Unless you’re from the nation’s breadbasket, you may be unfamiliar with the grassroots phenomena of “gravel grinders” popping up like dandelions all over the countryside. Gravel grinders are unsanctioned, unsupported endurance bicycle races on primarily gravel and dirt roads, with little or no outside support, course markings, fees or prizes. There are no governing bodies, race officials, or licenses. Just a dedicated race organizer and some volunteers plotting out a unique course highlighting local, out-of-the-way sights and sounds, with unapologetic bike geeks gathering for a long day, or more, of racing, adventure and camaderie.
Gravel grinders are a great experience for avid cyclists of all kinds. By their very nature, and by the nature of the folks that organize, volunteer and race these events, gravel grinders provide a great opportunity to meet cyclists where they are and to build relationships.
Although gravel grinders are races and they keep score, the spirit of inclusiveness is real and palpable. All kinds of cyclists show up. Many are road and cyclocross racers. Others have more experience as endurance mountain bike racers. Others haven’t raced much, if at all, but are passionate recreational riders of all kinds, including randonneurs, century riders, commuters and tourists. All are welcomed and encouraged to give it a go and share the experience with everyone involved.
You’ll also see all kinds of bikes. Many race cyclocross bikes, with as fat a tire as the frame allows. But the gravel grinders I’ve entered also included rigid, hard tail and fully suspended mountain bikes, tandems and even fat bikes. Road bikes, or any bike with tires less than 30 mm, will likely provide practice for pinch flat repair. Most run gears, but you’ll see some singlespeeds and even an occasional fixed gear. But, hey, race what ‘cha brung.
Because many gravel grinders start pretty early on a Saturday morning, the pre-race meeting is often held on early Friday evening. Here, the race organizer typically hands out cue sheets for the first section of the course, walks through the opportunities on the course for water and supplies, describes emergency and bail out procedures, identifies checkpoints, points out particular highlights and hazards, and answers questions. As one might expect, before and after the actual meeting, these turn into informal social gatherings, as folks meet and reconnect, perhaps over a couple of local micro-brews or other treats.
Whether before, during or after the race, I believe that much of the positive atmosphere of gravel grinders directly results from the races being unsupported and social, while still being competitive. During the race, the field self-selects pretty quickly, even for races of 100 or 200 miles. Once the race hits gravel, pacelines streak out in two of the three tracks that typically form over time from motor vehicle traffic on the gravel roads. With little or no traffic, it’s easy to ride two abreast with another of similar ability or ambition. With no outside support allowed, racers depend on themselves and help each other, even at the front of the race. With no course markings, racers share navigation duties to stay on course, or return to the course. With no feed zones or crews, racers find convenience stores for food and water, and share if not available or closed. Believe it or not, there are gravel grinders with little or spotty cell coverage, and some distance for emergency personnel, so racers really look after each other. All this while remaining a race. It really is something to experience.
So, how did all this start? The founding father and keeper of the flame of today’s gravel grinder is Mark Stephenson, aka “Guitar Ted,” a bike mechanic and Christian worship band guitarist who ten years ago started a 300+ mile gravel race dubbed “TransIowa.” In general, TransIowa and its progeny feature free registration, no licensing, unsanctioned, self-supported endurance bicycle racing on unmarked public gravel and dirt roads through relatively remote countryside. Racers receive a cue sheet, with directions for an initial portion of the course. Racers that reach the end of the first set of cue sheets by a pre-determined time cut-off receive a second set of cue sheets. Those that miss the cut-off do not. Longer races may have multiple cut-offs and checkpoints. Racers generally carry much of what they think they need, but may re-supply at small towns and convenience stores along the way. These races are largely self-policed, although race organizers are known to throw in a surprise checkpoint or two, often with water and treats, to keep folks on course. The course usually changes each year to keep the navigation and adventure component. Popular gravel grinders in kindred spirit with TransIowa include Alamanzo in Spring Valley, MN, Odin’s Revenge in Gothenburg, NE,
Gravel Worlds in Lincoln, NE, and many others.
Being unsanctioned and ultimately grassroots, each gravel grinder forges its own path.
For example, other races may provide cue sheets in advance, even digitally, keep the same course year after year, allow some level of outside support at designated spots, charge an entry fee, provide schwag or award substantial prizing. Popular gravel grinders containing many of those elements include Dirty Kanza in Emporia, KS, Rebecca’s Private Idaho in Ketchum, Idaho and Gold Rush Gravel Grinder in Spearfish, SD.
Check out some gravel grinders to find one that appeals to you. Guitar Ted maintains a calendar of gravel races and events at www.gravelgrindernews.com. Or contact me. I’d be happy to help you get started. Also, for a heart felt post about the spirit of gravel grinders, go to this post on Guitar Ted’s blog, g-tedproductions.blogspot.com – http://g-tedproductions.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-reason-for-what-i-do.html
Gravel grinders. There’s an adventure out there for you. And you’ll probably meet a few folks along the way.