Our partner in podcasting, The Gravel Ride Podcast, sits down this week with Andrew Vontz, a passionate podcaster (Choose the Hard Way) and OG gravel enthusiast (although he may refute this!). I asked Andrew to share his experience at the Rasputitsa gravel event, his journey discovering gravel cycling and how Choose the Hard Way came to be. Come along as we explore Andrew’s experiences at Rasputitsa, the lessons he learned during the event and how this all connects to his podcast. Fueled by the joy of the ride, our conversation will reignite your motivation for cycling and choosing the hard way.
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Automatic Transcription by The Gravel Ride (please excuse all errors)
[00:00:00]Craig Dalton: Andrew, welcome to the show.
[00:00:03]Andrew Vontz: Hey, thanks for having me here, Craig. It’s great to be back together after having you over on Choose The Hard Way. It was a blast.
[00:00:10]Craig Dalton: I know I feel like we’re, we’re becoming fast friends and, uh, as podcasters, as contemporaries, as cyclists and how we discovered the sport and some of the cycling eras we’ve kind of gone through together. It’s been fun. Talking to you on your podcast, which I wanna get into a bit a bit later. Um, but just sharing text messages and seeing and hearing about what you’ve been up to on your podcast.
Really is what sparked this conversation you had made mention in your podcast about doing Rasa in Vermont? A gravel event that I’d had on the podcast. I had to check the date. It’s going back to 2018, that I had Heidi Meyers on the podcast. So it was episode 12 of the Gravel Ride podcast for anybody who’s going back in the feed and wants to listen to that.
But it’s an event that, you know, is super well regarded and super interesting. So long, long way of saying welcome to the show, Andrew.
[00:01:05]Andrew Vontz: Thanks for having me here. And I would say, you know, I know we’re gonna get there, but I would say Rasa is definitely one of the monuments of gravel generally in the entire world and certainly here on the East Coast. And I’m excited to share a bit about how I got dragged into, into doing it and what I learned.
But you know, Yeah, I think this is the magic of the bike, right Craig? It brings people together. It, you know, you form these bonds and it, uh, it’s really amazing the way communities and friendships form around the bike and the freedom it gives us and the places it takes us. And I think this is just another example of that and why I personally love the bike so much and always have.
[00:01:47]Craig Dalton: Yeah, a hundred percent. I don’t know if you’ve, you’ve done this event multiple times and we can get into that, but just going back to events year after year, it’s kind of almost like summer camp. Where you see the same people, like maybe you have a crew that goes from your local community, but there’s also the broader cycling community that you’re like, oh, I rode with you.
We were at the same pace last year, and friends you make on the road or trail, it’s just such an amazing part of the sport.
[00:02:12]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, absolutely. And this was my first time at Rasa and I may have mentioned this. When I had you on Choose the hard way, but I really felt like I had hit the point of kind of being retired from big gravel as I, I would call it, um, the kind of like these marquee bucket list events. And I definitely, I’ll explain why when we get into it and what ended up happening when I, I got there to one of these big bucket list events.
But it was definitely an exciting and interesting experience for sure.
[00:02:43]Craig Dalton: where did you grow up and how did you find your way to the bike originally?
[00:02:47]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and the bike found me, I didn’t find the bike. Uh, a bike showed up one day. My cousins, Jason and Grady had an old Schwinn Stingray. I’m dating myself here, but it was a green sparkle, Schwinn Stingray with a sparkle banana seat, which at the time that I received this bicycle, which was a secondhand bicycle.
They just showed up one day and they’re like, Hey, here’s this bike for you. This is, you know, this is your bike now. It’s a very exciting moment in my life when I got this bike, uh, it was not, uh, the style of bike that other kids were riding. Most kids were riding B M X bikes. This is like the era of et if anybody remembers that, like the B M X bike with ET and the basket.
Nonetheless, I was just loved the bike. I loved getting on. It. Started out like everybody else on training wheels. Then they came off. Went from there onto other bikes and then when I was about, did a lot of, you know, playing around with B M X freestyle when I was a kid, skateboarding, and then got into geared bikes in probably 1988 or 89, and then Lamont’s victory at the tour in 89 really helped me to fall in love with the idea of riding geared bikes because at the time I, uh, certainly was not great at it.
[00:04:09]Craig Dalton: And how did you find your way to those geared bikes? I mean, obviously like at that point, I don’t know where you are chronologically in your age, but um, you know, you have to be able to afford the bike. You have to make a decision. Am I gonna buy one of these early mountain bikes, which you start hearing about in, in the late eighties, or am I gonna get a drop bar bike?
[00:04:26]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, exactly. For me, the path to all of those things was standing behind a lawnmower and pushing it. Uh, you know, my dad got me out there in my neighborhood, not, and my mom, they were like, Hey, if you want money, if you wanna get a bike, go knock on some doors and mow some lawns. So that’s what I did, and that’s actually what I ended up doing for about the next decade.
I started a lawn business called The Yard Barber. Eventually my good friend Nicholas Crump, became my partner. We merged two companies. Uh, that was my first experience in m and a at a young age. And, um, yeah, but lawn mowing really is what fueled my, uh, my passion for cycling. We had a family friend, pat Twin, and she was into triathlon, which in Kansas City was a pretty bizarre thing at that time and place, but she was an early adopter.
