Inflection point: As gravel racing goes mainstream, can it retain its renegade status?

by Neal Rogers


The gravel phenomenon that’s taken root in American cycling shows no signs of slowing down in 2020. New events are selling out in a manner of minutes. Bike brands are marketing gravel-specific wares ahead of other disciplines. Former WorldTour pros are finding a new home in a friendlier, dust-covered peloton. Gravel triathlons are popping up across the United States. There’s even a gravel-racing commercial slated for the upcoming Super Bowl.

Okay, that last one isn’t true — but the fact that you had to give it a double take illustrates just how popular American cycling’s latest trend has grown.

In actuality, riding a drop-bar bike on unpaved roads isn’t a trend at all — just look at photos of the earliest editions of the Tour de France. What is new, and coalescing around gravel riding and racing, is the technology: disc brakes, wider rims, wider tires, and a wider range of gears. As American roads feel increasingly less hospitable to cyclists, bike riders and racers have ventured further away from metropolitan and suburban areas, aided by better technology and enticed by events growing in number and stature.

Last year, WorldTour team EF Pro Cycling made waves by announcing that Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes, and Taylor Phinney would compete in its “Alternative Calendar.” In 2020, Americans Ian Boswell and Peter Stetina are extending their careers as gravel privateers, racing the biggest gravel events across the land, following in the footsteps of compatriot Ted King, who closed out his WorldTour career in 2015 and found a new home on unpaved roads.

And it’s not just Americans; Dutch rider Laurens Ten Dam, a top-10 finisher at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will also be racing several North American gravel events this year.

What’s truly noteworthy is how all of this happening outside of the jurisdiction of the national cycling federation. Major events such as Dirty Kanza, SBT GRVL, and the Belgian Waffle Ride are not sanctioned by USA Cycling; they don’t require a license, there’s no drug testing, and they’re not officiated by commissaires in matching embroidered polos. These events don’t fall under the IOC or UCI umbrella. There is no Olympic or world championship gravel race. They don’t need to abide by USA Cycling rules. Promoters of these events can do, or not do, whatever they want.

Instead — and an integral part of what has made these events so popular — it’s impossible to fit gravel racing into a box. Most are mass-start events, some aren’t. Some are timed start to finish; others only include timed segments along the route. Some are 200 miles, some are 50 miles. Some play out like road races, only on dirt; others are practically mountain-bike races. Some people are racing to win, others are riding to finish. Sometimes the terrain consists of large, sharp rocks; other times it’s pea gravel over graded dirt roads. Some courses are sign posted; some require self-navigation. Some are self-supported, some are not. Some, such as Grinduro, are equal parts bike race and afterparty.

The idea of regulating gravel racing has, in recent years, been the stuff of parody. It’s fun, it’s different. This is the untamed Wild West of bike racing.

But as gravel goes mainstream, how long can it retain its renegade status?

CAN ANY SINGLE ENTITY PRESIDE OVER GRAVEL?

At the moment, the likeliest candidate to wrap a series banner around the North American gravel calendar would be Life Time, which has acquired Dirty Kanza, Leadville 100, and Crusher in the Tushar, and is launching the Big Sugar event in Bentonville in October.

In a discipline which is driven by mass participation, it’s not hard to imagine gravel racing evolving into a scenario similar to triathlon, where event organizer World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), owner of the Ironman brand, carries more weight than the International Triathlon Union, which holds domain over a professional World Cup series and the access to the Olympics. (It’s not a perfect analogy, as participants in WTC events are required to have a license from their national governing body to compete in any sanctioned event, and all Ironman events are sanctioned, but there’s little question that WTC is the biggest player in the triathlon market.)

It’s a model that prioritizes participation and registration fees, as well as branding, over sponsorship, television deals and Olympic potential. At the moment, gravel events don’t need governance as much as the governing bodies would like to get in on the action.

“Right now [a national series] is not in the works,” said Michelle Duffy, associate marketing director for cycling and trail-running events at Life Time. “We know we’re in a unique position. We’re not going to take anything off the table when thinking five years down the road, but we haven’t tackled that idea. It’s been asked of us but it’s not our focus. If it happened, we would want to ensure it doesn’t take anything away from the brands that are part of it.”

Earlier this month, former cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson, now working as Development Director for the USA Cycling Foundation, hosted a “gravel summit” in Bentonville, Arkansas. He brought together race directors of the biggest events across the United States as a way to open a dialogue between the federation and the race organizers. (More on which events truly are “biggest” a little lower.) USA Cycling CEO Rob DeMartini was also in attendance.

