The PNW gravel riding scene has been incubating for quite a long time (one source even says gravel bikes originated here?), and judging from the increase in gravel/dirt-specific rides popping up in my social stream, this year appears to be an important inflection point. More folks are doing gravel fondo rides, and more folks are putting together interesting gravel and dirt-centric rides.
Several years ago I had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time chatting with Jerry Baker about the history of cycling in the Northwest. Given his lifelong immersion in the sport, he had a rare perspective on the progression of cycling. As a kid he remembered bike races on the dirt roads outside of Seattle. Once upon a time, riding on dirt and gravel was normal, not a niche sub-discipline.
I reached out to a few of our local gravel activists, Michael Pruitt and Thomas Sumter, who have contrasting interests in gravel riding.
Pruitt considers himself an “organizer,” and he is keen on getting more riders passionate about the sub-discipline. Sumter is a fellow member of High Performance Cycling, a Cascade Bicycle Club ride leader, and he organizes ambitious adventure rides.
Road cycling is dangerous.
“The average rider feels safer on gravel than fighting traffic. I know I’d rather take my kids on a gravel ride. Plus, you can kill it in a gravel fondo if you want to race, or just ride tempo, but either way you’ll get a great workout.”
“There are no cars! That’s the big draw! I’ll take my chances on a 12% descent on loose gravel, but keep me away from inconsiderate drivers. I have yet to be on the receiving end of any hostilities from motorists I’ve encountered on a gravel road. You don’t see many vehicles, and the ones you do see treat you with respect. This point is both the alpha and the omega of gravel riding.”
A decline in interest for road bicycle racing and the roadie scene in general; an increase in the number of gravel events and races.
There has definitely been an upswing in gravel, specifically in longer gravel rides (AKA Gravel Fondo, Gran Fundo, Gravel Grinder). Much like superheroes, gravel riding has been around for a while but many factors have come together to mainstream it. This will come off as snarky but I figure you’re subculture has “made-it” when promoters and riders don’t know the cult heroes or history of the discipline. I feel like that means it’s now so normal that it doesn’t occur to people that there used to be a “you’re weird” stigma to it.
To support the gravel trend, Pruitt organizes two kinds of gravel rides: Kermesse races and “PruBaix” rides (Pruitt + Roubaix), which are group rides intended to serve as an introduction to gravel riding.
“Racers seem legitimately burned out on road racing and USAC politics.” As Pruitt snarkily posted on Facebook earlier this year: “Road is dead and the WSBA should exist to promote Kermesse races. Discuss.”
“Kermesse races are meant to be quirky takes on Belgian races. It actually started as a joke–one of my junior teammates kept escalating his description of Belgian Kermesse’s–so we created a race that matched his description and it turned into an actual thing people wanted to do.”
“NWKermesse as a ‘promoter’ has evolved since we started promoting official races in 2004. It’s now a hub for both the Kermesse series and PruBaixes. The social hub is on Facebook, and we’re using motion.social for event scheduling. We’re planning to run three races this July & August. The dates aren’t firm yet, but keep an eye out for them. As a side note, there are two cool Kermesse races in Oregon as well (and it amuses me to no end that the current promoters don’t know that the original idea came from their team doing my races–again non-ironic–it means the concept is mainstream enough that they don’t know it isn’t what it’s always been called).”
PruBaixes are unsupported group gravel rides:
“My primary motivations are to make gravel accessible to riders who might be intimidated by the big event fondo rides, share my routes, and increase awareness of the available cycling infrastructure. The Prubaixes are guided rides that are accessible to a wide range of skill levels. I’d like to get them to the point where we are running fast, medium, and easy-paced groups with a ride leader for each.”
I’ve done a few PruBaixes and they incorporate a spectrum of surfaces: gravel and dirt roads, multiuse trails, mountain bike single track, and paved roadways. Technical bike handling skills help on the dirt and gravel sections, the unpaved climbs, and on the mountain bike singletrack. Paceline and group riding skills are helpful on the paved sections. PruBaixes regroup as needed at the tops of climbs, turns, and the end of technical sections.
