Kiel Reijnen and his 5-year-old daughter EmmyLou went on the 102-mile ride of a lifetime
Kiel Reijnen says that seeing his five-and-a-half-year-old daughter EmmyLou’s adventurous spirit is like looking in a mirror. “For better or for worse.”
Kiel is a well-traveled former road racer, now gravel and adventure rider as part of the Trek Race Shop’s Driftless program. He’s a bold soul whose body and mind are particularly attuned to long, difficult endeavors. And it’s because of this reputation that he emphasizes that riding the 102-mile gravel race Rebecca’s Private Idaho in tandem with his daughter wasn’t his idea; it was EmmyLou’s. In fact, he talked her down from an even more ambitious goal.
“She said, ‘Dad, I want to ride to Idaho with you,'” Kiel says. “By the time I’d mapped out enough side roads, trails and bike paths, it was nearly 800 miles. A week before kindergarten, that seemed like a bad idea.”
Kiel has no idea where EmmyLou got the idea for the ride. His best guess is that she learned about the majesty of the Gem State while listening to a book on tape. But her audacity was nothing new. Last year, Kiel, EmmyLou and EmmyLou’s grandfather Derek took on the WA360, a seven-day, 360-mile sailboat race in the Puget Sound. Kiel knew she had fortitude.
But was it possible? EmmyLou wasn’t a newbie cyclist; she and her dad had gone up to 50 miles on pavement with EmmyLou pedaling along behind Kiel on a Weehoo bike trailer. But this ride would be twice as long under the late summer sun and at altitude. She’d be riding low to the ground, near the dust and dirt. And how would Kiel himself hold up? He may be a pro, but he’d be hauling nearly 240 pounds combined weight of riders and equipment.
“Safety was paramount to me,” Kiel says. “I wanted to walk away from this knowing that EmmyLou felt like it was a positive experience.”
The first step was putting EmmyLou in the right frame of mind. Kiel and EmmyLou reached out to World Bicycle Relief before the ride to see if they could raise money for the organization. They came up with a name, Team Dad By My Side, and raised nearly $4,300 after setting a goal of $3,630. They raised enough money to provide roughly 26 Buffalo Bicycles to rural communities.
Working with WBR accomplished two things: 1) Support for an excellent cause, and 2) Giving the ride context. By raising so much money, Kiel was able to assure EmmyLou that their endeavor would be a success, regardless whether they reached the finish line. With that peace of mind, EmmyLou wouldn’t feel pressure to push herself beyond her capabilities.
“If it didn’t feel safe at any point in time, that was the end of this project,” Kiel says. “I really wanted to emphasize with Emmy that we had already won just by being brave enough to show up and try.”
Kiel involved EmmyLou as much as he could in every step of planning. He didn’t want to simply tell her what to do. She made trips to the bike shop with her dad to pick out equipment that she helped install on the bike. She sat in on phone calls with sponsors and friends to work out the logistics of the ride.
In Emmy's infinite five-and-a-half-year-old wisdom, she looks at me and goes, 'You know what, Dad? I'm really proud of you too.'
- Kiel Reijnen
Kiel says that knowing the details is another way that EmmyLou steels herself for a big excursion. They spent six months preparing for the WA360, including hands-on practice on the boat every Wednesday. Rebecca’s Private Idaho was no different. Kiel and EmmyLou spent a lot of time poring over details together, like the type of terrain they’d be riding, the geological formations they would see, the number of other riders on the road, and more. That information reinforced EmmyLou’s confidence.
“She likes to have all the particulars,” Kiel says. “I think that that helps her prepare mentally, by having a lot more information and control over not just the day we do it, but over the decisions that get made along the way.”
Kiel has two rules for big adventures with his daughter: 1) It has to be entirely her idea (check) and 2) There needs to be a way out at every point. Kiel busied himself with setting up the bike and the fundraiser, and enlisted the help of his friend Alex Howes to pore over the course route and map out pacing and fueling strategies, and easy places to exit the course in case of fatigue or emergency. Alex produced a concise summary and Kiel wrote everything down on a sheet of paper that he could reference throughout the ride.
