Gravel cycling trend takes local riders onto backroads, even to Kansas |

Gravel cycling trend takes local riders onto backroads, even to Kansas

Steamboat Springs cyclist Amy Charity rides on a gravel road Wednesday afternoon outside the city.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Midwest summer heat is draped over the surrounding hills like a blanket. The wind whistles through the few nearby trees and the legs are begging for mercy — 100 miles down but with 100 more still to go, up and over and up and over, always up and over the endless Flint Hills that stretch through central Kansas.

That’s the hardest part, Jeremiah Gantzer said, the halfway point of the 200-mile Dirty Kanza gravel bike race that, despite those low moments, he’s prepared to travel to compete at again this weekend.

Those hills are gentle enough that you can see for miles from the top but expansive enough that even from the top, they seem to stretch forever, a long green carpet without farmhouses or telephone poles or power lines, and certainly without blacktop roads.

They may be gentle by Rabbit Ears Pass standards, but they’re relentless in their own way, he said, and while the craggy terrain doesn’t demand a mountain bike — that’s kind of the whole point, actually — it does demand attention, focus in the midst of the sweat and the deep breaths. 

“You really have to know how to ride a bike,” said Gantzer, a sales representative at Moots Cycles in Steamboat Springs. “You can’t just put your head down and pedal. You are going around stuff, over stuff.”

The Dirty Kanza is one of the biggest gravel races in the country, attracting an expected 3,500 riders to Emporia, Kansas, this weekend, but it’s unique only in its particular challenge and popularity.

Gravel racing and riding is the biggest trend in cycling, a wave that’s driving sales at local bike shops in Steamboat, driving manufacturing at the two local high-end bicycle makers and driving a dozen of the best riders in Routt County east, from Bike Town USA to the heat and the wind and the desolation of the rolling central Kansas hills, for so long just the terrain of ranchers.

Gravel riding offers a way into that terrain, onto those roads, and these days in cycling, it’s the place to be.

On trend

For cycling, gravel has proven to be one of the great untapped resources, after cyclists have tackled the roads and laid their trails on the mountains.

Manufacturers combine the speed of a road bike with the versatility of a mountain bike. Wider tires allow better traction on the loose gravel found off the major roads, and a slightly sturdier build allows for confidence and comfort in tackling even more rugged terrain such as beginner mountain bike trails.

Jeremiah Gantzer shows off a Moots gravel bike Wednesday before heading to Emporia, Kansas for the Dirty Kanza 200-mile gravel bike race.

It’s allowing riders to go where the other people aren’t, away from the traffic on paved roads, away from the tight shoulders in twisty highways and into the often car-less gravel roads that surround Steamboat Springs.

“It opens up so many doors,” said Amy Charity, a retired professional cyclist who’s among the dozen Steamboat athletes racing this weekend in Kansas.

“Especially where we live there are so many gravel roads, and it opens up endless possibilities for adventure riding,” she said. “You can go anywhere and you can start before the mountain bike trails are dry and still get out on dirt. I’ve seen parts of Routt County I had never been to, and it’s all because I’ve been getting out on gravel.”

It’s not an entirely new area for bike builders. Cyclocross bikes have long existed between road bikes and mountain bikes, and gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes have some similarities. Still, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Cyclocross bikes are intended to handle well and comfortable for what may be an hour or two of racing. Gravel bikes are more comfortable and can be ridden, well, those Steamboat riders are hoping at least 200 miles.

“Traditionally, cyclocross bikes are designed for aggressive riding,” said Brad Bingham, who took over Kent Eriksen Cycles and also operates the brand Bingham Built.

Disc brakes are showing up more often on traditional road bikes, but they’re more often a standard component on gravel bikes.

“A gravel grinder is really designed around enjoyment,” he said, “just designed around pleasure riding so the geometry is quite a bit different, designed to be ridden all day.”

Bingham is another of those racing this weekend, heading east with his wife, Hannah Bingham. The two are the reigning Town Challenge mountain bike champions from last season.

Gravel riding doesn’t replace that love, of course, but Brad Bingham said gravel bikes are the hottest items in his business.

“For the last three or four years, it’s really climbed to the top,” he said. “It’s the majority of our business.”

Moots, too, has made gravel big business. Gantzer said about half the bikes the company sells fall into that category. It’s embraced the trend by more than just sales, too.

Moots will play host to the fifth-annual Ranch Rally in Steamboat Springs on June 16, a non-competitive ride that sends a group of cyclists on rural roads to ranches around Steamboat, working with and raising funds for the Community Agriculture Alliance along the way.

“That’s us giving back to the community whose roads we’re riding through,” Moots-sponsored Steamboat cyclist Kelly Boniface said. “We’re showing mutual respect for those farm roads.”

Saddle up

Boniface, too, is heading to Kansas.

Among the riders making the trip are the Binghams, Charity and her husband, Matt Charity, Jim Barker, Katie Lindquist, Andrew Medlock, Graham Muir and Kellie Nelson.

Living in Steamboat and training to be ready for 200 miles by early June wasn’t easy.

Boniface, an assistant coach on the Steamboat Springs High School track team, found time wherever she could. Sometimes that meant riding to the track meet while her students took the bus.

She took her bike to Grand Junction for another meet and logged miles while there, then joined up with Amy Charity for one particularly long haul, from Kremmling to Granby, up to Grand Lake and into Rocky Mountain National Park, over the pass to Estes Park and finally to Boulder.

It was a gravel grinder kind of day: they hit paved roads, dirt roads and singletrack without swapping bikes.

On the bright side, they know the riding in Kansas will be at a lower elevation. On the darker side, it’ll be 30 or 40 degrees warmer, and even with all of that, they still fell well short of 200 miles.

“I kind of just pull from over 40 years as an endurance athlete to get me through this,” Boniface said, laughing.

Riders will potentially get a little bit of a break in that current forecasts call for only 90 degree heat, not the 100 initially anticipated. The forecast does call for wind gusts hitting 20 miles per hour, however, so they may not miss out on all the summer fun in Kansas.

They’re preparing various ways. Boniface said the key is to stay hydrated, not to get behind because by the time you’ll know you’re behind, it’ll likely be too late to catch up.

Gantzer said he learned last year, his first time riding the race, to keep eating while riding. It doesn’t have to be healthy. He’s taking potato chips and M&Ms in addition to more traditional energy fuel like Honey Stinger products.

Brad and Hannah Bingham plan to fill pairs of pantyhose with water and freeze them, then when they come to the three mid-race checkpoints — one every 50 miles — pull out one and drape it over their shoulders.

Watch out, though, for that second checkpoint, Gantzer warned. One hundred miles in, 100 miles of gravel to go, that’s as tough as it gets.

“It’s surprisingly beautiful, rolling hills as far as you can see, and just rolling hills, nothing else,” he said. “It’s so rural.”
That, he said, is the point.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email or follow him on Twitter @JReich9.

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