by David Boener
I’m growing more and more fascinated with the Midwest every time I hear about “gravel grinders” – self-supported, unsanctioned ultra-endurance “races” on gravel farm roads in the Heartland.
Growing up in Colorado, we always thought of the Midwest as “flat,” and “boring.” But when I read the reports from races like the Dirty Kanza 200 and the Trans-Iowa, the Great Plains transforms in my imagination into an endless ocean of hulking rollers scored by thin ribbons of anonymous gravel pathways that go on infinitely.
And now there’s one more reason to head to the heartland: The Gravel World Championship this Saturday, August 20th, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
It’s a fully self-supported, wholly unsanctioned, “ride” (wink, wink), at the end of which the first finisher will put on a world champion jersey. The course is a 150ish-mile loop around Lincoln that includes “maybe four miles of pavement,” according to Pirate Cycling League member and participant Malcolm Tassi. Everything else is either groomed gravel roads or Minimum Maintenance Roads – forgotten double-track wagon trails that turn into nearly-impassable mud bogs if it rains.
There are several checkpoints along the way, but each racer is responsible for his or her own navigation. The only documentation is a handful of Powerball tickets purchased at gas stations along the route.
Like all Pirate Cycling League events, Gravel Worlds is free.This is the second year of the Gravel World Championship, but the race existed for a couple years before as The Good Life Gravel Adventure (based on the Nebraska state slogan). “The ‘world championship’ thing is sort of tongue-in-cheek,” admits Corey “Cornbread” Godfrey, the event’s founder and a Midwest endurance racing legend.
“But it was only a matter of time before someone called their gravel race the world championship, so we figured we might as well.”
Gravel Worlds is put on by the Pirate Cycling League. “The PCL started when a couple of people in Lincoln wanted to create a non-traditional option for people who didn’t want standard racing,” Godfrey explained. “They started the Pirate Cycling League. Everything’s non-sanctioned, there are no entry fees, everything’s self-supported. This kind of stuff was happening anyway, but the PCL just sort of brought it together. These guys approached me five years ago to help out with web stuff and I’ve been part of the PCL since.”
The Midwest gravel grinder phenomenon is one of the most compelling movements in cycling, as far as I’m concerned. I hadn’t heard anything gravel grinders until first hearing about Gravel Worlds last year, but it seems like now that I’m tuned in, I’m hearing about gravel grinders everywhere. And a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, or Grinnell, Iowa, or the Flint Hills of Kansas keeps getting more and more attractive.
From what I’ve read, I’m not the only non-Midwesterner compelled by the Gravel Grinder phenomenon.
“I have no idea how it’s perceived elsewhere,” Godfrey said. “We’re kind of isolated out here. We don’t have the mountains. We don’t have particularly good road riding. So we learned to embrace what we have. And what we do have is miles and miles of endless gravel roads.
“You get to see part of the country that no one gets to see. Lincoln looks like shit from the Interstate. But it’s actually a really cool town. Same with Nebraska. Nebraska looks cool from the little gravel roads.”Like the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championship that started in Portland but eventually began traveling, Godfrey doesn’t expect the Gravel World Championship to stay in Lincoln forever. “We offered it to other promoters – the Dirty Kanza, the Trans-Iowa – but no one has taken it yet. Now I guess there’s been some talk that it should be passed on. We’ll see what happens after this year. It’s getting to kind of be a monster, honestly. We don’t make any money. Actually we lose money. And the more people we have, the more chances for someone to get hit by a car or something.”
“No matter what happens, we’ll still do something called the Good Life Gravel Adventure.”
For more info, go to the Pirate Cycling League website: http://piratecyclingleague.blogspot.com/