on the ground and received a handful of claps and cheers. The food was spread out and looked amazing. I rode over to Annie.

Did you know you won?!?

Really?!?!?!?

Despite the fact that I’d considered it as I was riding solo those last 10 miles, I still figured there was probably someone in my class ahead of me somewhere. But no, I was first.

Annie offered me a Gatorade and told me where the hose was to spray off my very muddy bike.

Jason asked me how it was. Great! Apparently I won! 

There was a group of people standing there who were super stoked for me.

I saw you riding around in the parking lot before the race, and I noticed you weren’t all kitted out. I said to myself, that’s the underdog. I’m glad you won. 

I changed out of my wet, muddy clothes and grabbed a plate of food. Now for the awkward part. Riding bikes I can handle. The socializing with people I don’t know, that’s the tough part. Luckily, everyone was super nice, and I ended up making some new friends, which was a major goal for the day.

I had way more fun than I thought I would. And actually, I’m looking forward to doing another race at some point. I’ll definitely be back for more Big Bear events, and I’m already planning on trying out the 40-mile Ultra course next August.

Thank you Jeff and Annie Simcoe for the encouragement, support, delicious breakfast sandwich that helped fuel my ride, and for putting on a great event. And thank you to all the other volunteers and crew who helped make it happen.

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Big Bear Ultra Lite Women’s Open— 3rd: Robyn Stewart, 2nd: Christa Humphrey Ross, 1st: Helena Kotala

 

Conquering.

 

I had this teacher in high school who said he went into teaching because he was always scared of public speaking, and he tries to do things he’s scared of.

I don’t think about much from high school. It wasn’t exactly my favorite period of my life. But I think about this statement a lot.

Most of us tend to avoid the things we are scared of, myself included. I hate talking on the phone, especially to people I don’t know, so if I have to call someone, I’ll put it off as long as I possibly can. I definitely scared of public speaking. Basically, I’m scared of any social situation in which I don’t know people, and even when I do, I don’t like being the center of attention. I’m scared of failure, of being the worst or the slowest, of disappointing people, of trying to fix something and not doing it right and making a situation worse. And I’m pretty f-ing scared of heights.

I’ve always been intrigued by rock climbing/bouldering. I did it a few times as a kid, at various adventure camps that I went to. I went to the indoor rock gym with my cousins a number of times when I went to go visit, because that was something they were really into. Almost two years ago, Evan and I moved within a couple miles of some really great bouldering spots that are super popular with the local climbing crowd. If I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, I was just dumb.

So I went bouldering a few times with people. My friend Erica even gave me a pair of rock climbing shoes that were too small for her. Now I really didn’t have an excuse.

Except for all my fears.

Like heights. And failure. And social situations.

Bouldering is often a group activity. Sure, it can be a great solo activity too, but especially when first starting out, it’s helpful to have someone to help you figure out where to place your hands and feet, and move the crash pad with you, and spot you so that you don’t impale yourself on the tree with spiky limbs sticking out of it that’s laying on the ground a few feet from where you’re climbing.

So, that means going with other people. And other people sometimes make me nervous, especially when they’re all sitting around watching you climb.

And then there’s the fact that as soon as I get higher than 3  or 4 feet off the ground I start to shake.

There are a lot of things about rock climbing that scare me. But I think that’s all the more reason to do it. How else will I conquer my fear of heights, or other people watching me, or being a beginner?

So I will continue to climb. I will continue to strive to do things that terrify me. And I will try to conquer my fears, one step at a time.

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Topping out. Photo: Marci Chamberlain

 

Riding on the Moon.

After a full day of riding at Big Bear, our plan was to hit up Coopers Rocks on Sunday. But discussions with Jeff and Annie left us intrigued about the Davis, WV area. Over post-ride beers at our cabin, we all grew increasingly curious about Moon Rocks, a giant, cratered expanse of rock atop a plateau just outside of Davis. It wasn’t long before we were convinced to make the hour-long drive the next day.

