Slowly, steadily, gravel racing has been growing. Although modern, organized gravel racing has been around for less than a decade, the genre draws a wide variety of riders and has even begun driving product development. But while product developers are capitalizing on it, they are not driving it exactly. Rather, they are responding to demands of the market and to their own personal enthusiasm for such endeavors.
That last part is noteworthy. Even for the people who design and make equipment geared toward this type of riding, its appeal is fueled by the challenge and personal experience they draw from it. There’s no faking a gravel race. It’s the real deal. Competing requires strength, skill, and determination, both physically and mentally. The appeal is not just in the personal obstacles such rides present, though; it’s also in their inclusiveness and community feel. They are competitions, but they’re wide open to anyone who wants to take on the challenge, and the object is not necessarily winning, but doing it. It’s one more way to ride. One more way to test yourself. One more excuse to travel and step out of your day-to-day routine. Gravel events are not run by oversight administrations or well-funded corporations, so far anyway. They are created and run by individuals and small groups of volunteers, dedicated cyclists who spend huge chunks of time year ‘round researching courses, planning, organizing, getting the word out. Some are shop owners, some regular cyclists. They apply unusual talent with great dedication to every aspect of their project. These are more than races; they’re love letters to cycling from the riders who craft the events.
The enthusiastic response from cyclists is undeniable. Gravel races put up impressive numbers. The Almanzo 100 saw 1,100 riders this year, and that number could reach 1,700 next year. Dirty Kanza has expanded to more than 1,000 riders. Even smaller events see dozens, if not hundreds, of riders. And it’s interesting, though not at all surprising, that gravel racing is not just an endurance event. It also requires substantial self-sufficiency. Almanzo is one hundred miles. Dirty Kanza two hundred. Trans Iowa is over three hundred. For most, riders must carry all they need to survive over the course of a day or two, during which time they will experience huge terrain and weather variations. They must carry food, water, repair and medical equipment, and know how to use it. There are no support vehicles sweeping the course. In fact, for many races the course is really just a set of waypoints. Riders must use a map and compass or GPS to make their way, finding the best routes as they roll steadily along seemingly endless back roads. It’s one thing to drive two hundred miles. It’s another thing altogether to ride it on gravel, self supported. Mind-numbing exhaustion, mechanicals, and highly variable weather tax the body and mind, while the challenge, solitude, and front-row views of landscapes that encompass everything from dynamic vistas to desolate middles-of-nowhere feed the spirit. Gravel racing makes manifest the spirit that has always inhabited cycling.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? The bicycle is, for every rider, a vehicle for exploration. Long, lonely rides resonate with two basic human characteristics: curiosity and a hunger not only to survive, but to prevail. Gravel racing is at the intersection of racing and bikepacking, and the combination draws enough riders that companies making everything from bikes to bar tape have taken notice and have begun either marketing to or developing products for gravel riders. Riders have responded by asking for better options, and have bought and used them. The whole thing is an organic symbiosis. It’s cycling culture and business in balance.