And she took me out on one of my first rides on geared bikes. I took my mom’s Shwe Morado, which was pink and had flat bars. And my dad had gotten that for my mom for Mother’s Day. When I was, maybe, I’m gonna say like 11 or 12, I started riding around on this bike. I went out on a ride, uh, with Mrs. Twitter.
She graciously kind of introduced me to the world of geared bikes. And then on that ride, We came up to an intersection, I wasn’t paying attention, and I rode into the back of her bike, and that was my first experience of being yelled at on a bike ride, which was totally appropriate.
[00:05:51]Craig Dalton: That’s the way you learn. I definitely came up in that the school of no one’s gonna give you anything when you start riding with them, and they’re gonna sort of treat you with a little bit of disdain until you learn the rules of the road.
[00:06:04]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, that’s certainly how it was during that time and place. And that’s also, you know, how I learned how to move around in a pack and ride in a group safely and not hurt anyone, uh, or myself too badly. Only sometimes.
[00:06:18]Craig Dalton: And was there a point in which you got drawn into some sort of competitive cycling activity?
[00:06:22]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. I always, you know, ever since I saw Lamont on the shops of, in 89, I always had this fantasy of. Competing at cycling and honestly, when I was a kid and I got my, my first, my own first gear bike, which was a trek, I think it was like a Trek 400 touring bike, I soon realized, oh my gosh, this thing has three chain rings.
I’m not that cool. I have a touring bike. Then I ended up getting awin circuit, um, that I saved up lawn mowing money and purchased, which had a double crank set. Started doing some stuff with the Kansas City Bicycle Club, met some mentors and. You know, I, I would not say that I had a world tour engine Craig, but I had a lot of fun and it was just something that I always had a passion for.
I became kind of obsessed with cycling through print cycling media when I was a kid, started following that winning magazine. If anyone out there is of our vintage, they might remember that Bella News. And from there is, you know, doing a little bit of crit racing. Got into mountain biking, started doing a lot of mountain bike racing, not at your level, um, but just some amateur stuff around the Midwest.
And it’s just always been a part of my life ever since. It’s been like a very core part of what I do. I once heard Chris Carmichael, uh, actually I was interviewing Chris Carmichael at one point and he talked about how he thinks about the bike and training. Is like a misk plus for his life. And I thought that’s like a very apt description and it’s, it’s really kind of how I think about it.
It kind of organizes everything else in my life and brings balance and a lot of joy and, and friendship and other benefits to me. I don’t know how my family always feels about it, but you know.
[00:08:11]Craig Dalton: You cycling also played a role in some of your professional, your early professional life as well. I think it’s important just to kind of set the stage with that as well.
[00:08:20]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, for sure. So, like a quick thumbnail on me professionally, I, uh, I moved to California. I moved to LA to get an MFA in creative writing. While I was doing that, I started freelancing for magazines. I quickly found my way to challenge publications located in Canoga Park, California. Uh, they had a publication called Mountain Biking.
I started working there for, I believe, $8 an hour as an intern. So that was like, Uh, that wasn’t my first, uh, paycheck as a writer. My first paycheck as a writer came from Vice Magazine, which was a print publication at the time. I started working at Mountain Biking. I did that for about a year, and then I moved on to be a freelance journalist for about a decade.
Wrote for outlets like Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times Outside Magazine. Broadly, I wrote about people, places, and things at the limits of human experience. There was some cycling mixed in there over the years. I, I wrote about the tour to France for a couple of tours. Did daily commentary for Fox Sports on their website, and a number of other cycling related things.
But cycling wasn’t the core focus, but it was always something I stayed really in touch with. I also, in LA I was really involved in. There was a community called Midnight Riders that’s started taking off. It wasn’t critical mass, it was more just like people getting out on bikes and having fun doing themed rides.
So I was doing that a lot for a long time. From that started with like a dozen people and I was there from like a dozen people to several thousand over the years. And then I also had a foot in the world of crit racing and doing other stuff. Later I would be the head of content at T R X, the human performance company started by Randy Hetrick, the former Navy Seal.
And then I was at Strava for seven years where I was a communications executive and oversaw media relations, public relations, crisis communications and crisis management and public policy. And um, and then I decided to leave Strava a little over a year ago. I have my podcast, choose the hard way. I’m also the co-host of Beyond the Peloton with Spencer Martin, a pro cycling analysis podcast.
And then I also do some strategic narrative consulting and advising. And I’m actually like everyone in tech, I am now working on a startup, um, with David Ls, who is a, uh, fellow executive at Strava. We’re working on something we’re really excited about, not quite ready to share with the world.
[00:10:50]Craig Dalton: Nice. Well, you have to come back and tell us about it at some point.
[00:10:53]Andrew Vontz: absolutely.
[00:10:54]Craig Dalton: So at some point along the way, you’ve, so you’ve discovered, uh, road riding, crit racing, mountain biking. Did, when did gravel racing come into the fold, and what type of events had you pursued previously?
[00:11:06]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. So I started, I became fascinated with gravel racing around 2005, and that’s when I became aware of guitar, Ted and Jeff. Kurt Covey, who was at the time a bike shop employee in Iowa. Those guys started an event that your listeners are probably familiar with called Trans Iowa. And I thought, wow, this is just completely nuts.
