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As I skimmed over the schedule of events for last weekend’s Mid South gravel race, I counted six group rides. Six!
All Bodies on Bikes was Thursday. Then, Friday had four — Moots and Chamois Butt’r were sponsoring rides, the Velocio Exploro gravel squad was leading one, and one was simply called Celebrating BIPOC. Sunday was race director Bobby Wintle’s own hangover ride — and, despite issuing over 3,000 hugs, singing, dancing, playing the guitar, and saying ‘I love you’ no less than a thousand times over the weekend, he made it!
Most people who attend gravel races are familiar with the shakeout ride and maybe even the post-race hangover ride. Often sponsored by brands or groups, these rides serve as casual get-togethers on the bike, sometimes utilizing part of the course and other times just spinning on the roads nearby. Nearly all have a no-drop ethos.
Before I saw the weather forecast for Stillwater over the weekend, I made a bold statement: I was going to go to all of the shakeout rides. To me, they’re the essence of gravel — fun, social, low-key, all the people on all the bikes-types of rides. I also wondered — if someone came to an event who wasn’t racing it, maybe a family member or volunteer, could they have the same experience at a gravel race as a registered rider? Could someone just come to an event for the group rides and parties and not the race? Also — why are these rides so popular at gravel events?
Answers: yes, yes, and — the spirit of gravel.
A ten hour drive to Stillwater meant that I missed Thursday’s All Bodies on Bikes group ride, but I think I made up for it by going to the afterparty equivalent: a dance party featuring tacos and edibles at a warehouse north of town (Wintle basically invited everyone).
I was all jazzed for my big Friday of shakeout rides until I woke up and looked out the hotel window. It was snowing. It had snowed all night. And the temps were barely pushing 20.
I lucked out with the 8:30 a.m. Moots ride canceling, but I was on the hook for the 9:30 Chamois Butt’r ride. Fortunately it met at a coffeeshop, and even better, Butt’r was buying drinks. Around 75 people with much better attitudes than me showed up for the ride, which included, in addition to the usual sample packs of Butt’r and free socks and snacks, a photographer and immediate access to images.
But let’s be honest, people could have come, reaped the bounty of free swag, and left to go back to their warm and dry hotel rooms. But they stayed, and they rode. They even rode longer than the abridged two-mile route due to the weather. Most people chose to push on for the originally scheduled 12 miles!
When I asked people on the ride why they showed up for shakeout rides, and this frigid one in particular, I only got one snarky answer.
“We’re from Minnesota. I feel like we had to, it was our duty!” said the guy in engineer-striped OshKosh overalls and insulated Kinco mittens.
Other people took my question more seriously.
“To loosen the legs and to meet people,” said Mike from Houston.
“I love getting a preview of the course so I know where I can send it and I know where I need to be a little more careful,” added Devon, also from Texas. “And I like the social aspect where you can really relax and get to know other people.”
Kara Matthews, Chamois Butt’s partnerships and marketing director, told me that the brand’s decision to sponsor a number of group rides at gravel races in 2022 was based on this type of feedback.
“Some of the most popular content on social media is real time photos from group rides,” she said. “Not ‘what gear do you have, what do the pros use?’ It’s advocacy and being at the ride with people. We see a lot of ‘this was my favorite part of the weekend!'”
On the Velocio Exploro ride at 12:30, it was still freezing. But, two women who I met a month earlier at Gravel Miami were leading the ride, and I spotted two guys who were on the Chamois Butt’r ride. Again, riding alone in this weather? Hell, no. Riding with people who are really stoked to be there? Hell, yes.
Dan and Ayaz were at The Mid South from New Hampshire, and they told me that after such a long trip to get to Oklahoma, they just wanted to do all the things.
“Be out, check out people, meet people, figure out layering,” Dan said. “Since we’re out here for a couple days it’s nice to make the most of it and do everything we can.”
During the ride, Ayaz and I chatted about gravel riding in Vermont, and the conversation somehow veered toward the more personal. He told me how losing his sister at a young age led to a reevaluation of his life and a subsequent 150-pound weight loss and many incredible bike rides since. I shared with him my own personal story of loss.
These are the conversations that always seem to happen on group rides — they spring out of nowhere and sear into our memories.
By the final ride of the day, the Celebrating BIPOC ride at 3 p.m., I was no longer fussed by the weather but rather fueled by the connections I’d made on the previous rides. As we rolled out of town, I weaved in and out of conversations. Noah Collins, the ride’s leader, and I debated the merits of Boulder vs. Bentonville. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a guy named Ramón and a guy who works for Salsa. They geeked out about bikes and the Tour Divide. Ramón’s stoke was palpable, and after the ride I asked if he always does the group rides at gravel events.
“If there is one, I’ll jump on it,” he said. “One of the greatest aspects of these gravel races is the community. Sure, I can go out, someone can give me the link, and I can go out and do the route alone. It just won’t be as fun.”
Shakeout rides: a free ride?
With six group rides on offer (in addition to a music festival, expo, and bars full of merrymaking gravel riders), I had to ask Wintle — did he care if people came to Stillwater for Mid South weekend and didn’t register for the race?
“The answer is yes, what is the question? How many people could potentially be here that are support, friends or family? This isn’t about the race,” he said. “Everyone else who isn’t motivated beyond measure to be at the top of the podium needs ways to figure out why they’re here.”
And, let’s be real: most of the people who attend gravel racers are not motivated to be at the top of the podium. Many have goals to finish the race. Some have goals to finish faster than last time. And some people have no goals beyond a day of partying on the bike with their friends.
Marley Blonsky, who is part of the duo spearheading All Bodies on Bikes, said that the shakeout ride epitomizes the experience that most people hope to have on race day.
“I think there’s a lot of folks who have zero interest in racing, or there’s the completers and the competitors,” she said. “I think 90 percent of us are the completers and so that’s what we’re here for, the community ride, which is really what you get on these rides. Hopefully that transfers over to race day or event day.”
Wintle is adamant that The Mid South be about more than the pointy end of the race. He’s thrilled that there is one but is more concerned with the completers than the competitors.
“Those people, the racers, are motivated beyond measure,” he said. “They’re supported and have done the work, but if you make an event, whether it’s group rides or a race itself, that lifts from the bottom. The foundation is ‘you are worthy because you exist, not because of your abilities or accomplishments.’ Then everything will build up and you’ll get this beautiful mix. At the top you’ll still have the race. But if you only focus on the race you’ll only have the race. You can have a flower with dead roots but it’ll fall over eventually.”
At this point in gravel’s evolution, I can’t imagine a major event like The Mid South without a shakeout ride, or two, or six. These low-pressure, high impact rides are perhaps the most inclusive part of an event’s programming, and I know that Wintle isn’t alone among organizers who would welcome people to town who haven’t registered for the event. I even met a guy at the edible party who’d come from Austin just to hang with his friends and bask in the stoke.
It was far too early in the season for flowers to be blooming in Oklahoma last weekend. But at The Mid South, I found a thriving garden where even cold weather couldn’t make the blooms droop. Their roots were too strong.