The night was quiet at the Katy Trail shelter in McBaine, Missouri, until distant voices and the sound of grinding gravel broke the silence. A pair of bright white LED lights emerged from the darkness and a pair of cyclists — one in orange, the other in blue — blazed down the crushed limestone and out of sight.
Less than 30 minutes later, Craig Lycke, 42, and Donovan Evans, 48, returned to the parking lot at the Jay Dix Station trailhead near Scott Boulevard. Despite the 33-degree wind chill, they were pumped.
“This was a treat. I could have ridden all night,” Lycke said. “We crossed paths with a red fox on our way out, and we heard coyotes in the distance. It was really neat.”
Lycke and Evans were training for the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile race on June 4 in Emporia, Kansas. It will be their first time at the event and the two plan to ride 3,000 to 4,000 miles in preparation.
“Over the last couple of years, gravel has exploded,” Lycke said. “Between the Katy Trail and all of the gravel we have out here, it really does lend itself well to gravel riding.”
Lycke first discovered the sport after a friend turned him onto it in 2013. He was training for an Iron Man and relished the opportunity to get outside and train during the winter as a means to stay in “bike shape” during the off season.
“A lot of people do spin classes or ride trainers inside,” Lycke said. “I don’t possess that sort of discipline — I need to get outside.”
Great on Gravel
Cyclists are drawn to gravel roads, during the winter and, increasingly, year-round, because gravel isn’t affected by adverse weather to the same degree as asphalt and dirt trails. In short, it’s safer for both the rider and the trail.
And there’s no shortage of places to ride. There are 1.42 million miles of unpaved gravel or dirt roads in the U.S., according to a 2008 report by the Federal Highway Administration.
John Donjoian is the founder of Gateway Off-Road Cyclists, an organization that builds and maintains trails around St. Louis. He said that heat from the sun can soften the top layer of soil on dirt trails during cold weather, creating conditions that can inflict severe damage on the trails when cyclists use them.
“It’s worse than rain,” Donjoian said. “When it rains, most of the water is going to run off the trail. In the freeze-thaw cycle, that’s when you can really damage things. Those conditions are terrible, and they’re not much fun to ride in.”
Donjoian said that, although dirt trails can recover, it takes time for them to heal — up to two months — and sometimes they require further maintenance. But because almost all of the mountain biking trails around St. Louis are human-made, bikers are more conscious of their impact on the trails.
“And so many guys, myself included, have taken to gravel,” Donjoian said.
The Rocheport Ride
One of the events Lycke and Evans will ride in leading up to the Dirty Kanza is the Rocheport Roubaix, a gravel race put on by Ultramax Sports of Columbia, Missouri. It’s the second year for the event, which features races of 15, 33, 50 and 67 miles.
Chrissie Campbell, the race’s director, hopes the shorter distances will draw new cyclists to the sport.
“We’re trying to attract people who have never done gravel riding, and this way it hits every level,” Campbell said. “And for the people that are already ingrained in gravel riding, it will give them a challenge.”
Something that makes the Roubaix unique among other gravel events is the “King of the Hill” challenge. Riders are timed as they climb key hills along the course, Campbell said. Whoever has the best time in his or her race category will be named “The Rocheport Roubaix King of the Hill.”
In 2015, the race was held in early February, and temperatures dipped to 12 degrees. And still, more than 100 riders showed up.
“Everyone who finished was so happy that they finished because some of the hills are really difficult,” Campbell said. “We had several racers emailing us throughout the year, making sure we were going to put it on for year two.”
Part of the appeal for many cyclists is the grassroots nature of the sport. Races such as the Joe Dirt ride, which takes place on a 23.5-mile loop in Steeleville, Missouri, are organized via a Facebook event page where riders can discuss the event and share pictures afterward. In the more casual races, riders only have a route plugged in to a GPS system to guide them.
Lawrence Simonson, assistant director at PedNet Coalition, non-profit organization based in Columbia that promotes active transportation through advocacy and educational programming, said there’s a strong community built around hosting grassroots gravel events. He said bike club leaders meet with each other to coordinate their events to avoid conflicting race dates.
Since 2013, Simonson has hosted his own Rocheport race: the Hairy Hundred.
“It’s a way to thank other people who put on races around the state,” Simonson said. “We really do think that we have the best gravel in the state. We wanted to showcase that and let people see some of the awesome sights and roads that we have.”
