Gravel is a way of life for certain individuals and there are no better connoisseurs than Grinduro PA race co-directors Mike Kuhn and Dave Pyror, who are making sure that Grinduro PA has all the trademarks of being an event you shouldn’t miss.
This particular Grinduro doesn’t just exist purely for its jaw-dropping riding, punchy segments and dialled-in party-to-race ratio, it has a bigger purpose with all funds from Grinduro PA going straight into the statewide non-profit Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League (PICL), founded by race co-director Mike Kuhn eight years ago. Way beyond talent identification, PICL’s purpose is to give kids welcoming, no-cost exposure to cycling.
We caught up with Mike and fellow Grinduro PA organiser Dave – two veritable gravel event genii – for the most legitimate reasons why this round of the series is for you – and for once, we’re not talking about the maxin’ and relaxin’ ethos.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Kuhn likes to claim he founded the state’s first ever school MTB team. And unless you’ve got yearbook photos to prove otherwise, it’s a story he’ll continue to dine out on. Nowadays, other than being a prolific and seriously popular event organiser, Mike heads up PICL – yep, go ahead and pronounce it like pickle, those little green things you get on your burger – which is a youth development organization set up to solve the problem (read: distinct absence) of youth participation in cycling in the United States. Because, as foreign as it might sound to some, getting into cycling isn’t as simple as it sounds.
“We know that cycling is dominated by people that look like me,” Kuhn begins, somewhat bashfully. “The things that we know are great about cycling aren’t things that everyone gets the chance to encounter. You have to introduce it to people. If we don’t open up the experience, you’ll never find out who will love it.” It was a heavy realization for Kuhn when he recognized his experience of cycling – falling in love with shredding as a teenager – didn’t match the rest of the nation.
He continues, getting into the pitch of PICL without once seeming like a preacher: “Our approach is that every kid is welcome to participate in mountain biking. Ten years ago if we’d had 30 juniors show up to a Mid-Atlantic Super Series event, we’d have been excited. By the end of this season, we’re going to have close to 10,000 kids across the six or seven leagues,” Kuhn’s eyes light up at this point.
PICL exists to create, support and strengthen community-built and community-based teams that are part of a statewide league so that they can grow and develop. By building resources and mechanisms for kids and parents to engage with the sport, PICL really relies on its coaches: “They’re the ones in the communities that are out there, lighting the fire and creating awesome experiences for the kids over the course of the season. The route that Grinduro PA follows is actually the brainchild of Joe Trabani, one of PICL’s original coaches who heads up the Lycoming County Composite Mountain Bike Club, who’ll be staffing the campgrounds and logging trails all weekend long — it’s really thanks to them that Grinduro PA has come to life.”
Kuhn, a well-rounded creative, has been organizing events for close to two decades and knows that cycling, historically, isn’t kind to newcomers: “We focus on cross-country MTBing because it’s a great entry point but I want the kids to understand there are a lot of other branches of cycling. With an XC MTB event, you can create an experience that’s really fun but also manages risk well. A lot of kids arrive with basic riding skills but they’ve never ridden off-road. In a couple of months, they’ll do a race—but it’s not mandatory. We see kids who’ve been on the programme for a couple of years going to national championships and off to colleges. It’s fabulous.”
Constantly pushed to develop great experiences that meet the needs of all abilities, Kuhn never loses sight of PICL’s main goal: getting kids on bikes, creating really fun experiences, managing risk and helping them to progress in the sport in whatever way they want to. “We really hope that cycling becomes something all kids love to do — whether they do it all the time or three times a month. We have to make sure we’re focusing our energy and attention in the right places – and this involves bringing underrepresented groups into what we do too; we have to be really intentional about that. And why are we building smaller events? Because I want to take the smaller ones to where people are. I want to create event experiences that I can move into your community, so it has better access to it.”
When Kuhn tells us there’s a t-shirt with the slogan ‘I wish I’d had this at high school,’ we turn to putty in his hands. With PICL as the non-profit on the front line of Grinduro PA, everything raised from the event will go straight into getting kids on bikes and supporting the 57 teams with 540 coaches (at the current count) in whatever way they need it. And for that, Kuhn – the man who knows how to put the constellation of Pennsylvania’s stellar singletrack and 54 community-built teams for the greater good – we applaud you!
Pennsylvania, summer of 2021, high in the hills of the Endless Mountains: Pryor, a mad-keen gravel rider and prolific race director, stops to catch his breath. He’s here on invite, scouting the future Grinduro PA route. And his verdict? Unreal. “Riding here feels so good inside – I think it must be something to do with how much oxygen the trees give back.”
Grinduro PA takes in some really remote areas, Pryor warns us, where you won’t have a cell reception; “it’ll feel like you’re back in the William Penn era.” He then adds: “What we call mountains in Pennsylvania may not reflect reality for a lot of Europeans or those in the western part of America, but wait until you start riding them. PA is a magical place. What I can remember most vividly are the deep woods and really long beautiful descents that made me yell ‘wow, we’re still riding down’ – it’s just so lovely to be riding down along a stream that you won’t want it to end. You won’t even want to go any faster. You’ll get to the bottom, and just want to repeat it. There are some really pretty parts for regrouping and rest stops that are so nice that again, you won’t want to leave.”
Pennsylvania, a farm track in the late ‘90s: We see Pryor again, 20 years younger but still trying to catch his breath. This time around it’s more competitive, but equally as fun. “We’ve been doing dumb bike rides since the 1990s on skinny 23c tires hoping not to flat on beautiful farm roads and dirt tracks that go straight up the side of a mountain – you’d ride around and punch each other on the dirt climbs, then regroup, repeat. That was our version of gravel; more Spring Classics than standard Stateside gravel. It was because we had cyclocross bikes that we thought were deserving of a ride that was longer than 45 minutes!
An unspecified road leading out of a Pennsylvanian town, late ‘00s: It isn’t Mike that gets his breath knocked out of him this time, but an innocent churchgoer who happens to be walking along the race route. For Pyror, this is the moment segment racing became his thing. “I know I’m biassed saying that, but segment racing is the way to go. You can put a vista at the top of the climb off the clock, so riders can stop and then they race to the aid station where they’ll stop again. You get the luxury of time to look after yourself, refuel, make sure you fill your water bottles, and you won’t make dumb mistakes that’ll cost you later in the race. People who need all day to do the ride can start early, while the really fast people get to sleep in and have a second coffee so they won’t complain, but then they also get to intermingle out on the course. It’s not like you’re on the start line with pros and then they disappear into the distance. I love and adore segment racing. I applaud Grinduro for doing it from the get-go.”
Inside the race HQ for an unnamed gravel race, roughly eight years ago: Dave stands next to Mike Kuhn and the pair are discussing the race distance — it’s all very approximate, measured in what are locally referred to as Kuhn-o-metres rather than kilometres or miles. This is one of the pair’s first joint gravel ventures and they’re letting their imagination run wild with the options for staging an event. “We’re both really creative and love how gravel can have so many different formats – you can create an event that’s truly Wild West and ride your bike and have fun doing it. When it comes to the organizing, we divide and conquer, but Mike’s the one who knows all the pieces of the puzzle and has been instrumental in helping get so many events off the ground. Will I be running around madly on the weekend of Grinduro PA? Hell no, I’m planning on riding it!
Eight years later, here we are in the Endless Mountains, taking in the eye-soothing landscapes of remote Pennsylvania and getting ready to catch our breath repeatedly over the 100-odd Kuhn-o-metres!