Among the objectives, Johnson said, were to get everyone together in the same room, to share successes and failures, and to see how, if at all, USA Cycling could help the events — or help its members who are also gravel participants. While it’s widely understood that USA Cycling’s membership numbers have fallen flat, and while it’s a fair to assume that the federation realizes it’s missed the proverbial boat when it comes to gravel, there was no ulterior motive, Johnson said, and it was not an attempt by the federation to bring gravel events under its domain.

“Looking at it as though we’re trying to get a piece of the pie, that’s not the right approach,” Johnson said. “It’s not a pie that needs to be sliced up. That’s definitely not what it is. When I think about the way I look at bikes, people ride, they race, they use a bike — there’s the activity of cycling, but also the sport of cycling. And gravel is a great intersection of all of that. You’ve got people who are new coming into the sport. You’ve got people who have been riding forever saying this is a new, fresh way for me to enjoy the bike after giving so much of my time to it. It’s not about territorialism.

“There’s just so much positive, real community that’s being created at every single one of these events, and to be a part of that in any way is definitely a win for USA Cycling. It’s not about being a sanctioning body, or putting a stamp on it. This is all happening, no matter what. There’s the assumption that there’s an authority figure, but that’s not the way that it is. That illustrates what the difference is with Rob DeMartini’s approach. He sees that there are a lot of people on bikes these days, and asks what we can do for them, and how we can be a part of their experience on a bike, whether it’s at a race or on a ride.”

The second edition of SBT GRVL sold out in 25 minutes. Photo: SBT GRVL.

One figure thrown out during the gravel summit was the number 700 — that’s how many gravel events are believed to be scheduled in North America in 2020.

“People who have been around the sport for a long time are asking ‘What is gravel like? Is it going to be a flash in the pan? Or is it going to be around for a long time?’” Johnson said. “And I think gravel is going to be around forever. People are riding bikes this way now. We wanted to put ourselves out there, to be a part of it, even if it is just a baby step.”

So does that mean USA Cycling won’t be putting on a gravel national championship any time soon?

“If someone wants it, for sure,” Johnson said. “But that was not the point of what this [summit] was.”

Though there are events on the calendar labeled “Gravel Grinder National Championship,” and “Gravel Worlds,” these are self-designations; they’re not sanctioned by the national or international cycling federations. That doesn’t mean they’re not great events, or that they might not one day be universally recognized as national or world championships, but they do not match up with traditional understanding of a national or world championship event.

Could the popularity of Strade Bianche foreshadow a UCI-sanctioned “alternative” professional calendar of events using gravel roads? Photo: Cor Vos.

And while USA Cycling may not be sanctioning gravel events any time soon, it’s possible the UCI might be. An article by Italian news agency Adnkronos reports that Giancarlo Brocci, the man behind L’Eroica — the throwback series first held on the unpaved roads of Tuscany that inspired Strade Bianche — recently met with UCI president David Lappartient to outline his vision of an “alternative” professional calendar of events using gravel roads. According to the report, Lappartient was “very interested.”

In terms of preserving the spirit of gravel racing, one would assume that its freewheeling vibe would be in safer hands with a corporate owner such as LifeTime, which is more focused on creating high-demand participatory events, rather than in the hands of a rules-oriented organization such as the UCI, which would, by its very nature, seek to streamline events to fit into a common, “professional” structure.

“A huge reason we wouldn’t want to sanction our events — we have four industry-leading events that each have their own personality, and their own brand — is that we have the ability to continue to build and foster those brands by keeping them as their own,” Duffy said. “That’s a huge part of what we do, we think about how we preserve the Dirty Kanza brand as an individual entity, or the Leadville Race Series as its own entity, and so on.”

As for the drug-testing question, Duffy said it’s an active, ongoing conversation at Life Time. “That’s something that has been coming up over the last few weeks,” she said. “We’ve been lucky to not have a particular instance that has sparked controversy, but we are in a position to be industry leading, so that is on the table in the future — and in the near future. We’re having active conversations about it.”

For the moment, it’s fair to say that gravel racing is now a legitimate source for identifying talent; look no further than EF Pro Cycling’s attempt to recruit Colin Strickland for Paris-Roubaix after he soloed to victory ahead of Morton and Howes at Dirty Kanza last year.

“I think it’s exciting that we’ve got these people that have non-traditional sport backgrounds, they’re non-traditional cyclists, and the gravel events are really giving them a chance to shine,” Johnson said. “How many other Chloe Dygerts are there out there? Where are our next stars going to come from?”

