Switching Gears: why thousands of triathletes took to gravel racing in 2020, and you should, too

by Rolf Prima athlete Amy VT

 

Shouting through face masks and neck gaiters, we had to pause our discussion of corn dogs when the gun went off. We weren’t even clipped in yet. A few of us with semi-serious ambitions bunny-hopped onto the sidewalk, brushing spectators and avoiding small children. It was a neutral start, but everyone was amped to get a position before the tunnel;  amped to race, at all. 

 

By mile 86 worries about positioning had long-since given way to attending to our mental health. Five hours of loose gravel roads, sand pits, chupacabras, curious “flyover cattle guards,” and headwinds took their toll, and we still faced a nearly impossible mountain ascent, then a MTB-grade single track beginning at mile 115. 

 

The Belgian Waffle Ride is one of the most iconic gravel events in the world. Inspired by the great European one-day Spring Classics, BWR is tough by design. It has earned a masochistic, cultish following that always wanst more. The O.G. venue in San Diego has spawned sister races in Asheville, North Carolina and Cedar City, Utah. As Race Directeur Michael Marckx quips, “You’re not seeing tripel!” He’s often one to deploy Belgian-related puns, and indeed, he was the one we were all cursing up that impossible mountain. 

 

As a professional triathlete, I normally load up my calendar with as many full- and half-iron events as my coach will condone. When the pandemic hit, however, Ironman® and Challenge® brand races were canceled one-by-one. Traveling to these races had become impossible to do safely and there was no way for 2000 athletes to swim, bike, and run “together” while also practicing good social distancing. Small, rural gravel events remained safe, however, due to strict standards, limited entries, and remarkable creativity. At The Oregon Triple Crown Series, for example, a greatly-reduced roster of riders were released time-trial-like, and there were no finish line shenanigans or award ceremonies. The races were drivable, held in small towns, and if riders did need to spend the night, we camped. 

 

I capitalized on a year without triathlon to race as many gravel events as I could. The Steamboat Springs Gravel Race, “SBT” went virtual this year, mapping out comparable (grueling) courses in multiple US cities, and I discovered the raddest 120-mile route, right out my front door in Portland! How had I never ridden it? Oh, yeah, I’d been on my TT bike all the time. Thousands of other triathletes have also shifted gears, all with the blessing of their coaches because it makes a lot of sense to complement the life of a tri-geek with one where you #willtravelforgravel.  Here’s why:

 

GRAVEL IS SAFER

No screaming descents on pavement. No cars. No high-speed peloton navigation. In fact, what with technical courses, mixed terrain, and well-over 100 miles to pace, there is little opportunity to get up to high speeds during most gravel events. This is why you see so many burrito bags on handlebars - aerodynamics are no longer important. 

 

GRAVEL IS RELEVANT

“Gravel suits triathletes perfectly,” says Chris Bagg, my husbo and coach. “They understand long, solo efforts, know how to fuel that kind of effort, and often favor the sort of ‘diesel engine’ that gravel races reward.” He not only supports the cross-training for his athletes, but he often pushes it on them with a hard sell. Between Cyclocross and gravel, he’s been known as the Grim Reaper of triathlon coaches, (which is admittedly not good for business). But he’s speaking a truth that thousands of triathletes have already discovered: the systems we tax during tough and long gravel events (and training rides) will make us way stronger cyclists. That strength and endurance will show in your next triathlon.  

 

GRAVEL IS COOL

Speaking of burrito bags, which do you think looks cooler to the average eye: a cylinder-shaped handlebar bag filled with Payday candy bars and an extra bike chain (and maybe some bourbon), or a spaceship-shaped bottle filled with maltodextrin? The podium ceremonies at gravel races are rife with mullets, enormous sunglasses, and bandanas. There are no sponsor jackets, and there’s no posturing. Gravel racing is increasing in popularity at warp speed, in part because of world circumstances, but also because it’s awesome and unpretentious.  

 

GRAVEL IS FUN

At some point during every gravel event I did this year, I took time to sit up and take in the stunning surroundings. I even took pictures. Abnormally gregarious, I chatted throughout the rides, making new friends and heckling old ones. None of this is possible during a triathlon. Gravel races are long and challenging, but everyone is there to have fun. The finish line and after parties at gravel events buzz with a palpable sense of collective accomplishment, if not cult-like togetherness (even during social distancing), which is perhaps where it departs the most from other genres of racing. Some gravel races welcome finishers across the line from 1pm-midnight, the party raging all that time, as hungry athletes to gorge themselves for hours on frites, waffles, and Belgian ale.  

 

I asked Michael Marckx, Race Directeur of BWR, for his thoughts on triathletes dipping their toes in the gravel pond since he was a triathlete himself in the days when humongous mirrored sunglasses weren’t worn with a sense of irony. “As a triathlete, I used to spend so much time being aero and going straight, but I learned that taking a turn off-road not only offers dirty diversions into glorious new territory, it also forced me to use different muscles—core, arms and legs—that ultimately have a positive bearing on overall fitness and strength. Consider the difference between running 10km on the road versus a single-track trail and how different the movement is, as well as the scenery.”

 

Thanks to Michael and other industry influencers, like Rolf Prima Wheels and their amazing Hyalite gravel line, the gravel culture will continue to grow exponentially. Humankind so cleverly found workarounds, adaptations, and new pursuits during the pandemic, and triathletes flocking to gravel will be one of the best phenomena to remain. The other iconic annual race, the Garmin® Unbound Gravel (neé DK200) will be back and better than ever next year. If you haven’t been to Emporia, Kansas, you haven’t lived.

 

Gravel is safe, relevant, cool, and fun, like most things Belgian. For triathletes, those benefits might serve as a critical reminder of why we train and race at all.  Watch out, though; you just might adopt a cultish affinity for it, and forget where you left your tri bike. You might even start to paint your furniture with BWR stripes. 

 


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