Gravel or mixed-surface races are the hottest dish on the table these days. Popular events like Grinduro and SBT GRVL sell out in mere minutes and give cyclists a unique opportunity to belly up to the line alongside pros like Peter Stetina, Colin Strickland or Amity Rockwell, ready to “give ’er a go.” So, what’s the buzz? Why are we so drawn to roll on dirt all day? And why now?
As a gravel cyclist, I wanted to know. So I reached out to the organizers of three core events hoping to get enlightened. I love what’s being served up—the tasty, exquisite routes, the impactful life experiences—but I was also curious how the sausage was made.
The first organizer I contacted was Miguel “Mig” Crawford, the man behind Northern California’s Grasshopper Adventure Series, currently celebrating 20 years of type-two fun and one of the longest running events. Then I met with fellow Whitefish, Montana, local Brad Lamson, who runs the burley Joe Cosley Pancake Ride around the northwest part of our state—a ride I’ve competed in several times. Lastly, I visited with Heidi Rentz and Zander Ault of Patagonia, Arizona, to learn more about their groovy Spirit World 100. All their stories were colorful and personal, but what bubbled up were recurring themes that shed light on a common pulse, and that’s what I was after. Those unifying threads are what I’ve found tie together our gravel community—it’s what makes up the unspoken language, communicated through the nods, the high fives and even the tears and hugs that happen out on a grinder.
A CONTRACT FOR TRANSFORMATION
When you sign up for a gravel race, there’s a shared mentality and acceptance that you will a) be challenged, b) reach your threshold and c) somehow push through it. It’s a contract for transformation. There may be anxiety and self-doubt, but excitement and curiosity quickly overshadow when one commits. As gravel cyclists, we deliberately do this over and over again. And for the neophyte, delving into this personal journey opens up a whole new portal of self-discovery and an opportunity to be changed.
Location is an important component and it’s the initial lure that both created these events and draws in cyclists. Similar to seeing your future spouse for the first time, that attraction to place—the topography and riding surfaces—leaves a distinct impression.
When Rentz and Ault started exploring the vast expanse of southern Arizona’s San Rafael Valley in 2016 for their gravel camps, their friend Yuri Hauswald, fresh off of his Dirty Kanza victory, was struck by the beauty and riding conditions of the Sonoran Desert and he immediately saw it as a race venue. According to Rentz, he was their “guiding light”—and that was the seed that began to germinate.
Along the northern border, Lamson’s vision stemmed from a collective curiosity of local, adventurous cyclists spit-balling monster-sized loops. By creatively connecting the dots of strikingly beautiful and challenging trails and roads, his first Pancake Ride offered breathtaking views of Glacier National Park, meandering up, over and around the Whitefish Range for 150 miles.
Perhaps the most intriguing component of gravel races is the beatdown. The routes provide it, but we also do it to ourselves. It’s in the elevation profile, the distance, the weather and the sneaky elements intentionally thrown in as a sucker punch.
The Grasshopper—made up of several “Hoppers” per year—is known to be “ridiculously hard,” according to Crawford. It’s not uncommon for Crawford’s joker, masochistic self to add 30 miles of single track to an already challenging ride. But that’s his brand. “When cyclists break out of their normal routine to do a Hopper, they know they’re going to have an adventure and see something new,” he explained.
Crawford’s dedication and countless hours pioneering, mostly solo, has led to 17 established routes, now considered classics, which began in Sonoma County but later expanded into Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. For the Pancake Ride, Lamson’s methodology involves setting a route that “pushes riders to the edge but doesn’t kill them.” I’ve personally joined him on several recon missions where routes that exist on maps simply disappear or get choked with blowdown. And you can expect a handful of hike-a-bike sections, both up and downhill.
“I purposefully design courses I don’t expect everyone to complete,” Lamson said. But in reality, most riders make it to the finish line for their signature Joe Cosley beer. Somewhere along the line, they wreck, bonk, get dehydrated, starve and pick up a scrape or two, but they push through, sometimes after dark, and often with others amassed along the way.
