Gravel races are a little looser than other bike events. Even at a downhill mountain bike race, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the riders apart once they drop in: there’s a baggy, technical uniform, a specific kind of bike to ride, and a keen sense of competition that leads most riders to approach the course in more or less the same way. While you can certainly show up at an organized gravel ride in full spandex and on a perfectly dialed carbon bike, you won’t be any more at home than someone in jean shorts on their steel commuter. “Gravel races are more about the experience than the race itself. It’s much more about community building,” says Amanda Schaper, event director for Grinduro California. “It’s the only discipline where no matter what you want to get out of it, every approach to the event itself is a welcome, celebrated approach.”
This year, the field at Grinduro California, one of the most popular gravel rides in the U.S., will look even more welcoming thanks to an initiative to include more femme, trans, and women riders (FTW, for short). To ensure that a wider variety of riders across the gender spectrum would be represented, Schaper and her team decided to set aside 30 percent of the 715 registration slots for FTW riders. In 2019, just 15 percent of the riders were non-male. “I wanted to try to come out strong and double that,” says Schaper. They also created an option in the registration form for riders who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary, and established an open gender category for riders who don’t want to compete for a men’s or women’s podium.
Grinduro is a novel race franchise that combines an enduro format and gravel riding, where riders compete on timed segments, with untimed portions in between that allow them to pedal with friends (Grinduro’s website describes the event as “the perfect party to race ratio.”) Founded in 2015, the race is now a series that hosts six events around the world. The flagship California installment is scheduled for September 12 in Mt. Shasta (organizers have committed to full refunds or registration deferrals in the instance of a COVID-19 related cancellation), and features group camping, a dance party, and now, one of the more progressive efforts in the bike industry to represent a wider set of riders. On Wednesday evening, the 210 FTW slots sold out in four hours (the 505 men’s slots were claimed within an hour) and the open gender category saw over 50 registrants. Grinduro’s five other events—in Switzerland, Japan, the UK, Canada, and Australia—have yet to introduce any kind of diversity initiative. But Grinduro California plans to lean further into their efforts next year: after seeing how successful the 30 percent campaign was this year, they’re planning to allocate 50 percent of registrations to FTW in 2021.
Bike racing has long struggled with gender diversity. Men make up 84 percent of riders registered with USA Cycling, the national governing body that oversees most road, track, cyclocross, and BMX races in the country. FTW riders have been carving out a bigger space for themselves in recent years, and the industry has started to take notice, but casual and institutional sexism still abound. Gravel riding, a relatively new category, is unsanctioned, grassroots, and has always been a little more inclusive, thanks to the casual culture and conscious community efforts.
At first, Schaper’s goal with Grinduro California was simply to hold more spaces for women. Then, Sarah Swallow, a founding member of the group WTF Bike Explorers, encouraged Schaper to make their language more inclusive. WTF Bike Explorers’ mission is to increase gender inclusivity and racial equality across the bike industry. (Their name is an acronym for Women, Trans, and Femme.) While the group started with bikepacking and gravel riding, they have recently pivoted to outreach within the bike industry as a whole to help brands, shops, and event directors create more inclusive, accessible events.
Both Swallow and Schaper nod to other efforts in the bike industry to diversify the field at certain events, like Dirty Kanza’s 2017 200 Women 200 Miles initiative, which brought more women’s participation to the iconic Kansas gravel race by pre-allocating 20 percent of the registration spots. SBT GRVL, a Steamboat Springs, Colorado-based event launched in 2019, opened up an additional 200 spots for women after their initial registration window sold out in 25 minutes, because race organizers were disappointed to see a dude-heavy roster. But Grinduro’s initiative took things a few steps further.
“It’s important that, instead of talking about women, we’re talking about all genders and people who don’t identify with particular genders,” says Swallow. “That’s a lot of people in our immediate community.”
In addition, bike racing, like much of the outdoor industry, skews white and affluent, and Swallow and Schaper both say they hope to address the dearth of racial diversity at future events as well. Swallow and WTF Bike Explorers are working on a handbook for event directors that guides them towards solutions like allocating free registrations to underserved groups. “Now that gender representation is starting to get some traction, that’s a whole other community we need to be targeting as well,” says Schaper. “Increasing the percentage of people of color is a conversation we’re having, and there’s a lot of learning and many conversations that need to be had to ensure that we’re doing it authentically.”
During her ten years in the bike industry working at brands such as Crankbrothers and Giro, Schaper has consistently pushed to make events more welcoming to more people, whether by ensuring that T-shirts and merch are offered in men’s and women’s sizing or encouraging event directors to diversify their promotional imagery. With Grinduro, she wants to make sure that she doesn’t just bring FTW riders into the fold—she wants to keep them there.
“Once you get the community there, you want to make the event great for them,” Schaper says. For those who want it, there will be a separate FTW camping area and porta-potties, and she’s working with WTF Bike Explorers to add a forum about inclusivity to the weekend’s schedule. This year is just the beginning, she explains, and Schaper’s certain that she and her team’s approach to diversity will continue to evolve.
“There are a lot of emotions and opinions when it comes to the right way to do all of this, but to use that as an excuse to do nothing isn’t going to take us anywhere,” Schaper says. “You have to listen to the community when they reach out to you. If we’re open to hearing feedback and adjusting as we go, that’s a really powerful thing.”