Inside gravel’s ongoing quest to be the discipline for everyone
How new events like Grounded Nebraska and Core4 build on the successes — and learn from the mistakes — of veteran races.
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Gravel may be young by bike racing standards, but it’s also old enough to know better. Especially in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the last few years in particular have seen major events make major changes, from new names to additional categories to hosting a plethora of activities adjacent to race day.
And, while established events continue to evolve so that gravel remains welcoming and accessible, new ones are cropping up in the fertile soil.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of launching a gravel race now is the ability to build upon other organizer’s successes — and learn from their mistakes.
With that, however, come high expectations. Not only must event organizers provide a worthwhile experience for professional athletes, but the races should be challenging for age groupers, non-intimidating for newer cyclists, and fun for the party in the back. Add in affordability and priority given to underserved populations, and that’s a lot to put on one plate.
But just as people are hungry to ride gravel, new organizers are keen to provide the fuel.
Caitlin Dumas, one half of the founding team of Grounded Nebraska, a new event that will debut south of Lincoln on June 25, said she doesn’t mind the jigsaw puzzle of expectations.
“A huge tenant of the event is being intentional about inclusion and working structures and initiatives in from the start,” she said. “We have the opportunity to do that as a new event, we don’t have to retroactively go back and change things. We really wanted to create a space where everyone belongs. The pros belong as much as everyone else. If we can give someone a great opportunity to get into cycling whether that’s them winning a cash prize that helps fortify or start racing or through our rider support program that helps get more people on bikes. We’re just looking at the whole breadth of scene and how can we put pieces into it that help grow it.”
Because gravel is largely a participatory sport, most race organizers have been to a gravel race or two before they dive into putting an event on themselves. For new organizers, the R&D is essential.
In fact, taking a deep dive into other events was how Dumas and Grounded Nebraska’s co-founder Susan Cronin first approached creating their own
“Basically, we’ve looked at what our favorite events and thought about what we loved about them and what we didn’t love,” she said. “Then we asked other people, ‘what events do you love? What sticks out? What works and what didn’t?’ And started forming the event from there.”
The two were on hand at The Mid South a few weeks ago to gain even more perspective on running their race. They volunteered throughout the entire race weekend with the intention of honing in on operational details. They asked the organizers to stage them at different areas throughout the weekend so they could collect snapshots of how the race was run. They took notes on things like QR codes for route downloads and portapotties at aid stations.
A curmudgeony race organizer might accuse them of spying or stealing, but that’s not gravel (and it’s especially not Bobby Wintle). The Mid South staff actually went out of its way to make sure the Grounded Nebraska team had a good experience the event.
If going to and studying gravel events is one way that a novice organizer can ensure success from the start, it’s amazing what often follows: veteran organizers willingly share their secrets. It’s a real life example of the old adage — imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Alex Buhmeyer, whose new event Core4 debuts in Iowa on August 27, experienced first-hand being taken under the wing of an established race promoter.
After signing up for the Rule of Three event in Bentonville last year, Buhmeyer started creating his own “Rule of Three training routes” by linking up gravel, urban singletrack, and B Roads near Iowa City. Even though his only knowledge of the event was from its website and this VeloNews article, Buhmeyer already felt that that the Rule of Three concept — one race, three types of terrain — could easily work in Iowa, too.
When he finally went to the event, he was blown away — by the race, yes, but moreso the people.
“I met Andy [Chasteen, one of the race organizers] right at the gate,” Buhmeyer said. “We started chatting, he was super approachable. After the event, we started emailing, I told him about the concept and before I knew it, he’s up here in Iowa. He flies up in July, and I show him the route we’ve developed, and he’s like, ‘this is awesome.'”
After Chasteen’s visit, he and Buhmeyer kept in touch and decided to partner up in the form of cross-promotion — Buhmeyer and the Core4 crew will head to Arkansas in May to help out at Rule of Three, and in August, the Rule of Three folks will support Core4 in Iowa.
At The Mid South, which celebrated its 10th edition this year, there was a similar display of cross-pollination: a team from Gravel Worlds hosted one of the most popular aid stations on course.
Walking the talk
While it feels like a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ situation in gravel right now, race organizers know that popularity alone isn’t enough to keep a race afloat.
In the last two years, race organizers have made a concerted effort to diversify start lines and shift the focus away from the pro experience — or at least downplay its importance. Most events now host no-drop shakeout rides, reserve a certain number of entries for groups traditionally overlooked in cycling, and have added categories beyond male and female.
Nevertheless, it’s a delicate balance. Organizers know the value of having a competitive race at the front in terms of the media attention and sponsorship dollars it provides. But they also have to look out for the back of the bunch.
“I think people love it,” Dumas said of the pro race. “I know I get so excited for it. It creates excitement and buzz, but at the same time the 90 percent of people that are there for their own reasons, what can we do to help support them?”
Buhmeyer said he was impressed with how The Mid South addressed the elite 10 percent and the 90 percent of everyone else exactly the same way as they crossed the finish line — with a massive hug from Wintle.
“It makes everyone feel special,” he said.
Both Core4 and Grounded Nebraska have inclusive and equitable initiatives and principles baked into their structure. From short, beginner-friendly distances to working with advocacy group partners, Dumas and Buhmeyer both mention the concept of breaking down barriers through their events.
“Without it, what’s the point?” Buhmeyer said. “I want to be purposeful. I want to make sure this isn’t just for an elite group of people. I want to make sure there’s opportunities.”
Core4’s answer to accessibility is a sliding scale registration fee. Buhmeyer and his partners have done extensive research into the cost of events in the area, as well as larger gravel events. They came up with a number that would allow them to cover costs as well as donate a percentage to local non-profits and then determined how much less they could charge and still give charitably.
“This is a way that we feel is fair to build some economic justice,” Buhmeyer said. “Making sure we’re providing access. If people know that the proceeds will go to bike centric non-profits, hopefully they won’t have trouble paying the full fee. But if they can’t, there will be no questions asked.”
In Nebraska, Dumas is addressing accessibility with the Rider Support Program, which users sponsor dollars to support a few new riders’ journey to the start line. Currently, Grounded Nebraska is supporting seven people through this program, with priority given to people in rural areas, as well as BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and WTF cyclists.
Registration for Core4 opens on April 2, and Grounded Nebraska is currently filling spots. Its rider registration numbers thus far show that something, perhaps all of the things, are working: 47 percent of all registered riders are women, 45 percent are men, and the non-binary/gender expansive category has 13 percent of the total.
Prize money, affordability, inclusivity, and accessibility are all important hooks for people looking to go to a gravel race. They’re also a lot of responsibility for organizers. Is it too much? Does making everyone happy have a cost?
Dumas said she’s been cognizant of the risk of over-promising and under-delivering. She knows that the event as a whole needs she and Cronin’s focus. But, she feels confident that certain issues are worth committing to.
“Yes, operationally, there is a limit to the initiatives you can feasibly accomplish with the given time and budget available,” she said. “That’s just the reality of it. However, I view initiatives as reaching a hand out, or lowering the barriers of entry to bring more people into cycling and its community. And when you look at it through that perspective, then no, I don’t believe there is such a thing as too many initiatives. That’s why it’s a pillar of what we’re doing.”