“What drew you to gravel?”
I’ve been asked that a lot lately, particularly this weekend at Rebecca’s Private Idaho. It’s also a question I’ve been asking lots of other people, with a mind to understand what makes gravel so great. Why are so many people flocking to this discipline, from first-timers to seasoned pros? I have a clearer answer after this weekend. Clearer, but not concise. There are so many things that drew me to this type of bike riding, and I experienced all of these facets this weekend at RPI.
Gravel racing is about people, challenge and growth, and exploration. It fills you up and inspires you to evolve in a way that a lot of other cycling disciplines don’t, or at least don’t when practiced in the way of the status quo. You’re out there with so many different people, as opposed to the - let’s face it - relatively homogenous field that competes at the highest level of XCO World Cup racing. This expanded social community is a big part of the emotional impact of gravel. Of course, there are the efforts themselves (which are transformative), the views and terrain, etc... but the people and the energy are very unique.
RPI was, as predicted, an inspiring weekend. I’ve admired Rebecca Rusch for a long time, particularly for how she has used her sport career for something bigger. I’ve always felt that sport’s purpose is really to develop good humans, and Rebecca is the prototypical example of that outcome. If you haven’t heard about the race that she runs, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, it is a gravel race with a a couple of options (you can do just the one-day Sunday race in a 20, 50, or 100mile distance; or you can do the Queen’s Stage Race (QSR), which adds a primarily trail day on Thursday and an uphill TT on the Friday), and all of the proceeds from the race go towards the foundation that Rebecca founded, Be Good. Click on the link and go have a look at what the foundation works to achieve, and if you’re inspired, maybe donate. I was really impacted by hearing Rebecca talk about the foundation in her own words.
I will keep this portion of the post concise, but suffice it to say that coming to RPI was a bucket list event, meeting Rebecca was really impactful, and getting to experience this event was so inspiring. From seeing the various paracyclists that took on the full QSR, to watching Kiel Reijnen and his 5-year-old daughter EmmyLou ride the FULL 102 mile distance on Sunday to raise money for World Bicycle Relief (check out this article here to read about their challenge, it’s so cool), to going through the inevitable process of transformation that happens when you take on such a big physical challenge in such an awe-inspiring natural setting… RPI was amazing. That’s not to mention the organization, communication, social media, and festivities of the event. Truly, a world-class weekend that I HIGHLY recommend!
In terms of the racing itself, it went well for the Maxxis Factory crew. The only real rule about equipment is that you must ride the same bike each day, but you can swap out parts and tires, etc. Lespy and I were both riding our Hakkas with GRX, but changed up tires each day. The first day was about 50/50 single track/gravel atv trail, and both Lespy and I opted for 40c Ramblers in 120TPI with Tannus Armour inserts. The second day was another 50 miles, but only 4.5 miles (uphill) was timed. We both went for 40c Receptors and nixed the inserts to conserve a teensy bit of rotational mass for the climbing. The third day was a monster, 102 mile ride with a variety of terrain (gravel road, rough and washboarded descents, a bit of chunky off-road riding, and some loose sections). We went back to 40c Ramblers with our inserts for this day. No flats, no mechanical, and smooth riding for both of us all week.
I managed to take the W each day, but not without a fight! The first day really took me by surprise, as I’d been off the bike for the previous 5 days on vacation with my mom and sister. I was a bit off the back of the front women in the beginning as we began climbing, but I was able to use the single track to my advantage and ride back through the field. The second half of the day was an out-and-back on a loose gravel double track, which dished up a solid headwind for the “and-back” portion. I had a nice man to trade pulls with on the way out as it was gradually descending, but I was riding a little higher pace on the way back in with the relentless 1-3% grade and ended up riding the final 22km solo (and scared!). The other women riding here were very strong, and I was NOT confident that I’d be able to hold them off, but I decided that the purpose of the event is to test yourself, and so I committed to going for it.
Day 2 was really fun. We all rolled the 30km out to the TT hill together, and I got to chat with the other women (such a unique aspect of gravel!). They staged the top 10 women from yesterday in reverse order, so I had the massive advantage of heading out on the 7.2km dirt climb with 9 carrots spaced out at 30 second intervals. I dug deep, weirdly enjoyed it, and managed to take the win. I topped the Strava leaderboard, but have to note that the true course record belongs to Moriah Wilson. I thought about her a lot this week (she raced here last year), and she truly inspired to push myself to the limit.
The final day was a real unknown for me. It was the closest thing to a road race I’ve really ever done. It started with a neutral roll out, then went as follows: a ~25min climb, a long descent, 30km of very gradual climbing, 30km of very gradual elevation loss, an 8km decisive section of chunky off-road dubbed El Diablito, and then a final couple miles of climbing before a *long* 20km of descending and false flat down into the finish. The winds were crazy strong, and according to Rebecca, the headwind for the second half was much stronger than usual. This made tactics unique, course times slow, and suffer-factor high.
I sent it up the first climb, and had about 45 seconds on the next woman by the top. I was able to descend onto the second men’s group, and we tried to work together to move forward for the next while. Unfortunately, we weren’t riding very smooth or efficiently, and we were caught by a massive group of men and ~6 women 50km into the race. For the next 30km, the group wasn’t keen on pushing too hard, though I did try to rally the troops! At about km 80, I rode off the front of the group with two men as we turned into a head-crosswind section. Unfortunately, we turned again and in the straight-on headwind, a couple of men on the front of the group chasing us were able to bridge that whole crew back on.
I’m not sure exactly how or when, but eventually the group whittled down to about 10-15 people that had 4 or 5 women in it. With maybe 50km to go, the group shrunk again to 8 people, and just Serena and I representing the women. The group pace-lined through the best we could into the stiff headwind, until El Diablito. This is where I made my final move, and the group disintegrated here. I got off the front through this section, was able to link up with another man when I popped out to the last climb, and we rode through to the end together. Not quite as much of an implosion as at Leadville, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself functional at the finish line either!
It feels odd to talk about the details of the racing, because this event was just about so much more than that. It was about Being Good, finding inspiration, and appreciating the soul that has resulted in 10 (!!!!) years of RPI. I can't thank Rebecca and her whole team enough. What an amazing event you put on.
Racing aside, this event was just so special. I hope you put it on your list for next year!