Cycling the Grinduro: Off-Road Riding for the Rest of Us

Dain Zaffke

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of contemporary cycling is its obsession with etiquette.  Legions of self-appointed “rules” czars stalk the road and the internet. Riding on the road?  Better check your sock height and the positioning of your sunglasses vis a vis your helmet strap. Mountain biking splinters along essentially more minor schisms like wheel size. The length of your valve stems might prompt a social judgment. People get pigeonholed by their rides: Show up on the road or mountain bike trails with a cyclocross bike, as I have done, and you’re likely to draw more than a few raised eyebrows. Moral absolutes are alive and well and on two wheels.

Dain Zaffke, director of marketing at the sports clothing and equipment company Giro, has an antidote to these ills: Grinduro. Billed as “a race like no other,” the inaugural event took place on a resplendent October day in the High Sierras outpost of Quincy, California. There, nearly 400 riders — young and old, pros, and amateurs — gathered in the off-season quiet of the Plumas-Sierra Fairgrounds to tackle a 61-mile route that ranged across gravel fire roads, smooth blacktop, and newly carved dirt singletrack. Unlike a standard race, only certain segments were timed, meaning participants could ride the rest in a more social, relaxed fashion — as relaxed as 8,000 feet of off-road climbing can be (“China Grade” sounds like heroin, but in reality it was an “above category” gravel climb that turned many cyclists into walkers). 

Grinduro, which will return next year in California — with additional European locations currently being scouted — represents, says Zaffke, “a kind of turning point in cycling.”  It “is more about interacting, and being engaged, than simply putting your head down to hammer.” It’s also less niche: Cyclocross bikes were in abundance, but so too were mountain bikes. One brave couple rode a tandem, to much applause. A few hardy souls rode fixed gear bikes; a couple were clad in sneakers rather than cleats. After the race, lycra gave way to flannel, and riders returned to the fairgrounds to inspect the wares of bespoke frame-builders like Black Cat and listen to live shows by Ray Barbee and Mike Watt. 

(A dusty climb at the 2015 Grinduro. Photograph by Jordan Haggard)

Grinduro isn’t alone. You can soon begin registering for a spate of other boundary-blurring events in 2016, including D2R2, a grueling, largely dirt road “randonee” held every August in Western Massachusetts; Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a “gravel grinder” hosted by pro mountain bike racer Rebecca Rausch every September in Idaho; Dirty Kanzaa, another gravel ride set in rural Kansas in May, trades climbing for distance (some 200 miles of bone-shaking effort); and plenty more, from Italy’s Superenduro B-Road to the mixed-surface “Lost and Found” ride, also held in the High Sierras, to Eroica, an Italian import now held in California that sends riders on a challenging on- and off-road course on required vintage bikes. While each of these events has its own character, they generally present a mix of terrain, can be tackled with mountain bikes or “drop-bar bikes,” and while they can feel as competitive as you want, are not traditionally sanctioned races (even the legendary Tour of the Battenkill, billed as America’s “largest pro-am race,” and which mixes pavement and gravel, is shifting next year to an unsanctioned format, in response to what it says are liability issues and the “changing demographics” of cycling).

The idea of Grinduro was born over beers at a European bike trade show a few years ago, as Zaffke was talking with Joe Parkin, a former pro cyclist (the only person to win championships in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking, and hence, says Zaffke, a sort of “poster boy” for Grinduro) and author of A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood and Betrayal and Beauty in Belgium. The two were chatting about how fun it can be to descend on gravel on road bikes. A sort of your-chocolate-is-in-my-peanut-butter idea blossomed: Why not combine the increasingly popular “Enduro” format from mountain biking (think timed downhill segments) with the also increasingly popular “gravel grinder.” (Dirty Kanzaa, for example, went from 34 riders in 2006 to more than 1,500 in 2015). The nonprofit Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, which had helped put Downeyville on the map as a mountain biking destination, let Zaffke know about a new trail they had built, on Quincy’s Mount Hough, in the hopes of bringing similar tourist dollars to the town. “It’s a hidden gem,” says Zaffke.

Like all portmanteau mash-ups, Grinduro melds two distinct things in a way that seems new, but was usually there all along, just in not quite so tangible a form. People took so enthusiastically to the Grinduro format, Zaffke suggests, because “that’s how people ride on weekends. It’s going out on a Saturday, totally hammering the climbs, and then regrouping on the descent to laugh about it.”

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