Why Gravel? Reflections on an Emergent Discipline

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By Don Scheese — As I trundle up the 10-15% unpaved gradients on a National Forest road on a balmy winter solstice day in 2021, shedding layers of clothing in the eerily warm 50-degree temperatures, I reflect between deep gasps of air at the 7000’ elevation on how I’d evolved from a die-hard roadie to devoted gravel grinder the last ten years.

It seems so obvious: why not ride your drop-bar road bike on unpaved surfaces? Why stick only to paved roads? Road-bike riders I’ve talked with who have converted to gravel grinding, like Ryan and Greg, organizers of monthly gravel rides in New Mexico called the “Dusty Roadrunner” series, say this is the way they eventually became gravel grinders: riding their skinny-tired road bikes on gravel roads, just to see if it could be done (with tubeless tires’ capacity for lower tire pressure, and the shift to wider tires, certainly making the transition easier).

Gravel riding takes you to beautiful places. Photo by Don Scheese

From there some riders evolved onto cyclo-cross bikes; my introductory bike for gravel riding was a Specialized Crux back in 2013, not to ride cyclo-cross courses but to take it onto local farm roads, rail-to-trail paths, and forest singletrack carved out by mountain bikers.

As cycling historians like to point out, bike riding began on unpaved roads; in the early decades of the Tour de France none of the roads were paved. In fact, in the early 1900s it was (ironically) the League of American Bicyclists who lobbied local and state governments to macadam the potholed roads for smoother riding.

Nowadays, at pro level races like the Giro d’Italia, the Tour, and Paris-Tours, organizers have reintroduced gravel sectors, not always at the pleasure of the racers. However, some pro riders like Ted King, Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and Alison Tetrick have caught the gravel bug and entered (and won) gravel races like Unbound Gravel, Crusher in the Tushars, and various versions of the Belgian Waffle Ride series.

Currently, there are more than 700 official (fee-required) gravel events held annually, with many more impromptu get-togethers occurring. A series of “Gravel Adventure Guides” is being published (with the financial aid of state tourism offices) for gravel-friendly vicinities like Trinidad, Colorado; Patagonia, AZ; and Bend, Oregon. Gravel grinding has become so popular a new verb has been introduced in the English language: to gravel (as a SRAM ad proclaims).

Why gravel? I can come up with a number of reasons for the growing popularity of this cycling discipline. Granted, not all of them are exclusive to the genre, but no one can deny there are unique reasons why riders are flocking to unpaved surfaces on drop-bar bikes.

Endorphins

I park at the entrance to a closed Forest Service campground to begin my ride, trying to decide what and how much clothing to wear and bring. It’s cold in the shadows of the canyon, with temperatures in the 30s, but from past experience I know I’ll soon warm up on the first few miles of brutally steep gradients. As always, the first thousand or so pedal strokes are painful as I slowly grind away. But soon I’m in a rhythm, if a very slow one, and I can feel the immediate benefit of physical exercise as the chemistry of endorphins kicks in. I’m experiencing one of the oldest pleasures known to our species: the atavistic athletic human instinct to always push oneself farther, higher, faster. I keep my pace and effort at a reasonable level, knowing I’ve got a lot more climbing to do in the next twenty-some miles.

Exploration/Adventure

As I round the successive twists of switchbacks spiraling out of the canyon, I experience another age-old sensation: wondering what’s around the next bend. This feeling hearkens back to our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, who had to survive based on the ever-present need to push on into unfamiliar territory to fulfill their basic subsistence needs.

For modern-day cyclists of course, we meet our caloric needs by reaching down to our water bottles or into our back pockets to sip some electrolytes or pull out another bar or gel. But our Neolithic predecessors had no such luxuries, instead having to depend on their resourcefulness to find and consume plants and animals—which meant being always on the move to find new food sources.

Gradually the road straightens out and the gradient mercifully decreases, allowing me to pay more attention to my surroundings. I pause at a natural overlook on the edge of some cliffs to take in the pleasing prospects to the west. Farther on I note some rutted tracks branching mysteriously off the main road, recalling Frost’s famous lines “two roads diverged in a wood, / and I, I took the one less travelled by.”

