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Saturday, September 17, 2022

2022 Pony Express 120 Bikepack

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).

Sunset at the Pony Express Bikepacking Adventure.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash is a fixture on the Kansas and Nebraska gravel scene for its signature 120 mile race over rough gravel and dirt roads, shorter 30 and 75 mile routes, and relay races. Race Directors Renee and Mark Hoffman of Backroads Bicycles pull together a committed team and a legion of volunteers to create an energetic, festive event for everyone. Their gravel family continues to grow and this event is a big reason why.

Although the marque attraction is the main event on Saturday, I'm here in Marysville, Kansas for the 2 Day Bikepacking Adventure, which I rode two years ago. Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure. This unique event starts on Friday with cyclists carrying their chosen sleep gear and riding a chunk of the 120 mile route to a campsite for an evening of fellowship. In the morning, riders complete the 120 mile route to finish as part of the main event. You can even race in on Saturday, if that's your flavor.

New this year is a Bikepacking Swap Meet on Thursday night, followed by Q&A sessions by veteran bikepackers Peggy Waite Bradley (Cannonball 550), Aaron Apel (Great Plains Route), and Paul Brasby and me (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route). Lively interactions between passionate bikepackers extend past sunset and into the evening. It all ends far too soon.

Bikepacking Swap Meet on Thursday evening.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Rolling out of Backroads Bicycles at 7:00 am on Friday, the bikepackers stream west on pavement to clear town and soon turn south onto rough gravel and dirt roads for which the Pony Express is known. Rough roads of mostly dirt wind through sprawling fields of ripening corn, soy beans, and sorghum. Although a few fields show some activity of the upcoming harvest, the back roads are still relatively clear of large farm equipment. It's the primo season to be riding out here.

The first 21 miles bump along toward the small town of Barnes for the first checkpoint. Boisterous volunteers Peggy and Tiffany, both of whom will race on Saturday, re-supply riders with water, snacks, and encouragement. The day heats up and the dirt roads get rougher. By the time I reach the second checkpoint at mile 43, I'm ready for a break. I plop down in the air conditioned Palmer Cafe for a cheeseburger, fries, and coke. No, that's not racing food. That's bikepacking food. I lounge there for more than an hour, and likely would have stayed longer, but the cafe closes after lunch.

Now, it's decision time. Do I continue on the 120 mile route for another 46 overheated, hilly, rough miles? Or do I ride an alternative route 16 miles straight to camp? Until the very recent past, that question would not have entered my mind. I would have simply continued the 120 mile route without a second thought. No longer. Today I decide to spin the short cut to enjoy several more hours hanging out with everyone at camp. That still means a 59 mile day on a loaded gravel bike on a whole lot of rough roads. 

Bikepackers Desiree, Gabriel, and Ben ready their gear at the Friday morning start.
Around the corner, I'm talking with somebody about something. I'll be along.
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)

The short cut blasts 14 miles straight east on moderately thick county gravel right through a relentless progression of rolling hills in the shadeless 95 degree heat. It's reminiscent of Gravel Worlds with its never-ending waves of hills across a vast sea of gravel. The main route starts to sound better.

At long last, I turn off for the final two miles to camp. The developed gravel road drops behind, replaced with steep pitches of loose dirt, rocks, and ruts. It's not over until it's over.

As the road finally crests a particularly nasty rocky pitch, a lone camper squats in an empty pasture overlooking a small pond. Our host Jon Naaf marks our campsite with a cozy oasis of chairs and coolers wedged into the camper's sliver of shade. He enthusiastically hails riders as they trickle in, first from the short cut and then from the main route. All are hot, tired, and grateful for relief. In addition to a hearty greeting, Jon offers cold drinks and snacks, cooks gourmet burgers, and gathers all to share a peaceful evening.

Many miles of dirt roads like this on Day 1.

With the backdrop of a fiery sunset, we gather around the camper over burgers, snacks, and drinks. New friends connect. Old friends re-connect. All share experiences of the day, of days past, and of days to come. It's a bikepacker rendezvous.

This unique event attracts both bikepacking veterans and new comers. The old timers may have more stories, but not necessarily better ones. For example, Jamie and Richard ride with their Boy Scout sons Noah and Charles, all experienced hikers and campers, but first time bikepackers. Their excited, joyful tales of their day long ride to camp bring smiles and laughter all around.

Competitive triathlete Jeff shifted to bikepacking to ride with his teenage son Carter, again both first time backpackers. Carter looks absolutely shelled when arriving at camp, slumps over in a chair, and moves not a muscle for maybe an hour. Eventually, he revives. By morning, he's a colt busting out of the corral. Carter ultimately finishes second in the race home and is a living example of the recuperative powers of youthful exuberance. And sleep.

Nineteen bikepackers gather at camp, all told, and elevated chatter fills the air well into the evening. As the skies darken, a blast from a fast moving cold front scatters the group to their individual shelters. The oppressive heat of Friday is over, but so is our gathering for the night.

Paul Brasby and Ben Cooper find a solitary tree a bit off the main campsite.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

At the first hint of daylight, the camp stirs to life under threatening skies and a steady northerly wind. With
heavy rain forecast, Race Director Mark Hoffman sends us on the "wet" route, an alternative route home that replaces miles of dirt roads with good gravel and pavement. Sure enough, at 7:00 am with our first pedal stroke from camp, the first rain drops fall.

With only 28 miles to ride back to Marysville, the 50-some degree rain is not a big deal, but the rain does not stop all morning. Nor does the wind. It is a wet, windy, cool, muddy ride all the way home. Thanks to the re-route to gravel and pavement, it's actually a ride home, rather than a slug through the mud.

My only picture from a rainy Saturday is at the finish after a hot shower.

Notwithstanding the conditions, I see nothing but smiles and hear nothing but good cheer from all the bikepackers at the finish. A hot shower certainly helps, along with homemade pie and ice cream, other food and drinks, a Finisher's towel (appropriate), and my door prize (concentrated bike cleaner, again appropriate). Many talk of returning with more friends.

For beginners, the Pony Express is a low risk introduction to bikepacking. For veterans, it's a celebration and gathering of kindred spirits. Renee and Mark Hoffman, along with their team and all the volunteers, really put together an event for everyone.

Take A Back Road, Rodney Atkins (2011).

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