On the day of, Kiel made sure EmmyLou had plenty of food and water. She wore a helmet, of course, as well as ski goggles and a buff to protect her eyes and face from the sun, dust and rocks.
For 85 miles, the ride went better than Kiel could have envisioned. The route is an out-and-back to Copper Basin with several off-shoot loops that Kiel and EmmyLou could have skipped if they wanted to shorten the ride. Kiel checked in with EmmyLou constantly, making sure she was comfortable, hydrated and fed. The first big rest stop, and potential decision point, came at the Mile 24, and EmmyLou was in strong spirits. Just before Mile 40, Kiel calculated that they would safely make the time cut, and turned around to let EmmyLou know.
“I said, ‘Emmy, I’m just so proud of you for doing this with me. … It doesn’t matter if we stop now, I’m just really proud of you for being brave enough to try,'” Kiel says. “And, of course, in Emmy’s infinite five-and-a-half-year-old wisdom, she looks at me and goes, ‘You know what, Dad? I’m really proud of you too.'”
Just past the midpoint of the ride, EmmyLou’s competitive juices kicked in. She noted that they passed another tandem bike on a climb towards the third feed zone. As Kiel and EmmyLou approached their planned stop, she urged her dad to keep going.
“She goes, ‘I don’t want them to catch us, I think we should skip the feeds,'” Kiel says. “I eventually got her to agree to a three-minute stop and fill up bottles. But then for four hours she was super motivated, saying, ‘We can win the tandem category.’ [Laughs]. I have no idea where she even figured out that that was a category to win.”
But every good journey has obstacles. At Mile 86, Kiel says that both he and EmmyLou “broke down a little bit.” They were two hours past the longest ride they had ever done together, and both were suffering in their own ways. EmmyLou’s butt was sore and her nose was chapped. Wearing a buff had been mildly uncomfortable for her, so she took it on and off several times during the ride, exposing her face to sun and dust. And her legs were tired. Kiel estimates that she stopped pedaling for a total of maybe 45 minutes during a nearly nine-hour ride.
It wasn't a Belgian classic. But the mental energy I had to expend outweighed almost anything I've ever done.
- Kiel Reijnen
Kiel’s fatigue was more mental. He had spent several weeks planning a complex and ambitious expedition with his young daughter. The day before the ride, he wasn’t sitting on a couch with his legs up like he might have been during his Trek-Segafredo days; he was looking after his daughter and making sure that he had taken care of every last minute detail. During the ride, his neck became sore from frequently looking back at EmmyLou. He constantly asked her questions or gave her reminders, “Did you drink? Did you eat a little bit? Keep hydrating.” All the while, he didn’t realize that his parental anxiety was exacting a toll.
“I spent so much energy on that that I kind of neglected myself in a lot of ways, and that made the effort feel bigger than it might have otherwise,” Kiel says. “It wasn’t a Belgian classic. But the mental energy I had to expend outweighed almost anything I’ve ever done. And so I felt physically exhausted.”
For example, Kiel had difficulty fueling because he didn’t want to take his hands off his handlebars, lest he risk crashing. He never felt in danger of bonking or making bad decisions, and the leisurely rest stops were a necessary reprieve. But by Mile 86, in the midst of a tough, tricky section of the course dubbed “El Diablito,” he had just about reached his limit.
Kiel gave EmmyLou an out. They pulled over to the side of the road and he said, “Em, this is actually a great point to just stop. I’ve seen cars on this road pretty frequently. There’s a photo moto that’s just behind us, they’ll be here in just a couple of minutes. It’s totally OK, we can just call it. You did amazing. We rode 86 miles. It’s way further than I could have imagined we’d be capable of riding.”
Kiel asked EmmyLou if she felt hot or sleepy, and explained that they had about an hour left in the ride. He had kept her on a strict hydration schedule. After taking into account her physical state, Kiel felt confident that he could trust his daughter’s decision making. If she said she wanted to push on, he would do his best to help her finish.
“She said, ‘No Dad. I want to keep going and I want to go the bumpy way’ — referring to the technical route,” Kiel says. “And then she said, ‘Just let me be upset about it.'”
