The Rise and Fall and Sometimes Rise Again of Gravel Events
Cycling with Kierstin Kloeckner –
Every winter, for the past five years, friends who are newer to gravel riding start sending me questions such as “What’s your favorite gravel event?” and “Which gravel events should I sign up for this year?” And although I do have my favorite events, ones that would leave a pretty big hole in my cycling world if they disappeared, I never get angry or worked up if an organizer wants to pull the plug. In fact, although I may miss their event greatly, I always support them in the decision they’ve chosen to make.
The author’s team – Blue Steel Bikes – goofs off before the start of the Dairy Roubaix. Kierstin Kloeckner photo
The past few years have seen a lot of jostling around regarding gravel events in the Midwest. All of my favorite events have been affected by these shifts and although I miss a couple of them dearly, I would say in every instance, the organizers made outstanding decisions. The selfless folks who put on these events (usually free or by donation) have more work than you can ever imagine. If you think they’ve thrown these rides together willy-nilly in a couple months time, think again. These things usually take a full year of planning and sometimes rival the hours put into a full-time job. And guess what folks, other than the events with high entry fees, the organizers usually walk away with less cash in their pocket than when they started. They do it for the love of riding and getting like-minded folks together, not for the cash, fame or glory. And sometimes, that passion of getting folks together just isn’t enough. Worse yet, sometimes the riders themselves ruin the event and the organizers are forced to shut it down (a good example is what happened with the Oregon Outback).
I’ll be breaking this article down into two sections: First, I’ll talk about my favorite events that were about to be ancient history, but somehow they rose out of the ashes and became a phoenix. Second, I’ll touch on the events I loved so dearly that are no longer with us and why.
Dairy Roubaix is quite possibly my favorite event each year. It was not only my introduction to gravel events, but it is the only event I’ve done each year since I took the gravel plunge. I’m proud to say I’ve made them all since the first one, when I was still a little white-knuckled-gravel-baby kicking, screaming and crying any time I was forced to ride on non-butter surfaces.
Back in 2011, this event only drew around fifty folks and didn’t have the same grand starting point it has now in Wyalusing State Park. Fast forward to 2017, 400 riders signed up in record time and once again, many of us were treated to an adult version of summer camp in the plush Hugh Harper group indoor camping site. I say plush because it truly is. Everything one needs for an epic weekend is at this site. Bunk beds with pee proof mattresses, showers (seriously … God bless the showers), indoor plumbing for the squeamish, a fire pit flanked by benches, a communal kitchen, plenty of space for beer cooler and grill, and hiking trails galore if you haven’t worn yourself out riding gravel.
Until now, I wanted to keep this event a bit of a secret. I didn’t want it to change with word getting out. But now, since an article has been written in Cyclocross magazine, it’s no longer my secret to keep. Anyone I know who has done it has fallen in love with the area and event for its natural beauty, challenging terrain and amazing organizers. But here’s the thing, with this amazing event comes a hell of a lot of work. Stewart Schilling and Michelle Godez started this seven years ago and kept it going until late 2015 when they felt the need to either allow it to die or find someone else equally enthusiastic with a similar attention to detail as they had. No easy task, I have to say since it’s one of the best-run events I’ve ever attended. Their friends, Pete and Alycann Taylor – owners of Bluedog Cycles in Viroqua – not only stepped up to the big task of filling Stew and Michelle’s shoes, but kept the spirit and feeling the same. Low key, but as challenging as you’d like it to be, no “seriousness” allowed, no douchebag behavior allowed, heckling encouraged and 100% volunteer run with all donations going to Bikes 4 Kids.
So if I love an event so much, why don’t I want more people to know about it? Simple. Cyclists often kill events and if this event is going to go down, I sure as heck hope it goes down because the organizers need a break. Not because folks choose to show up without being signed up with a “they-don’t-own-the-roads-so-I-can-do-as-I-please” attitude, or being giant trash Pez dispensers (there were no fewer than 100 GU wrappers thrown onto the gravel roads at Barry Roubaix this year), or by not lending a hand to take some of the work off the organizers. Gravel riders, listen up – if you do any of the above things, you will kill the events you cherish. Period.
