Gravel aid stations can be a bit of a tease, with the prospect of a shot of whiskey, a donut, or even a dance party. Of course 90 miles in, the objective of a gravel race is pretty clear: get to the finish, and then have your celebratory beer. Aid station, be damned. Yet here I am, at mile 90 at the Spirit World 100, sitting at a bar with a single stool, tended by a mustachioed man in a bolo tie.
This feed zone has appeared like a mirage in the vast expanse of the southern Arizona desert. I’ve already ridden to the U.S. border with Mexico and back, practically lost my teeth on roads rutted by trucks big enough to swallow me, and lost my hydration to the sneaky November sun.
So, I take the tequila that the barkeep hands me. A glistening bottle of Mexican Coke materializes on the bar. I shoot. I drink. Then, salt crusting my brow, I pedal on toward the finish line in the nearby town of Patagonia, with notes of agave on the tip of my tongue. The trumpets and trombones of a Mariachi band welcome me across the finish line. Heidi Rentz, one of the event’s co-promoters, gives me a huge hug and slips a dangly blue crystal necklace around my neck, a ‘finisher crystal,’ if you will.
I take the second step on the podium for my age group, as Zander Ault, the event’s other co-promotor, awards me a zippered pouch of polka-dotted Arizona-grown pinto beans. Gravel and tequila, and crystals and beans go well together, I decide. Maybe I should stop at the aid stations more often.
Tequila breaks aside, make no mistake: the Spirit World 100 is a race, with a start and finish line, winners and prizes. “We knew what would happen if we invited a hundred of our badass gravel friends down here for a ‘ride,’” Rentz says. For the event’s inaugural edition, 110 riders showed up to to race on dirt roads in the U.S. borderlands, our curiosity piqued by what this off-the-beaten-path event had to offer.
The Spirit World 100 is not alone. Across the U.S., hundreds of other, similar gravel events now dot the competition schedule — according to USA Cycling, there are 700 — and many of these races utilize a formula that is fairly new in American participatory cycling. It’s a formula not born in a boardroom, but rather in the laboratories of laypeople across the country. Gravel promoters invite cyclists to every corner of the globe, from the borderlands to the heartland, to test themselves against time and topography. They watch strangers become friends. They pour countless hours into events that don’t end when the last rider crosses the finish line but rather days and weeks later. Podiums and prizes are present, of course, but to these promoters, the look and feel and overall character of their event is of utmost importance, hence the finisher crystals.
Some of these gravel promoters have hit the bigtime, with L-words words like lottery and Life Time attached to their names. Cash investment and sellout fields may make life easier for some promoters. But so far, the grassrootsy-spirit of gravel remains the same, no matter who’s paying the bills. This may be due to the movement’s from-the-ground-up origin story, or the fact that there exists a tacit agreement among promoters and participants to keep gravel free of the unsavory characteristics that have plagued other disciplines of racing. Or maybe, I discovered as I spoke to event organizers and riders from all pockets of the country, part of the allure of hosting a gravel event is that you get to do whatever you damn well please.
“Actually,” Ault says. “We’re doing everything we can to make our event different.”
The spirit is born
For Rentz and Ault, hosting riders in Patagonia for the Spirit World 100 was the fruition of both a dream and of years of experience in cycling. The two met in the dorms at the University of Montana, and after college Rentz moved to Moab, where she raced on the pro cross country mountain bike circuit and established herself as an accomplished guide and coach. While she was busy racing and guiding in Moab, Rentz was also scheming.
“I always wanted to put on an event on my own terms,” she says. “I’m passionate about seeing people out there pushing themselves.”
The two reconnected at a mountain bike event in Crested Butte, Colorado several years later — Rentz was a guide and Ault was a chef who cooked locally-inspired meals for cyclists. In 2015 they married their passions and launched Cyclists’ Menu, a terroir-centric cycling camp business they still run today. They settled on Tucson, AZ, and dove deep into exploring the surrounding dirt, finding Patagonia and the greater San Rafael Valley that winter.
The two held their first gravel camp in 2016, shuttling cyclists down to Patagonia to ride the trails in the area. Yuri Hauswald attended that first camp, and said the riding in the area was magical.
“The parched desert terrain, with its expansive vistas and otherworldly terrain, had a unique palette in February which made it feel like you were riding in an early Western movie,” Hauswald said.
Hauswald thought the dusty backroads would make a great racecourse, and the thought rekindled Rentz’s dream of one day hosting an endurance event. Rentz and Ault planned a race, and even gave it a name.
“We were gonna call it the Border Patrol. It stuck,” he says. “And then we got busy.”
The duo’s cycling camp business took off, but they didn’t forget about the Border Patrol. They spent weeks at a time in Patagonia during their time off, developing relationships with business owners and public land managers in the area. They continued to ride the dusty, rutted roads in search of the perfect route.
“For years, we’d been talking about having a more affordable gathering,” Ault says. “We kept coming back to it, over beers, on rides. The route kept getting better. It took hundreds of hours of riding in the valley to figure out the best way to do it.”