So after an evening of drinking and dancing to live music at the MoonShadow Cafe with our new friends Jeff and Annie (for some reason they wanted to keep hanging out with us!), we hit the road early but not too early. Carissa bid us adieu to head to Coopers Rock to climb and then head home (she had an interview the next day).

We parked along Camp 70 road just outside of Davis. The trail up to Moon Rocks started out in grassy fields, gradually heading uphill. It became more and more technical the farther up we got, crossing some boggy areas before becoming dominated by rock gardens. As we were navigating the mud, I was stopped by a group heading in the opposite direction who was also looking for Moon Rocks. They were convinced they were going the right way, according to the map.

I’m following the locals, I told them, and asked if they wanted to tag along. After some hemming and hawing, the group finally decided that maybe I knew what I was talking about, and turned their bikes around.

During all this, I realized that the gal standing behind the guys I was talking to looked pretty familiar.

Kelly?, I asked. I took off my sunglasses and she recognized me. She was someone I knew from the mountain bike scene back home. It’s amazing how small the world can be.

So we continued uphill, our new group in tow. Forested rock gardens suddenly gave way to the open, cratered rock face. It was quite a challenge to ride on. You had to either pick your line just right, or blast through it and keep up enough momentum to make it over the little pockets and cracks between smoother sections of rock. But it was beautiful. The scenery and view was stunning.

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moon rocks

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At the top, there was quite a crowd hanging out. This was the weekend of the Canaan MTB Festival, which was just wrapping up, so there were more people in town for that. And apparently this is a pretty popular ride in the area. We stopped long enough to snap some pictures, but moved along pretty quickly.

HooDoo Rocks brought more rocky goodness. I likened it to many of the trails we have locally in Rothrock State Forest, so I felt right at home. After descending back down into the grassy fields, we stopped for a snack break, and talked about potential options to finish out the day. We were only a couple miles from the car, but Jeff and Annie suggested adding on Splashdam Trail to end up with some more ride time.

Splashdam is a lesser-known gem, built rather recently and mostly only ridden by locals. It’s follows the Blackwater River, and despite the fact that we did the trail in the upstream direction, climbing was minimal. Instead, the challenge lay in the rock gardens. We took a moment to chill by the river before finishing the trail and riding out the gravel road back to the car.

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Post-ride, we gorged ourselves at Hellbender Burritos, stopped at Blackwater Falls for a quick look at the giant cascade of water, and headed back to camp.

The next morning, we did one last quick ride at Big Bear before jumping in the Jeep to drive home. Our weekend in West Virginia was amazing. Thank you to Jeff and Annie Simcoe for their excellent guiding skills, hospitality, and for putting up with us!

I can’t wait to head back in approximately a month to take part in the Big Bear Ultra Lite!

jeff and annie

Ladies of Big Bear.

At the grocery store in McHenry, we divided and conquered, spreading to all ends of the store to grab provisions for the weekend. It was then about a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake, where we stopped at the guard shack to grab our key. The other ladies hung out while I dealt with the administrative end of checking in, falling into a role as the “unofficial welcoming committee.” I stepped out of the small building to find them waving and smiling at the line of cars driving by. The young, blonde kid in uniform who was checking parking passes didn’t know what to think.

We found our cabin, unloaded the car, and quickly realized that it was BYOTP. Bring Your Own Toilet Paper. Ooops. Didn’t know that. We found some napkins in the car and used those for the time being. We later found out that the guards at the entrance station were supposed to issue us a roll of TP—standard for all guests. I guess we were just too intimidating that they were flustered and forgot.

The cabin was really nice—small but clean and very well-maintained. We claimed bunks and unloaded all the food on the table. Time to crack a beer.

