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How to race gravel, support small businesses, and stay healthy

How some communities are using cycling to support small businesses, and give people a meaningful reason to ride.

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Like so many ingenious ideas, the concept of the COVID-19 Crusher was born on a bike ride.

We’ve come to a point in the calendar where there seem to be two options for bike racing: not racing (while waiting for IRL events to resume) or racing virtually on a platform like Zwift from the confines of your living room. For those who are still able to ride outdoors, however, there might be a third option.

Before the enactment of the laws of social distancing, Tyler Epstein was on a gravel ride with his buddies Rees Fowler and Dustin Stock. The three often ride the gravel south of Kansas City together and post about their follies on the Instagram handle @kc_gravel_crushers.

cyclists on sofa on dirt road
The “KC Gravel Crushers” at Land Run 100 in 2019.

“We were on a route that we’ve done before several times, and we got to talking,” Epstein says, “and Dustin came up with this idea.”

The idea was to make the route into a segment on Strava, create a downloadable file, and market it as the “COVID-19 Crusher” on Epstein’s YouTube channel and the group’s Instagram page. The rules are thus: people have 30 days to complete the “race” by going out and completing what is essentially an independent time trial of the course. Their Strava file serves as the timing chip. In order to be considered in the results, riders actually have to “enter” the race by purchasing a $20 gift card to a local establishment like a restaurant or bike shop. At the end of the race period, the gift cards will be handed out (in the mail) as prizes.

As with many gravel events, Epstein says that he wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to participate. The marquee COVID-19 Crusher route clocks in at 68 miles, but the group added a 29-mile route to make the challenge more accessible to all. For the long route, the organizers have asked that people indicate whether they are Category A or B racers. The prizes will be given to the top male and female finishers in each category.

covid-19 crusher
Epstein is a teacher. One of his students designed this logo.

Epstein wants people to understand that, while he’s given the race a name and attached some rules to it, “this is really about supporting the economy and having fun.”

We want people to race but to race safely and responsibly,” he says.

The Kansas City gravel crushers aren’t the only ones thinking outside the box during these tough times.

In Missoula, Montana, Cory Kaufman, who coincidentally is the part-owner of race timing company Competitive Timing, also wanted to figure out a way to give back to his community, with cycling as the catalyst.

“I thought that it would be a cool thing to try and give back to the restaurants and tap rooms and bars that typically sponsor our cycling events in Missoula,” Kaufman says. “And I was trying to figure out a way to come up with an event that was safe to do during this quarantine time.”

cycling family on dirt road
The #mslaridesolo challenge is fun for the entire family.

Since Montanans can also exercise outdoors, Kaufman came up with the “Missoula Ride Solo for Small Business Challenge,” known on social media as #mslaridesolo. The concept is similar to Epstein’s in terms of its underlying mission of helping local businesses; however, the focus in Missoula is on completion rather than competition. Every few days, Kaufman releases a new ‘stage’ via email to those who’ve registered, and folks have three days to complete it. Each stage benefits a local business, so after the timeframe to complete it closes, Kaufman draws from a hat and raffles off gift cards to that establishment.

Sarah and Zach Millar who own Missoula’s Dram Shop, a growler fill station and tap room, were the beneficiaries of the first stage of #mslaridesolo.

“We’ve been involved and supportive of the Missoula cycling community, so it’s wonderful to feel them reaching back to support us when we need them the most,” Sarah Millar says. “Being the first stage also helped highlight the importance of supporting the other local businesses that are featured in the rest of the stages. We all need each other!”

Miller and his daughter
Zach Millar of the Dram Shop and his daughter Gilly have ridden every stage of the #mslaridesolo challenge.

According to Kaufman, the #mslaridesolo challenge has raised close to $4,000 with $250 given to each business honored with a stage. This week, folks who’ve completed all seven stages will be eligible for the final raffle. If the photos of smiling people on bikes on Kaufman’s Instagram page are any indication, he might be getting requests to extend the challenge into the spring.

For riders in Lincoln, Nebraska, the same people who bring us Gravel Worlds each August are offering an early season event, as well. From April 10 – May 10, solo riders may complete the 100km “Quarantine Race,” which was modeled on the KC Gravel Crusher’s “COVID-19 Crusher.” A $20 gift card or receipt from a local business buys an entry, and the person with the fastest Strava segment time wins.


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As with all of the creative cycling events in the time of coronavirus, each of these challenges are meant to be ridden alone or with the people you’ve been isolated with. As with all cycling in general, this is meant to be fun!