Notes from the Gruppetto
On the joys of racing on gravel
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