At least once, during every trip I make down to Patagonia, Arizona, a small town of less than 1,000 just north of Sonora, Mexico, I look at the story in the corner. For both personal and pandemic reasons, 2019 feels like a lifetime ago.
That November, I wasn’t working for VeloNews. I was still working as a registered nurse in community health, but I had written a few pieces for VN that had given me just enough confidence to pitch my editor on a story about a tiny new event called the Spirit World 100.
To my surprise, he said yes, he’d cover the gas and some expenses. I was thrilled. On the way, I stopped over in Santa Fe, trying to sleep in the back of my truck in a rest area. I was too jacked up on excitement and chocolate-covered espresso beans to fall asleep.
When I arrived, the dusty streets of Patagonia charmed me instantly. Yellow butterflies flitted about — in November! — while dogs barked and birds sang. Banged up trailers abutted adorable mid-century bungalows. Behind the trumpet vine and juniper trees lived all kinds of people, and nowhere was this on better display than at the Saturday karaoke at the Wagon Wheel Saloon.
And then there was the bike event.
I didn’t know the Spirit World 100’s co-founders Heidi and Zander Ault well back then, but their new event had all the trappings of what I really buzz off of — a strong sense of place, meaningful food, physical and mental movement, and then as the ultimate icing on the cake, a whole group of people who are curious about things like that.
Since the first Spirit World 100 in 2019, I’ve been to dozens of gravel races and written about even more that I have yet to see in person. They range in scope from thousands of riders and industry-sized expos to events staged in grass parking lots where the ‘director’ collects entry fees and waivers at a fold-up card table.
Every year the bigger events seem to get bigger, and a legion of smaller events rise with the tide. My inbox overflows with invites and pitches, and if I had superhuman abilities (and a private plane), I’d try to attend every one. This little niche has given me a full-time job.
When I looked at my old story at the bar in Patagonia a few weeks ago, the headline stopped me in my tracks: “The Spirit of Gravel.” O.M.G. I thought. Did I really do that?
For the unaware, the expression ‘the spirit of gravel’ has been lately used to make a mockery of the sport, or at least its unsavory aspects. There are complaints from 30,000 feet — it’s too corporate, too costly, too pro, too exclusive — in addition to schoolyard rows within the race: he didn’t stop and I did! He’s not taking his turn at the front! She cheated!
In my opinion, that crap is the spirit of being human, our little egos as fragile as early winter ice. But traveling to a new place? Making new friends and hanging out with the old? Eating beautiful food, drinking and dancing, spending all day outside on our bikes?
Gravel is just the medium — the spirit is how we ride it.
The Spirit World 100’s co-founders, Zander and Heidi Ault.
Since its inception, the SW100 has opened with a benefit dinner on Thursday night. This year, the beneficiary was the Arizona Trail Association, a non-profit dedicated to protecting and promoting the 800-mile through trail.
Patagonia is an AZT gateway community near the trail’s southern terminus.
Proceeds from the dinner and alcohol sales throughout event weekend raised $11,000 for the Arizona Trail Association.
Ultra-distance bikepacker Lael Wilcox — who recently set the fastest known time on the AZT — was the evening’s keynote speaker.
Gravel isn’t gravel without a pre-race shakeout ride.
The Patagonia Lumber Co is Heidi and Zander Ault’s bar and cafe. It was a popular meeting spot throughout the weekend.
The day before the race I spent all afternoon working packet pickup and registration. It was so fun to be on the other side of the table!
Riders study the course map.
The Spirit World 100 had three distances on offer this year — 60, 80, and 100 miles.
Patagonia’s town park was the other hub of activity during event weekend. Food vendors, musical acts, and camping were all staged at the park in the center of town.
On race morning, we were all treated to homemade baked goods and breakfast provided by local maker The Farmer’s Daughter.
And countless cups of Presta Coffee.
Increased bike tourism in Patagonia has resulted in occasional and mild tension with local residents.
Racers were asked to respect local laws and residents by following some common-sense rules.
Race morning was cold, but the prospect of an amazing day in the spirit world warmed our souls.
The first climb out of Patagonia and up Harshaw Creek Road gets me every time — does that look like what you imagine when you think of southern Arizona?
Every course distance brushes the border between Arizona and Mexico — those mountains lie beyond a wall that is visible from the course.
The San Rafael Valley is home to hundreds of hundred-acre ranches.
The Spirit World 100 is a family affair. Heidi Ault always works an aid station with her mom — this year, Big Sky the golden retriever joined both the family and the race.
Two times the fun.
Here, riders begin the fast roll back toward Patagonia, although they’ll first have an option to stop at the famous Boomshakalaka Bar, a Coca Cola stop beneath the mountain in the foreground.
Salud! 10 miles to go.
Zander Ault welcomes every single rider ‘home.’
Post-race beers and bottles.
And at nightfall, a Grateful Dead cover band …
… to celebrate a day well done.
Awards — hand-crafted cutting boards and chairs — were presented to the top three men and women in each race distance on Sunday morning.
And there’s my old story, ‘The Spirit of Gravel.’ Interpret it how you may.