Three new riders are gearing up with Trek to take on the most unique cycling challenges in the world
The Driftless program, Trek’s all-surface adventure racing collective, has added three new riders for the 2024 season. Say hello to Haley Hunter Smith, Russell Finsterwald and Torbjørn Andre Røed (you can call him Toby), three gravel-hardened racers preparing to take on events big and small on some of the most far-out roads and trails this great planet has to offer.
They’ll join returning rider Paige Onweller at marquee events, including Lifetime Grand Prix races like Unbound Gravel, the Chequamegon MTB Festival and Big Sugar. But beyond the staples of the domestic racing scene, they’ll also take part in unique events they’re passionate about on a personal level, whether that’s XC marathon racing, road racing, or competing in parts of the world they’ve yet to discover.
Driftless is also saying goodbye to three incredible riders, and founding members of the program, in Kiel Reijnen, Ruth Winder and Amity Rockwell. All three are off to new adventures. In their time with Driftless, they created memories on and off the dirt, and were excellent stewards of both Trek and a still-burgeoning discipline.
The program is undergoing a lot of big changes, but the mission is the same: To empower athletes to have an absolute blast at the most unique races in the world, and to show off cycling’s ability to tell unforgettable stories and build community using just two wheels.
Meet the squad
The draw to Trek for all three incoming riders is simple: Freedom. With Trek, they’ll not only be able to pursue their full athletic potential, with the best equipment and support anywhere, but they’ll also have the flexibility to define their programs in ways that are meaningful to them.
Finsterwald is a veteran racer at 32 years old. He laughs that he feels like an “old dog” on the circuit of a relatively new discipline. He began regularly taking on gravel events in 2019 after a decorated mountain biking career that included five U.S. national titles, most recently the 2019 XC Marathon national championship.
He has made a major impact in his time within an increasingly competitive men’s gravel field. In 2023, Finsterwald was fourth overall on the final Lifetime Grand Prix standings (highlighted by a second place finish at the Sea Otter Classic) and won Belgian Waffle Ride California. In 2022, he won Big Sugar, and in 2021, he took second in the vaunted LeadBoat Challenge after nearly 13 hours and 250 miles of racing at SBT Gravel and the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.
In cycling, if you're willing to be a sponge, there's always so much to learn.
- Russell Finsterwald
Finsterwald enjoys the challenge of finding new ways to grow and push himself every year, even as a rider who has already experienced so much in his career.
“In cycling, if you’re willing to be a sponge, there’s always so much to learn,” Finsterwald says. “I’ve started watching a lot of the classics races, just because I feel like they race like a gravel race. In mountain biking, you just go as hard as you can as long as you can, and that’s more or less the tactic. But gravel racing has introduced a lot of different tactics, and I’m understanding why certain breakaways go and why they stay away. I’ve just really tried to be a sponge as much as possible.”
Smith, like Finsterwald, has made an indelible mark in mountain biking. The 30-year-old is a two-time Canadian national champion, winning the XC Marathon title this past year. She was also second at the XC Marathon World Cup race in Snowshoe, a feat that was especially impressive given that she almost got the date wrong.
She didn’t take on her first gravel race until 2022, when she raced the mother of them all: Unbound. She was coming off a disappointing performance (by her standards) at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that had negatively impacted her mental health. She had never done any race as long nor as difficult as the 200-mile gauntlet through Kansas’ Flint Hills. She finished sixth that day. More importantly, she discovered the discipline that perhaps suits her best, due to its emphasis on exploration, community and discovering one’s absolute limits.
“In every sense of the word, cycling has been my medicine,” Smith says. “And I think it’s a really powerful tool that can be used by people in the same circumstances, but also people who don’t have a formal diagnosis, and don’t know how to cope, or could cope better. That’s kind of what I’ve always tried to use the bike for, is to share how it can support wellness and mental health.”
In 2023, Smith finished third overall on the Lifetime Grand Prix standings, with podiums at Sea Otter and Crusher in the Tushar, and a win at Belgian Waffle Ride BC. But her multidisciplinary talents don’t end with bikes. Smith is also currently doing her masters in science and sports psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario. Her research centers on how physical activity, including cycling, can aid child development.
You're not just competitors, because for events this big, you need each other to get through them. You won't win, let alone finish, on your own.
- Haley Hunter Smith
She has found, for example, that cycling strengthens the bonds between children and their parents when they participate together. The finding wasn’t a surprise. Smith, herself, is drawn to gravel racing because of its communal nature.
“I didn’t know it at the very beginning, but I quickly found out that gravel is pretty cool because you are friends with the people you’re racing with,” Smith says. “You’re not just competitors, because for events this big, you need each other to get through them. You won’t win, let alone finish, on your own. You need other people.”
Røed, just 26 years old, comes to Driftless from Norway via Colorado. He moved to the United States in 2018, following his brother to Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where Trek Factory Racing standouts Gwendalyn Gibson and Madigan Munro also raced, and where Røed struck up a friendship with Durango-native Riley Amos. During his career, Røed has raced just about every cycling discipline under the sun — from mountain biking, to road, to track — and found his calling in gravel, where his big engine and refined bike skills can truly shine.