On an earlier excursion I did just that, venturing on a whim onto this very same spur road eventually leading up to a fire lookout, a four-mile torturous but ultimately rewarding ascent to over 10,000’ where I was rewarded with panoramic views. Yet farther along this Forest Service road lies an Ancestral Puebloan site dating back to the 1400s, one of the highest prehistoric agricultural locations in the entire Southwest, the only visible remains are the neatly lined foundation rocks and scattered potsherds marking the long-ago presence of former inhabitants.

I like to think these are some of the reasons we take to gravel grinding: the appeal to our sense of exploration and adventure, the very reason as kids we took to riding a bike in the first place, venturing out of the familiar confines of our neighborhoods to seek wider horizons.

Solitude on a gravel road. Photo by Don Scheese

Solitude

There is another kind of exploration favorable to gravel grinding, for every solitary ride is a meditation, an exercise in self-exploration. Alone, we wander in psychological as well as physical space, exploring our past while physically immersed in the present, and perhaps pondering our future as well. As I top out on the first climb of the day near a conical, fire-scarred peak, I’m able to achieve a state of flow, which the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claims is so essential to the human experience.

“The best moments usually occur,” he writes, “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi goes on to say that in a state of flow “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”

Thus whatever activity one is engaged in, whether it be dance, painting, gardening, woodworking, or cycling, the person involved becomes an extension, an integral part of whatever it is in which they are participating, thus achieving self-transcendence. Who has not on a gravel ride taken a moment to stop and take in the delicious quiet and solitude? And thereby lost themselves in their surroundings?

Gravel grinding, because it takes place on back roads with less traffic, is an optimal form of physical activity for achieving a state of flow, and of attaining solitude. Dropping down into a shadowy, snow-packed canyon where the sun seldom shines in winter, I pass by a meadow punctuated by a lone abandoned cabin—a perfect metaphor for the euphoric state of alone-ness I feel on this December day.

And let’s not forget another benefit of gravel riding in these pandemic times: it is a terrific way to “social distance.”

Beauty and Sensory Stimulation

Whether riding through the desert, prairie, forest subalpine environment, or pastoral landscape, one Goes in Beauty. We may not be always aware of the aesthetics of our surroundings, but beauty is constantly present, and when engaged in some physical activity that we enjoy in the outdoors, Nature has the power to speak to us, to move us to step outside of our self-absorbed selves and stimulate our senses. Much has been written about the modern affliction known as “nature deficit disorder”—how little physical contact we experience on a daily basis with the outdoors.

Kristina, a fit amateur racer with many trophies and podium finishes to her name, cites this very factor as an important reason she takes to gravel grinding. As a gravel cyclist, I myself have had the privilege of riding in a variety of environments and have come to appreciate the unique beauty of every bioregion—whether it be the hardwood forests of Minnesota, the tallgrass prairie of Kansas, the desert canyons and grasslands of Arizona, or the coniferous forests and subalpine realms of New Mexico and Colorado.

Given that humans privilege sight over our other senses, it is no surprise that we love to take in vistas; for me, the views down the canyon from the cliffs, or of the columnar formations climbing back up the canyon to finish my loop, are among the most rewarding of visual pleasures. But other forms of sensory pleasure are realized too: the trickle of the creek as I wend my way back to the car, what Wallace Stegner called the intoxicating sound of mountain water (especially in the arid Southwest); or the alluring scent of a ponderosa pine grove as I ascend from the juniper-pinyon pine zone to the higher-elevation forest; or of something as simple and elemental as the feel and crunch of gravel under one’s tires.

We are sensuous creatures, after all, and returning to Nature rekindles these primal instincts.

Challenge, Physical and Mental

Unlike riding on smooth paved roads, gravel grinding is more unpredictable—surfaces can vary from hard-packed, well-maintained farm roads, to loose chunky gravel filled with ruts and potholes, to (when wet) drivetrain-clogging gumbo singletrack. Finding the right line, negotiating ruts, rocks, washboard, and sand, knowing when to speed and when to slow down, requires a different, more intricate skill set than when riding on smooth pavement — like the primitive jeep track I have to negotiate on the latter part of my loop while descending a mesa through the “Road Closed” section, where the lane narrows and its edges crumble into steep drop-offs; or riding through patches of snow-packed road in the perpetually shady canyon, causing me to wish for studded tires; or the occasional sandy sections when crossing arroyos makes me long for a fat bike with 4-inch wide tires.

