There are a lot of things to love about gravel, and for me, the top one is simply doing it.
Compared to the road scene, where professional racing and amateur recreation are growing increasingly further apart, gravel brings the two together.
At VeloNews, we have covered pro racing for nearly 50 years now, as well as the gear and training for amateurs. Traditionally, that dual coverage has meant doing two separate things. Whether covering bikes or tactics or athletes, what is going on in European stage racing is worlds apart from what is going on in your local road riding scene.
In gravel, it’s one world. For example, at The Mid South this weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma, world-class athletes and first timers will all be lining up together, and everyone will be wondering if they chose the right tires. The bikes, gear, and available support will be quite similar for all starters, regardless of UCI license status. As in a running marathon, the speeds will be different from the front to the back of the massive group, but we will all be out there together, doing the same thing on the same course.
This weekend, my colleagues Betsy Welch, Brad Kaminski, and I will be out in Stillwater, covering the stories, reporting on the drama, and testing some bikes and gear.
I’m happy to announce that we will be doing a film with Amanda Nauman, who won the 2018 edition of The Mid South (then Land Run 100), among her many other victories.
Another thing I love about gravel is the choose-your-own-adventure format, or, perhaps more accurately, the your-adventure-may-vary format. By that I mean, there are so many ways to engage with the challenge and camaraderie of a gravel race.
Again, gravel stands in stark contrast to the often-binary nature of road racing, where the people in the main bunch are having a fundamentally different experience than the people who got dropped and are wondering why they got up early to pay money to feel bad about themselves.
Aside from the ego blow of getting dropped, being off the back of a road race or criterium removes the whole game from the enterprise. You’re not interested in whether or not you can complete five laps of an office park. Of course you can do that; the challenge was in the interaction with the race, which has now left you behind.
Compare that to gravel, with 2,000 people spread out all over the course. For most of us, just completing the dang thing is challenge enough, and there are almost always scores of people in front, behind, and often alongside you for most of the day. The challenge is in clearing that next rut, or hill, or cramp, or negative thought. The challenge is in staying with this group just a little bit longer. The game is on all day.
Roadie pro turned gravel evangelist Neil Shirley has won a number of races, but he’ll tell you one of his favorite experiences at Dirty Kanza was when a mechanical put him out of contention for the win. He wasn’t out of the race, or away from the challenge; he was just forced to do a mental reset on what the challenge in front of him was, and to appreciate the people he found himself with.
That to me is a big allure of gravel racing: You go in with ideas of how it’s going to be, and then are confronted with reality, and you have to cope. And, more times than not, it’s a fun or at least a rewarding experience. You’ve probably heard the Yiddish proverb: We plan, God laughs.
If you’re racing The Mid South this weekend, I hope to see you out there. And I hope that for at least part of it, we too can be laughing.