Watching the Grassroots Grow: The Corey Godfrey Interview

Corey Godfrey has reason to be tired. When we sat down for coffee at Method, the co-director of Gravel Worlds was not-so-fresh off the 350-mile DKXL (where he’s two for two in the event’s two-year history).

“Losing a couple days of sleep is getting harder the older I get,” he said.

64234765_10100205624769765_5208014430448648192_n-1When Corey Godfrey arrived and parked his Long Haul Trucker next to my Long Haul Trucker, I admit I had that lonely parent’s twinge where I hoped our bikes might become buddies on the same baseball team and us dads might get to hang out and watch them play and maybe share a bag of sunflower seeds and then maybe he’ll invite us over for a cookout at the end of the season, who knows?

Then there’s the longer-term wear on the body of a gravel-cycling icon who’s been there and done that across the Midwestern heart of our sport. He’s won a Dirty Kanza 200, finished multiple Trans Iowas, even trekked the Tour Divide. He’s braked for a grizzly bear, fended off “sleep demons,” dodged hypothermia, and wrecked while gawking at the moon.

13680990_10210080257662273_6287122017983869056_nGodfrey, near Banff, in search of a lost Moose’s Tooth.

He’ll talk about any side of gravel you like—save speed. He’s done with speed.

“You can only ride on the rivet so many years,” he said. “I won DK by absolutely burying myself.” Another year, he went straight from the DK finish line to an ambulance. He shook his head. “I don’t do that anymore.”

In the small circle of Dirty Kanza champions, he’s not alone in shifting down. Four-time winner Dan Hughes put it this way: “After 10 Dirty Kanza 200s, a Trans Iowa, a few Gravel Worlds and six Rebecca’s Private Idahos, I can tell you that the idea of suffering for the sake of suffering doesn’t hold the same allure that it once did.”

dk200startDan Hughes flew the Pirate flag for DK back in 2015. (Photo, TBL Photography)

Hughes and Godfrey rode DKXL a handful of miles apart, but their approaches to the course were similar: Keep your butter solid.

Godfrey rode alongside fellow Lincolnites Scott Bigelow and Skip Cronin. He opened Strava to compare their finish time against their moving time. He laughed at the math. “We were stopped for about six hours,” he said. “That’s fixing six or seven flats, the gas station pit stops, nature breaks, cooling off when we nearly overheated. All of it. Strava put me at an average of, let’s see, 86 watts.”

He smiled. “That’s not exactly melting butter.”

Some of those flats he stopped for weren’t his. Asked if he got antsy losing time waiting on others, he said not at all. “Whether I get 20th or 40th, I really don’t give a shit,” he said. Rather than compete, Godfrey’s motivation is to complete.

“I want the full course,” he said. “That rutted little B-road in the last few miles—I want to ride that myself. I want to have fun experiencing the whole thing. It’s all worth it when you get to share your finish with other people. After events like these, your gravel family grows.”

61837012_10219467341893512_9065584593486217216_nBigelow and Godfrey relax in the Gravel family living room. (Photo, Salsa Cycles)

He said, “There’s a ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe to the XL that reminds me of those early DKs when only a handful of us were crazy enough to try this stuff.”

Harking back to when DK was small can sound like ancient history, but it wasn’t so long ago. Godfrey’s only 43. This year, the 200 featured about 1,300 riders and turned away about 1,000 others. The Emporia Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated the economic impact of the 2017 race at $2.2 million. And Godfrey was in his early 30s when half a dozen pizzas would have fed the field.

I asked whether gravel’s popularity boom felt exhausting sometimes. Are there days when he wants to tell all these new kids to get the hell off his lawn?

“Nah,” he said. “The growth excites me, honestly.”

Maybe Godfrey could do without the loud starts and the shoulder-to-shoulder jockeying for those early lines. “If I ever do the 200 again,” he told me, “maybe I’ll sit tight at the start for like 20 minutes. Let the noise clear out before I go.”

Otherwise, Godfrey takes satisfaction in watching his grassroots sport grow like grass. Far from yelling at kids to get off their lawn, he and Craig Schmidt have spent the last decade using Gravel Worlds as one fat invitation to come out and play. Access and inclusivity have mattered to them from the start.

“For years, we didn’t charge any registration fee,” Godfrey said. “We wanted everybody to join.” He was reluctant to add a fee, caving only when he saw that the alternative was risking his house. “What if somebody got seriously hurt and their insurance company came after us?”

He and Schmidty formed an LLC to protect themselves and began charging a small fee to break even on the associated costs.

