Not far out of the gates of the “Central Iowa Rock Road Endurance Metric” (or CIRREM as it’s known in gravel circles), riders started going down on the dirt road in the middle of Iowa. A big guy on my left spilled hard and almost took me out. Another one up front went over and slammed his helmet into the ground. I slipped on the ice a few times, but managed to stay upright. In the lead pack, a rider broke away and the others started to chase him. Nearly all of them went over, too.
We were just a few miles into the late-February, 63.5-mile bike race that brings out the hardest of the hardcore groadies (gravel roadies). Gravel riding, or “gravel grinding” as it’s known, is a different sort of race than the ones that came before. These are epic rides on forgotten, unpaved roads covered in crushed rock. They’re more relaxed, more low-brow, and more hardcore than you average road crit.
Not only that, but they open up a vast new territory for cycling. At last count, there were 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads throughout the United States. Cyclists are just beginning to discover these as a new frontier where there are no rules, no governing bodies, and where you can just announce a race and people will show up to ride 60, 100, 200 miles or more.
“EVER SINCE 2005, IT’S been on the upswing,” says Mark “Guitar Ted” Stevenson, who runs the 320-plus-mile Trans Iowa gravel race, as well as the Gravel Grinder News website. “It’s been astounding to see the growth of it.”
Stevenson says the number of gravel races was up by 50 percent last season, and the number of racers has exploded. Last year, for example, CIRREM made no opening announcement but filled up in 24 hours. The Almanzo, a 100/160-miler in Minnesota had 350 people in 2011 (only 170 finished), they registered 800 in 2012, and this year they’ve added the 400-mile “Nellie.” Even the brutal, 200-mile Dirty Kanza in Kansas filled its 450 slots in two-and-a-half hours. Getting into the Trans Iowa these days has almost become as hard as the ride itself.
In Europe, too, new gravel races have popped up and taken off, like the Strade Bianche in Italy, the Dengie Marshes Tour in England, and the Gran Premio Canal de Castilla in Spain. “They’ve been catching on everywhere,” says Ed Pickering, who covers European cycling for the U.K.-based Cycle Sport Magazine. “I think it’s because Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders are held in such high esteem.”
The Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders are two of the Spring Classics held in Europe early in the year. They’re grueling and glorious, going through mud and over old cobblestone roads; they seem closer to the sport’s pre-paved roots than other major road races, retaining all the romance of old-world cycling. “The appeal is retro,” said Pickering. Now, with the fall of Lance Armstrong, and the pall he cast on the Tour de France, that appeal seems likely to grow.
“Everyone wants to be in Paris-Roubaix,” says Drew Wilson, who went on to finish third at CIRREM. “That’s what you dream about. But the USA Cycling-sanctioned road races have too many set-up costs and rules to stage a race on this same scale. So these gravel rides are as close as we can get to having classics-style courses.”
COMPLAINTS ABOUT RED TAPE and over-administrating are common refrains in gravel circles, and those issues help explain why gravel riding attracts the cycling misfits who don’t fit into any neat cycling box.
“Regular racing is extremely cost prohibitive,” said Jeff Frane, a gravel racer who also works for All City Cycles. “But with gravel races you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth, because getting your money’s worth is just about having fun. And if you had fun, you clearly got your money’s worth. There’s something about removing all the red tape and restrictions and regulations that brings cycling back to its roots in another way.”
Most gravel rides are free, or close to it, which is part of the gravel scene’s everyman ethos. Just get on your bike and ride: At CIRREM, I saw mountain bikes, cylcocross, fat bikes, and even tandems rolling through the Iowa hills. But with the scene growing so fast, companies have started coming out with gravel-specific bikes, like Salsa’s Warbird, which has a longer wheel base, a lower bottom bracket, a taller head tube, and sealed cables to keep dust out. It also comes with three water bottle cages in case you get thirsty out around mile 150 or so.
As the sport gains in popularity and gravel-specific products become the norm, it would seem like the signs point to gravel going mainstream. But for now the camaraderie of the nascent scene remains part of the appeal—a camaraderie that stems from finishing something that’s more adventure than race. Out on the gravel, it’s up to you to get over the bumps, through the mud, and back to the finish line.
“If you have a mechanical problem, ain’t nobody coming to pick your ass up,” said Frane. “And there’s something to be said for a person surviving by their wits, even if it’s only for a couple of hours during a bike race.”
That is no doubt the deeper allure of gravel racing: it’s open to anyone who thinks they can ride 100 miles on whatever kind of bike they want. It gives every rider a chance to dig down and push past their everyday limits.
“Grown men cry like babies at the finish line at Dirty Kanza,” says Jim Cummings. “And it’s easy to assume the reason they’re crying is because they’ve been suffering and the pain is over. But I don’t think that’s it. I think they cry because it gives them a chance to go inside themselves to a place where they don’t normally get to go, and they like what they find there.”
CIRREM WAS ON THE short side of the gravel spectrum, but it was still, as one of the organizers put it, “a solid kick in the junk.” At about mile 45, I looked down at my chain to find it completely encased in frozen mud—the morning snow had melted and the afternoon roads were a cold, dirty swamp. Dead tired, and with only one gear working, I stopped to chip my cables loose. A few other riders passed me. A pickup pulled up, and the driver stuck his head out. “You want a ride?” he yelled.
“No thanks,” I said.
“You headed to town?”
“That’s a long ways.”
“I know,” I said, looking down the road to see just how long it was. “I’ll make it,”
After waving him past, I managed to free up two more gears and got back on. Another 20 miles down the road, my bike creaked to a halt in front of a local bar in a tiny town just south of Des Moines. I walked across the finish line (the bar’s front door), and a guy at a table asked for my race number and shouted out my time.
The bar was packed with dirty, happy cyclists, laughing, talking, and, this being a bar, drinking. I wandered around and found a few of the people I’d ridden with. I asked some of them how they did, but no one seemed all that concerned. Most of the riders just shrugged. After all, it didn’t really matter how fast anyone went. What mattered, in the end, was just the ride.
Frank Bures is an award-winning writer based in Minneapolis who frequently reports from Africa. More at frankbures.com.