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"Bicycle Times", January 1, 2013

The Lure of Gravel

Words by Eric Benjamin

Photo by Eric Benjamin

The drive from Emporia, Kansas, home of the Dirty Kanza 200, to Lincoln, Nebraska, home of The Gravel World Championship, is a hilly and winding journey. There are no major highways interlinking these two gravel paradises, so it’s 400 miles of two-lane roads until just outside of Lincoln. On the way I let my mind wander to the next Dirty Kanza, specifically thinking of ways to lovingly include these hills in the course. Rolling hills are what The Gravel Worlds are all about. This year I wasn’t driving north to participate on a bike. Instead, I would do what I do best: photograph the race.

Why Gravel?

The first running of The Gravel World Championship took place in 2008 under the banner “The Good Life Gravel Adventure” and covered 135 miles. (“The Good Life” is Nebraska’s state slogan.) This and similar events, called “gravel grinders,” are growing in popularity as cyclists in the Midwest move from the smooth but car-filled roads to the more scenic and less travelled gravel roads of the countryside.

Miles and miles of these gravel roads crisscross the area, leading riders to the better parts of nowhere and allowing for routes of 200 or more miles without crossing the same road twice. The hills are steeper, the landscapes much more scenic, and getting lost is not out of the question. Although there are some sub-100-mile gravel races out there, the gravel grinding scene is all about suffering and finishing a long, raw, grueling, life-changing race and being able to tell the story afterwards.

Gravel grinders bring together everyone from dirtbaggers to hard-core, Lycra-clad racers. Mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, fatbikes, and singlespeeds all line up on the starting line. Registration at the events is like a family reunion. The camaraderie is thick and shows itself on the course, where it is competitive yet people help each other make it to the finish line for a celebratory cold beverage.

“Cyclists are looking for more of an adventure than what can be found in traditional racing formats. Ultra-distance gravel grinders, particularly those that get their participants away from civilization, give today’s cyclists the opportunity for adventure they are seeking,” said Jim Cummins, race director of the DK200. “Evidence of this can be found at the finish line of events like Dirty Kanza 200. Grown men and women are often reduced to tears as they cross the finish line.” 

What is the reason for this? Tim Ek, a well-seasoned and accomplished ultra-endurance racer, explained it like this: “Some may think that emotion comes from the release of being done with such an intense experience, and while that may be true, I think it comes from something much more significant. It is a result of that racer having the opportunity to go deep inside to a place one rarely gets to visit and being O.K. with what is found in there.”

Pirates Commandeer the Ship

Soon others wanted to get in on the action. When asked why he started The Gravel Worlds, Corey “Cornbread” Godfrey said, “I wanted to create a gravel grinder based out of Lincoln. The location is ideal. Lincoln is surrounded by gravel with miles upon miles of wicked rollers, MMR’s [see sidebar for definitions], and quaint rural communities. Having the event surrounding Lincoln made it easy for folks to get out of their comfort zone and attempt a ride they may not have in the past. Lincoln is never further than 30 miles away during the entire event.” 

The race is hosted by the Pirate Cycling League (PCL), a group of cyclists that organized in 2006 as an alternative to sanctioned racing. The League operates under four simple bylaws: 1.) Events are free, 2.) Fun is the focus, 3.) No racing license is required, and 4.) All are welcome.

“There were plenty of races for folks, but not any organized rides in the Lincoln area. So, in keeping with the punk rock mantra, if it doesn’t exist, build it! And we did,” said Godfrey. Since then, the Gravel World Championship has grown in popularity and in mileage. In 2012, about 160 people showed up to the starting line and the course length was a cool 150 miles. There are three checkpoints — racers have to purchase a Nebraska State Lottery ticket to prove they were there — and racers must be self-supported. Since it’s run by volunteers, neutral support is minimal, but there are a couple of “oasis locations” plus some roving “pirate cadets” to help out those in need. And one can always buy snacks along with the lottery tickets.

As I continued my drive, the sight of the sign marking Saltillo Road just south of Lincoln brought back fresh memories from my finish at last year’s Gravel Worlds. It had rained the night before, adding muddy hike-a-bike sections to the miles of relentless rollers. The vivid memories are lodged in my brain somewhere near the smells of Grandma’s old house and my downhill rollerskating crash of 1982.

The “pirates” from the PCL had been showing up to my turf in Emporia for the DK200 and were always well represented in the top ten finishers, so I felt the need to investigate what they were all about. The encounter that most piqued my interest came on the third leg of the 2011 Dirty Kanza 200. Off course and disqualified because of a massive storm, I pedaled towards the tiny hamlet of Council Grove with Emily Brock and we caught up with a PCL crew member named Malcolm. He was on a singlespeed and yet I had to push myself to stay in his draft. I realized he had two empties in his rear jersey pockets, and when I asked him about it, he told me he had been drinking beer all day. A few pedal strokes later another “pirate” in a car pulled off the road ahead of us and we were rewarded with the best-tasting meal I have ever eaten: fried chicken and Budweiser. Perhaps it was the 160-some miles we had already ridden, but that was a moment I’ll cherish forever. The PCL members all had merry, lighthearted attitudes and hard-core cyclist capabilities. I wanted to see more.

Later that year, after finishing the Gravel Worlds, I understood the cycling bad-assedness of the group. The gravel roads surrounding Lincoln wander through miles of rolling farmland, ebbing and flowing like waves through the cornfields, disappearing into the horizon like the ribbon of a rhythmic gymnast. Rollers — they never stop. The course was 150 miles of never-ending, relentless rollers that test the will and the legs of even the strongest cyclist. In the 2012 edition, a rider’s GPS recorded 10,400 feet of climbing. That’s not bad for a race in the “flatlands” of the Midwest.

One would think that the punishment the rollers dealt out over the day would dampen the riders’ spirits, but that is simply not the case. I don’t know if it’s the free entry, the fresh Nebraska air, or the amount of beer at the checkpoints, but the atmosphere at the Gravel Worlds is much like a high school party. 

Documenting the Madness

This year, Matt Gersib, another PCL member, made himself available to drive me along the Gravel Worlds course so I could photograph the event. The day started off cold and rainy, making my job more difficult than I had hoped. Some of the hills in the 2012 course felt steep even in a car, and Gersib showed off the maneuverability of his Subaru as we drove through a low water crossing to give me a good vantage point to shoot. The riders remained in good spirits as they made their way through 150 miles of rollers, and if they stuck with it, they were rewarded at the last checkpoint with a full spread of good food and, of course, beer, all provided by volunteers.

An open field on the edge of town served as the nondescript finish line. Corey Godfrey stayed until late in the night to record the finishers’ times and to make sure no one was left out on the course. As I mingled among the finishers, their families, and friends, I was asked the ultimate question: “So what’s harder, the DK200 or Gravel Worlds?” Having finished both, I had a great respect for both events. While the Worlds has more climbing, the DK200 has more technical terrain and tire-shredding flint rock to ride on. The Gravel Worlds never gets too far from civilization, while the DK200 takes you into extremely remote areas with nothing but grazing cattle and rattlesnakes to keep you company. As to which one is harder, I can’t say. But one thing’s for sure — they are both a challenge to be proud of finishing!

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