Putting on a bike clinic, or camp, is tricky. How do you provide a worthwhile experience to 20 people of varying abilities and expectations, feed them healthy yet interesting food in a comfortable setting, provide structure (but not too much), and also differentiate yourself from the rest?
It takes a special blend.
Read also: Letter from camp: Special Blend Gravel
Last week, pro mountain biker Serena Bishop Gordon hosted the first-ever Special Blend Gravel, a three-day gravel camp for women. Based out of the Balch Hotel in Dufur, Oregon, the camp included seminars on nutrition and sleep, as well as on-the-bike coaching (Bishop Gordon was joined by Sarah Sturm, Janel Spilker, Sarah Max, and Yuri Hauswald as instructors), fully supported training rides, and entry into the Gorge Gravel Grinder.
While the tangibles helped sell the event, the intangible energy of new friendships, energy, and curiosity on the bike was the real success in the end.
Much like summer camp, Special Blend Gravel began with a quick ‘getting to know you’ exercise. The 20 participants hailed from as far afield as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, while most traveled from cities in the Pacific Northwest.
I was amazed to hear how many of the women discovered gravel during the pandemic. Some had only used bikes for commuting before then, while others had been part of local teams and clubs. Others still were transitioning from running and triathlon.
As a journalist, it was helpful for me to step back and observe these women’s relationships with riding and their bikes. As I’ve long suspected, many women are not that interested in granular tech conversations but rather want just the right amount of information to improve their ride experience.
Fueled is fast.
Food was an important part of Special Blend Gravel, with hearty breakfast options like oatmeal and eggs, charcuterie-style lunches, and various options for dinner. Yuri Hauswald from GU was on-hand with ride food and drink mix. He also gave a short seminar about fueling on the bike.
Too many camps are plagued with too much talking. Not Special Blend Gravel. The keystone of each day was a 40-50-mile, 3-4 hour gravel ride. All coaching was done on the bike.
“The coaches had an amazing ability to give real time feedback and tips on the go, while keeping the rides moving so we covered some serious miles,” said CJ from Oakland, California.
Both routes both included sections of the Gorge Gravel Grinder race course — the 55, 67, or 93-mile race on Sunday capped off the final day of camp.
“Yes, the bike riding was fun and the routes were amazing, but this camp was about more than just bikes,” said Sarah from Salem, Oregon. “The coaches were all so approachable and friendly. Over the course of the weekend, I was able to fine tune my skills but also came away with a sense of gratuity for the amazing community fostered by Serena, et al. It is empowering to be around a group of strong women who share a passion.”
The gravel riding in north-central Oregon during sprintime is sublime. Endless fields of bright green wheat and barley abutted cherry orchards abloom.
While many women came to Special Blend Gravel with specific questions about riding gravel, it was also clear that most were simply looking to ride bikes, get to know other women, and to relish the time away from the daily grind. There was abundant time to socialize off the bike, and conversations that started on the ride easily flowed into downtime back at the hotel.
Sean Cochran, Schwalbe’s North American marketing manager, was on hand all weekend. He used Schwalbe’s soon-to-be-released app to help riders adjust their tire pressure before riding each day.
Before Saturday’s ride, “Rad Chad” from Autobahn Coffee opened up the back of his bus to serve espresso drinks.
Mt. Hood was a constant companion, and clear skies afforded views of Rainier, Mt Adams, and even Mount St. Helens.
Who doesn’t want Sarah Sturm cheering for them at the top of a climb?
Bishop Gordon partnered with Breakaway Promotions for some of the operational aspects of the camp. Run by longtime Oregon event promoter Chad Sperry, Breakaway puts on the Oregon Gravel Grinder series, which included Sunday’s Gorge Gravel Grinder.
Sperry and his crew provided aid on both days’ riding, appearing twice on course during the 50-mile ride. During the weekend, Sperry was a subtle presence at the camp as he readied the event venue for the Gorge Gravel Grinder. His parter Colleen handled all of the minutiae back at camp, from changing campers’ race distances to running out at night to buy more salty snacks for the aid stations.
Meghan, from Pittsburgh, offered a touching testimonial after the camp.
“This was a truly transformative experience for me,” she said. “I initially felt anxiety over my skillset and ability to keep up with the group. After having to end early Friday I was feeling down on myself and that I didn’t deserve a space at camp with all these badasses. That feeling didn’t last long the energy and positivity of the group and the coaches bought me back quickly and reminded to just be where I am and work on what I came to do. It helped me to get down to the basics that riding bikes is fun as hell and I can’t believe I got to do that all weekend with such awesome ladies. I learned so much from everyone involved I felt truly grateful to be apart of the weekend every element made me feel empowered and confident that I could do it in the end. I haven’t been cycling seriously for a long time and I have made serious leaps and bounds over the last year but the education and inspiration I got from the weekend will really guide me through this summer of races and riding. Witnessing everyone’s greatness and joy in cycling and being together made it feel so special.”
At a one-room schoolhouse along the second day’s ride, Shannon from Portland mentioned that we were riding through her family’s land. From a multi-generational local family, she shared that her grandmother rode to this schoolhouse on a mule. Her father is an orchardist whose cherry farms we pedaled through.
Back at the Balch Hotel, campers toasted Cochran for all of his tire and air pressure assistance throughout the weekend.
Race bibs and packets were hand delivered to the hotel before the race on Sunday.
On Sunday, everyone rolled to the 9 a.m. race start together to join the 600 other riders at the Gorge Gravel Grinder.
After the race, campers hung out at a VIP tent near the finish and shared stories of the day.
Of course, it wasn’t the race that mattered in the end (although campers were stoked to their coaches on the top two steps of the podium).
Lisa from Portland summed it up succinctly.
“And so how does a 54 year old mediocre amateur cyclist become friends with pros and call them mentors? Well, gravel cycling is one of the most welcoming sports I’ve ever experienced with some of the most generous, humble people, and women who support each other at the highest and lowest levels. Gravel camp embodied that for me.”