Although Peter and Alcyann seem so comfortable with this event and seriously appear to be having as much fun as the riders, I do wonder and worry how many years they can keep this going without burning out. My hope is it was saved from becoming ashes for a reason, and the cycling community has enough strength and power to keep it running smoothly, filled with the same good mojo it’s had since its birth.
Miles and miles of gravel farm rollers are part and parcel of the Ten Thousand event in Joe Davies County, Ill. Kierstin Kloeckner photo
If I had to pick a second favorite, this would be a close second. Yes, I like hills, sue me. Started back in 2014 by Chad Ament, Tobie Depauw and the rest of the Axletree crew, this glorious, masochistic, giant hill climb has gone through multiple changes from start locations, course routes, event dates to now event organizers. This was the final gravel baby Axletree produced (its last actual event was the Gravel Metric, but this event was the group’s final creative project). One-hundred-and-twenty miles with at least 10,000 feet of elevation gain (many had around 11,000 via their Garmins) or the “short” course of 75 miles. One killer B-road has resembled a creek, a mosquito hatchery, a giant dried-up dirt trough and a rock garden during various years. One road has five hills (all over 15% gradient), but on the cue sheet it counts as one hill. Coyote, fox, deer, pheasant, turkey, grouse and hawks all come out to play with you, amazing riders come from all over the Midwest and the course includes one of the prettiest little steel and wooden bridges I’ve ever seen. What more could you ask for?
Back in 2014 when this event started, it was already at risk. Changes were happening with both North Central Cyclery and Axletree. Not bad changes, mind you, but shifts which needed to occur for the health of everyone involved. In 2015, it lived on almost solely by rider support (show up at a set time, ride the route, drink beer when you get back) and some help from Axletree members. It could have been complete history in 2016 if it weren’t for endurance rider Dawn Pesch out of Ill., Bailey Gene Newberry, owner of Comrade in Chicago, and Stu Garwick, now owner of Freeport Bicycles in Freeport, Ill. They all knew the magic of this event and wanted to keep it alive. Now in its fourth year, the event is back and stronger than ever, thanks to Freeport Bicycles and Comrade Cycles. This event is proof if there is a will, there is a way.
One of the granddaddies of gravel events, Almanzo, started in 2007 by Chris Skogen, in Spring Valley, Minn. I was thankful enough to ride this amazing event twice before Chris gave up the reigns to the Spring Valley board of tourism. You see, Chris, like so many event organizers, did this out of pure passion for the sport and his love for other cyclists. His passion, mixed in with his obsession to detail, often meant 40-hour work weeks on the event alone without earning a dime from the event. This on top of working a full-time job and trying to manage family time could only spell burnout. No one, not even superman, could do this year-after-year without serious consequences.
Mike Feller refuels in the town of Spring Valley, Minn., during Alamanzo 2015. Feller and Stu Garwick (owner of Freeport Bicycles) completed the 380-mile Alexander route. Kierstin Kloeckner photo
While rumors spread in 2014 about Almanzo coming to an end, other rumors began to spread about Spring Valley taking over the event itself since they knew it was one of the biggest money makers for the town each year. Think about it, every hotel room was booked months in advance as far as fifty miles away, the grocery shelves looked like an apocolypse was about to occur, every restaurant and bar was packed to the gills and gas stations had long lines before and after the event. The town knew if it lost Almanzo, it would lose a support system.
I got to ride in the first Almanzo when the town took over and I have to say that although it felt a bit different (and strange not being able to shake Chris’ hand at the finish line), they did a pretty bang-up job. I’m sure they didn’t have a clue about what it meant to host 2,000 cyclists and make sure everyone was safe on course, but Penn Cycles, as well as Banjo Brothers out of the Twin Cities, lent a helping hand, which helped everything run smoothly.
