Graveling through a Pandemic
Race Directors reflect on what’s in store for gravel
Before there were paved roads there were dirt roads. Gravel biking is not new, but it is booming. You can’t put gravel in a box, and that’s the whole point. Some events are races, some are parties. Some are both.
With no races, and no parties during the pandemic, many cyclists have turned to personal pursuits to keep the adventure alive. Others have started pedaling for a cause. We asked some of the longest running gravel organizers, along with a few of the newest events on the scene, to reflect on graveling during the pandemic, and what might be in store for this fall and 2021.
Whatever it is, it most certainly will be fun. It will be an adventure. And the gravel community — and the organizers who have poured everything into it — aren’t going to let cancellations stop them.
Belgian Waffle Ride
Belgian Waffle Ride in one sentence: A long Belgian Spring Classic race set in California (or North Carolina or Utah) where the cobbles of Europe are replaced with challenging dirt, rock, gravel, sand, and mud sectors.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? At first, it was heart-wrenching and a difficult decision. I think we were one of the first events to make the move to postpone. Several months later, it is much more clear how this pandemic will not only affect all events for 2020, but how the 2021 race scene will also be greatly affected by the ubiquity of the virus. What made matters worse is that we had created the Tripel Crown of Gravel, which was debuting this year. Having so much momentum with the BWR and its popularity, it’s been disheartening to not be able to have a sense of when we will be back to some semblance of normalcy. Currently, we have BWR SD scheduled for November 8. BWR Asheville will most likely get postponed, but Cedar City is locked in for October 17, and the city has no interest in us postponing. They are full-on there in Utah.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you? We’d had a huge uptick in women’s participation, and we continue to cheer on new riders with incentive programs and BOGOs. We have a concerted effort going of engaging riders of all ethnicities to join us, too. We have someone organizing buses for riders from inner city LA to make it to the ride. The overwhelming interest from professionals in making the trek from different parts of the world to compete has been so exciting for us. Last year, riders came from Rwanda, England, Belgium, China, Mexico and many more countries. To highlight our experiences and stories, we have created the Belgian Waffle Show podcast, which can be found on all podcast platforms. The BWR is the only cycling event to have a podcast. It has been the overwhelming positivity of the BWR participants and their general understanding and respect for the situation that has been most assuaging.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together? We created RIDE2020, a fundraiser to provide grants to race organizers who have had to grapple with their livelihoods disappearing along with the great events they organize for so many. Learn more about RIDE2020.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different? We are hopeful but realistic about the BWR SD in November. We know we will have to make dramatic changes to the experience this year, which will include social distancing at the Expo, mask wearing, food provided in bags (like UnTapped!) rather than a buffet, wave starts of small groups, aid stations that are mainly self-serve and volunteers there to clean all day, plus a host of other best practices as advised by our Health Advisor and the local Health Commissioner.
We think next year will also be a challenge with the CDC advising us that they are expecting a second, stronger wave of the virus through next spring, which is why other massive events are being canceled now. We plan to create the most safe and fun events we can while being advised and guided by health care officials and the desires of our riders.
Describe Rooted Vermont in one sentence: A Mullet Protocol gravel race (business in the front, party in the back) showcasing the rugged dirt roads of the Green Mountains, where every rider is celebrated and connected through a common love of cycling, food, and community.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? Last year was our inaugural event, and we were so excited to see the enthusiasm that transpired. We sold out the day we opened registration on November 1, 2019 and were seeking all the ways we could make our second year bigger and better than the first. Over 90% of our field is from out of state—which is one aspect that we love, getting to show off the Green Mountain State and being a destination event—but that comes with significant challenges amidst COVID-19. It was clear that travel would be a risk not only to our riders, but to our small community as well. It’s been heartening to receive messages from those who wish to support us, to donate their entries to us and to our beneficiary, Cochran Ski Area (the only nonprofit ski and bike area of its kind).
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? Our Mullet Protocol podium was something unique and special to Rooted Vermont. While we celebrated our “business at the front” racers with typical podiums awarding speed, we also celebrated those who best represented the spirit of gravel. Riders voted via text for fellow riders or volunteers and explained what they did to make their Rooted experience better.
We are not just looking to raise female participation at our event specifically, we believe it’s important to take a step back and commit to equipping women with the tools and skills for riding a bike. First and foremost, our goal is to get more women on bikes, in general. Because of that, we host an annual women’s clinic in Richmond, VT. Due to the pandemic this year, we took our clinic online for a 10 week #DIYGravel Summer webinar series, and we have been gathering weekly with women all across the country to learn from other women in the sport.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together?Ted King (@iamtedking) first created his concept which was meant to honor the original event date of each event on his race calendar. Upon creating this challenge, we still had hopes that Rooted would take place in August, but as the months continued on it became clear that it was looking unlikely.