And when I was growing up, I’d always heard about Rag Bri. I ended up, uh, doing Rag Bry twice. I rodee a feature story about it for Bicycling Magazine in the early two thousands. So there was always. You know, people think about the epicenters of cycling community in the United States as being Boulder, Colorado, the Bay Area.
I mean, later I would learn. Los Angeles has a pretty unparalleled cycling culture and community in my view, as well as access to such a huge variety of terrain. But the Midwest also has this huge cycling culture and, and. Has, you know, for a very long time, and this kind of like d i y ethos that Jeff and Guitars had had putting this event together, people going out and doing this thing that just seemed really inadvisable and the manner in which they were repurposing terrain that I think a lot of people think about as just kind of dull.
Uh, and turning it into something really interesting and like this Grand, grand adventure that really captivated my imagination. I wrote about that for Mountain Bike Magazine. I was a contributing editor for a while in the mid two thousands. Interviewed Jeff and then just kind of in the back of my head for the longest time.
I was like, I really want to go and try one of these things. Fast forward. I was doing whatever. I was training, I was doing a little bit of racing, and then I heard about the event that at the time was known as Dirty Kansas, and I just felt this gravitational pull. I was like, I gotta go try this thing.
I’ll also tell you, Craig, I never had any interest in doing the full 200 mile version of that event. I, I know that people have a lot of passion for it, but for me that was just like the far side of something that would actually be fun. So I ended up doing the, you know, the half pint, which is advertised as a hundred, was actually about 105.
I first did that in 2013. It was amazing. It was an incredible event. I was so naive about what the event might actually be like. I over prepared. I actually had a physical compass. In my bag because it was like on, it was on the gear list. It’s like you have to have a compass and lights and all this stuff.
And I was like, I don’t know. Do they, are they gonna check my bag before I start? I had no idea. And so that was kind of my. First introduction to the world of Gravel. I’ve been doing a lot of cross racing at that time, and then I trained for that event. I went there, uh, with my then girlfriend, now wife, Molly.
She was my support at the halfway point, and she ended up waiting a very long time because, The signage was not the world’s best at that time. At,
[00:14:20]Craig Dalton: But you have the compass, Andrew, you have
[00:14:21]Andrew Vontz: yeah, I know I had the compass. I should have taken it out because at mile 20, I turned left onto the 200 mile course and realized about 20 miles later I was not on the correct course.
I had to backtrack. So I had a very, you know, I think I did what, 135 or 140 miles that day. And I was like, okay, I gotta come back. And then I went back. In, uh, 20 14, 20 15. I got second in the hundred both times. And then I did a bunch of other gravel events in between the gravel gauntlet. I don’t know if any of your listeners might remember that, but a Bay Area promoter, Murphy Mac had a gravel series that went on for a while.
It was quite interesting and had some pretty cool races. So yeah, that’s kind of, that’s how I got into gravel.
[00:15:09]Craig Dalton: I didn’t realize cuz we didn’t dig in this deeply that how OG you are to gravel riding. That’s going back ways
[00:15:17]Andrew Vontz: It’s, yeah, I be, I’ve been doing it for a minute. Yeah.
[00:15:20]Craig Dalton: love it. I love it. And then what, what have the, like what was last year like, had you, had you done a bunch, we’ll get into like why you decided to sign up for Rasa and, but I’m curious like, have you remained active over the last year in events?
[00:15:35]Andrew Vontz: So I’m now living in mid coast Maine. I live in Hope Maine, which is a beautiful place. And one of the things that I discovered here was, uh, you know, like we were talking about at the beginning, the bike is an amazing thing. You can find community, you can find friendships, you can find some pretty amazing stuff through bicycles.
I connected with the small community of rider here, and when I say small, I, I reflect on this sometimes because when I was living in the Bay Area and commuting, when I would go from Bart to Strava, I mean Craig, I would see what, probably like 500 people on bikes easily in the two mile stretch. If I went on a group ride and or just like rolled down on my bike in Oakland or went over to Marin again, you’re gonna see hundreds of people fully kitted up going out here in the mid coast area.
You know, a big group ride is about six people. Um, but I met this awesome crew here. They’re great people. And that’s how I discovered something called the main Gravel series, which is a small series of gravel fondos here, and they’re just incredible events. And so I did that whole series last year. It was a blast.
They’re not super long events, but. They’re just right. I like to say that I’m a gravel sprint distance specialist now. Um, so you know, those events were all sub four hours, but they were a lot of fun. And then somebody in that small crew that I’ve been rolling with here a couple of months ago said, Hey, my RAs pizza entries up for grabs cuz I have to travel somewhere that week.
And I had kind of sworn off. Doing big gravel events anymore. Both things that are longer than three hours and events that have a very large number of people. I just had decided, you know what? I don’t think that these things are for me anymore. And then this opportunity came up and I thought I had a couple of my buddies from here going, my friends Morgan and Jamie.
I thought, you know what, I should, I should just do this thing. So that’s kind of how I got suckered back into big gravel.
[00:17:45]Craig Dalton: Got it. Were, were there some elements of big gravel that just weren’t to your liking?
[00:17:50]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, I mean, even when I think back on the dirty cans of Half Pint, uh, today known as the Unbound 100. I mean, you know how it is, Craig, like the first hour of those events where you have a mass start where you’re either in a pen or you’re like constrained on a city street, you either have to show up two hours early and stand there until the event starts, or you have to find some way to worm your way into the spot on the grid where you want to be.
