Gravel grinding – riding modified road bikes on dirt roads – is the latest trend among cyclists, but the popular discipline is not new to Durango.
Modern gravel riding was born in the Midwest in the early 2000s. Jim Cummins founded Dirty Kanza, one of the most popular gravel events in the world, in Kansas in 2006. He cites Trans Iowa, a race started by Jeff Kerkove and Mark Stevenson in 2005, as his inspiration. Cummins said that he had ridden the rolling dirt roads for decades. There are not a lot of mountain biking trails in Kansas, so it was popular for people to ride their mountain bikes on the dirt roads around Emporia, Kansas.
“It wasn’t until the early 2000s that gravel became the cool thing to do, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Gosh, we’ve been doing this for 20 years,’” he said.
The narrative is similar in Durango, where riding gravel was normal.
Three-time mountain bike Olympian Todd Wells attributed the limited number of paved roads in the Durango area as a reason why cyclists have historically ridden on dirt roads.
“That was always part of some of the loops we would do,” Wells said. “It almost seemed inevitable you would link some pieces of dirt road into your training ride, not seeking it out, just kind of how the loop happened.”
La Posta Road, also known as County Road 213, wasn’t always paved, and it was a popular training road.
Other popular routes include Texas Creek (County Road 245) and Cherry Creek (County Road 105). In any direction, there are more dirt roads than paved roads, Wells said.
Dirt roads are less traveled by cars, making them safer and more peaceful for cyclists. They are a welcome reprieve from Durango’s streets and highways, Wells said.
“I would ride gravel rides just because I would get so bored with the regular rides that we have,” said Spencer Compton, director of the Durango Wheel Club.
Compton said the increasing amount of cyclists opting for off-road riding has caused the Durango Wheel Club to add more gravel rides to their calendar. He correlates the demand for more gravel rides in the past couple of years to the La Plata La Strada ride that is part of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which will be held for the second time this weekend.
Local cyclist John Rubano had the idea to create a gravel ride as a part of the Iron Horse. Rubano said he thought the region’s varying terrain and network of lesser-trafficked dirt roads would lend themselves to an organized ride.
The roads of classic bike races in Europe, a region steeped in cycling history, also inspired the event.
The first editions of the Tour de France in the early 1900s featured many unpaved routes. La Strada La Plata is a homage to Strade Bianche, a race in Italy known for traveling across Tuscany’s dirt roads.
This year will be the second running of the Iron Horse’s gravel event featuring two distance options at about 46 and 56 miles.
Social group rides, in addition to more competitively focused events, are a draw for people to ride gravel. Traditional road riders get into the sport for fitness and competition, Compton said. Gravel riding can be more social compared to road riding.
Cummins, Stevenson and Wells echoed the sentiment that gravel is popular because it is inclusive of riders from all backgrounds and abilities.
Stevenson, who could not be reached by phone for this story, said that Trans Iowa is the event that tipped the first domino in the rise of gravel.
In a blog post, he lists two other reasons why gravel has become popular. The routes can be on any public road that generally are not closed, as is the case with road races, which means organizing an event is easier. Organizers also do not have to charge an entry fee, a possibility allowed by not having a governing body.
Many cycling races in the United States are sanctioned by national governing body USA Cycling. Gravel rides tend to be grassroots and independently organized.
With gravel rides popping up around the world, including a series of three rides in Montezuma County, bike manufacturers have caught on to the trend and have developed bikes specifically for the discipline.
Gravel bikes, sometimes branded as adventure bikes, are essentially more robust road bikes designed to make riding on dirt roads more comfortable. They feature longer wheel bases and lower bottom brackets to make them more stable on dirt roads, as well as disc brakes and frame clearance for fatter tires.
Despite increasing marketing by manufacturers, gravel can be ridden by mountain bikes or road bikes depending on the route.
The bike industry will always want to sell more bikes, Wells said, but people gravitate toward gravel for the fun routes, community and relative safety.