Planning for the weird
It’s the night before the race, and all 110 riders are gathered for dinner. As we chat about the adventure ahead, a man stands up to address us. He’s an off-duty border patrol agent.
“They didn’t teach us public speaking in the Academy,” he says, his voice cracking, “but, I’ve told my guys to slow down out there tomorrow, and we’ll come get you if you have any problems.”
The agent’s presence is a strange addition to the dinner of locally-sourced gourmet foods. It reminds us all that this event cannot get any weirder. It also signifies an important point: putting on this event has taken a village.
“We’ve never worked so hard on anything,” Rentz says. “It was incredibly challenging in all the best of ways.”
In order to hold the race, the duo had to convince the town of Patagonia to approve an event permit for the first time in 13 years. They had to apply for permits with multiple counties, as well.
They made signs in their garage at home. In the days before the event, they invited their respective families to Patagonia to help with last-minute preparations. Ault’s brother spent hours in the kitchen, and Rentz’s sister strung every single finisher crystal.
The Spirit World crew faced challenges that any promoter can identify with — permitting and porta potties and post-race pint glasses. Other challenges arose that weren’t as easy to stomach. Customers balked at the $222 entry fee, which included multiple meals.
Ault remembered having to tell someone that they weren’t offering a one-day price for locals. “Our response was ‘No.’ We only have 150 slots. We have no sponsorship. We’re paying for all our help. We can’t do it any other way,” he says.
Rentz says the pushback on the price was an emotional setback. “It hurt our hearts,” she says. “It was our first time. Our price doesn’t dictate what we’re making, it dictates what we’re doing.”
The couple is adamant that they’re not interested in corporate sponsorship at this point, even if it would bring down their costs and potentially expand that cost-savings to participants. Until they figure out a way to be different, Ault says, they prefer to stay grassroots. The couple has already planned some logistical changes for 2020, but foremost on their mind is building on the success of 2019, success that they’ve decidedly defined on their own terms.
“It was so pleasing to see people realizing that they’d experienced something that they weren’t sure about,” Ault says. “It left people wondering ‘what can these type of outlier events do for me?’”
Not an easy undertaking
The Spirit World 100 is just a baby in a wider world of gravel events. For those event operators whose races are older, the logistical, financial, and spiritual challenges that Rentz and Ault encountered have oftentimes remained. Across the country, grassroots promoters face the challenging economics and logistics as they put on races.
Miguel Crawford, organizer of California’s Grasshopper Adventure Series, laughs when riders tell him his races are no longer ‘grassroots,’ just because the series has been around for 21 years.
“I shop at Costco the night before and sort the garbage the day after,” Crawford says.
For an event that has grown in popularity and participation over the better part of two decades, Crawford’s event still looks more like a labor of love than a path toward early retirement. Crawford still teaches Spanish at a high school, rather than work full-time on the series.
“My wife does the timing,” he says, “my mother-in-law has the baby, my sister is taking the older kid to soccer, and I have former students who are now in film school shooting footage for trade.”
The voracious appetite for gravel right now means that promoters, almost all of whom have day jobs have to dedicate more and more time to an endeavor that doesn’t always pay in spades. Aaron Raines, who is part of the team at Nebraska’s Robidoux Quick and Dirty, saw participation in the region’s gravel race grow by triple digits from 2018 to 2019, even after the event had to cancel the 2018 edition due to weather.
“If you’re looking to grow and get sponsors involved, then there’s a commitment to that,” Raines says. “It’s not easy to put on a good event. If you’re looking for growth, looking to expand, that’s where the difficulty comes in.”
As is often the case with participatory events, swelling registration sheets simply equate to higher costs. Insurance fees for additional participants can send the price tag skyward.
“The permit will be larger, our insurance will have to cover more,” Rentz says. “Just like any business, the bigger you get the more you have to spend — and we like expensive olive oil.”
Each event is in some way a reflection of the people who organize it, and food quality is not something that the Spirit World 100 is willing to downgrade. Rentz and Ault estimated that they spent at least $900 on aid station food, all of which was sourced locally, from the burritos to the biscochitos. They spent another $2,500 on supplies for the pre-race dinner. Paying for the post-race taco truck cost $1,200. “We’re not doing a bike ride with granola bars,” Ault says.
So, why the pushback on the Spirit World’s big entry fee? Crawford says racers rarely understand the costs that go into putting on an event.
“When you set an entry fee, you need to articulate why,” he says. “Explain the service you’re providing.”
Crawford didn’t start charging for the Grasshopper rides until he was about 10 years in. When he finally did, it was $5, just to cover the cost of the USA Cycling permit, then $10 for several years. Rather than charge people more to cover beer and food, Crawford wanted participants to visit local eateries in the race’s host town, Occidental.
Crawford’s attempts to keep the event’s costs down worked, for a while. Every few years, his costs went up. “Photocopies, zip ties, garbage bags — the list goes on,” he says. “And then you say, ok, I’m gonna pay myself $30-40 an hour. But don’t forget, then you’re gonna pay tax on that.”
