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Slumped under the shade of a ponderosa, covered in a mixture of dust and sweat with my left arm hung in a sling, I pulled out my video camera and grumbled, “This is what happens when you gravel race.”
It was the final stage of the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder — a five-day point-to-point riding and camping adventure through the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Of course, crashing isn’t necessarily what happens when you gravel race. It’s just much more likely to happen than when you merely gravel ride.
Gravel grinders exist in a vague duality of competitive and laid back atmosphere. Riders of all abilities come together for a day of fun and ample suffering in the shared joy of riding. As the sport continues to grow, gets faster, harder, and yes, more dangerous, I’ve begun to wonder where exactly gravel is going.
And I have a proposal: Do away with finish lines.
It’s not an original idea. In fact, it’s in use in many gravel events already.
A gravel proposal
What if we recognized winning in a different way? What if we rethink finish lines?
One of the best aspects of gravel is the “choose your own adventure” nature of the sport. It’s a race if you decide it is. For others, it’s just a fun day out on the bike. This worked well in the early days of gravel events where the vibe was low key and the area rural. But what happens when pelotons start forming?
Whether dropped or off the front, amped riders start taking unsustainable risks. Last week, at the Fort Collins Fondo, there was a crosswind and riders were spread across the road in full spring classic style. Most gravel events don’t have the necessary procedural steps in place for full-on racing like that. Roads aren’t fully closed. There’s no yellow line rule because there’s no yellow line. These things don’t matter when it’s four people at the front, as it would have been at almost any gravel race just a few years ago. They matter when it’s 40 riders barreling around a blind corner. Or 140.
Racing is a mindset, one brought on by an event’s structure. It’s an unavoidable human reaction to traditional start line/finish line formats. When there’s a finish line, people like racing; I like racing. So we race. That’s not a problem in and of itself; the problem is that gravel, in its current state, is not optimized for racing. Without road closures, most events are really just big group rides taking advantage of low-traffic areas.
One of the best gravel racers on the scene, Ted King, has a vision for how gravel can work. His new event, Rooted Vermont, celebrates the unconventional with a mullet podium. Riders texted in stories about a particular person who went out of their way to bring stoke. There’s no prize purse. “We want to see gravel flourish but maintain its grassroots feel,” the event’s FAQ section says. There are winners in the traditional sense, but also winners in a less traditional sense.
Another option is the Grinduro model. Grinduro and Roll Massif use timed segments where riders can choose to compete in specific sections of the course and not feel group pressure to race the entire distance. Constraints like this help shape an event where competition is merely one aspect of the day. They allow organizers to encourage competition where and when it’s safe to do so, and encourage chilling when it’s not.
The focus shifts and it looks a lot more like a big group ride than a race. Your result is for you to decide, the reward is intrinsic. You can’t win a group ride, it’s not the point. Group riding is about the collective.
In MarioKart, when you veer off Rainbow Road, your character flashes back to life after a few seconds and you carry on just as before. In the Tour de France, you see riders hit the deck and, more often than not, scramble to remount their bikes as quickly as they came off. That’s their job, and it’s simply a part of road racing. When I crashed in Oregon, I felt like a fool. I didn’t bounce back to the group and cheers beers with everyone at the finish like I wanted to. Instead, I spent my evening at the ER getting x-rays on my broken collarbone.
I limped home to Montana where I had a plate put in my shoulder. I thought a lot about gravel and gravel racing. I reflected back to the event, wondered where I went wrong. Before the crash, I was in the zone, like a dog swimming for a stick, determined, single-minded. I had made the front group and was totally committed to holding the wheel in front of me. Dust kicked up and I didn’t see whatever it was that took me down. I was riding blind and should’ve backed off to get a clear line. But I didn’t. Because I was in race mode. It’s a mindset, actually a whole-body experience, where you do what you can to hedge risk while knowing full well that shit happens in races. It’s a part of the game.
This weekend, SBT GRVL, one of the most hyped events of the season, will pay out nearly $22,000 in prize money. It’s a race — says so right on the website. Dirty Kanza is described as a “gravel road endurance cycling challenge.” Belgium Waffle Ride calls itself a “road race punctuated by severe terrain and 46 miles of mixed terrain.” Anyone who joined me in the first 10 miles of early morning mayhem at BWR knows we were lucky to get through that section unscathed. I’ve spoken to many riders reticent to admit running red lights or taking inside lines on uncontrolled gravel roads in an effort to stay in the game.
I’m not one to protect the “soul” of gravel. I’m very much in favor of gravel racing. But there are some realities that can’t be ignored when a ride turns into a race. We’re inventing this as we go along, so let’s do it right.
Sustainable growth in gravel might mean shifting the focus away from individual glory and celebrating the collective – first, second and third.