Grueling Race, Party Pace: unPAved with Philly Bike Expo

unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley has become one of the year's most anticipated gravel events. The Philly Bike Expo Squad took on the route again this year and shows why this event should be on everyone's calendar.

Grueling Race, Party Pace: unPAved with Philly Bike Expo

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Special thanks to Bina Bilenky and Dave Pryor, who were instrumental in the development of this story. In addition to the 2023 race routes below, Dave provided this collection of routes highlighting some of the region's best riding. Get out there and see for yourself!

When I asked Bina Bilenky, owner and director of Philadelphia Bike Expo, for her favorite moment riding unPAved, she told me it was reaching the aid station in Poe Paddy State Park and snacking on pierogies served up by Evan and the gang from Nittany Mountain Works. It's come full circle for Bina, who just a few years ago was serving hot apple cider at that same aid station. This year, she took on the 90-mile course as riders from her team also completed the 30, 50, and 120-mile rides after welcoming visitors to the team tent during the weekend's festival.

The sixth edition of unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley brought 1,000 registered riders to Lewisburg, PA's charming 19th century downtown for events from Friday through Sunday evenings. The town has embraced unPAved and even moved its Fall Festival featuring food, music, and craft vendors to coincide with race weekend. During my conversation with Bina, who resides in Lewisburg, she emphasized the event's importance for bicycling awareness around town: locals and visitors have become accustomed to seeing and sharing the road with cyclists.

Beyond generating an estimated $2.5 million in economic impact for Lewisburg, unPAved has made Central PA a recognized destination for gravel riding throughout the year. People now know that some of the country's best gravel roads are easily accessible from Philadelphia for a day or weekend trip. From the central and superlative Bald Eagle State Forest, one can ride into Rothrock or Tiadaughton State Forests. From Rothrock, one can ride into Moshannon State Forest or Allegheny National Forest. Mifflinburg, PA, on Bald Eagle's eastern flank, was named the #1 small city in the Mid-Atlantic for cycling by PeopleForBikes. Endless adventure awaits without needing to drive to Vermont or fly to Colorado.

unPAved weekend is an amazing opportunity to escape the city to bond with fellow riders and meet new people. I spent the weekend with my teammates on the Philly Bike Expo Squad sharing meals, strategizing the course, joking beside the fire, suffering up mountain climbs, and counting barns in idyllic valleys. Miko and his brother Leo led a social 30-mile ride touring historic mills on Saturday. Ben came from Florida for race weekend. Dave supported and photographed the team on race day despite an injury. And Carrie and Ello increased representation in the Women's category by completing the 120-mile route.

unPAved is the brainchild of co-founder and event director Dave Pryor, who has been riding on what he describes as "big dumb road rides" for decades, before they were called 'ultracross' or 'gravel.' Inspired to bring a legendary race to Pennsylvania after riding in Rebecca's Private Idaho and Unbound Gravel (then referred to by a different name), Dave reached out to Mike Kuhn, who has been an organizer with Iron Cross, Transylvania MTB Epic Stage Race, and National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). Mike was familiar with Lewisburg, having ridden on the cycling team while attending Bucknell University. He knew that Lewisburg could sustain a large gravel event with its big dirt roads, great restaurants and bars, hotels, and amenities to encourage folks to stick around for a day or two before and after the event.

As the puzzle pieces started to come together, unPAved was starting to look like it could become that 'circle-the-calendar' event that Dave and Mike were hoping for. Construction on the Miller Center, the town's new recreation center, was completed with a beautiful plaza, courtyard, and plenty of parking. Susquehanna River Valley Tourism Bureau became the title sponsor and brought many partnerships to life. Major sponsors like Stan's NoTubes and Salsa Cycles joined the foray. The event served as a showcase for awesome Pennsylvania companies like Purple Lizard Maps, Nittany Mountain Works, Philly Bike Expo, Lupine Lights, Rusty Rail Brewing, New Trail Brewing, Backyard Beans Coffee, and some great Pennsylvania bike shops like Hushmoney (Lancaster), Freeze Thaw (State College), The Bicycle Shop (State College), Bike Roost (Boalsburg), Keswick Cycle (Philadelphia area), Saucon Valley Bikes (Hellertown), and Dutch Wheelmen (Bloomsburg). That's a long list, I know, but these brands are all part of what makes PA cycling the best around.

Organizers meet with the Bald Eagle State Forest rangers to develop the route each year, which has continually evolved to detour around closed roads or simply out of pure curiosity. Dave spoke highly of Forestry, who he says is intimately familiar with Central PA's public lands and can identify potential problem points to avoid. Purple Lizard Maps has also been an invaluable resource for event planning. These maps are an excellent supplement to GPS and identify road types, elevation, and camping and water facilities. Dave adds that, as 60% of the course has no cell phone coverage, "anyone riding on Pennsylvania gravel roads should have a Purple Lizard map in their pocket."

No matter how the final route shapes up, unPAved riders can always expect grueling gravel climbs and dizzying dirt descents through sweeping forests in golden autumn hues. One of the most talked-about parts of the unPAved route is The Difference - the thirty extra miles containing the biggest hills that differentiate the 90- and 120-mile routes. Dave described The Difference as "the difference between a great ride and a really big event."

Since the first unPAved in 2018, which drew 600 registered riders, people have been asking for a longer and harder ride. Organizers delivered this year by including The Big Lick: a 200-mile route featuring over 18,000 feet of climbing and a 16 hour cutoff. 10 riders were selected by application for the inaugural event and 6 finished. After collecting and evaluating feedback and after future discussions with Forestry, Dave says The Big Lick will almost certainly be coming back again next year. Better start training!

I've heard a lot about unPAved over the years and this was my first time attending. The hype is real. Lewisburg couldn't be more hospitable. Peak fall colors are the backdrop in the Susquehanna Valley this time of year. The riders, whether racing or rambling, couldn't be more exuberant. My palms bear fresh calluses from miles-long climbs and white knuckle descents, but there's no shortage of laid back social rides if that's more your speed. Exploring the ridges and valleys of Central PA's Appalachians should be a top priority for every East Coast adventurer, and there's no better way to do it than by bike. During our conversation, Bina described unPAved's ability to help draw people outside, explore new parks, try riding a longer distance, and generally grow cycling and the community. The power of unpaved PA.

✅ Mark your calendars for the next edition of unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley: Sunday, October 13, 2024.

✅ Mark your calendars for the Philadelphia Bike Expo: March 16 - 17, 2024 at the PA Convention Center. Register and grab tickets now right here!

✅ Want to join the Philly Bike Expo Squad for 2024? Learn more and apply here! Applications are due November 17.

✅ Follow along on Instagram @unpavedpennsylvania and @phillybikeexpo.

✅ unPAved is Always Open. Get out there, ride the routes, and explore Central PA's Susquehanna River Valley. Check out the routes below!