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The gravel world looks very different now from how it did when Amanda Nauman first started racing.
Her first race was Belgian Waffle Ride in 2013, its second official running after debuting as an invite-only event in 2012. “A lot of riders were mostly SoCal ‘cross racers and roadies,” is how Nauman described it.
Then, the following winter, longtime ‘cross, road, and MTB race promoter Sam Barnes told her to show up “for a stupid, long cyclocross race.” That event was the first-ever Rock Cobbler.
Back then, any use of the word ‘gravel’ at either of those California events was mostly tongue-in-cheek and often coupled with ‘grinder.’ The event promoters knew they were riffing on the already-established events blooming in the midwestern prairies but weren’t quite ready to try on the g-word being thrown around in Kansas and Nebraska.
Now, perhaps to both organizers’ chagrin, both BWR and the Rock Cobbler are must-do events on nation’s gravel calendar.
Nauman, who not only participated in the early events and then went on to win Unbound twice in a row, has had an interesting ride through gravel’s evolution.
And now, as she prepares to launch her own event — Mammoth Tuff, which debuts in California on September 17 — she’s finding herself poised at the precipice of another opportunity altogether: to take everything she’s learned and share it with others.
“Someone said to me about Tuff, ‘this is gonna be my first gravel event,'” Nauman said. “I can’t even fathom that — 10 years ago we weren’t even using that word. A newcomer’s experience today is so different than it was for me. I just want it to be accessible and for people to feel comfortable.”
Like many new events set to launch in 2020, Mammoth Tuff’s debut was put on hold due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, Nauman and her partner David Sheek were prepared to re-launch the eastern Sierra event in 2021.
Then, there were the fires.
Wildfires ravaged California’s forests throughout the summer of 2021, and a closure of the nearby Inyo National Forest forced the pair to cancel the event at the final hour last September.
This year’s clear skies and a green light from the permit-issuing land managers mean that Mammoth Tuff is finally a go.
The event is set in Mammoth Lakes, California, an area near and dear to both Nauman and Sheek’s hearts. The pair splits their time between Orange County and the mountain town of Bishop, and the gravel roads of the Eastern Sierra have been the backdrop for countless adventures.
Mammoth Tuff, like many debut gravel races, is meant to showcase both the riding and the region. There are three courses for riders to choose from — 40, 77, and 107 miles — all with a 30/70 split of pavement to gravel roads. A shakeout ride (and optional Beer Mile run) on Friday opens the weekend, and Sunday’s morning awards ceremony, raffle, and mingle is its unofficial close.
Nauman said that she hopes riders will leave the area satiated from the ride but also appreciative of the landscape.
“One of the big things for me and the town to see from the event is us being good stewards of the land,” she said. “Visit Mammoth saw so much backlash from the influx of visitors in the last two years, with people not leaving it better than they found it. Mammoth Tuff is a member of Leave No Trace, and we’re driving home that messaging. This ride wouldn’t be as special if we all didn’t leave it better than how we found it.”
Nearly a decade of participating in gravel races has given Nauman a lengthy checklist for her own event. In addition to ensuring that participants take good care of the race venue, making sure they feel welcome and included is Nauman’s other top priority.
“I’ve had so many experiences at great events in the past decade, whether ‘cross or MTB or gravel that I feel like I can craft something for the community that provides a space for people that want to race but is also very welcoming to people who just want to get into it,” she said.
With the biggest number of participants signed up for Mammoth Tuff’s short course, Nauman feels that what she’s doing is working.
“It’s anxiety producing but also, wow, that means a lot to me,” she said. “I’ve created a space where people feel safe.”
Bringing other people to the table
Race director is yet another accomplishment on Nauman’s lengthy palmares. The 32-year-old also works full time as a quality manager at a testing lab, hosts the popular podcast Groadio, leads gravel camps in the eastern Sierra with Sheek, and, she still races.
However, in the past year or so Nauman has found herself more of an analyst of the pointy end than someone who’s relevant in it. She cites various reasons for a decline in performance — and perhaps interest — at the front of the bunch but is treating the overall experience as an education.
First, there was Covid.
“I got Covid one year ago and ever since I got it, going fast and training and racing, there’s something off,” she said. “It’s been really hard to accept that, so focusing on that has been good, but man being last in the Grand Prix is something.”
Then, there’s being last in the Life Time Grand Prix.
“It’s been hard. It’s been really hard,” Nauman said. “But as a learning experience for me this year, I’m realizing that I hate being stuck in something. Because I have a job, I’ve always hated being told I have to do some race or a schedule or whatever. Not being able to do that with this series, I’m like, ‘man I’m not having fun being forced to do something.'”
Nevertheless, the learning experience of being “stuck” in the Grand Prix is simply another indicator to Nauman that her strengths currently lie in other arenas, namely using her experience as a competitive gravel racer to craft events and also guide others who may be in search of a similar journey.
“The same joy I’ve found in training and racing, I’ve also figured out I enjoy sharing with other people,” Nauman said. “Bringing other people to the table is how I’d put it.”
Less interested in coaching and more in “guiding people to the water,” Nauman believes that her experience as a winning gravel racer could be of value to others. She had a taste of it after doing Unbound XL last year (the 350-mile ultra).
“Some coaching friends that had athletes that had no idea what to tell them sent them to me,” she said. “We got on the phone, talked through a plan. That part, the planning, I really like that.”
Nauman said that she’s not yet set on what her path forward in gravel is exactly, but she’s certain to keep incorporating a lot of what she’s already doing — organizing events and camps, consulting gravel-curious racers, and racing herself — just at smaller events.
“I realized last year, I have had some of the experiences that so many people now are just killing themselves over. It took me awhile to figure out that I have that, I’m good with that. I really like being a part of it and doing the best I can whatever that means, being the person that someone can come to if they want to get into it.
“I love the space and I love racing my bike. But maybe in the future, I can shed light on smaller races. As much as I’m a proponent of the front end and talk about it, I want people to know that it’s accessible. I want to shine a light on that.”