Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

AJW talks about his new venture into gravel bike racing, and how it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks!

By on November 11, 2022 | Leave a reply

AJW's TaproomIn the summer of 1994, my wife, Shelly, and I quit our teaching jobs and embarked on a two-year, around-the-world bike tour. Twenty-three months, 18 countries, and 19,000 miles later, we returned to the U.S. and settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where we lived for five years and started a family. We now have three sons aged 25, 23, and 20. While in Phoenix, I discovered trail running and ultrarunning, and a 25-year career of running ultramarathons was born.

Between 1997 and 2021, I ran over 175 ultramarathons including some of the biggest 100 milers in the country — the Western States 100, Leadville 100 Mile, Hardrock 100, Wasatch 100 Mile, and Vermont 100 Mile, to name but a few. I loved those halcyon years as I came to understand that running wasn’t only something I did, it was an essential part of who I was.

AJW and Tully Jones-Wilkins - 2021 Bighorn Trail 100 Mile

AJW and his son Tully after the 2021 Bighorn Trail 100 Mile. Photo: Shelly Jones-Wilkins

All three of our sons grew up attending ultras and were an integral part of our family involvement in the sport. As the boys matured, they gravitated toward cycling rather than running. Our middle son, Logan, enjoyed some success as a junior road racer with Kelly Benefit Strategies, before transitioning to gravel a few years ago and snagging a nice sponsorship deal with the good folks at Rodeo Adventure Labs in Denver. Along the way, in support of Logan’s racing, I had the opportunity to attend a few of the bigger gravel races like Unbound Gravel, The Mid South, and Gravel Worlds and saw how the vibe had a lot in common with the early days of trail ultras. Sure, there were some differences, but in general, the community emphasis and the camaraderie were palpable.

Logan Jones-Wilkins (left) and Ryan Hagen on their RockStart Gravel Route fastest known time attempt. Photo: Andy Jones-Wilkins

This past summer, we relocated back to Phoenix. For my 55th birthday, my family, aided by Logan’s generous sponsorship with Rodeo Labs, bought me a new gravel bike. It was my first new bike in 30 years, as prior to that I was still pedaling around on my steel 1991 Bianchi Volpe Touring Bike, with a SunTour groupset, Wolber Super Champion rims, and Phil Wood hubs.

A few months ago, my son Logan told me about the Spirit World 100 gravel race. A unique 100, 80, and 50-mile cycling race in the Borderlands of Arizona, about 40 miles south of Tucson and 18 miles north of the Mexican border. As a 55-year-old guy, I had not tried something new in a long time, and I was thrilled to be given the chance to dip my toes back into cycling after more than a quarter of a century away.

So this past Friday afternoon, I drove down to Patagonia, Arizona, set up my tent in the town park, and enjoyed an evening of great food, live music, and cool people. On race morning, I enjoyed an incredible home-cooked breakfast spread and nice, strong coffee before venturing out on the ride. I enjoyed the companionship of other riders as well as the extraordinary scenery of the San Rafael Valley and the Borderlands. At the 28-mile aid station — which had a nearly identical aid station vibe as all of the ultra aid stations I’ve been to over the years — I looked on as riders of all shapes and sizes joined together in the shared suffering and joy that is so much a part of any endurance endeavor.

The 2022 Spirit World 100 gravel race

Riders taking part in the 2022 Spirit World 100 gravel race. Photo: Spirit World 100

Eventually, I made it to the finish line back in town where Zander Ault, who, along with his partner Heidi Rentz, makes this whole weekend happen, greeted me enthusiastically and for a few moments made me feel like the most important person in the world. From there, I retired back to the town park for more great food, before pointing my car north and heading back home with some soreness in my legs and a smile on my face.

Zander, Heidi, and the Spirit World 100, thank you for reigniting the cycling spark in me. I am looking forward to next year already.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Pueblo Vida Brewing Company in Tucson, Arizona. La Valencia, a cocktail-inspired IPA with Valencia oranges and peaches, is a sweet and hoppy treat from this great little brewery tucked into a delightful corner of the Sonoran Desert. Good with food and just as a standalone beer, La Valencia is a fantastically quaffable beer.

Call for Comments

  • Have you tried gravel bike racing?
  • Or found any other fun sports with a similar community vibe to trail running and ultrarunning?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.