To date, over 3,000 people have taken part in a DIY challenge, and it has been fun to see people all over the world challenge themselves to the distance of each event. We are planning to launch a DIY challenge for Rooted that will take place on August 2.
The women’s summer webinar series was built off this #DIYGravel momentum as well as in conjunction with Girls Gone Gravel which has a rapidly growing Facebook group of around 1,000 women. This virtual community has also been a great place to share knowledge and encouragement with others. Laura King (@laura) has been an active admin in the group alongside the founder Kathryn Taylor. Our webinars can be accessed after they are live, here.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different? We remain optimistic for the future and look forward to being able to bring riders from all over the world to our little town in Vermont. Vermont has been fortunate to be one of the states that has reacted very positively to COVID-19, and cases have remained relatively low. It’s hard to know exactly what the future holds when everything has evolved so quickly in the past months. We trust by early next year we’ll have a better understanding of what our event might look like and what precautions and protocol will be expected.
Describe your event in one sentence: SBT GRVL is a gravel experience inclusive to all riders, their friends and families and is the best weekend you could ever have on a bike.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? We decided to cancel SBT GRVL on May 13th, almost 100 days ahead of the event. It was hard on us, as we have only had the race one time and were so excited for year two. That being said, it became really evident that it was going to be very hard to keep our riders, staff, volunteers and community safe from COVID-19 risks. When we came to that conclusion, we believed it was best to get ahead of cancelling and share what we learned with other race directors and promoters.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? The energy and enthusiasm behind SBT GRVL and our launch was incredible. We have been really fortunate that so many people have supported our approach to the event and had such an amazing time at our inaugural event.
I think this matters to us so much because we launched and received a lot of hype throughout 2019 leading up to the event. Honestly, we felt a lot of pressure to come through for the riders and our community. The three days leading up to race day, and on race day itself, Ken, Amy, and I averaged about 2 hours of sleep a night. I remember being downtown at 2am, four hours before race start, wondering if we could get the start area ready to even have a race. Crazy! Fortunately, the race went great, almost all riders finished, we had great weather, no serious accidents and an amazing day.
Our #SBTPARITY campaign started when we realized we could really make an impact on cycling. We asked 50 registered women why they were racing SBT GRVL and shared those stories with other women and invited them to join us. Two hundred additional spots for women were opened up, and we sold them all in a matter of days.
Fast forward to registration for 2020. If we would have been able to have the event, over 800 women, or 30% of the field, would have been at the start line. For 2021, we believe we will have well over 1,000 women racing with us. Check out the stories for #SBTPARITY.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together? We have launched SBT VRTL to help the gravel cycling community to have something to train for and participate in safely on August 16th this year. It is a local program where you can ride any route with anyone, anywhere, but we also are providing suggested routes in 34 cities across the USA for people to ride. We are hopeful that this gives riders a way to meet a few new people, see new routes and stay connected safely, as best we can during these times. SBT VRTL is FREE. We also have options for riders to donate to several advocacy partners with hopes of raising funds so they can continue to support their communities that rely on them every day.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll be able to safely put on events?Hopefully, we will see COVID-19 cases significantly decline as we head into the end of 2020. It looks like we have a long way to go, but ideally we can be in a position where larger events can start taking place again in 2021. In regards to how events may look different, I think that depends on a lot of factors. We are certainly looking to address how we manage a mass start, aid stations, expos, meals, and check in/packet pick up, as well as overall safety. Things will change at some level, for sure. Racing can still be amazing, but we are just not sure how that looks yet.
Describe your event in one sentence: Vermont Overland is a company all about promoting adventure travel in the Green Mountain State, and The Overland, our premiere gravel race, takes center stage in the company’s mission.
PC: Reese Brown PC: Reese Brown PC: Reese Brown
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? COVID-19 devastated the cycling event industry. As of now (6/23/2020), we still plan on holding The Overland at the end of August, but we are closely monitoring the situation. We have plans in place in case we are not able to hold the event due to public safety. Seeing all the events in 2020 fold up, postpone or cancel, was a huge bummer. Part of the fun in promoting a gravel event is attending and helping out at other events throughout the season. We have all the confidence in the world that the cycling community will come out of this in a better place, but it’s undoubtedly a tough situation for many.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer?At Vermont Overland, we’re all about #OneAdventure. This means we promote one route, one mass start, and one huge afterparty. We want everyone to feel like they’re on an adventure together, and we feel like that sets us apart from other events that have so many different iterations of routes, start waves, etc.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together?We’ve been pretty quiet since COVID-19 broke out. Our offer stands for anyone to come and park/camp at the race venue and ride the course, but we’re really holding out for what we hope we can do in person in late August.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll be able to safely put on events?We’re optimistic that things will get better towards the end of 2020 and certainly into 2021. We’re lucky that the cycling industry is an outdoor sport, and we hope that other riders are as eager as we are to get back together and ride.
