And it makes me wanna take a back road
Makes me wanna take the long way home
Put a little gravel in my travel
Unwind, unravel all night long
Take A Back Road, Rhett Akins & Luke Laird (2011)
After several summers of solo weekend bikepacking rides throughout the Black Hills, I enjoyed a week+ trip around the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming with cycling buddy Paul Brasby. During that trip, Paul described a bikepacking event he was adding to an existing gravel grinder.
What? Adding a bikepacking event to a gravel grinder? What does that look like?
|Paul Brasby leads the Friday group bikepacking ride out to the campground at Sabetha City Lake.|
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)
The Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash is an annual race in the historic town of Marysville, Kansas. With passionate, dedicated individuals planning and managing the event, the Pony Express has developed a growing cult following among area cyclists as a must-ride at the end of the year's gravel calendar.
The signature event is a 120 mile gravel race on a wide variety of gravel/dirt roads fanning out from the first Home Station of the famous Pony Express of the Old West. For those looking for less saddle time, the Pony Express also offers a 70 mile race and two different relays - a 3 person relay to cover the 120 mile course and a 4 person relay on the 70 mile course. Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash.
Paul knows this event thoroughly. In fact, he created the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash, co-directed it for its first 5 years, and just this year turned it over to locals. For 2020, Paul suggested a bikepacking event that would leave the morning before the main event, ride along the 120 mile route, camp somewhere about half way, and ride back the next day to finish along with everyone else. In another twist, the Friday ride out to the camp would be a non-timed group ride, while the Saturday ride back would be a timed race for those that wanted to compete. Now, how about that?
|Paul Brasby leads the start of the inaugural Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure.|
(photo by Andrea Skalla)
After a spring and summer of riding solo, very small group rides, and "virtual" events, the prospect of riding in an actual event with others certainly is appealing. The Pony Express also sounds like a well conceived and executed gravel event, especially with this intriguing Bikepacking Adventure. But it's Paul's role in the event that drives me to find my way to Marysville, Kansas in the middle of October.
Paul co-directed the Pony Express with the Marysville Chamber of Commerce for the first five years and the small town really responds. Seemingly half of the town's weekly newspaper is devoted to the event and "Welcome Gravel Dashers!" signs adorn businesses all over. The City Park even fills this weekend with many cyclists and their families camping in RVs and tents. It's the event of the weekend.
|Cruising a Minimum Maintenance Road during harvest season in northern Kansas.|
The bikepacking event rules are pretty straightforward. Carry what you want for food, clothing and camping, but you'll have to carry it the entire event. You can utilize the aid stations set up for the main event and also stop at commercial establishments along the way, if any. But I'm not relying on unknown resupply and I'm not cutting corners. As a non-racer who enjoys hot meals and relative comfort on and off the bike, I will carry my typical autumn sub-24 gear and plan to resupply nothing but water.
For this two day/one night event on a gravel race course, I choose my beloved Black Mountain Cycles MonsterCross bike with 40 mm Schwalbe G-One Bite tires. It's built for this terrain and comfortably carries everything, including tent, sleeping bag/liner/pad/pillow, rain gear, clothing, stove, food, and 4.5 liters of water. When ready to roll, it weighs 47 pounds. No fly weight, but all business.
|Flying into Summerfield, the first and only checkpoint of the first day.|
Sixteen intrepid bikepackers roll out of Marysville on Friday morning, bound for Sabetha City Lake to camp. It's a jovial, talkative group excited to be out riding together on a crisp autumn morning. The route starts on the Blue River Rail Trail before turning onto fast gravel occasionally connected by dirt Minimum Maintenance Roads. If wet, this course could be Mr. Hyde, but today it's all Dr. Jekyll.
Mid-October is harvest season in northern Kansas and combines, tractors and trucks fill the countryside. More than once, I stop to let a procession of big rigs amble by. I welcome the short breaks, knowing that the industrious farmers are the reason these roads exist and I get to ride them just for fun.
|Good thing this Minimum Maintenance Road is dry.|
|Gathering at a city lake, bikepackers attract the attention of the local constable.|
|Warm fire and conversation at Sabetha City Lake.|
|Here I'm enjoying a cup of hot coffee while the racers take off on the second day.|
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)
|Winding our way back to Marysville on the second day.|
|At the Axtell checkpoint on the second day, riders on the 70 Mile course merge onto the 120 mile course.|
(photo by Andrea Skalla)
|Paul Brasby and Craig Groseth at the finish of the 2020 Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure.|
Paul finished 3rd to claim a podium spot. FWIW, I finished 7th.
The 120 mile course is quickly running out. Soon I'm back on the Blue River Rail Trail for the final few miles into Marysville. I'm not sure that I'm ready for all this to end, but I soft pedal through the finish line. There's Paul, waiting. He's excited for me, but he's also cheering for every rider coming in. Later I learn that Paul raced hard and smart all day to grab third place in the bikepacking race. Nice.
Riders of all kinds filter through the finish line over the next several hours. I hang out for the energetic post-race festivities by the newly restored Union Pacific Train Depot. There's plenty of drinks and snacks, but the homemade apple caramel pie and vanilla ice cream is simply scrumptious. I consider myself abundantly disciplined to consume only two servings. At a volunteer's table, I find my event schwag bag filled with all sorts of stuff, including a titanium spork and a "Marysville Mud Stick." Better yet, I receive a custom finisher's cup for the Bikepacking Adventure. How cool is that?
Thanks to race co-directors Mark and Renee Hoffman, the rest of the Black Squirrel Cycling League, and the Marysville Chamber of Commerce for running the 2020 Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash! Well done, folks! Thanks also to all the sponsors, the volunteers and the cyclists out there pedaling through that wind! And special thanks to my cycling buddy Paul Brasby for drawing me out to Marysville, Kansas to experience a slice of heaven known as the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash.
Take A Back Road, Rodney Atkins (2011)