Over 3,000 people will be riding The Mid South gravel race on Saturday, and six of them will be making history. The Thaden School Drop Barnstormers, the first ever school-sponsored gravel team, is headed to Stillwater.
If it seems strange for a bike race to be considered a school project, it makes sense at the Thaden School. The curriculum at the independent middle and high school in Bentonville, Arkansas, focuses on three tenets: meals, wheels, and reels. In addition to traditional academics, students focus on culinary studies, bikes, and filmmaking.
Last year, 17-year-old Isaac Raymond began working with his independent study advisor to come up with an idea that could somehow marry the three.
“We started throwing out ideas like documentaries,” says Raymond, who is in his junior year. “What evolved was this idea for a gravel team that could be the platform for a documentary to bring awareness to food insecurity in rural and remote areas along the Arkansas High Country Route [a bikepacking route created by the Adventure Cycling Association].”
School faculty approached Luke Hall, the assistant NICA coach for the Thaden Team, with Raymond’s heady idea. Hall took the pulse of the kids involved with NICA and found six that were curious about riding gravel. He looked for information on school-sponsored gravel teams and couldn’t find one in the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. After a few meetings with school administration and a rough draft of a plan, Hall made the team official. Fortunately, he didn’t have to take kids away from NICA to get them on gravel.
“Our schedule is funny, it kinda looks like it goes all year,” Hall said. “But there’s a big gaping hole that we can fill with gravel. We’ll be riding through July. In August, we’ll pause for NICA and then we’ll pick back up for Big Sugar.”
Since last fall, the Drop Barnstormers have been riding together twice a week, after school on Wednesdays and a long ride on Saturday. While some of the students have their own gravel bikes, others ride on loaners from people in the community. Hall structures some of his rides around a race-specific effort, like hill repeats, but the majority have a singular focus: to have fun.
“If you can be on the bike for three hours on Saturday and enjoy it for all three, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “Sometimes we find old broken toys on the side of the road – we found an old plastic trike on the side of the hill, so we rode it for a while.”
Is a high school gravel team in a town that’s already teeming with bikes overkill? Hall says that if the goal is getting more kids on bikes, gravel has a place for students, especially in rural America.
“If we’re going to get youth excited about bikes again, we need to meet them where they are,” he said. “Going to small towns in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and getting kids on bikes they can ride their county roads with, that makes sense.”
The team is learning lessons on their training rides and beyond. The students completed their first event together, the Hazel Valley Grand Prix Challenge, on Feb 22. After the event’s 56 miles and 6,200 feet of elevation gain, Raymond, who also rides mountain bikes and cyclocross, says gravel is teaching him a thing or two about proper fueling.
“I packed a bunch of stroopwaffles and sandwiches and had extra food at the top of a mountain halfway through,” he said. “Having food that tastes really good is a blessing and a curse: the whole time after the halfway point I was thinking, ‘Man, these waffles taste really good, but I only have one left and there are 20 more miles, so I should save it.’ That’s how I remember to eat during these long rides.”
Other lessons unfold organically when the group is out on their Saturday rides. Because of Raymond’s interest in food insecurity in rural Arkansas, the students have discussed what it would mean to have to use a bike as a means of transportation, and also imagined what it would be like if the closest place to buy food was a gas station.
“We’ve also talked about what it means to be an ambassador on these roads,” Hall said. “Sometimes people are gonna be surprised that you’re out there, so it’s important to smile and wave, smile and wave.”
There will no doubt be plenty of smiles and waves greeting the Thaden students as they line up in Stillwater on Saturday. Some of the kids will be participating in the 50 mile version and others, like Raymond, will be attempting their first 100-mile ride. For all of them, the culture and vibe of the Mid South will serve as a festive preview of another upcoming race on their calendar, the Dirty Kanza’s 100-mile event. Already, it hasn’t taken long for the students to realize that the race itself is often a fraction of the whole at gravel events.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how whole communities get behind an event,” said Raymond. “Grassroots gravel is really cool.”