It began, as one might have guessed, with breakfast. Eighteen bicyclists gathered around two dining tables in the private upstairs room at Pastaria in downtown Clayton, Missouri, fueling up on a continental buffet: eggs, toast, bagels, yogurt, fresh fruit, granola, energy bars. The spread was understated yet varied and appealing — also as one might have guessed.

“There are worse things than to have your ride sponsor be a chef with the Midas touch,” said event organizer Amy Strahan, referring to James Beard Award-winner Gerard Craft, the owner of Pastaria in Clayton as well as its sister-restaurant in Nashville.

Craft’s enthusiasm and the proximity of his Italian eateries set the stage for the Pastaria to Pastaria Epic, a 300-mile bicycle ride between the same-named locations. It was created to raise funds and awareness for St. Louis Chefs for Food Justice, a nonprofit committed to helping feed the hungry while at the same time supporting local farmers.

“The challenge of the ride shows our dedication to strengthening our food ecosystem here in St. Louis as well as Nashville,” said Craft.

Those aren’t empty words. Shortly before the ride, Craft bought 1,000 pounds of surplus squash from a family farm in Perryville, Missouri, and used it to make soup. Half was donated to area shelters; the other half was sold at the chef’s Brasswell restaurant inside Rockwell Beer Co. Profits from the soup sales went back to the farmers as well as local hunger organizations.

The 2019 edition of the Pastaria to Pastaria Epic, which took place last March, was a “beta test” for what Craft and Strahan hope is a much larger event to come: a unique, point-to-point, multi-day charity ride open to all cyclists and including routing, support and gear (SAG) transport, overnight accommodations, and other perks.

Participants this year consisted mainly of Pastaria-Big Shark Racing Team members and friends, including another St. Louis-based James Beard Award-winning chef, Kevin Nashan.

“I definitely see a connection between cyclists and chefs, and these days it’s starting to spill over more,” said Craft. “It used to be that [chefs] unwound with food and drinks. Now, we’re starting to make healthier choices and live longer, and we want to encourage that.”

Pastaria-Big Shark team member Jim Klages set the route, putting together a three-day ride schedule that hopscotched from St. Louis to Carbondale, Illinois (125 miles); Carbondale to Princeton, Kentucky (115 miles); and Princeton to Nashville (108 miles). Big Shark Bicycle Company provided the SAG van and driver. Strahan arranged the hotels; Craft the food.

The chef also joined the ride for two days. “I’m excited and will give it my best. For me versus the rest of the race team, my outlook is different. My goal is just not to fall over,” joked Craft beforehand.

Gerard Craft on Pastaria Epic

Gerard Craft (in black) sets out on the Pastaria to Pastaria Epic.

Breakfast eaten, bags packed, and bikes prepped, the Pastaria to Pastaria Epic kicked off on a wet and blustery Wednesday morning. “Where are my fenders?” asked one participant. “I bought them so it wouldn’t rain. That’s a $65 insurance policy.”

It must have worked, because by all accounts the first day turned out very pleasant. The dozen-and-a-half riders pedaled east across the Mississippi River and settled into a steady pace on lightly trafficked roads in southern Illinois.

“Beautiful country,” remarked Pastaria-Big Shark team member Stacy Bragg. The 50-year-old pediatric occupational therapist had learned about the ride from Strahan and thought it sounded like “a great way to log some long miles without the huge expense” that comes with traveling to train in warm-weather winter locales.

“Personally, I was a little intimidated by doing that number of miles each day, but I was excited by the challenge and thought it would be fun,” Bragg said. “On the race team side of things, we felt our responsibility was to get the logistics and ride mechanics together, so Gerard could concentrate on the fundraising piece.”

Indeed, the charitable motivations behind the ride, while not blatant, were present. “We knew right from the beginning that one of Gerard’s main focuses was to be able to raise funds for food justice,” said Bragg.

“I was riding next to Gerard and Kevin for a while, at different times, and we talked about the aspirations for the nonprofit,” said Chris Cleeland, 51, a software engineer and Pastaria-Big Shark team member. “My wife was hunger action coordinator and our church, and I was interested in learning what [Gerard and Kevin] were doing, so I could bring that back to her.”

Cyclists also need to eat, especially on long excursions, and for lunch on day one Craft arranged to have his corporate chef drive Lion’s Choice out to the riders. “I didn’t believe that Lion’s Choice was something I’d want to eat in the middle of a 100-mile ride, but, boy, it was good,” said Cleeland.

That night, they dined at their hotel, enjoying BBQ donated by a friend of Craft’s. “Gerard that night, even though he had ridden all day, would not rest until everyone was well fed. I don’t know the last time that a chef who owns, like, seven fine-dining restaurants catered just to me. It was amazing,” said Bragg.

Wood fired pizza on the second night.

Wood fired pizza on the second night. Photo by Devin Clark.

The next day saw weather challenges, as scattered supercell thunderstorms developed ahead of a cold front and swept across the region. The ride was rerouted on the fly to avoid flooding on the Ohio River, which created some tense moments.

“Crossing the Ohio River was probably one of the scariest things I’ve done on a bike,” said Cleeland. “As we popped up on the bridge, you looked down and saw 6-foot swells with whitecaps. We were completely exposed to the wind and had to lean hard into it to not get blown over. This was a two-lane bridge, and there were cars coming at you, so there was a decent penalty if you drifted into traffic.”

Later in the day, Bragg was blown off the road by the high, gusty winds. “I came up and around a corner, and the wind hit me. I knew right away I didn’t have the body mass to stay on the road,” she said. “The wind just kind of took me, and I ended up in someone’s yard.”

Everyone had a chance to compare notes that evening over wood-fired pizza and beer, as Craft had had a portable pizza oven set up in the courtyard behind the overnight hotel stop. “People came and went and showered and got a pizza. It was amazing,” said Cleeland. “Every epic ride has epic stories. That day was ours.”

The next morning dawned a little overcast and cooler, “but it was like riding through Belgium beneath a forest canopy and rolling hills. It was so nice and pretty,” said Cleeland. “The run into Nashville was gorgeous, with the sun coming out and dropping down over the hills into the river valley. The cityscape spread out ahead of us, and it was fantastic, a welcome view.”

Riding during the Pastaria to Pastaria Epic.

“It was like riding through Belgium beneath a forest canopy and rolling hills. It was so nice and pretty.” Photo by Chris Cleeland.

The cyclists rode straight to Pastaria Nashville and pulled into the restaurant’s multifunction room through its sliding glass doors, where beer, wine, and food waited for a well-deserve celebration. “Overall, the level of detail and concern was beyond amazing. I just cannot say enough,” said Bragg.

While organizers aren’t yet ready to announce when the next Pastaria to Pastaria Epic will take place, the hope is to offer the event as a public-facing charity ride in the future. To make it more accessible for all cyclists, there’s discussion of providing a four-day option “for those not as aggressive with their mileage,” said Strahan. Riders would be seeded into groups according to pace and skill level, each with their own support vehicle.

The participants that we spoke to said they already look forward to doing the trip again.

“The biggest thing I took away was having the opportunity to get to know the people on the ride much better. You can’t put a value on that,” said Bragg. “How often do you get a chance to go out and ride all day and not have to worry about food or logistics or picking up the kids? How often do you get to just focus on riding? And doing it with people who also love that? I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.