Matt Acker is already tough to miss thanks to his colorful ginger beard and Warbeard bike, but in Michigan’s gravel scene, he is tough to miss off the bike because he is everywhere.
Acker has made a name for himself racing events of all distances across the country—he won last year’s inaugural 350-mile DKXL—and recently, he has been giving back by helping organize local gravel rides and races in his home state of Michigan.
Last year, Acker helped with the first Cross the Mitten Michigan Coast-to-Coast Gravel Grinder, and this year, Acker has taken on a leadership role with Saturday’s Barry-Roubaix based in Hastings.
There is a method to Acker’s Michigan gravel madness. Jenny Acker is also a gravel enthusiast and a graphic designer and has been helping Barry-Roubaix race director Rick Plite with design work for the last several years. It went well, so why not formalize it?
“We all worked well together, and with Rick wanting to plan for the future of the event we all just sat down and discussed a partnership,” Matt Acker said. “So Jenny and I are official business partners in Pavements Ends which is our company that owns Barry-Roubaix, Lumberjack 100, Fargo Sub-48 and the Founder’s Fall Fondo.”
Acker has been helping the event prepare for Saturday’s race that will bring over 3,000 gravel enthusiasts to the small town located midway between Grand Rapids and Lansing.
A Premier Midwest Gravel Race
This year’s Barry-Roubaix will be the 11th edition of the annual early-spring race.
As we noted in our preview of last year’s race, like most gravel events, the Barry-Roubaix started with race director Rick Plite and friends riding the roads of Michigan’s Barry County and then wanting to share them with others via a race.
“A friend asked me to hold the ride out of a State Park in Barry County thinking I’d be blown away by the scenery and the rolling hills,” Plite said. “Man was I ever! I said on that group ride, ‘This needs to be a race,’ and one year later it started with 280 people.”
That first ride with 280 people has grown into a massive event with distances of 100, 62, 36 and 22 miles.
How massive is massive?
“This year has been the first ever sell-out of the event at over 3,500 participants!” Acker said excitedly. “Once we hit the cap we received hundreds of requests for an entry or transfer, so we’ll see the largest crowd we’ve ever had toe the line at the start.”
The 62-mile race is the marquee event distance with payouts to reward the fastest women and men.
The 100-mile race was an addition last year for a special year. “It is our 10-year anniversary and 10 times 10 equals 100 sounded like a good idea,” Plite said last year.
That race is dubbed the “Psycho Killer,” to keep with the Barry-Roubaix’s “Killer Gravel Road Race” mantra. This year’s 100-miler has a sold-out field of 306 with a few more on the waiting list hoping to get in.
“We wanted to test the waters last year and gauge interest in the distance and it was a big hit,” Acker said. “We opened up another 50 spots this year to help with demand but wanted to keep it around 350 people. The goal with the 100 is to give those hardy distance racers that grassroots gravel feel with the unmarked course and challenging terrain.”
One-hundred is a popular distance in miles or kilometers for a lot of gravel races, so will the 100-mile event become the Barry-Roubaix’s goldest standard?
“We don’t have any immediate plans to make it the big event, and the 62 miler remains the signature race for those looking to duke it out with the best,” Acker said.
The Barry-Roubaix is not only open to the super hardcore (100 miles) and hardcore (62 miles), it also offers the 36-mile Smith Optics Thriller and 22-mile Lauf “Chiller.”
“The 22-miler has been around for some time now. It was added to capture the beginner crowd or those looking to dip their toes in the gravel race scene,” Acker said. “Funny thing though, it has the most feet of climbing per mile out of all the courses.”
That Lauf is a sponsor of the 22-mile race is little surprise. The Icelandic company has become a mainstay at U.S. gravel races, with employees participating in events across the country.
Lauf will be returning the favor by hosting The Rift race in Iceland this July that, of course, the Ackers will be racing.
A Hidden Gem
With 3,500 people registered for this year’s race and more knocking at the door, the Barry-Roubaix is a premier event in the Midwest gravel scene. With the big fields come an impressive purse.
The total prize purse for the 62-mile race totals $12,000 for the Elite, Masters and Singlespeed categories, and the Open winners each take home $1,200.
Acker commented on our observation, “I would agree with that statement, and I think the biggest contributing factor is that it is the same weekend as Sea Otter. The schedule here in the Midwest is pretty packed when it comes to the spring season and we’ve really carved our niche as being one of the opening events for peoples’ race season.”
That is not to say that the stars do not come out for the race. Mat Stephens (Panaracer / Factor p/b Bicycle X-Change) has won the last two years, and emerging road and cyclocross star Lily Williams (Hagen Bermans | Supermint) won in 2017. Other race alumni include Justin Lindine, Cody Kaiser and others.
Stephens and his Panaracer / Factor p/b Bicycle X-Change teammates highlight this year’s provisional start list, with Kae Takeshita, John Borstelmann, Michael Sencenbaugh and Rob Bell are set to start. Of course, it helps that Panaracer is sponsoring the 100-mile Psycho Killer…
What Will this Year Bring?
All Barry-Roubaix courses head out southwest of Hastings into Barry Country. The 62-mile course can be a fast one thanks to the well-maintained roads and a moderate amount of climbing.
“I like to call them dirt roads,” Plite said. “There really isn’t a lot of gravel to them. The road commission keeps them in really good shape so chatter bumps are not even bad.”
Looking for proof the roads are not that bad? Last year Jeff Jacobi did the 36-mile route on a penny farthing. A penny farthing!
Two years ago, conditions were pretty much the worst with a cold rain falling through 40-degree temperatures. Only 1,850 of 3,200 registrants finished that race.
Last year was fast, breaking records from the 2013 “Fast Year.” Rachel Langdon (Gray Goat Mobile / Bullseye Total Media) shattered the Women’s 62-mile course record by 7 minutes and Stephens bested the Men’s best by a little under 2 minutes.
What will this year’s race bring? Right now, temperatures are expected to be near 50 degrees, and Acker thinks some pre-race rainy will help the skinnier-tire rippers.
“The forecast is calling for a chance of rain Wednesday through Friday and then a cool but sunny race day in the mid to upper 40s. The rain might just do the trick to pack down the sandy sections of the courses and make the gravel super fast for Saturday.”
If one thing about Saturday’s race is certain, it is that the post-race flavor will be “delicious,” with Grand Rapids’ Founders Brewery serving as the race’s title sponsor.
“I come from a mountain biking background and there has to be a party afterward with beer! No matter the event,” Plite told us.