The sport of a cycling used to be a reasonably straightforward and easy to follow sport. There was road racing with track and cyclocross being the winter alternatives. Also since the 1990s there has been mountain biking with usually either XC for the fitness oriented shaved leg variety of rider and downhill for the more ‘yahoo oriented’ rewarding bike handling and skills off road at high speed.
That was more or less cycling in a nut shell! Over the past decade the popularity of the sport particularly among the wealthier demographics has spawned an evolution of numerous different disciplines in our sport. Mountain biking in particular has just gone bananas with the amount of different styles you can choose to ride from. Not just XC, there is Enduro, 24 hour, XCM of course, trail, eliminator and what is the fusion of road, CX and XC the ever popular ‘Gravel Grinding’.
Gravel Grinding is a curious discipline within our sport and one which always appealled to me. As a road racer I often preferred to train on dirt roads but would usually see a regular road bike as suffice for the demands. However, now iconic events such as the Dirty Kanza 200 mile have sprung up and have cult like followings selling out entries within hours of opening. This year Michigan adventure personalities Matthew Acker and Mark VanTongeren had an idea to create a Gravel Grind race crossing their home state of Michigan in the USA Mid West. Crossing the state would take 213 miles of dirt roads, snow mobile trails and farm tracks. An ambitious idea and one which came to fruition last weekend with the initial Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder.
As a Michigan local by marriage who happened to be in the state at this time of year I thought signing up would be a good idea seeing as I was ‘in the area’. I have ridden 300+km before albeit on a road bike and arrogantly assumed doing the 345km route on a CX bike should be no problem and imagined it would just be a case of turning pedals over for a long time (12+ hours).
The race turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had first envisaged, small rises of less than 50m began to feel like alps with 200+km of sandy dirt roads in the legs. Those 33c tyres that I cranked up to over 60psi thinking I would get free speed were shaking my bones out of my skin, the sheer boredom of straight line roads through farm after farm took its toll on the mind. After a wrong turn at about mile 90 that added about 25 minutes to my ride time I surrendered any hope for a good result in this race and succumbed to the difficulty of this new discipline. Grinding away to get to the finish was now my main aim for the race. Which in itself is challenging enough.
With my bike computer translated to miles to adapt to the race route book was an extra mind battle as compared to kms those numbers tick over SO SLOWLY!! Especially when pushing your bike through sand!
IMG_3991– Thoughts at the halfway mark from team rider Justin Morris
The annoyance/ frustrations of these races double as part of its appeal! You are forced into some pretty dark elements of the mind especially when riding solo on these long distance adventures, you can think about anything/ everything in your life, start to question your choice in sports even, dream of what kind of junk food you are going to smash when you finish. These thoughts and pushing through them are I think a big part of the challenge of these races. In what I would call ‘regular’ XCO or XCM races the mind is usually so focussed on the skills required to handle the bike in tricky terrain at high speed that there is little opportunity for thinking, just reacting. In gravel grinding you don’t need to worry about any bike handling skill whatsoever, you would rarely if ever need to do any intensity to train for it, there is little if any tactics involved it is just pure pushing of the pedals and dealing with pain and discomfort. Riders in these events are as the discipline would suggest your alternative style of cyclist which is also part of the appeal. Riders turn up on obscure bikes with handlebars as wide as a jumbo jet wingspan, tyres looking like they should be on a fat bike rather than a ‘funked up’ CX bike, most bikes had what seemed like rucksacks strapped all over the frame with ‘frame bags’ considered near essential to store all the gear required. I was grateful to be using the convenient Camelbak Chase Vest on the day saving my Norco Threshold from looking like a Samsonite storefront.
The appeal is in the alternative nature of this sport. Rarely in professional road racing or XCM racing have I ever been able to go into deep conversation with my competitors. In Gravel Grinding this is considered normal. You will get to meet some pretty cool, funky people in these races and doing so is part of the fuel required to push through the many hurdles the races command.
From the outside it seems as though there is very little competitive nature in this sport, saying that though there is still a healthy prize purse in this race and many other similar events. Full results can be found here. Many riders are there to conquer there own demons or challenges rather than beat anybody else. Hence, anyone can take something away from these events. Would I do it again? Probably not. But I am glad I have done it, I’d recommend it to anyone, an experience you won’t forget and what better way to do it than across an iconic state in the USA crossing from one great lake to another.
The other thing I am grateful to have taken away from this experience is that a four or five hour XCM race will never feel long again!