No one really expects to find gold in their backyards, but that’s just what cyclists across the Midwest started finding, starting about 10 years ago. I’m talking about gravel – rich, treasure-filled gravel where the tarmac ends and right under our noses. It was bound to happen once the roadies had covered every paved route they could find a hundred times. To ride gravel roads is to double your possibilities on a bike. Once shunned by the skinny tire crew, gravel gets a rider away from the traffic and into another dimension of the terrain previously hidden from view.
Any two-wheeled machine can take advantage of gravel. I have seen mountain bikes roll sure and steady on gravel for hundreds of miles, and I’ve seen road bikes fly away from a pack on gravel downhills before seeing their expensive tires shredded. The ideal machine for gravel is a touring bike or one of the cyclocross bikes that have become much more available over the past decade.
In recent years, Salsa and now Giant have put out gravel specific models that blend the dirt carving thrills of a cross bike with the plush ride and braze-on mounts of a touring bike. Some riders are even trading in their road bikes permanently because their new gravel rides can take them anywhere.
Where the rubber meets the gravel
The machine one selects to interface with the earth may be inconsequential relative to the importance of the tires on the business end of that machine.
I have long been a member of the camp that equates thinner tires and high pressure with low rolling resistance. But as I age I’ve found that old assumptions can be wrong. I’m ready to trade in my 32mm touring tires for a 38mm cross tire. And after thousands of rough miles, I’m finally going to let out a little air. I have naively believed that 90 psi on loose gravel equal speed, but I’ve seen too many riders experience pinch flats to lower my pressure too much.
No tire will be perfect for all surfaces on a long gravel expedition, so riders should be prepared to meet in the middle. A knobby tire has its advantages on grease and grass, but a touring tire or slick will perform just as well on most gravel roads where turning has little to do with tires. Cornering on gravel is about body position and line selection. Any front wheel will act like a pizza cutter on soft gravel. Even a 40mm tire has its limits when the graders and gravel trucks come out in spring.
Self supported, sole survival
Gravel expeditions may take a rider where rescue means a long reluctant drive for a pit crew, so be prepared to get yourself home. That means carrying spares and patches in direct proportion to the number of hours you plan to be beyond the reach of civilization. Never leave home without a chain link, and plan on filling pockets and cages to capacity with food and drink to get you to the next town. Depending on the ride, I head out with three to five bottles and have still reached my destination running on fumes.
A self-supported all nighter adds another level to the logistical challenge of gravel riding. No one will bring you a jacket at midnight, and small towns will be closed for business. There is always a way to get by when one is willing to beg for mercy from a stranger or wander into a bar in bike shorts. I have drunk metallic water from a frontyard spigot and savored the hallowed drink from a church left open after dark.
As I sat shivering in Brooklyn, Iowa, last year I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t be a hero. Bring that thermal shirt because it can drop 25 degrees at night, and don’t wait until you are chilled to the core to pull out the jacket. Take care of yourself. I had to abandon the 2013 Trans-Iowa in Brooklyn just 60 miles from the finish. Rich Wince, the eventual winner, caught me on the edge of town and had the wits to put newspaper in his jersey for warmth.
Bringing extra gear brings up the practical matter of where to put it all. A mere saddle bag will not get the job done on this sort of ride. This leaves riders with three practical solutions. A large hydration pack gets the job done without adding weight to the bike, but some riders have cursed the aggravation a pack puts on their back after hours on the road. My rack trunk shifts the center of gravity of the bike, but it doubles as a fender that keeps hours of grit out of my shorts.
The solution that seems to be gaining hegemony is a large capacity frame bag which does less to change the handling characteristics of the bike and allows access to food and extra bottles on the fly. This is the answer if your frame accommodates a bag of this sort, but beware that frame bags have been know to wear the paint right off a bike after hours of bouncing through grime at events such as the 2013 Heck of the North Gravel Cycling Classic in Duluth, Minnesota.
In 2009, I jumped into the first Heck of the North on a retrofitted mountain bike with slick city tires and was able to hang with the lead group and finish fifth even after getting lost and adding a few bonus miles. I was back in Duluth last September on a fast cross bike better suited for that kind of race, but I found that the gravel game has changed over the past five years. I still got lost while following a few locals who ignored their cue sheets, but by then the lead group was out of sight.
The Heck was not just faster. It was bigger, having grown from 70 riders in its first year to over 200 riders game for a horrendous 100 miles. I could tell right away that something was different by the speed and size of the lead pack.
