Taking Gravel Cycling to the Next Level: “Gravel Grinder” Races

Now that you’ve fallen in love with gravel cycling, friendly competition is the next step!

“Cyclists are discovering that riding on gravel roads is the calmest form of cycling, a way to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. A full day exploring farm roads or mountainous miners’ paths will bring highs and lows, flat tires, and new friends. These roads are much more than a venue for cycling. They serve as romantic reminders of a bygone era while also inspiring an adventurous future for the sport.” This is Nick Legan’s summation of the exploding interest in all-road gravel bikes in his book, Gravel Cycling. In both urban and rural areas, solitude, adventure, and challenges are within reach.

gravel grinder bike racing
Detailed info on gravel racing and bikepacking by Nick Legan

Nick Legan is not a newcomer to cycling. He is a former road bike racer, who then became a mechanic for the next seven years for professional road racing teams in the Grand Tours of Europe, World Championships, and the 2008 Olympics. Most recently, Nick has been the Technical Editor for VeloNews and Adventure Cyclist. As someone who has LIVED road racing, he shares valuable insights how gravel cycling revitalized his love for the sport.

And he has plenty of company! Cyclists by the tens of thousands are buying gravel bikes - that is, bicycles specifically designed with the frame geometry and tire clearances for all road conditions. Many are first-time riders who want the maximum versatility in their new bike. Others have decades of experience with road and/or mountain bikes but add one of these “sport utility bikes” for variety and new challenges. That is my experience. I have logged thousands of road bike miles, and many weeks of touring. I have ridden “mountain bikes” and “fat bikes” from the Northwoods of Wisconsin to the desert of Arizona. But “gravel” bikes have opened a whole new appreciation for the random paved and unpaved roads and the unlimited travel opportunities that await.

gravel grinder bike racing
The challenge and fun of gravel bike riding!

So – like me - you bought a gravel bike, gained a new set of muscles, developed new riding skills, and explored your home – including roads and trails that you had previously overlooked or avoided. What’s next? How do you keep the good times rolling? Why not try a “gravel grinder”?

Nick Legan sets the scene, “Paused at the side of what few would consider a road, the morning sun still low on the horizon, I was struck by the beauty of the setting I had just entered.”

gravel grinder racing
Dirty Kanza 200 (now the Unbound Gravel) in the flint Hills of Kansas

“Returning my water bottle to the cage after a swig of water, my eyes fell on the number plate attached to my handlebars. This served as a helpful reminder that despite the idyllic setting and friendly nature of the other cyclists nearby, I was in a race. My first double century, or 200-mile ride, in fact. Somewhere in the beautifully brutal Flint Hills of Kansas, a couple hours into the 2011 Dirty Kanza 200 (now renamed “The Unbound Gravel”), I fell in love with gravel racing.”

Put two cyclists together and competition will eventually result. It may be a sprint to the stop sign, the top of the hill, or Starbucks. We naturally like to compete because challenges make riding fun, satisfying, and memorable. A “gravel grinder” is simply a competition that is staged primarily on unpaved roads and trails. As gravel bikes have become more popular, competitive gravel events have exploded across the country and around the world. Some are informal local rides. Other grinders are annual community festivals with participation in the thousands, and sometimes waiting lists for entries. All events provide cyclists with a change of scenery, challenges on new roads, and reasons to travel beyond their home areas.

gravel grinder bike racing
Nearing the completion of the 62-mile Snacking Bear grinder near Cable, Wisconsin

What is spurring this popularity and growth? Gravel cycling is both challenging and FUN! Riding a mix of paved and unpaved roads, plus a few local trails, adds a new dimension to cycling. Gravel riding in an organized event feeds our competitive nature. The increasing size and number of “gravel grinders” across the country attest to the demand for opportunities to explore new courses in new locations. These mixed road events appeal to a new population of cyclists who avoid intimidating road races and technical mountain bike races.

Gravel cycling is also appealing in ways that the other categories of cycling can’t match. Selene Yeager is a road racer, Ironman triathlete, USA Cycling coach, and personal trainer. She is a writer for Bicycling magazine and a contributor to many others including Outside, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, and Runner’s World. She has also authored or coauthored nearly 30 books, including her recent book, Gravel: The Ultimate Guide. Selene writes about the competitive side of gravel cycling, “Gravel is: Unpaved roads, trails, tire-swallowing sand, singletrack, rocks, snow, puddles, streams, peanut butter mud, digging deep, getting lost, getting found, exhilarating, amazing, and occasionally, absolutely freakin’ sadistic. Gravel is LIFE.”

gravel grinder racing
The weather is always uncertain in Wisconsin - including snow in October!

