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VeloNews stories of the decade: Gravel grows up

A decade ago gravel racing was an oddity for cycling's hardest core riders. Today, it's a movement for the masses.

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This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine. 

Stroll through most American bike shops and you will see a rack of gravel bikes sitting adjacent to the expensive rigs for road and mountain. A decade ago, the mere sight of a drop-bar bike with fat tires would have raised the eyebrows of even the most passionate cycling aficionado. So, how did gravel cycling crack the mainstream?

Like all great cycling innovations, gravel grew from renegades and mavericks in multiple cycling communities. They pedaled their cyclocross and mountain bikes out onto empty gravel roads, for great distances, seeking adventure and a personal challenge. Others sought a refuge from paved roads, due to the dangers of riding in heavy traffic. Eventually, these riders became organized, and the first gravel events were born.

Trans Iowa, the 350-mile crossing of Iowa, grew out of a dare between two friends, Jeff Kerkove and Mark Stevenson, in 2004. Then, in 2006, 34 riders met in downtown Emporia, Kansas to pedal a 200-mile adventure along the gritty backroads of Kansas’s Flint Hills, in an attempt to capture the same spirit.

New gravel events like the SBT GRVL sell out within minutes of opening registration. Photo courtesy SBT GRVL

At the same time, organizers of traditional road races often included sections of bumpy gravel roads in their events to recreate the feel of Paris-Roubaix, and to add an obstacle to the events. Grassroots gravel events were laid-back and fun, and mainstream road races dipped their toes into the dirt. The recipe was there for a gravel explosion.

What finally pushed gravel to break through over these past 10 years? It’s tough to say whether the races, or the participants, drove the format’s adoption. A generation of hardcore road racers became tired of Category 3 upgrade points, office park criteriums, and cutthroat racing tactics, and instead sought a personal challenge on a bicycle. Throngs of other riders were scared off their road bicycles by the uptick in auto crashes, and social media posts alerting the community of these tragedies.

And these gravel events delivered experiences that traditional road races simply cannot. There are no categories, no delayed starting times, and no bad attitudes. Riders race for bragging rights, but mostly, for a chance to spend the day pushing themselves on tough terrain, with the prospect of a beer and a burger at the finish line.

It’s a potent mix of experience and good vibes, and it has succeeded. A quick glance at the Dirty Kanza 200’s participation numbers tell you the rest. In 2009 there were 100 participants. In 2019, it had swelled to 2,500.