Gritty Take: The “Spirit Of Gravel Racing”

Gritty Take: The “Spirit Of Gravel Racing”- by Guitar Ted

“Your strength doesn’t come from winning. It comes from struggles and hardship. Everything that you go through prepares you for the next level.”
― Germany Kent

I’ve been around this gravel racing thing for a while. Many of you know my background, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last to be involved in the gravel riding/racing scene. That doesn’t matter here- who is first and who is last- what matters is that, in my opinion, I’ve been around enough to have a pretty good perspective on a few issues which seem to have a few folks all bound up. The following is my take on these issues, and I realize many who read these words won’t regard them, or care at all for what I say, but frankly, I don’t give a damn.

2016 winner Ted King gets a hug from DK Promotions LeLan Dains while Executive Director of the event, Jim Cummins looks on.

The gravel racing scene has seemingly changed a lot since the mid-2000’s, or so the story goes. True, there are a whole lot more people involved, more events to attend, and a cycling industry struggling to make a buck in an era where retail is being dramatically changed forever is focused on gravel. You know, I think more things surrounding the gravel riding and racing scene have changed than anything about the core of it has. The whole of this gravel racing and riding thing is now a complex, varied, and multi-faceted subject which, really, you cannot codify easily. But being humans and all, that is exactly what is being tried here.

The dust up centers around a single event, the Dirty Kanza 200. The event which has billed itself as “The World’s Premier Endurance Gravel Road Race” has been the focal point for media coverage, industry attention, and elite athletes’ curiosity now for over a decade. Two things emerged out of the 2018 event: A concern over the usage of aero bars in competition and what the overall winner of the woman’s category did during the event. Keep in mind that this an issue in one event, and it isn’t even the biggest gravel race in North America. It’s just the one everyone focuses on as the “definitive gravel event”. Whatever that is……..

I made my thoughts known about the two issues in question here concerning the 2018 DK200 on my personal blog. You can read that here if you want. That said, I wanted to speak about the core of this issue, well, I should say the perceived core of this issue. That being the so-called “Spirit Of Gravel Racing”. Some call it “SHARK gravel code of ethics”, and some call it “grassroots racing”, while others don’t call it anything, but they know it when they see someone “selling out”. Some folks waded into these murky waters in an article that was pointed out to me and in the comments made on it. There are some valid points in there.

Dirty Kanza 200
Author and avid cyclist, Nick Legan finishes the 2016 DK200 and is greeted by Jim Cummins. He is not a loser.

In my opinion, focusing on the winners, in the traditional sense, is really what is getting under people’s skin here. There can only be one winner. I know…..we try to spread the love. But there really is only one winner in the traditional sense. The Winner, the first person to cross the line, whatever their gender, whatever bike they are on, and you know what they say about second place. If that is how we are defining what gravel racing is, then what we see in these comments about how  Kaitie Keough won and whether or not aero bars should be used are the sorts of things that will drag us down and take what is beautiful out of gravel racing.

And just what is that? What is the beautiful thing about this genre of cycling? Really, it isn’t anything different than it is in any other form of cycling. In fact, it is core to who we are as human beings. The struggles overcome, that which forges us, bends us, breaks us, and in the end, makes us better than we were. When we seemingly push through to “the other side”, whatever that means to you, is where we get the gold.

The Dirty Kanza 200, and the people behind it, actually go out of their way to celebrate this in their unique way. Take for instance the stream of weary mid-packers making their way down Commercial Street in the dark, well after the “winner” came through. They are getting a heroes welcome. Cheering, cowbells clanging, hugs and high fives from the race directors and volunteers. You’d think they all were winners.

The weary riders then move through the chute, get a few prizes, sign a huge banner, and go on their way. But despite the Dirty Kanza folks efforts to get some goodies into everyone’s hands at the finish, these are not “participation awards”. These are recognition of the struggles overcome, the pushing beyond boundaries, and the new found qualities inside that were hiding in those finishers. Qualities somewhere deep down inside, waiting to come out during a long gravel road race.

In many ways this is what is happening to the gravel racing scene in 2018. We are on a long ride getting forged by buffeting winds of differing opinions. We are struggling now, but if we keep our eyes on what got us here, then we will be okay, no matter how many former Tour de France riders come to join in the dusty fun. They come back for the same reasons we did. To be elevated to the next level by our overcoming of difficult challenges, and all this despite the chip timing, prizing, and finish line hoopla. It’s not “winning” that matters.

Joel Dyke, DK200 co-founder, holds up the David Pals prize for the rider showing the best attitude through tough circumstances.

Many years ago, I rode in the first Dirty Kanza 200 with a rider by the name of David Pals. He was not what you would call a front runner. However; he seemed to have a knack for finishing, despite difficult circumstances, often with his effervescent smile flashing as he crossed in dead last place, as he did that first year. He caught the attention of Dirty Kanza 200 co-founders Joel Dyke and Jim Cummins for his gritty performances with a smile. This embodied what they felt was important about gravel racing. Sure, there was a winner, and they got their props, but Jim and Joel were on the lookout for that rider that “broke on through” and made it with a great attitude.

This prompted them to introduce the award given for this quality in 2010. It wasn’t about “The Spirit Of Gravel“, or some other cosmic debris. It wasn’t about drafting, aero bars, or team tactics, all of which were present in the early gravel races. It was about growing as a human. Celebrating the results of what happens when we overcome difficulties and draw out things in ourselves we never knew were within ourselves. Do we need a code for that?

