As cycling becomes increasingly popular in North America, the sport is naturally progressing in new and interesting ways. One new-ish direction gaining momentum is events and races that involve (increasing amounts of) gravel. The NY Times reports that “gravel grinders” were born in the Midwest, where the lack of hilly terrain prompted folks to devise other ways to induce suffering. Hence the development of events like the Kanza Dirty 200 in Emporia KS.
But, with all due respect, the progression into gravel has had a life here in the Pacific Northwest since at least 2004 when Michael Pruitt organized the Ohop Trophy, and the 2nd Annual Ronde Ohop in early 2005.
The races organized by Pruitt carry the label “kermesse” which are a staple in Belgium. Here in the Northwest, kermesse races are often described as a cyclocross-road race hybrid, but that’s not quite right: Kermesses are a circuit race (in which the course is a loop longer than that of a criterium, but shorter than that of most road races), with a mix of paved and dirt sections. Unlike cross, kermesses do not involve crossing barriers.
The 2013 Northwest Kermesse Cup Series launches Sunday August 4 with the Mashel Nisqually Kermesse, followed by the weekly Pacific Raceways Kermesse Series Mondays in August, and wrapping up with the Ronde Ohop on August 25.
Experience a riders-eye view of one lap of the Mashel Nisqually Kermesse:
The Mashel-Nisqually Kermesse powered by MotoFish Racing is described as the “Hill Billy Roubaix”– a short but intense 2 mile Kermesse that favors power. Organizer Pruitt says: “While the dirt is not technical, it is vicious. The course wants to break you and it’s your job to show who is boss. The dirt sections are similar in quality to cobblestone – there are large and embedded rocks.”
Added bonus for participation in this year’s Mashel-Nisqually Kermesse: Thanks to MotoFish Racing’s generous support, all entries (after prize money) will be donated to support cyclocross activist Mark Bender’s ongoing recovery from a surfing accident in Hawaii that left him with a complete C6/7 spinal cord injury.
Beginner (cat 4/5) riders are strongly encouraged to pre-register: This event sold out last year and there is a hard cap on field size.
The weekly Pacific Raceways Kermesse Series series fills the middle portion of the Northwest Kermesse Classics season. These races are also a mix of paved road and dirt sections, though the dirt sections are rated easy to moderate compared to the Mashel Nisqually and Ronde Ohop. This weekly series in particular lends itself to riders wanting to get an introductory experience to mixed gravel-pavement competition, or are looking for a nice transition to cyclocross season.
The Ronde Ohop is the “Queen” of kermesse/roubaix style races in the Northwest. After riding multiple paved laps through Eatonville, riders do laps on the infamous Mashel Loop where organizer Pruitt considers the dirt sections to be “beyond category.”
Gran Fondo Winthrop on August 4 (same date as the Mashel-Nisqually Kermesse) covers 80 hot miles and about 10,000’ of climbing. In contrast to the Kermesse series, this event is remote and requires self-sufficiency. But, remoteness means you get to experience some gorgeous terrain in North Central Washington. Event organizers will provide at least one well stocked aid station approximately half-way through the course, as well as a few sag wagons for additional assistance.
Lewis and Clark Ultra Cross on September 1 covers 58 miles and 5,600’ of climbing, Instead of a mass start, riders go off in 30 second intervals according to category, but then are allowed to draft during the race. Expect riding surfaces that include smooth gravel, pavement, hard packed dirt, lunar crater-like potholes, and that you will need to dismount in order to cross several barriers and trenches.
Update August 13: Lewis & Clark Ultra Cross route was not approved by OBRA. Event promoter Glenn Johnson still intends to hold the event as originally scheduled, but it will be a recreational ride, not a race.
As a starting point, you can simply outfit a road or cross bike you already have for the specifics of the event. Ben Storrar, last years’ Kermesse Series Champion says: “…don’t get all wound up about your bike needs. You don’t need a special bike to do these races. A road bike or cross bike with some large 25’s, or preferably a 28c, works just fine. Race whatever road-ish bike you have. Just put bigger tires on it.”
The Gran Fondo and Ultra Cross clearly require a cross (or mountain) bike and adequate repair supplies. While not considered socially acceptable in roadie circles, I’d probably wear a hydration pack for the Gran Fondo.
And, as someone who has gotten religion about tubeless tires for road cycling, I think tubeless tires would eliminate the possibility of pinch flatting, especially in the Kermesse series. Mr. Pruitt consistently warns about the likelihood of pinch-flatting, yet it still happens with regularity to folks who think they can ride a Kermesse on 23c tires inflated to 100 psi.
Ben recommends: “…going fast. The faster you go the less bumpy it is.” I’d also recommend keeping a loose grip on the handlebars, focusing on maintaining a supple upper body over any washboard sections, and think of the dirt sections as a functional strength workout. With a smile on your face.
All of these events have a reputation for being very difficult, but as Ben says, “All racing is hard if you do it right, but that’s not a reason to not to do it.” I would add to that: You do it precisely because it IS difficult. Even if you finish dead last, it’s all about stepping up to the starting line and giving it your best effort: Fortune favors the bold.
Salsa Cycles has these tips for gravel grinder events, which only partially apply to Northwest-style gravel racing, but which you still might find helpful.
Gran Fondo Winthrop
80 miles/ 10,000’
Lewis and Clark Ultra Cross
58 miles, 5,600’