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Gravel Grinders: Rough, Life-changing Bike Races

When I was working on my new book, The Renegade Sportsman, I spent nearly two years tracking down sports odd, brutal, obscure, independent and idiosyncratic. In the course of this sweaty amateur anthropology, I did, saw and contemplated many strange things: I ran seven miles while drinking about seven beers; I was disgraced by prepubescent swordfighters; and I founded a flailing, incompetent croquet-league franchise. However, nothing I encountered proved quite as striking as the Trans-Iowa: a torturous, 300-plus-mile, overnight endurance cycling race down some of the Hawkeye State’s least hospitable roads. In 2007, the year I tracked the race, the top Trans-Iowa riders finished this inquisition in just 25 hours. Even though I just drove the the thing in a rented Pontiac, the expedition into darkest corn country almost killed me.


And yet the Trans-Iowa is just the kind of do-it-yourself sufferfest that seems to thrive in America’s sports underground. As it turns out, this race is just one of an emerging, fast-growing subgenre of off-the-grid races that focus on unpaved punishment. Collectively, these races are now known as “gravel grinders.” Their following is small but dedicated, and seems to consist of amateur cyclists who care more about unusual thrills, horrific weather, physical pain, and epic challenges than how much wattage they’re generating.

For example, competitors in the recent Dirty Kanza 200 encountered both geological and bovine obstacles on a ride through remote Kansas ranchland. On his blog, Minneapolis-based gravel enthusiast Tim Ek writes:

“We were riding in high plains terrain with breath taking, expansive views. This was open range country and it was not uncommon for us to be riding through areas that contained no fences. Many times we rolled through herds of cows. We'd call out like cowboys, ‘HEP, HEP!’ in order to get them to move out of our way. It was a world foreign to me, but I liked it.”


While that does sound pleasant, in the same race Ek later nearly succumbed to heat, exhaustion, and the perilous borderline mental collapse that seems to be the aim, rather than a side effect, of the typical gravel grinder:

“In a hypnotic state I pushed on ... confused and scared by what was happening to me. I analyzed my options. If I were able to get cell phone service, which I doubted was possible it would take them hours to get to me and I'd most likely just die in the dirt waiting.”


While Ek survived, ordeals like that leave the neutral observer wondering just what the point is. (If you want a harrowing vicarious experience, read Ek’s full account.) So I called my old pal Mark “Guitar Ted” Stevenson, founder of the Trans-Iowa and one of the godfathers of the nascent gravel-grinder scene, to ask for his insight.

GOOD: Explain, if you will, the origin of the “gravel grinder.”

GUITAR TED: Well, obviously there are gravel roads all over the nation. In the Midwest, and in Iowa in particular, it became popular for cyclists to use gravel for training rides, because the traction and the fact that gravel roads usually follow the grade of the landscape provide a better work out. And there were smaller rides and races for years, but I don’t think the idea really gelled into a genre or subgenre of racing until we started Trans-Iowa six years ago.

G: And things have obviously progressed from there?

GT: A little while ago, just looking around the landscape, we were like, whoa—these things are popping up all over the place. And what we’re seeing is different races that are born out of different styles of riding. Some grinders are 60- or 80-mile races that are based on cyclocross. The Trans-Iowa and some of the other, longer races are coming at it from more of a roadie or mountain biking background. But there are several dozen races around the country that I know about, and more all the time.

G: And it seemed to me that there is now a definite gravel grinder scene, correct?

GT: There are absolutely some dedicated riders and groups of riders, and they tend to be scattered in little pockets around the Midwest. I think Lincoln, Nebraska sent about 20 guys to the Dirty Kansa this year. Kansas and Iowa, obviously. Minneapolis. But it’s not just the Midwest and it’s not just gravel rides—there is a little movement of sorts that is creating more and more events outside the parameters of traditional cycle racing.

G: Why?

GT: You know, people are looking for something more adventurous. They’re looking for something they can tell their grandkids about, rather than a packaged race that costs $40 and is over in an hour. There’s an appetite for something that’s pretty raw. The Dirty Kansa guys come right out and says in their mission statement, “We are trying to provide a life-changing experience for our participants.” That sounds a little grandiose, but I think it just reflects what the riders themselves are looking for. As race directors, we’re getting this as feedback from the participants, not making it up ourselves.

For more on the emerging national gravel-grinder scene, see Guitar Ted’s own Gravel Grinder News.

Image via Gravel Grinder News.

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