U.S. gravel promoters connect to discuss bringing back races in 2020

With safety as a priority it may be unlikely, yet gravel organizers and athletes are staying positive.

In Emporia, Kansas the hugs and high-fives would be starting now.

And, although the Dirty Kanza has a new September date on the calendar, a virtual expo that opened online today, and legions of fans taking to their own gravel roads to commemorate the May 31st event, it’s not hard to imagine that 2020 just might not be the year for gravel racing.

On Thursday, gravel race organizers and professional cyclists, many of whom would have been in Emporia this weekend, met up on a call to discuss the past, present, and future of gravel, compressed into the recent reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple themes emerged, from the resilience and ingenuity of the people within the discipline to the shared uncertainty of how to gather going forward.

Safety first

Whether a race organizer is dealing with 4,000 participants and the volunteers and community necessary to support those numbers, or is simply putting together a low-key town race series, there is one aspect of event production that unites every single start line: the importance of safety. Normally, the road map to providing a safe event is relatively well-charted, yet it requires more time and money than many may realize.

“It’s probably easy for a lot of folks, riders, participants to lose sight of the fact that we’re always thinking about safety,” said LeLan Dains, of the Dirty Kanza. “The DK is in Kansas after Memorial Day weekend, so we’re always thinking about tornadoes. If it’s not tornadoes, then it’s ‘where do we need water barriers to prevent drivers from driving through the expo,’ or it’s having active shooter drills.”

‘How to plan a safe event during a pandemic?’ That rulebook is currently being written.

Every organizer on the call agreed that any of the current measures that have been suggested to ensure the safety of groups gathering together, from eliminating feed zones to pre-race temperature checks, was either too uncertain to be trusted or would cut too deeply into the other more important aspect of a gravel race: the fun part.

SBT GRVL co-director Amy Charity said that she and her partners sat down to consider all potential safety measures to gauge whether there was any way to hold the August 16th race and keep everyone safe.

“There was no way we could guarantee the safety,” Charity said. “We said to ourselves, ‘what does this race really look like if we need to do temperature checks and space people out?’ We came back to, ‘this isn’t going to be fun.’ We founded the race on values of fun and safety. It was hard to cancel, but it became a no-brainer after that exercise.”

The Leadville 100 Trail MTB race — which was to be held the day before SBT GRVL — was canceled earlier this month when the Lake County Board of County Commissioners suspended all special event permits for the Colorado mountain town through September. The threat to the small community and its limited medical resources was too great, officials said.

While the city of Steamboat Springs hadn’t yet asked the event to cancel when they did, Charity said that they were grateful when it happened.

Dains also emphasized the health of the community when weighing the decision to carry on with a race. Although the city of Emporia is poised to lose a sizable sum of money if the Dirty Kanza doesn’t come to town, the potential cost to human life somewhat tempers the complicated situation.

“Emporia is my home,” Dains said. “You better believe I’m thinking about my dad and my grandma and my cousins and my friends and the university that’s trying to figure out if they should even have school this year.”

Socially-distanced gravel

Organizers of races that have already been canceled or even those tentatively still on the books have pivoted sharply toward virtual engagement. So too have some of the riders for whom those events marked important dates on their professional calendars. If the recent success of such events is any indication, the glue that holds gravel together is strong.

“We’re an entrepreneurial and creative tribe,” said WorldTour pro turned gravel privateer Pete Stetina. “I’m like everyone else, trying to pivot content. I feel indebted to sponsors who’ve stood by me. I have some fun projects coming up, and I have started training again. Even if there isn’t racing, it’s enough motivation for now.”

Motivation can wane in light of a vacant race calendar, and for Rebecca Rusch, who both races and organizes the Rebecca’s Private Idaho gravel event, the uncertain probability of both things happening was not sitting well. So what did she do? Organized an immediate challenge for both herself and anyone else who wanted to participate.

“I needed the motivation,” Rusch said. “We all love to ride. That was the initial motivation for gravel — exploration, and getting off the beaten path.”

Last weekend, Rusch’s Giddy Up for Good Challenge attracted over 1,000 participants and raised over $130,000 for COVID-19 relief efforts. Payson McElveen and Kaysee Armstrong, professional mountain bikers who have made a strong showing in gravel both lent their support to Rusch’s cause, racking up over 60,000 feet of elevation gain between the two of them.

From Everesting to Ted King’s #DIYGravel project to Lauren’s Ten Dam’s Dirty Kanzelled event this weekend, there’s no shortage of challenges for bike riders even if they don’t involve number plates. While it’s been an adjustment for the pros and might not be every recreationalist’s cup of tea, the interest of gravel race organizers and athletes in keeping folks engaged during the strangest of times should be celebrated.

“It’s one of the strengths of our cycling community that I’ve seen so far is that people have come up with ideas that include others,” McElveen said. “All in all it’s been hard and I’d much prefer to be racing, but generally speaking it hasn’t been an all bad change of pace.”

What the future holds

Gravel certainly can’t answer the question that the entire globe is grappling with. Nevertheless, until the ability to hold events that honor the concurrent values of safety and fun becomes well-rehearsed, only one path forward seems reasonably clear.

“None of us ride our bikes to risk our lives, we do it to enhance our lives,” Rusch said. “If bike rides can’t happen for the health of my hometown community, the riders, everyone on this call, then that’s OK. We’re going through the practice of, ‘can we provide a safe event?’ If the answer is no, the decision will be a logical one.”

In lieu of racing this year, the gravel community seems to be content with virtual hugs and high-fives and punishing routes mapped out on Strava. However, the likelihood of a return to normalcy in 2021 isn’t a guarantee.

“There’s absolutely no replacement for being together,” said Bobby Wintle, co-founder of The Mid South Gravel. “Being together is why this is all possible. There’s no virtual, there’s no online platform that can do what all of our collective personalities bring to this sport. For 2021, I’m a little bit lost, and I think that’s an OK way to feel.”