Gravel: The Great Equalizer

Taking place each spring in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the 200-mile Dirty Kanza is known for its razor-sharp gravel, beautiful scenery and propensity to test a rider’s mettle. Gravel racing is different from other types of bike racing in that every rider faces the same challenges, chooses their own pace, and sets their own goals. It is because of the unique challenges presented by gravel racing that more and more women are getting involved. Read on to see what race organizers and bike shops are doing to help foster the recent growth of women in gravel cycling.

#200women200miles

In 2006, Dirty Kanza’s inaugural year, there were 34 riders. Each year since then the field limit has grown and the event has sold out in a shorter amount of time, with over 2,000 riders participating in the 2017 edition 200-mile race. Although the race itself has grown over the years, participation levels were still skewed disproportionately towards men.

While analyzing the race’s statistics, Dirty Kanza Operations Manager LeLan Dains and Executive Director Jim Cummins noticed an interesting trend; women had identical finish rates and comparable finish times to their male counterparts. These facts confirmed what many already knew about the Dirty Kanza. The race extends beyond a mere physical challenge. It requires navigational skills, an arsenal of mechanical know-how, and an inextinguishable desire to keep moving forward. In other words, Dirty Kanza doesn’t care about a rider’s gender. It simply exists. The onus is on riders to acquire all the necessary skills to emerge victorious, and the fact is that men and women are able to do that equally as well.

Inspired by races like LandRun 100 and Gravel Worlds, which have their own strategies for increasing their women’s fields, Dirty Kanza organizers decided to create an opportunity for more women to race the 200-mile distance. With that, the #200women200miles movement was born.

“We took a look at the numbers in 2015 and in 2016 and saw that female participation was less than 10% in the 200-mile distance. We knew there was more room for women to participate,” recalls Dains. “The goal of #200women200 miles was two-fold. One was to educate, inspire and motivate women to participate in the DK200 and the other part of it was to make available those 200 spots.”

Some of the ways Cummins and Dains piqued the interest of women was by telling the stories of other women who’ve participated in the Dirty Kanza 200, talking about the identical finish rates, and creating a series of rider profiles to keep stoke levels high. While Cummins and Dains were optimistic that the initiative would have a positive impact on the number of women riding the Dirty Kanza 200, they did not expect it to pick up steam the way it did.

“In 2016 we had 95 women in our 200-mile event. When we created #200women200miles, we assumed it was going to be a multi-year initiative. We thought it would take at least 2 years to go from 95 to 200. It basically took 1 hour,” says Cummins.

Why this perceived sudden growth? After the identical finish rates and comparable finish times between men and women for the 200-mile race were publicized, more women racers began to realize that they had been seriously underestimating their abilities to be successful in gravel. Race organizers, on the other hand, realized they had enormous opportunity to benefit from this relatively untapped market. And so, with a little boost of confidence and 200 reserved spots, the #200women200miles initiative saw near-instant success.

The Essence of Racing

“For me, gravel was something where I could kind of pick my own level and I was never really forced into a category. It’s you racing against yourself or you racing against other people if you want,” says Andrea Cohen, three-time Dirty Kanza 200 racer and Salsa-sponsored rider.

Gravel racing appeals to women riders, in part, due to its stripped-down nature. Without factors like race categories, varying race lengths for each gender, neutral support, and other common facets of bike racing, all riders must depend on themselves and overcome the same obstacles to reach the finish line. Simply put, with every racer riding the same course at the same time with the same level of support, gravel racing is bike racing in its purest form.

“Gravel racing is more for glory than standing on a podium. It kind of goes back to ‘kids in your neighborhood’ style racing,” says Kelsey Phillips, first time 2017 Dirty Kanza racer and All-City-sponsored rider.

3 Ways Your Shop Can Support Women in Gravel 

While gravel races are pretty straightforward as far as the race itself goes, there are tons of variables that go into finishing the race. Having mechanical abilities, navigational skills, nutritional knowledge, familiarity with different types of gear, and a solid fitness level are crucial to completing races like Dirty Kanza. One of the most reliable places for women riders to go to gain these skills are bike shops with inclusive, helpful, and knowledgeable employees. If your shop embraces these criteria, it will have a massive opportunity to welcome female riders in to the gravel community, creating a new loyal customer base in the process and expanding your ability to appeal to all kinds of riders.

