The Ultimate Gravel-Grinding Buddy Trip

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“A little public-service announcement,” declares off-road driving legend Rebecca Rusch, additionally generally referred to as “the Queen of Pain.” My childhood buddy Adam Willner and I lean in, together with maybe 200 different cyclists. We’ve every traveled many a whole bunch of miles—I’ve come from Texas, Adam from California—within the identify of two-wheeled journey and affirming 40 years of friendship on this September weekend. Tomorrow we’ll experience an off-road problem, which Rusch unabashedly calls Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI). The notably masochistic, century-length possibility that we’ve chosen is appropriately branded the “Big Potato.”

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Standing on the foot of a fairly Idaho meadow, Rusch faces a gathering of RPI contributors who’ve opted to attend the Saturday pre-ride. We’re taking a break midway by way of the 20-mile, out-and-back exercise, and Rusch is bent over a beast of a highway bike, and giving welcome steering. Adam and I, and little doubt many within the helmeted tribe throughout us, might know loads about biking. But the 2 of us can discuss a sliver of nothing in regards to the type of driving referred to as gravel grinding, which we’ll be doing, for a lot of sizzling and dusty miles, inside 24 hours. We’re grinder rookies, and we’re studying that, within the easiest of phrases, gravel grinding is highway driving on the whole lot however highway.

“It’s a lot more secure and safe to descend in your drops. You’re all tucked in,” says Rusch, flexing her solid arms in order that she will be able to wedge her fingers into the curves of road-bike fashion handlebars. The bike beneath her has, for a road-type bike anyway, supremely fats and knobby tires, in addition to disc brakes. All normal gravel-grinding fare. “If you’re descending up here on washboards and going super-fast?” she says, tapping on the tops of the handlebars. “You have a lot more opportunities to come off.”

Rusch says that the ultimate, bumpy, 1,500-foot, dirt-and-dust descent forward of the end lacks a guardrail, and that the drop-off is typically 1,000 toes. 

“You know, it’s narrow,” she provides. 

Welcome to the type of stupid-great journey that 2 young-thinking however previous and nostalgic buddies may embark on. RPI, which is in its 5th 12 months and climbs over 5,000 toes throughout practically 94 miles by way of south-central Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains, initially felt way more doable and digestible to a few bike-loving associates than, say, a weeklong Ride the Rockies. Adam and I figured that we’d body a bro weekend in Idaho’s mountainous Ketchum and Sun Valley terrain round RPI. When we weren’t on our saddles, we’d relax on the condominium, or feed at some oft-Yelped, quaint eatery. On the continuum of BFF reunions, we thought that this 1 would lean nearer to a spa weekend than to Deliverance.

But then the gravel reared its head.

A day earlier and on Adam’s and my first Idaho experience collectively, we’d loaded up on a Mexican lunch, pulled on spandex, and grabbed our bikes. We agreed to pedal at a simple tempo on one of many many dust roads main from city after which… we suffered. Our lungs, which reside quite a bit nearer to sea stage than Ketchum’s 6,000 toes, groped for oxygen. Our 52-year-old legs felt picket on a climb that didn’t ease a lot over 10 miles.

The worst, nonetheless, was but to return. The final time I’d descended miles of dust on a suspension-free bike, the Berlin Wall remained upright. Even within the 1980s, I used to be nonetheless driving dust on a very fat-tired mountain bike. In Idaho, then again, I used to be on my new, rugged aluminum cyclocross bike, which I’d fitted with oversize tires and extra-low gearing, particularly for RPI. A mechanic at my native store referred to as my experience a “Frankenbike.” It was costly, too. But hey: Can you place a value on lifelong friendship?

Frankenbike, cyclocross bike, no matter—the dirt-road descent seized up my shoulder blades and fingers. My ligaments and muscle tissue shook like cube in a cup. Adam, on his new carbon-fiber gravel grinder, fared no higher. By the time we reached pavement, I felt that a few getting older athletes have been about 20 years too late for the second.

A day later, and with Adam and I nonetheless smarting, Rusch concluded her public service announcement by telling us and the remainder of the pre-ride crowd to relaxation up forward of tomorrow’s RPI. Rather matter-of-factly, she informed us that if we needed to be Big Potatoes by day’s finish, we’d must suck it up.


Persistent shoulder ache or no, I nonetheless felt overwhelmingly completely happy. The love and understanding of an previous pal is certainly one of life’s most wonderful intangibles. You can’t put a metric on, say, the soothing really feel of cool dew assembly naked toes on a crisp morning. Or how nice it’s to look at your canine go legs-up on a patch of grass, and zealously roll and roll on its again. 

