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“HMU” was my entire text message. And, sent along with a screenshot from Google Maps showing my blue dot planted firmly in Ketchum, Idaho, was the entirety of the message that I was trying to convey. “OMG Yes,” was the reply. And thus I arranged a meet-up—in the most millennial of ways—with Josh Berry. He’s in town to compete in the Rebecca’s Private Idaho stage race, a four-day event culminating with the queen stage, the 92.5-mile Big Potato route that climbs its way out of Sun Valley and up into the solitude of the Big Lost River Basin.
Josh has recently retired from being a professional cyclist, having spent time racing in Europe and all over the U.S. with the SmartStop and Jelly Belly teams. But he has not quite given up the competitive life. “I was in Portland skiing with a friend of mine,” he explains. “We have both quit racing and haven’t ridden in quite a while. But we decided to sign up for the Dirty Kanza together.” The impulse decision proved to be a successful one, because Josh ended up finishing second at this year’s Dirty Kanza after working with Ted King to help him seal his second DK victory.
Also, he just happens to have a connection to Sun Valley—Josh was born here. And coming back home brings memories of growing up around the area’s amazing mountain bike trails. But how is the road riding? “Well, we only have one road here,” he laughs. “But the mountain biking is phenomenal. And I have been finding myself exploring more dirt roads. There is tons of amazing single track with perfect gravel.”
Which is the promise of RPI’s queen stage: miles and miles of remote roads surrounded by some of the most breathtaking landscapes in America.
So far, I’ve never been to the start of a gravel race where I did not find myself shivering uncontrollably. And this one is no exception. Before the morning sunshine makes its way into the valley, riders begin piling into the start area, some wearing every single layer of bike (and non-bike) clothing they can find and others sporting bare legs and arms, appearing somewhat red even in the dim light. In no time, Sun Valley Road is transformed into a race-start area complete with music, call-ups and roadside barriers. If you close your eyes you can image this being the start of a cycling stage in California…or France…or just about anywhere else in the world. Perhaps the only thing that feels different about this RPI queen stage is that there are more than 1,000 riders lining up.
And then they start! Sun Valley Road becomes Trail Creek Road as it starts to climb. The smooth pavement becomes chunky gravel. Any thoughts of being chilly at the start are at least 5 miles in the rearview mirror. By the time the riders make it up to the top of the first climb (and the site of the first feed zone), the field has largely broken up, with race favorites (including Josh) leading the charge at the front.
As we make our way among groups of riders in our photo car it seems that the riders cover the entire range of emotions: grinning from ear to ear, throwing up shaka signs for the cameras, to looking half dead and barely half alive and wishing for a quicker end to the suffering. Every one of them is giving it all they’ve got. Every one of them is covered in a layer of dust.
We drive ahead of the leading group to find a nice spot for a photo and pull over to the side of the road in a spot with a sweeping view of the Pioneer Mountains. Cell signal is a distant memory, so I have no idea what peak we are looking at. And then there’s the silence, only broken by a tiny gust of wind, an insect rustling the grass or an airplane 7 miles up in the sky. Everything rings out in amazing detail. Looking around and feeling incredibly remote and isolated, it is not a stretch to imagine this must be one of the few places in the continental U.S. that has avoided development and has stayed relatively untouched for eons.
The lead group rolls by. Everyone is caked in dirt and no one looks like they are slowing down. Yesterday, I asked Josh about how tough gravel races compare to some of the road races he has done. “It really only compares to the queen stage of Tour of Utah,” he offered up without delay. “One year, Lachlan Morton was in the lead, so me and [teammate] Jacob Rathe had to ride the front all day against some pretty amazing teams. Every pull was the last one. And it was like that for five hours.” Sounds tough.
Back here in Idaho, the group stays together until one rider gets away. Stephen Mull makes it to the finish line alone, well ahead of the competition, finishing the race in just under four and a half hours, with Josh coming in second about three minutes behind. The women leaders finish shortly thereafter, with Kaysee Armstrong arriving a few seconds ahead of Karen Jarchow.
And now it’s time to celebrate. With plenty of beer, food and music in the finish area to welcome all of the finishing riders, RPI definitely knows how to put on a party. Unfortunately we have to run; a flight to catch. Pro tip: while extremely convenient, Sun Valley Airport is not actually open between flights, so feel free to arrive closer to your departure time than you are used to. And, more importantly, there is no airport bar. There is however homemade pie. Ask the TSA guy.