Gravel

Groad Trip: Gravel racing returns!

Pinning on numbers at the Lake City Alpine 50 and Fistful of Dirt felt great. I can't wait for Belgian Waffle Ride.

Groad Trip is a regular gravel column by Tour de France racer turned gravel privateer Pete Stetina.

The gravel scene is alive and kicking! As this is the Groad Trip and the initial idea was to document my adventure as I explore the burgeoning gravel scene, I’m happy to be able to finally write about that theme after a nearly six-month hiatus from events. 

Over the last two weeks I’ve been road tripping in my van and actually raced twice! As expected, it felt great to pin a number on again and have an external reason to dig deep.

On par with the actual racing was the chance to feel the pulse of the local grassroots scene. While even the biggest gravel races have a grassroots upbringing and flavor, there is something that will always be special to me about hyper-local, smaller-field races. I like to say these events are like grilled cheese — they’re that comfort food I grew up consuming as a youngster. 

Fistful of Dirt was held September 6 outside of Cody, Wyoming.

Setting a course record at the Lake City Alpine 50 

My first stop was the Lake City Alpine 50 in southwest Colorado. In its second year, this event has a very “old school” MTB flavor; there’s no buffed out singletrack, it was just an iconic off-road loop like what early MTB pioneers fell in love with. A course like this is reminiscent of what we love about gravel; it’s about a scenic adventure on unpolished terrain. After seeing the chunk-factor was at an 11, I opted for my full-suspension Canyon LUX over my gravel bike. Most other racers did the same, although a few hearty souls did ride drop bar bikes and rolled in to an extra hearty “you’re a badass!” cheer at the finish line.

I was lucky enough to take the win and course record (keeping with my Covid FKT theme!) against one of USA’s top up-and-coming MTB racers, Riley Amos, and the ever-fit former Olympian Todd Wells. The entire race was between 9,000 and 12,000 feet elevation with two windswept passes. The route is known for being a photographer’s dreamscape, however the day was stymied by cold rain and fog. I could sense I was riding among high alpine beauty but I couldn’t see more than 200m in front of me. The day after the race I woke up to blue skies and decided an Instagram friendly spin was needed up the first pass, so I could see what I had missed. It was well worth the return trip!

Mountain biking counts as groad, right? Of course it does.

Lake City was so excited to host the race; anywhere I went in town people were excited to hear I was there for the race and wanted to talk about the course and the speed which bikers can do it versus the “normal tourist” preference of ATVs. It was many riders’ first event since the lockdowns began, and the jovial attitude was palpable on the start line despite the weather.

I then took a week to make my way from southern Colorado to Cody, Wyoming. I stopped for two days in Crested Butte (MTB heaven on Earth), Leadville (for a visit to Floyd’s of Leadville HQ), and Steamboat (to park in a friend’s driveway and ride the SBT GRVL route as recon for 2021).

Floyd said relax and recover. So I did.

The Good, The Bad, and (winning) The Ugly at Fistful of Dirt

Cody is just east of Yellowstone National Park and still very much a cowboy’s town, however I found a strong cycling subculture and a robust youth program. There are a surprising amount of cyclists and trails out here and the hospitality I felt rivals the famous inviting feelings of the midwest. In its first year, the stoke around Fistful of Dirt was city-wide.

Fistful of Dirt had three lengths: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. You know I had to go for The Ugly…

The course read like a novel: We started out along the old highway leading to Yellowstone through caves and steep narrow canyons. This was followed with a turn off-road along a pristine reservoir and gravel hard pack. Next up was a rough, adventurous jeep two-track. A bit more pavement and hardback for respite brought us to a sandy basin where line selection was critical. The final of the race was characterized by epic mountain vistas and steep pitches. It was crucial to keep enough in the tank for the final rugged and demanding 20 miles.

Fistful of Dirt wasn’t short on challenge or scenery. Photo: Fistful of Dirt

This ride encapsulated my #alltheterrains for #allthefuns obsession. The constant terrain changes kept the mindset fresh and made 100 miles feel a lot shorter mentally. However, there is a sneaky amount of vert and this route will test you, regardless of ability level. I would highly suggest this goes on any graveleur’s bucket list.  Aid stations were well stocked and common. I took the win here as well, and to cap things off my Privateer colleague, Kathy Pruitt took out the Women’s title. Remember the Kathy Pruitt who was a junior Downhill MTB world champ? Well, she’s caught the gravel bug and is extremely good. We took home matching bolo ties for the podium.

Win a Fistful, get a Bolo tie. Goes pretty well with my Leadville buckle, don’t you think? Photo: Fistful of Dirt

The Covid protocols

I know people are curious as to how these races have reacted to the virus’ impact on communities. At Lake City, we had to wear masks on the start line and it was a wave start of 10 riders each spaced at one-minute intervals. Fistful was a slightly bigger group start on a wide boulevard where riders had to line up on an X which was six feet apart in any direction. Only once moving and spaced a bit more were we allowed to remove masks. At both, aid stations were manned by volunteers with full PPE, and racers were handed single-serving food and water; we couldn’t operate the water jugs ourselves. Podium ceremonies were mask-required, and both took place in expansive town parks in the open air where it was extremely easy to maintain social distance.

Racing looks and feels different right now. Fistful of Dirt instituted many safety protocols.

Up next

I have gotten word the Belgian Waffle Ride in Cedar City is a go in mid-October! Registration is open, spaces are available, and I think this will likely be the highest profile gravel event of this Fall. My fingers are crossed things don’t worsen again and we can all have at least one last shootout in the wild west.

Who knows where this lead us? I’m just happy to be riding and racing again. Photo: Thomas Prehn