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The Grind: The gravel explosion, and a new column

What's the best tire for the course? What should gravel racing be in length and format? And what causes this gravel madness, anyhow? We will be digging into all this and more in The Grind.

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Five minutes.

That’s how long it took to sell out Big Sugar, the new-for-2020 gravel race put on by Life Time in Arkansas.

SBT GRVL, a Colorado gravel race in only its second year, sold out in 25 minutes.

Demand for entries at Dirty Kanza — an event that started in 2006 with 34 racers — is so high that the race runs a lottery.

How did we get here? I called some athletes and race directors from the gravel world to better understand how, and why, the country’s biggest races are now harder to get into than many U.S. colleges.

Gravel on fire

“We are in the golden age of gravel,” said Yuri Hauswald, winner of the 2015 Dirty Kanza 200. “It is blowing up in a short amount of time, and there is still room for growth. I feel super fortunate that I happened to catch the wave when I did.”

Amy Charity, co-founder of SBT GRVL, said the main drivers of gravel’s popularity are easy to understand. “It’s fun, inclusive — all ages, all abilities and cycling backgrounds — and there are minimal barriers to entry,” Charity said.

Racers at SBT GRVL
Racers at the inaugural SBT GRVL

Dirty Kanza marketing manager Kristi Mohn echoed Charity’s comments on inclusivity, saying that while it’s great to have pros show up at Life Time gravel events, that’s not the key driver.

It is exciting to have someone finish [DK 200] in less than 10 hours, but for us at the finish line, it is riders like Ann Gentle coming back from cancer to finish 100 miles have me choking up at the finish line,” Mohn said.

The four Cs of gravel

Hauswald, a former elementary school teacher and current GU Energy Labs community manager, said the allure of gravel comes down to four C words: courses, community, camaraderie and challenge.

“A big draw is riding in new, unique, beautiful places,” Hauswald said “Most folks, myself included, didn’t think the Flint Hills of Kansas were going to be as stunning as they were. And yet, they are one of a very few tall grass preserves in the world. And riding new courses is what drew me out to races like Steamboat.”

In stark contrast to road racing with multiple categories that start separately, virtually all gravel races feature mass starts. You can line up with Ann Gentle and Amity Rockwell and Taylor Phinney and all roll out together. “It’s like the best of road and mountain-bike for camaraderie,” he said.

Yuri Hauswald loves gravel
Yuri Hauswald, 2015 Dirty Kanza 200 winner and all-around gravel evangelist, at Gravel Mob in Ojai, California

“For community, you have some amazing people who tap into the local communities to get buy in,” Hauswald said. “At Dirty Kanza there are hundreds of people along the finishing chute, and many are not friends or family of the racers — they’re locals.  The best events take on the character of people who put them on. Take [Land Run 100 founder] Bobby Wintle. That dude is the bristle-haired Energizer bunny of gravel, running around playing guitar and firing canons and hugging everyone at the finish.”

As for challenge, Hauswald said gravel races can scale to fit the rider. Pros and the fast kids can hammer at the front for the win; others find it a success to finish.

The perfect distance for gravel races

Although some of gravel’s heritage is long-distance endurance, you can now find races of all lengths. So what is the sweet spot?

“It’s the spot that helps you push yourself outside of your limit,” Mohn said. “It’s the spot where you learn something about yourself. For some people that’s 200. For others, that’s 350. For some, that’s 25.”

How much fun is too much fun? SBT GRVL offers a few course-length options.

For Hauswald, it’s 100 to 200 miles.

“If you go back to the primordial ooze of gravel, you gotta go back to Trans Iowa, which was the inspiration for DK,” he said, referencing that 320- to 340-mile race. “That was a super cool event, but it’s just not doable for most folks.”

“I feel like the sweet spot in terms of distances is 100-200 miles,” he said. “That range is something where  everyday folks can set that goal, work towards it, and accomplish it, which is rad.”

New column, who dis?

Having fun at the Dirty Kanza 200
Ben Delaney, Chris Case and a friend getting dirty in Kansas. | Photo: Brad Kaminski

Welcome to The Grind, a new column on gravel that will run on Wednesdays. We’ll dig into trends, bikes, events, tire selection, and bring you the perspectives of racers from the front to the back of the pack, plus race organizers and others who are building the scene.

My name is Ben Delaney. I was the editor of VeloNews 2007-2011, and was lucky enough to work with Nick Legan, the French-speaking, Olympic- and Tour-de-France bike-wrenching, gravel-bike-preaching wunderkind who now works for Shimano. At the time, Nick often raced DK. It sounded horrible. I made fun of him.

Of course, since then Nick went on to literally write the book on gravel, and I have gone from mocking to straight-up chugging the gravel Kool-Aid.

I’ve enjoyed racing alongside Nick and his wife Kristen at events like Land Run 100 and Dirty Kanza (type 2 ‘enjoy’, mind you), and loved helping put on a couple new gravel sportives here in Colorado like Wild Horse Gravel and Crooked Gravel with the talented Roll Massif crew (where Nick and Kristen helped us out with the courses and promotion).

I laughed when I was talking to Yuri about the “Four Cs”, as these are the exact four terms I wrote on a Roll Massif page about what makes those Colorado events great.  Suffice it to say, we’re on the same page. If you are too, check back here on Wednesdays for The Grind. And give me a shout on Strava (ben-delaney) if you want to talk gravel.