Gravel cycling is abundant in the region, and it’s only getting started. From grassroots fundraisers and sanctioned multi-day adventures to nationally recognized races, the gravel culture has built a home here in the Midwest with no plans of leaving.
In order to dig a bit deeper into some of the top events in our region, you’ll first need a greater understanding of what gives gravel cycling its identity in the first place. If you’re new to this magazine, I’d suggest you glance at the “The Growing Appeal of Gravel Riding in the Midwest” from our June 2021 issue. The article does an excellent job of highlighting gravel cycling’s growing relationship with comradery and community, its intimate experience with your surroundings, and the historical relevance of the land that we ride through.
Understanding these fundamental elements to this growing genre of cycling (un)paves the way for us to give greater value to the variety of races and events that flourish in this region. Once you’re ready to try your first foray into the lifestyle, here’s a look at the must-do gravel grinds in our area, and what makes them special.
The Dirty South Roubaix
Nothing quite launches the local gravel race season like the Dirty South Roubaix, held each year on the first Saturday of March in the heart of the southern Illinois. Rooted in a connection to the local cycling community and an appreciation for the challenging terrain that this area offers, the Dirty South embraces all the fundamental elements of the gravel cycling culture, while promoting a sustainable approach to competitive racing.
Having started out as a group ride over six years ago, the event has been steadily growing ever since, with 500 riders this past spring. Regular appearances from nationally ranked riders and teams line up with groups of cyclists that enjoy riding more of a “party pace,” displaying gravel cycling’s true colors on a local scale. The main offering is a 100k course, along with an option for the 50k course — trust us, you get your money’s worth on either!
The route launches out of the incredibly welcoming village of Alto Pass and takes you through both scenic and challenging stretches of the Shawnee National Forest and Trail of Tears State Forest, as well as down levees surrounded by the local Wildlife Refuge. Race Director Shawn Moore, owner of the local Bike Surgeon of Southern Illinois, Pat Work, and the entire team have created a unique relationship with St. Nicks Brewery, so that when you finish, you can grab a complimentary bottle of the Dirty South Roubaix Black Ale. facebook.com/dirtysouthgravel
The Mid South
Mud. Music. Hugs. Laughter. Mud. Single speed. Mud. These are all words frequently used to describe what has grown to become known as The Mid South. Regularly scheduled for the second Saturday in March, this internationally known race takes you through the southwest corner of Missouri and across the border into the blue-collar town of Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Having just celebrated its 10th anniversary, the history of The Mid South reaches back to 2011 under the name of the Land Run 100. With just over 100 riders that first year, the event now welcomes upwards of 3,000 participants between the multiple ride distances and a 50k run. The main offering at The Mid South is its 100-mile gravel race. Over the years, a 50-mile option, 12-mile inspiration ride, and 50k run have been added. There’s an impressively large group of folks who participate in “The Double,” which entails tackling the 50k foot race on Friday and the 100-mile gravel race on Saturday.
What makes this event one of the top gravel races in the Midwest, and one of the premier races in the world, is its unparalleled relationship to the participants, to the land that it traverses, and the history that surrounds it. Event founder and Director of Stoke Bobby Wintle refers to the weekend not just as a race, but as a festival of love for the bicycle, for the land, and for the native people who first inhabited it.
Once you arrive in Stillwater, you’ll know what he’s talking about. Race weekend is packed full with both the foot and bike races, as well as a large industry vendor gathering, a concert, film showings, presentations, and much more. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to put this one on your calendar, and whatever happens out there, get yourself to the finish. Bobby will be waiting to give you a hug! midsouthgravel.com
The Epic in Missouri
The Ozarks are undoubtedly home to the oldest, most rugged and scenic terrain in Missouri, and racing the gravel roads within them makes for one epic day on the bike. Running since 2016, the host town of The Epic in Missouri has rotated a couple times, but the spirit of the race has only grown richer with each year that passes. With more than 13,000 feet of vertical gain on the main offering to an endless amount of creek crossings and old railroad bridges, the backcountry gravel excitement never ceases here.
