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.


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.


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.


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.


Out and Back: An interview with Jrdn Freelove about his 7 cross-country bike tours


Words and non-studio photos by Joseph Ahearne. Studio photos by Jim Golden.

Jrdn Freelove is kind of famous in our community. This past summer he rode about 7,200 miles in a little over five months, crossing the USA and back again in a big loop, passing through 25 states. This brings his tally of cross-country trips up to seven—all but one of them solo.

Jrdn has been a fixture in the Portland bike community since before there ever was a Portland bike community. He’s not an activist so much as a socialite, and everybody I know knows him. And I think everybody they know knows him, too, and whenever anyone talks about Jrdn they can’t help but smile. The thing about Jrdn is, he treats everybody like family. He makes you feel special. His southern drawl is warm and inviting as home-baked pie. He looks you in the eye and he’s interested in what you’re doing. He loves asking questions. He’s quirky and humble and surly sometimes, and there’s nobody else even remotely like him.

And Jrdn loves bicycles. Everything about them: the frames, the history, the process of making them and painting them, their aesthetics and functionality, old parts, new parts, gear ratios (half-step!), wheel sizes, and on and on. But what he loves most about them is riding them. Day trips for sure. But his greatest love is touring. I sat down with Jrdn and asked him about this latest cross-country trip. If there’s one thing Jrdn loves to do besides ride bikes, it’s to talk about bikes. And drink beer. Strong beer. He had some tough times on this most recent trip, but he stuck it out, and I wanted to get the full story.


“Jrdn,” I ask, “Why do you do this? Why do you do these crazy long bike trips?”

“Because I love it,” he says without hesitation. “There is nothing like being on the road, in the groove of things. You’ve got your house, you’ve got your kitchen, you’ve got your transportation, you’re dialed in. You know how to take care of yourself.” He thinks for a minute and goes on. “Life gets real simple. You’ve got three things that you have to think about every day.” He puts up one finger and says, “Where am I going to go,” two fingers, “What am I going to eat,” and three, “Where am I going to sleep.” He holds the three fingers there for affect and adds, “Beyond that, you’re just taking it all in, dealing with your daily contingencies of weather and so on.”

I ask him, “What’s the hardest part of traveling by bike, and traveling solo? Do you get lonely?”

“Everybody asks me the same questions,” he says. “Do I get lonely? How many flats did I get? How do I afford it? Do I get bored?” He shifts in his seat and takes a drink of the beer sitting in front of him. Terminator Stout. “Well,” he says, “I don’t get bored and I don’t get lonely. I love being alone. I love to just think about things. After a while on the road my thoughts slow down and my body’s working and my thoughts just flow. Like anything though, there are good days and bad days. It’s all mental, and that’s the hardest part of bike touring.

“People always ask me, don’t you get tired? Well, yeah I get tired. I just rode my hundred pound bike up a mountain for six hours. What do you think? But it’s easy with the body. You listen to it, feed it when you’re hungry, and when you’re tired, you rest.

“But it’s not like that with the mind. With the mind it can be a real struggle. When the weather is bad for days and days and you’ve got a ripping headwind it can feel like the whole universe is against you. It can really get you down. And when your head’s not in it, it can make the whole thing seem impossible. You don’t want to go on. But what are you going to do, quit? I mean, you can’t just sit there.”


“So Jrdn, what was a low point for you on this trip?” I asked him. “I know you had a rough go the first few hundred miles. Tell me about that

He laughs, and says, “More like the first couple thousand miles. I got hit by a car in Phoenix. It’s a terrible place to ride. I just wanted out of there. It was at a stoplight, a big intersection with six-lane roads. Three cars collided; one caromed off another and hit me, threw me 30 feet and dragged my bike along the curb. I don’t remember flying, but after I landed I looked up and my bike was down over there and three of my panniers were lying in the road. I sat there on the curb and everything got real quiet for a minute. I checked myself over, nothing seemed broken, no bones anyway. I had some scrapes, but I was all right, physically. Mentally, though, that messed me up for a while. You know, not one person ever apologized for hitting me. Nothing.”