From what I understand, Unbound has changed that and they now. Similar to Leadville. I think they have pens based on what you anticipate your starting time to be. But when, I mean, when I went there in 20 14, 20 15, my intent was I want to win this race. So I just did a Davis Finney. If anybody’s not familiar with Davis Finney, legendary.
American pro road racer and his big move, when he would go to crits, everyone would line up and then he would just ride the course backwards and back into the front of the grid. Uh, you know, don’t try this at home folks, or maybe do, if, if you want to get a really good spot on a starting grid. Um,
[00:18:58]Craig Dalton: Yeah, you just have to be willing to accept, you know, a couple minutes of nasty looks
[00:19:03]Andrew Vontz: yeah. I mean, yeah, ex exactly. It’s, uh, but anyhow, so like kind of that aspect of it and what I found. Uh, and during Unbound, gosh, just that first hour, um, at the time it was fine from a risk management point of view. I just like being that proximate to so many people on roads. You’re really not that familiar with.
When you know that you’re gonna be at some point. You’re just gonna ride into a pothole or something, people are gonna be wrecking all over the place, and that was fine at that time and place in my life. I think as I’ve gotten older, now that I’ve got. Kids. My kids are a four and six. And now that I’ve thought more about like, Hey, I’ve got kids.
I, uh, you know, I want to whatever. I don’t want to go to one of these events and get injured. I just think that that’s like a bit more top of mind for me now and just like being caught in that really what seems like a very unnecessary mosh at the beginning of an event. And I, I get it. Like that’s part of the excitement.
Some people really enjoy that. But for me, I, I’m just not sure if that’s like the best way to run an event anymore or that I want to do that. So that was one of the factors. And then the other factor for me, uh, following Unbound 2015, I developed AFib. And again, for people who are listening, uh, if you haven’t had AFib yourself, if you’ve done this for a really long time, I bet you know, two or three people who’ve had cardiac ablations.
I ended up being able to. Manage mine through non-surgical, um, means, but I just became cognizant of, okay, I have, like, at this point I have a 30 plus year, very deep training history, which has a lot of benefits for your health. And you know, part of what I discovered in 2013 to 2016, because I was racing a full, really intense cross season, probably 20 plus races a year.
Uh, racing at an elite master’s level eventually, and just getting totally waxed. Um, but doing that and then putting in really big miles to get ready for unbound, I actually felt like I had crossed a tipping point and going from like, this is something that’s physically healthy to, I think I’m kind of damaging my body at this point.
I need to dial it back. And so I think that was another big factor for me in gravitating more towards the gravel sprint distance and away from the, we’re gonna ride our bikes for infinity.
[00:21:38]Craig Dalton: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that makes sense. So as you’re contemplating rasp, It’s a different kind of vibe, like that’s, they’ve intentionally tried to create something different. And I’ve heard from Heidi, obviously, and followed the race over the years. But I’d love to get your perspective going into it. You, you knew you didn’t wanna go to a, a big time gravel event.
Maybe this had a longer distance and certainly more participants than you’ve been used to. But what was your expectation going in as to how the event would feel for you?
[00:22:08]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, I mean, my expectation was this is really the first event like this that I entered as a completer. Not as a computer, right? So I was like, okay, I’m gonna go to this event. I’m going to complete the event. I’m going to get to experience a new place. I hadn’t been to Vermont actually, so I was like, cool, I’m gonna get to see this new place.
I’m gonna get to meet some new people. I don’t know how you feel, Craig, when you go to a race, but part of what I love about it is, I mean, I’m even thinking about it right now. Like, you have such a cool bike on the wall behind you, and now I’m like, oh wow. Like, What’s that chain ring that looks so cool? Is there a power meter?
Um, but I’m a total gear dork, so it’s really fun for me to be around a thousand plus people, all of whom have all of these different, you know, that’s like horses for courses. Just seeing like, Hey, what’s everybody running? What tires do they have? All of that. So that’s a lot of fun. And just being around the energy of people who.
Have decided, you know, kind of going back to the thesis of my podcast, choose the Hard Way, which is hard things. Build stronger humans and doing hard things is fun. You know, I like being around people who have that mindset and attitude and being around people who’ve, you know, decided I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna do this thing that’s, it’s gonna be fun.
And I guarantee for every person who was that event, including I Boswell and the other elite competitors, there was some moment in that day when they felt. Intensely uncomfortable and ask themselves like, what am I doing? Why am I here? But like, that’s why we do this stuff, right? So I, I, for me, I just felt like it was time to like step back into the fire and, um, experience like part of the magic of what happens when people come together with the intention of doing something hard together.
[00:23:59]Craig Dalton: And was there something particular about the magic of Raspy that you had been led to understand, either through your friends or through research that, uh, made you more excited than just going out on a bike race?
[00:24:10]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, I mean I had definitely heard a lot about the vibe. My friends, uh, Jamie Morgan, Greg, they had all done the event in previous years, and yeah, they said, Hey, like the vibe of this event is great, really strong community feel. Really supportive. Bobby from the mid-south also. Now I, I don’t know if they’ve always worked together, but they’re working together in this coordinated manner.
And, um, yeah, so those things were all things that jumped out at me as signatures of an event that would be a lot of fun and. Where the vibe would be good. And, uh, and the course itself I knew was pretty brutal. I, I’m a larger human being. I’m six two and depending on what my relationship with ice cream is, like at any period of time, I’m typically between like 180 or 190 pounds.