The “King of Gravel” Ted King compares this course to the likes of the nationally renowned Steamboat Gravel course, where the terrain isn’t incredibly technical but the unwavering amount of elevation gain and descent is constantly playing into tactics. Whether you’re riding team tactics or just trying to make it through the day, a good deal of patience and some seasoned climbing legs are good things to bring when you head to Warsaw for The Epic in Missouri.
With 50-, 90-, and 150-mile route options, this year’s event is right around the corner, with the race day set for July 9. epic150.com
Tour of Hermann Gravel Challenge
Having just returned to Missouri’s Wine Country for its ninth iteration is the Tour of Hermann Gravel Challenge. The rolling, riverside hills that frequent east central Missouri are part of the state’s DNA, and the surrounding gravel roads serve as veins from the town of Hermann to the untouched swaths of central Missouri backcountry. The annual event, which is part Alpine Shop’s Off-Road Racing League, provides a unique opportunity for gravel racing for all riding levels with a non-traditional route breakdown.
For starters, the challenge is broken into a two-day event with three loops offered on Saturday and two more loops offered on Sunday. Each route varies in length and is mile-for-mile almost entirely different from one another, but each begins and ends at the Hermann City Park.
The Challenge is designed to where a beginner gravel racer can pick and choose one or multiple loops over the weekend, where more serious gravel racers can ride all five, with times added up from each of the loops over the course of the weekend. If the entire challenge is completed, you’ll be entered into the Tour of Hermann Gravel Challenge Elite Club.
Alongside the incredible routes this challenge will take you on, all participants are in for a treat once they set the bike down Saturday night: catered dinner, pours from Urban Chestnut Brewing, Hermann-area wine, and snacks from Great Harvest Bakery are all covered with your registration fee. offroadracingleague.com
The StG Gravel Classic
Having just made its inaugural debut, this new Missouri gravel race kicked off in historic downtown St. Genevieve on April 9. In cooperation with the city of St. Gen, Trailnet’s first gravel race weekend had something for every rider, with 20-, 24-, and 78-mile course offerings.
From NICA-level student riders to the top area gravel racers, the quant riverside town of St. Genevieve offered up its own incredibly scenic gravel paradise for all to enjoy. All three of the routes took riders south of town before linking up with some flat levee stretches paralleling the Mississippi River. The longer routes led riders through some unique, bicycle-specific stretches of gravel in and out of towns like Old Kaskaskia, St. Mary, Lithium, and McBride before reaching the most southern part of the course outside of Perryville.
Many hands came together to make this inaugural gravel experience not only happen, but one to remember. Billy Goat Bicycle Company stepped up to support the race timing, GU Energy had the aid stations stocked with on-the-bike nutrition, and Logan University welcomed riders back to the finish with post-mile massages.
That’s not it, though! Finish line festivities were made better yet with Schlafly Beer covering post-ride libations and prizes awarded from InMotion Bike Fit Studio, Wahoo Fitness, Ortlieb Waterproof bags, and several others.
Keep an eye out for next year’s race date to be announced, because you’ll want to make room for the StG Gravel Classic on your calendar. trailnet.org
More Midwest Grassroots Gravel
Cape Rock Crusher
A gravel fundraising series held in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. facebook.com/CYCLEWERX
A 300-mile, fully self-supported adventure along the back roads of Mississippi. ordinaryepics.com/delta-epic
A mix of gravel rides in an enduro (timed segment) format, held around Missouri. lokievents.com
The Hairy Hundred
One hundred miles of gravel, starting and finishing at Cooper’s Landing in Columbia, Missouri. thehairy100.net
Humphrey’s Gravel Grinder
Presented by Smithville (Mo.) Parks & Rec, with 200-, 100-, 50-, and 25-mile options. smithvilleparksrec.com
Holy Rollers Gravel Race
Hosted by Team Noah in the hills surrounding Hemmann Winery and Frohna, Missouri. teamnoahfoundation.org
Iron Horse Gravel Grinder
Benefit gravel grind on the Frisco Highline Trail and back roads of Missouri’s Polk, Greene, and Dade counties. ozarkgreenways.org
Author: Aaron Arnzen is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: The Epic in Missouri. (Brad Glidwell)