In 2023, Røed broke out with a win at Big Sugar in Arkansas. The win revealed a lot to Røed: First, that he has the power and talent to win against the very best in the sport. Second, that he can sprint. The lanky Norwegian had never thought much of his finishing kick, but apparently after a long day of gravel grinding, he’s at his very best. He went heads up with Brendan Johnston, Alexey Vermeulen and Keegan Swenson, and put his wheel ahead of them at the line for one of the biggest wins of his young career.
But Røed’s approach to racing is hardly cutthroat. Like Smith and Finsterwald, the discoveries he has made and the relationships he has created through gravel bring him the greatest joy. His best memories of the sport involve getting lost in the scenery with incredible people.
“Like, I remember sitting there in a race with [Christopher] Blevins and Keegan [Swenson], and we’re just chatting it up while we were all taking a break,” Røed says. “We were all just out there to enjoy it, not just to take the edge off each other. It was just a very friendly vibe, and I felt welcome even though I was the young underdog, the odd one out.”
Onweller is one of the most unique athletes in a sport that’s full of great characters. She just finished her first complete season as a full-time gravel racer after eight years working as a physician’s assistant. The season was full of strong results and learning experiences for a rider who is still relatively new to racing. She was a regular presence in the top five, a second-place finish at Garmin Gravel Worlds, and a fourth-place finish at Big Sugar after winning the event in 2022.
Onweller is on a mission to take the top step at the biggest races, but in a whirlwind year, she learned a lot about patience and the fickle nature of offroad racing. This offseason, she has focused hard on skills training, even moving to Bentonville, Ark., to be closer to some of the best trails in the U.S.
We were all just out there to enjoy it, not just to take the edge off each other.
- Torbjørn Andre Røed
“This was my first season racing full time and I learned a lot about communication, sponsors and what brings value to my program,” Onweller said. “I came into the season with high hopes, but learned that racing can be pretty cutthroat and brutal. It was good to experience some lows and to become more well rounded as a person and athlete as a result. I learned who my support system was and learned to give myself grace as a professional athlete, which isn’t always easy.”
Finsterwald, Smith, Røed and Onweller will carry on a legacy of great vibes and community interaction that Reijnen, Winder and Rockwell began as Driftless’ founding members in 2021.
Though the original Driftless 3 will be missed, they’re all moving on to fulfilling new endeavors.
Reijnen has been “racing with a leg over a Trek bicycle for eight years now,” beginning in 2016 with Lidl-Trek. Though he hasn’t turned his last pedal stroke, he is retiring from full-time racing to redouble his focus on his community. This January, he will begin attending Fire Fighter Academy and EMT School in preparation for a job with the Bainbridge Island Fire Department. He will also attend a few local (and non-local) gravel and mountain bike events, while also pitching in to coach the local middle school/high school MTB team.
“What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to make genuine connections with everyone participating in the events and the chance to rekindle many friendships from my early racing days,” Reijnen said. “After 20 years pedaling around the world, it was time to put my energy towards supporting my community and helping others more than just through bikes.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better home and I am so grateful for the support I have received from the Trek organization, and even more importantly from the people behind that organization.”
Winder has already announced the next step of her journey. The talented former Lidl-Trek rider is returning to the world of road racing with Human Powered Health Cycling. You can watch her on her new squad at the Tour Down Under later this month.
2024 will be the third year of the Driftless program’s existence. In that span, it has become a fixture at major races, inviting anyone and everyone to join the pros on shakeout rides, or visit the retro camper for a cold beer of both the regular and root variety.
Driftless riders set their own racing programs. Expect to see them at many of the well-known events on the adventure circuit, but they may also turn up at tucked away races that showcase their skill sets, or give them unique experiences. For Smith, that means a healthy dose of XC marathon racing. For Røed, that could be a race across lava fields like The Rift in Iceland.
According to Finsterwald, he feels supported by Trek to evolve however he sees fit.
“I feel like Trek really values what you want to do as a rider, and if there’s a means to support you in doing that, they want to help be a part of that,” Finsterwald says. “As I get older, and probably get a little slower, I’d definitely like to look into doing some ultra-endurance stuff, whether that’s the Tour Divide, Colorado Trail, or just some of these neat bikepacking races that are popping up these days. It’s like the next part in my career after gravel racing has come full circle.”
I feel like Trek really values what you want to do as a rider.
It’s impossible to know where you might bump into a Driftless rider — they might be anywhere — but when you do, expect a warm interaction. This crew is embracing everything that makes gravel racing great.
“It provides an opportunity to put a little bit more meaning in what we do, and that’s really important for me,” Smith says. “The ability to impact other people has always been a really strong motivator for me.”
Driftless is a program designed to help riders be the best versions of themselves, both as athletes and as human beings. For Smith, Finsterwald, Røed and Onweller, it’s a chance to compete and win, but also to contribute to something beyond themselves and shape a still-burgeoning discipline, and cycling writ large, in their own image.
“I feel very clear about what the spirit of gravel is,” Smith says. “I’ve spent almost a year thinking about this in an academic way. And what we’ve come up with is that the spirit of gravel is whatever it needs to be for anyone. The spirit of gravel is that it’s different for every person.”
Keep your eyes peeled for the Driftless crew in 2024. Wherever they are, adventure will shortly follow.