GRAVEL SHOWDOWNS

The 2020 gravel scene will be taking on a new dimension, particularly on the men’s side, as mainstays such as Ted King, Colin Strickland, and Payson McElveen face additional challengers in the form of Boswell, Stetina, Ten Dam — three riders who have left behind Grand Tours for gravel racing.

Continuing with its “alternative calendar,” EF Pro Cycling team will send yet-to-be-determined riders to Dirty Kanza, Leadville 100, and SBT GRVL, with more to be announced at a later date. In 2019, Howes finished third at Dirty Kanza and fifth at Leadville 100, while Morton was third at Leadville and fourth at Dirty Kanza. Morton has been confirmed as competing at Leadville and SBT GRVL in August.

King, a two-time Kanza winner, is of two minds about the pro peloton forming at the front of gravel races.

“I’m excited to see more attention coming to gravel, and to see my ‘former colleagues,’ coming to gravel,” King said. “When I hung up my bike so to speak, in 2015, the initial idea was to be a brand ambassador, to go to product launches, help out with R&D, drop in on events, and help host hospitality events. It wasn’t to race gravel. When I raced Dirty Kanza in 2016 [and won] it was on a whim. Now, five years later, it’s getting hyper-competitive, guys are making full careers out of it.

“I think the list of riders is going to run the spectrum. Laurens Ten Dam is a very fast rider, but I think he’s also about as casual as it gets. I think Boswell may be in a similar spot, he hasn’t been competitive in almost a year, and I think he’s taking a wholistic, tame approach to it. Pete has been clear he’s unapologetically ‘racing’ gravel. I like the relaxed nature of gravel, and the discombobulation of it. I like that there’s not a hierarchy, or a points system, or any of the things that make things serious. To be honest, that’s a fear of mine, in terms of the future of gravel that’s beginning to take hold.”

The women’s peloton will see riders such as Sarah Sturm, Alison Tetrick, and Amity Rockwell return, with the occasional appearance of top riders from other disciplines, such as cross-country and cyclocross star Katerina Nash, and road stalwart Lauren Stephens.

Like the EF riders, Stephens (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank) will fit gravel racing into her road team’s schedule. Last year Stephens won the DK100 race in June, finished second at Crusher in the Tushar in July, and finished second year at SBT GRVL, behind former teammate Brodie Chapman, in August.

“My road schedule will still be my priority and I will be fitting in as much gravel as possible in between,” Stephens said. “I really enjoy doing any gravel, but especially the small races and the ones that create a small-town atmosphere around the event and facilitate the interaction with other participants.”

The top five finishers of the 2019 Dirty Kanza, from left: Payson McElveen, Peter Stetina, Colin Strickland, Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton.

All of this begs the question — which are the biggest gravel events on the North American calendar? Where can we expect to see the biggest showdowns?

Based on a collection of 20 race schedules from the top men and women from the gravel community, the most competitive events in 2020 will be spattered across the calendar and throughout the United States.

Among those polled: 2019 Dirty Kanza champions Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell; 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride champions Peter Stetina and Sarah Sturm; 2019 SBT GRVL champions Ted King and Brodie Chapman; and 2019 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder winners Carl Decker and Rebecca Fahringer. (Chapman said commitments to her new FDJ Women’s WorldTour team mean it’s unlikely she will race gravel in North America this year.)

“Colin is the type of rider who has a pretty good range of abilities, but now, instead of just going up against a big, strong Ted King, he’s going up against someone like Pete [Stetina], who has that ability to climb, something that Colin might not have,” Johnson said. “Pete’s got that ability to go deeper because he’s been getting his legs ripped off by a peloton at the Vuelta, or the Tour. So when you’re talking about the pointy end of these events, different riders with different skill sets will show up.”

Here’s the list of riders whose tentative 2020 race schedules have been confirmed, followed by their most notable gravel result:

MEN
Peter Stetina (Canyon-Clif Bar-Shimano), 1st, 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride
Ted King (Cannondale), 1st, 2019 SBT GRVL
Colin Strickland (Meteor X–Allied), 1st, 2019 Dirty Kanza 200
Payson McElveen (Orange Seal), 1st, 2019 Land Run 100
Jacob Rathe (Ottolock Adventure Squad–Sage Titanium), 1st, 2019 Skull 120
Carl Decker (Giant), 1st, 2019 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder
Lachlan Morton (EF Pro Cycling), 3rd, 2019 Leadville 100; 4th, 2019 Dirty Kanza 200
Laurens Ten Dam (Live Slow Ride Fast), 1st, 2016 Grasshopper Adventure Series, Super Sweetwater
Ian Boswell (Wahoo Frontiers), N/A

