Gravel. The road surface doesn’t seem particularly conducive to bicycle racing — as much as, say, pavement — but local racers are increasingly drawn to the soupy, washboard-y stuff.
“Gravel grinding is rad!” gushed Cody Peterson, a Bend-based elite cyclist and coach at Bowen Sports Performance. “Everything about it is rad.”
Gravel race routes point toward bike racing’s future and to its infancy, when most sections of famous races — such as the Tour de France, founded in 1903 — rolled on dirt and gravel roads.
Think of a gravel grinder as a road bike race that has intentionally veered off the pavement, away from cars and toward bone-rattling adventure.
This season in Central Oregon, three gravel grinders will wind racers through the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests in April and August. Lengthy, remote sections stretch between feed and medical stations. Climbs are complicated by loose traction; descents are charged with the potential of a wheel washing out. The jostling from washboard and rocky sections makes hands turn numb, pops inner tubes and causes other mechanical failures. Competitors often carry extra tubes to throw to downed peers — Evidence of the gravel grinding’s esprit de corps.
Local race authorities suspect that the recent popularity of gravel grinding is spilling over from cyclocross, which is multi-terrain. The discipline’s bikes, which look like road bikes with room for wider, knobby tires and often feature disc brakes, are well-suited for gravel grinders.
“(Cyclocross racers) have the equipment already,” said Chuck Kenlan, a longtime racer who became the executive director of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association this year. “But gravel grinding also appeals to people who haven’t raced before. I think that’s the exciting part of the sport — bringing people into the sport who weren’t there already.”
Kenlan, whose organization will sanction four gravel-grinder races throughout Oregon in 2018, hopes these events, which are as grueling or casual as participants want them to be, become as accessible to the greater cycling community as 10K footraces have become to runners.
“It’s amazing at the start of a (10K footrace): A bunch of people take off,” Kenlan said. “They’re trying to win the race or win their age groups.”
In the race, joggers and walkers chug along — some pushing strollers, he said. “You see people who are just out there to participate in the event.”
Kenlan is a co-director of TFG Racing, which organizes several popular Central Oregon races. The promotion company is launching the inaugural Bust Your Butte Gravel Challenge, a 50- and 88-mile race loop that stretches from Horse Butte Trailhead toward Paulina Lake on April 21. The High Desert Gravel Grinder, organized by Breakaway Promotions, will offer contestants 56- and 90-mile distances west of Sisters on April 29. The Ochoco Gravel Roubaix, spearheaded by Good Bike Co., will challenge riders in Prineville on Aug. 18.
Kenlan sees master-age racers, particularly parents, among recent gravel-grinder converts.
“A 100-mile gravel grinder … gives people the motivation to get on their bikes, to be healthy and fit,” Kenlan said. “It’s an accomplishment for some people to ride their bike 100 miles in an atmosphere with a couple hundred other people and to feel secure with the (proper) support. That’s a big draw.”
While some view gravel grinders as an appealing hybrid of road and mountain bike racing, they’re very similar to the European Spring Classics — road races that originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that still feature dirt, gravel and cobbled surfaces.
As for contemporary races, Italy’s Strade Bianche — Eroica Pro has long stuck with its now-famous white pebble roads. Other legacy races are reincorporating dirt and gravel into their routes.
Bowen thinks this is great.
“The crazy thing is that back in the day, in the Tour de France, all those climbs were on dirt roads,” Bowen said. “Now it’s become a cool thing to do, to (reintroduce) a dirt climb in the Giro d’Italia (since 2016), or the Tour de France (this year). But back in the day, those guys were carrying spare tires up Col du Tourmalet (one of the most famous alpine climbs in the Tour de France) and it was dirt all the way.”
The Cascade Cycling Classic — Central Oregon’s landmark bike-racing series, which Bowen Sports Performance and Visit Bend are organizing together — may “potentially” feature some gravel, Bowen, also the race director, said with a grin. Peterson nodded.
“Gravel grinders bring some of that epicness back to cycling,” Peterson said. “Like, this is an accomplishment. It allows for courses that don’t have to be super climb-y to be hard. You can take a relatively mundane profile and still have a really exciting race.”
Jesse Blough, 32, races bikes across several disciplines for Boneyard Cycling. Each season, Blough mixes gravel grinders into his racing diet.
“Gravel grinders are super fun,” Blough said. “They combine everything I love about mountain biking — the nasty gnarliness — and road racing — going fast and riding in a group.”
Just don’t crash.
“I try not to do that!” Bowen said. “Falling on gravel is like falling on a cheese grater.”
Road rules do not apply
Many dynamics of road racing, such as 10-person-wide packs that take up the road, aren’t realistic in a gravel grinder.
“There is loose gravel; there are potholes, and everyone is trying to pick a line,” said Bowen, who has won national competitions in road, mountain bike and cyclocross. “Gravel creates a selection. You get strung out, and all it takes is one guy in front of you to blow up and there’s a gap opening up and you’re trying to go around. Little groups form quickly, and few racers bridge across. You take the idea of drafting and taking it easy out of the equation.
Another distinction is the way racers spin off the peloton, or pack. In a road race, competitors launch attacks off the front. In a gravel grinder, racers try to hang with the lead group until they get picked off, one by one, by an uptick in elevation or worsening road conditions, Peterson said.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Bowen said.
While gravel grinders offer plenty of grueling race situations, Bowen and Peterson also share Kenlan’s vision of how gravel grinders could become cycling’s essential “fun run.”
“Gravel makes for fun racing,” Peterson said. “But if you don’t want to race, you don’t have to. You can hang out easier on the gravel because it’s more accommodating to groups of two or three or four. You can just ride, like, ‘Let those guys go ahead. We’re just going to ride and have fun.’ It’s an easier option to do that than during a road race.”
Whether an entrant is trying to win or simply complete the gravel grinder, confronting the unpredictable is part of the excitement.
“The gravel grinder has the mystique of being an adventure,” Bowen said. “You get to go explore roads that you probably haven’t even driven on. I think that has a lot of allure — everyone is up for the adventure. It’s that shared experience when you get done and have a beer with your friends: ‘Yeah, that downhill was ripping!’”
Peterson also relishes the camaraderie.
“This is where friendships are really settled,” Peterson said. “You really bond. It’s those special moments in gravel grinders where it’s easier (than in road racing) to find epic status.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, email@example.com