The Grind: unPAved reconfigures gravel race, reports zero COVID-19 positives

The Pennsylvania race reduced the field from 1,200 to 200, and used a timed-segment format with a staggered start to disperse riders.

Can you put on a safe and successful gravel race during the COVID-19 pandemic? Dave Pryor, organizer of unPAved of the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania, believes that it can be done.

The unPAVED gravel event was held October 11 without any reported COVID-19 positives since then. Pryor attributed the success in part to capping the event at 250 people total instead of 1,200, plus changing the format from a straight-ahead, mass-start race to a selection of timed segments and a two-hour start window where riders could pick their departure time.

“It was about 10 times as much work for one fifth the amount of people,” Pryor said with a laugh. “But it was a successful event. We’ve gotten no reports of riders, volunteers, or locals contracting COVID-19 as a result of the event. It seems that all of the protocols that were put in place have worked, but more importantly, everyone involved with unPAved looked out for each other.”

The great majority of gravel races were canceled this year.

Pryor said he changed the format for unPAved many times, right up until four days before. “The riders’ resilience and understanding was tremendous,” he said. “There are many reasons gravel is booming, and the people are the main ones.”

unPAved reduced the field size from 1,200 to 200 and offered a staggered start. Photo: Firespire Photography

Pryor followed Pennsylvania’s guidelines to cap outdoor events at 250 people. While he said the race could have taken that as 250 racers, they instead capped racers at 200, so all race staff, medics, and volunteers would be included in the 250 number.

Pryor, who is Lehigh University’s marketing manager, used his visibility into what the Pennsylvania university was doing with traveling students to inform race policy with traveling racers.

The course stayed the same as last year’s long course, at 120 miles, but racers were only timed over four segments totaling 30 miles. Aid stations featured packaged food and no-touch water refills, but riders were encouraged to take care of the majority of their own needs via numbered drop bags. And masks and handwashing were mandatory.

Kelly Catale (Seven Cycles) won the women’s race, and said she appreciated the format that Pryor called ‘regroup racing.’ “The day was phenomenal,” Catale said. “I felt like I could truly enjoy the ride and also race on the same day. I secretly hope that unPAved keeps that format.”

Catale started the day with the two women who would join her on the podium, Hayley Wickstrom (2nd place) and Vicki Barclay (3rd place, all pictured above). This allowed the competitors to keep an eye on each other, but also enjoy each other’s company during the non-timed stretches of road.

Some 30 miles of the 120-mile course were timed in four segments. Photo: Firespire Photography

Ben Wright (CCB Cycling Education Foundation) won the men’s event. “I think the event went great with the changes. Everyone started off on their own or in a little group. That way, everyone was more dispersed,” he said.

Pyror axed the event’s pre- and post-race gatherings, but Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley put on a fall foliage party of its own for riders to enjoy.

“It was awesome to be out at unPAved 2020 during these crazy times,” said Jake Sittler, Floyd’s of Leadville business director. ”The event was very well run and felt safe during the whole experience. While I was working the Floyd’s of Leadville aid station, the riders visiting were very respectful, maintained distance, and wore their masks. It was great to see riders be able to get out and explore the beautiful Susquehanna River Valley during such a crazy year. Here’s to 2021 and the hopes for the full unPAved experience!”

Next year’s unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley is scheduled for October 10, 2021, and registration is scheduled to open on April 10.