The pivotal moment of the 2019 The Mid South gravel race happened at a red light.
After 100 miles of racing across Oklahoma’s red clay hills, three riders emerged at the head of the event and rolled back toward the finish line in Stillwater together, setting up a dramatic final push to the line. Payson McElveen, an endurance mountain biker, rode alongside retired WorldTour road pro Ted King and cyclocross pro Drew Dillman.
As the three raced through Stillwater, they came to a red light.
“We agreed that stopping was the right thing to do,” McElveen told VeloNews. “We did a track stand. There were no real words spoken, and as soon as it turned green it was a drag race like Tuesday Night Worlds, just three dudes going really hard at the end of a long bike ride.”
It was McElveen who emerged victorious after the final sprint through downtown Stillwater in what was just his second attempt at a gravel race. A longtime racer on the North American endurance mountain-bike scene, McElveen had completed just one gravel event, the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200, where he finished a distant 34th place.
Like many American pro riders, McElveen had viewed gravel cycling’s rapid popularity as a curious oddity. He had heard about Dirty Kanza, but the other races on the North American gravel scene were unknowns. He saw gravel events as a fun way to prepare for the mountain bike season, yet not the potential for a career change.
His win at The Mid South (then called the Land Run 100) changed that. After he won, his image was splashed across various cycling websites and social media. His team sponsors were happy.
“I went in not really knowing about the event, other than it had a good following and passionate organizer,” McElveen said. “I got there and I was like, ‘wow there is a ton of energy here.’ Over the course of the weekend, I just started to really care about the event. This is the real deal.”
For 2020, McElveen has one foot planted in mountain biking, and the other firmly planted in the gravel racing scene. And his experience at The Mid South helped convince him to split his focus.
Throughout our reporting on the VeloNews Monuments of Gravel riders sometimes struggled to explain why The Mid South stands apart from the other gravel events out there. It’s not the longest or hardest gravel race. It’s not the oldest race, or even the event with the biggest starting list.
To an outsider, the event’s format and even history make it an obvious little brother to Dirty Kanza. Bobby Wintle, the event’s founder, launched it after he was inspired by watching the Dirty Kanza, after all.
Yet there’s a very specific quality about The Mid South that brings prestige to those riders who are racing to win, and that’s why we spoke to nominated it to the Monuments of Gravel list. For starters, it’s extremely well-produced, and the entire weekend has plenty of opportunity for fun.
“It has really well-done promotion and it was one of the first races I went to that wasn’t just a one guy telling you good luck see you at the finish,” said Mat Stephens, the 2018 winner. “There was a whole production around, there’s really fun events surrounding the race, and the after party is legit.”
It’s the season opener, so riders are full of hope and anticipation. If the weather is bad, the event can turn into a brutal slog across the muddy clay roads. But when conditions are good, the 100-mile distance is a manageable—if challenging—effort that caters to good old fashioned bike racing.
There are breakaways, regroupings, and even team tactics.
“Kanza is so hard that at some point everyone is just surviving,” McElveen said. “[The Mid South] is short enough that you can race the whole thing.”
With many of the gravel world’s premier events boasting distances well above 140 miles, The Mid South is a racer’s dream. Riders can rev their cardiovascular engines and strain their leg muscles without worrying about dying of exhaustion before the finish line.
Thus, it’s the tactical nature of the race, when matched with the strength of the field, that drives The Mid South’s prestige within the gravel space. Often times entire teams show up to try and squash the field, as Stephens did with his Panaracer squad in 2017.
And sometimes, it’s just a thee-man battle through town, all the way to the finish line.