Selene relates this story from Neil Shirley, another top road racer turned gravel cyclist. He says, “Going into my first Dirty Kanza in 2014, I was incredibly fit and felt like I was going into the day as the person to beat. That all changed just 25 miles in when I broke off my rear derailleur. At that moment, my mind-set went from trying to win to just trying to finish.”

Neil continues, “My background was as a racer, where it’s about a result above anything else, but that DK experience helped me take a step back and see how much more there was to participating in an event than just trying to get a result. I still enjoy being competitive and try my best when I’m at an event, but I get more fulfillment in seeing others enjoying their gravel experience and taking in the atmosphere surrounding the scene.”

gravel grinder bike racing
Neil Shirley, enroute to a Dirty Kanza 200 victory

The expansion of organized gravel grinders is keeping pace with the exploding sales of gravel bikes. Riders simply want more of a good thing. These events are marked on calendars and serve as motivational goals for training. The races provide opportunities to travel, make new friends, ride new routes, meet up with old friends, and take in the scenery in new states – or even internationally.

Sites like GravelCyclist.com and BikeReg.com list hundreds of events to choose from. Each event has a Facebook page with legions of followers. Search Facebook or Google and you will find many more groups with thousands of subscribers devoted to gravel racing and bikes.

Yet the majority of participants are not hardcore competitors. Most are seeking a “personal best”, not a trophy. (Some events don’t even have trophies – or registration fees!) Nick Legan comments on the laid back nature of gravel grinders: “Don’t be intimidated by the fact that numbers are issued and times are taken. Without fail, gravel race promoters foster an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes riders of all abilities. Racers too are extremely encouraging, offering aid to riders in need and cheering each other on as the hours tick by.”

“Many races focus on creating a festival vibe, with live music, main street parties, and barbeque and beer at the finish line.”

“After attending some races year after year, racers often develop a sense of homecoming when returning to the perennial venue towns. This is thanks to the down home feel but also to the people you invariably meet who race the gravel circuit, seeking new challenges and a sense of belonging.”

gravel grinder bike racing
Rebecca Rusch is a multiple-discipline racing champion - and gravel enthusiast!

Rebecca Rusch is the legendary “Queen of Pain” who has a racing resume as long as your arm. She is a seven-time World Champion in MTB and cyclocross racing and the winner of four consecutive Leadville 100’s – considered to be the “Tour de France of mountain bike racing”. Like thousands of other cyclists, Rebecca decided to try gravel racing – and then won the next three Dirty Kanza 200’s, the DK100, and the inaugural DKXL 350-mile race.

Like other converts from road bikes and mountain bikes, Rebecca caught the excitement and sense of community of gravel racing. After participating in the Dirty Kanza race, she brought the gravel grinder format to her home in Ketchum, Idaho. Today, her new race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, has grown from less than 100 riders to nearly 2,000 with a waiting list for entries. Notably, her influence has spurred participation by female riders, who typically account for over 30% of entries. The entire area of Ketchum and Sun Valley, Idaho participate in this four-day festival every Labor Day weekend.

gravel grinder bike racing
The Oklahoma gravel can turn to peanut butter mud when wet! Mid-South photo - formerly the Land Run

Gravel cyclists embrace new gravel grinder events for a sense of exploration and competition. Even the same course can dish out widely varied conditions from year to year, based on unpredictable weather, road closures, and route variations. These challenges keep the format fresh and the interest level high. Selene Yeager agrees, and writes, “Gravel is the Wild West of bike racing.”

Nick Legan adds, “The remoteness of gravel roads also helps produce better cyclists, riders with a sense of self-reliance. Many gravel races reinforce this by requiring competitors to self-support using convenience stores found along the race route.”

Because of the unlimited variables of the route and weather, gravel riders often obsess over tire selection and tire pressure. The goal is to hit the "happy medium" between rolling resistance and durability. see also the previous article, "Choosing Tires and Wheels for Gravel Cycling and Bikepacking" for a thorough discussion of wheel and rim sizes along with the myriad of tread choices.

Here is a recap of the most recent Iron Bull gravel grinder, another race in my locale in central Wisconsin:

Want to spice up your bike riding? Consider participating in a few gravel grinders. Many events are publicized online in forums like bikepacking.com and gravelriding.net. Your local bike shop or riding club is sure to have information on any local events. They may also be able to connect with fellow riders headed to events in neighboring communities or states.