“The term PruBaix was coined last year as a way to describe the etiquette around the acceptable group pace. Participants can go as hard as they want, but if you drop Pruitt you’re screwed because the route is unmarked and you’ll get lost.”
Example PruBaix route: Woodinville-Carnation-Woodinville:
“I really like that gravel riding ditches the prissiness that is often part of the road riding scene.”
“The movement is definitely growing, and I’m excited to participate in that growth. We city folk, need to get to the roads less traveled and see more of our world even, and especially, the world out our back door.”
“Several factors got me into gravel. First I wanted to find more, and more challenging terrain to ride. I’ve done all the major rides, climbed all the local hills, and every mountain pass. Eventually, you ask yourself, ‘what’s next? Also, I really enjoy building routes and exploring different areas. I call it ‘building my mental map.’ Sharing this knowledge with other cyclists is also very rewarding.”
Increased availability of bikes and bike components make gravel riding more fun and accessible.
“I think one trend, which may be a reaction itself but has at least provided a tipping point, is improved gravel equipment specifically tires and disc brakes. Even a few years ago (2011) the best option was riding a cyclocross bike if you wanted tires over 26c. I was thrilled when the Raleigh Militis came out and they fit 28c tires. Now it’s reasonable to get a solid performance bike with clearance for 32c standard. And with a disc brake you can roll 27.5 if you needed. This means fewer flats, more relaxed riding and lower tire pressure. On top of that, everyone is making high quality tires for gravel now. Your option used to be tubulars or solid rubber butt killers.”
“A few years ago a guy at a bike shop told me the gravel segment was the fastest growing segment in the industry. That was years before I caught the bug, and I continue to watch it expand. Back when that salesman told me how big gravel was becoming, there were few commercial offerings: few gravel-specific bikes from even fewer manufacturers, even finding good tires was a chore. That’s not the case anymore. Back in the day, people cobbled their gravel grinder out of various parts which meant that if you knew what you were doing you could build a perfectly capable machine without needing to take out a loan. In fact, when my wife upgraded her city hybrid to a touring bike I took her old Raleigh Cadent put drop bars on it and beefed up the wheelset and a couple other tweaks, sold it at a profit to a buddy for $700 (who promptly used it to steal 2 Strava KOMs from me). Now every bike manufacturer has a gravel or adventure bike in their line. I guess that’s good, but I still like the franken-beasts though.”
“With our big tires and ‘go anywhere’ attitude we ride in all conditions, all seasons, and are not obsessed by the commercialism that often affects roadie circles. Our machines are usually purpose-built and unique to us, it’s not about brand X or Y unless that product is awesome.”
What makes a great gravel ride?
“That depends on the person. What I consider to be ‘adventure riding’ is often mixed in with gravel, and fans of those kinds of rides probably look for something slightly different out of a ride. I look for routes that have the following characteristics:”
“1. Are rideable by someone of average skills. I will always choose an easier section that you can just ride over a stoney section.”
“2. Are completely rideable on a bike. I detest “hike-a-bike.”
“3. Have some unique feature like a steep climb, amazing vista or are a quirky take on something.”
“For example, the Kermesse Club route is fun because it’s super windy and in the city. So it’s a quirky version of a city ride. On the other hand, Soul Crusher has three ridiculously steep (but short and doable) climbs that stick in your mind. I love Vicious Cycles‘ Gran Fondo Goldendale because it’s long and hard but there’s really only one section (the windmills) where you have to dodge boulder size rocks. And the scenery is amazing.”
“In my opinion there are like 5 things that make a ride great regardless of the surface underneath you.”
“1. You have to go someplace interesting.
“2. Gravel roads often allow us to access remote areas most people never get to see, find passes most people have never heard of, find through-routes you didn’t realize existed or find exotic bodies of water (lakes rivers and falls) and close ups of mountains that take your breath away. I have a personal fetish for “nice roads.”
“3. Roads that meander, have a nice surface, and let you enjoy beautiful miles as they roll along–I really like that!”
