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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Gravel Freedom

Riding a bicycle on remote gravel roads is freedom. Freedom from fast, heavy, annoyed traffic. Freedom from distracted drivers. Freedom from convention. Freedom from "The Rules." Freedom to challenge, not merely compete. Freedom to just ride. Just Enjoy the Show.

Riding a bicycle in a gravel race also is freedom. Foremost for me is the freedom to choose amongst a veritable smorgasbord of experiences. That also means freedom to choose not to support events, as well.

Freedom to just ride.

The wonderful variety of gravel events results from race directors themselves having freedom to put together races their way, with relatively few barriers to entry and without a template mandated by others. More specifically, gravel race directors have not been confined by the dictates of a centralized governing body or by the "Shalt Haves" and "Shalt Nots" of elitists posing as self-annointed arbiters of all things gravel. Even with today's groupthink push to conform and accommodate, race directors still can create an event of their own design, implement and adapt their own rules to guide the event toward that vision, and live with the consequences of their decisions. Riders then choose to ride, or not. That's freedom.

Having options between many, very different types of experiences is a great thing. Out here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a local rider named Lucas Haan dreamt up a crazy cool series of gravel races, each with a unique course and an unexpected twist. How about a rock infested, quad busting mile and a half spur up to an abandoned look out tower near the end of a fifty mile, 5,000 foot elevation gain gravel/dirt road race? Who does that? A Six Course Feast. Such gems are possible when race directors are free to create their own events.

With so many choices, preferences develop. Like everyone else, I certainly have my preferences and naturally are drawn to them. Almost three years ago, I even described aspects of gravel events that I liked best. Components of a Special Gravel Race. Whatever your preferences, however, it's one thing to turn toward your "likes" and away from your "dislikes." It's quite another thing to work to impose your preferences on another, or worse, on everyone. That's the essence of elitism. Try this instead. If an event doesn't suit you, leave that event to those who enjoy it and move to something else.

Here's a confession I'm reluctant to express as it may be misconstrued. Dirty Kanza is not for me, even though it's a highly publicized, influential and popular part of the gravel scene. Stay with me, here. Dirty Kanza is great for gravel cycling. I love that Dirty Kanza exists, that many swarm to it and that I rode it once. My experience was memorable, but overall the event is just not for me. That's OK. I don't knock Dirty Kanza or try to change it. They run their event as they see fit. They've earned that right and respect. I applaud those who work to make the experience available, cheer on those who ride it and simply commit my time and energy elsewhere.

In the words of William Wallace, " F R E E D O M ! ! "

The road beckons. Ride.

Addendum. To some readers, this post may sound familiar. Well, I first posted it in July 2018. Now 2020, with all the hoopla surrounding the explosive growth of gravel cycling, I decided to highlight the freedom that cyclists have to experience a tremendous variety of gravel rides, events and races. That is, gravel now offers big production events, but is much bigger than that. It's always been much bigger than that. As I started to write, I remembered this post, which I think remains relevant today. It says what was on my mind. So, I re-posted it.

"That's how we're going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love."
Rose Tio, Star Wars - The Last Jedi (2017).

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bigger Than Big Events

In 2014, I attended the National Camp, where I was astonished to learn that almost none of the long time, dedicated cyclists had heard of gravel grinders. So, I wrote "Gravel 101," an introduction to gravel grinders that was published by and later posted on the Black Hills BackBone blog. Gravel Grinder 101.

Gravel roads beckon from Wind Cave National Park.

Now in 2020, gravel riding, training, and racing is front and center on the American cycling scene. The big bike corporations market "gravel" bikes, tires, components, equipment, gear, clothing, and even shoes. The big cycling media publicize favored events, professional and celebrity cyclists, coaching programs and training camps, and, of course, all those products to be purchased. The big governing bodies desperately maneuver to grab control over, and money from, this scene.

As a result, many more cyclists are now learning about gravel grinding. And all that corporate hype could easily lead one to conclude that gravel is all about the fastest racers, the lightest race bike and the most prestigious races. That is, gravel grinding could appear to the newcomer as yesterday's road racing scene simply transplanted to gravel roads.

Some races are. In fact, many of the new, sanctioned events, and even some of the older, well-known gravel events, are merely conventional road races that happen to travel some gravel, with professional racers, team tactics, expanding levels of support, little to no self-navigation, substantial entry fees, national media coverage, limited and selected entries, points-based categories to segregate cyclists, and more enforcement of more rules due to racers cheating. If you enjoy the experience of a USCA sanctioned bicycle race, you certainly can find that on gravel today.

Lucas Haan offers encouragement to riders at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.
This is grass roots gravel, with short, medium and long routes that are unmarked and unsupported.
Something for everyone. Oh, and a post-race gathering spot for everyone.

But big corporate events are just the loudest development on the gravel scene. There is much more. There has always been much more. The energy creating and driving the gravel scene emanates from throngs of regular folks gathering to ride together at local, grass roots rides. Such rides create and nurture an inclusive, social atmosphere that attracts folks from so many different levels of experience, ability and ambition. That will be difficult for sanctioned corporate racing to emulate.

For information on local events and informal rides in your area, look on social media or ask at your local bike shop. There's almost certainly something happening in your neighborhood. If not, it's very easy to start something. For regional, national and international gravel events of all kinds, take a look at the events page at

Here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, individuals and bike shops post on a FaceBook group called "Black Hills Drop Bar Dirt, Gravel and Cyclocross Riders" and another called "Black Hills Bike Events." There's even a FaceBook group "Black Hills Gravel" with a summer-long series of free group rides each offering 10, 25 and 50 mile routes. Black Hills Gravel.