Describe your event in one sentence: Cold AF.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? It was full of uncertainty. We operate very leanly and donate all profits to bicycle-related nonprofits, so there isn’t much to absorb cancellations. Our community supported us, and we supported those who needed funds. Personally, the past year has been a learning process in many ways. There were moments when we considered throwing in the towel. The time for reflection has been instrumental to our growth as a business and as people. We hope to come back stronger, do better, and be more thoughtful.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? Families. We love raising our kids in this environment, and we’ve watched other families grow through the years. Some families even divide between riders and volunteers. The Lord Family illustrates the true passion of a family on two wheels.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together?(clinics, webinars, SBT VRTL, etc). We’ve had time to think, connect with nature, and watch the world and cycling community. I think a lot of important conversations will come out of this that will impact our community. Time is a gift and you learn in moments of reflection. We’ve admired Ted King’s DIYGravel movement. It encouraged outside adventure. We feel that screen times are out of control and getting outside, regardless of weather or elements, is more synonymous with Rasputitsa.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different? We are optimistic for April 2021 and will continue to prioritize rider safety by whatever means necessary. We don’t feel 1500 toeing the line is responsible in the months to come. We do see gravel straying a bit from its original roots and intentions, so we aspire to host a free ride when the world opens up to celebrate our community and remind us what all of this is really about.
Describe your event in one sentence: unPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley is a premier raw road adventure through the forest hills and idyllic farm country of Central Pennsylvania.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event?What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? We are still hoping to hold unPAved on Sunday, October 11th, though we realize it will be different in a lot of ways, which is ok. We’re actually excited with each of the 101 plans we’ve come up with so far! Should have a final plan in place in July. Stay tuned.
unPAved Gravel Grinder Bike Ride, 2019. Lewisburg, PA. © Firespire Photography. unPAved Gravel Grinder Bike Ride, 2019. Lewisburg, PA. © Firespire Photography.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? There’s nothing like hearing a rider’s story at the finish line, or at the DONEpaved Party. We love hearing what their favorite part was, what delicious treat they ate at an aid station, and when they were cursing at us out on course. We get a lot of “I was going to do the whole thing, but oh those hills! So I did a shorter course. Maybe next year!” which we love. We want unPAved to be about your day as much as your athletic achievement, and there are a lot of ways to “win the day.” That’s why all of our finisher prizes are the same, no matter the distance.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together?(clinics, webinars, SBT VRTL, etc). We’ve been fairly active on Instagram, Facebook and our eNewsletter to keep hope, and stoke, up. Our community, the unPAvers, is amazing, and their support has helped us work on all of those 101 plans.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different? We are hopeful gravel events could return to “normal” if outdoor recreation is truly one of the safest activities one can do during a pandemic. Even if 10% of these new bike customers keep riding, that will change the cycling industry in a very positive way. That said, this is a great disrupter. I am worried that it’s going to be cost prohibitive to implement the new health safety protocols, especially for the great grassroots events that keep the gravel scene so strong. But if we just have to go for solo or small group rides for a while yet, there are many worse ways to spend a day.
Describe Grinduro in one sentence: At its heart, Grinduro combines a gravel grinder race with enduro-style timed stages, but the magic happens when you add premium food, an art & bike festival, high-quality music, and camping in an epic location for the ultimate party-to-race ratio.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? A number of the Grinduro Global events had to be postponed due to the pandemic, but a few are still on the calendar (California is September 12, Wales is October 10, and Australia is December 5). We are keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 situation and will only proceed with the events if it’s safe to do so. Making the decision to postpone something you’ve poured so much effort and heart into is, of course, soul-crushing, but potentially harming the Grinduro community or the communities where our events take place would be even worse. Everybody involved with the events is eager to connect with our Grinduro family, so if we have to wait until 2021, the reunion will just be that much sweeter.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? The most inspiring thing about Grinduro is the community the event attracts. The inclusive nature of Grinduro welcomes a wide variety of people, from XC World Champions on carbon race machines to jorts-wearing bike messengers riding steel single speeds. What’s really special though is that Grinduro’s format allows everybody to mix together. When you’re not racing a timed stage, you get to casually ride with people who you might never otherwise get to pedal with in a race, and then dance together late into the night. We like to say there’s no uniform at Grinduro, so whether you’re in flannel or a lycra jersey covered in sponsor logos, the Grinduro community welcomes everybody with high fives and positive vibes. That welcoming nature of Grinduro’s participants inspires everybody involved with organizing the events.
