The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.
Ben Brainard’s NorCal version of a spring classic — the Shasta Gravel Hugger — kicks off this weekend, with the likes of Clara Honsinger, Pete Stetina, and Jacob Rathe slated to take the start alongside 400 other gravel racers.
Featuring 12 gravel sectors over the 100-mile course, the Shasta Gravel Hugger is half paved, half gravel. The race starts and finishes in the tiny town of Montague, which sits in the long shadow cast by the Mt. Shasta volcano.
Originally, Brainard intended to name the event a variation of Strade Bianche, the Italian gravel WorldTour race that will be held Saturday in Italy. But he concluded that it would be legally safer to stay clear of the Strade Bianche name, should his race grow in stature.
So, instead, the gravel hugger moniker — a riff on the ‘tree hugger’ theme — was born.
Nonetheless, the Shasta Gravel Hugger definitely evokes spring classics, especially Paris-Roubaix, with its labeled sectors. Coming into each sector, Brainard has signage that spells out what riders are in for, much like Paris-Roubaix rates its sectors for difficulty.
Each sector has a sponsor, almost all of which are local bike shops or local small businesses. One such sponsor in the inaugural event last year was LandShark Bikes, owned by John Slawta who built Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro d’Italia winning bike. Slawta continues to build bikes now near Brainard’s home.
COVID-19 protocols and considerations
Brainard essentially did zero marketing of his event this year because he didn’t think it would happen.
“I put the race together last year super fast, and about 130 people showed up,” Brainard said. “Last year, our event was a week in front of The Mid South. Covid pretty much hit between my race and Mid South. I really didn’t think there would be another race this year. But recently things started to open up, and it seemed like we could proceed if we followed certain regulations.”
In working with local authorities, Brainard got permission to run the race with wave starts of 50 people. About 400 people are registered now.
“It’s very regional. I see maybe one person on the start list who is flying in,” he said. “Considering the circumstances, that is great this year. Going forward, though, the whole concept is to make it national.”
The waves will start 20 seconds apart and will be paced to the first sector at six miles in. Brainard asked riders during registration to rate their chances for finishing in the top 10 percent, and put those most confident in the first wave.
“If someone bridges up to that first group from behind, then good for them — everyone will be given the same start time so no one will have to keep track of which wave is ahead,” he said.
There is also a 65-mile option, which will start an hour behind the main race.
Brainard said he hadn’t spoken to many other promoters, all of whom are juggling the myriad complication from COVID-19 this year. But at least two other promoters will be participating in his race, including Miguel Crawford from the Grasshopper Series and Mike Ripley, who puts on events in Oregon.