The Birth of blackriver

Words by Jeffrey Stern. Photos via blackriver. 

On a brisk spring morning we navigated our rental van from Chicago to Madison in search of the best charcuterie we could find, rolling country farm roads and more information on the mythical blackriver—the ultimate place to create, find and share cycling experiences, or so we’d heard. We pointed our GPS to a local bike shop that was once a train stop and headed to the basement to share a beer and learn the basics of the blackriver idea with Tobie DePauw and Eric Lynn. That first meeting last May sparked my interest in what these two were cooking up and I’ve wanted to learn more since. After gaining traction over the last few months with retailers and partners around the country, I sat down again with Tobie to learn a little more about his journey in the bike world, his love for adventure and how connecting with Eric led to this story-forward route sharing interface for cyclists less concerned with competition and more interested in sharing their journeys with others.

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Can you tell me about your history with the bicycle, from a kid, to where you are now?

My experience with bikes as a kid was pretty typical; plywood jumps and trips to the pool. My strongest memories associated with bikes are memories of places they took me.

A defining experience was the first time I rode my bike to high school as a freshman. We lived in the next town over so I always had to take the bus. I decided to try riding my bike instead. To avoid riding on busy roads, I rode a few miles through private property on hobo singletrack. There was this delicious element of danger to it. I distinctly remember putting my foot down when I arrived and feeling a rush of liberation. The school was maybe nine miles away, but as a kid it felt like crossing a continent. I couldn’t believe that I had translocated myself that whole way. After that year, bikes faded into the periphery until I started riding in college, mostly as transportation. At the time I also started riding some trails, too.

How did blackriver come to fruition?

Eric and I met in Madison a few years ago when blackriver was just beginning to take shape outside of his head. He knew there was going to be a component involving bike shops and brands, so he was looking for retailers who might be interested in the concept. At the time, I had been running a bike shop in rural Illinois for over a decade. We had built a strong community there and the shop had become a destination for a number of unique brands. I was also hosting a number of gravel events through a non-profit I co-founded called Axletree. Eric had heard about me from a friend so we met for coffee and spent the better part of an afternoon talking about blackriver.

Eric had resigned from his role as Senior Creative Director after 20 years at Trek to start something of his own. He decided to create a digital platform where people could easily share routes with pictures and stories, and build community around riding experiences.

The potential of the platform was clear to me right away. As a retailer, I was constantly juggling social media, blogs, email, route sites and other platforms in order to get information out. It was exhausting, but I knew that I had to offer my customers more than just products to stay relevant. blackriver was as a route library, event calendar and social network rolled into one. It would be a one-stop-shop for people looking to get involved.

Just over a year later, I had resigned from the shop and moved my family to Madison to help Eric launch blackriver. I saw the opportunity as a continuation of the arc I was already on, gathering people together around bikes and working with independent retailers.

Eric and I work well together because we have fairly different professional backgrounds but we overlap on the right things. He worked from the bottom to the top in a big corporation as a designer and I worked as a retailer and a promoter on the front lines. We both believe bikes have an incredible ability to improve personal well-being and bring people together.

The first time you told me about blackriver you called the platform “story-forward route sharing.” What does that really mean to you as a rider?

When I’m looking for a good place to ride, I want to see photos and read about it, not just see how fast people are riding. By putting the story forward, people get a much better idea what the experience will be like on that route. blackriver is a paradigm shift away from metric-focused riding platforms and towards sharing experiences. It’s about sharing more than just numbers and lines. blackriver is a canvas, not a calculator. If you find a calculator, you’re going to punch numbers into it. A canvas is a place to create and communicate. We make it easy for people to track their rides, add images and anecdotes and share their riding experiences.

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What about Blackriver will help set it apart from other sports driven social networks?

blackriver is differentiated by our emphasis on story over speed and a unique relationship with retailers and brands. It’s a resource for riders, regardless of category or skill level, who want to find a good place to ride their bikes. Everyone knows bike shops are a great source for local route knowledge, so we’re offering shops and brands a simple and effective way to tout that knowledge and encourage people to ride. One of the best things a bike shop can do to encourage new riders is suggest safe routes.

We’re also redefining the concept of challenges. blackriver’s patent-pending technology allows local retailers and brands to host route-specific challenges and offer rewards to riders who complete them. When a rider completes a challenge, they receive a notification to visit the retailer or notify the brand to redeem their reward.