WOMEN
Sarah Sturm (Specialized), 1st, 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride
Amity Rockwell (Easton–Overland), 1st, 2019 Dirty Kanza 200
Alison Tetrick (Specialized), 1st, 2017 Dirty Kanza 200
Katerina Nash (CLIF–Sierra Nevada), 1st, 2019 Lost and Found Gravel Grinder
Olivia Dillon (Velocio–Moots), 1st, 2018 Lost and Found Gravel Grinder
Sarah Max (Argonaut–Enve–Wattie Ink), 2nd, 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride
Rose Grant (Stan’s–Pivot–Maxxis), 1st, 2019 Leadville 100
Rebecca Fahringer (Kona–Maxxis–Shimano), 1st, 2019 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder
Kaysee Armstrong (Liv Racing), 1st overall, 2019 Rebecca’s Private Idaho
Amanda Nauman (SDG–Muscle Monster), 1st, 2015 & 2016 Dirty Kanza 200
Lauren Stephens (TIBCO–Silicon Valley Bank), 2nd, 2019 SBT GRVL

The top four women from the 2019 SBT GRVL, from left: Alison Powers, Lauren Stephens, Brodie Chapman, Sarah Sturm. Photo: SBT GRVL.

2020 GRAVEL SHOWDOWNS

To no one’s surprise, the Dirty Kanza 200 sits near the top of most professionals’ race schedules. The 15-year-old event helped pioneer the surge in gravel racing, and is arguably the most physically demanding on the calendar. It’s the Paris-Roubaix of gravel, and with the demise of the Amgen Tour of California, it’s arguably the highest-profile cycling even in the United States in 2020.

However it’s the second-year event SBT GRVL, held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, that is drawing the most competitive field, buoyed both by gorgeous scenery and a $22,000 prize purse distributed equally across the pro men’s and women’s fields. The event sold out 2,500 spots in 25 minutes; of the 20 athletes whose schedules are confirmed, 16 are committed to racing SBT GRVL, with 10 committed to Leadville 100 the day before, to complete the “LeadBoat Challenge” double.

The season kicks off in a few weeks with the Old Man Winter Rally, a 100km mixed terrain ride held February 9 in Lyons, Colorado, consisting of gravel roads, singletrack, pavement, and a snow-covered former railroad line. Among those attending are Stetina, Strickland, Boswell, and Rockwell — both winners of last year’s Dirty Kanza, and the men’s winner of last year’s Belgian Waffle Ride.

The Sea Otter Classic, held in April in Monterey, has added a gravel race for the first time, held on the trails and fire roads of the Fort Ord National Monument, located just outside the Laguna Seca Raceway. Stetina, McElveen, Grant, and Armstrong will all be competing at Epic Rides mountain-bike events, including the Whiskey Off-Road, held in April in Prescott, Arizona, and the Carson City Off-Road, held in June, in Nevada.

Other events in the top tier include the Mid-South (formerly called Land Run 100), held March 14 in Stillwater, Oklahoma; and the Belgian Waffle Ride, held May 3 in San Marcos, California. Now in its ninth year, the Belgian Waffle Ride — a self-proclaimed “American salute to the historic European Spring Classic races” — features 217km of dirt, gravel, singletrack, long paved climbs, creek crossings, and wind. As it has in years past, the BWR will draw one of the most competitive pro fields of the gravel season.

The front group hit the 23km Black Canyon dirt section at the 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride.

The month of May begins with the Belgian Waffle Ride and ends with the May 30 Dirty Kanza, the event that put gravel racing on the map. The marquee event, a 200-mile loop through the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas, sold out a field of 2,500 entrants. There are also 100-mile, 50-mile, 25-mile options, and the DKXL, a 350-mile long ultra-endurance challenge limited to a small number of participants. To put it into perspective, Strickland won last year’s DK200 in nine hours and 58 minutes, the only rider to ever break 10 hours. The winning time for the DXXL, set by 46-year-old Jay Petervary, was over 22 hours.

The multi-day race that has caught the most attention from gravel racers is the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, a five-day stage held June 17-21. This second-year event is a 400-mile, point-to-point gravel stage race across the rutted old wagon trails of the Oregon Trail, up and over the Cascades, and through the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. It’s an all-inclusive event complete with nightly campouts, live music, beer gardens, classic western movies, and catered group meals. Last year, Strickland and Rockwell both competed, though Carl Decker and Rebecca Fahringer emerged as winners. This year, Stetina and Boswell are competing, as well as Sturm and  Tetrick. The field is capped at 500 participants, and is nearly full.