“4. A good group is just as important in gravel as it is on the road. However, athleticism (how fast you are) is not the main thing required for cohesion. You don’t draft, so everyone can ride at their own pace as long as they come prepared. An important characteristic for gravel riders it the need for grit. This point is nicely summed up in the first point of this article. This essential characteristic was emphasized on a recent ride between the early outs and the peeps who keep going. Not only are people with these qualities drawn to gravel, they are fun and enjoyable to ride with.”
“5. Lastly, a good gravel ride should be hard, but not too hard. I love leaving it all out there, but the flip side is that there are few shortcut opportunities if you bonk, and definitely no Uber.”
“As for where I like to ride? Obviously, the Snoqualmie Tree Farm is great. It’s close, is big enough to have a bunch of variety and can be as hard as your legs can handle. Beyond the immediate area there are some great gravel roads in the Darrington area, and really any area that has a history of logging or forest management should have a network of access roads that are perfect to ride. I am particularly fond of some riding I did in the Olympic National Forest near Quilcene. The roads were in incredible condition and the riding very enjoyable.”
“My favorite Vicious Cycle ride is either Gran Fondo Goldendale because of the scenery and the way the route flows, or Gran Fondo Winthrop. Gran Fondo Winthrop was my first gran fondo, and at 96 miles and 11,000′ of climbing it’s f-ing HARD. It’s a badge of honor to just complete that course and thus I love it. It should be said that the camaraderie at these events is special. Even though there’s a clock, it is not like a road race, we look out for each other, and the selfishness common at road races is not observed.”
Sumter says other notable local gravel riders include Roger Burton, whom Sumter considers to be a mentor: “He’s been grinding gravel since before it was a thing. His mental map is built on over 10 years of trial and error.”
Others who have deep localized knowledge include: “Jeb Bolton who works for DNR in the Arlington/Darrington area. He knows that area very well. Adam Van Dyke grew up in Sultan and knows the trails around Spada and Wallace Lakes as though they were neighborhood roads. Robert Trombley has been exploring the Central Cascades for years. And I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm.”
Tom says up-and-comers in the discipline include “Daniel Perry when he is not everesting or racing. Alan Tagstrom rides with me frequently when he’s not leading Cascade road rides. Lin Victor Wang seems to have caught the bug too. I’m not sure how new to the sport he is, but he’s newish to the area, Andrew Howe is crazy fast, is usually willing to go on, and is always asking to ride again.”
A few years ago Bellingham’s Brian Ecker cycled an audacious route that linked forest service roads from the Columbia River to almost the Canadian border. It doesn’t look like I did a post about that one, but it was bold. It took him about 3 days, and in his ride report he said he ran into some motorcycle riders who were taking a week to do the same route.
And randonneur Jan Heine is frequently off the beaten path.
It’s also worth mentioning that PNW riders have represented well at the premier gravel race in North America–the Dirty Kanza 200 miler. This race has such a reputation that just finishing is an accomplishment. This year Ian Tubbs (Audi) finished 6th overall, and Robert Trombley finished 16th in his age group.
In a way, things have come full circle since the memories of Jerry Baker: there is renewed interest in non-paved cycling, bicycle manufacturers are paying attention, and here in the PNW there are plenty of opportunities to connect with knowledgable, experienced riders. And, unlike secret surf breaks or powder stashes, most of these riders are looking for compatible riding partners with whom to share the experience.
New Ride: The Lion Gravel Challenge
On August 20, Seattle’s Jason Connell and Chris Ragsdale have put together a very challenging course out of Roslyn WA, only 90 minutes from Seattle. The course is 115 miles with over 13k of climbing (bring your granny gears), more than 90 miles of which is on gravel roads. The work will be well-rewarded with a scenic view from the edge of lion rock.
The course will provide riders a massive heaping of some very mountainous and remote areas in Central Washington. Most of the route is primitive Forest Service “roads”. There will be five aid stations at roughly miles 19, 36, 60, 75, and 95. These will also serve as emergency bail out points. We will not have support vehicles roaming the course, roads conditions simply won’t allow for it. All riders are expected to be able to extract themselves from the route.
We are also planning a gathering in downtown Roslyn for after the event. Registration will include a post-event meal and drink ticket as well and 1st edition Lion swag.
Gravel rides & races in the PNW