Ten years ago, “gravel grinding” was a quirky offshoot of the sport: type-two Midwestern fun, but not something most riders took very seriously. Today, gravel has gone fully mainstream and emerged as a new breed of distinctively American racing and riding. It's a world where the unbeaten path always beckons, the right balance of rugged individualism and teamwork is rewarded, and law and order meets controlled chaos just far enough left of center to be a rollicking good time for everyone from elite road-racing pros to the party people bringing up the back of the pack.
Thousands of riders who would never toe the line for a traditional race are happily pinning on a number for gravel events. Even though the events are genuinely and challengingly competitive, you generally don’t need a license or need to be part of an official team to participate. Plus, everyone gets to choose their own adventure, whether that means drilling it from the start line to try for podium prize money or stopping for scenic selfies along the way. And everyone enjoys a big party at the end.
Make no mistake, plenty of people take gravel racing as seriously as pure road racers take road events (and since about 2019 they are often one and the same people). But even among those seriously racing gravel, there’s a sense of camaraderie, adventure, and fun that is absent from a lot of the traditional racing scene.
Neil Shirley, a former diehard roadie, puts it best when he explains his first experience racing gravel at the Dirty Kanza 200.
“Going into my first Dirty Kanza in 2014, I was incredibly fit and felt like I was going into the day as the person to beat,” he says. “That all changed just 25 miles in when I broke off my rear derailleur. At that moment, my mindset went from trying to win to just trying to finish. After an hour on the side of the road, I was able to turn my bike into a singlespeed and rode the next 175 miles to the finish.”
He adds that, instead of leaving the race disappointed, he emerged a bit transformed. “It was an amazing experience that helped reshape my thinking on what makes an event special. My background was as a racer, where it’s about a result above anything else, but that DK experience helped me take a step back and see how much more there was to participating in an event than just trying to get a result. I still enjoy being competitive and try my best when I’m at an event, but I get more fulfillment in seeing others enjoying their gravel experience and taking in the atmosphere surrounding the scene.”
That “scene” that Shirley is talking about is summed up by this reality: The last rider across the line receives the same thunderous applause as the first, and everyone emerges with plenty of tales to tell. It’s this kind of gravel community and camaraderie that attracted high-level pro Alison Tetrick, who spent years as a pro road racer battling it out in Europe.
“Gravel racing changed my life,” Tetrick said after winning the Pennsylvania race “unPAved” in 2018. “It made me fall in love with the bike all over again. It was adventurous and fun. It was everything I ride my bike for. I don’t ride my bike to win; I ride my bike to challenge myself and have fun. At the end of a gravel race day, we all might not have ridden the same speed, but we conquered the course. We can cheer at the finish line, eat pizza, and talk about our day. My favorite part about the community is the acceptance. We can accept each other’s crazy. We can show up on whatever bike we want, wearing whatever we want, and take it how seriously we want. We can just be this crazy community of like-minded people. We can just ride bikes. We can just embrace the adventure.”
Outside of races and events, riding gravel simply allows you to enjoy the ride more and stress about traffic less. There are fewer cars on dusty back roads, and when you do encounter traffic, it tends to be going slower because the road surfaces are rougher. You can literally ride for hours without seeing more than a handful (if any) cars when you’re way off the beaten path. That alone makes for a more relaxed and pleasant day on the bike.
This guide will help you find your own gravel adventures, whether it’s a solo exploration of the gravel roads and unpaved paths surrounding you, a Saturday morning outing with a few friends, or the challenging gravel race of a lifetime.
Adapted from Gravel, by Selene Yeager
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