I’m not, I’m not particularly built for going uphill for long periods of time. And this race has. 7,200 feet of climbing. So I was like, perfect. This will be really hard for me to do and I’ll train hard for it, and we’ll see how that goes. So that appealed to me as well,
[00:25:19]Craig Dalton: Yeah, it’s interesting. A little under 60 miles, but 7,000 plus feet of climbing is climbing all over the place on that course as it would sound.
[00:25:28]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, it’s, it’s infinity climbing and they’re, you know, kind of a wild card for me. When I do gravel loops locally, like I actually did one not long before this, uh, before this podcast where I live, it’s glaciated train and there are small mountains and you are not riding on a flat road for any period of time.
So you’re always going up or down. And you know, it would be typical here, like the main gravel series to do four or 5,000 feet of climbing and two and a half to three hours. So there’s a lot of climbing where I live. What I didn’t know with raspy ti, I didn’t, I mean, I could have looked online and figured this out, but I was kind of in, in an ignorance’s bliss kind of mindset about this.
But the amplitude of the climbs was much greater and. Uh, for anybody who’s listening, who’s in the Bay Area, I used to do a ton of training on my cross bike, then gravel bike in the Marin Headlands. I don’t know if this is the correct name of the trail, but it might be Marin Cello. Is that a really long climb?
And yeah. So I used to go do like LT repeats on that thing. And uh, one day, I believe it was in 2017, I was listening to Phil Collins. I can hear, I can feel it coming in the air tonight. I still remember the track going down, just like bombing down that after doing an interval, I felt so cool, Craig. I was like, my gravel descending is like so dialed in now I’m really comfortable.
And that of course was the moment that I, my bike like, went completely out from under me while going around a, a turn at like 30 miles an hour, ripped off most of my right knee. Was gushing blood and then had to ride back home to the inner sunset at the time. But that kind of changed my personal relationship with being comfortable going downhill fast on gravel.
So I knew going into rasa it’s like, okay, 7,200 feet of climbing, I’m not so sure about. What is the descending going to be like? And then once I got there, I found out.
[00:27:44]Craig Dalton: Yeah, and I want that’s in, I want to get into those details cause I think that’s so useful for others. But I wanna start out with like the beginning of your day. You, you know, you had expressed that this was gonna be a bit longer of an event than you had done previously. So a little bit of like potential anxiety for like, you know, can I step up to this longer distance?
But you’ve also said you’re not going in there at a mindset of being competitive. You’re just wanting to, to finish the day and have a good time. Did that change the way you kind of showed up in the morning? Were you as like dialed as before or were you not?
[00:28:20]Andrew Vontz: Uh, Craig, in some fantasy world, I would be really calm the morning of doing a big event. Uh, the reality of it for me is, Uh, my fitness was really fantastic going into the event, and as I got closer to the event and was looking at, you know, my wattage and analyzing my performance, I started to feel like, wow, I think I can go pretty fast at this event.
I, I just had this feeling, you know, I think I can go pretty quick, and that started to amplify my expectations of what the event. Might be like, and then when I was going to the event, for some reason Google Map sent me off-road for the final 20 miles going into Burke. And that’s when I realized, oh, these downhills are going to be way gnarlier than I thought they would be.
And again, for a lot of people, it’s probably whatever they might feel super comfortable going downhill on gravel at high speeds. But because of that wreck I had, I just don’t feel that comfortable doing that anymore, and I knew like, yeah, I’m just here to complete this. But also I was feeling this tension of, yeah, but I think I’m in really good shape.
The long and short of it is I ended up not getting a good night of sleep. I woke up and I was, you know, nonetheless, my equipment was dialed, my nutrition was dialed. I was ready to go. And that’s when I texted my buddy Jamie, who was up in the parking lot at the event I had misread. The event schedule. And he was like, Hey man, what time are you coming up here?
And I was like, oh, I think I’m gonna come up around eight. Because him and my buddy Morgan had gone up there at like six 30 in the morning. I was like, you guys are crazy. You’re just gonna sit around up there. And Jamie was like, that’s cool man. But the race starts at eight, so you like just gonna jump in when it comes down to hell.
So, and I had just eaten a pile of pancakes, so I was like, all right, I guess I’m leaving right now. And then I just got on my bike. And pedaled up the hill to the start. And that’s, you know, that was how my day started. So the, the morning was a little, I wanted it to be chill and it turned out to be a little bit anxious.
[00:30:35]Craig Dalton: Did you get swept up in the start? You know, everybody sort of, you tend to ride above your means when it starts, regardless of your discipline.
[00:30:44]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. The reality for me was I had gotten such a bad night of sleep. I honestly, I think I slept like 45 minutes or an hour, and for me, that’s not super uncommon the night before doing a big event, I just typically don’t sleep that well. It’s been interesting on my podcast to talk to a lot of different elite athletes.
Some of them like Alexi Vermin, who I know you’ve interviewed, he shared with me. I mean, if you watch Alexi’s videos, he’s like tinkering on his bike at midnight the night before a race. He’s like, yeah, you know, I, I typically, my sleep’s not awesome. Then I’ve had other people on who are like, yeah, I sleep 10 hours a night before a race, so I’m more in the, I’m typically not getting a ton of sleep.
