Lots of people peg 'gravel racing' as a trend. One that will come and go in the industry like Thud Buster seat posts or late model Spinergy Rev-X wheels on fixies (uhhhhhh). While terms like 'gravel-grinder' and attaching the word 'race' to anything always attract their fair share of online chatter and haters, but when it comes down to it, these events, which are growing more organized, more prolific, and more awesome every season, are unquestionably fun. Whether you're out there trying to finish in the top 10, the top 10%, or JUST FINISH the damn thing, gravel rides and races get people out for big miles earlier in the season, take them places they normally might not go, and attract business to many small towns and places many would not normally associate with cycling, injecting necessary income to the local economy for a day or a weekend in the spring, summer, or fall.
Seeing people getting excited to train up in February, here in Minnesota, when the average temperature is still in the 10's, is awesome. Riders putting in miles, increasing their fitness, and getting stoked to head out in questionable weather conditions, solo or with friends or teammates, riding unsupported for a century, sometimes more sometimes less, gets us going. The unsanctioned nature of the races mean everyone is on the same playing field. Free to ride at their own pace, and take on the same course the 'pros' are riding on. It's all about the inclusivity of going out into the hinterland of your state and putting yourself through the ringer for hours on end, where the only goal is to overcome your own body, mind, and the limits you're trying to push through personally. Events like Dirty Kanza sell out in minutes, with spots commanding intense pride and credibility for riders who really want to push the limits.
For us, while we have a long history with MTB racing throughout the past few decades of the sport in the 80's and 90's and early 00's, these days we approach events like this from the perspective of personal challenge and community. We ride solo, or with our friends, we ride fast if we're feeling good, or we ride slow, take our time, shoot some photos, and have some beers and food along the way (stashing a cooler full of beer and food is a pretty awesome respite at mile 50 if you have time to plan the night before the race!). Hell, sometimes we even go out to race one of these events, which was the case with this year's Hungry Bear 100.
Last year, we headed up to Cable, WI for the Snacking Bear, a 60 mile version of the race which includes the same brutal finishing 20 miles, but cuts out some more of the climbing back further in the Chequamegon forest. We rode with some friends, we took our time, we shotgunned a few High Life's from Jacob Garrison's van, we accidentally took a wrong turn onto some really sick singletrack, we lost a phone, we found the phone, we bonked, we got into Cable and ate somewhere around 6 pizzas and drank double that in pints of beer.
This year, we headed up the night before with a crew that had a few different objectives. Andy was riding the 60 miler, and wasn't planning on finishing the race, he brought his mountain bike and was dipping off around mile 40 to ride singletrack for a few hours while we finished up the 100. Ben, Dan, and Zach were joining Megan and Charlie from Angry Catfish to race the event, planning a fast pace, but, since the consensus among all of us is that this is by far the most beautiful of all the gravel races we've done, we weren't planning on that race-oriented attitude taking away from enjoying the day. If we felt like letting up, taking time to have a drink, eat something, shoot some photos, etc, we would take it.
We missed the start of the race. For the second year in a row. We didn't care. That's part of the allure of gravel racing for us, it's low stress. You aren't sitting there at the start with your heart rate jacked waiting for the whistle to blow. Plus, fun and adventure always trump competition, particularly when you get to ride through the Chequamegon forest for 6 or 7 hours. That said, once we hit the road we were riding pretty hard to try to catch back up to the leaders. We reeled in most of the field over the first 20 or so miles of the race, but we never caught up to Jesse LaLonde, Drew Wilson, and the rest of the leaders.
The course that Parker designed winds its way out of Cable and is a beautiful mixture of forest service roads and country gravel roads, with the occasional stretch on pavement. It's a unique event, in that you aren't grinding out the miles on long stretches of straight-cut rural farm roads, you're rarely traveling in the same direction for long, as the roads and paths snake their way deep into the north woods. The gravel is perfect, small crushed stone and conditions were good considering the tough storms that hit the region last summer. That is, until you get to mile 75...
The race ends with its toughest two stretches of road. Rock Lake Road and Camp Road 38 make up the infamous finishing stretch before spitting you back out to pavement for one final short climb into Cable for the finish. Having raced the previous year, I knew it was coming, and warned the others to make sure they were saving something in the tank for it. I forgot to make sure I was saving up for it...There are around 2k feet of elevation in those punchy, sandy hills and descents stacked into that stretch, which, again because of those storms last year, made for some insanely fun, harrowing riding. Descending into the corners, which had been formed into tiered berms by the ATV traffic, required concentration, and to our quickly dwindling fitness, felt a bit insane. Hitting a sandy off-camber corner at 30mph is intense enough, not factoring in the extreme level of fatigue in your arms and legs by that point. Once you climb out of Rock Lake Road, you hang a left onto Camp Road 38, and you've got more of the same, quick, punchy hills and descents, this time, you completely throw the idea of 'gravel' out the window. The makeup of that trail is exclusively sand...and big rocks. Our friend Scott, who we caught up to and rode the last two sectors with (sorry Scott, I know it was a big bummer, but, we have to highlight just how nuts that road is!), got 3 flats in quick succession on Camp Road 38...if that tells you anything. Making it 95% of the way to the finish and having your race completely derailed by flats is a killer, luckily, and it was completely luck at that point, since I think 'skill' left the building along with all of the feeling in our arms, the rest of us made it through with tires in tact.
Dan and I had moved out front at that point and we caught a few more riders before the finish, and found ourselves giving in to a bit of competitive edge sprinting flat-out into Cable to cross the finish line in 14th and 15th place overall.
Megan, Charlie, and Ben were right behind, finishing with smiles on their faces having accomplished what we all set out to do. Have a hell of a good time up in the woods with our friends, and get a little bike racing in on the side. After we all made it across the finish, it was pizza time. BIG THANKS to Rivers Eatery for providing sustenance at the end of the ride, we look forward to those pizzas and beers all year long.
(I'm leaving out the part where Ben almost T-Boned Dan at 40mph on a descent, when the group had stopped to route-check on our cue sheets...yea Ben, that happened. DAN ALMOST DIED. Don't worry, we forgive you. Check out the Strava flyover on his Instagram @beero62 if you want to laugh along with us.)
- Hayward is pretty sweet. Always love a good trip to Hayward.
- The Gridiron Bar and Grill is a locals only type of place. You and your party may be judged heavily upon entering. But that's alright, we can take it, but then go to the Angler's. It's delicious.
- We all wish we'd have eaten some pie.
- You feel pretty sweet when you walk into your Airbnb and find a bear. when you're there to race the Hungry Bear...sometimes life just gives you those little nuggets.
- Bagels apparently come in varieties such as, Sesame, Everything, Plain, and, 'I'm a bagel on acid'.
- There aren't enough pizzas and beers in Wisconsin to fill you after a gravel race.
- Maybe next year we'll actually make it to the starting line on time for this race, hasn't harmed our experience, so not sure if any of us really care too much.
- Camp Road 38 is a bit like the moon, and a fine beach, and what I can only assume having Mike Tyson casually punch you in the arms and ass for 15 minutes would feel like.
- When Megan and Charlie mention their cooler drop w/ food, water, and beer in it, up at the Angry Cabin, don't ignore it and keep riding. Definitely stop and take from the cornucopia of goodness.
- 100% will be back next year, and you should be there, too.
If you haven't ridden a gravel event, do it. Tell 'em we sent you and that you're ready to party.