Search This Blog

Saturday, December 5, 2020

2020 Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure - Take A Back Road

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.

The winds build throughout the morning, growing into a substantial, steady westerly. Turns out that's a big tailwind for most of our ride today. With the strong prevailing winds, fast roads, and relatively light gravel bike, I'm rolling 12-15 mph with little effort. Nice.

Before long, I pull into the 27 mile checkpoint in the town of Summerfield. In addition to water, some local volunteers offer the cyclists Halloween candy from a ginormous bag. What a treat! Since chocolate doesn't travel very well on a bike, I indulge right there. Sweet!

Good thing this Minimum Maintenance Road is dry.

The miles roll by easily, at least until Brewsky Hill. No, it's not a monster climb in length, but it is steep. So steep, in fact, that a sponsor offers a free beer to anyone that rides it without stopping. I give it a go, but don't get far. Remounting to try again, I fall after a couple of pedal strokes and stumble all the way to the bottom before catching my balance. OK, that's it. This is the only time all day that I would have preferred my Jones 29+ with mountain bike gearing.

After a delightful 73 miles, I soft pedal into the camp ground in mid-afternoon and set up camp. Camp host Jon Naaf checks on the bikepackers riding in and creates a central gathering place near his camper by the lake, with a picnic table, chairs and a roaring campfire. Once he accounts for all riders, Jon unexpectedly grills hamburgers and hot dogs, provides beverages, and awards a door prize to each rider. Even better, he later facilitates a round-the-campfire introduction of everyone there. Nice.

Gathering at a city lake, bikepackers attract the attention of the local constable.

Just as the party's getting started, a Sabetha Police Officer drives up to check out a report of "about 20 bikers" hanging out at the city lake. Even the local EMT shows up, just in case. Jon addresses their concerns and happily announces that no charges will be filed. 

The informal gathering stretches into the evening, as few wish to leave the warmth of the campfire and the company surrounding it. A little community builds, as new friends connect and old friends re-connect. Jon recounts the story of his wife Amy, who recovered from cancer and started the organization Pink Gravel to help others recovering from cancer return to active lifestyles. Pink Gravel is out in the community, raising awareness, encouraging folks, and volunteering at events such as the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash. That's some community service. See her website Pink Gravel.

Warm fire and conversation at Sabetha City Lake.

Eventually, all the bikepackers head to their tents and hammocks. Well, all but one. Todd Frye, a local cyclist active in the nutty Black Squirrel Cycling League, left his tent at the start. That actually was intentional, because he did not like how the tent's weight affected his bike's handling and figured a tarp would be enough shelter. Then forgot to load the tarp onto his bike. Only after arriving at the campground did he realize his mistake.

With temperatures dropping into the 40's and below, Todd knew he was in for a long, cold night in his sleeping bag in the open air. Determined to stick to the ethos of the bikepacking event, he refused offers of help and hunkered down in a shallow ditch. Then, in the middle of the night, a front blew in like a freight train and kicked winds up to a steady 25+ mph. I don't think he slept much after that.

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)

In the morning, the persistent wind creates all sorts of problems for everyone. Tents and ground covers billow. Stuff sacks scoot away. Hats tumble across the grounds. Stoves blow out. The biggest problem, however, is that steady 25+ mph wind will be a direct headwind for much of our 52+ miles today. That's going to take some work. Most of the bikepackers seem to respond with a silent shrug and continue to prepare for the ride ahead.

Shortly before 7:30, I deliberately sit at the picnic table by the lake and fire up my stove to make a fresh cup of coffee. I'm sitting out the race start. If I line up for that 7:30 start, I know I'll get caught up in racing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not why I'm here. So, at 7:30 I cheer on those starting the race back to Marysville and enjoy the rest of my coffee.

Winding our way back to Marysville on the second day.

Maybe 20 minutes later, I meander out of the campground as one of the last bikepackers to leave. The day breaks overcast, cool and windy. But I slept warm and well, savored a hot breakfast and am dressed for the conditions. I settle in for a relaxing 52 mile tour of the Pony Express countryside.

The idyllic, protected start around the lake soon climbs out of tree cover and emerges onto the fruited plains. No hiding from the wind here. I'm pedaling up and down rolling farmland directly into that big headwind. OK, so this is what the day is. I find a sustainable rhythm and enjoy the passing scenery.

At the Axtell checkpoint on the second day, riders on the 70 Mile course merge onto the 120 mile course.
(photo by Andrea Skalla)

I pass a few of the other non-racing bikepackers, several of whom are struggling with the early hills and wind. The return ride on the second day ultimately proved more difficult than expected for many, as only 10 of the 16 bikepackers starting today ultimately pedaled back to Marysville.

Cruising into the check point at the town of Axtell, I stop to refuel, rehydrate and stretch a bit. The park is buzzing with activity, with cyclists from today's 70 mile course streaming in to merge with the 120 mile route. Volunteers scurry about, taking care of everyone. I refill my water bottles, sit down against a fence by the road, and close my eyes. This is good . This is really good. Fully 20 minutes pass before I move again. Oh, yeah. I still need to eat and drink. OK, I will. Ahh. This is good.

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 rest of the ride continues to roll through picturesque rural Kansas, up and down good gravel roads and more than occasionally dip into a dirt road connector. The main difference today is the persistently heavy headwinds and, after the Axtell check point, the presence of the 70 mile riders, including a couple of old Nebraskans. 

First, Rob Evans of Omaha flew by, then slowed to chat, before disappearing over the next ridge. A little later, Joe Billesbach of Beatrice did the same. Both interrupted their race to re-connect a bit, even as they were clearly racing. I later learned that Rob rode as part of the winning 120 mile relay team and Joe won the 70 mile fat bike race. Thanks for the hospitality, boys. I'm glad it didn't cost you a win!

Now that's a lot of stuff from one event. Clockwise from the upper right: 3/4 length event t-shirt,
custom bikepacking finisher's cup, buff, number plate, liner gloves, local newspaper, mud stick,
titanium spork, Pony Express "mail" to carry through the checkpoints, custom face mask, cue sheets,
 and 3/4 length Pink Gravel t-shirt.

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)

1 comment:

  1. Craig thanks for the great right up. The Pony express 70 miler was my first ever gravel race in 2017. I need to go back in 2022. Not sure my back can take sleeping on the ground at my age but might have to give it a go.