But that morning I woke up and I was so exhausted that I actually called my wife and I was like, Hey, you know what? I didn’t sleep at all last night. I, I don’t really know how I feel about doing this. And then my kids in the background were like, you gotta do it Ted. So I was like, okay, I guess, I guess I’m doing the event.
Um, so like once I got to the start, uh, the way the start is at this race, which I think this is very important information, I couldn’t find it online. So you’re not actually in a pen. You’re in this giant parking lot at Burke Mountain. I think it’s the lodge, so it’s like the lower part of the mountain. So it’s a giant dirt parking lot.
And I was able to just kind of slot in from the side where I wanted to position myself. And the tricky thing about the start, so it um, they do have a race vehicle that leads the race out, but you’re on a dirt road in a parking lot and. got there, I would say like a half hour before the event, they started lining up.
I got there about 20 minutes before I slotted in where I wanted to. The event starts, you go a couple hundred yards on this dirt road, you turn left, and then it’s a. Downhill. Um, both lanes are blocked, so they’re at that point the course is close and you go, you descend a couple a hundred feet and less than a mile.
So you’re going at a very high speed in a group of 500 people. And you know, I don’t know what everyone else did over the winter here in the northeast, but this was. For me the third time I had been on a bicycle outside in six months. So you know, I’ve gone from swift to I’m, you know, elbow to elbow with 500 people going, going down a hill like 45 miles an hour.
And then at the bottom of that hill it’s a hard left onto a dirt road. And then that’s the first kind of sorting out of the day. Uh, but that was not my favorite thing in life, to go down that descent. Even in a relatively controlled manner.
[00:33:40]Craig Dalton: Yeah, I can only imagine. It’s just like get your heart rate go. You don’t want your heart rate to be pumping that much when you’re just going downhill. Slightly terrified of what could happen around you as anything could with with that many people. Elbow to elbow and then turning into a dirt corner sounds like a recipe for disaster.
[00:33:58]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, not my favorite thing in the world. And like any road in the Northeast after winter, lots of just, you know, there are potholes, there’s stuff that you can’t see which anybody listening to this who does gravel events, you’re used to that. The difference is, Like you’re moving pretty quick when you go down this hill.
But again, for some people that’s just whatever. For me, it’s, it’s not my favorite thing to do on a bike. But then once we got to the bottom of the hill, turned left, and then it was just full gas for the next probably three miles. So there’s a really nice long climb with some really quite steep pitches right out of the gate that really starts to sort things out.
[00:34:39]Craig Dalton: Yeah. Yep. And then it starts to spread out a little bit and you can find smaller groups.
[00:34:44]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, exactly.
[00:34:46]Craig Dalton: And are you, are the roads just sort of wide dirt roads at that point?
[00:34:51]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. So if anybody has done unbound or if you’ve ridden in California’s Central Valley, Those roads. So like Midwest gravel, you’re gonna get generally chunkier, gravel, looser gravel. Gravel you might sink. In West Coast, it’s a bit different. It’s more, you know, I, I know there’s a variety of styles of gravel on the West coast, but it tends to be more hard packed dirt or gravel roads.
These roads were quite compact. It had rained quite a bit prior to the event. The research that I had done. Range from, Hey, it’ll be a complete mud fest if it rains, because they used to have a five mile quote unquote cyclo cross section in the race. And I’ll get to that because there was a, a surprise that was not in the G P X file that they had provided to participants in the race.
And I also had read, Hey, don’t worry about rain. The roads drain really fast. And if it. If it rains, it’s just gonna be harder packed and dry. I know people are also probably wondering about tires. I asked around quite a bit. I also recently had Dylan Johnson on my podcast and he of course is at the forefront of the whiter is Better Movement.
Uh, I personally, for this event, I ran forties. I ran Pelli. Hs. I, yeah, I think it’s like the hard pack Perelli tire. They’ve got a bit of side knob, but fast rolling. That was an excellent tire choice. I would recommend something like that, whether it’s going to be wet or dry, cuz that’s going to shed mud. If it’s muddy and if it’s dry, it’s like the perfect tire.
Something like that. So something with um, You know, either a smooth or a semis slick center knob, and then maybe a bit of edge because there is a lot of high speed downhilling. But the course itself, for the most part was pretty hard packed. But then there was, this was just like classic, lots of marly loose stuff in places you might not want it to be.
Right. Which I’m describing every gravel race ever. Um, but yeah. And then there were only a handful. There were a handful of short sections. That had fresh, just like fresh rocks dumped on them much later in the course. Um, but I think that was, uh, that was abnormal from what I could tell. I don’t know why that they had just freshly dumped rocks on the road there, but for the most part, pretty hard packed.
[00:37:26]Craig Dalton: And then what, what was the unexpected section of the
[00:37:29]Andrew Vontz: Oh wow. Um, so the unexpected section of the course, it was probably around mile. I’m guessing it was like mile 47. And I, I also will say that the course had excellent signage. This course had the best signage of any event I have ever participated in. I don’t know what your experience has been, but I just expect that in a hundred percent of events like this I participate in, I’m going to get totally lost at some point, or a sign will be pointing the wrong way or whatever.
It actually didn’t happen this time, uh, which, which was amazing. I got to this one section and I was fo, I knew I was following the signs that had said a hundred k course go this way. I turned and then I started to get the, you know, the dreaded off course notification on my garments. I’m like, okay, what’s going on?
