It’s no secret that gravel cycling has exploded in popularity in the last several years. But long before you could buy a “gravel bike” and register for “gravel races,” pioneering cyclists were pushing the boundaries of road and cyclocross bikes.
When Amanda Nauman, an accomplished racer who has among other notable results twice won UNBOUND Gravel, and Dave Sheek, a coach at Carmichael Training Systems, were years ago first getting into off-road riding similar to what we today know as gravel, the term “gravel riding” really didn’t exist. Rather, riders were simply exploring new roads, pushing the boundaries of road and cyclocross bikes in the process. “We’ve already ridden bikes like this for years,” says Sheek.
Soon enough, gravel rides as we now know them, those 200-mile Midwestern epics, began to pop up across the country, making use of the ample, seldom-traveled gravel roads crisscrossing the country. Around this time, Nauman and Sheek discovered a perfect place to train for these races: Mammoth Lakes, California.
Nauman and Sheek had both grown up visiting Mammoth Lakes, located southeast of Yosemite National Park on the eastern side of California’s Sierra Nevada range near the Nevada border, for snowboarding and other year-round outdoor recreation. As adults racing bikes, they were able to discover this mountain playground anew as an under-the-radar training basecamp located within driving distance of their Southern California home. Bishop, just a short drive away from Mammoth Lakes, offers mild winter weather hovering around 50°F for off-season high altitude training, without the biting cold that so often accompanies altitude at that time of the year. “I’ve felt colder at the beach than I do up here,” says Sheek. And importantly, there are long, open roads of rarely traveled gravel and paved roads to mimic the extensive days of racing in the Midwest.
There’s an added perk, too. In winter and spring when the snow is good, you can cross-train with a day on the slopes or try some cross-country skiing. “Come for the biking, but stay for all the other winter activities,” says Nauman, who adds that they’re still finding new things to do all these years later.
As Nauman and Sheek raced more, becoming well acquainted with Midwestern gravel riding and picking up some wins along the way, they also began to fully realize the attributes that make Mammoth Lakes so special. Besides the breathtaking beauty in any season—from fall foliage to snow capped peaks to spring blooms—it’s a place that allows you to spend a long ride almost entirely on gravel roads, a trait that’s hard to come by in California.
Nauman and Sheek began to see the potential of this area to host a gravel race with a unique flavor, becoming the bridge between California gravel events and those of the Midwest. When rides like Belgian Waffle Ride began popping up in Southern California, they were very much extensions of road riding, mixing in sectors of off-road riding into a road race. And the ample levels of aid stations and support found in road events followed over. But the gravel events of much of the rest of the country are an entirely different breed with very little in the way of support. “There’s no hand holding,” says Sheek of those rides. “You’re in the deep end.” The pair realized that a gravel event in Mammoth Lakes could be that in between.
After kicking around for a few years, that idea has turned into Mammoth Tuff, bringing the Midwestern gravel idea of supporting yourself over long stretches of off-road riding to California, while still offering some help along the way. But that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park.
“[Mammoth Tuff] is a fitting name because none of the riding is easy,” says Nauman. (That’s coming from someone who placed second in the 350-mile UNBOUND XL this year, by the way.) And that goes whether you choose the 45-mile or 100-mile option. As for the name? Well, it’s doubly fitting. That’s not a cutesy spelling of “tough”; tuff is a porous, volcanic rock that makes up the unpaved roads around Mammoth Lakes, ensuring riders roll away with a day to remember.
If you’re looking for a high-altitude gravel playground with stunning backdrops, you can stop searching. Head into the mountains to explore on your own, and be sure to keep September 17, 2022 open for Mammoth Tuff!