unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley
A Showcase Bicycle Adventure
It was a chilly October morning in the picturesque town of Lewisburg. After the alarm went off way too early, my friend Naomi and I hustled to grab breakfast at the hotel and navigate to the start of the day’s adventure. We knew we were getting close when we began seeing other cars with bikes perched on top. Our nervous excitement grew as we pulled up to The Miller Center and saw groups of cyclists gathered in an array of colorful jerseys, checking bikes and gear. I knew from studying the registration list that some famously fast people would be here. But the starting atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, putting us at ease about what was in store for the day.
Beautiful sights and sounds in Bald Eagle State Forest.
unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley is a new entry into the growing world of bike rides and races held on gravel roads. This event can properly be called a race, with timing chips and awards and some top pro cyclists lining up to start, but many participants (my friend and I included) opted to treat it simply as a ride—a fun day exploring some of the best gravel roads the state of Pennsylvania has to offer, with a clearly marked course so we wouldn’t get lost, aid stations offering refreshments, and 600 or so other bike riders for camaraderie. If we felt like challenging ourselves or dueling with some of our fellow riders, we could, or we could simply kick back and enjoy the scenery.
Local pro racer Vicki Barclay leading the group along one of the more rugged sections of the race.
“Gravel grinder” bike events such as this, held on lesser-traveled, unimproved back roads, offer a way to ride closer to nature and without the hassle of car traffic, but also without the emphasis on bike handling skill that mountain biking can require. The unPAved’s “Raw Road” courses are made up of a mix of gravel roads, some pavement, and short lengths of trail that are sometimes challenging but never over the top. The surfaces are generally smooth and friendly to gravel bikes (a type of road bike with fatter tires than those strictly for pavement). Mike Kuhn and Dave Pryor, the unPAved organizers, have a lot of experience hosting fantastic bike events, such as the Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic stage race in State College and the 2013 Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships in Philadelphia. For this event, Pryor said, “The wide variety of ‘gravel' makes things fun, and the roads themselves can be anything from near rock-solid to dirt-paths with craters for puddles. The hills are big, but not super-steep, and are awfully scenic with great vistas at the top of many of them.”
Riders exiting the Poe Daddy Tunnel on Penns Creek Path.
For 2019, there will be four course options to choose from: Full (120 miles), Plenty (90 miles), Half (54 miles), and a beginner-friendly option, FUNpaved (30 miles). All the routes begin and end with a few miles on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, a safe way to exit the town and a good chance to warm up the legs. The longer routes cover an impressive elevation profile and include some tougher bits of trail. Most of the gravel roads traverse the lush woods of Bald Eagle State Forest and Poe Paddy State Park, following sheltered creeks and climbing up ridges to offer beautiful views. The shorter paved sections travel through scenic rural areas with cornfields and Amish farmhouses.
The author having a great time on the Plenty 90-mile route.
My ride last year on the Plenty route had some epic climbs, fun and twisty descents, and a little bit of narrow singletrack trail to sharpen the senses. It was fun to see the Full route racers go past (much faster than I) where our courses converged and note who was currently leading while enjoying a second helping of potato chips. I enjoyed several interesting conversations with people whose paces happened to match mine while we made our way up the longer climbs. Naomi completed the Half route and was able to stop often to take photos. All in all, it was a perfect mix and made for a fun day.
Besides bike riding, there is a lot to do during the unPAved weekend, set this year for Saturday through Monday, Oct. 12 to 14. New for this year, Lewisburg will be reviving its Fall Festival on the Saturday before the race, featuring local food and beer vendors, live bands, a bike rodeo, social bike rides, activities for kids hosted by the Lewisburg Children’s Museum (including fun stuff like a “Wooly Worm Winter Prognostication”), and more. To kick things off on Friday evening, there will be a “Get un(G)ravelled Pub Crawl” through the town. The finish line will be livened up with a “DONEpaved Party” featuring finish awards with food provided by The Miller Center’s Cornerstone Kitchen and refreshments by Rusty Rail Brewing Company.
For activities and relaxation outside the event, the host town of Lewisburg is a gem with plenty to offer. Situated next to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and shows off charming architecture and a pleasant small-town atmosphere. Bucknell University is located here, so it’s also a college town with plenty of entertainment, such as the gorgeous Art Deco Campus Theatre. Market Street features many unique shops and restaurants. At the center of town, the Lewisburg Hotel is an elegant Victorian haven with a top-notch restaurant and bar.
The main event will happen on Sunday, Oct. 13. If you are thinking about checking out unPAved, don’t wait! Last year’s event sold out, and while the participant cap has been increased for 2019, word is also spreading about how much fun this ride is. Go to www.unpavedpennsylvania.com to find out more and register.
The start and finish of unPAved happens at The Miller Center for Recreation and Wellness in downtown Lewisburg. This community athletic facility had its grand opening in 2018 and proved to be the perfect host venue. “It's pretty amazing that the Miller Center was being built as Mike (Kuhn) and I were building unPAved,” said event organizer Dave Pryor. “We were originally planning on a downtown start and finish, but then Andrew Miller of the Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau said, ‘There's a fitness and recreation facility under construction right at the start of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail. You should check it out.’ We are so glad he thought of it.”
The Miller family has a long history in manufacturing in the region, most notably in playground equipment. When the family members decided that a recreational center would be a perfect way to give back, they went all out in planning and design to create a community hub. Drew Kelly, director of sales, communications, and marketing for the center, said that the Millers “pictured a facility where the whole family could spend time, interact with one another, and have something to do.” The center includes a state-of-the-art fitness center with expert-led classes, courts for various ball sports with equipment rental, a walking/running track, drop-in child care and kid-focused programs, and lots more.
During unPAved weekend, The Miller Center will do its best to welcome out-of-towners and community members alike, with special programs including discounted day passes and “Kids in Action” day care. The center will also host the “DONEpaved” finish-line party, with food from its Cornerstone Kitchen and beverages from local Rusty Rail Brewing Company. The Cornerstone Kitchen will be open all weekend, as well, offering a healthy and convenient place to grab a bite.
More information on events and things to do in the Susquehanna River Valley.
* All photos by Abram Eric Landes / Firespire Photography