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unPAved: 120 Miles of Biking

For the intrepid cyclist, there is no greater race in Pennsylvania than unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley, a gravel course over 120 miles that pushes riders to the limit. This test of endurance challenges riders, encourages biker camaraderie, and is a great event for people interested in biking to come together with some fun competition.

Bikers starting unPAved bike race in central PA. Gravel bike ride through Susquehanna, Centre County, Central PA, outdoor biking adventure, bike races in central PA
Bikers at the start of the 2019 race.

Dave Pryor, one of the race organizers of unPAved, has spent many years riding bikes. But, more importantly than just riding, he runs a yearly bike race in the heart of Pennsylvania: unPAved. This course traverses some of the toughest terrain, most beautiful scenic overviews, and pushes riders to the extreme over 120 miles of (mostly) gravel roads. But how did Dave become so involved in the sport of cycling?

“My dad rode bikes when I was a kid,” Dave says. “He used to be one of those guys in the 1970s that would ride to work, so the bike was around, and then I would ride bikes as a kid. We’d ride in the woods to get away; we’d build jumps and things like that, which is what kids do. I got away from it when I became a teenager and got my driver’s license and put the bike away for a while. I went to the University of Florida, and actually took my dad’s bike there because it’s a giant campus, and when classes are close in time and a mile apart that’s the only way to get there. But senior year, I would be walking to my apartment that was right off campus, and I’d go right past a bike shop. And I would just keep looking in the windows, because I still liked bikes and gear and stuff like that, and I just got a hankering to get a bike again someday.”

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His dream to get back into the sport quickly became a reality. “Once I graduated, the first thing I did with my first paycheck was I went out and bought a bike. And I started learning how to mountain bike—I mean I’d ridden bikes in the woods before, but I’d never learned how to mountain bike—and fell in love with it. I started doing group rides, and then it basically became part of who I was… and then I got a road bike. The road biking scene in the Lehigh Valley is incredible because there are so many farm roads to go out on that are nice and quiet, and I just got more into bikes, more into bikes, more into bikes from there.”

Dave encourages anyone new to biking to get involved with local bike groups. These groups are plentiful, and often have experienced members who can guide a new biker to the best roads and trails, and are a tight-knit group of avid bikers who love exploring together. He explains that this sense of community is what drives him to race as well, and that these groups have allowed him to explore more of PA with groups of close friends.

Female biker in unPAved gravel bike race in Centre County, PA. Bike race in central Pennsylvania.

“I mostly do fun rides with groups; even when I do competitive events, I don’t really compete that much. For me, it’s really about the community, being around people; I’m not fast enough to win, but it’s fun competing against my friends and seeing how we do against each other. Even if we go at different paces, we still have the same shared experience and we can talk about how hard that hill was, or a really pretty section that goes by a river, and we can all talk about how great that part was. It’s sharing that experience with everyone.”

He's even explored places around the world on his bike, and loves exploring new areas with his friends. “I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to travel a lot for biking. I have a lot of friends in a lot of cool places, so I get to go visit them and go on bike rides in their places. I have a friend in Belgium, so I’ve been there a few times, and that’s a mecca for road riding. They have really hard roads and they love bike racing there. North Carolina is also really great, they have a lot of great mountain biking. Kansas and Idaho have some of the best gravel riding—UnPAved is kind of formatted off of events run there.”

Female biker going through a tunnel during unPAved bike race in centre county, PA, central PA, bikers in PA, biking trails in PA
Heading through a tunnel during the race!

The format of unPAved has something for every level of cyclist. Bikers can choose between a 30, 55, 90, or 120-mile course (in usual years—with Covid-19, only the full 120 was available this year) with 100 miles of the 120-mile course on gravel roads. And while this event is open to everyone, it’s a tough race; there are multiple mountains and changes in elevation (not to mention that it covers over a hundred miles) so you definitely need to be prepared and aware of the physical demands of this course. However, if you’re not driven to compete for time, but would rather mark it off as a bucket list challenge, then this could be the race for you!

“I would say a third of the people signed up for the race treat it competitively, like people trying to focus on their time or focus on their result, but the rest of the people were treating it as a giant marked course. That’s often how I did my events when I was participating,” Dave says.

A marked course in an unfamiliar area is beneficial, as the course has clearly marked signs or has GPS coordinates to keep you on track. This way, riders get to see the best (or hardest segments) offered in the area without having to worry about charting their own path or constantly looking at maps (not to mention spotty cellphone coverage in rural areas).

“The participants know it’s a big day, and that they can’t really goof off too much when it comes to time because its 120 miles for the longest distance, and so at some point

Bike rider meeting, bikers, biking in central PA, centre county outdoor activities, bike race, unPAved
2019 rider meeting

darkness falls. It’s a very hard course. One thing we changed up for this year that I think we’ll bring back in future years is only timing segments of the course, not the entire race. So that way, I could ride a timed part faster than a friend, and then wait for them to catch up before moving on to the next part of the course. That way we can ride to the next timed part together. It’s a nice way to break up the ride and keep some of the camaraderie going. Other events have been doing that for a long time, and it worked really well for us this year, so we might stick with that sort of setup.”

This change was brought about by their Covid-19 response to keep everyone at the event safe, but the silver lining is that many seemed to enjoy that only certain parts of the course was timed. Another change was the start; instead of sending everyone off at once, they had a staggered start to keep the number of people in one group lower. Dave says, “It was weird sending people off in smaller groups, but they seemed to like it.” While these changes aren’t solidified for future unPAved races, it’s definitely something for the race coordinators to think about for the future.

Biker on a winding gravel road, fall, unPAved bike race in central PA, fall bike competition, bike race in PA

This year they kept the same amount of safety marshals and aid station workers because they wanted the same level of safety for participants, but limited the field to just 200 riders (much fewer than the usual 1,200). But even with all of these changes, the ride went off without a hitch, and the participants were grateful to have yet another yearly unPAved ride.

One upside to the current situation is that people are trying to get outdoors more than they have in the past. “There’s been such a boom of outdoor activity. Bike shops are all sold out of bikes across the country which is amazing. It’s great, people are realizing that the outdoors is pretty great. Hopefully people will stick with it even when they can go back to malls or theaters; they realize this may be better,” Dave adds.

Biker completing a gravel race in central PA. unPAved bike race finishes in Centre County.
2019 finish and post-ride celebration.

In usual years, the race concludes with a large get-together, where bikers can chat about the race and unwind from the day’s activity. This solidifies unPAved as a mecca for Pennsylvania riders, as people from all over the state and country come to celebrate a shared love for biking and friendships made in this sport.

On a parting note, Dave says, “I like running the races more than competing. It’s more rewarding for sure (in part because I’m not that competitive of a racer). It is a lot more work running them than it was to race them. There’s a lot of sitting at a computer, driving around checking out the course, and all those other things to prepare for when organizing a race. However, it is exceptionally rewarding seeing people come through the finish line.”

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So for all of you avid bikers, those looking for a first competition, or even people just getting into the sport and looking for a goal to reach for, think about next year’s unPAved race; it will be sure to challenge you, but it will give you a wonderful community of bikers in return.

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