The identical type of pleasure comes from a pal gently laughing at you whenever you get pissed off—as you probably did in his firm 35 years in the past when you have been touring overseas collectively, when he watched as you pushed again on a prickly inn-keeper over the cash spent for a dumpy room in Brixton—since you’re burning by way of all of the zip-ties whereas wrongly fastening your racing chip to your bike fork. Doesn’t actually matter that you simply’re not an adolescent. 

“Drew, it’ll be OK,” he says with a chuckle as I fume over a job poorly finished. “We’ll get more zip-ties back at the packet pickup tables.”

Adam is gray-haired however nonetheless ever cheerful, with a spherical, unlined face that defies the burden of life encountered by so many people in center age. Adam additionally seems about as lean and powerful as he did after we met as freshmen at San Francisco University High School again within the fall of 1979. And the place he as soon as was an entrepreneurial restaurateur who solely often discovered time to experience, Adam and his spouse, Marta, are actually practically empty nesters. Over the final decade he’s gone from biking fanatic to mileage monster whereas thriving as a father, chef, and host. In 2017 alone, my pal has ridden 3 organized 200-mile rides. 

andrew tilin
(Courtesy Andrew Tilin)

I’ve been driving since I used to be 18, and my 3 oldest associates on the planet have every been a part of the journey. In my early 20s, I toured throughout Europe with Dave Rosenthal. I raced bikes all around the west with Peter Wood in my 30s and 40s. Now on a brisk Idaho morning in summer time 2017, Adam and I have been about to pile extra tales onto a friendship that already included recollections of high-school events, weddings, births of kids, and celebrations of households and careers. Adam and I fasten our helmet straps earlier than strolling out the condominium door.

Glorious intangibles. Adam’s cleats click on into place, and I watch as my longtime pal takes his first pedal strokes towards the RPI begin line.


Soon, after virtually 1,000 riders bow their heads in downtown Ketchum for “America the Beautiful,” I do what any compulsive, longtime, self-important bike racer does: I drop all of the riders that I can, together with my greatest pal. The four-mile dust climb up Trail Creek Road close to the beginning of RPI performs to my scrawny body, and my usually quick however intense coaching. Adam, whose pure bulk steered him to play lacrosse in highschool, nonetheless has 40 kilos on me. 

“Hey, Texas,” Adam says as he comes up behind me, two-thirds of the best way to Trail Creek’s 7,800-foot summit. “Nice riding.”

Even although we haven’t hatched a real technique for RPI, Adam and I each perceive that the day’s precedence is to tackle the experience, and the bumps and dust and warmth, collectively. Sure, some contributors race RPI. Former Tour de France rider Ted King is amongst RPI’s entrants. No doubt he’s already many miles forward of us.

The prime of the climb brings a number of rewards. At the go an enormous and delightful basin contained in the Sawtooth National Forest, which incorporates broad peaks, open grassland, and clusters of evergreens, lays forward of us. Maybe better of all, the limitless bumps and ripples of the Trail Creek climb give method to prolonged stretches of easy and quick dust.

Adam seems over his shoulder as I push myself to remain on his wheel. Clearly he’s having fun with the flat and rolling terrain. “Like pavement!” he yells, and for possibly 9 miles we frequently discover ourselves grouped with different riders and driving roadie fashion. We draft, and take pulls main others.

We additionally owe some gratitude to our tires, or extra particularly our tire pressures. Gravel grinders obsess over tire firmness the best way Taylor Swift sweats shades of purple lipstick. Too a lot air in gravel grinder tires and also you’ll really feel each pebble. Too little and also you may flat, because the tire deforms on massive hits and both pinches a gap in your tube or maybe, on tubeless tires, causes a sidewall to tear. But get the air stress excellent and a fats gravel grinder tire gives a cheerful mix of velocity, traction, and shock absorption. Adam and I had picked up some intel throughout the pre-ride: run our tires at 30 to 40 kilos per sq. inch (PSI), which represented quite a bit much less air than we’d used for our first 2 days of Idaho driving.

andrew tilin
(Courtesy Andrew Tilin)

RPI is going nice—our legs buzzing, our asses and fingers retaining sensation—when, about 35 miles into the experience and on the thick gravel of East Fork Road, the experience will get higher. None apart from Rusch latches onto our group of eight.

“That a way, ladies, looking strong,” says Rusch to the 4 girls amongst us. She’s all smiles below her Red Bull helmet. “Keep rotating off the front.”

Rusch is chatty, pulling out of the slipstream as a way to experience alongside me. Only certainly one of us fights for breath as we discuss, and it’s not the girl who owns a primary (feminine) ascent on Yosemite’s El Capitan, as soon as raced for prime worldwide adventure-racing groups, and has gained the Leadville Trail 100 MTB (100-mile) mountain-bike race 4 occasions throughout a profession as an out of doors athlete that has spanned decades.

