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I am going to gravel camp this week.
The last time I did a camp with the objective of making me better at a sport was in 2007 when I went to surf camp in Byron Bay, Australia. While my surfing did improve, my liver suffered. Nevertheless, I will never forget that week of bug bites, cross-cultural conversations, camping, and seeing new friends catch glassy, green waves.
“Sport” camps for adults are a unique and special way to foment friendship while also focusing on improving skills and confidence. Gravel camps, while a fairly new chapter in the discipline’s short autobiography, are becoming popular ways for people to connect over riding dirt roads.
On Thursday, I will head to Dufur, Oregon for three days of Special Blend Gravel, a camp put on by pro mountain biker and gravel racer Serena Bishop Gordon and longtime event promoter Breakaway Promotions. The camp culminates on Sunday at the Gorge Gravel Grinder race. This year’s Special Blend Gravel is women’s-only (although former DK200 winner Yuri Hauswald will be there to coach and has promised not to mansplain), and 20 riders have signed on for the inaugural edition.
To answer a few of my questions before the camp, I checked in with Bishop Gordon, who is fresh off a seventh place overall finish at the Cape Epic stage race. I wanted to know —what is Special Blend Gravel? Who is it for? Why women’s-only?
Of course I also kept a few questions for myself. What would I — reluctant racer, passionate rider — learn? Would I like the women’s-only vibe? Could I possibly get better at riding in a group this week? Are massages and nice meals and a cool hotel worth the price?
Special Blend Gravel
The current iteration of a gravel camp seems to fall into three, well, camps. The first being the traditional multi-day guided bike tour model (a la The Cyclist’s Menu in Patagonia, Arizona) that does not have a real objective other than excellent food, riding, and camaraderie every single day.
Then, there are camps that blend aspects of bike tours and performance training.
Special Blend Gravel falls into the third camp.
Bishop Gordon told me that she had the idea for a gravel camp during the summer of 2020. While COVID was still a barrier, so too was her lack of operational expertise. She consulted with a friend, Chad Sperry, the longtime event promoter behind Breakaway Promotions, who said she was on to something.
“Not to have a beginner’s camp but a next-level camp,” she said. “I felt like there were more camps and skills clinics and opportunities for people just getting into the sport, but then there’s a huge gap between that to then doing big events or being competitive or really learning those next level skills.”
Special Blend Gravel was advertised for the intermediate to advanced rider, someone who is comfortable on a 4- to 5-hour group ride. Bishop Gordon enlisted Sarah Sturm and Janel Spilker as coaches, in addition to herself and Hauswald, who could speak to an experienced rider.
The itinerary for Special Blend Gravel includes three days of gravel riding (with aid stations and mechanical support), small group instruction, meals, hotel accommodation, entry into the Gorge Gravel Grinder, and 50 percent off entry to other races in the Oregon Gravel Series.
On the agenda, there was only one mention of wine and chocolate (and none of yoga). All three of those things are lovely but I feel that they tend to get over-associated with anything “women’s specific.” Which led me to ask Bishop Gordon, was her intention always to make Special Blend Gravel only for women?
“No, and that’s why the name doesn’t specify gender,” she said. “We thought, let’s start with women’s only. There is a need for that. But if it’s successful and depending on how things evolve, we’d love to expand it to anyone who wants to learn skills and become a better rider. The idea was to potentially grow it and include all humans.”
If this year’s registration numbers were any indication, the interest level is high for gravel camps, and women’s specific ones at that. Special Blend Gravel sold out in half an hour. Rooted Women’s Gravel Clinic in Vermont and the Gone Graveling Festival in Arkansas have also seen peak interest.
As a professional racer, Bishop Gordon has witnessed a particular dynamic that happens when women of a similar level ride together. She also can see the bigger picture.
“We lift each other up, so if you can push each other a little bit, the gains are incredible,” she said. “That said, I race for Liv and that’s obviously a women’s brand but we need everyone to work together to make our sport awesome.”
I for one am looking forward to being lifted up, pushed, and challenged. And, if it’s anything like surf camp, I’ll come away with much more than just skills on the bike.
Look for photo galleries, gear tests and more from Special Blend Gravel and the Gorge Gravel Grinder at VeloNews.com.