Event promoters also want to give cash to charities or the local community. While the gravel events provide plenty of perks to the communities where they’re held, many promoters also earmark a percentage of their earnings for a cause much bigger than bicycling.
“A big aspect of our event is giving back to the community,” says Corey Godfrey, organizer of the Gravel Worlds race in Nebraska. “For 2020 we’re focused on continuing to raise funds for building a shelter along the Lincoln trail system to honor our dear friend that was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bike.”
At the Spirit World 100, proceeds from the alcohol sales benefitted the Borderlands Restorati`on Network, an organization dedicated to restoring ecosystems and communities along the border.
Details like these can sometimes go unnoticed by participants, but for promoters, they’re tantamount in establishing relationships and expressing gratitude to the places where they hold their events. “We want the town of Patagonia to be impacted financially as much as possible by our event,” Rentz says.
An emphasis on personality
Insofar as gravel event promotion can feel like little more than a labor of love for the people who do it, the groundswell of support from the people who come to the events provides essential validation.
Sam Ames, who hosted the eighth annual Rock Cobbler in Bakersfield in February, never thought that his quirky event would gain the traction to bring it from 40 to 400 participants.
“Never! Never in a million years,” he says. “We’re just a bunch of good old boys from Bakersfield. In boots and Wranglers most of the week. After several years, we’re really into it, but we never thought we’d be here.”
Like the Grasshopper Series, the Rock Cobbler was charted from routes that Ames and his buddies had been riding for years. After a trip to the Belgian Waffle Ride in 2012, they decided to try their hand at producing something similar but with a Bakersfield flair. Somehow, this translated into a course filled with shenanigans like water balloon tosses, kiddie pool obstacles, or the Grim Reaper lurking at the top of a climb.
If that sounds like a ride that would be hard to take seriously, Ames stands to correct.
“It’s a lot of A/B riders who know what kind of bike they have, how they wanna do,” he says. It’s a really hard ride, it’s not just, ‘hey, we’re gonna throw water balloons,’ it’s a hard day on the bike.”
At Gravel Worlds, riders face 150 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing. But, the physical challenge is only one aspect of what brings people to Lincoln.
“I believe that the grassroots vibe is a draw for a lot of participants, too,” Godfrey says. “Someone mentioned to me last year that the event reminded him of the nostalgic vibe at mountain bike events in the 90s; everyone having a great time and supporting each other in an inclusive environment.”
Untethered by formal rules or sanctions, gravel races really can be whatever their promoters dream up. This gives participants plenty of options to choose from, and even more to mark on their calendar for the following year. With everything from one-day events to stage races to bikepacking ultras, there are events for every level of rider.
“Most human beings like to have fun,” Hauswald says. “And events like the Rock Cobbler, where you literally ride through some dude’s living room, or The Mid South (formerly know as the Land Run 100) where there’s singing and cannon firing, or Rebecca’s Private Idaho where you can do a stage race or one day event, help grow the sport, in my opinion.”
The challenge and the community of gravel racing have people hungry for more. In 2010 Godfrey didn’t have to issue number plates at Gravel Worlds because so few riders showed up. Last year, races like SBT GRVL sold out 2,000 entries.
“More folks on bikes is a good thing,” Godfrey said. “There are hundreds of gravel events across the country now, including small grassroots ones and larger ones like [Dirty Kanza]. You could race every weekend if you were so inclined. Folks will support the type of event that best fits their needs.”
For promoters, this green light means go: down to the border, over the Flint Hills, or even through someone’s living room.
A spirit of success
It’s the day after the Spirit World 100, and nobody is in a hurry to leave Patagonia. Rentz and Ault show up at the local park to lead a shake-out ride, and riders either join them or amble over to the Wagon Wheel Saloon for breakfast burritos. The scene reminds me of the final day of a music festival; we’re all new best friends, are already reminiscing about the weekend, and making plans to meet up at events next year. The Spirit World name is apropos; we’ve all come outside of our various comfort zones to enter a new world of community and challenge.
“A big reason for the success of gravel is the ability for the venues and the courses to bring people outside of their elements,” Ault says. “It’s a path into our sport of cycling that’s been waiting to be unlocked. It’s so cool that it’s happening the way it’s happening.”
The way it’s happening is this: people who love riding bikes, who believe that they have a unique corner of the world to showcase, and who are willing to take certain financial and emotional risks, are creating events that the rest of us can’t wait to pack up and go to. For anyone with the will, gravel is the way.
“You can do as many miles as you want in a gravel race,” Rentz says. “You can put whatever you want out there on course to make it as weird as you want.”
In the Spirit World, the story goes that when Rentz rode by the spot that would later become the pop-up tequila bar, she took a look around at the staggering desert skyline and exclaimed ‘Boomshakalaka!’ The aid station at mile 90 then became the Boomshakalaka Bar.
Does everyone like to take shots during gravel races? No. Does local food matter at the pre-ride dinner? Not for some. Is Mexican Coke in glass bottles more expensive than the plastic American stuff? Yep.
“Can unique outside-of-the-box-thinking weirdos be successful in this industry?” Ault says. “Not sure yet. But we’re gonna try.”