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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Components of a Special Gravel Race

I love gravel road races.  Most any kind.  Most any distance.  Much of that results from the type of folks that are drawn to them.  Somehow the emerging gravel clan has developed an atmosphere of genuine inclusiveness, above and beyond the natural bonding of those sharing a passion.  It's really something.  For an introduction to the gravel scene, see my prior post Gravel Grinder 101.

These unsanctioned, unlicensed wild cat events are each hand crafted by local, eccentric cycling enthusiasts showcasing their countryside and their idea of what makes a race fun.  So, you'll find all kinds of different events from which to chose.  Here are some details that I like in a gravel race.

Start line forming at 2013 Gravel Worlds.  (unknown photo credit)

1. Friday night pre-race get-together.  Since the race typically starts pretty early on a Saturday morning, the organizers stage a pre-race meeting on Friday to go over details and answer questions.  As one might expect, this quickly turns into a social gathering for folks to meet and reconnect.  The best pre-race meetings open early at an informal restaurant or bar, with time to order food and drinks and lots of room to move around from table to table, as the clan filters in.  I have not been to a TransIowa Meat Up, but I hear that's a bench mark for a gravel pre-race.  My favorite was last year's Odin's Revenge pre-race at the Walker Steakhouse.

Gravel clan gathering at the pre-race for 2015 Odin's Revenge.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)

The pre-race at 2015 Odin's Revenge deserves at least another picture.  Faces from the left:  Scott Redd (Omaha Jackrabbit Grand Poo Bah), Nate Bell (Odin's Revenge volunteer & key sponsor), Craig Schmidt (Gravel Worlds and Pirate Cycling League captain), and my back (enthusiastic racer and fan).  (photo by Odin's Revenge)

2. Friday night camp.  After the pre-race meeting, folks retire to their lodging for the evening.  I prefer to camp with others there for the race, whether racing, supporting, volunteering or organizing.  It's  another chance to share the experience, as you prepare for the day ahead and relax by a camp fire.

Shaun unloads Dachia's T.A.R.D.I.S. at the 2014 Almanzo Royal campsite.

Enjoying a pre-ride camp fire.

3. Saturday morning pre-race and early miles.  No matter the time of the start, I like to arrive early.  Those few minutes pass too quickly, but the interactions continue well into the race, particularly if the start has a decent neutral lead-out followed by some relatively easy, or at least not crazy hard, early miles.  Memorable moments.

Enjoying the early miles of 2015 Gold Rush Mother Lode with Jason Thorman and Luke Meduna.
(photo by randy ericken)

4. Check point volunteers.  Anyone who races, organizes or volunteers at a gravel race likely does the other things, too, and this passion shows.  Nothing wrong with checking in by just signing a roster or getting a receipt from a convenience store clerk, but it's a great boost to share the day with the kindred spirits of check point volunteers.

 Fun to check in with first class volunteers Matt Bergen and George Evans at Check Point 2 at 2015 Odin's Revenge.

5. Gravel Road Course.  Most gravel races feature interesting routes meandering along remote, rough roads and near-roads highlighting seldom visited or little known sights.  There's an art to balancing such a route.  If the roads become too much like trails or otherwise so rough that they overwhelm the course, it becomes a mountain bike race.  If there's too much pavement or other hard packed surface, it's just a road race.  I like gravel road races, with a smattering of relatively short sections of dirt roads, a closed bridge or gate to walk, and maybe a shallow water crossing or other obstacle to navigate.  But a gravel road race.

Water crossing at the 2014 Almanzo Royal (photo by Scott Redd).
Also, I like the idea of not knowing much, if anything, about the course in advance.  Get the cue sheets for the first part of the race at the start and the rest at subsequent check points.  No digital or other mapping in advance.  And no repeat of last year's course.  Keep a sense of adventure.

Cue sheet for the 2015 Omaha Jackrabbit.

6. Sunday morning awards.  With racers of all levels of ability and ambition and with courses commonly extending 50 - 150 hard miles, racers trickle into the finish over several hours.  For shorter races, the finishers, families and friends often linger near the finish line to savor the day and to cheer those joining them.  For longer races, the finish time between the fastest and slowest becomes many more hours.  Then, a very nice touch is to simply get everyone back together on Sunday morning.  My favorite is the Gold Rush Mother Lode awards ceremony, which basically is a Sunday brunch with the gravel clan.  It's a wonderful time to share with other racers, whether you rode with them all day, off and on, just a little, or even not at all.  I love seeing the faces and hearing the stories of the day, with all the fresh excitement of participating in a gravel race.

Paul Otsu and Lane Bergen on the 39 & Under podium at the 2015 Gold Rush Mother Lode.

Those are some of the components of a gravel race that combine to make a special event for me.  The common thread throughout is the people that are drawn to these things.  Simply the best.

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