You’ve ridden your bike in a lot of spectacular places. Do you see blackriver as providing the opportunity to share those experiences and inspire others to pursue their own?

That is the exact reason blackriver exists. A friend of mine called it an “Inspiration Engine,” which is a term I like quite a bit. If I see a route I like on the platform, I can save it to my Planned Rides and navigate from it when I want to. Or I can jump it to a GPS device. I can follow people and see where they ride, along with their stories.

It’s also great for traveling. If I’m planning a trip to Portland, I can search the Classic Routes there and decide where I’m going to ride based on what the locals say are the best routes. And if I’m inspired by a route, I’m going to share my own ride story when I ride it and potentially inspire other riders.

Tell me about your trip up the west coast last year. What did you learn? Who did you meet? What was the perception like on the ground, in the shops?

That was a great trip. We met with a number of incredible shops and brands along the way; Golden Saddle, Omata, Topanga Creek, Huckleberry Bicycles, River City Bicycles, Benedicto, Path Less Pedaled, and more. We were able to share our vision and hear what features people wanted. The reception was really encouraging. The general consensus was that the time was right for a platform that was open and encouraging to riders of all styles.

Where do we draw that line of quantifying everything we do and just enjoy the ride or experience for what it is?

On a ride, technology should enhance, not inhibit, the experience. Rhys Newman told me that when they were designing the Omata One, they wanted to create a device that didn’t compete with the “primary experience” of riding. I really appreciate that philosophy.

Headspace is valuable realty. If I’m worried about my speed or a segment, with my eyes anchored to a computer, I’m distracted. I’m not enjoying my ride. The metrics can be consuming, especially when the id is pricked and pride is at stake.

But if I’m riding along with my head up, thinking about what I might want to share about the ride, or thinking of other people who might enjoy the route, my head is in a different place. That internal experience is very different from racing ghosts.

What is it that you enjoy most about the ride?

I do my best daydreaming on the bike. I can point to multiple creative and cognitive breakthroughs I’ve had while riding. It’s really good for my head.

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Where do you see blackriver in 5 years?

Our mission is to share every great cycling route in the world, so we’re going to continue to build the best platform for riders, retailers and brands to share routes and build community. In five years, blackriver will be the premier digital cycling platform at the nexus of creativity, community, and commerce.

In an era where retailers are feeling the struggle of continued economic woes across the country fed by stiff online competition, having the ability to offer a platform for customers to share bike experiences and engage each other brings increased value to the sales cycle—ultimately and hopefully leading to lasting relationships.

The growth of blackriver is still on the upward trajectory. They are currently rolling out improvements to their patent-pending Challenge technology, so we’ll see partners across the states hosting custom, route specific challenges in their geographic areas to help drive cycling interest. Among this and a feature called RideCards, the blackriver platform is changing and evolving nearly everyday. With so many features to cover, one interview isn’t enough to cover the breadth of all this cycling, social network hybrid platform has to offer. We expect big things from this ambitious duo and look forward to telling more of their story in the near future.

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First Impression: Ritchey Break-Away Ascent

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Looking for the perfect bike that provides the freedom to roam aimlessly regardless of the terrain ahead? Look no further, the Ritchey Break-Away Ascent may be your answer. It’s exactly what a bike should be, a do-all, go anywhere means for adventure. This steel-framed beauty relegates both one trick ponies and niche categories.

The heart and soul to the Break-Away Ascent is the custom, lightweight Ritchey Logic TIG-welded tubing paired with a relaxed geometry and ability to run up 700×40 mm or 27.5×2.1 inch tires.

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Add the travel-friendly break-away compression system and you have yourself a versatile bike that’s capable of traveling the world with you as your checked luggage.

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The Ritchey Break-Away Ascent is available to the masses only as a frameset, with an included soft-sided travel bag for $1,650. For testing purposes, ours arrived loaded with Ritchey WCS bits including the new VentureMax adventure drop bar, 27.5×2.1 Shield tires mounted on Vantage II wheels, a SRAM Force 2×11 drivetrain, and BB7 mechanical disc brakes.