Minimizing the Risk
Although the surface of gravel is less forgiving than asphalt or dirt when you wipe out on it, gravel enthusiasts say they feel safer on it than pavement.
“Gravel isn’t nearly as dangerous as riding on paved roads because there’s less traffic,” Lycke said. “On gravel you’re not really worrying about having cars pass you as much.”
Still, gravel has its own unique risks. Weather, consistency and fresh gravel placed by road maintenance crews all contribute to an ever-changing experience. While paved roads offer a reliable and smooth ride, one gravel road can change conditions several times throughout the year.
“It can be a hard-packed road one time, and the next time it can be like riding through sand,” Josh Stockwell, a mechanic at Klunk Bicycles and Repair in Columbia, said. “Gravel is a tricky medium to ride on because it’s loose. It’s almost like riding on marbles.”
He advises newcomers to the sport to be mindful about controlling their speed. On a steep gravel hill, hitting the brakes or making a sharp turn can be dangerous.
Cooper Mittlehauser, an employee at Walt’s Bike Shop, also in Columbia, said that having a bike with wide enough tires is also important for a safe ride.
“There’s such a slim margin of error on road bikes,” Mittlehauser said. “You can hit a crack or touch wheels with someone at 20 miles (per hour) and crash and burn, hardcore. That doesn’t happen with gravel.”
But with the right gear and experience, gravel offers cyclists an exciting new way to explore new horizons. “It keeps things fresh and new. You can ride the same road a bunch of times and have a different experience every time,” Stockwell said.
Mittlehauser agrees. “It feels like you’re out there on your own. There’s a greater sense of adventure, of getting off the beaten path,” he said.
A Growing Sport
One of the most obvious indicators of the sport’s rapid growth is the success of the Dirty Kanza, which kicked off in 2006 with just 34 riders. It’s now the premiere event in the sport.
Lelan Dains, the race’s operations manager, said this year was a new record for participation. “Gravel cycling is the hot thing right now,” he said. “It’s the fastest growing genre of cycling.”
Dains said that last year it took 36 hours to fill up the 1,500 available spots.
Registration for this year’s event opened at 8 a.m. January 9. Within three hours, all 1,900 spots for the Dirty Kanza were filled.
Like most gravel cycling races, there aren’t cash prizes or lucrative awards for finalists. But for many gravel cyclists, it’s an aspect that makes the sport more attractive compared to larger, sanctioned racing events.
“It’s the same reason people do 5Ks or triathlons,” Lawrence Simonson said. “People aren’t there to win, they’re there for the personal accomplishment.”
At the Dirty Kanza, those who show up to win are in the minority, Dains said. “The last person that finishes is just as important to us as the first person,” he said. “It’s an accomplishment to finish, and that’s how most gravel events are.”
Dains said that for many years, gravel cyclists were riding modified cyclocross and mountain bikes. But they made for an uncomfortable ride over long distances.
“Gravel conditions were so much gnarlier than what people experienced on cyclecross that people knew it would be beneficial to have an even wider tire,” Dains said.
It wasn’t long before the bicycling industry caught on.
“2010 is when manufacturers first started to make gravel bikes, and it took a few more years before everyone really caught on,” Dains said. “Now everyone’s making an all-weather or all-road bike.”
Dains said that now it’s difficult to find a bicycle manufacturer at any level that isn’t making a bike designed for gravel roads.
“Gravel cycling has certainly influenced the industry in a big, big way,” Dains said.
It didn’t stop at bikes, either. In order to accommodate the wider tire sizes that cyclists were using, manufacturers began making wheel sets that could match the larger tire width.
“Every level of the bicycling industry is making parts and accessories designed for gravel now,” Dains said.
An Unsanctioned Sport
The sport of gravel cycling lacks a sanctioning organization. Unlike road cycling and mountain biking, which are governed by USA Cycling, gravel races don’t have a governing body to set standards for qualifying races or standardized race distances.
As the sport of gravel cycling continues to grow, Dains said the creation of a governing body for the sport is a possibility.
“Perhaps a day might come where there is a sanctioned gravel national championship,” Dains said.
Dains cited mountain biking as a sport that grew in a way similar to the way gravel cycling has. “Now we have national championships, and it’s an Olympic sport. It’s probably inevitable,” Dains said. “Who knows what we’ll see in 10 years?”
Author: Ben Kothe. This story was originally published in the Columbia Missourian.