What is a Gravel Grinder?
Imagine pedaling over jagged marbles, or if it rains, through chunky peanut butter. In some places, gravel roads are like rutted, bone-jarring washboards. Think of the worst piece of asphalt you've ever ridden.
There are a handful of Gravel Grinders that have shaped this new genre of cycling, invented in the U.S. Midwest over 10 years ago - and is now spreading globally.
One of the most obvious indicators of the new genre’s rapid growth is the success of the Dirty Kanza, which kicked off in 2006 with just 34 riders. 10 years later its now the “Worlds Premier Endurance Gravel Road Race” in the Midwest U.S. along with the likes of Trans Iowa and the Almanzo 100. Dirty Kanza sold out this year for 1,900 riders in less than 3 hours.
Although some may think riding in the gently rolling prairie terrain of Kansas doesn’t sound tough, adding in 200 miles of potentially brutal headwinds and paralyzing amounts of mud make the Kanza the premier challenge of all gravel events. The winner typically finishes in just under 13 hours, with some taking nearly an entire day. Dirty Kanza also offers a more reasonable Half Pint event, only a mere 100 miles in length.
That these roads are unforgiving is the draw for gravel grinders: There's no traffic to compete with. There are 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads in the U.S., most just empty ribbons winding through remote areas. Over the past few years, gravel racers have begun appropriating them as a gritty new cycling frontier where there are no rules and no bureaucratic barriers (arranging for road closures, insurance, water stations, medics) to announcing a 60, 100, or even 300 mile rides.
Perhaps the greatest appeal is the adventure inherent in riding 100 or more miles – and not for prize money but for pride. Because most gravel rides are unsupported, you're on your own dealing with heatstroke, hypothermia, broken bones, or broken bikes. As one "grinder" puts it, there's none of that "happy bullshit with team cars and stuff."
The Trans-Iowa test racers ability to endure more than 300 miles of Iowan farm roads. In Minnesota, the Almanzo 100 now draws more than 1,000 racers (Challenge even developed a tire bearing the event’s name). The Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile gravel road race through the Flint Hills east central Kansas, sits between these two events in terms of difficulty and the number of participants. It’s a Goldilock’s event of sorts. It is hard, but not impossible—even while you’re struggling to turn the pedals over into 20mph headwinds and stay hydrated despite blistering temperatures and oppressive humidity, you can still enjoy the rolling hills and prairie skies.
Along with Gran Fondo's, Gravel Grinders are the fastest growing genre in cycling in the U.S.
The wide range of bike choice is part of the reason why gravel events are growing so quickly, as they bridge the gap between two distinctly different types of riders – the roadie and the mountain biker. Road riders are attracted to it because of the fitness and required tactical know-how, while mountain bikers look forward to ripping down miles of high-speed dirt roads with plenty of surprise corners. And no matter which side of the camp you associate with, the adventure and personal achievement element is something everybody values.
For events with fast sections of dirt and pavement mixed with long ascents and somewhat technical downhills, proper bike selection is important. Everything from early 1980s steel cyclocross bikes to lightweight, carbon fiber full-suspension mountain bikes with 1.8” semi-slick tires have been used. But based on the fastest finishers, it was apparent the best tool for the job was a lightweight cyclocross bike with hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless 35-40mm tires with knobby tread.
In recent years the Bike Industry has caught up with the formation of the genre and bikes are now categorized as Endurance Bikes, Adventure Bikes or Gravel Bikes.
If your plan is to just finish, set a comfortable pace right from the beginning and don’t let anyone try and coax you out of it. Riding steady at a pace you know you can maintain will get you to the finish line. For those in search of podium glory, energy conservation is the name of the game. Draft as much as possible, spin as much as possible and of course, eat and drink even when you’re not hungry or thirsty.
Oh, and don’t forget – gravel grinding is supposed to be fun, so don’t take it too seriously.
Ready for your first gravel grinder?
Gravel Grinder Events
There are over 300+ events in the U.S. (2016) and this is growing rapidly across North America. The new genre has crossed the Atlantic - now the United Kingdom and Europe are now starting to formulate and organise events. Gran Fondo Guide has the most up to date, detailed and comprehensive list of Gravel events in North America and beyond.
Whats the difference between a Gravel Grinder and a Gran Fondo?
Most Gravel Grinder's take place on gravel roads. There are events that mix up asphalt and gravel, like the U.S's Premier Spring Classic - the Belgian Waffle Ride.
Although Gravel Grinders offer some support, this is a Gravel Grinder and not a Gran Fondo! They emphasize radical self reliance and feature few amenities. You need to be technically savvy and bring any gear you might need to replace or fix tires, chains, or any other possible pitfalls. They may have stops along the way with water and snacks; make sure to bring any special food or drink you like to have while riding. The course will sometimes be marked but typically you'll receive a cue card to navigate by yourself and with other riders.
Gravel Grinders and Gran Fondo's couldn't be any different apart from one thing - Endurance.
Endurance to ride 100 miles and over 15,000 feet of climbing or the endurance to ride tough wet, muddy, gravel roads for 200 miles into brutal headwinds.