Racing through the Apocalypse

Gravel’s coming back, dirtheads.

Here and there, a few races are willing to peek their heads out and make a run.

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Hold my beer. I’m going first. (Photo, nationalgeographic.com)

Too soon? Not soon enough? My own feelings are a badly mixed drink of #pedaldamnit and #hunkerdown. Ask me whether racing’s return marks a victory for our community or a failure of it, and my only honest answer is: I think so, yes.

But let’s take this return as a given. And let’s ask ourselves a more interesting fundamental question.

Who will shape what gravel racing looks like from here?

About a million years ago, in late January, we asked: Will 2020 be the year gravel starts to suck? And I fretted over what might go wrong with our sport’s explosive growth. (Judging by the few thousand reads that post got, you worried some, too.)

Yes, our worries have since changed. There’s a pandemic burning now. And the president of the United States wonders aloud whether we’d all feel better if we stuck fluorescent lights up our backsides and gargled bleach.

It’s dark out there, friends.

But the same things that gave me hope about gravel’s future in January give me hope this May. The bigtime gravel things—like UCI involvement, an influx of World Tour pros and growing commercialization—can still give me the fantods.

Just the same, I see this pandemic strangely putting some new folks, at least temporarily, in the driver’s seat of our sporty little sport. And that change excites me.

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Hang on, dirtbags! (Photo, palmspringslife.com)

In our last episode, Midwestern gravel racing was largely being driven by the corporate captains of a few big ships.

There was Life Time in its second season of DK ownership, getting ready to debut its next big money-maker: “The Big Sugar” in Bentonville, Ark.

In Colorado, there was the rising hot-air balloon of corporate cash and resort accommodations behind Steamboat Gravel.

And down in Stillwater, Okla., there was the Mid South. While the Mid South retains its grassroots ownership, its 2020 edition was firmly hitched to Salsa’s ship, which used what seemed like “the last bike race on Earth” to debut its goldenly post-apocalyptic Stormchaser.

You could almost smell how much Salsa had riding on it.

Gravel rock star Bobby Wintle left it all on the stage to give Salsa the bike launch it was looking for. (Photos, 241 Photography, Tyler Siems, 241 Photography)

Maybe this belongs in another post, but I have to say the single-speed Stormchaser fascinates me for its intended spot in the gravel market. Salsa isn’t trying to make the Stormchaser your #1 bike. It aims oddly to be your #3—that inglorious bastard of a bicycle you order forward whenever conditions on the ground are too jacked up to risk your #1. A bike for when you smell landmines.

Two golden bastards: the Stormchaser and Brad Pitt. (Photos, theradavist.com and “Inglourious Basterds,” 2009)

Understand I’m not opposed to events sustaining themselves with corporate support. I heart Salsa; I heart Garmin; I heart Lauf. If Niner called me up tomorrow and offered to help keep Dirt Tan Bike Club going, I’d fart bluebirds.

bluebird-in-flight
Be free, little buddy! (Photo, americanexpedition.us)

But bike nerds understand that corporate affiliations inevitably affect a race’s geometry, which in turn affects its maneuverability. And in this unusual environment, an event’s maneuverability has freshly become much more valuable.

The races best suited to make a (relatively) safe go of it in these odd waters won’t be our hulking ships. They’ll be the scrappy events that can 86 what they did last year, reimagine everything and pull off a new approach that makes more sense now.

I saw one small Kansas race set for June (!) that plans to ban riders from touching the water coolers. You place your empties right here and step the hell back. The volunteer fills them for you so only one hand touches the spigot. (That’s something that probably can’t be scaled to larger races.)

Small events don’t have the elaborate expos to manage or sponsors to please. They draw participants from neighboring counties, not countries. They can more easily spread their small fields out (over literal fields). They can scrap pre-race meetings, bust the bottom out of a solo cup and use that as a bullhorn for whatever minimal instructions folks need.

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The little guys are about to have an upsized say in how we roll out from here. (Photo, McColgan Photography)

They can chip time their races and say, “Start when you feel like it.”

They can bend their courses into figure eights or clovers to do away with checkpoints altogether. “Resupply your damn self at your car and we’ll see you later.”

Managing afterparties can be as simple as spreading out your camping chairs. And requiring masks at the finish need not be any different than requiring helmets on racers or blinkies on bikes.

Now, I don’t hold that small races are risk-free. We have to remember this pandemic’s taste for feasting on the Midwest’s many meatpacking plants, prisons and nursing homes. Conditions here could flare too hot for events of any size at any point.

But I have more faith in the abilities of the men and women behind these smaller grassroots events to manage their inherently more manageable race environments. I also believe in their willingness to pull the plug if that’s the right call—because they don’t have the chamber of commerce and 42 sponsors breathing fire down their necks about money money money.

And if doing the right thing upsets a few grumpy racers, I also trust these directors to respond with the gruffness that makes gravel gravel. “I sure am sorry you didn’t get to race the Hayseed 100 this year, cupcake. I do hope you’ll grow up some and try again next year.”

If things stay sideways this summer, trying again next year is exactly what this cupcake intends to do.


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