Nine miles northeast of Ketchum, Idaho, the pavement ended and Trail Creek Road turned to gravel. Robin Farina dug in for the 1,500-foot ascent to the summit, trying to keep in touch with the lead pack of seven riders early on Sept. 6. This was the first big climb of Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a 94-mile gravel bike race hosted by Queen of Pain Rebecca Rusch in the mountains above her hometown on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.
Farina, 38, the 2011 U.S. road race champion, had contested her first gravel event, the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Portola, Calif., at the end of May. She won the women’s pro race there, and repeated that result at the Crusher in the Tushar east of Beaver, Utah, in mid-July. Before she switched to road racing in 2006, Farina cut her teeth mountain biking around Nashville. She relies on both sets of skills on the dirt. “On a road bike, everything’s predictable,” she says, “[but] on a gravel ride or a mountain bike, you’ve got to really anticipate how your bike will maneuver with loose dirt.”
She came to race at RPI, to lead the women’s field and “beat every guy I can beat,” she says. At the start line she looked around, checking out the competition. The sun was already up, but the air temperature was below freezing. “All the fast guys around me, of course, they didn’t have leg warmers on,” she says, “so I decided to go with no leg warmers, just as little clothing as I could get away with.”
The peloton of more than 400 riders raced out of town on the only paved section of the course, before Neil Shirley and Burke Swindlehurst—who runs the Crusher in the Tushar—and a small group of riders broke clear on the climb. They disappeared from Farina’s sight, down through the pine trees and out on the long, windswept ride between sandy colored mountains toward the Copper Basin.
Farina and the five riders behind her regrouped. “Once we crested the top, we all decided to work together,” she says. Using road-racing tactics they took turns leading the pack, allowing those behind to conserve energy, and keeping the pace higher than any of them could have sustained individually. Slowly they reeled in Shirley and Swindlehurst. By the 36-mile mark, at the start of a 22-mile loop out around the Copper Basin, Farina was back at the front.
In 2012, friends convinced Rusch to race the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel grinder outside Emporia, Kans. She was reluctant because, although she had raced on the road before, including a first place at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif., earlier that same year, Rusch’s real success had come on a mountain bike. From 2009 to 2012, Rusch won four straight Leadville 100 races. She feared a gravel race would be too much road and not enough mountain.
But Rusch was pleasantly surprised with how gravel seemed to level the playing field between road racers and mountain bikers, allowing everyone to compete on the same course. She won, setting a new course record along the way, and finishing third overall, less than six minutes behind the leading man. Rusch had been thinking about running a mountain bike race out of her hometown, but after Dirty Kanza she wondered whether she should put on a gravel race instead.
“I don’t think [gravel] plays 100% to any one strength,” Rusch says. The gravel descents at RPI bring out mountain bike skills; riders need to stay soft on their knees, to cushion the impacts. “Coming down Trail Creek Road, being OK jumping side to side,” she explains, “being comfortable with your bike being kicked around like that.”
The gravel surface also makes it impossible to coast in a large peloton because there are only one or two lines that can be ridden on the road. But road bike techniques also apply. “Drafting, even if there’s only one other person,” Rusch says, “being smart enough to save energy, knowing when to wait and sit back.”
Gravel racing is now one of the fastest growing disciplines in the cycling world. Dirty Kanza was first run in 2006, and in the ensuing decade has grown from 34 participants to over 1,500. The Crusher in the Tushar started in 2011, RPI in ’13, Lost and Found was added to the calendar in ’14, and there are many others besides.
But gravel races are really nothing new. “When you look back,” Rusch says, “it’s how road biking started. They were riding on dirt roads when they first started the Tour de France.”
According to Rusch, one of the key advantages of gravel races is that almost anyone can take part. While riders can buy dedicated gravel bikes—effectively a road bike with beefier tires—you can also ride mountain or road bikes on the terrain. Pros from both trail and tarmac can apply hard-earned skills from their own specialties, while beginners can still get to grips with the surface.
Aaron Kern, 30, a computer programmer from Sandy, Utah, got back on a bike for the first time since he was a teenager in late June. Just over two months later he raced to last place, and the Baked Potato award, at RPI. “That was probably the toughest biking I’ve done,” Kern says of the 20 minutes it took him to climb the last 3.5 miles before the descent back down Trail Creek Road into Ketchum. “It was just so slow and mentally challenging.”
At the head of the race, Shirley and Swindlehurst broke free again from Farina as they started out on the Copper Basin loop. “I could tell that momentum was going out of the group a little bit,” Shirley says. “I wanted to keep the pressure going, so I attacked there.”
Like Farina, Shirley, 36, started out racing mountain bikes. He spent three years on trails before switching to the road in 2003, and then retired from pro road cycling in 2010.
Swindlehurst chased Shirley around the loop, but lagged behind as they turned back onto the road they’d raced up just over an hour before. He dropped back from Shirley’s rear tire and disappeared into the distance behind.
“I was just solo after that,” Shirley says. “It seemed all right at first because we still had a bit of a tailwind through that section.” Through the last 20 miles back up to the top of Trail Creek Road, though, Shirley was pedaling a long gradual uphill straight into a headwind. Consuming around 300 calories per hour in energy drinks and gels, but burning perhaps 800 calories per hour on the soft surface, Shirley began to struggle. “I honestly felt like I was crawling,” he says, “my legs were getting really heavy.”
Shirley had no idea where everyone behind him was, whether they might be working together again to chase him down. If he was caught, he wasn’t sure he could hold on. “There’s nothing worse than having to try and race it out at the end if you’re starting to bonk,” he says.
Coming over the crest, and still with no sign of anyone trailing him, Shirley tiptoed back down the final descent towards Ketchum. The road was rutted and rocky. The last thing he needed right then was a flat. Running at the head of the pack in 2014, Shirley had punctured his rear tire 30 miles into the race. He’d lost too much time fixing the flat, and eventually crossed the line 15 minutes after last year’s winner.
This year, Shirley led all the way to the finish line, completing the course in four hours and 42 minutes. Farina finished less than 13 minutes behind, seventh overall, smashing the women’s record by more than 28 minutes. Kern rolled in four and a half hours later.
Because this is Idaho, for coming first, first, and last, respectively, all three won cowboy hats. And all three hope to be back next year. Kern made Rusch a promise, too. In the three-year history of her race, no one has won the Baked Potato award twice. He doesn’t plan on being the first.