A little over two years ago, while prepping for our first attempts at the 200-mile Unbound Gravel, Tony (Palicci) and I set off for the East Bay in search of fitness. We had received entries to Unbound fairly late in the day through a project with our friends from Enve (akin to finding out the guillotine greaser put your name down for beta testing - tomorrow), so in some kind of fever, we scoured the land for any opportunity to cram as many miles into our legs as possible before we departed for Kansas and the steely blade of doom.
Coincidentally, a few weeks before the event, Tony had sent me a route file that could only be described as bonkers. It started and finished in Mill Valley, traversing the Bay via the Richmond bridge, circumnavigating Mt Diablo through Morgan Territory before ultimately ascending Diablo and returning to Mill Valley. In total, it was something like 160 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing. So, of course, I enthusiastically agreed to join him.
Given where we were both at in the spring of 2021, eager-eyed and unsure of what the whole 'gravel thing' was all about, the ride went remarkably well. It was a lovely blend of urban and rural, and the temperatures were well into the 'heat training zone'.
But it wasn't all rosy. As we made our way out of Morgan Territory towards the base of Diablo, the temperature reached triple digits, and we both began to suffer. We pushed the pace hard on the flats, working well together, but then paid the price big time when the road suddenly took a sharp turn up the side of Mt. Diablo. We limped along, got into some real deep conversation, and ultimately pulled over in the shade when we reached the junction point midway up the mountain. We sat there for a few minutes before deciding the summit push wasn't in the cards and descending back down to Walnut Creek.
En route, we stopped at the first food establishment/oasis we encountered, which just happened to be a Panera Bread. We ordered, sat down, and each proceeded to put down a healthy serving of calories. We somehow managed to find the energy to rally our way back through the Berkeley hills, across the Richmond Bridge, and limp into Mill Valley at the end of the day, both cooked and covered in thick layers of salt. It was an unforgettable day, but something didn't sit well with us (and I don't mean Panera's fine offerings). Nope, we hadn't completed the route. And that sucked.
So when fellow endurance bike racer friends Ted King and Bradyn Lange were in town this spring ahead of the 2023 edition of the Unbound Gravel, it was the perfect opportunity to give this monstrous route another crack.
Jim The Driver
I'd been in the follow/photo car for an eternity. It was impressive the beating the riders had endured and how, almost 100 miles in, they still seemed to be enjoying themselves. I desperately tried to chase them down the winding descent of Mount Diablo, but they were long gone before we could clear the first couple of twisties. For all the reasons that descent sucks in the car, the fun amplifies tenfold on a bicycle.
By the time we reached the bottom, the crew was either ordering, eating or desperately waiting to eat.
"Is that all you're going to have, one pizza, Brennan?" said Ted King.
"No, I had a nice big cinnamon roll when I got here," replied Brennan.
Well, I witnessed this spectacle as I wandered over from the car. It was like a magic trick. One minute the cinnamon roll was in Brennan's big 'ol mitts, and the next… poof… it was gone. I have watched the Coney Island hotdog eating competition on television. I have photographed Hippopotamus feeding time at the Evansville (Indiana) Zoo, and I can honestly say what Brennan did to that big ol' gooey cinnamon roll was more impressive.
His normalized power for the Diablo adventure was nothing short of eye-popping, but the Panera Cinnamon Roll magic trick was my highlight of the day.
Anthony 'Panera' Little
I strapped on my spandex armor, ready to embark on a wild pilgrimage with a band of fellow lunatics. We were a crew of mad things fueled by a potent cocktail of carbs and adrenaline.
Our saga began in the misty hills of Mill Valley, where the air crackled with the promise of a wild ride. The asphalt beneath our wheels trembled with anticipation as we pedaled our way into the heart of Berkeley. Dodging traffic, drug paraphernalia, and the potholes leftover from an abundantly wet winter, we rode with an audacity that could only be matched by a bat out of hell, and by a bat out of hell I mean Brennan's 525w FTP.
As we descended upon Walnut Creek, the streets blurred into a vibrant blur of colors, the carbohydrates coursing through our veins, turning reality into a twisted kaleidoscope of laughter and mischief. We rode with an unruly camaraderie, exchanging wild-eyed glances and bursts of uncontrollable laughter.
But our true test awaited us - the ascent of the South Grade of Mt. Diablo, where just two years prior, we failed to summit. Legs burning, lungs gasping for air, we attacked that mountain like a pack of deranged poodles. We pushed ourselves to the edge, defying the very laws of gravity, fueled by a potent concoction of sheer willpower and, for some of us, THC-induced courage.
And then, the summit. The peak of Mt. Diablo greeted us with a triumphant roar, our victory echoing through the mountains. We stood there, drenched in sweat and high on the sweet taste of triumph.
The descent was a wild ride of adrenaline and wind. We blasted down the mountain, with only one end in sight, that of Brennan in front of us, as we pushed towards Panera Bread in Walnut Creek, the holy grail of post-ride feasting.
We stormed that place like a horde of ravenous chihuahuas. Bagels, sandwiches, pastries and pizza - you name it, we devoured it. With our bellies full and our spirits soaring, we mounted our trusty steeds for the final stretch back to Mill Valley. The road stretched before us, a blue ribbon of asphalt leading home.
As we rolled back into Mill Valley, the sun dipped below the horizon, casting a golden glow upon our weary bodies. We dismounted our bikes, transformed by the shared exhilaration of our journey. Exhausted but alive, forever bonded by the road and the freedom it bestowed upon us.