There are people here? I think this is the right way, maybe not. And then I quickly kind of deduce was like, okay. Then it channeled us onto. Some double track and single track that was just really sloppy, relatively deep mud. And I don’t know if that was not included in the G P X file on purpose as kind of a surprise to participants or what the deal was, but that was about a three, three and a half mile section with a lot of single track.
And I don’t, I, I guess it’s just the nature of the soil in this one section that it was actually like quite thick. Mud and, you know, I was like, great, I can ride in muddy single track. I’ve done a ton of cyclo cross. This is kind of fun. Um, and then there were a couple of sections in there where it made more sense to get off and just like push through a couple of stream crossings and stuff.
It wasn’t a big deal. It was nothing like what I’d read online about. I, I don’t know if this was like the historic, horrible slug through the mud that I’d read about. It didn’t really seem like that. It seemed kind of fun.
[00:39:33]Craig Dalton: Yeah, I think, if I’m not mistaken, RAs says a Russian word for sort of spring mud,
[00:39:38]Andrew Vontz: Yes. Yeah.
[00:39:40]Craig Dalton: like it would be off brand if they didn’t have mud there for you to some degree.
[00:39:43]Andrew Vontz: well, they had it. They had it. And, uh, it was a, that was like a nice little reprieve because other than the descents, which were long, some of them were very high speed. Other than that, it’s like you were climbing the entire day, right? You’re either climbing a long climb or you’re going down a pretty gnarly descent.
And then some weather was blowing in in like the final two hours of the race. So once we were on some open stretches, cuz there were a couple small stretches of road there, there’s pretty serious head crosswinds. So this little downhill dive into the mud was like a nice respite. And then the race finishes.
With a very, to me, I mean by Marin standards, it’s just like whatever, it’s another write up railroad grade, but it was like quite a long climb at the finish of the race with some pretty steep sections.
[00:40:35]Craig Dalton: Were you able to stick together with riders for some time? I know it’s often challenging when you got climbing and descending as people have different skillset sets, but what was your experience?
[00:40:44]Andrew Vontz: My experience was I started the day and then I continued to go backwards the entire day.
[00:40:50]Craig Dalton: That’s a strategy I often employ
[00:40:52]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. Yeah. And um, I, I, you know, it’s interesting cuz I had done some really hard training rides, almost a full distance of this race. But at mile 40 for me, the wheels just completely came off. And I started to get those like full leg cramps where you’re like, Oh, I think my abductors and hamstrings are going to tear off the bone if I don’t get off my bike right now.
So I was that guy on the side of the road and then I did a lot more walking than I’ve actually done in any event, which again, I went to this event to challenge myself and do something I don’t normally do, and I got that challenge.
[00:41:36]Craig Dalton: Yeah. And yeah. And ultimately you made it to the finish line, right?
[00:41:39]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I made it to the finish line. I did.
[00:41:42]Craig Dalton: Awesome. And what, what was greeting you at the finish line? What kind of experience did they have there?
[00:41:48]Andrew Vontz: Um, so at the finish line, it finishes at a hotel of, uh, lodge thing that’s higher up on the mountain and giant crowd of people and. Really nice finishing shoot the mood. You know, I, it was a bit more subdued than I had anticipated. It being based on what I had read about the event and had seen described in the media, uh, from what I gathered.
Shortly after finishing a writer was killed on course, and by the time that I finish. I think that they, they had more or less shut it down. Um, and I don’t know if they were pulling writers from the course or what was going on, and my, one of my friends was like, Hey, somebody got killed today. There was a statement on social media from the organizers about that, and I think that, you know, understandably, it was a much more somber mood than I think it might have typically have been at the finish.
[00:42:47]Craig Dalton: That makes sense. I also read about that tragic news and, and such a tough loss for that cycling community. For sure.
[00:42:53]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:42:55]Craig Dalton: Yeah. Yeah. Well, good. I mean, I appreciate that overview of the race. Like it’s, ever since I had Heidi on the show in episode 12, it’s always been one that had had sort of just tickled my fancy because I, I, I, I feel like they’ve, Purposely kept the event weird and they kept it on point and on brand for them.
They’re not trying to make this a full-time vocation. They’re just trying to put on a great event for the community that represents their values, which all the evidence I’ve seen over the years is they hold those values close and strong, which I appreciate.
[00:43:30]Andrew Vontz: Yeah, absolutely. And I didn’t mention this. But they did have, there were a number of, um, you know, in tech, I can’t believe I’m using like corporate nomenclature, but like, we would call these like surprise and delight moments, right? So like when you’re out on the course, you come around the corner and you know, there’s a dance party with people in costumes, stuff like that.
And then of course the classic like, Hey, people giving you bacon or tons of people out there on the side of the road. With coolers full of beer if you wanna stop and drink a beer. Um, you know, so there’s, there’s a lot of fun stuff like that that’s going on. And then following the event, they had a grunge themed party afterwards.
Grunge is back. Everybody. If in case, in case you haven’t been sticking with it for the last, um, 25, 30 years, grunge is back. It’s big, it’s big here in the Northeast. So yeah, there was a lot of, uh, there was a lot of fun stuff. I also feel like Craig, I would be remiss. If I didn’t address the conundrum, I know everyone will have planning for this event as they do for all events.
