The rise of cycling's gravel grinders: Ruthless terrain, camaraderie and dirt
On a sizzling summer day 16 years ago in the country's Heartland—Madison, K.S., to be exact—I got my first taste of a "gravel grinder." The Flint Hills Death Ride was a 100-kilometer grunt through eastern Kansas. (Yes, the Sunflower State is not entirely flat, despite popular opinion.) I was intrigued by the challenge of exploring the seemingly endless, wide-open spaces of my wife's home state.
Beforehand, organizer John Hobbs warned at least 60% of the riders wouldn't finish.
"No one has ever died," he said, with a laugh. "Some came close, a few thought they were gonna die, but they were weenies."
In the right light, the vast, rolling Kansas landscape, with its rocky soils and tall prairie grass, can be radiant. Unless, of course, you're on a mountain bike riding a metric century—roughly 70 miles—along old gravel and dirt stagecoach roads through rugged countryside and ghost towns, beneath an unyielding sun.
"We got tired of reading how truly epic rides were only in places like California and Colorado," Hobbs told me. "So we set up a ride that we knew that even under good conditions would test you, and under bad conditions would be nearly impossible."
More than five hours later, dehydrated and plastered with white salt stains, I finished. Little did I know that the event was the start of a ground swell that has become a full-fledged movement in cycling circles. Though I rode in the final version of the original Flint Hills Death Ride in 2000, the spirit of the race can be found in the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile monster that covers much of the same terrain.
Today, these large-scale gravel grinders can be found throughout North America, from the Gorge Roubaix in the Pacific Northwest to the Vermont Overland in New England. There are even lung-busting options north of the border, such as Les 100 B7 in Quebec's Eastern Townships.
"I think (gravel grinders) will save the sport of bike racing," says Peter Vollers, founder of the Vermont Overland. "While recreational cycling is up, competitive cycling is down, especially for junior cyclists. Gravel rides and races, more than anything else, bring us back to why we started riding in the first place, for the sheer joy and adventure of it all.
"With gravel races, it's all about the experience, so there's so much less stress and anxiety," says Voller, a former NCAA road cycling champion. "Sure, you want to do well, but that's entirely secondary. First and foremost, you want to just ride it and see what happens. What you're invariably left with is an incredibly epic experience that resonates for days after the event."
In truth, gravel grinders are not a revelation.
"This is not new," says Richard Fries, a former professional racer and now executive director of MassBike, a Massachusetts advocacy group. "The Tour de France, in 1903 was just a huge gravel race. Look at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix or the Strada Bianchi stage in the Tour of Italy. It's a component that has always been there."
The legendary Paris-Roubaix, the most famous of the European one-day spring classics, is known as the "Hell of the North" due to its ruthless cobblestone sections and typically inclement weather. It was the inspiration for one the best-known North American gravel grinders, the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee (known simply as the D2R2) in western Massachusetts.
"In 1999, I organized a dirt-road ride in honor of Paris-Roubaix's 100th birthday, and that became officially sanctioned as the D2R2 in 2005," says Saunders "Sandy" Whittlesey, a software engineer from Deerfield. "Even the locals couldn't believe the hidden roads of the area, and how fun they were to ride."
The D2R2, a charity ride that benefits the Franklin Land Trust, is the quintessential gravel grinder. Held annually in late August, the event features a variety of routes and distances, which riders must navigate themselves.
"People have always ridden bikes off road. Always. But gravel is the flavor of the month for sure, marketing-wise," says Anthony Valletti, a repeat D2R2 participant. "Dirt roads are the best of both worlds. Anything that gets me away from the danger of car traffic and closer to nature is my calling. I like getting dirty."
Many see gravel grinders as a sort of Goldilocks of cycling, filling that sweet spot between short, intense races that last less than two hours and ultra-marathon outings.
"Cyclocross races are short and hellish, and mountain bike races are mostly laps in the woods," says Valletti. "Gravel events have it all, and you get in a full day of riding."
There's an almost infinite variety of gravel grinder race profiles, says Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Ned Overend, a former world champion from Durango, CO. Terrain can be tedious (long, flat gravel stretches, like the 300-mile Trans Iowa V12), treacherous (muddy, off-camber descents, like the Rasputitsa Spring Classic in Vermont's dramatic Northeast Kingdom), or thigh-burning (like Utah's Crusher in the Tushar, which runs along some of the Beehive State's tallest peaks), and everything in between.
"I prefer hard courses with lots of climbing, but not too long—60-100 miles max," says Overend, who hosts his own gravel grinder, Strada La Plata, with former racer Todd Wells in Durango. "There's plenty to chose from in that range. Lots of climbing makes for fast descents and a technical challenge."
Lyne Bessette, a former Canadian road champion and founder of Les 100 B7, says the main attraction is that "conditions that can change from one hour to the next."
"The terrain is different, with bigger and steeper climbs, and sometimes the descents are, well, un-rideable," she says. "It's the feeling of having conquered something harder. Nothing bonds people like suffering, eh?"
A common theme among riders is that these off-road treks often pit the riders against the course, and themselves.
