I’m pretty confident that over the next 5 years, gravel riding will be the fastest growing cycling related activity. I think that there will be explosive growth, similar to what mountain biking had in the 90s and triathlon had in the 2000s. You might think it is a fad, but I think it is the next big thing.
Cyclocross was supposed to be “the next big thing.” In general, the races are a bit more low key. People are competitive, but the level of fun seems a bit higher than a road race or a crit. Like crit racing, it’s a pretty awesome spectator experience, unlike road racing and triathlon (yawn). You get to push yourself to the limit, and the strongest guy normally wins, or at least podiums. There’s something about riding a bike across various terrain that really brings out the inner kid in you, and it’s a lot of fun. Being at the edge of your physical ability, your bike’s grip, and mastering the skills of a cyclocross racer are all things that make CX a great sport.
With all of that said, for whatever reason it feels like CX seems to be in a bit of a decline, at least locally. For a road race, people will travel 6+ hours. For a CX race, riders from OKC will hardly go to Tulsa, and Tulsa riders hardly go to OKC. Field sizes haven’t seemed to grow much over the past years, and in fact I think they are smaller. The local guys don’t seem to want to continue racing once they upgrade from a cat 3 to a cat 2.
Honestly, I fit into both of those statements. I rarely travel to Tulsa for CX races, and now that I’ve upgraded it just feels a little less fun. I guess the reason why its less fun is because I find myself paying $30 to race myself. I’m good enough to be a cat 2, but not in shape or talented enough to race at the front. Since there are less than 10 guys at a lot of these races, I find myself riding somewhere near the back all alone. Not much fun. I don’t mind losing…trust me, I’ve lost every single race RR and criterium I entered this year, but that hasn’t stopped me. It’s just not very much fun suffering for 45 minutes all by yourself when the race is up the road…or umm…grass. If there were 20 or so guys it would be a lot more fun and attractive, I think. Rock the Mohawk looked like a good field. I guess I should have gone up there!
Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a post about why I’m not racing cross. I don’t think anyone cares that I’m not racing cross.
Triathlon also seemed to have leveled off a bit. I think the huge explosion was because it had mass appeal. People wanted to test their limits to see if they are capable of completing a triathlon. Once they finish the first one, they were encouraged to take the next step and do something longer. Then they would get hooked, and they’d have to prove that they were really tough by finishing an Ironman. I guess that isn’t enough for some people, because there are events even longer than that now, or people who see how many days they can complete the Ironman distance back to back.
The thing is, the majority of triathletes are out there to prove to themselves that they can do something. They might not love swimming, biking, and running; but they love the feeling of accomplishment that comes along with finishing…and there’s nothing wrong with that. Triathlon proved that to have a huge turnout, you don’t need a massive payout; you need an event so grueling that people train and show up just to see if they can do it.
I think gravel racing combines both of those. There are events that, like triathlons, really appeal to the masses. Just finishing a century on gravel is a really cool accomplishment. After you finish a century, you can move up to one of the few 150 mile races, like Gravel Worlds, or if you are crazy you can do something like the 200 mile Dirty Kanza. Or, if you are newer to gravel or cycling in general, you can start with a “big ring” gravel race that is only 20-30 miles. There’s something for every level. There’s a small lead pack of guys who want to contest for the win, but the majority of riders are out there to have fun, see amazing views, meet new people, and push their mental and physical limits.
Like CX, there is something very pure about racing gravel. Just being out off the grid with no houses, street lights, stop signs, or cars in sight feels very liberating. It’s hard to explain. You just feel like you are on top of the world. It also usually makes me think about how it must have felt to ride a bike 100 years ago, before our road infrastructure is what it is now.
I’m by no means a gravel expert. I’ve only done a handful of events, but each one has been extremely challenging and extremely fun. After each race, people just hung out and chatted about the day they had. Every person had a unique story, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Our neighbors to the north (Kansas, not Canada) seem to be one of the leading states when it comes to gravel. I think us okies are catching on. I see more and more photos of people riding gravel. I hear stories of adventure riding, bikepacking, and camping out in these remote areas where paved roads are few and far between. I think that the Landrun 100 based in Stillwater will continue to be one of the leading gravel races in the country, and in the next few years there will probably be a lottery similar to events like Leadville.
Next fall, I’d love to see Oklahoma copy the format of the Kansas Big Ring Gravel Series, but on different weekends, of course. I went to their 4th event on Sunday, and it was one of the best days I’ve had on a bike in a while. The course was amazing. The views were stunning. The riders were friendly. The traffic was non existent. What more could you ask for?
I’m not dissing CX, triathlon, road, mountain, or any other cycling related discipline. I intend to keep doing all of those. I enjoy them all (some much more than others). They all take lots of training, skill, toughness, etc. They can all really suck in the moment, but feel so rewarding after. But if you haven’t given gravel riding/racing a try yet, you’re definitely missing out on a lot of fun.
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