What's the toughest challenge in cycling? For weekend riders looking to test their mettle, it just may be gravel grinding, an emerging style of cycling that's done on unpaved, backcountry roads covered in crushed limestone, granite, flint, or whatever rock happens to be around. Imagine pedaling over jagged marbles, or if it rains, through chunky peanut butter. In some places, gravel roads are like rutted, bone-jarring washboards. "Think of the worst piece of asphalt you've ever ridden," says gravel-race organizer Chris Skogen, "and it's just a little worse than that."
That these roads are unforgiving is the draw for gravel grinders: There's no traffic to compete with. There are 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads in the U.S., most just empty ribbons winding through remote areas. Over the past few years, gravel racers have begun appropriating them as a gritty new cycling frontier where there are no rules and no bureaucratic barriers (arranging for road closures, insurance, water stations, medics) to announcing a 60-, 100-, or even 300-miler.
According to Mark Stevenson, who runs the site Gravel Grinder News, participation has been on the rise since 2005. The number of races scheduled for this season is up by about 50 percent over last year, while attendance at longer-held races has exploded.
"It's push-back against the corporatization of races," says grinder Hurl Everstone. "The appeal for me is that it's all grassroots."
Stevenson agrees. "To do a 100-mile gravel race, it's supereasy," he says. "You just find a rural course, give out the route cues, and go for it. It's like when you were a kid and you said, 'Hey, let's race around the block!' It's that simple. You line them up and go."
That casual ethos is partly what attracts cyclists from across the spectrum. On the course, you'll see tandems, mountain bikes, hybrids, fat tires, and cyclo-cross. Serious groadies ride "rough road" bikes from makers like All-City Cycles, Rawland, and Salsa, which feature higher tire clearance for mud, a lower bottom bracket for stability, and more relaxed geometry for easier turning.
Perhaps the greatest appeal is the adventure inherent in riding 100 or more miles – and not for prize money but for pride. Because most gravel rides are unsupported, you're on your own dealing with heatstroke, hypothermia, broken bones, or broken bikes. As one groadie puts it, there's none of that "happy bullshit with team cars and stuff."
"We've had riders with eight flats drop out because they ran out of tubes and patch kits," says Jim Cummins, who organizes a Kansas race. "But more drop out because their bodies break down, not their bikes."
Despite (or maybe because of) the grueling nature of the sport, gravel grinders are a happy lot. At the finish line of a recent race in Iowa – the front door of a local bar – a pack of dirty cyclists stood laughing and drinking. I asked who'd won, but no one seemed to know or care.
More information: For listings of upcoming gravel races around the country, visit gravelgrindernews.com. The next big race is The Lowell 50, in Lowell, Michigan. It's a classic, "old-world style" ride on the banks of the Flat River and through rural Ionia County's more-than-70-percent-unpaved roads.