Trek's intrepid Driftless crew are seeking out the gnarliest races on gravel and beyond
Trek’s Driftless crew is back, and it’s bigger and better than ever.
We mean that. This year, Paige Onweller is joining the program alongside Ruth Winder, Kiel Reijnen and Amity Rockwell. All four riders are taking on some of the most ambitious events across North America, and even abroad. If a race involves long stretches of dirt and rocks and (on occasion) mud, there’s a good chance you’ll find a Driftless rider nearby.
Their mission remains the same: Do our best to win races, yes, but also continue to be the best ambassadors possible within a sport that is growing exponentially through community. If you’re at the same race as a Driftless rider and you like having fun on two wheels (who doesn’t?!), then keep your eyes peeled. You might have a chance to hop on a group ride with the gang, or shoot the breeze at the Trek RV.
Stop No. 1: The Mid South in Stillwater, Okla., for 100 miles of red dirt and delightfully unpredictable weather. If you’re in the area on Friday, join up for the first no-drop group ride. It’ll be a great time, guaranteed.
What happens during the race is anyone’s guess. That’s the trick and the charm of gravel racing: Across so much rough terrain, the unexpected is bound to occur. But to quote one Kiel Reijnen, “The first question I hope that I get asked [after a gravel race] isn’t ‘What place did you come in?’ It’s, ‘How did it go out there? What happened?’”
Get ready for some incredible racing, but more importantly, get ready to hear some incredible stories from four riders who live and breathe adventure.
4 things to know
No one is going to have a better time than Kiel Reijnen
Kiel seems to get the most out of every race he enters, even if it doesn’t go well. Take his journey at Unbound Gravel in 2021. Thirty miles into a 200-mile race, he broke his wheel, then ran nearly 18 miles in his socks hoping he might salvage the race.
Kiel loves adventure, especially when it incorporates his friends and loved ones. Last year, at his five-year-old daughter’s request, he took on 102 miles of sun, dust and altitude with her right behind in a bike trailer. Another one of his favorite moments was simply getting to ride with team mechanic Tom Price at The Mid South last year.
“Normally he is hard at work on our Trek Checkpoints, so only on rare occasions do we get to go out and do something fun together,” Kiel says. “On this particular morning, the day after a race, he and I were able to sneak out for a couple hours and enjoy the early morning light.”
In addition to racing, Kiel is focused on giving back to cycling this year. He’s coaching middle and high school mountain bikers in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, and working behind the scenes on projects to engage a passionate gravel community. He is a joy machine. If you have the chance to meet him, you’ll quickly understand what we mean.
Ruth Winder is pushing her limits
Kiel and Ruth both raced for Trek-Segafredo, and retired from the grueling World Tour grind in part to focus on a more rewarding relationship with their bikes. For Ruth, this meant adopting a less performance-focused mindset to racing. She had an incredible career on the road — if you’ve never seen her iconic bike throw at Brabantse Pilj, then click here immediately — but felt burnt out by strict training and travel schedules.
After her first season racing gravel, however, Ruth began to feel a familiar itch.
“I’ve found a bit more motivation this year to push myself again,” Ruth says. “After last year, I didn’t think I would again. But it also feels less intense because I have so much more confidence in myself as a cyclist and I’m just out to see what I can do rather than prove something to myself and others.”
Winder is aiming to win races, while never losing sight of the fact that taking on gravel should always be a unique and positive experience, regardless of outcome. Ruth and Kiel formed a tight bond last year as former American roadies entering Act II of their racing careers. One of her favorite memories was racing Leadville with him and suffering nearly simultaneous broken wheels.
“We both broke wheels and had sort of a terrible time,” Ruth says. “But it just felt like such a strong memory. And being from Colorado, it’s such a big deal bike race that I’d always been curious about.”
Ruth’s competitiveness and sense of adventure were made for gravel. She’s reaching for new heights in 2023.
Paige Onweller might be gravel’s fastest rising star
Paige won Big Sugar in October last year and firmly established herself as one of the most impressive athletes in gravel racing. But the most impressive part about that victory may be that she was working as a full-time physician’s assistant at the time.
Now, she’s putting her medical career on pause to focus solely on racing and explore the full extent of her potential.
“It’s exciting for me to think about what I can accomplish if I dedicate a little bit more time and energy to this,” Paige told the Trek Race Shop. “And in quitting my job, I didn’t make that decision so I can train more. I’ve always been ambitious and I can fit things in, but I made this decision so I can have more balance in regards to things off the bike.”
