The Grind: A not-quite-farewell to gravel

Although she had all but ended the 2021 gravel season, senior editor Betsy Welch keeps getting pulled back into gravel races — and there are plenty more on the calendar.

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I swore that I was taking September off from gravel.

After a whirlwind summer that started with two major surgeries, a mind and body-rattling trip to Kenya for the Migration Gravel Race, a day exploring my bike racing weaknesses at the FoCo Fondo, a hilariously fun go at LeadBoat, and a reporting/riding trip to North Carolina for the inaugural BWR Asheville, I arrived at the month of September totally beat.

Amazingly, the 250-mile LeadBoat Challenge was my favorite ‘race,’ ever. (Photo: Tim Mohn)

If these weren’t enough excuses, the ninth month of the year is also one of the best times of year to do all of the things at home in Colorado. With my truck perpetually packed for adventure, I spent the first half of the month working (and riding, running, and peach-picking) from the road.

It only took 11 days for me to renege on my promise of no gravel.

With my soul quenched by two weeks of cavorting in Colorado’s West Elk range, I got wind of a new gravel race down in Gunnison and like a sucker, I signed up. Turns out that the race was A) really hard, B) I was still really life-tired, or C) both. During post-race beer commiseration, MTB legend and IMBA president Dave Wiens assured me the answer was A, which made me feel moderately better. In the future, I’ll plan to not be over gravel in September, because the Gunni Grinder has the potential to become a marquee race. The scenery over the 120-mile course was staggeringly beautiful, with early hints of autumn blushing in the hills and terrain that ranged from “pedaly” to fast to downright chunder. I even won some money!

Now that the first snow has dusted the Divide, I’m already nostalgic for summer — and gravel races. Fortunately, the season isn’t over, and October and November are actually bursting with events, both old and new. Here are a few to follow, either in-person (sorry, if they’re already sold-out) or here at VeloNews.

The Rad Dirt Fest, October 1, Trinidad, Colorado

The Rad is the first of two new races set to debut this fall from gravel event-promoter LifeTime . The two-day affair offers three distances of gravel racing on Saturday and two running races on Sunday. Of course, participants can choose to do both. In April, my colleague Ben Delaney traveled down to southeast Colorado to preview its incredible gravel riding and The Rad’s 162-mile Stubborn Dolores course.

Barry Roubaix, October 2, Hastings, Michigan

C’mon, can a name get any better? This longstanding gravel race sees around 4,000 riders tackle four distances of gravel racecourses in Barry County, Michigan. Normally held early in the season a la Spring Classic, the fall edition will also present myriad possible weather-related challenges.

The Stupid Pony and The Salty Lizard, October 8-9, Wendover, Utah

For those worrying about the UCI ruining gravel, a weekend racing in Wendover, Utah could change that. The Stupid Pony and The Salty Lizard are two races — the latter has three distances to choose from — on offer from race director Bobby Kennedy during the second weekend of October. During the Salty & Stupid Gravel Fest, racers and participants can enjoy/suffer as much or as little as they want to. From the 45-mile Salty Lizard Fundo course to the insane 300-mile, two-day the Stupid Lizard (a combination of the 200-mile Stupid Pony and 100-mile Salty Lizard), no one will be checking sock height out on the Utah/Nevada border.

Big Sugar, October 23, Bentonville, Arkansas

You’ve heard of Bentonville’s MTB scene, but did you know northwest Arkansas also has amazing gravel? LifeTime’s Big Sugar was canceled due to the pandemic last year, so its 2021 debut is long anticipated. The 100- and 50-mile routes will be the marquee events on Saturday, but with all of NWA’s other activities, including the MTB demo fest Outerbike, you’d be remiss not to stay for a while.

BWR Lawrence, October 31, Lawrence, Kansas

The Belgian Waffle Ride debuted two new destinations in 2021, Asheville and soon, Lawrence, Kansas. Just an hour and change away from the famed gravel capital of Emporia, the roads used in the BWR Lawrence’s Waffle route should not be underestimated.

According to the event’s website, “As Steve Tilford would have wanted it, the Waffle race promises plenty of punishment for entrants and their bicycles along its dynamic course, which features 8,000 feet of undulating climbs and nearly 80-miles of off-road terrain that harken to the teeth-rattling cobblestones of Europe’s most grueling races.”

The Spirit World, November 6, Patagonia, Arizona

Ok, I’m sorry in advance because the Spirit World is A) sold-out and B) one of my favorite races. Set down in the borderlands just north of Nogales, Mexico, the Spirit World is all about a vibe. From the locally-sourced food and wine on offer at the Thursday fundraising dinner to the mariachi band at the finish, race organizers Zander and Heidi Ault have woven the flavors and feel of Patagonia, Arizona into every fiber of the event, which is celebrating its second year after a 2020 COVID hiatus.

Read also: The Spirit World 100 — and other grassroots gravel events — offer more than just a finish line

Rio Grande Gravel Grind, November 13, Marfa, Texas

This race is brought to us by two of gravel’s most famous Texans — and Red Bull. Both Colin Strickland and Payson McElveen were instrumental in helping Red Bull chart its first foray into gravel. Although the funky enclave of Marfa is a long way from everywhere, Strickland told me the trip will be worth it.

“I’ve been scheming a race in Marfa for a long time,” he said. “It’s so peaceful and beautiful and such an amazing location. It’s one of my favorite places. We’re gonna focus on getting out early and making sure we have an awesome camping experience for vans and tents. These are some of the darkest skies in the U.S. so being out there in the evening is so beautiful. We’ll have music. A wine sponsor. It will be unlike a lot of bike races.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.