June also brings Lost and Found, held in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won in 2019 by Tobin Ortenblad and Katerina Nash.

Outside of the United States, The Rift, a 200km race across dark lava fields in the Iceland highlands held July 25, has drawn several top names including Stetina, King, Strickland, as well as Sturm and Stephens. The Rift sold out in less than 24 hours.

August brings the Leadville 100 and SBT GRVL, two of the biggest events of the season. While Leadville is a 106-mile mountain-bike race held at high elevation, with over 11,000 feet of climbing, its long sections of fire roads, non-technical singletrack,  and marquee status have drawn road racers, and gravel racers, for several years. The following day is the 144-mile SBT GRVL, which delivers almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain. The LeadBoat Challenge is limited to just 40 riders, equal parts male and female; among them are Stetina, McElveen, Morton, Strickland, Ten Dam, Sturm, Rockwell, Tetrick, Grant, and Armstrong.

Noteworthy: It’s a two-hour drive from Leadville to Steamboat Springs, and SBT GRVL starts at 6:30am; for a variety of reasons, those who attempt both races will be at a significant disadvantage at SBT GRVL.

The season closes out with the new-for-2020 Big Sugar event, held October 24 in Bentonville, Arkansas and organized by Life Time. With two courses held in the remote and rugged highlands of the Ozark Mountains — 107 miles, with 9,000 feet of elevation gain, and a 49-mile “Little Sugar” — the event reportedly sold out its 1,000 spots in less than five minutes. The event will be held in conjunction with Outerbike Bentonville.

What follows below is far from a complete list. Pros will also be heading to the mountainous Crusher in the Tushar, held July 11 in Beaver, Utah, and Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a stage race founded by Rebecca Rusch, held September 3-6 in Sun Valley. Stetina, King, and Boswell are all racing at Vermont Overland on August 23; Stetina, King, and Boswell are all each putting on their own gravel events in the fall.

It’s a long season, from February to October, across the continent, on all types of terrain. And that’s just one of the things that makes it all so compelling.

“It’s muddy at Mid-South, and there’s going to be 20km of people pushing their bike, or picking it up, trying not to get it muddy, and you’re going to have a different winner than at Kanza, and that winner is going to be just as deserving as the one who did this big, shiny attack and went away and went solo,” Johnson said. “That’s what’s so cool about gravel, it’s got something pretty much something for everyone.”

The 10 most competitive gravel events of 2020

Saturday, March 14: The Mid-South, Stillwater, Oklahoma
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, Strickland, Boswell
WOMEN: Rockwell, Tetrick, Nauman

Sunday, April 19: Sea Otter Classic, Monterey, California
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, Strickland, Boswell
WOMEN: Grant, Armstrong, Nauman

Sunday, May 3: Belgian Waffle Ride, San Marcos, California
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, King, Strickland, Boswell, Ten Dam, Rathe
WOMEN: Sturm, Dillon, Max, Rockwell, Grant, Fahringer, Nauman

Saturday, May 30: Dirty Kanza 200, Emporia, Kansas
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, King, Strickland, Boswell, Ten Dam, Rathe
WOMEN: Sturm (DK100), Dillon, Max, Rockwell, Tetrick, Armstrong, Stephens, Nauman (DKXL)

Saturday, June 6: Lost and Found Gravel Grinder, Portola, California
MEN: Stetina, Strickland, Decker
WOMEN: Sturm, Dillon, Rockwell, Fahringer, Nash, Nauman

June 17-21: Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder (stage race)
MEN: Stetina, Strickland, Boswell, Decker, Rathe
WOMEN: Sturm, Max, Tetrick, Fahringer

Saturday, July 25: The Rift, Hvolsvöllur, Iceland
MEN: Stetina, King, Strickland
WOMEN: Sturm, Stephens, Nauman

Saturday, August 15: Leadville Trail 100, Leadville, Colorado
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, Strickland, Ten Dam, Morton
WOMEN: Sturm, Rockwell, Tetrick, Grant, Armstrong

Sunday, August 16: SBT GRVL, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, King, Strickland, Boswell, Ten Dam, Rathe, Morton
WOMEN: Sturm, Dillon, Rockwell, Tetrick, Grant, Fahringer, Armstrong, Stephens

Saturday, October 24: Big Sugar, Bentonville, Arkansas
MEN: Stetina, McElveen, King, Strickland
WOMEN: Sturm, Max, Rockwell, Tetrick, Armstrong

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