CAMARADERIE & CAUSE
It’s impossible to describe gravel racing without the culture and community connected to it. “There’s something to be said about the bonds that form from riding and suffering with others for six-plus hours,” Crawford said. And it’s not uncommon to ride with some of the same folks throughout a season.
Even top pros, including ex-Tour de France veterans, ride their hardest, turning themselves inside-out but maintaining an element of playfulness when the tarmac turns to dirt. The stakes are simply different when you load the course with a full spectrum of riders, from seasoned professionals to the buddy you convinced to ride his Huffy 100 miles in cut-off jeans. If we compare the business model around gravel/multi-surface racing to traditional road and mountain bike races, it’s not exactly big money. Out of the hundreds of events domestically, a majority exist simply to sustain themselves and often use their profits to fund local causes. Most support is volunteered.
Rentz and Ault are passionate about the Spirit World 100 being a positive presence to support the local economy and delicate ecosystem surrounding Patagonia. They’ve partnered with the Borderlands Restoration Network for that purpose and also use their event to support local farmers, artisans and breweries.
For Lamson, it’s an opportunity to experience and support the smaller, hidden communities you typically wouldn’t see in your normal travels. “We’ve been able to set up basecamp, enjoy rural Montana hospitality, home-cooked barbecue and fresh, cold beer in an idealistic setting for participants,” he said. Proceeds from the Pancake Ride help support a local shelter for women suffering from domestic and sexual violence.
In recent years, Crawford has settled into a realization that these rides (he purposefully doesn’t call them races) cultivate a greater sense of awareness and help connect people to a place and local economy; it also helps support groups doing good stuff. In his words, “It gives you a reason to be there.”
HITTING THE RESET BUTTON
For many, the reason to train and compete in these events is to recharge during those rhythmic hours in the saddle, through meditative self-reflection. Crawford cites another angle from mythology expert and human experience guru, Joseph Campbell, who saw running itself as a form of high activity, beyond the physical, and quoted, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
Rentz and Ault schedule the Spirit World purposefully in the fall, when cyclists are at the end of their race calendar, settling into a natural transition period of reflection. “It’s not about who wins the race, it’s about experiencing something to change your life,” Ault said. “Our small town of Patagonia is a perfect environment for everyone to take a deep breath as a group, sit back and arrive at a place to escape to.”
A MOVEMENT OF DEMOCRATIZATION
Whether you’re aiming for the podium or just the finish line, it’s simply a good time to get into gravel racing. Thanks to the efforts and exploration of race organizers and their crews, routes have been vetted to be hard, but not demoralizing, highlighting the region’s best terrain, vistas and riding surfaces, with aid stations you’ll never forget.
And, oh, the bikes! Gone are the days of head-scratching to decide between your ’cross or mountain bike. The modern gravel bike has evolved to become a do-everything beast, with slack angles to ride comfortably for hours and hours. They’re lighter, stronger and snappier, and designed to adapt to conditions, as needed, by swapping wheelsets. Disc brakes, tubeless, low-pressure tires, cockpit ergonomics and dropper posts allow riders to ride and even attack technical terrain with confidence. Also, 1x drivetrains and through axles have simplified and improved the user experience even more. In short, these improvements have made the ride more safe, efficient and responsive; and you get more out of every pedal stroke. This shortens the learning curve for newbies and really blurs the lines as to what’s rideable for today’s courses.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE
So, let’s go back to the sausage makers. These aren’t races they’ve crafted but “experiences” where there’s a seat at the table for everyone. It will be intense and challenging humping hills in these grinders, which is exactly part of the fun, but this is quenched with unbelievable support, food, drink, cheer and a community to make that journey a rich one. It provides an opportunity to put yourself out there to really see what you’re made of.
So what’s the attraction, why the buzz? After exploring these events and the good folks behind them, it’s not just one thing but lots of ingredients baked in to make gravel biking so appetizing—and that makes me very hungry.