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