When gravel grinding it is a truism that, whatever bike one rides, there are always times when you wish for another kind of tire or bike. But, come the end of a ride there arises the satisfaction of completing a challenge, still in one piece, or with only minor cuts and bruises.

Improved Technology

Minnesota-based Salsa was among the first bicycle manufacturers to come out with a gravel-specific drop-bar bike, the Warbird, in 2012. Since that time many more companies have jumped on the bandwagon of developing gravel-specific bikes as events such as Dirty Kanza (now known as Unbound Gravel) started to catch on. Gravel bikes differ from traditional road bikes in key ways: their geometry is slacker, more comfortable; the frames are beefier to dampen vibrations; they accommodate wider tires for better traction and smoother riding; they have lower gearing allowing for easier spinning up short punchy climbs; and gravel bikes usually run disc brakes, not rim brakes, for better stopping power.

As gravel bikes became more common so did “gravel-specific” clothing: “gravel shoes,” “gravel bibs,” even “gravel helmets” have appeared on the market. Then “gravel bags” emerged to allow for hauling food, extra clothing, maps, sleeping bags, etc. on longer, overnight backcountry routes, leading to the sub-discipline known as “bikepacking” (what used to called bike touring).

Of course, much of this recent technology is consumeristic hype, encouraging us to buy more stuff so the bicycle industry can enjoy ever-greater profits—how different really is a gravel-specific helmet from one you wear on a road bike? But there is no question that the industry has responded to the growing demand with equipment that is better suited for riding off-pavement.

Safety

Without question, with increasingly distracted drivers on paved roads, there is the appeal of greater safety when gravel grinding. My friend Herb, new to gravel grinding, is attracted to it for this very aspect. In addition to the quieter experience, there is the added benefit of experiencing less anxiety over the possibility of encountering a several ton vehicle barreling down past you on a backcountry gravel lane. The few vehicles you are likely to meet are going slower and are more likely to be friendlier and more accommodating—at least that’s been my experience in ten years of gravel grinding.

And on this particular day, as I wend my way back up to the car through the narrow canyon, completing the loop, I have the supreme pleasure of not having encountered a single vehicle in 3-4 hours, 23 miles, and 2800’ of climbing overall.

Other Appeals: Competition, Community, Economics

Let’s face it: we are competitors by instinct, everyone has some degree of the competitor in them—the modern-day legacy of the Darwinian struggle for existence. One cannot deny there is in most (if not all of us) the instinct to race, to push oneself to extremes, to be faster than others. The beauty of gravel grinding, it seems to me, is that in this discipline of cycling there is the choice of whether to race or to ride, to make the experience either a competitive or a social one.

Many gravel riders I’ve talked with mention this more relaxed vibe of the discipline as something that really appeals to them. Kristina says she especially likes this aspect of gravel grinding; sometimes she chooses to race, other times to ride with friends and enjoy some conversation and sharing of the experience. I have taken part in 50-some organized gravel events and have always been struck by how some riders are truly racing to beat one another’s best time within one’s age and gender categories, while others (like me) are there to simply finish and have a fun time, often with a friend or group of friends.

A great example of this latter tendency in the Albuquerque area is Ryan and Greg’s Dusty Roadrunner series in which there are no fees, no aid stations, no porto-potties, no SAG vehicles, and no course markings (only GPX files); just sign up, show up, and ride….with as many as 50-70 riders regularly participating in one of their monthly weekend courses, some to race, others to simply ride.

In organized mass events like the Almanzo 100, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, or the Mid-South, what also happens is the revitalizing and further bolstering of the economies of small towns across America like Spring Valley, Minnesota; Ketchum, Idaho; and Stillwater, Oklahoma. Hundreds of motel rooms are booked, restaurants are filled to beyond capacity, and stores (especially bike shops) enjoy above-normal profits for a long weekend. Whoever would have thought that a small college town like Emporia, Kansas, would become the mecca of gravel grinding?

Conclusion

With more and more gravel-specific technology, clothing, and events appearing, it’s easier than ever to go gravel grinding. Just remember: It’s not about the bike, it’s about the experience.

What are you waiting for? Go gravel!

P.S. Look for the documentary from Pearl Izumi “Gravel: A Love Letter.”

Don Scheese is an avid cyclist and retired professor of American Studies who once taught, among other things, courses on Lance Armstrong and Sport in American Culture.

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