I love the variety of ways by which I can enjoy riding a bike – from commuting, to touring, to road racing, mountain biking, charity rides, and cyclocross. I also love the fact that something that I’ve done for almost 20 years can feel completely new just by changing the landscape or tweaking a variable like distance or terrain.
Apparently, I’m not alone. For proof, take a look at the emergence of ultra-distance road and mountain bike events such as the Wisconsin Endurance Mountainbike Series, the Horribly Hilly Hundreds, and Dairyland Dare. Recently, another kind of ultra-distance event is growing in popularity and blurring the distinction between road and off-road. Sometimes referred to as “gravel grinders”, “monstercross”, or “ultracross”, these long-distance rides and races take place on a mixture of paved and unpaved roads. Many of them have names that evoke the spirit of Paris-Roubaix, a race that takes professional cyclists over ancient cobbled roads in northern France. Known as “the hell of the North”, Paris-Roubaix is generally regarded as the hardest, most punishing event on the professional road racing circuit.
The Midwest has become a hotbed for these types of events. I’ve done two this spring – Barry Roubaix in western Michigan and Dairy Roubaix in the driftless region of Wisconsin. Barry Roubaix has been around since 2009. I first did it in 2010. Back then, it was already a popular event, and it drew some of the area’s top road and mountain bike racers. This year, the event’s growing popularity was evidenced by the number of participants and the level of competition. 1,536 racers took part in this year’s event, most doing the 23 and 35-mile routes. 217 racers completed the 62-mile route. To illustrate the increased level of competition, consider that in 2010, my time was 3:54:45, and I finished in 42nd place. This year, my time was 3:08:54, but 53 people finished ahead of me. Both of my experiences at Barry Roubaix were extremely positive. The atmosphere is similar to that of a mountain bike festival, and things like registration and the posting of results are absolutely top-notch.
Dairy Roubaix was an equally excellent event, but in a very different way. It was more of a social ride, with no race numbers or mass start. Instead, people set out at their own pace, with either a paper map and cue sheet, or with the route programmed into their GPS computers. Since it wasn’t a competitive ride, I took time to enjoy the scenery and talk with fellow riders. My friends and I had family obligations in the evening, so rather than doing the full 102-mile route, we chose the 67-mile option. After we finished, we all agreed that we would have needed more than just extra time to have done those last 35 miles. Something like a motorcycle or Tom Boonen’s legs…
Despite their differences, these two events had a lot in common. Both drew participants of widely varying backgrounds and levels of experience. This could be seen in the diversity of their machines, from time trial bikes to fat bikes. Another common element was the abundance of what might be referred to as “recovery beverages” for the 21-and-older crowd. Most significantly, there was a palpable sense of fun and shared adventure.
There are plenty more gravel events on the 2012 calendar. The most comprehensive list can be found at a website called Gravel Grinder News, which is maintained by a legend of gravel riding who goes by the name Guitar Ted.