I haven’t ridden Almanzo since, but would highly recommend it to others who want to experience a beautiful, hilly area with amazing small-town hospitality.
And sometimes it’s just best to shelve a great event:
THE LONG GONE:
The Gravel Metric and Night Bison
This past fall Axletree, out of DeKalb, Ill., put the word out that it was finished. It had been running for over a year without its founder, had done an amazing job keeping afloat as a non-profit and event organizer, but sometimes passion just isn’t enough. Organizations and events like this need time. Sometimes more time than people who have families, jobs and other interests can give. They also have to deal with far too much red tape (legal waivers, keeping non-profit status, etc.). Trust me, we don’t make it easy for good non-profits to exist. Believe it or not, people need down time. You may not understand why organizers need to step away, you don’t need to, but know that whenever someone chooses to end a successful event, it usually happens over sleepless nights, tears, mourning, possibly arguments with spouses, soul searching and plain old fatigue.
When Axletree not only came to an official end, but also asked that the Gravel Metric and Night Bison die a peaceful death without poachers, I let out a heavy sigh, and then felt a sense of relief for the entire Axletree crew. I knew it was a difficult decision to make, but I knew – given the circumstances – it was the right decision for them, and that made me happy knowing they were taking care of themselves. Although these events will never see a true resurrection, I have kept the cue sheets from years’ past and plan on venturing out solo or with friends to relive the feelings of my joy spent riding with the Axletree group.
Keepin’ ’em alive
What can you, as a gravel cyclist do to prevent an event you love from dying? It’s so easy…
• First, offer to volunteer. Sure you may want to ride the actual event, but you’d be surprised to hear how much work needs to be done prior to and after the event itself.
• Most of these events are free. This doesn’t mean the organizers are rich or are taking on sponsors (many have sworn off actual sponsors). Make a donation, any amount you can afford, to help it keep running. Organizers shouldn’t have to dip inside their own savings to keep these things alive.
• Don’t treat the roads, farm fields or woods as either your trash bin or your toilet. You have pockets in your jersey and bag, use them. Also, try to use the toilets in town or porta potties if offered. If you have to go during the ride itself, be kind and do so away from farm houses, open roads and water.
• Finally, be nice. Most of these are not races, per se. Sure, go ahead and do your best, but do not cut locals off, follow the rules of the road, treat proprietors with great respect and pick up trash if you notice someone else was a jerk and chose to throw it out. Essentially, leave no footprint, only good memories.
For my use
673 Night Bison
681, 677, Gravel Metric
923, 914 , 916 Ten Thousand
62: My team for Dairy Roubaix, Blue Steel Bikes.
The author’s team – Blue Steel Bikes – goofs off before the start of the Dairy Roubaix.
1673: Start of the Night Bison in Dekalb, Ill., put on by Axletree, in 2015
Riders prepare for the start of the Night Bison in Dekalb, Ill. The event was staged by Axletree in 2015.
1914: Miles and miles of gravel farm rollers in Joe Davies Co. IL, 2015 Ten Thousand
Miles and miles of gravel farm rollers are part and parcel of the Ten Thousand event in Joe Davies County, Ill.
1916: Me and Dan Hobson on the infamous b-road on Ten Thousand. Notice our cold weather gear. The temps hovered around freezing most of the ride in 2015.
1081: Refueling in the town of Spring Valley, Minn., during Alamanzo 2015. This picture is of Mike Feller who, along with Stu Garwick (owner of Freeport Bicycles) completed the Alexander route (380 miles).
1081: Mike Feller refuels in the town of Spring Valley, Minn., during Alamanzo 2015. Feller and Stu Garwick (owner of Freeport Bicycles) completed the 380-mile Alexander route.
Kierstin Kloeckner photo