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The Grind: My top 10 gravel hits of 2020

The events (remember those?), gear, and places that made gravel rad for me in a lousy year.

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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

’Tis the season for Top 10 lists, and here is mine for gravel in 2020. While postponements, cancelations, social distancing, and online bickering all ran rampant this year, there were still plenty of bright spots. Here’s what I loved.

10. Grodeo

The inaugural low-key, high-gnar event was held in conjunction with ENVE’s Builder Show last year, and the plan was to build on that success in 2020. Instead, the Builder Show was virtual, and Grodeo was postponed. However! I drove out to Ogden, Utah to shoot the custom bikes and to ride the Grodeo course with some of the ENVE gang, who promptly put me in my place on the steep uphills and the hairy downhills.

9. Di2-Garmin integration

I’m a fan of Shimano’s GRX Di2 group for a few reasons, and I really dig how you can control a Garmin with the thumb buttons on the GRX hoods. Being able to jump from map screen to other screens without taking your hands off the levers is a good thing for gravel, not just for the safety, but because touchscreens can be fussy when you’re a few hours deep and it’s dusty and your hands or glove have mud/GU/who knows what on them.

8. FasCat’s gravel odes

My buddy Frank Overton of FasCat Coaching cooked up a number of Strava-based events this summer, each themed around a major gravel race that we were missing. This kept the motivation, fun, and community connections running high in a year where those things were sorely needed. Thanks, Frank!

7. Sportful gravel gear

Sportful jumped on the gravel bandwagon with dedicated clothing, and I have to say, a lot of it is really good. I particularly like the Italian company’s jerseys. I dig the elbow-length sleeves and streamlined cut of the Supergiara jersey (shown above), and the Supergiara Thermal long sleeve jersey hits a great balance of wind block, insulation, and breathability for winter rides where long uphill slogs are followed by chilly descents. Plus, pockets and reflective elements abound.

6. Shimano SPD XT pedals

I don’t know how many years old my two pairs of XT pedals are. I just know that they always work, need basically no maintenance, and that they’re what I put on any gravel bike.

5. Battery life

Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

It wasn’t too many years ago that Garmin was the only GPS player, and when using navigation, you couldn’t get much more than four hours of life out of the biggest, most expensive unit. Carrying chargers, back-up batteries, and a cable was very much a thing. And now, rejoice! Garmin, Wahoo, and Stages all have computers that can get you well over 10 hours with navigation running.

4. Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City

Held in October in Utah, BWR Cedar City was controversial for the simple fact that it was a mass-start gravel race during the pandemic. Organizer Michael Marckx took a number of precautions, which — like so many things in our country  — was satisfactory for some and unacceptable to others. I went, raced, enjoyed, and covered the event. Marckx said no Covid-19 positives came out of the event.

3. Bags

Okay, I’ll admit to heckling many of the on-bike bag styles in the past. But I’ve also come around to even the convenience of a top tube bag. The handlebar and frame bags were easier sells to me, as they don’t bonk my knees the way some top tube bags do. Anyhow, self-sufficiency is always part of the gravel game, and especially so in 2020. Bag it up. Also, did you know handlebar bags are a de facto Rorschach test?

2. The Mid South

Bobby Wintle is a gravel lightning rod, if not actual lightning somehow embodied in a spiky-haired man. He’s also the promoter of The Mid South, formerly Land Run 100, which was held this year just as the tidal wave of COVID-19 positives and shutdowns began to crash down upon us. As my colleague Betsy Welch wrote, he did the best he could, with what he knew, at that time. As heavy rain poured down like a metaphor for the swelling pandemic, Bobby stood at the start line, reading his impassioned rationale for changing the name of his event. The Mid South makes my Top 10 list for Bobby’s passion to build community, his willingness to admit when he is wrong, and his nuclear-powered positivity.

1. The Gold Hill Store

Liv Devote

About 15 miles and 3,000 vertical feet from my house is a tiny general store and cafe in the tiny dirt-road mountain town of Gold Hill. Local cyclists have been riding up to the Gold Hill Store for coffee and pie since well before gravel bikes were a thing. Now that gravel bikes are a thing, it’s the best gravel ride I know. It’s far and high enough to be challenging, but not so far or hard as to be out of reach for a regular adventure. Climbing up into the cool mountain air always clears the head, and the effort makes the homemade pie taste all the better.