As we filled both lanes of the first rocky doubletrack, I was amazed at the number of strong riders who could hang together, wheel-to-wheel, over uneven terrain at speed. A pack of 30 formed as the path widened. For mile after mile we rumbled along at over 20 mph, rocks ricocheted through the group and lost bottles skittered beneath the wheels. I was astounded by the number of riders who brought the strength and skill to make that beautifully gnarly ride possible. But for a couple flat tires, no one fell off.
After a thunderous hour the group dove from gravel to the unmaintained North Shore snowmobile trail through bogs with grass above our knees. It was fun to navigate all of the surprises that Jeremy Kershaw, the race director, threw at us. But by the last run-up, the group had blown to shreds. I emerged from the swamp with a group of four that put in a hard chase in pursuit of a group just beyond our reach, but our numbers dwindled and we allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by a pack of 15 which held together through a missed turn and a four-mile detour.
It should be noted that a gravel race will have few on course markings. It is not the responsibility of the race director to mark 50 or more turns (hundreds in the case of Trans-Iowa) on remote country roads. Riders are issued a set of cue sheets with mileage listed for each turn and it is their responsibility to pay attention and find their way. Trust the rider in front at your peril, but it can be a struggle to keep your head up while turning pages and reading little numbers while riding in a fast pack on bumpy roads.
I’ve never been to a gravel event where someone didn’t go off course. Then again I’ve never gotten lost while I was holding up my end and paying attention to the cue sheets.
Our group grew as we got back on course and neared the drop zone in Duluth, just in time for the predicted downpour. After a sketchy descent into town, we reached the legendary climb of Seven Bridges Road. I was eager to reach the drop bags at the top before the crowd and was able to drop the whole group until I reached an intersection and tried to turn the next cue sheet only to see the pages disintegrate in the rain. One rider of the pair behind me had a surviving set of directions, so I was able to reach the garage that sheltered the drop bags without trouble.
Gravel rides are generally “self-supported” which can mean different things. Some like the Heck of the North will deliver a drop bag to the half way point. Some will allow hand-ups from pit crews, but others will not. Races like Trans-Iowa leave riders to fend for themselves on nothing but mettle and country stores. Drop zones and convenience stores are the places where groups split up and re-form so it’s best to have a strategy. A quick stop can make up time or open a gap, but it’s more likely that riders will linger until their comrades are ready to depart.
Three hours of chilly rain lay between us and the Heck finish back in Two Harbors. My new group of eight had a few surviving cue sheets held by those with the advantage of baggies or lamination. A gravel rider could buy a nifty cue sheet holder like the Banjo Brothers model, or devise their own method to display their cue sheets whether through the window of a stem bag, binder clips, actual clip boards or the cuff of the shorts. I knew the ink wouldn’t run, but I hadn’t counted on the paper disintegrating as we ground through puddles and blinding splatter. With no means to abandon, I raced on with one group or another and finally rode out the last few miles at a conversational pace thinking there was nothing but carnage in my wake.
It amazed me later that despite all of those challenges, 157 riders finished the entire course and were fired up about it. Gravel racing can inspire something profound so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that so many Midwesterners have invested the time and commitment to get to the line.
March & April gravel events
Not all gravel events are as tough as Heck of the North. And to call these events mere races would oversimplify the deeper experience that they represent. To start, a gravel race with a high finishing rate as the top priority can be counterproductive and lead one to miss out on the stark beauty of a gravel course. Make some friends along the way, take care of your stuff and a respectable finish will present itself.
Riders who can’t wait for the snow to melt should investigate Michigan’s Barry-Roubaix in March which had more than 200 racers finish the frozen 100K in 2013. Along with cash prizes and swag, Barry-Roubaix is an event with online registration and an entry fee. Many grassroots gravel events have no entry fee and postcard registration. Gravel racers may indeed be some of the only people left who still send postcards.
Most races are entirely unsanctioned and unaffiliated “rides.” One such event is the Ragnarök 105 where riders can tempt fate near Red Wing, Minnesota, in early April, or riders could wait out the cold for a few weeks and try the Mammoth Gravel Classic which takes in part of western Wisconsin’s Gandy Dancer Trail. On Easter eve, the hilly terrain of southwest Wisconsin will host the Dairy Roubaix, not to be confused with the Michigan race of the same name in September.
