It’s All About the Gravel… in Michigan Anyway
By Kierstin Kloeckner
Coming from a road racing background and now living in an area of Wisconsin that has paved all their roads for the dairy industry, most of the rides I do are on skinny tires with high psi.
Oh sure, 5-10 times each year I’ll drive to either far Western Wisconsin, Southern Minnesota or Northwestern Illinois for gravel events, but my daily rides usually consist of baby-butt-smooth asphalt.
When I look at a cycling map of Wisconsin, most of the roads are solid lines. On the other hand, when I look at a cycling map of Michigan, there are huge swaths of dashed lines screaming, “Caution! Gravel! You better have some wider tires if you’re planning on riding here.”
This, I’ve heard is a common mistake folks make when touring through Michigan, thinking any road shown on a map will accommodate slicks.
Through this wonderful world of social media and the tight-knit cycling world, I’ve met some pretty amazing folks from Michigan who love their gravel roads and gravel events. I keep hearing them talk about the remoteness, low traffic areas, wildlife and challenging terrain these roads and events bring. One of which is the long running Barry-Roubaix held in early spring each year in Hastings, Mich.
Rick Plite, the founder and still organizer of the race, started this well-received event in 2009. A few years prior, in 2006, when gravel events just started showing up on the cycling radar, Rick began to put on a few social gravel rides finishing at Founders Brewing Co. Two years later, he decided a race version was called for. His friend – who lived in Barry County – put the route together, since Rick lived in Kent County and didn’t know the roads as well. A contest was held for his friends to name the event, and the Barry-Roubaix was born.
The initial race in 2009 drew about 280 racers. In 2010, it was moved to a state park and grew to 700 racers, and now, another move later to accommodate more folks, brought the 2015 total up to 3,000 with a projected jump to 3,500 in 2016.
This quick jump speaks volumes. First, people love the event (I have friends driving from all over the Midwest to do it—sometimes 10 hours away), and second, people love riding gravel in Michigan. This is most evident when the city of Hastings, where the Barry-Roubaix is held, opted to place permanent route markers for anyone to enjoy the course – even if they couldn’t make the event itself. A lot of hard work from Rick since 2012 has made this possible with the agreement from the city and county. Come 2016 there will be 60 permanent route markers.
Other races/events, like Hiawatha’s Revenge, Rock Road 50/50, Hellkaat Hundie, Michigan Mountain Mayhem, Melting Mann and the Lowell 50, are not only a way for riders to get their gravel fix, but also a wonderful way for towns/cities to make money from this human-powered sport. Just like other gravel grinders I’ve taken part in, these events pack hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, grocery stores and gas stations – one of the reasons the tourism board of Spring Valley, Minn., chose to take over Almanzo when Chris Skogen gave up the reins. Cycling events, no matter what type (mountain, road, gravel, tours), bring a lot of cash into small towns and leaders are really beginning to recognize this.
A group my friend, Joshua Duggan (whom I met on a gravel grinder in Wisconsin), belongs to is the Crazy Bastards Cross. Formed sometime around 2005, CBC started as a message board where riders could share routes and stories. It soon became a blog for Michigan cyclocross scene and also started holding two weekly rides stating: “We ride on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 6:30 from Townsend Park. Routes vary depending on the weather. The real reason we ride is for the beers at The Honeycreek Inn afterwards. Riding is just an excuse.” Its name, CBC, coming from a great story told on the site’s archives stating “CB Cross is who we are because the lady in the car said so… One night on one of our dirt road rides in 30-degree weather, a car pulled up next to us at a stop sign and asked where we were heading. Someone answered, ‘Wherever we want and the lady in the car said, ‘Crazy bastards!’ ”
Snippits like this could honestly describe most gravel/cross groups I know anywhere in the Midwest. It’s for this reason I feel like I’m family, even if I haven’t ridden with this specific group or honestly in Michigan, yet (that will hopefully soon change).
Yes, you read that correctly, I am writing an article about a place I’ve never ridden. Maybe I chose this to set a trip in cement since I tend to be a planner of tours – even ones I can’t do right away. I spend winters with maps strewn across my living room floor, dreaming of places I could ride from my back door. Michigan just so happens to be one of the places I’ve mapped out, since it’s an easy ferry ride over Lake Michigan from either Milwaukee or Manitowoc, Wis. From there, endless gravel roads await me.
I am torn about what my first Michigan tour will look like – although I know it will include miles and miles of gravel roads. When Joshua explained why he loves riding in his home state, this is what he said:
“I love gravel riding for the usual reasons, the roads are scenic, there’s typically very little automobile traffic. I think it will continue to grow here as more people discover how relaxing it is. Grand Rapids is great for riding, because I ride any direction from my house and in about 10 miles reach a network of gravel roads to ride. Or, I can drive that 10 miles and do a shorter 30-40 mile ride. I think we’ll see more small towns realize that it can become an economic development tool to brand themselves as a destination for both gravel road and mountain biking.”
He does a great job selling it—as do Rick and several other friends who live there. My guess is I’ll get over there for Barry-Roubaix, and then do a multiple-day brewery tour from Hastings (Michigan has no shortage of gravel or breweries). Someday I’d love to spend a month exploring the parks and old forest roads.
Until then, the maps will continue to be spread on tables and floors as I drool over pictures my friends post on Facebook.