So there’s no outside support allowed. They have three water and aid stations on the course. They’re not car accessible. Um, so you have to make that decision of what is my hydration strategy? Am I running a pack? Or am I going with bottles? I would say the chorus is definitely smooth enough that running bottles is fine if you don’t mind stopping and taking time to refill your bottles or do mix.
Uh, the guys I rode with Morgan and Jamie, they both ran. Pack and then one bottle. So kind of depending on your finishing time and whether you’re just there to have a, a chill, you know, a chill ride with 7,200 feet of climbing or, or you wanna try to finish as quickly as possible. You kind of have to do that calculus.
If you want to go really fast, I would say wear a pack and bring a bottle and that’s probably gonna be enough if you can finish and sub three hours and 30 minutes. Um, for me, I ended up doing four bottles. And yeah, I stopped at the 35 Mile aid station to refill my bottles cuz I was a, I was a completer.
[00:45:44]Craig Dalton: I can’t resist that stopping. And if you wanna know about the aerodynamics of Camelback wearing, you can watch one of Dylan Johnson’s recent great videos, which you may have covered on your podcast.
[00:45:54]Andrew Vontz: I, I think that may have come out after we did the episode, but yeah, that was pretty interesting and in line with what I’ve seen previously, I think, I mean, that’s why they’re banned in road racing because they’re so aerodynamic.
[00:46:08]Craig Dalton: I do wanna touch on the podcast just real quickly. I know we’re getting press on time, but can you talk about the Choose the Hard Way podcast and what was your vision when starting it? I know talking to cyclists and, and cycling personalities is only a small component of it, but I’d love for you just to talk about the broader goal of it, cuz I think it’s such a fascinating topic that resonates super strongly with me.
[00:46:31]Andrew Vontz: Uh, awesome. I’m glad to hear that Craig. And I hope that, um, if people enjoyed this podcast and you like doing things like going and doing gravel events, I think you would dig the show and I invite you to come check us out. You can find [email protected] and we’re on all listening platforms and on social at Hardware Pod.
The origin of the show for me. Was when I was a communications executive at Strava. I loved what I was doing. I was deeply passionate about it and grateful that I got to do it, and I’ve really, really missed certain parts of what I got to do as a journalist. And the thing I missed the most was just the opportunity that I had to get to spend time with some of the world’s most talented, highest achieving people, and more specifically, a learning that I had from my time as a journalist early on.
Um, was just that some of the world’s most talented, most successful people face the same struggles, moments of self-doubt as everybody else. And I know that there’s a lot of talk about authenticity and so forth these days, and I just don’t feel like a lot of stories are actually getting told that, um, are truly unfiltered and really give you a look at what does it actually take.
To do things at the highest level in different disciplines. So the purpose of the show was, I’m just a deeply curious person, and this was an area of curiosity that I wanted to pursue. I wanted to become I, at that point in time, I bet I’d done more than 500 if not a thousand interviews as a journalist with different sources for different stories, and I just wanted to keep.
Getting better at being an interviewer and to do something in a completely different format because what we do here, what I do on my podcast, it, it’s somewhat similar to what you might do as a journalist, but everything about it is actually completely different. So I had to learn a whole new skill set, and I just really valued getting to share these stories with as many people as possible just based around this idea that.
You know, hard things build stronger humans and that doing hard things is fun. Which ironically I started the show in 2018 and since then I bet there have been no less than half a dozen books and businesses started around like this whole idea of like do hard things, et cetera, which is cool. I think it’s awesome.
The more people embrace that kind of mindset, the better. And what I like doing on my show is, is getting people at the top of their game on and. Just learning more about like, Hey, what does it actually take to do that? What has the path been and where do they want to go?
[00:49:18]Craig Dalton: Yeah, I love it. Thanks for that Andrew. Everyone go out and subscribe to that podcast. Give it a listen. As I said, start, if you wanna go easy, start with the cycling ones. You get the flow, you get into it and then dip into that deeper catalog cuz you, you’ve got a lot of great guests on the show.
[00:49:34]Andrew Vontz: Thank you.
[00:49:35]Craig Dalton: Yeah. Cool.
Well thanks for all the time. I appreciate, uh, a, getting to know you in the course of recording on your podcast. B, just getting to know your experience as a cyclist. I knew we would sort of, our histories would align the way I afforded. My first spikes were, were painting houses, so you were pushing, I was swiping paintbrushes on houses.
[00:49:59]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. Yeah. One of my, Craig, one of my least favorite jobs that I ever had was scraping paint, so I hope that you got to focus on painting and not
[00:50:07]Craig Dalton: Oh, the scraping was the worst. I
[00:50:09]Andrew Vontz: Oh, it’s so bad.
[00:50:10]Craig Dalton: they sell you on the painting and then you learn that you have to scrape in order to paint,
[00:50:15]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. That’s kind of like the rest of life, right?
[00:50:19]Craig Dalton: if you know, you know.
[00:50:21]Andrew Vontz: Yeah.
[00:50:22]Craig Dalton: With that, I’ll let you go, Andrew. Have a great night and we’ll talk again soon.
[00:50:26]Andrew Vontz: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, and I look forward to us catching a ride when I’m out in the Bay Area.
[00:50:31]Craig Dalton: Cheers.
[00:50:32]Andrew Vontz: Thank you.
Until next time here’s to finding some dirt under your wheels.