Those centuries are just a prelude to the grand-daddy of grassroots gravel rides, the 10th version of Trans-Iowa held at the end of April. Director Guitar Ted will once again release us from Grinnel at 4 a.m. for a circuitous route that equals the distance it would take to traverse the state of Iowa (336 miles this time).
The first set of cue sheets cover about 50 miles of the Trans-Iowa course so riders don’t learn the next portion of the route until they roll into the first checkpoint after the sun comes up. With any luck, a racer will reach the final checkpoint and grasp the final pages of cues before the cut-off time around night fall. These cues detail literally hundreds of turns that guide a rider through a landscape I’ve found surreal at times.
Iowa is blanketed with endless gravel roads which can be extremely hilly and windy. I’ve approached 40 mph downhill and struggled to maintain 10 mph for miles with nothing but whirling turbines to keep me company. Tran-Iowa’s epic course is 95 percent gravel, including B maintenance roads that are little more than fire lanes and logging roads. These paths can be a wonderfully rutted challenge when dry, but will catch a rookie off guard when wet. Iowa mud is described as peanut butter for a reason. A rider accustomed to greasy or spongy mud will be stopped dead in their tracks after 20 feet of Iowa mud. Walking the grassy ditches for a mile or more is not unheard of.
Last year’s Trans-Iowa had a record 35 finishers, including a record four women. Over the 10-year history of the event, fewer than a hundred total riders have made back to Grinnell. As much as the race will break a person down, it has never taken more than a day of recovery to get me thinking of doing it again the following year.
Last year I set out to win, but quit at midnight. This year I plan on passing the hours with some cool folks and riding all the way to the end. That’s the recipe for a finish to be proud of in any gravel race. I reserve the word “epic” for events that are long enough to permanently change a person, and Trans-Iowa is one of very few that actually deserves the title.
May to November affairs
After that visit to Iowa in April, I could coast the rest of the season. But on May 17 my fellow gravel riders and I will take on the aggressive hills and creek crossings in southern Minnesota in one of the oldest and largest gravel events, the Almanzo 100. That event is joined by the Royal 162 and an all-nighter known as the Alexander in Spring Valley, Minnesota.
May 24th should bring the grinders out to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest for the second Bear 100 which hopes to go the distance this year after a late spring and a blinding blizzard shortened the 2013 course and forced most riders to retreat to warm vehicles or be swallowed by deep puddles hidden beneath the snow. The Flint Hills of Kansas host the Dirty Kanza 200 on the last day of May. This eminent event is still grassroots even though it has grown from 38 riders in 2006 to well over a 1,000.
Summertime puts a few gravel bikes on hiatus as riders shift to asphalt or trail, but a few events still offer a chance to explore the rougher roads. The Westside Dirty Benjamin rolls through central Minnesota in June hoping to avoid another torrential downpour, or a rider could head to the gorges of the U.P. for the Sturgeon 100.
I’ll be hosting the third BURGR 95 in Wisconsin on July 26 with a new half distance event that avoids the rocks and sandy fire lanes of the long course.
The Pirate Cycling League of Lincoln, Nebraska, will once again hosts the 150-mile Gravel World Championships at the end of August. The name may be tongue-in-cheek and totally unrecognized by any governing body, but it’s still appropriate. The World Championship might as well find a home in the Midwest where the gravel phenomenon began.
Fall brings the gravel grinders out again for a cross season tune-up for some, an end in itself for others. Riders at Minnesota’s Inspiration 100 may or may not be seeking to avoid last year’s heat at the start of September. Watch for the Skull-n-Bones 100 in Wisconsin on September 20 and the return of the Heck of the North in northern Minnesota later that month.
I’ve got a ride called the Tomahawk 90 in the works; the fifth Dirt Bag ride will run around St. Cloud, Minnesota, for about 100 miles near the end of October; and the Minnesota Gravel Championship keeps the gravel grinding into November.
Clearly gravel racing is not just a sideshow anymore. New gravel gold is discovered every year, and more events could be incubating as you read this. Someday the sport may mature to the point where a governing body settles on a standard cue sheet and insurance, but for now it’s an exciting treasure hunt for the self-sufficient who take responsibility for themselves out on the road. Seek out these events to race or ride, or just add a little gravel to your routine.
Chris Schotz is a five-time WEMS long-course champion, winner of the inaugural 21-mile Badger State Game Fat Bike Race and director of the Thunderdown in the Underdown.