56214400_10219008921233282_3956408553203302400_nGodfrey requires a bike with ample tire clearance. Here, he hauls away trash on gravel roads near Lincoln.

Profit may not have been Schmidty and Godfrey’s motive, but it understandably remains the bike industry’s aim. And the gravel boom has created a lucrative market made largely of middle class white guys with disposable incomes. And the industry responded.

“When we started doing these events, we just rode mountain bikes or pure cyclocross bikes,” Godfrey said. “Now every manufacturer has a gravel-specific rig. You can get gravel everything: handlebars, wheels, tires, shoes. It’s been fun to watch. And more folks on bikes is a great thing.”

Nice as the new toys are, the atmosphere where industry players invest heavily and compete mightily for the hearts and minds and wallets of gravel consumers has changed the stakes. Now we’re seeing cash purses. Pro draws. Resort town destinations. Events cannibalizing events. Cushy camps and professional coaching.

Godfrey sees some of these changes as natural extensions. (How can grass grow without stretching away from its roots?) “In any sport, when you put enough money and acclaim out there, things are going to change.” He predicted more growth in the variety of gravel events out there.

We already have vocabulary for the various roads we ride: hero gravel, pea gravel, Velcro gravel, fire roads, B roads, white rock… Godfrey predicts we’re about to see just as much variation in the events we can ride. Events that appeal for their grassroots heritage alongside events that appeal for their payout or flash or accommodations.

“Riders can pick the flavor of gravel they want to support,” he said.

12813900_10154155294589059_2321497645289347990_nBased on color and taste, I’m guessing this is Stillwater, Oklahoma, flavored gravel.

The pains associated with this growth are uniquely felt in Lincoln. The decision to debut the glitzy new SBT Gravel race in Steamboat Springs during Gravel Worlds weekend dropped in Lincoln like a trout in a punchbowl. (Riders here, myself included, were not happy.)

With gobs of sponsors and a payout purse larger than most race budgets, SBT Gravel lured pros away from Lincoln. And many riders followed the racers west.

“We know we lost a lot of riders to their event,” Godfrey admitted. “It’s definitely made things more difficult for us to plan this year.”

Colin Strickland (winner of Gravel Worlds in 2018 and Dirty Kanza in 2019) urged Godfrey to switch dates as soon as he saw the conflict. But by then, it was too late. International racers from as far away as New Zealand had already arranged to be in Lincoln on August 17. He and Schmidty couldn’t pull the rug out from under them when the date had been on their calendars since last August.

39610625_10156562365959804_3947987561149890560_nGodfrey hands the champion’s cutlass to Strickland. (Photo, McColgan Photography)

So the conflict remains.

Or does it?

“When all this happened, Guitar Ted posted something that stuck with us,” Godfrey said. (Guitar Ted would be Mark Stevenson, founder of Trans Iowa, or basically the George Washington of endurance gravel.) “He said, ‘When you get down to it, is there really a conflict?’” Or are the two events so dramatically different in their nature and purpose that their appeal extends in opposite directions?

Guitar Ted’s point: Racers are gonna race. Riders are gonna ride.

“I think he’s absolutely correct,” Godfrey said.

Guitar Ted and Marlon Brando, left or right, I can’t tell.

Back in Kansas somewhere beyond Emporia, in the middle of the moonless night when June squeezed against May, Corey Godfrey was riding (not racing) the DKXL with his eyes squarely up.

“It was so quiet and beautiful and dark. No light pollution. And the Milky Way was just unreal,” he said. “The whole sky was just thick with stars.”

Another XL rider passed the Godfrey group then. “Look at that, would you?” Godfrey called out to him, his thumb jabbing upward. “You can see the whole galaxy from here.”

The rider peered up from his headlight’s beam. “Holy hell, you’re right,” he said, and pedaled on.

61878130_10214939459542740_1247994088922284032_n

It’s all smiles at the DKXL finish. (Photo, Venny Alub)

***

If you’d like to race SBT Gravel in Steamboat, you’re shit out of luck. They’re full. But if the grassroots vibe at Gravel Worlds sounds like your jam, you can register here for cheap.

Flat busted? Talk to Corey. Volunteer to stuff packets or something and there’s a good chance he’ll let you ride for free. He’s that kind of guy.


4 thoughts on “Watching the Grassroots Grow: The Corey Godfrey Interview

  1. So glad to have found this article! I am already signed up for GW and can’t wait to be part of this growing legacy that is Gravel Worlds.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s