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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — The buzz of streetlights fills downtown this morning, and a fluorescent glow of headlamps pierces the darkness.
The first calls of songbirds blend with the familiar hum of knobby tires on pavement and the clank clank of shifting bicycle gears. These pre-dawn sounds feel louder than normal as we roll through gravel cycling’s global capital before sunrise, and head into the Kansas countryside.
That’s because this morning, we ride in silence.
Our ride honors Moriah Wilson, the rising star of U.S. cycling who was shot and killed in Austin, Texas, on May 11. In the weeks since Wilson’s murder, the ever-expanding gravel community has tried to process a tragedy that has no precedent within our sport.
The first rays of sunshine peak over the horizon as the tarmac transitions to the familiar rocky roads used by this weekend’s Unbound Gravel. Voices call out puddles and holes in the gritty roads, but otherwise we remain quiet, focusing instead on the cool air, sweet smells or spring, and memories of Wilson. I look back—there are perhaps a hundred riders in our bunch.
This is not the first ride to honor Wilson, of course. At Texas’ Gravel Locos race, held just days after her killing, racer pedaled in silence, too, choking back crippling sadness that blended with bewilderment and shock.
Now, three weeks later, the shock has worn off, for some. Now, just days away from Unbound Gravel, an unspoken sentiment permeates every hug, every high five, and every moment of eye contact: Nobody quite knows how to properly handle the moment.
While many of us have dealt with the premature passing of a friend or riding partner before — the scourge of driver-related deaths has become as familiar as it is awful in U.S. cycling — few of us have experiences with death due to gun violence or murder. Thus, there is no established precedent for how to grieve or how to heal.
The details behind Wilson’s murder present another conundrum for people’s feelings. Austin police believe she was killed by Kaitlin Armstrong, 34, the longtime girlfriend of Colin Strickland, who in 2018 won Unbound Gravel and became royalty in this small scene.
Wilson and Strickland dated briefly in the last year, and a source close to the story told police that Armstrong was enraged when she learned of the relationship.
The death, the details, and the upcoming race — it’s all uncharted territory for U.S. cycling. Now, race promoters, cyclists, and even media members, are all trying to figure out how to process the moment.
“There’s no playbook for this, and frankly, we don’t want a playbook,” Kristi Mohn, Unbound Gravel’s marketing manager and longtime figurehead, tells me later in the day. Mohn and the other Unbound Gravel staffers were among the thousands who were gobsmacked when they learned of Wilson’s murder.
When discussing the proper way to honor Wilson at Unbound Gravel, race staff wrestled with different ideas. Should they share memories of Wilson at the start and finish, or erect a billboard with her image at downtown?
Michelle Duffy, the event’s marketing director, thought it best to hold an event separate from the race. She came up with the idea for a sunrise ride, where riders could think of Wilson as the earliest rays of sunshine warmed their faces. Life Time ran the idea by Wilson’s family, who gave their blessing on the plan. .
“We don’t know what’s right to do, but we knew it was a life worth celebrating, and we wanted to give it space,” Duffy told me. “We also want to ensure that we’re being sensitive to the heaviness that people will be feeling tomorrow.
“So, we want to give some space, to ensure that it’s interwove through the weekend. But if someone needs to distance themselves from the emotion of this in order to get to the start line tomorrow, that they have the balance they need.”
I understand why Duffy, Mohn, and the other Life Time staffers decided to hold the memorial the day before the race. The 204-mile event delivers an emotional gut punch to its participants under normal circumstances.
I’ve seen plenty of finishers burst into tears after completing the race, their bodies and nerves fried from a day of pedaling through headwinds and over steep hills. Unbound finishers have told me that the race is like therapy: you’re by yourself, left alone with your feelings, for hours at a time. The race creates catharsis. It also digs up buried inner demons.
And with so much sadness, and anger, and confusion, swirling in the gravel scene, I can only assume that many riders will have plenty of feelings to wrestle with during Saturday’s race.
After 30 minutes of silent pedaling through the countryside, we reach our destination: a small open field adjacent to a farm a few miles out of town. We dismount, group together, and look around. Duffy steps off her bicycle, greets the crowd, and reads a blog passage that Wilson wrote after this year’s Mid South Gravel, where she finished second.
“Most importantly, I learned a valuable lesson about risk. More often than not, I think we can evaluate the risk of taking some sort of action, versus the risk of not taking that action. Taking action requires stepping into the unknown, which can be scary and uncertain. But what if the risk is really about chance? And what if the real risk lies in the lack of action, when the lack of action opens the door to chance? By not acting. By not chasing after the first female I gave up control and left my race open to chance. The chance that she would blow up or not find a group of riders or any other variable that was out of my control. That lack of control—not the unknown—seems to be the biggest risk of them all. There will be more opportunities to take what I learned and apply them to other moments in cycling an din life. Next time I won’t risk taking the safer option. Next time I will go.”
The sentiment echoes in our minds as we remount or bicycles and begin pedaling back to Emporia. Buried in Wilson’s words is important wisdom about risk taking that, alas, I simply cannot understand amid the emotion of the moment.
On our ride back in, conversation begins. Someone shares a story about Wilson. Others discuss the course condition, and the potential for rainfall on race day. We arrive back in downtown Emporia, with the group chattering away, like any of the shakeout rides that riders will complete today.
Libby Caldwell, 28, a riding partner of Wilson’s in the Bay Area, tells me her favorite memory of Wilson.
“Those big long rides, where you’re feeling delirious, and then it’s quiet and you can hear her laughing really loud,” Caldwell says. “She was such a quiet person that the difference between her quietness and laugh was noticeable.”
Ian Boswell, the reigning Unbound champion, became friends with Wilson over the past year. Boswell lives in rural Vermont in the same area where Wilson grew up. Over the winter, Wilson brought the Boswells a freshly baked loaf of banana bread.
The ride, Boswell says, is an ideal moment for the current step he’s pursuing in the grieving process. He’s already broken down, cried for hours on end, and lost sleep. He’s stared at photos of Wilson on Instagram and felt overcome by sadness.
Now, Boswell says, he’s prepared to try and feel good again, by thinking about how Wilson, herself, would have acted amid this scenario.
“I want to remember to smile and embrace those who are around me,” Boswell says. “That’s what Moriah would have wanted. That’s what she’d do. She’d join in those small conversations and make it a point to have a good time.”
The ride has ended and the conversation winds down. Someone hands out stickers that read “Ride Like Mo,” as a memento for us to place on our bicycles or helmets. One by one, we snap selfies with each other, slap hands, and embrace.
Then, we mount our bicycles, click into our pedals, and ride off into Emporia, under the rising Kansas sun.