Venturing into the gravel event community added an unexpected bonus. I discovered that I could ride an almost unlimited number and variety of lightly traveled, remote, rough roads year around, even out here in the wilds of western South Dakota. From then on, everything about my riding changed. A Journey To Gravel Races - A Revelation.

I'll be out there somewhere. Hope to see you out there, too.

"Maverick, you'll get your RIO when you get to the ship. If you don't, give me a call. I'll fly with you."  Viper, Top Gun (1986).

Let's go!

For my take of the gravel scene in 2014, go to Gravel Grinder 101.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Black Hills Gravel Series - Season 4!

The Black Hills Gravel Series returns for Season 4, with a full slate of free rides. Mark your calendars. This is grass roots gravel at its finest. And now it's going to last all summer!

Information on FaceBook group:  Black Hills Gravel. Sign up here:  BHGravel Signup.

Peerless Leader Lucas Haan directs the troops at the start of the Sturgis ride of the 2019 Black Hills Gravel Series.

Lucas Haan, the Grand Poo-Bah of the Black Hills Gravel Series, hand crafts each of the unique, creative routes through postcard-perfect back country, provides cue sheets and gpx files for self-navigating the unmarked roads, and offers the enriching experience of riding self-supported. All of this free of entry fees, elitism, and pomposity. Just show up with most any bike, wearing most anything weather appropriate, and ride. Everyone is welcome.

At each event, three courses will be available, increasing in length and difficulty. They're named by color:  Green (10-15 miles, some elevation gain), Blue (20-30 miles, more elevation gain), and Black (50+ miles, significantly more elevation gain + an added challenge is likely). There truly is a course for every level of ability, experience, and ambition. Better yet, you will find cyclists of all kinds gathering to enjoy these rides.

Riders stream toward the sloppy muck at the Sugar Shack ride of the 2019 Black Hills Gravel Series.

To join the fun, go to the start/finish, sign a waiver, receive the route information, and ride a remote, rough road ride in the amazing Black Hills of South Dakota. If you choose, hang out afterward for lunch with old and new friends. Lucas generally posts updated information on the FaceBook group Black Hills Gravel, as well as the group Black Hills Drop Bar, Dirt & CycloCross Riders. If you sign up in advance, he will also send you timely e-mails. Lucas does all the ground work. You just ride.

Make the Black Hills Gravel Series a priority. Bring your family. Invite your friends. Do not take this for granted.

Grandfather and Grandson enjoying a day of sunny gravel together at the 2019 Black Hills Gravel Series.

The Black Hills Gravel Series is a remarkable happening, but it's not going to go on like this forever. The amount of time and life energy put into this by Lucas is staggering. And it's on top of all the other things Lucas does for the local cycling community, while managing a burgeoning engineering career and nurturing a growing, active family.

Enjoy these gatherings of our cycling community. And thank Lucas for his tireless work to make it happen.

Fun for all at the Black Hills Gravel Series.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Odin's Door

Here's a new event with a classic gravel vibe. The Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder. Saturday June 6. North Platte, Nebraska. Registration at

Everyone from dusty old timers to the gravel curious will enjoy this event, with routes of 25 miles, 75 miles and 150 miles. Shae and Jeff Caldwell, hometown owners of Whitetail Cycle Sport, are the driving force behind the festivities, with additional help from local cyclists Lane Bergen, Paul Brasby, Ben Cooper, Luke Meduna and Randall Smith. Without knowing anything more, I know that these fine folks will put together a great event, with something for everyone, on and off the bike.

Climbing on some powdered roads somewhere along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder.

Starting from the railroad town of North Platte, Nebraska, the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder plunges into the remote valleys and deep draws of barely-populated south-central Nebraska. One can ride for hours on these winding, rough, remote roads without seeing an occupied building, let alone a convenience store or a town. I can't wait to see where these routes go.

Although the 150 mile route remains secret, a few leaked photographs reveal that it enters the legendary realm of Odin's Revenge. Think long, hot, steep climbs up rutted roads, panoramic ridge line cowpaths pocketed with hoof prints, and jarring, bumpy descents bottoming out on pooled powdered dirt. I suspect there will be long stretches of hero gravel, but there's also a hint of swinging through a section of single track in the renowned Potter's Pasture. Something for everyone.

A peak at the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course, deep into the legendary realm of Odin's Revenge.

As a four time finisher of the legendary Odin's Revenge, I recognize these roads. Of course, the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider starts in North Platte, not Gothenburg, and will offer a unique experience. Nonetheless, race reports and photographs from Odin's Revenge offer some insight into the country and roads this new event will enter. To see some of what's out there, here are links to posts with reports, photos, links and results from each of the five years of Odin's Revenge. The End Of Odin's Revenge2012 Odin's Revenge - Seeking2013 Odin's Revenge - Eureka; 2014 Odin's Revenge - Mud Year; 2015 Odin's Revenge - Gettin' After It; 2016 Odin's Revenge - Back In The Saddle.

So, there you go. Unknown course. Unknown elevation gain. Unknown road surfaces. Unknown resupply. Unknown human presence. Unknown unknowns.

Here's one known. A ride through this country, on a route created by these folks, will be memorable.

YEE-HAW! Topping another hill on the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder route.

As far as the folks behind this new event, they are active in all sorts of community happenings and events. This is a local bike shop, with local riders, putting together a community event. This is grass roots gravel. This is where gravel lives.

I'll be out there. Hope to see you out there, too.

Even the Start/Finish is unique at the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder.

Now, for you folks still singing Bob Dylan's "Knocking' On Heaven's Door," here's a link to the original. Knockin' On Heaven's Door.