Paige not only wants to climb podiums, but she believes she can inspire others with her unique background. Her skills are still raw compared to other elite riders, especially at 33 years old, but she’s proving that it’s never too late to pursue cycling as a passion.
“I want people to see my story and say, ‘Well, if she can do that, I can try to ride bikes,’” Paige says. “And so for me that’s most exciting. I have these sponsors that believe in me, and that can get me the support that I need, but then also showcase what I’m capable of, so that other women who are new to this can see me as an example.”
Amity Rockwell will take on any challenge
Amity is the steely gravel veteran of the Driftless program. She has been seeking out the most unique challenges in the sport for years, and won Unbound Gravel in 2019. She’s been to just about every race, from California to Chequamegon.
Variety is her spice, and that’s why she’s headed out of North America for events like Migration Gravel in Kenya, The Rift in Iceland and The Traka in Girona, Spain. Amity isn’t afraid to go out of her comfort zone. She has already attempted the daunting 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo this year, and will be taking on everything from stage racing (like Migration and the BC Bike Race) to technical mountain biking (like the Downieville Classic).
“As much as I love Kansas, I can only handle so many ninety degree turns before I want some spice,” Amity says. “I’m happiest when I’m doing things I feel slightly bad at. Something about the challenge and about not having as much pre-existing pressure on myself, and definitely the excitement of the unknown, is what keeps me engaged in racing my bike.”
You’ll still see Amity at Unbound, of course, but having conquered the famous Flint Hills region around Emporia, Kans., she’s anxious to highlight gravel’s undersung events, and learn more about herself along the way. One of her favorite events last year was the BC Bike Race for the fact that she got to use a brand new skill set that she had been working hard to develop.
“I didn’t have the skills for it even a year ago,” Amity says. “But thanks to moving up to the mountains and having a lot of mountain bike practice, I was able to show up and not only finish, but contend for podiums along the way.”
Follow Amity, and you might discover your new favorite race.
Where the Driftless crew is headed
One of the best parts about gravel racing is that races can take place any time, anywhere. But there are a few marquee events that you might want to keep an eye on.
The Mid South – March 11, Stillwater, Okla.
What it’s about: 100 miles on red dirt that can quickly turn to sticky clay if rain rears its ugly head. When that happens, simply completing the race is an impressive feat.
Sea Otter Classic – April 20-23, Monterrey, Calif.
What it’s about: 65 miles taking place in a gorgeous setting as part of one of the biggest and best bike festivals in the world.
Unbound Gravel – June 3, Emporia, Kans.
What it’s about: Gravel’s biggest event in every sense. Unbound is 200 miles of dusty Kansas roads featuring some of the very best cyclists in the world.
Crusher in the Tushar – July 8, Beaver, Utah
What it’s about: Billed as the “toughest 69.9 miles on the planet,” and it’s hard to argue. Crusher in the Tushar takes place at high altitude, and features 10,400 feet of climbing.
Leadville MTB 100 – August 12, Leadville, Colo.
What it’s about: An absolute lung buster at 100 miles at high elevation. This race makes up the first half of the notorious LeadBoat Challenge.
Steamboat GRVL – August 20, Steamboat Springs, Colo.
What it’s about: No longer the same weekend as Leadville this year, but still a merciless event at 142 miles and 9,200 feeting of climbing.
Gravel Worlds – August 26, Lincoln, Nebr.
What it’s about: 150 miles of 100 percent self-supported racing, which means careful planning and no team cars. This race is an ode to the origins of gravel racing.
Rebecca’s Private Idaho – September 3, Sun Valley, Idaho
What it’s about: A long-running event featuring 103 miles of racing and 6,300 feet of climbing, all raising money for an excellent cause. Kiel’s daughter was one of the stars of last year’s race.
Chequamegon – September 16, Chequamegon, Wisc.
What it’s about: A 40-mile race at the tippy top of Wisconsin, which is also part of a mountain bike festival that has now been running for 40-plus years.
Big Sugar – October 21, Northwest Arkansas
What it’s about: Arkansas is a gravel and mountain biking paradise, and in the midst of autumn, there may be no better place to be in the world.
Iceman Cometh – November 4, Traverse City, Mich.
What it’s about: Nearly 45 miles of point-to-point mountain bike racing in the northern reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Don’t take the name of the race lightly: This late season race can get downright frigid.
Be sure to follow Kiel (@kielreijnen), Ruth (@ruthwinder8), Paige (@paigepowered) and Amity (@amityvil) on their respective platforms to keep track of all of their adventures this year. And follow the Trek Race Shop (@trekraceshop) for more behind the scenes content, as well as information on events like group rides.
This year is going to be so much fun. Ready your Checkpoints!