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The frame utilizes simple technology such as the highly-praised, threaded 68 mm bottom bracket, 27.2 mm seatpost and a post-mount disc brake mount. All of these should be easily sourced in any bike shop, letting you to get back on your journey quickly and with ease should any mechanicals derail you.

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Sounds too good to be true, right? Check out our full review of this steel framed travel companion in the upcoming issue of Bicycle Times #46. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss out on an issue!

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The good, the bad and the reality of life on the road

Words and photos: Beth Puliti

We’re sitting with friends on our deck when the request is made to share the awesome and awful details of our travels to date. While our bike tour is far from over, we’re home for a week to attend a wedding and clean house in between renters. It’s a nice opportunity to reflect on what we’ve experienced so far, and as the sun sets and the stars rise above us, I lose myself in memories from the past 14 months on the road.

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“Alright, Justin. You start with the highs,” I joke.

Why is it so much easier to remember the lows? Truth be told, it’s difficult to limit myself to pick just a few experiences worthy of sharing—good or bad. But there’s a crowd and, like an ‘80s band on a comeback tour, I have no choice but to play the hits.

The Good

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In December 2014, I convinced my 24-year-old brother to travel with us in Southeast Asia. Working his first job out of college, he didn’t have much time off, but when his company–an indie video game studio in Philadelphia–shut down for two weeks over Christmas, he tacked on an additional two weeks and promised to check in with his co-workers regularly via email and video calls.

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That month saw us walking barefoot through the many colorful shrines that dot the landscape, weaving through Bangkok traffic in a tuk-tuk, sipping steaming mugs of hand-picked tea at Malaysian tea plantations, sleeping in tiny bunk beds on the overnight train, watching our lives flash before our eyes as monkeys encircled us outside Kuala Lumpur’s Batu Caves, navigating through a fresh monsoon-triggered mudslide, sharing vivid dreams inspired by the anti-malarial medicine and creating New Year’s resolutions while letting lanterns loose into the sky on the Thai coast. It was his first time bike touring, and I don’t think it will be his last.

The Bad

Far and away the most disheartening experience of our bike tour thus far took place when we attempted to re-enter Kyrgyzstan after pedaling the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan. After talking with several tourism representatives and a local travel agent who placed multiple calls with the authorities in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, we were assured that entry via a small border crossing wouldn’t be an issue.

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So we made our way there, pedaling through a handful of checkpoints where, at each one, our passports were checked, our information was recorded and we were sent on our way with no further questions. Several days, mountain passes and bouts of food poisoning later, we reached the border only to be told it was a locals-only crossing.

Pleading and bribing (suggested tactics from our newfound friends in tourism) didn’t work. Justin even hitched a 30-minute ride through no man’s land to try and gain sympathy from the Kyrgyz border guard. He was denied entry a second time. Defeated and utterly exhausted, we pointed our tires the way we came eight hours after we arrived, forced to pedal 1,000 kilometers in the opposite direction of our intended destination.

Honorable Mentions

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These events made the B-side, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be shared.

  • Hitching a ride in an 18-wheeler on a one lane dirt road dug into a cliff above a raging river paralleling Afghanistan with a midnight pit stop to sleep on the side of the road.
  • Food poisoning that had me heaving in the dirt from dusk until dawn.
  • Meeting my relatives living in Italy and sharing with them photos of family now living in America.
  • A sandstorm so strong I was repeatedly blown clear off of my bike.
  • Creating a slideshow of our travels to share with a wonderful group of orphaned children.
  • Retrieving our stolen phone—which was a means of communication as well as a GPS and camera—from a shepherd at the top of a mountain.

No matter the distance you tour by bike, a mix of highs and lows are par for the course. And while you ride in search of the highs, rest assured the lows will always make for some of the best stories, especially when gathered on your deck surrounded by close friends.


Beth Puliti is a writer and photographer currently traveling the world by bicycle. Visit bethpuliti.com and follow her travels at @bethpuliti.

 

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Adventure Cycling to host National Bike Travel Weekend

Adventure Cycling Association invites people of all ages and abilities to join National Bike Travel Weekend: the largest-ever weekend of bicycle travel across America and Canada—June 3-5, 2016—by registering an overnight bike trip or joining an existing one.

