Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The State Of The Gravel Scene: When The First Domino Fell

A Guitar Ted Productions series
In my decade plus of my involvement in gravel rides and races which includes promoting, riding , competing, writing about, and reviewing products, I have seen a lot of changes. I have a lot on my mind about where the scene has been and where it is going. I have thoughts on what it is and what it should be. So, buckle up for a series of thoughts and opinions concerning gravel grinding. It goes without saying that these opinions are my own and may not reflect anybody else's. So here we go.......

If you haven't read the introduction, please go HERE. This is the second part of the series. 

When The First Domino Fell

When Jeff Kerkove said "Let's do it!", in late November 2004 after hearing my thoughts on whether a cross state gravel route was possible or not, something in the atmosphere changed. That evening he put the word out on the internet and before we ever had any inkling of the "how" about Trans Iowa, we had people asking us "How are you guys setting this up?". Once we had some semblance of the "how" formulated, it set off a million light bulbs across the nation. People, almost immediately, started scheming how they to could get in on this action.

The following is how one individual saw this moment. Craig Groseth, a resident of Western South Dakota, caught the "gravel bug" in 2013 and recently wrote the following on his blog concerning the idea Jeff and I had for a gravel event:

"Back in 2005, Trans Iowa was created by a couple of free-thinking bike shop jocks with too much time on their hands and too little sense to understand that one simply does not ride a bicycle across the State of Iowa on 340-ish miles of gravel roads, on an unmarked course, with no team support and no aid stations, in less than a day and a half in April. You just don't. And nobody would want to, anyhow.

Mark Stevenson and Jeff Kerkove, however, dared to think otherwise. Unconstrained by an aristocratic governing body, or by any other conventional thought, they dreamt up a mind-bending ride that challenged what one thought of as possible and then opened it up to anyone curious enough to give it a shot. In return, they asked for little more than a commitment to show up, follow a few rules of conduct and ride with all you have. A culture was born. 

I discovered the initial Trans Iowa on the forums, simultaneously intrigued by the challenge and baffled as to why anyone would want to do such a thing. But ride it they did, creating gripping tales of brave souls willing to go way out there just to see what's way out there, and to find what's within. Even afterwards, racers struggled to articulate their near mythical experiences deep into the gravel hinterlands of central Iowa, far beyond their perceived physical and emotional boundaries. Something special was happening out there.

As the years passed, Trans Iowa took root and endured, building a grass roots following, unleashing a legion of converts and sparking a movement across the country. All sorts of different grass roots gravel races, events and rides sprang from this humble beginning in Iowa."

The Perfect Storm

Craig was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals who had that "a ha!" moment when hearing about Trans Iowa. Like I said before, it could have been any event that sparked this trend.  Jeff and I were just pulling the trigger at a time when the cycling community was looking for something new, challenging, but not over-organized and stuffy. The loose knit, rag-tag bunch of ultra-mountain bikers, thrill seekers, and yes, curious roadies that made up the nearly 50 or so riders in that first Trans Iowa reached a new audience of riders across the nation with their accounting of the event on-line. This in turn sparked the "we can do that!" attitude of other riders across the nation and before you knew it, a small but enthusiastic group of riders and promoters were gabbing about "gravel grinding".  Just like my friend Craig. 

I think there were a few key things that helped spark the gravel grinding scene then. 
  • No oversight, no governing body. You didn't have to deal with anyone else's idea of what gravel cycling looked like. You could frame an event in any way you wanted with no licensing fee, no extras to buy, and if you wanted- no insurance. You could even charge no entry fee. This knocked down a lot of barriers to event production and rider participation. 
  • You could do this on public roads almost anywhere in rural areas. This meant you didn't have to pay a venue to have an event. 
  • You could invite anyone to come. It wasn't a "roadie event", a "mountain biker event", nor was it tailored for any specific group of cyclists. Anyone and everyone was welcomed, and as it turned out, they were accepted. 
Keep in mind that entry fees for 24 hour events were dabbling into triple digit territory. Especially if you were a solo rider. Criterium racers had to purchase a license for the year, and pay for races, and risk getting pulled after a couple of laps. Mountain bikers faced licensing fees, race fees, and if you were a Sport Class rider, about an hour or so of trail time before your event was over. This didn't include traveling fees, time spent training, and equipment costs. Plus many of these events, both road and off road, were criticized for their cliques and the airs people gave off which were mostly described as off-putting. Only the 24 hr mtb crowds seemed to be chill and not so uptight. Gravel races offered a clear alternative to all of this.

 What That First Domino Started

With easy access to a way to spread information on the internet, (free), and low barriers to event promotion, venue areas, and participation, the gravel scene found literally thousands of rider/fans within a few years. You didn't need a special bicycle, you didn't have to buy a ton of fancy equipment, nor did you have to worry about how you might be accepted if you showed up on a Motobecane from 1972 or if you wanted to ride a 29"er single speed. You weren't judged for your kit or if you ran a saddle bag or not. "The Rules" of gravel grinding were that you were honest, open, and ready to have fun. It's no wonder then that the scene started to take root and grew incrementally every year.

Next: Things Changed


Ari said...

And let’s not even mention the lifelong bonds, friendships , camaraderie that this brought. I am happy you are writing this. Ari.

Okie Outdoorsman said...

Really enjoying this series. Thank you for posting!