“Several years ago, one of my sponsors told me: you have to go do this event in Kansas,” says Rusch, referring to gravel grinding’s iconic race, the Dirty Kanza 200. “I thought, that sounds heinous. I’m a mountain biker. That will be death by boredom.”

But Rusch beloved how the 200-mile race meshed the calls for of driving on- and off-road. She’s now gained the DK200 3 times. “The technical aspects of the uneven surfaces felt a lot more like mountain biking than road riding,” she says as my bike steers nervously and solely semi-straight by way of 50 yards of deep gravel. “Someone couldn’t just ride in a pack and then outsprint you for a win.”

Rusch introduced RPI to her adopted hometown of Ketchum in 2013, and exactly as a result of she’s the Queen of Pain, Rusch believes that she’s attracted a disproportionately giant chunk of feminine riders (about 30 p.c). It’s additionally no accident that gravel grinding normally and RPI particularly (common race age: 46) carry out many older athletes who’re quite a bit like me and Adam: getting older riders who don’t all the time wish to tangle with site visitors or with hard-charging pelotons in Gran Fondos or highway races. Instead we’re discovering enjoyable driving squirrelly highway bikes over dust, whereas attempting to win another bout of rider-versus-the-elements.

RPI stays enjoyable even after Rusch is lengthy gone, and Adam and I are just a little greater than midway finished. Then I get a flat.


What does an actual pal do whenever you’re sizzling, soiled, thirsty, and watching your new, $55, tubeless entrance tire that had been crammed to precisely the suitable PSI proceed to seep goopy sealant, and air, courtesy of a sidewall tear? He pumps. He pumps like a madman.

“Drew, maybe we can keep it filled long enough to reach the next rest stop,” says Adam, his complete physique shifting like a piston in time with the hand pump that’s respiratory just a little life into my tire. “I don’t think we’re terribly far away.”

My shoulder blades had already been tingling for some time, and my fingers have been drained. An uncomplaining, salt-stained Adam cannot be feeling significantly better. I don’t understand how he’s capable of pump so furiously. 

“OK, bud. Thank you,” I say, lifting my leg over my bike’s body. “Let’s try it.”

Slowly and now actually feeling each seam within the dust, Adam and I creep for miles earlier than we attain the help station. When we depart, my mortally wounded entrance tire is now armed with a tube, with an empty energy-gel wrapper performing as a liner on the place of the tear. In the hopes of reaching the end line, the tire now has the qualities of a taut balloon: it’s extra-firm as a way to greatest keep away from flatting once more.

andrew tilin
(Courtesy Andrew Tilin)

For a number of miles of driving over washboard highway and sloppy gravel, the Frankenbike resembles a jackhammer. Nerves in my neck and higher again really feel like they’re aflame. I quietly throw myself a pity social gathering. This is the dumbest fucking sport ever, I say to myself. What idiot rides 100 off-road miles on a motorbike that’s as stiff as an I-beam?

A short time later, I discover that Adam is slowing. He retains altering gears, which seemingly means he is looking for a pedaling cadence that may ship much less ache to his legs. He drinks quite a bit from his bottles.

Now my pal wants a pal, and that notion completely invigorates me. I catch Adam’s eye and level to my rear wheel. As instructed, he traces up his bike behind mine. 

The highway rolls up and down. The gravel goes from soupy to nonexistent to soupy once more. Bumps come and go, pickup vehicles pulling 5th wheels cowl us with extra Idaho mud, and 2 exceptionally giant deer—possibly they’re elk, actually we’re too drained to inform—dash throughout the highway simply forward of us. The last, 1,500-foot, dust plummet again to the outskirts of Ketchum is insultingly painful, a real violation of my physique’s connective tissue greatest dealt with by—sure, Rebecca Rusch—staying low in my handlebars. Adam regains power and takes the lead, and after seven taxing hours, we end what we’d began. We are “Big Potatoes,” and solely two-and-a-half hours behind winner Ted King.

In Ketchum, Adam and I unfold our our bodies off our bikes, and shortly thereafter, drink beer and eat grilled cheese-and-bacon sandwiches. Then we eat hamburgers and fries. Then we purchase 2 pints of ice cream.

“You know, I thought about Advil a lot,” Adam says again on the condominium, between spoonfuls of our chilly and creamy, salted-caramel reward. “I mean, that descent was not comfortable, or fun. It wasn’t scary so much as something to just endure.”

He swallows another chew of ice cream. “But weren’t those some great views?” he asks. 

(Editor references)

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