By Jared Eborn
Some call them a fad, others call them the best thing on two wheels.
Whatever you call them, bike races that just don’t fit into any particular mold – with dirt or gravel roads playing a huge part in the course design – are big and getting bigger.
From Burke Swindlehurst’s Crusher in the Tushar to the Cedar City-based Fire Road Cycling to Bear Lake Monster Cross there is a growing trend in cycling events that steer clear of pavement are exploding across the state and the country.
According to Swindlehurst, the growth is partly due to a desire to challenge yourself not only physically, but to experience new and hard things.
“I think the appeal of the event like the Crusher is that it speaks to bike riders of all stripes,” Swindlehurst said. “With the Crusher's course and format I really try to throw a bit of everything at the rider so it doesn't truly cater to any particular riding style or preferred discipline.”
Whether it’s a niche sport that will fade out after a few years or that gravel is the new king of cycling is not truly the point. Many event promoters are organizing such events with an eye toward a unique experience as much as a demanding course.
In Idaho, the Dirtbag Dash rolls out from Mountain Home just southeast of Boise on June 7 and creates a nice series of races catering to the dirt road crowd. The Dirtbag Dash is a USA Cycling sanctioned event while most others are not.
“Several years ago I started looking back at our cycling roots. Where was the post-race comradery? Where were the wildly varied course conditions? Where was the “working man” doing battle, no matter the conditions?” Dirtbag Dash organizer James Lang writes on the event’s website. “And so the Dirtbag Dash was born.
“The Dirtbag Dash is a celebration of our racing roots,” he said. “Men and women gather to test their legs against the field on hard-packed dirt roads sprinkled with punchy climbs and the occasional roaming cow.”
While the new brand of cycling is somewhat new to the Intermountain West, there has been a growing movement for several years – especially in the Midwest – as groups of cyclists gather on rural dirt or gravel roads for epic adventures on two wheels.
One event, the Almanzo 100 in Minnesota, has been around for nearly a decade and attracts more than 1,500 cyclists every May. That event, a race to some and a social ride for others, is as unique as they come. With no aid stations and registration done via post card only, Almanzo has developed a cult-like following with thousands of Facebook fans and partnerships with numerous cycling businesses such as Twin Six, Banjo Brothers and more.
“Gravel road racing, at least in the Midwest, is growing because as directors, we've managed to eliminate a lot of the barriers that exist with cycling events,” Christopher Skogen, the brain behind the Almanzo 100 and other gravel road events said. “No entry fees. No intense focus on the ‘top three.’ “
That’s right: A 1,600 rider race with no entry fee.
“The biggest barrier we've eliminated is expectation. By not charging an entry fee, riders have no idea what to expect,” Skogen said. “By not offering aid stations, riders come prepared for anything.”
The events are also incredibly popular with community leaders in the typically small towns that serve as race headquarters.
The Crusher in the Tushar rolls out of tiny Beaver, Utah. Bear Lake Monster Cross will start in Montpelier, Idaho. But while each of the events has its own unique style, they share a common vibe – riding on lesser-traveled roads and seeing sights cyclists rarely get a chance to see.
“What we're trying to accomplish is inspiring others to go further and do more under their own power,” Skogen said.
While the Almanzo 100 has been able to carve a legacy, other events are trying to emulate that success but with their own twist or local flavor.
The Crusher, not surprisingly with ex-pro cyclist Swindlehurst at the helm, throws in a heavy dose of pure competition that attracts pro road cyclists, cyclocross superstars and mountain bike legends.
The event has everything a pro cycling event would expect with equal parts dirt and asphalt mixed in. Swindlehurst said the terrain, road surfaces and even a weather forecast turn the Crusher into something few can perfectly prepare for.
“Add into that the fact that equipment choice can be critical to one's success, be it tires, gearing or even style of bike and you have a cerebral challenge thrown-in as well,” Swindlehurst said. “All in all I think it makes for a style of racing that captures the imagination of the participants, which I think is really refreshing.”
Of course, races such as the Crusher have caught the attention of USA Cycling and the UCI. As ‘unsanctioned’ events, they make and play by their own rules. Obviously, that’s part of the allure for such events, but it’s also a bit of a necessity as each event is different and can’t be categorized into one specific cycling discipline.
And though the UCI and USAC have granted a bit of a reprieve for the events in 2013 and 2014, the future is still cloudy in regards to whether or not pro cyclists will even be allowed to race without fear of fines or suspensions by the sport’s governing bodies.
Regardless, the events are booming in number and popularity. The Crusher sold out quickly even with an increased number of participants.
Paul Huddle, director of the Fire Road Cycling event in Cedar City, said this new style of racing is growing for a reason.
“Simple – ease of access. Races like the Crusher, Fire Road, and Leadville don’t put a premium on technical skills,” Huddle said. “Fitness is a definite requirement but you don’t have to have a BMX or X-Games background to be able to confidently participate.”
The ability for cyclists of virtually all backgrounds to compete well is also adding fuel to the fire.
“There’s a huge demographic of riders (road, triathletes, recreational, etc.) who love riding a bike and would love riding off road if they didn’t feel like they had to risk life and limb,” Huddle said. “We feel like mountain biking is many things to many people and, while the technical single track & downhill component is the sole reason many people ride off-road, it’s also the sole reason many others are scared away. We want to provide an avenue for those who love riding off-road but might otherwise be scared off by the thought that technical skills are required.”
Is it a fad or truly the next big thing?
“We believe this style of riding is here to stay primarily because it’s accessible to anyone and everyone. There’s very little barrier to entry – it accommodates a wide variety of bike types and abilities,” Huddle said. “Obviously we want to get as many people into this event as possible but, more importantly, we’d like to be a “gateway drug” for mountain biking specifically and cycling in general. How many folks who might ride our 25km or 60km event as their first event will go on to other events? Who knows? Maybe some will get into road racing, cyclocross, cross country or, heaven forbid, downhill! At the end of the day, cycling wins and healthy lifestyles win. To us, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Bear Lake Monster Cross is billed as a dirt-road century with cyclocross bikes in mind. Of the 100-plus miles on the course, roughly 85 are on dirt roads or jeep trails past a wildlife refuge and over foothills surrounding the valley. With more than 3,500 feet of climbing with limited technical sections and plenty of long flat stretches, Bear Lake Monster Cross will favor a roadie on a cross bike. But its official non-competitive classification means anyone can enjoy the ride or they can chase after the KOM prizes along the course.
Fire Road Cycling follows a similar script with distances from 12 to 62 miles, but is a Leadville Trail series qualifying event and is geared more toward a mountain bike audience.
Some events try to capture the spirit of Paris-Roubaix, others want to be their own animal.
Whatever the case, the growing brand of cycling is attracting more riders in search of the next thrill, the next challenge and the next adventure.
For more information on 2014 events:
Fire Road Cycling, July 5, Cedar City, UT, fireroadcycling.com
Bear Lake Monster Cross, Sept 20, Bear Lake, UT, BearLakeMonsterEvents.com
Crusher in the Tushar, July 12, Beaver, UT, tusharcrusher.com
Dirt Bag Dash, June 7, Mountain Home, ID, dirtbagdash.com