Gravel grinding: Exploring the new frontier in cycling

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It was 7:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and I was shivering amongst hundreds of spandex-clad riders at the start line of Rebecca’s Private Idaho. The freezing temperatures came as a shock at the tailend of summer, but it didn’t seem to deter the close to 400 starting riders.

I was about to ride my very first gravel grind, and as I blew warm breath into my hands, I had no idea what that day would have in store for me.

Same number as the degree Fahrenheit out there. Let’s do this! #rpi2015

A photo posted by Anne-Marije (@amrook) on

Gravel grinding has seen a huge rise in popularity these last 5 to 10 years and the industry is taking note, with more and more companies coming out with gravel specific endurance bikes. There’s even a (fully unsanctioned) Gravel World Championships!

|Related: Gravel grinding gear and tips

Once fringe events, these gravel grinds now attract an increasing amount of people keen to leave skinny tyres and trafficked roads behind for a world of paths less travelled.

It was about time I’d try one myself and see what all the buzz is about.

I headed for Ketchum, Idaho, where hundreds of kilometres of unpaved roads wind through the stunning Sawtooth mountains and played host to the third annual Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI).

The brainchild of endurance racer and multi-discipline world champion Rebecca “the Queen of Pain” Rusch, RPI has quickly become one of the top ranked gravel grinds in the U.S.

With a 90km and a 150km option, the participants were a wonderfully diverse group of people. There were professional athletes and weekend warriors; roadies and mountain bikers, locals and a large amount of cycling industry professionals.

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“I think we are all getting a little tired of the dangers of the road and interacting with cars. Gravel events are appealing to road riders because you don’t necessarily need the technical skills or gear needed for mountain biking. Mountain bikers like it because you’re still on dirt and in nature. RPI is a race for some and a casual ride for others but no matter why you ride, we share the experience together,” Rusch said.

Held for the first time in 2013, the event saw more than 24 percent growth in its second year. This year, there were so many registrants that they ran out of timing chips.

“I’m blown away by how many people come out to ride with me,” said Rusch. “We are growing every year and I’m especially glad we were able to get 30 percent female registrants this year.”

As a professional endurance athlete, Rusch knowns all too well that there is a serious gender gap when it comes to endurance sports.

“The average endurance event draws 10, maybe15 percent women,” commented Rusch. “I set a goal of 30 percent women this year and I’m hoping to get even more women out here next year.”

Rusch’s other goal in hosting RPI is showing off the rugged Idaho wilderness she calls home.

“A big goal of RPI is to show everyone this beautiful place, my home, my training ground and to bring us all together. I do think that cycling is a community, a tribe, a family – we share a life on two wheels and I want to share this beautiful place with you,” Rusch said.

And beautiful it was!

I opted for the 150-kilometre “Big Potato” and I’ll be honest, I suffered. A lot. With overall, KOM/QOM, and intermediate sprint prizes up for grabs, RPI is a serious race – if you want it to be.

Rusch is a six-time multi-discipline world champion, four-time Leadville 100 champ and a firefighter. Any route designed by her is going to be challenging.

From the neutral lead-out in Ketchum’s town centre to the top of the first climb, the first 20km is spent climbing. The course then continues to wind through canyons, over summits of well over 2500 meters and across high mountain basins. This is all on rough surface with an at-times absolutely brutal headwind.

In between aid stations, there were many lonely kilometres out there with only some cattle for company and the sound of crushing gravel and wind in my ears. The riding was definitely no joke but it was also some of the most beautiful and epic riding I have ever done.  Snowcapped mountains looked down on windswept valleys and unpaved, traffic-free roads seemed to continue endlessly.

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Once across the finish line and off the saddle, the suffering was soon forgotten.

For the recreational and gravel enthusiast, the day couldn’t have been more beautiful or memorable.

For those racing, the competition had been fierce. While avid gravel racers and Dirty Kanza champs of past and present battled it out in the men’s competition, recently retired road racer and former American national champion, Robin Farina, was right in the middle of it. A first-time RPI participant, Farina not only swept the women’s competition, she also set a new women’s record and finished seventh overall, beating all but six of the male competitors.

“I’m having a lot of fun playing in the dirt,” commented Farina, who has fallen in love with off-road riding and has her sight set on Grinduro later this year.

“I do think gravel grinds are becoming the new gran fondo,” commented Robin Farina. “It draws a wider spectrum of riders as you get both the roadies and mountain bikers together; you can ride or race; you’re not competing with cars; and as an organiser, you’re dealing with fewer permits, road closures and other logistics.”

And as if car-free roads in stunning places isn’t enough of a draw, gravel grinds are similar to gran fondos in that they frequently feature a charity component. RPI was no exception with the Wood River Bike Coalition (a local International Mountain Bike Association chapter), Bikes Belong and World Bicycle Relief as its benefactors.

“This ride is about [the rider] and it’s about enjoying Idaho but it’s also about something much bigger than that,” said Rusch. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a voice. I wanted to use that voice and my exposure as a professional athlete to support charities that very important to me. I firmly believe that bikes make our world a better place.”

My takeaway from this event is that I’m eager to do more of it. Gravel grinders are onto something, and the industry is right to pay attention to the trend. The majority of the world’s roads are unpaved (yes, even in countries like the U.S. and Australia) and the bike is the perfect tool for exploring them.  With the added elements of adventure, competition, charity and a good after-party, I see gravel grinding growing for years to come.

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