Gravel riding and racing has grown immensely over the past few years; gone are its days as a weird-third cousin of road, gravel (or “groad”) is now a discipline unto itself. Predominantly a spring and early-summer sport, you can find events both near and far.
The Chicago area has some great gravel events within one to two hours of the city (Rough Road 100, Midwest Gravel Championships); Western Illinois is notorious for its long, rocky roads with thousands of feet of climbing adding up over roller, after roller (Grumpy Grind, The Ten Thousand); Michigan’s sandy loam makes for some great and messy Midwestern ‘classics’ (Barry Roubaix, The Lowell 50); and those near-ish plains states have a number of epically long clay and gravel-coated long-distance slogs (Oklahoma’s Landrun 100 and Kansas’ Dirty Kanza being two of the most infamous). So why the recent uptick in gravel’s popularity? Accessibility.
It’s All About the Bike
As with all things cycling-related, bikes and gear take center stage. However, unlike road proper, the entry point for a gravel race is whatever you want to make of it. Want to splash out on a $4,000 specialty gravel bike? There are some super lux options out there for you to choose from. Canyon and 3T’s gravel ranges are made for bike snobs and weight weenies of the roadie world. Though ‘aero’ and ‘adventure bike’ might seem like a contradiction in terms to some, if it’s your jam then you can easily acquire a new bike for your line-up.
However, the really great thing about gravel racing is that you can ride any bike you want. Repurpose your cyclocross bike with some file treads, a double chainring, and two bottle cages, and it’s a gravel bike. Have a road frame that you can fit 30mm tires in? Frankly, on most of the terrain in the Chicago-area, that’s doable as a gravel set-up. (Though I would recommend you also tweak your gearing. Add a 32T cassette, and potentially pop on a compact crankset—it’s called gravel ‘grinding’ for a reason. No need to destroy those knees, chugging away on a 53T chainring.) Have a single speed bike? Perfect! Just be sure to check out the elevation map prior to the event and make sure you’ve got a good gear ratio going on. You’ll also see people on fat bikes, mountain bikes, and touring setups in the gravel scene. Ride ‘em if you got ‘em, folks.
Despite the multiplicity of gravel bike options, if you’re contemplating what upgrade has the biggest impact on performance, definitely focus on the tires or wheelset. You’ll never regret going tubeless when faced with 100 miles of sharp, jagged rocks. Likewise, if you’re on the cusp of a new frame decision, go disc. You will have zero regrets if there’s anyamount of descending in your race schedule.
…But It’s Also All About the Experience
The diversity of the gear also means you get a huge amount of diversity in the racers. Cyclocross racers do gravel for handling practice and pre-season base building; roadies have flocked to the gravel scene in the Midwest, at least partly due to the dearth of long road races in the area; mountain bikers are drawn to gravel as a fitness check before their season gets into full swing. As a result, the front of the (generally) mass start events is fast, surge-y, and absolutely reminiscent effort-wise of any bike race.
That said, gravel is as competitive as you want to make it. If you don’t want to ride at threshold, three inches off a stranger’s wheel for the first 20 miles, you can simply opt out of that wave of racers (i.e. don’t line up at the front). Uniquely, gravel also offers the opportunity to try racing without investing in a license, or having the stress of worrying if, as a newbie, you’re “race ready.” Most gravel races are structured so that you pick the distance and the category that seems the best fit for you. No USAC license? Then sign up for the Open. Never ridden 100 miles before? Well, you could register for the 30-mile course, or you could register for the 100 mile distance, knowing there’s a bailout option on the course that allows you to cut it short if need be.
The other perk as a woman racer is that gravel fields (and all mass starts) are essentially co-ed race events. If you’re looking for experience handling, drafting, pacelining, and reading a group of 30+ people at race pace, then gravel is an awesome option. All the results are separated by sex, but the racing experience is essentially co-ed. Racing gravel makes you more aggressive and smarter, tactics-wise, for whatever your ‘home’ cycling discipline may be.
Bottom line: Get on your bike. There’s no reason not to.