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together? We are staying active on social media to keep the Grinduro stoke alive, and we are getting ready to share new stories with people from the Grinduro community. It will be fun to introduce more people who make this event so special!
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different?We are hoping for a full return of all Grinduro events across the globe in 2021, and we hope they don’t need to look too different. It’s hard to implement social distancing at Grinduro because this event is all about removing the distance between people. We hope we can get back to a point where we can safely start the ride with a few hundred of our closest friends, high five without consequence, and end the day packed together dancing until we just can’t stand anymore. Grinduro is about bringing people closer together and building community, and we’re staying optimistic that we’ll get back to that soon.
The Mid South
Describe your series in one sentence:The Mid South is one of the rowdiest, gnarliest, and wildly fun dirt road bicycle races on the face of planet earth.
What was it like having to postpone or cancel your event? What did it mean to you personally? If you’re still on, what’s the date? The Mid South took place on Saturday, March 14th, 2020 and was one of the last large gathering events to take place in the United States. Although the event occurred this year, we had over 950 participants take our offer to defer their registration to 2021. Another 800+ did not take the start line. The race had a much smaller field that we anticipated and the surrounding festival with live music and outdoor industry expo was also extremely paired down in participation from racers and vendors. We had some of the most epic conditions our courses have ever seen making this The Mid South one that none of us will soon forget.
Meaningful stories or experiences with your community that have inspired you as the organizer? The inspiring stories from within our community are so abundant, I don’t know where to begin. I will say this: Our community rallies hard around the Dead F*cking Last (DFL) finisher. Our crew, and myself (the owner/director), stand at the finish line for 2 days to celebrate every single finisher of the 50k ultramarathon/Double participants, and the 50 mile and 100 mile bike distances.
The amount of love, celebration, encouragement, AND support that our community pours onto the DFL finisher at the end of The Mid South is one of the most beautiful things about our community. It’s genuine, and it’s something I look forward to every single year.
The idea for us to begin to celebrate the DFL participant came from a conversation and suggestion from Banjo Brothers bike bag makers when they told me in 2014 that they would sponsor our event only if we gave their backpack to the DFL. That sparked the passion behind the idea at The Mid South, and it is a tradition I see getting wilder and more beautiful every year. As it stands right now, the DFL participant receives a champagne shower whilst crossing the finish line, a free pair of hubs from Industry Nine (non-sponsor even!) and a long horn cattle skull from Buckhorn Cattle Co. south of Stillwater whose private land was a part of the course for our race in 2017 and 2018. Celebrate everyone. Because they deserve it.
PC: 241photography PC: 241photography PC: 241photography
Anything you’ve done to keep the community together? We do clinics from flat changing to how to set your bike up SS if your derailleur gets ripped off on the course because of mud, sticks etc. We facilitate all of these clinics out of District Bicycles. Crystal and I own the bike shop and The Mid South. We also host at minimum 5 group rides per week leaving from directly in front of the shop, but not right now as everything social is canceled and on hold during the pandemic.
Aspirations and hopes for the rest of 2020 – 2021? Are you optimistic that we’ll get back to events / how might they look different? We (personally and professionally) have canceled all travel plans for 2020. We have also canceled the other two events that we normally host which include Perry Roubaix and One Night Stand. I am absolutely optimistic that we will get back to racing in 2021, but it will initially look different on the organizational side of all the events, in my opinion.
Social distancing will most likely be practiced by participants and volunteers in the packet pickup time frame, expo contact with vendors will be different and less hands on, and we will need to visit questions regarding aid stations, halfway checkpoints, social distancing at our finish line, number of porta potties and hand washing stations, awards ceremony, and our live music as well.
Things will most certainly look different for The Mid South in 2021, but the dirt roads, insanely fun atmosphere, and chance for epic conditions will remain unchanged. We will be announcing a registration opening date within the next few months. Hope we can get through this all together and celebrate again soon!!
Whether you’re looking for your next bucket list adventure, or scheming for when events are back on, you can add them to your Prokit profile by clicking event. After the adventure, you can share your story, photos or videos as a Post or Race Report. Then send us a note and we’ll see about featuring it on Prokit!