EmmyLou’s response stunned Kiel.
“The most impressive thing to me is that she has the self awareness to say, ‘This is hard, I’m uncomfortable, but it’s worth it to me to continue because I know the feeling I’ll get at the end of it will outweigh this feeling I’m having now,'” Kiel says.
They pushed on, into a steady climb and headwind up some of the roughest roads on the course. Kiel began checking in with EmmyLou more frequently, but her spirits only seemed to lift and lift and lift. At the top of the climb, they reached a feed zone with roughly 10 miles to go, and EmmyLou asked if they could take a long break and reassess their ride. They sat in the shade, drank cold water and ate snacks. They cheered on passing riders and basked in the atmosphere.
At some point, another competitive notion struck EmmyLou. She looked at Kiel and reminded him that only riders who finish the ride get to ring the gong at the staging area. Kiel said that he would ride with her to the finish line if that’s what she wanted. The rest of the ride would, mercifully, roll mostly downhill. He told EmmyLou, “Why don’t you take five more minutes to think about it and then we can go if that’s still what you want to do.” They waited, then EmmyLou suddenly said, “We gotta go now, I want to get to that finish line.”
Kiel and EmmyLou finished with a time of 8:54:09. And yes, they stood atop the podium as the fastest tandem in the race. But the final gauge of success would come down to EmmyLou. Above all, Kiel wanted to know that his daughter was proud of what she had done, and that she’d had a good experience. That one day, she would be glad that she convinced her dad to take her to Idaho.
"When it comes to a hard part, I think about how fun it will be in just a minute."
- EmmyLou Reijnen
“My greatest fear as a parent was ending up in a situation where she had an experience that made her feel like, ‘I wish I hadn’t done this,'” Kiel says. “I really enjoy going on big adventures with my daughter, and I like doing big things with her. And if I do anything to discourage that, I’ve ruined that magic.”
After their ride, EmmyLou told her dad “I want to do 10,000 More Rebecca’s Private Idahos.” Kiel beamed. More than the fact of accomplishing a 102-mile ride, Kiel was proud to know that he had helped make his daughter happy.
“It seemed like she really got it,” Kiel says. “She understood that not every dad would have said yes to doing something like this. I’ll refrain from saying whether she’s lucky for having a dad who’s willing to say yes. I think a lot of five-and-a-half-year-olds have crazy big ideas, and she just happens to have a dad who’s willing to take her seriously.”
That evening, Kiel and EmmyLou went to a friend’s place, which happened to have a swimming pool. EmmyLou wanted to play in the water, much to the chagrin of her father, who thought he was “gonna drown the whole time because I was so tired.” The fact that EmmyLou was swimming circles around her dad is a testament to her toughness. After the race, she says that her favorite part of Rebecca’s Private Idaho was “all the hard parts.”
“I like how hard it can be, but how fun it can be,” EmmyLou says. “Like, when it comes to a hard part, I think about how fun it will be in just a minute.”
EmmyLou is already thinking ahead to her next adventure with her dad. She recently asked him if anyone has ever ridden across America. When Kiel replied, “yes,” she asked if they could do it together. When Kiel explained that the ride would take a lot of preparation, even more than Rebecca’s Private Idaho, EmmyLou didn’t blink. Whatever it takes, she’s stoked on adventure.
“I want to ride across America because there will be really pretty things,” EmmyLou says. “There could be a giant jungle with animals.”
When Kiel texted his wife the night after the ride to say how “amazing and crazy” their daughter is, she responded, “Yep, just like her dad.” It’s not hard to see the similarities between the two — the perseverance, the toughness, the zeal for adventure.
But if there’s one thing Kiel wants to make abundantly clear, it’s that EmmyLou made Rebecca’s Private Idaho entirely her own. She was the spark, and she made the decision to keep going at a difficult moment in the ride, driven by a unique sense of wonder. There’s no one quite like EmmyLou.
“I like how much nature I see when I’m out riding my bike,” she says. “You will see purple trees and beautiful views. And the water sparkles.
“And nature holds beauty.”