"People love to suffer—200 miles at the Dirty Kanza, 135 miles at the Belgium Waffle ride (in California)," says Overend. "I don't understand wanting to spend that many hours getting pounded by a bicycle saddle. Four hours is my limit, after that I'm ready for a beer and a doughnut. But I do like to climb and ride hard, and there is plenty of that in gravel rides."
Course architects say they try to emphasize and celebrate the local landscape.
"The main challenge is coming up with an epic course that will be hard enough to be truly challenging, but not gratuitously difficult," says Vollers. "You need to have a good mix of terrain, with some really technical sections to help break up the groups and separate the top riders.
"So many riders do this for the camaraderie alone, so it's just so hugely important to have a warm, inclusive environment for everyone, from your race winner to your lanterne rouge (last-place finisher)," he says.
Variety between venues is, of course, part of the attraction. "A big draw is that every one of these races is unique, given the weather, road conditions, terrain, and skill set required to succeed," says Derek Griggs, a cycling industry representative and racer from New Hampshire.
Fries readily agrees.
"Some are pure races by definition, and others are more about adventure," he says. "But all of them devolve into some degree of survival and collaborative endurance.
"You are racing against each other, but you really kind of need each other. You want a good collection in your group; a diesel for the flats, a good descender to set the lines in the technical stuff, and a good climber that can set just the right pace that keeps you moving but does not blow the group apart. It also helps to have a good mechanic."
Most gravel grinders, even those advertised as "rides," invariably feature a race component, which is important to competitors who want to ratchet up the stakes. But the testosterone-lace atmosphere of most road races is missing.
"The appeal is a less competitive environment as a whole," says Jesse Anthony, who races professionally for Rally Cycling and won last year's Vermont Overland. "It's totally accepted for people to take these events very seriously, yet also accepted for someone not to care about being competitive at all. All spectrums of that competitive attitude exist at these events, but everyone seems to come together in enjoying the sport and the camaraderie."
Like any cycling discipline, gravel grinders present set of circumstances that are better suited for some bike designs compared to others. These rides can be done on almost any rig, though road bikes rarely have tires wide enough to handle the rugged portions, and mountain bikes (a good choice for beginners, especially the 29-inch variety) are often too heavy and too slow for the smooth sections.
The best choice, until recently, was a cyclocross bike, which shines in a variety of terrain thanks to its wider tire clearance, more forgiving gear ratios and more relaxed geometry. But the fact that many manufacturers are now designing and building gravel-specific models is proof of the rising popularity of the discipline.
Options range from major brands, like the carbon Cannondale Slate (with a Lefty front-suspension fork), steel Kona Rove (also available in titanium), and aluminum Diamondback Haanjo Comp, to high-end boutique steeds like the Salsa Warbird Ti and the Niner RLT9 5-Star Ultegra Di2. Regardless of the main-frame material, consider a carbon front fork to absorb smaller bumps, and disc brakes to provide better stopping power.
"Gravel riding is here to stay," says Overend, who continues to work for his long-time sponsor, Specialized Bicycles, and competes on a Specialized Diverge bike. "Its always been here, but the industry is focusing on making better equipment to serve it, which will only open it up to more and more people."
People who aren't afraid of digging deep.
"You almost always find yourself just heaving on the pedals on some steep long, loose gravel climb at the end of the race, and you just have to keep going," says Vollers. "But pushing yourself to your limits is all part of the fun. And, what's more, it's a grand metaphor for life."
Get ready for your gravel grinder
Got a gravel grinder in your future? Consider the following advice to make the most of your effort.
The Rule of 32
D2R2 designer Sandy Whittlesey recommends the "Rule of 32," a 32-tooth rear cog to allow a super low gear for those long uphill slogs, tires that are at least 32mm (by comparison, a normal high-pressure road tire is 23mm) that can run lower pressure, offering more traction and more comfort, and 32-spoked wheels, which are generally considered stronger and more durable, ideal for the rough roads. In short, have the right gear for the ride. Pro racer Jesse Anthony says: "Find someone who's done it before, and ask for equipment advice. Having the right bike, tires, wheels, gearing, and nutrition before the event can make or break you."
Don't put all your trust in a GPS
By their nature, gravel grinders are long-distance events, with myriad twists and turns. They also tend to be held in more remote areas (which may or may not have reliable cell service). Most race organizers provide a detailed map of the route, in addition to coordinates for your Garmin. D2R2 veteran Tony Valletti recommends that riders "pack a hard copy of the route. I've been with guys using GPSs that lost signals." And on rides this long, you don't want to take a wrong turn.
Know what you're getting into.
Gravel grinder profiles can vary dramatically, from relatively flat and fast to steep with plenty of suffering. "Be informed about the course," says Lyne Bessette, who runs Les 100 B7 race in Quebec. "That way you can be prepared, and feel better." Put in adequate training, especially if the race is held in hill country. "The physical component can be extreme," says Peter Vollers of the Vermont Overland. "By nature, gravel events require more effort as you have far more rolling resistance." Fitness is far more important than buying a new steed. "Don't think that you need the latest bike on the market," says Bessette. "A mountain bike can do the job just fine for your first race."