This is what has brought all of us together to ride and race on gravel. Devoid of soul sucking rules, licenses, and governing bodies, gravel racing is a place we can test ourselves to see if we have what it takes to overcome. Some of us make bonds with others out there. We grow together, we encourage each other, and in the end, when it works like it is supposed to, winning in the traditional sense doesn’t matter. What we do get is far more valuable than that.


Author: Guitar Ted

Guitar Ted hails from Iowa. Home of over 70,000 miles of gravel and back roads. An inaugural member of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame and Co-creator of Trans Iowa in late 2004- Guitar Ted has been at the forefront of the growth of gravel events and riding since then. Creator of Gravel Grinder News in 2008, he produced the premier calendar of gravel and back road events. GT joined forces with Riding Gravel in late 2014.

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6 thoughts on “Gritty Take: The “Spirit Of Gravel Racing”

  1. “but frankly, I don’t give a damn” First of all I am not frank. I just hint

    Any who I am not a big fan of racing for the sake of racing. I would much rather have an event with an open start at 5 am or when the first light appears depending on season. Everyone has nerves on a long ride and no sense in destroying a perfect morning with a pa system blaring away. Thunderstorms are permitted and lend to being prudent when to start. Most people have timers and navigation systems and they can post times on strava or other platforms. If you want to go fast stay on the road and if you want to go really fast ride down the face of a dam.
    I want to stop along the way but move before the bugs eat me alive. If someone wants to chat I can speed up to chat for a minute. I would prefer the ride to be the challenge and not the clock.
    I would like to keep the cost of the ride low so without the DJ, chip timing or pit crews for riders how much savings would you get.
    The rides are billed as self supported and having a pit crew and resupply drops just doesn’t pass the self supported sniff test. We are supposed to be spending our money at the local stores not packing in gels and hot shots. Buy our pickle juice locally

  2. Clearly I am too old to really give a f**k about this anymore. I do the gravel races to have a good time, see if I can beat my times from previous years (I’m usually in the top 25% more or less, so I’m not great and i’m not terrible). Increasingly I have lost interest in riding with groups, drafting- I almost always just ride by myself, sometimes with aero bars if my hands have been bothering me, sometimes without aero bars. I suspect I am representative of a large group of people who do these races. When I hear people going on about who got support from their wife/partner in a car, who was getting help from a team, increasingly my response is “get a life, who cares?”.

  3. Ban sponsorship from individual riders – keep it amateur. That will promote good sportsmanship & ethical riding. From a distance Gravel Racing looks like it’s already lost it’s innocence.

  4. I was introduced to gravel racing back in 2007, a time where maybe 50 would show up at any given event. Fast forward 10 years and we’re seeing attendance in the thousands and the a full frontal marketing blitzkrieg, with controversy clouds over the big races seemingly every year now …. Over this winter I did a lot of soul searching and found that I was forcing myself to partake in these events because I was there in the beginning and felt fortunate to see the evolution. So naturally I wanted to see that story unfold. But the real kicker was that before I heard of DK, Trans-Iowa, Almanzo, etc., I used to seek gravel roads to get away from the usual cycling routes, trails, and people. I had no less than 6 big races planned for this year and decided scrap them all and get back to the essence. Just lone wolfing it, maybe one or three friends, seeking out big rides in desolate places with big views unobstructed by pelotons and pacelines, people talking your ear off about tire selection and chamois butter. Dealing with none of that now, like how I used to ride. I haven’t been this happy on the bike in a while!

  5. The spirit if gravel racing is whatever spirit you bring along with you to share. Are you a cut throat racer that is so focused you can’t/won’t even talk to people around you? Are you so relaxed that you just don’t give a **** and laugh and crack jokes the whole way? It is what it is and you have your own fun in your own way. I’ve been at both ends, out front pushing hard, not slowing for anyone who might be in trouble, and off the back suffering like a dog offering help and asking for help from all around. Whatever spirit you encounter is directly based upon the spirit you bring. Bring a bad attitude, you’re not having fun and making friends. Bring a great attitude and you’re going to have fun no matter what the result sheet shows.

  6. I started riding gravel last spring/early summer after a hit by a drunk on my roadie bike one night in Jan. really shook me up. I spent all Easter weekend looking over bikes and decided on the 2016 Raleigh Tamland 1(thanks for helping in that) I rode the Pony Express 75 miler on that bike and that ride/race is the ride that I compare all other rides to now. None have come close. It was yes what I call a grassroots ride with only 120 riders in both rides the 75 miler and the 120 miler. The town was so small(Marysville) that it only had 2 blinking lights. The town really got behind the ride and yes the hotels didn’t double or triple their rates just for the ride that weekend. I saw a sign on the outskirts of town that they had free RV parking/camping at their City park. The ride then had professional photographers out on the course which they left you steal the pics afterwards. The free swag giveaway the night before was unbelievable. I would hope more of the gravel rides races follow this example instead of it being a money making deal but I won’t hold my breath on that one. I could care less what people ride out there I am just out there to have fun and my goal is to ride gravel races in all 50 states if they have a gravel race and it has to be 50 miles long to qualify for me. I since have bought a 2017 Raleigh Roker Comp which I love.

    I might do DK200 sometime in the future but then maybe not. It’s not high on my list as I explained above because of the town/hotels being greedy and jacking their prices up for that week.

    Ride on and enjoy gravel riding/racing however you want to.

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