Gravel is Just Baby Rocks



I’ve been riding and racing bikes for over 30 years. At different points during this time, I’ve focused my interest and energy on riding and racing road, mountain, and cyclocross bikes, For the better part of that time, I have struggled to give an adequate explanation to my non-cycling enthusiast friends when asked about what exactly cyclocross is. Is it like mountain biking? Is it like riding your road bike in the dirt? Oh, so you use a hybrid bike? If I could get far enough through the blank stares with a reasonable explanation of what cyclocross is all about, I would often get asked simply “why?”

Why, indeed. The truth is, cyclocross is a bit of a tough sell, but this isn’t about cyclocross, it’s about gravel, and if I thought explaining cyclocross was difficult, along comes this new thing called gravel. Gravel riding really isn’t new, but dedicated gravel bikes are, and they make a compelling reason to have another hook in the garage ceiling for yet another bike. N+1, wherein N is the number of bikes you currently have, you always need one more. This isn’t another bike industry conspiracy to get you to open up the wallet. But the right gravel bike set-up actually challenges that equation, because the right gravel bike can do so many things well. Gravel, groad, roadirt, whatever you want to call it, gravel is the surface, gravel is the bike, and gravel is a state of mind. Any bike can be a gravel bike.


The gravitational pull of gravel started back in the early 2000s for me, when a riding buddy who was also one of the top road racers in the country talked me into signing up for, and more importantly training for, a really unique event called the Saturn Cycling Classic, a 140 mile, pro “road” race that started in Boulder, Colorado and finished in Breckenridge. With over 80 miles of the course being climbing above 9,000 ft elevation, it was not for the sprinters, this was a climber’s race with a unique twist. The ascent and descent of Guanella pass was all dirt. Road bikes would suffice to get up the pass, but contenders for the win would switch to mountain bikes or cyclocross bikes for the rough and rocky gravel descent, and then switch back to road bikes at the bottom.


To train for such an event, we focused much of the summer of 2001 seeking out ride loops with as much climbing as possible, and so much the better if there were sections of gravel and dirt road to test our bikes and handling skills on. What we found to be the most enjoyable parts of these rides were always the dirt sections, and road bikes actually worked ok, if the surface wasn’t too rocky. Plus, we didn’t really know any better. You could lower your tire pressure a little bit, but not too much, to help with loose and sandy terrain. Our minds started to wander, and we would think up routes intentionally seeking the most dirt and gravel roads as possible. Back then, Guardsman Pass was still an unholy stretch of wash-boarded gravel, so that checked off two of our boxes: steep climbing, and dirt. The race came and went that summer, but we were both inspired. One of us took it to new extremes.


My aforementioned riding buddy is Utah native son T. Burke Swindlehurst, who after his professional racing career was finished, started the ups and downs (mostly ups) of bringing a new and unique race event to the cycling community known as the Crusher in the Tushar. Just having wrapped his 7th successful year of the event, Burke has a bit of wisdom when it comes to what bike you should ride to conquer the Crusher: at some point in the race, you are going to wish you were on a different bike. The race route starts in the town of Beaver, and after a 10 mile pack start on paved roads up the canyon from the start line, racers veer off towards Kent’s Lake and get cozy with a long day in the saddle that includes everything you can imagine: big climbs, hairball loose and rocky descending, sandy soul-sapping double-track, and the reckoning that is the Col de Crush, a fancy made-up name for the obstacle that would be more aptly named, in my opinion, The Motherf!$er. A 3,000 ft vertical ascent up a mountain, which is, you guessed it, gravel.


Burke’s Crusher in the Tushar race has been a proving ground of sorts for the equipment and the rite of passage for those who consider themselves gravel riders. Like the Salt Flats of the Great Salt Lake for hot rods and speed demons, the Crusher is holy land for mountain goats and hammer pilots of pedal bikes. Just Google it. You’ll likely find plenty of stories and blogs from riders who are eager to share their experiences in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. Gravel is kind of like that. It has become a community and a culture, and there are no shortage of characters and opinions out there.


