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Paige Onweller calls her foray into riding bikes “classic,” the story of an overuse injury-prone runner who sought cycling as a way to keep moving while off her feet.
From there, though, her story takes a sharp left — e-racing — then a right — time trials — before delivering her at the doorstep of, you guessed it, gravel.
Read also: Preview: Big Sugar Gravel
Now, two years after buying her first “$150” bike, Onweller, a 33-year-old Physician’s Assistant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is approaching the pinnacle of her 2022 season — Big Sugar Gravel, the final race in the Life Time Grand Prix. She’s sitting in 12th place, and a good result at Big Sugar will see her easily ascend into the top ten.
And, despite a host of setbacks this year that include injury, illness, the balancing act of work and training, and a culture that hasn’t been particularly welcoming, Onweller is confident that she will.
Sometimes, terrifying is exhilarating
Onweller’s gravel story veers from the plot of classic runner-picks-up-bike very quickly.
In 2020, after buying a bike to cross-train while running ultras, Onweller decided to sign up for a Zwift race series that winter. In order to race, she had to go through a series of validation tests. It was the first time she’d seen any sort of power numbers — and they were impressive.
Others took note as well, including scouts from Team Twenty24, the longstanding women’s development team. Shortly after she’d signed up for the “community series” on Zwift, Onweller was recruited to race esports for the squad that winter, and then to try her hand at time trials the following year.
It was jumping into the deep end to say the least, and when the time came to race time trial nationals in June, Onweller’s inexperience was on display.
“It was one of my first races, I didn’t even know how to make a u-turn on my bike,” she said. “I started on the ramp, I’d never done that. To them it was disappointing because I had all this raw power, but I didn’t place as high as they expected. It was a horrible experience. My coach dropped me, but the team said, ‘you don’t need a coach, you just need to learn how to ride your bike'”
As with many athletes, the failure only fueled Onweller’s fire. She knew that she needed training in how to race and then, to race. After nationals, she looked for “the biggest race I could find that still had open registration.”
Gravel Worlds, the storied race in Nebraska, had open spots.
Onweller didn’t know much about gravel the discipline, especially not how competitive it was. But, she “grew up in the woods” in Michigan, and gravel roads sounded fun and seemed familiar. She went into the race with few expectations, given that she’d never raced in a bunch before.
Then, she finished fifth.
“I thought I was gonna die several times, she said. “It starts in the dark. I know it’s not technical, but at the time it was for me. I can’t see, there’s all these other riders. It was terrifying but in a weird way exhilarating, as well. And, validating. I had something to prove. I knew I was strong but it was a matter of wanting to learn other skills.”
After that, Onweller was fully committed. She raced Iceman, Michigan’s legendary autumn MTB race, and put herself on a program. Using what she’d observed in the two races, and what she knew to be her weaknesses, she spent as much time as she could trying to get better. Cornering, descending, whatever it was, she geeked out on it, shooting videos of herself and then studying them.
“I’m a PA, I’m a nerd,” she said.
After her first brief summer of gravel, Onweller decided to give racing a proper go. In early 2022, she signed up for the Grand Prix, “thinking there was no way I’d get in, and since I’d never ridden a mountain bike I was kind-of hoping not to,” she said.
But, she was accepted. So, she bought a mountain bike and dove in.
A learning curve as steep as Powerline
Onweller knew the learning curve would be steep this year, but she didn’t anticipate all the other bumps in the road.
Sea Otter, her first mountain bike race — and really her first time riding in actual mountains — went as expected. “It was a race of survival for me,” she said. “I knew that race wasn’t gonna be about performance, just to learn and have fun and not ruin the season by getting injured.”
Then, though, she crashed on a training ride and needed surgery on her knee due to some pesky embedded gravel. She was off the bike for nearly a month before Unbound and knew her chances of finishing the 200-mile race were low. Nevertheless, she wanted to experience of the mass start and so she made the trek to Kansas.
After Unbound, she caught Covid, so Crusher in the Tushar didn’t go so well.
Surprisingly, Onweller had two of her best results of the season in mountain bike races, scoring eighth place (seventh in the Grand Prix) at both Leadville and Chequamegon.
Both of those races offered their own set of lessons — from descending steep things at Leadville to staying upright in the mud at Chequamegon.
“There’s been a lot of learning this year,” Onweller said. “It’s definitely exciting to see where I am relative to these women who’ve been racing for 10 years. If I get skilled and tactically experienced, my ability to improve will be exponential.”
Nevertheless, Onweller’s progression this season also has a shadowy counterpart. She hasn’t found the Grand Prix community, the women specifically, to be that welcoming. Navigating that — and her own role within the sport — has presented another learning curve.
“Gravel in general has been an amazing community overall,” Onweller said. “I love that everyone is there, whether you’re a pro, average joe, weekend warrior. My experience in the women’s peloton has been disappointing. I feel like it’s been really hard to even get to know some of these ladies. No one knows who I am. It feels cold. It feels aggressive. I was yelled at during Chequamegon. I almost feel like there’s a pecking order that’s already established. I have not felt very welcomed with the exception of Rose Grant who is one of the only riders who’s talked to me.”
Onweller said that she’s found solace getting to know other newer riders and also through the support of her team, Abus Pro Gravel. As she envisions her future in the sport, she sees herself partnering with women-led brands and companies — partly as a way to combat the intimidation factor that she too has experienced.
“It was never a thing in running to have such gender disparity,” she said. “Seeing registration numbers and in general not seeing as many women in the sport gives me a big goal to see more women, inspire and empower. It’s an intimidating sport.”
Onweller’s own approach to being intimidated is to keep showing up. It’s what she’ll do on Saturday at Big Sugar, at the road races she hopes to enter in 2023 — “I have some unfinished business, especially with the time trial at nationals,” she said — and on and on as she continues to pursue gravel racing.
“I’ve done well in the second half of the season, but I don’t feel that I’ve made my mark yet or shown what I’m capable of,” Onweller said. “I hope it comes together at Big Sugar. In gravel or off-road, you can have the best fitness but it takes so much to have that breakthrough race. I don’t know if it will be Big Sugar, Iceman, or next year.”