After a brilliant-orange sunrise over the Mississippi River bluffs on a brisk spring morning, 102 bicyclists roll out of the parking lot of Mississippi National Golf Links in Red Wing.

A few minutes into the ride, the peloton leans en masse to make a swift left turn onto a crushed limestone farm road. It’s clear this is no ordinary bike race.

The soundtrack switches from whirring tires over smooth asphalt to a steady grind. Sticks snap hollowly beneath bike tires. Spokes ping melodically as half-inch rocks ricochet between wheels. A dust cloud follows a chorus of labored breathing. Everything is at work — muscles, joints, pedals, chains, cogs — to power riders up a hill a little more than a mile long.

Toward the top, one rider shouts with an exhausted smirk, “It’s all downhill from here, right?”

In reality, these riders are just starting the Ragnarok 105, a 105-mile journey through Goodhue and Wabasha counties over the gravel of country roads that few people ever travel. Out on the route, there are no aid stations, volunteers, signs, repair crews, or sag wagons. For these riders, all of it is part of the appeal.

A growing trend

Minnesota is swept up in the growing Midwest interest in gravel bike races, known as “gravel grinders.” Hailing from every corner of the sport — mountain bikers, touring enthusiasts, tandem riders, even cycling rookies — many are finding a home on the gravel scene. Indeed, the variety of wheel widths and frame shapes at gravel start lines are testament to the sport’s inclusiveness.

“There are more and more gravel events every year,” said Sean Mailen, a product design engineer for Salsa Cycles in Bloomington, who helped create one of the industry’s first gravel-specific bikes, the Warbird. “It still has a very grass-roots feel to it though. I have to imagine that it’s like being involved in the mountain biking scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

Races such as the 320-mile Trans Iowa in Grinnell, the Barry-Roubaix (62 miles) in Hastings, Mich., and the Dirty Kanza 200 in Emporia, Kan., are among the pillars. In Minnesota, the Almanzo 100 on May 16 in Spring Valley is the king of the gravel grinders. The race attracted 12 people at the inaugural event in 2007; last year, 1,400 riders took part.

Almanzo founder Chris Skogen said the sense of community underpinning these events has been an inspiration. “I always look at it as getting people to be a part of something rather than apart from something,” he said. “There is this universal suffering that connects everyone out there. You might end up riding with someone you’ve never met before and, at the end of the day, go in your separate directions and maybe never see them again. But you have this unique shared experience.”

Holly Windschitl, who helped organize (with Penn Cycle) the first Dirty Girl Women’s Gravel Ride in April, started riding gravel 18 months ago. Men outnumber the women, she said, but it’s irrelevant. Windschitl said the sport is welcoming. “People are really supportive. I’ve had random strangers offer to pull me through the wind during a thunderstorm and give me energy gels out on the course.”

Mailen estimated about 80 percent of gravel riders have personal goals, whether to simply finish an event or to surpass a previous year’s ride, while the other 20 percent are there racing for a top spot. “Most of these races are still free, so they attract a noncompetitive rider — people who just want to get out and ride their bikes,” he said.

So gravel events can be cheap fun, but that comes with a price: Riders are on their own — or depend on other participants — to make it from point A to point B. The people behind the events supply riders with maps and a list of directions, known as “tulips.” Beyond that, organizers emphasize a culture of self-reliance.

“Knowing how to fix your own stuff and doing your own navigation throws in a whole different dynamic,” said Mailen. “They all have that warning that you have to be responsible for yourself because no one is coming for you.”

The draw of gravel terrain

Gravel buffs said the adventure of riding remote backcountry roads offers a unique experience.

“Not knowing what you’re going to find a mile down the road is part of the appeal,” said Ben Witt, a brand ambassador for Salsa Cycles. “You literally take it as it comes because it’s constantly changing.”

To be sure, not all gravel is created equal. When the base of the road is packed hard with loose stones on top, it can be like riding over a road of marbles. If maintenance crews have come through, riders might mash through three inches of fresh rock. Rainstorm? What about a pedal through organic peanut butter? Of course the least-inspired type that riders reference is “hero gravel,” which is just as easy to ride as pavement.

“If you’ve driven on gravel roads, it’s pretty clear that they didn’t cut the earth to put the road in like they did with interstates,” added Skogen, who recently turned over Almanzo event responsibilities to the town of Spring Valley. He will ride for the first time this year. “With gravel roads, you get an experience something more similar to what it was like before the road was there. It’s very peaceful, with the sounds of birds and the buzz of the power lines.”

“Everybody has a little different motivation for riding in gravel events, but for me, I just like to get out and ride roads that 99 percent of the population doesn’t know exist,” said Isaac Giesen, one of the Ragnarok 105 organizers. “You’ll be at the top of a hill in the middle of a field with vistas all around, or biking through a river valley you just wouldn’t see if you weren’t out exploring.”

Challenging terrain, stunning scenery, solitude and a sense of satisfying, shared exhaustion are what gravel riding is all about.

“Being responsible for yourself as a rider — for your actions and outcomes — you get this overwhelming sense of accomplishment,” said Skogen. “There’s something about it that is unique to humanity, it’s incredible. If you’re there the day of an event, you can just feel it in the air. It generates this kind of weird buzz.”

 

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.