So if any bike can be ridden on gravel, what makes for the ideal gravel bike? My personal experimentation has led me to my current whip, an OPEN U.P.P.E.R. model carbon frame and fork, built up with a modestly high-end (meaning you could spend a lot more) with a single chainring in the front, a wide range cluster in the rear (9×44), and hydraulic disc brakes. What makes the OPEN so different than any other cyclocross race bike that I have tweaked for the demands of gravel, and probably the most unique characteristic, is the ability to use either 700c “road wheels” with up to 40c tires, OR, 650b/27.5 wheels with mountain bike sized tires, all with adequate tire clearance and without affecting the handling and geometry of the bike. This, in my opinion, is a game changer. With the 650b wheels and a light 27.5 mountain bike tire such as a Schwalbe Racing Ralph, I could ride anything in Park City, from pavement, to cinder path, to some of the more well-known singletrack trails. With a 700c road wheel and medium width semi-slick tires, like a Panaracer 35c Gravel King, I’ll tackle any one of the brisk paced group rides in town.


This isn’t to say my gravel bike is more fun than my mountain bike for riding trail. Suspension works, that’s why I’ll never own a hardtail mountain bike again. Nor am I going to beat my PR times up epic pavement climbs like the Pine Canyon Road up to Guardsman pass from Midway; it’s just not going to happen. A lightweight skinny tire road machine will have a clear advantage. It does have me questioning the N+1 equation, however. The numbers don’t lie, and in this day and age of tracking everything with data, my gravel bike compiles most of the data, measured in hours ridden, miles logged, and vertical feet climbed. I just simply ride it more often, and enjoy every minute.


In a gravel state of mind, you will be seeking new adventures. You might start spending a lot of time on Google Earth or drawing routes on Strava to “see where that old dirt road connects to.” With a few variations to a familiar route, a gravel bike can help renew your interest in a ride you have done hundreds of times, just by throwing in a few dirt sections.


Of course, any time there is a “new” category of bike riding whether it’s a passing fad or something that will stick around and evolve, there also will be races, like the Crusher. Somebody out there will figure out a way to make it a contest, and there will be those suckers willing to pay handsome sums of money to pin a number on. Guilty as charged. There is a very different racing culture that surrounds the gravel scene, and whether there is some willful social engineering going on at the hands of the promoters to keep these events above all fun and pure (whatever that means), I know for sure it’s not about getting rich. I can speak on behalf of Burke and the Crusher, and how much personal blood, sweat, gravel, and tears he puts into the event, that if you are lucky enough to pony up for an entry before it sells out online, you will never have a bike race experience that makes you feel like it was totally worth every penny. You are buying into a way of life. The commitment to train, to seek out similar terrain, and dial in your ride, if it is all starting to sound like joining a cult, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Another great gravel event that is in our region, Rebecca’s Private Idaho in Sun Valley, has arguably the best street party following any bike race that I’ve ever been to. It’s such a great party, it would definitely not even be legal in Utah, and if you are not paying attention, founder and promoter Rebecca Rusch might be the one refilling your Solo cup with tequila. Oops. Finally, there is the Dirty Kanza 200, in Emporia, Kansas, which is horribly misnamed, because it’s actually 206 miles, not 200. Emporia is literally Graveltown U.S.A., and the holy land. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; let’s just get you out on a few gravel rides first.


Classic Utah Gravel Rides:


-Park City to East Canyon via Jeremy Ranch dirt road, to Henefer, to Echo via dirt frontage road, to Coalville via Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail, to Wanship, back to Park City via Rail Trail.

-Soldier Hollow to Sundance via Deer Creek Reservoir Perimeter Trail, up past Sundance via Alpine Loop, down to Cascade Springs, back to Soldier Hollow.

-White Rim, Moab. Of course the White is a mountain bike ride, but with the right tires, I wouldn’t think twice about tackling it on my gravel bike. If I didn’t have a mountain bike.


4 Responses to “Gravel is Just Baby Rocks”

  1. Some other fantastic rides:
    Bountiful B to Farmington Canyon (or the reverse)
    Loop around the Cedar Mountains (the Wild Horse race course)

  2. Bobby- great additions to the Classic Utah Gravel Rides list. I’ve been meaning to do the Bountiful-to-Farmington Peak ride, but have yet to check it off my list. I’m also hoping to participate in The Wild Horse in 2018, and regret not mentioning it in my original article, because it is a locals favorite:

  3. Nice write-up, Thomas. I just moved back to Utah (SLC), after 20+ years away, and am looking for gravel trails. Is there a list or a compendium of gravel trails for Northern Utah?

  4. Ken,

    Welcome back to Utah. Gravel trails are where you find them. I like your idea of a 2018 compendium of gravel routes…I wonder if I can sell the editors on this? Honestly, I hope to put a nice list together based on some advice from gravel correspondents in other parts of the state, as well as some, ahem, research I plan to conduct firsthand once we get through winter, if it ever shows up on our doorstep. Ride on!

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