The Three Stages of My Gravel Evolution
Fifteen years later, dirt roads are still my favorite, but nearly everything else has changed.
In the early ‘90s, I remember riding an ancient steel Univega on the dirt road to my childhood home in Vermont. It was called English Settlement Road. Perhaps 10 years later, we rode a stretch of dirt road between Middlebury Gap and App Gap during Collegiate Road National Championships, also in Vermont. I get it, riding drop bars on gravel isn’t necessarily new.
But it’s changed a lot.
Many folks played a role in the genesis of modern gravel as we know it — Guitar Ted, Burke Swindlehurst, the people behind Salsa’s Warbird, Jay Petervary, Michael Marckx … The list goes on. I’m not one of them.
Like many cyclists, I approached gravel with a healthy dose of skepticism, but over time, it has become practically the only form of drop-bar riding for me. The Spirit of Gravel didn’t dramatically baptize me. The clouds didn’t open to a ray of brilliant sunshine. I don’t think I’ll ever be an early adopter, but that’s okay. Instead, over the course of about 15 years, I underwent three stages of gravel evolution.
Stage 1: Roadies Gone Wild
About 15 years ago, the Midwest gravel scene was coming to life with unusually long and difficult events, growing organically out of small riding communities. Meanwhile, in my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, we were still riding road, first and foremost.
As a cross-country mountain bike racer, I dabbled in road races for fitness and to scare myself a little. Fortunately, there were a handful of races that included bits of dirt roads around the area, which helped level the playing field for me. These were not gravel races, though. In fact, a few organizers went so far as to evoke traditional pro road events with the way they named their races — Boulder Roubaix, the Koppenberg.
As you’d expect, we raced these events on proper road bikes, sometimes taking drastic measures and putting big tires on our race wheels. Twenty-eight millimeters? Now that’s a fat tire!
In the same vein of events inspired by European Road classics, Michael Robson and Chad Moore, organized a ride called Butter Gold (a-la Amstel Gold Race, which ironically doesn’t have any significant cobbled roads). This was my first glimpse of what gravel — modern gravel — could be. It was a spirited ride, but there weren’t race numbers. At about 90 miles, it was long, at least by my Cat. 3 roadie standards. No USAC licenses were required. We rolled out together, got rattled loose over endless dirt roads east of town, finished the route, and had beers.
The bikes were inadequate, even for our relatively smooth gravel, but I think that’s one of the things that made it so fun.
Stage 2: The Gravel Awakening
About nine years ago, I took a job that completely changed my life. I worked as an editor at VeloNews. In many ways, my five-odd years there shaped my professional trajectory and my relationship with bikes, but it also it accelerated my ascent (or descent?) into the world of gravel.
Strictly from a tech perspective, I was constantly exposed to the latest gravel bikes and gear. Although I was never a tech editor, I could ride and review nearly any product that interested me.
Our 2016 Buyer’s Guide was particularly memorable because I rode multiple gravel bikes back-to-back at a test camp we organized in Southern California. As you might recall, this was an awkward stage in the evolution of gravel bike technology. I rode everything from Cannondale’s imaginative but flawed Slate to Norco’s understated but practical Search.
I didn’t know it at the time, but riding those bikes gave me a glimpse at the type of riding I’d end up doing on a weekly basis, seven years later. You start on a bit of road, connect via a short section of trail, climb to the top on a washed-out gravel road, and loop back to the start.
At the same time I was also dabbling in new events, which required something other than my trusty rim-brake road bike.
I rode an early Rapha Prestige (f.k.a. Gentlemen’s Ride) in Boulder aboard my Specialized Crux — back then I was really serious about cyclocross racing. While not positioned as a gravel event, I think these all-terrain rides had a quasi-competitive vibe that similarly spawned many early gravel events.
A few years after that, I hopped in my first “true” gravel events, Barry Roubaix (there we go again with the Euro road thing!) and Crusher in the Tushar. Again, I had yet to commit to a dedicated gravel bike, instead riding my Mosaic cyclocross bike.
However, if I could pinpoint the single moment that defines the “awakening” stage of my path … er, road … to gravel, it has to be Mid South 2018 (f.k.a. Land Run 100). I saw how it all came together: The spirited competition at the front, the determined enthusiasts who just wanted to finish, the first-timers who finished in the dark to beat the final cutoff — there was a place for everyone. In addition to riding the event, I wrote a feature for VeloNews about this and the overall phenomenon of gravel. This work brought me even deeper into the scene, and it’s one of the best articles I wrote back then.
Needless to say, there wasn’t any turning back after this stage of my evolution.
Stage 3: Everything Is Gravel
The last couple years of my time at VeloNews led to a strange contradiction: On one hand, I was doing more of the work I loved: going to gravel events (and mountain bike races too!), writing stories about interesting people; But on on the other hand, I was terribly overworked. There was practically no distinction between work and fun because I couldn’t resist opportunities to participate in Belgian Waffle Ride or the Epic Rides series, or Rebecca’s Private Idaho, or …
However, this intense year or so was probably a net positive in the end, because I learned so much, was exposed to so many different gravel events. Perhaps five years ago, I would never have imagined I could complete a 200-mile ride, let alone do so on the brutal Flint Hills around Emporia. But in 2019 I finished Unbound Gravel, and I even beat the sun. It remains one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike.
Even when it comes to less ambitious outings, gravel has drastically changed the way I ride on any given day.
Now, with a proper gravel bike and an aversion to the same old paved routes, I found ways to connect myriad canyons, trails, and roads around the area. Even in a cycling hotspot like Boulder, things get a little stale after 10-odd years, and gravel riding played a huge role in refreshing my perspective.
Today, I still own a road bike, but it is an indoor cat. If it isn’t set up for riding Zwift, it’s probably tucked away in the corner of my garage. My gravel bike (currently a 3T Exploro Racemax, if you’re curious) is my daily driver for drop-bar riding. Less efficient? Yes. More capable? Definitely yes.
Perhaps if I lived in another place, I’d still ride “road” in the conventional sense. At this rate, I doubt there will be any sort of devolution. The only thing that’s uncertain is: What comes next?
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Another good one, Spencer. That 2018 Mid South was a good one - and a gamechanger for me, too.