If Belgium is the Motherland of Cyclocross, one could perhaps refer to the Great Plains as the Motherland of Gravel. With gravel roads stretching as far as the eye can see, the region has been home to iconic events such as the Dirty Kanza 200, Gravel Worlds and the Land Run 100.
When a new gravel stage race starts in the region, it is hard not to take notice. When that event is based in Emporia, Kansas, that is doubly true.
Last weekend, the three-day La Grind Gravel Stage Race provided a twist on the gravel race genre, offering a stage race with a Friday time trial and two more traditional gravel races on Saturday and Sunday.
“We were tired of seeing the same 50-mile small gravel races being started around the area and wanted to start something different,” race director Justin Orzel said. “The idea behind the stage race happened because we didn’t want to further saturate the calendar with another super endurance ride. The stage race made sense to us because it was a challenge we hadn’t done ourselves, and we wanted to share that unique experience with our riders and make it the best experience we could.”
The stage race also has a special bonus for those heading back to eastern Kansas 25 days from now. Saturday’s course south of Emporia included some of the roads likely to be part of the first leg of the 2019 Dirty Kanza 200 course.
“Day 2 could be considered a preview for 2019 DK200,” Orzel said. “That course alone didn’t really persuade people to sign up, but the date of our race is no coincidence. We wanted to make this race a good training ride for really any future ride on someone’s summer race schedule.”
La Grind is not the first gravel stage race we have covered this year. We also took a trip to Switzerland for the three-day Tortour Gravel Winter Stage Race and to North Carolina for the two-day Love Valley Roubaix.
The three-day La Grind event was set up not all that different than a road omnium weekend. Friday featured a 5-mile time trial outside the city of Olpe—home to Checkpoint 1 for the 2018 DK200—Saturday was a 94-mile gravel grind south of Emporia and Sunday featured a shorter 61-mile race.
The DK200 is known for requiring riders to be self-reliant. Each rider is required to have a support crew that can only resupply them at each of three checkpoints, and if you have to abandon the race, you are on your own. Racing the Dirty Kanza is a big commitment from both riders and friends and family to pull off a successful weekend.
The organizers of La Grind wanted to make their event a little less of a production, and so they offered a lot more support than riders can expect to see a month from now.
“All of us on the committee are gravel riders and have done races ourselves so we all had something to bring to the table when it came time to make our ideal race environment,” Orzel explained. “We went to great lengths to make sure a rider could come to our race and not have to worry about anything; that’s why we opted to have bottle hand-ups and gel packets and other foods at our checkpoints as well as rider abandonment pickup.”
Entry fees for the La Grind went in part to pay for support and insurance, but they also contributed to a good cause. Handlebars of Hope is a nonprofit bicycle outreach ministry with a goal of giving hope to the community in Emporia and Mexico.
Orzel described the organization, “Each year we spend several months serving communities in Matamoros, Mexico, bringing them much needed hope and support. Since 2014 we have given away thousands of bikes and done countless free repairs. Christ has also empowered us to set up a youth cycling club at an orphanage, teach bike repair to men in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, organize free bicycle repair outreach events and much more.”
Locally, Handlebars of Hope provides bikes a mechanical service to organizations such as the local school district, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Emporia Men’s Shelter and more.
With entry fees going to a good cause, sponsors helped make sure the top riders would have something to race for.
Although we have only really seen neutral support at a few gravel races, payouts are closer to an even split. Some races offer only the prestige or bragging rights that come with winning, while others are offering a cash prize for riders to go after.
With Challenge and Kohlmeier Dental as sponsors, La Grind offered a combined purse of $3,000 for both the Women and Men’s A stage races. “The idea behind that is that we wanted a sponsor from the bike industry that people would recognize, but we didn’t want to ignore our local community, and hopefully when people see that they realize that our hometown is behind us just as much as our friends in the bike industry,” Orzel said about the race’s co-sponsors.
Orzel commented on the feedback the race has gotten on its payouts. “We’ve seen both positive and negative feedback when it came to the payouts. We want to give back to our riders as best as we can, and we want to draw a lot of competitive riders to the event, and the race has done that so far.”
Challenge’s involvement with La Grind has had dual benefits. Last year, the company released its long-awaited tubeless clinchers, and it used La Grind as an opportunity to do some real-world tire testing. The company returned as a sponsor in 2019 and continued to use the event as a testing ground.
La Grind is an example of the space open for innovation in gravel races, and the good relationship between the community and the event is similar in flavor to what we observed at the 2018 Dirty Kanza. Time will tell if we will eventually see a 2xDK200 or Land Run 100 x 2.
Full results from the 2019 stage race are below.
Women A Results: 2019 La Grind Gravel Stage Race
Men A Results: 2019 La Grind Gravel Stage Race
Men Singlespeed Results: 2019 La Grind Gravel Stage Race