Notes from the Grup­petto

On the joys of rac­ing on gravel

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Bart Eg­nal

A roadie’s ad­ven­tures in mud

The race was over. I was stand­ing in a com­mu­nity cen­tre, hav­ing just emerged from a shower where I had cleansed mud from my en­tire body. I was car­ry­ing a bag filled with mud, as well as shoes and some kit. On my feet were socks – but also the kind of hos­pi­tal slip­pers you put on over your shoes – be­cause I was not wear­ing my shoes. They were back at the start line of the race. I was also wear­ing boxer shorts be­cause I had left my pants back at the start line of the race. My bike had a bro­ken spoke and about 10 lb. of mud on it. And I was smil­ing. So ended my first-ever Paris to An­caster “race” ex­pe­ri­ence in south­ern On­tario.

Not only has gravel changed bike rac­ing in the past few years, it has had a pro­found ef­fect on the roadie com­mu­nity. It has not only sold us disc brakes and en­cour­aged us to buy cy­clocross bikes or gravel bikes (“Yes honey, there is a dif­fer­ence and I def­i­nitely need both!”), but has fre­quently trans­formed road­ies from ag­gres­sive, elit­ist snobs into good, de­cent peo­ple.

Gravel grows ever more ap­peal­ing, too, as I age and grow more tired of chew­ing on my stem to sur­vive at 45 km/h at the back of the pack for an hour while dudes from Sil­ber and Toronto Hus­tle sit com­fort­ably at the front chat­ting about the work­out they will do later that week to ac­tu­ally get some VO2 max train­ing.

Con­sider that no mat­ter what gravel ride or race you do, the views are bet­ter than the soul­less busi­ness park you cir­cle clock­wise for an hour (apolo­gies to Mid­week and Es­cape Ve­loc­ity). When I did the Growl­ing Beaver 200-km gravel event a few years ago, we spent eight hours in the wilds of Colling­wood, Ont. I had a cot­tage there as a young buck but saw more of the beau­ti­ful scenery dur­ing that event than I did in the years I went up with the fam­ily. The Ot­tawa Ride of The Damned takes you to the stun­ning Pau­gan Dam, not a cer­tain hotspot in the af­ter­life. (You do, how­ever, go to Hull.)

Gravel events of­fer var­ied rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. The P2A race fea­tured gravel, but also farm­ers’ fields, roads and even mud chutes. While most gravel events have less mud (a dis­tinc­tion I wel­come), there is no ques­tion that the va­ri­ety of ter­rain keeps you en­gaged through­out the event far more than a mo­not­o­nous road race or 1-km cir­cuit cri­terium. If you check out pho­tos of this year’s Dirty Kanza (an epic 200-mile ride across the wilds of Kansas), you see a couch at Mile 180 where you could chill and get your photo taken. Any race that has a chaise lounge is good in my books.

Then, there’s the vibe at a gravel event. It’s way more fun be­cause get­ting dropped mat­ters far less. At one road race this year, I was dropped on the fifth lap. I could have got­ten into my car and driven home be­cause my race was ef­fec­tively done. In a gravel event, af­ter I broke a spoke 5-km in and had a mi­nor crash, I just got back on and kept go­ing (more slowly). The abil­ity to con­tinue on makes the event way more ac­ces­si­ble for rid­ers of all abil­i­ties. Weaker ath­letes no longer need to worry about the “ride of shame” home and re­port­ing to the race com­mis­saire (or fac­ing the in­dig­nity of a $20 fine). And team­work is a real thing: in many events, groups work to­gether and stop to­gether for lunch, mak­ing it a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort.

Fi­nally, the crowds and vol­un­teers are awe­some. Un­like at a road race where spec­ta­tors may see the rid­ers once ev­ery 15 min­utes, spec­ta­tors at gravel events see peo­ple for hours as the rid­ers get strung out and find the grup­pet­tos they de­serve. Vol­un­teers are ever-present with food, drinks and of­ten way more candy than you should eat. It all cul­mi­nates (al­most al­ways it seems) in a fin­ish line party. The Growl­ing Beaver even ends at a brew­ery for gosh-sake. This fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is far su­pe­rior to the fin­ish of road races where peo­ple are of­ten yelling at each other for dan­ger­ous rac­ing prac­tices and head butting.

Now, gravel isn’t per­fect, or for ev­ery­one. I can’t say I love mud or dirt. You also go down more (al­though at slower speeds). Your bike will likely need re­pair­ing af­ter – the num­ber of bro­ken de­railleurs I’ve seen is sig­nif­i­cant. Gravel events don’t have that mag­i­cal feel­ing of sit­ting in a fast-mov­ing pack where you are just sucked along by the draft. But those are wel­come trade­offs for a dis­ci­pline of rac­ing that is in­clu­sive and en­gag­ing. Now I may still be a roadie at heart, but gravel is get­ting into my veins. See you in the mud.

above and be­low On the dirt of On­tario’s Paris to An­caster

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