To stave off sleep, we decided to take a drive around the premises. We quickly discovered that this was not a “typical” campground. Most people don’t just stay for a weekend. They lease plots of land where they keep a camper, usually with a porch and other infrastructure built around the shell to the point that many of these dwellings actually looked like homes. And everyone had a golf cart. Some of them were even souped-up, with light-up wheels and extra beefy tires. Some of them were mega-carts, with multiple rows of seating. The little vehicles zoomed back and forth like little ants. I’m used to being looked at strangely because I’m on a bike. Now we were being looked at strangely because we were in a car, not a golf cart. What a weird little world.

By the time we’d gotten slightly lost in the maze of campland roads, and stopped at the “Country Store” to grab some TP, it was a decent hour to go to bed, and we all welcomed our sleeping bags.

The next morning, Jeff Simcoe and his wife Annie met us at our cabin to ride the trails at Big Bear. I’d started talking to Jeff almost a year ago when I was about to take a road trip to Colorado, and wrote an article for Singletracks about potential places to stop and mountain bike along the way. Big Bear Lake, and nearby Coopers Rocks, were on the list. Jeff sent me a message offering his ride guide services if I stopped through, but I decided against it because it’s only two and a half hours from home, opting instead to hit places further west that I wouldn’t ever go to for just a weekend.

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But Big Bear was certainly still on my radar, and it wasn’t a tough decision to make it the destination of our ladies weekend. Jeff was more than happy to hook us up with a great deal on the cabin, and show us all around.

Having never ridden with Jeff and Annie, I was a little nervous. I’m always a little nervous before riding with new people. I never want to hold anyone up, and sometimes I think that other people expect me to be a really great rider because I write about mountain biking. So, I put extra pressure on myself. But the couple was nice and chill as could be, and I was quickly at ease in their company.

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The trails were awesome. We started out with some of the more technical ones, as they happened to be close to camp. Beaver Creek, Voo Doo Rocks, and Crack Trail offered some challenging rock lines, which I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own. But following Jeff, I was able to commit and I surprised myself when I nailed most of them. I even tried a sort-of-scary maneuver through a downhill rock crack. I stopped just before it and shrieked a little during my first attempt, but the second time around, I made it without a dab. Then there was the infamous “Crack” for which Crack Trail is named. It’s a giant crack between two rocks that is just wide enough for most handlebars. In the middle, you have to make an almost-90 degree turn, which tripped me up a little, but after a quick brace off the rock wall, I was able to ride through.

We then headed up the mountain to some more mellow, flowy stuff. Annie and I chatted, and the topic of racing came up. I’d been friends with Jeff on Facebook and he posted a few pictures of her in some recent mountain bike races. I’ve been thinking a lot about trying racing again lately, but I’m pretty apprehensive. I’m don’t particularly like competition or pressure, but I do like to challenge myself. And I’ve been wanting to put myself out there a little more in the mountain bike world, meet new people, and try new things.

It wasn’t long before Annie convinced me to try a race at Big Bear in August. She and Jeff are great, and I wanted to support their endeavors (they are the ones putting on the race). And I thought that it would be really fun to try to do these trails as fast as I could. The mix of tech sections and flow seems ideal. Anybody want to join me?

fixing allison

Unfortunately, once we’d climbed for a while, Carissa got a stick caught in her derailleur and it bent to the point where we couldn’t quite fix it. She could still use a few of the gears, but without the full range, she decided to ride back to camp. Later, Allison took a spill and twisted her foot, eventually ending her day on the bike as well. So it was just four of us to finish out the ride. We rode about 20 miles, through a mix of all sorts of terrain and ecosystems. Rocks, streams, swamps, pines, and ferns. Lots of ferns.

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pinestam ferns

Jeff and Annie ended up hanging out with us the rest of the weekend. We all went out to dinner Saturday night, drove down to Davis for a ride on Sunday, and did another 11 miles at Big Bear on some trails we hadn’t hit yet on Monday morning before heading home.

Stay tuned for some words and photos on riding the CVI Trails near Davis, WV.