Login | May 30, 2020

Gravel grinding

Pete’s World

Published: May 6, 2019

Wow, are the times ever changing. Yup, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, all the way up into the 2000s, road cycling was the cat’s meow. And this was amplified even more when Lance Armstrong started crushing the Tour De France…illegally we later found out.

Nonetheless, his subsequent successes had a huge effect on the already growing U.S. road cycling scene by inspiring a whole generation of people to fall in love with the road bike - mimicking on a small scale, the cylo-centric culture of Europe. Back then seemed as though we Yanks couldn’t get enough of road cycling.

But over the last decade U.S. road cycling has been experiencing a marked decline in popularity. Shoot, USA Cycling memberships have been flat-lining (best case scenario) if not downright nosing diving (worst case scenario) since 2012. Not only that, but there are far fewer pure road races on the U.S. road racing calendar.

Today, more and more cyclists are opting to forego the hustle, bustle and congestion of paved roads and are choosing instead the silence, solitude and wide-openness of dirt and gravel thoroughfares.

This new trend is called gravel grinding and it can entail anything from multi-day and multi-hour adventure riding/racing to much shorter cyclocross and mountain bike events. Heck, it can simply be a relaxing recreational spin on single and double track trail. But no matter how you define it, gravel grinding’s a conscious effort to stay off hard surfaced roads.

It’s now beyond debate that traditional road cyclists - from all backgrounds and disciplines - are increasingly being drawn to those tracks far less traveled. What’s more, newbie cycling aficionados are following their lead.

And don’t take my word for it. Just take a gander at bike sales and event registration figures. Those numbers show without a doubt that wide-tire bikes and events - fat, mountain and cyclocross - are the biggest trend in U.S. cycling.

So what’s going on here?

Well, I don’t think there’s one singular answer, but rather several interrelated answers.

First, understand that many of today’s stalwart roadies, both racing and recreational, are simply exploring all these new forms of cycling and all these diverse cycling venues.

Second, what with the myriad of vehicle-cyclist accidents highlighted in the news each week, and with a disproportional amount of these accidents being attributed to distracted driving, many cyclists are seeking cycling venues that are far less dangerous than crowded city streets, busy state and local highways, and high-speed, multi-lane “expressways.”

And third, road racing is getting pretty expensive…both from a participational and promotional standpoint. Equipment, licenses, permits, police presence, logistics, insurance, media coverage, advertising and the plethora of necessities, all those contribute to an increased cost for riders, teams and organizers alike.

“Without a doubt the gravel explosion has affected road events,” says Mentor resident Jim Behrens, a former road racer who dabbles in race promotion.

And this rider/promoter/pro team assistant has experienced the road-to-gravel transition firsthand.

“The attendance was good for a long time,” Behrens says, “but I first noticed a drop in participation about seven or eight years ago. There were a couple of up-ticks but generally the trend was downward. Finally, after a race where just two or three people showed up, I decided it’s just not worth my time.

“I know that when I was younger, there were events close by almost every weekend. Now, I see very little.”

Today Beherns puts on one event, the 30-plus-mile Strada Marrone (Brown Roads) gravel grinder which takes place once a year in April, on the Saturday before France’s world famous Paris–Roubaix cycling race.

No doubt about it, these gravel grinder events are catching fire throughout North America, from local events like Beherens’ Strada Marrone and the Road Apple Roubaix here in Garrettsville, to epic national events like the 200-mile Dirty Kanza and the 300-mile-plus Trans Iowa. Shoot, there are even world class gravel grinding events in neighboring Canada, events like the 100 À B7 in Quebec and the P2A in Ontario.

And that’s just the tip of the gravel pile, simply get on the Google machine, type in gravel grinder, and you’ll be presented with an eclectic selection of competitive races, Grand Fondos, and recreational tours.

Now the way I see it, gravel grinding isn’t replacing road cycling. It’s more like the gravel grinding is just another option. And that’s good for cycling in general.