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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Gravel Community Builds

The Black Hills of South Dakota are a forested island of imposing granite and shale, surrounded by rolling seas of prairie. Throughout these lands wind remote roads, trails and paths of every description, beckoning the adventurous cyclist. With so many ride options and such variety, the relatively small cycling community naturally scatters and often feels smaller than it is.

How then to draw together this small, diverse assortment of cyclists? A start is the Black Hills Gravel Series. By organizing these rides, Lucas Haan tapped into a wide spread yearning throughout the Black Hills for a low-key, regular gathering for area cyclists of all kinds to share their passion. Every other week in April and May, folks could simply show up at a fun start/finish restaurant, sign a waiver, receive a set of cue sheets, ride a unique, remote rough road ride into the amazing Black Hills, and then hang out for lunch. What a wonderful addition to the local cycling scene.

Lucas Haan addressing the gathering collection of cyclists at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

This all started slowly in the spring of 2017, with a core group of maybe 10-15 cyclists riding the first several rides. By the sixth and final ride that year, however, the word was out and that number had more than doubled, twice. These rides were a boat load of fun and the atmosphere was friendly and lively. For months thereafter, informal groups continued to regularly ride area gravel and dirt roads. A gravel cycling community took root. A Six Course Feast.

When Lucas announced the 2018 Black Hill Gravel Series, folks jumped at the opportunity. Despite a series of crazy spring snow days and some re-scheduling, over 100 cyclists rode the first ride out of Sturgis. About that many rode the second ride out of Spearfish, as well as the third ride out of Hill City.  The fourth and final ride out of Custer drew a smaller group, as persistently nasty weather brought 30-something degree rain and sloppy roads. In any event, around these parts, that's a lot of cyclists in one place. And they were out there having fun. A Gourmet Meal Discovered.

Lucas Haan checking on the riders out on the course at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

Where did these riders all come from? Well, apparently from all across the cycling spectrum. For 2018, Lucas added a 10 mile "Starter" route to each ride, which drew beginners that added up to about 15% of all riders. For many of these riders, a 10 mile ride on unknown dirt roads into the forest was a very big step. At the other end, the 50 mile "Scenic" ride totaled about 35% of all riders. Many of these were seasoned gravel grinders building base or adding speed for bigger events later in the season. What about the remaining 50%, who enjoyed the 25 mile "Social" ride? I'm thinking a bunch of those social riders added the 2.5 hour average ride time to the 9:30 start to reach a noon finish for a first call for a round of micro-brews. Just saying that a lot of folks enjoyed these rides and the get-togethers afterwards.

In any event, the growth of these rides was not fueled by local racers chasing trophies or enthusiasts chasing the latest trend. And it certainly was not fueled by big production starts, finishes, celebrities or prizes. For the bulk of the riders out there, the Black Hills Gravel Series was a nice spring challenge with like-minded folks in a low key, social environment. It was fun.

I can't wait to ride whatever Lucas dreams up for next spring. And I hope to see even more of you out there in 2019.

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