Why go to all the trouble? Besides gaining customers you otherwise wouldn’t have, supporting women in gravel helps to bolster a stronger gravel scene in your community. With a thriving community of diverse individuals, your shop has the chance to gain additional traffic, operate as a social cycling hub, and serve the cycling-related needs of your region.

1. Hire Women

“I think that having female employees is a huge thing that more shops can and should do. A lot of women come into shops and feel like no one is listening to them and probably because a lot of guys aren’t. They’re just waiting for their chance to explain to you rather than listening to what you actually want and that’s where women can make a big difference in the shop environment,” says Mary Randall of Boulevard Bikes in Chicago.

In addition to often being better listeners, women shop employees also have the upper hand when it comes to recommending women’s-specific product like shorts, saddles, and shoes. In a longer race like Dirty Kanza, having those contact points dialed in could be the difference between dropping out at mile 30 or finishing all 200.

2. Have Women’s-Specific Programming 

Many gravel races are self-supported, meaning riders need to carry with them all the tools, repair equipment, and supplies they’ll need. That means that, if you get a flat tire at 150 miles into a 200-mile race, you are responsible for fixing it.

“A couple years ago when I was preparing for Trans Iowa I took a maintenance class at a bike shop. And I said out loud that I wasn’t going to bring any tool that I didn’t know how to use. Which at the time was a chain tool. It’s okay to admit that ‘I don’t know how to use a quick link yet, but I will eventually,’” explains Cohen.

The idea of being responsible for fixing any possible mechanical scenario that can happen to a bike can be incredibly intimidating. Equally as daunting is admitting to an experienced bike mechanic that you don’t yet know how to repair various mechanical issues. “There’s an intimidation factor to admitting that you don’t know how to change a flat tire on a bike. You have to go into a shop and admit ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” says Dains.

Hosting a women-friendly maintenance clinic is a great way to get women riders in your shop and feeling comfortable with basic roadside repairs. Along with teaching how to fix a flat tire, Mary Randall of Boulevard Bikes recommends showing customers who are interested in racing gravel how to repair a broken chain, boot a tire, and what kinds of tools and spare parts to have on hand while out riding.

3. Encourage Employees to Ride Gravel

From using cue cards to tire recommendations, there are many unique factors that come into play when planning for gravel racing. Make sure your employees are familiar with these and, more importantly, have experience with them!

In addition to “being the expert” on gravel racing, it’s crucial for bike shop employees to listen to their customers’ desires and needs. Because every rider’s nutrition, anatomy, fitness, mental fortitude, maintenance and navigation skills are different, it’s important to fully listen to what they’re telling you before offering advice or suggestions. Balancing listening to your customer with offering first-hand advice can be tricky, but once accomplished, you’ll have happier customers and a more inclusive shop environment. 

“I literally go to my local bike shop in Chicago like once a week just to switch out different things and ask questions. It’s really important to have a shop that supports you and knows what your goals are,” says Phillips. 

Gear

Check out Andrea’s and Kelsey’s rides below along with the kinds of gear QBP recommends for gravel racing.

Shop Andrea's Ride

Shop Kelsey's Ride

*The term “women” in this article applies to all woman-identifying individuals.

Related Articles

  • Exploring the Industry
    The Long Road
    April 2014

    The Long Road

    Gravel racing is changing the face of cycling.

  • Biking the World
    Gravel Racing: The Nitty Gritty
    April 2015

    Gravel Racing: The Nitty Gritty

    Before you send that first postcard and get stoked for 100 miles of gravel racing, there are a few crucial things to keep in mind.

This Month in Call Up

  • Biking the World
    The Red Dirt That’s Pure Gold
    June 2017

    The Red Dirt That’s Pure Gold

    Cuyuna’s mix of terrain, resources, and location makes it a perfect singletrack destination. It just took the right people to see it.