“And what happened to your bike?”

“It broke off one of my brake studs, ruined a tire and scraped up a brake lever. There was a guy, calls himself the Frame Doctor. Igleheart found him (Christopher Igleheart of Igleheart Custom Frames and Forks I didn’t have a smart phone when I started this trip. I’ve never wanted one, never needed one. But this trip was different. The last time I did this trip was four years ago, and ever since then there just aren’t any phone books anymore. Nobody has them. I used to look up campgrounds and bike shops and all that. Now everything is electronic. Now I’m a convert. You pretty much have to carry a smart phone if you don’t want to have to stop and have people look stuff up for you on their computer.

“I just had a flip phone, and anyway I called Igleheart in Portland and he got on the computer and found this Frame Doctor in Phoenix. It was great; the guy showed up in his truck, picked me up and took me back to his place, welded my brake boss back on and sent me on my way. After the accident my back was kind of sore for a while, but I got through. Advil became my friend. I ate it like candy.

“After getting hit was the hardest part of the trip. I was sore and then I got into Texas and Oklahoma in May and it got hot. And I mean hot, like it wouldn’t let up. Man, I was already down, my sore back and my head just not in it. The heat just about killed me. I almost called it quits a couple of times. I lost my groove when I got hit and I just couldn’t get it back. The other thing, I couldn’t find a good road with a shoulder. It was cut with those, what do you call them?”

“Rumble strips,” I said.

“Yeah, rumble strips. Unridable. So you’re either in the road or in the ditch. I wish somebody would map that on GPS or something, have an app for it. Or even a paper map that told you which roads had shoulders and if they were smooth or not.”


“So Jrdn,” I said, “you never answered your own question. How many flats did you get?”

“Six flats, all by the time I reached Phoenix. I had to replace a tire after the accident, but then for the whole rest of the trip, not one flat. Pretty incredible. I did change both tires when I arrived to Virginia. I mailed a pair of tires to my mom’s house and swapped when I arrived.”

“Which tires were you using?”

“Schwalbe Marathon Supreme on the front. Marathon Plus on the rear. The Supreme surprised me; it’s such a great tire. But I couldn’t believe I didn’t get one flat for the last five or six thousand miles. The Marathon Plus doesn’t have as nice a ride, but it’s bombproof. Heavy, but almost indestructible.”

“What kind of saddle?”

“I’ve ridden Brooks saddles on all my cross country trips. I like the B-17. It fits me. I had to retire my Brooks after this trip. I sweated so much going through the South, I think that really finished it. This saddle has over 20,000 miles on it.

“So tell us about the bike.”

“On this trip I rode my Ira Ryan touring bike. When I was 40 years old I rode cross-country on my Vanilla. It was a great bike, but when I got it I didn’t know what I wanted. I based the design on a Zeleris race bike that I’d toured on in Europe in the 80s. I didn’t know any better. Riding cross-country on my Vanilla I really paid attention, and when I got back I went to Ira and told him I wanted to run bigger tires, have a longer wheel base and stouter tubes. We tweaked the geometry so I was more upright. And here it is. It’s heavier than my Vanilla, but it’s a good bike. It’s solid.

“I don’t know that I’d change too much. Disc brakes maybe? I’ve got this new Page Street bike, the Outback. It fits big, big tires, and has disc brakes. I think from now on I’ll always tour with a generator hub that powers lights and has a charging system for a smart phone. I’ve gone completely over to the Dark Side. Before this trip I was a stubborn Luddite. Several things happened on this trip that forced me to reconsider, and I have to say I have seen the light. I am a convert. I’ll still use paper maps whenever I tour because I like to have that global perspective. You can’t get that on a 3-inch screen. But I also need to be able to locate campgrounds and bike shops and look at the weather report and that’s what the smart phone is for. The weather was really extreme on this trip, and newspapers are hard to come by. I need some way to get the forecast.

