Monday, November 05, 2018

The Message

The gravel scene is unprecedented in competitive cycling history.
NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops today. You've been forewarned.....

The way things seem to work in life, as far as movements, trends, and "scenes" go, is that there usually is some sort of genesis point where only a handful of folks know about, or participate at all, in the activity, or trend. Then there is a growth stage where things seem pretty cool yet, but the trend/scene/activity becomes more widespread. Then you have a point where, now days anyway, folks think a scene/trend/activity "jumps the shark". It gets "ruined", "sells out", and/or "everybody and their brother does it now", so it isn't "cool" anymore.

Now, I may have missed a point or two, or I maybe have it wrong in some way, but y'all know what I am talking about. Things don't stay cool forever. Music, fashion, and whatever else that grabs our fancy seems to rise and fall according to this progression. It is a cycle which we, for the most part, have either totally bought in to, or at the very least, have just shrugged and accepted as being "how things work".

What has this have to do with cycling, and more specifically, the gravel grinding scene? Well, just recently I posted about how I had been quoted in a magazine's online article that asked if corporate buyouts of events were going to "ruin gravel". This was briefly addressed in a "Friday News And Views" which I posted on October, 26th. I mentioned in that post that I had more to say on the subject, and today's post is that time to say it.

I think that an underlying current exists within the gravel community that is a foreboding, an expectation, or maybe more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. It has to do with what I wrote here to open this post. People are waiting for the gravel scene to fall in on itself, to decline, to suddenly be "uncool". They may be thinking, "this" is when it will happen in light of certain events. Things like ever increasing entry fees, lotteries for event entry, or bombastic marketing claims by cycling companies and event promoters. What will be the trigger, because, you know it's gonna happen. 

First of all, I think that is a real feeling folks have and I would submit, a false belief. I alluded to this in my "Friday News And Views' post linked above. Here is a quote regarding this "false" belief:

"......... we seem to feel that if an event experience we have is monetized, it cheapens our previous experiences and "takes away" from the event. Marketing can also be thrown in here. You start marketing the event to sponsors, corporate entities, and city businesses and it seems that this is a signal that filthy lucre is infiltrating the "purity" of  the event experience."

The Almanzo 100 is one event a lot of people point to when talking about "grassroots gravel".
 I wrote that thinking about existing events", but I was reminded that events just popping on the scene can also contribute somewhat to folks feeling things are too corporate. Events have marketing in some form or another. It seems as though there are certain cases where new events have some rather outlandish claims. Things hard to swallow for the discerning gravel rider, especially when the event hasn't even occurred before. Things said such as "the greatest gravel roads on earth", and imagery which shows riders on paved roads on the same event website are, well........goofy. You can hardly blame folks for thinking gravel grinding has gone off the rails when first time events say and display such bombastic statements and incongruous imagery.

Yet we have new events also coming on the scene which do not go that route. They have the "down to earth", "real-ness" about their marketing. In fact, some are not competitions at all. Events that have a social aspect to them which is promoted as hard as the riding part is. Furthermore, as if in reaction to the corporate, highly polished event offerings, I am noticing a strong undercurrent of events cropping up. Let's call them "off the radar events". I like that term because these events are the antithesis to some of the more well known gravel events.

These include, but are certainly not limited to, gravel group rides which are happening all across the nation now on a regular basis. Just to take our local scene as an example, ten years ago there were two, solidly attended, long standing road group rides and another casual road/trail ride happening on a regular basis. Now we have a regular gravel group ride in two locations weekly along with a roadie group ride that starts and ends their season also riding gravel.

Small, loosely organized group rides are happening more often than ever.
 Then there are the "events" which are almost universally free to join and are one-offs put on by local gravel fans for fun. There was just one such event held here locally which was well attended, despite the weather, and has prompted a call for a similar ride to happen again soon.

While I am using local happenings here as examples, (none of which I had any hand in organizing, by the way), since I have an ear pressed to the ground in the Riding Gravel Ride Calendar, I can say that this is something that I've noted all over the country for a good year now. The numbers of these events that I am aware of is on the increase, and I probably don't know about many others. The local flavor of many of these events means promoting, in the regular sense of the term, is unnecessary, and thus many of these gravel events likely go unnoticed by anyone other than their participants.

These events are predicated on fun, adventure, and social gathering. They are not happening on the back of a slick marketing campaign, high entry fees, lotteries, or promises of "epic gravel". In fact, I would say that these events are happening in direct response to such "big time", "corporate" type events. So, what can we draw from this? What is the "message" here?

In my opinion, this kind of repudiates the belief on many folks parts that "gravel" is jumping the shark, about to decline, or has "sold out". Rather, I believe that the true, "grassroots" nature of this genre' is getting even stronger. It tells me that despite the groans and complaints I read when events charge more than a dollar per mile to enter a competition, or when events make outlandish claims in marketing, or even when "the roadies show up", that gravel grinding at the grassroots level is not dying. Quite the opposite, actually.