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“Our goal is to inspire new and experienced bike travelers alike to enjoy an overnight bicycle trip with thousands of other people throughout North America on the same weekend,” says Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling Association. “National Bike Travel Weekend is for big groups, small groups and solo bike enthusiasts. It can be one night or two nights, travelers can sleep outside or indoors, and the distance covered can be one to 100 miles — whatever works for you.”

Everyone who registers a National Bike Travel Weekend trip by May 16 will be entered into a drawing to win a commemorative Salsa Marrakesh touring bicycle. The official National Bike Travel Weekend hashtag is #biketravelweekend.

Participants can connect with over 150 National Bike Travel Weekend ambassadors with questions about going on a bike overnight. These ambassadors, located all over North America, are eager to share their local and regional knowledge of bike-friendly routes and overnight accommodations.

The inaugural National Bike Travel Weekend is being launched as part of Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016. Adventure Cycling was founded as Bikecentennial and started as a 4,250-mile TransAmerica Trail bicycle ride with over 4,100 participants in the summer of 1976.

 

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Globetrotting: How can you afford it?

By Beth Puliti
Published in Issue #31

It’s a bit surreal to finally be turning the pedals on foreign soil after so much planning went into freeing myself from life at home. I’m not going to sugar coat things: Taking the initial steps to begin a long-term bike tour was intimidating and laborious. It would have been so much easier to hire a travel agent, purchase a vacation package, escape for two weeks and return home. Albeit, financially and emotionally drained.

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But I don’t do easy. I can’t afford easy. And I don’t have the desire to “escape” life (despite what the travel industry and my nurse at the travel clinic say). I want to live it, fully and on my terms. It’s the belief that life doesn’t have to only consist of the familiar routine we frequently find ourselves living, unless we want it to. I believe we have the ability to figure out what it is we want in life and more or less create our own reality.

Therefore, it is while living my life—not running from it—that I began this long-term, two-wheeled journey. And it was when telling my friends and family of my plans that I heard time and again, “How can you afford it?” It’s a valid question. And it has a simple, two-part answer: priority and sacrifice. I’ll attempt to explain in more detail.

When something becomes a priority, we take steps to make it happen. Many people find a way to finance a brand new car, designer clothing or dining out, usually by saving and/or sacrificing in areas deemed less important. In the same way, when travel becomes a priority, my husband and I take similar steps. We live a simple life and are frugal with our humble savings. When we decided to place a higher value on travel, we didn’t have to change our lifestyle drastically.

That isn’t to say we don’t make sacrifices. The following is a list of things we did, or were already doing, that afforded us the freedom to travel. I understand everyone’s situation is different. This is simply what worked for us, and perhaps it might serve as a starting point of sorts for those looking for some guidance.

  1. We don’t have a smartphone payment. I don’t have one and my husband’s is paid for by his employer.
  2. We don’t have a cable bill, or a television, for that matter.
  3. We rarely go out to eat.
  4. We owned one older car that was paid off. Several days before we left the country, we sold it on Craigslist to add a bit of extra cash to our savings and eliminate our insurance payment.
  5. We put our house up for rent.
  6. We sold expensive items we wouldn’t have a need for on the road, such as rarely-used camera lenses and hardly-ridden bikes.

However, being able to afford long-term travel extends beyond the planning stages. We’re just as conscious of our spending when we’re pedaling, too. Here’s what we do on the road to afford frequent travel.

  1. We buy and cook most of our own food.
  2. We almost always use human-powered transportation.
  3. We sign up for credit cards that offer bonus miles and use the frequent flier miles we’ve accrued from business travel.
  4. We “wild camp” or seek out Warm Showers hosts. (Have you heard of Warm Showers? It’s a community of touring cyclists around the world who open up their homes to other touring cyclists. We’ve been hosted by some truly wonderful people on our current tour.)

This column is proof that we’re also working from the road, as time permits. Saying that we travel “inexpensively” is pretty subjective. What does that mean, exactly? It means [we were] pedaling through Italy on $20 a day [at the start of the trip]. That’s less than our living expenses in the United States. We thought we’d need to rush through Europe to maintain our savings but, much to our surprise and delight, we’re able to take our time.

Traveling this way isn’t for everyone. It requires a bit of sacrifice, effort and faith in humanity. But it will afford you authentic experiences, leave you with more money in your bank account and reward you a thousand times over.

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