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About three years ago, Nico Deportago-Cabrera took a leap and started the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race. He had just signed a sponsorship deal with Red Bull. Not as a gravel rider, mind you, but as a fixed-gear athlete who was expected to split lanes through city traffic, race the Red Hook Criterium, and dash around Chicago in alley cat events.
Instead, he was in the middle of the windswept Kansas prairie, running out of water between every aid station. He fantasized about ways to duck out of the final 40 miles of racing into the twilight and then the dark.
“All I could think while I was racing was how can I break my bike so I can get forced out of this race,” the 34-year-old said.
It took him more than 15 hours, but he finished, and he was hooked. Since then, he’s gotten a few of his fellow fixed-gear athletes hooked on endurance gravel racing. While a hectic dash through traffic on a fixed-gear seems worlds apart from the lonely rough riding afforded by Dirty Kanza 200 or Land Run 100, these gravel converts say there are more similarities than differences.
The year after his tough day at Dirty Kanza, Deportago-Cabrera convinced his friend and fellow Red Bull fixed-gear athlete Addison Zawada to join him at Land Run 100, along with Chas Christiansen, a fixed-gear rider sponsored by Oakley and MASH.
It was one of the muddiest editions of the Oklahoma race. It was humbling but also inspiring.
“I came out here [to Land Run], and it was the hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Zawada said. “I didn’t finish the race and I was hooked. It was that simple. It was the first bike race I’d ever done that I started and didn’t finish. From then on it’s been, ‘Alright, I really like this endurance stuff.’”
While fixed-gear racing presents a high-speed challenge, gravel racing forces riders to push deep into their reserves. Christiansen and Deportago-Cabrera have gotten hooked on endurance events.
“You’ll find a wall somewhere and you have to scale that wall to get to the finish line. I scaled it a couple times today,” Christiansen said, a few hours after the 2019 Land Run 100.
For these riders, gravel racing is also the mellower “yin” to the bustling “yang” of racing through a crowded downtown street.
“I fell in love with riding a bicycle riding in those lanes between traffic in Chicago, working as a messenger,” said Deportago-Cabrera. “Gravel was taking those skills and that love for riding a bike someplace that was completely the antithesis to what I was doing; rather than being surrounded by all this concrete and steel, exhaust and noise, I am surrounded by nothing, just the elements and the countryside.”
However, this trio of riders, who have traveled around the world racing crits and alley cats, said the fixed gear and gravel scenes share many things in common. Chief among those similarities is the laid-back vibe.
“People are just looking for something different. They’re way more accessible than traditional sanctioned racing,” Christiansen said. “The biggest similarity is the vibe at a gravel race, a fixie race, an alley cat. It’s casual. we’re all here racing, but ultimately we’re all going to drink beer and hang out and tell stories. You go to a road race and people are getting into their cars in their kits and driving off with their helmet still on. That’s not the vibe here.”
Gravel races and fixed-gear races are also similar in that they’re usually a solo effort — the rider against the route. In mainstream cycling media, Red Hook Criteriums define fixed-gear racing, but in fact, Christiansen said the heart of that scene will always be in the alley cat races.
“That’s definitely where it started and honestly where it’ll always have its roots and place; it simulates a messenger’s workday,” he said. “Most of the fixed gear racing we do is on your own. You’ve got your route; you’re out in the city.”
Zawada is drawn to the solo challenge of gravel, which is akin to those alley cat events.
“I really like the rider against himself. I really like the solo effort. That’s one of the things I love about the singlespeed,” said Zawada, who won the singlespeed category at Land Run in 2019. “You spend most of the day by yourself. It’s a truly solo effort.”
And even if they’re out on the gravel for hours on end, alone for many miles, they still catch a little of the buzz they feel in a fixed-gear event.
“It’s not that much different from the same kind of adrenaline you get when you’re bombing up Park Avenue West in thick traffic heading back downtown,” Deportago-Cabrera said of the hectic mass-start of a gravel event. “You still get that same rush of energy.”
Potentially, the cultural similarities between fixed-gear events and gravel will continue to fuel the growth of races like Land Run 100. Perhaps they’ll even come to an agreement on what sort of beer to drink at the finish.
“I feel like the gravel racing scene really likes a hoppy, high-body IPA, whereas fixed gear is more into a light PBR-style beer,” Christiansen said with a laugh.