Of course, there is nothing wrong at all with the "bucket list" type event, or the slick, highly processed experience that awaits anyone that wants their experiences "guaranteed" to be "world class", or whatever attracts those riders to these kinds of gravel based rides. They exist for a reason, and many would be promoters that see that as a "legitimate event" versus the "under the radar" type of thing will try their hand at one upping the previous "world's premier gravel grinder". That's going to happen and what competition breeds. It doesn't offend me, it just is what it is.

I think that's the message I am getting.


graveldoc said...

Such an interesting analysis of the future of gravel road cycling! If I may share some of my "gloppy" opinions. A couple of points that come to my mind is the use of the phrase "world class" and the increase in the "grass roots" rides available around the country. When I think of "world class", I think of comparing the experience to gravel riding in all parts of the world; not just the U.S. The first one that came to my mind was L'Eroica in Tuscany. The closest I've gotten to that one is setting in front of my computer screen watching videos of the events. I know there is at least one similar event in California based on the Tuscany event. Apparently, I just find the idea of riding vintage bikes on gravel roads attractive. Frankly, I would speculate the U.S. is the world leader in gravel roads based on miles as well as quality and variety. Now for the old codger in me to give his two cents. I had the thought that maybe there "needs" to be more gravel cycling events due to a lot of folks having such a fine stable of gravel bikes, they would be attracted to participating in more events in order to get to ride all their bikes more. My apologies because, if you poked around in my garage, you could just say "well the pot shouldn't call the kettle dirty". Finally, in my "conservative" opinion, it seems to me that a lot of the "gravel" specific bikes and technology are pretty pricey affairs which, though no doubt are very helpful for long or epic/adventure gravel grinding, beg for more use to get one's "money's worth". Hope I didn't ruffle anyone's feathers; just sharing some observations from the sidelines.

Guitar Ted said...

@Stephen Butcher- You make a good point about the "bikes existing = must be used". That can be seen in two ways though. Either people saw the opportunities to ride and wanted to join in, so they bought a new bike, or they, as you seem to suggest, bought the bike on the chance there would be rides to use them on.

Hard to say there. I can only say that year over year, Riding Gravel records more gravel events. The calendar sits at over 500 events right now. last year we had just over 400 at this same time.

So, since there are more bikes, do people create more events? That's another way to look at this.

But my feeling is that, at least in terms of the "under the radar" events, the ease of organizing, the relative safety in the act of riding, and the adventure/beauty factor in to a much greater degree than anything else. You gotta have the place to ride before you buy the bike, or go to the event, right?

Finally, the US probably does have the lions share of gravel, but as far as "quality" goes, I wouldn't discount the UK, European, South African, or the Australian gravel roads I've seen online. There's stuff all over the world to ride that isn't paved. I just think we don't see a whole lot of that. So, we don't realize what is really out there.

S.Fuller said...

I like the rise of local races and local non-competitive events. At least here in Iowa, towns like Grinnell and places like Madison county have seen the benefits of bicycle tourism, not only in promoting their towns, but also helping with small boosts to their local economy. The weekly or monthly group ride, to me, holds the most promise. It can get casual cyclists out due to the non-competitive, no-drop nature. They can also get the gravel curious out and off of the paved bike trails to see some difference scenery and to challenge themselves a bit. From an advocacy angle, the more positive interactions people have with bikes and bike riders in their daily lives helps us in the long run.

Guitar Ted said...

@S. Fuller- Couldn't agree more. especially with regard to your last comment.

graveldoc said...

@Guitar Ted said...

Your points are all well taken! The most "exotic" gravel rides in which I've participated have been your Geezer Ride a few years ago and Pondero's Fall Ramble in north Texas. Also, I've toured on the Katy, C&O Canal Towpath, and GAP rail-trails. My local (Southwest Missouri) gravel roads offer a variety of riding conditions, too. Watching Gravel Cyclist's videos of riding Australian gravel roads was a good eye-opener to what they have to offer Down Under.

graveldoc said...

Oops, I forgot to mention a couple other gravel rides that might be of interest to many. Pondero and I have Bike Packed the forest gravel roads in the Ouachita National Forest in N.W. Arkansas and have ridden a bit of similar roads in eastern Oklahoma. Lots of climbing on those roads and one feels a real sense of remoteness.

blooddoc23 said...

Promoters have increased participation in their "world-class" events through advertising, which creates hype. That's the way of venture capitalism. Its money spent to make more money. In the case of gravel, it's a house of cards. When the market is saturated with gravel bikes, and interest wanes; those who really enjoy riding gravel will still be riding gravel, and those who don't, wont. The big time events will loose numbers and will eventually collapse, or become shells of their former selves. And that's cool. I will still be riding some gravel, at my own pace.

Cory said...

@Guitar Ted- So many events happen near a mecca or hub or the cycling community (bigger cities and urban populations). The ones that do not hold on to a glimmer of hope that the community that hosts it might experience some tourism. That's been my push lately. We are watching our communities dwindle, our schools shut down, and all of our businesses dry up. There's nothing left. To be able to attract even 30-50 people to town once a year for something this minute and unimportant is encouraging. As far as if the gravel scene were to dwindle......I say who cares. I started riding gravel several years ago after reading one of your blogs, Ted. I didn't know any of these big events existed (I was new to bicycling). But I knew I was surrounded by gravel and dirt so it seemed like the logical choice.