“I don’t need a lot of money. I rented my house, which is paid for. I don’t have any other debt. My truck was paid for in the 80’s. I started this trip with a budget of $20 a day. You can go less, cooking all your own meals, bush camping, staying away from pay campgrounds. But eating a good meal in a roadside cafe gives you the chance to meet people, talk with them and ask questions, get a flavor for the place you’re in. And camping where I can take a shower at the end of the day, or by a stream if I can find one so I can bathe, that helps me keep my head straight. Wash off the sweat. I sleep better, and getting good rest is as important to me as food.


“After the accident in Phoenix and when it was so hot I allowed $30 a day if that was going to help me be more comfortable. That’s a hotel stay every now and then, or maybe two meals out and a campground, plus snacks. And that did it. Or at least it helped. I don’t mind taking loans if I have to. I’ll work when I get back. I’ll pay this trip off and save for the next one. I don’t make a lot of money, but I keep my priorities focused. No wife, no kid, no heroin habit. I tell myself I can do this. I make it happen.

“The U.S. is such a stunningly gorgeous place. I love it here. And it’s so big you’ll never see it all, no matter how many bike tours you go on. It’s like a big book, every tour just opens it up a bit more and you learn about some new place where you want to go next time. There’s just so much—so many great places to ride.”

“Any advice for others?”

“I think the biggest hurdle for someone new to bike touring is just getting out and doing it. But it’s not that hard. Like you can plan and plan and worry about the shape you’re in and where you’re going to go and safety and what all you’re going to take, but you just can’t figure everything out up front, you’ve got to let that go. At some point you’ve got to load your bags, stick them on your bike and start pedaling. And that’s it. You’re just going on a bike ride.

“I’m not saying don’t prepare, it’s just that, you’re going to figure it out. Start small, a short trip—one or two nights out. Pretty quick you’re going to figure out what you need and what’s dead weight. And you’re going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. That’s another thing. Accept your mistakes. Learn from them. Don’t get down on yourself because it’s just going to happen. I’ve been touring for a long time and I still f— things up and you’ve just got to learn to let that stuff go. It comes back to keeping your head on straight.

“I see these old guys out there, or hear stories about an 80-year-old lady going on a bike tour, riding cross country. I want to be that person. I want to be 80 and still doing it. I hear these stories and I think, well if they can do it, I can do it. And I will.


Jrdn, in jumpsuit, with Christopher Igleheart. 


Jrdn lives right around the corner from my workshop, so I have the pleasure of seeing him regularly. He loves to come in and see what bike projects we’re working on or to borrow our latest bike magazines. He’s the only person I know who reads all the articles. And you get the impression that he makes the rounds of every bike shop in town.

A standard dictionary definition of fame is, “the condition of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements.” Riding bikes back and forth across the country is certainly a notable achievement, but that’s not why Jrdn is known and talked about. It’s kind of beside the point, really.


Jrdn’s most notable achievement is just that he’s Jrdn. And when he comes around the shop he doesn’t just come to look at the bikes. He puts his hands all over them, sometimes in ways that could make a young person blush. In fact it’s so commonplace for Jrdn to fondle bikes that it inspired some anonymous person to have stickers made that say, “Jrdn Approved.”

These stickers have been sighted all over town, but nobody seems to know who actually made them. They’re on the beer taps at Velo Cult Bike shop. They’re on bike staples everywhere. I’ve seen them on street signs and public bathroom mirrors, on the picnic table up in Forest Park. Someone even stuck one on our workshop door. I ask him, “So, who made the Jrdn Approved stickers?”

“I am blissfully ignorant of this knowledge,” Jrdn says, smiling, clearly pleased about it.

“No, but really,” I ask. “Who do you think?”

“I’ve got it narrowed down to about eight people,” he says. “I think it’s either Igleheart or Kevin, maybe. It could be Smitherman. I asked Kevin and he was cagey about it, and I know he’s not telling me the whole truth. Or maybe, it could be you.”

“Me?” I say. “How so?” I know if he’s blaming me he’s really reaching.

“I have my reasons,” he says. “There are a couple other people I suspect could be in on it. But I just don’t know.” He’s still smiling. It’s the mystery that’s so fascinating, as the myth of the man grows.

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