As it is said, misery loves company. Gather together a group of people who put themselves through the trials of preparation to cycle hundreds of miles off the pavement, the tales of bodies abused and edges of fatigue pushed are plentiful. On a normal year, the cycling community starts the competitive year with a trek to Stillwater OK for the Mid South, the year was seemingly normal except that the looming questions of an impending global pandemic hovered above our paths like a rain cloud ready to burst open at any moment, clouding our experiences of both The Mid South and going into the spring season of gravel. I think I can speak for most of us when I say that I left The Mid South with a heavy heart, which is the exact opposite of the jubilation I normally fell upon our departure.
As we drove home, hearing news about grocery stores shelves being cleared, inability to obtain basic supplies for daily life as people panicked at an unknown virus making it’s way through the US, I couldn’t shake the thought that I may not get to enjoy this family we had chosen for ourselves, to enjoy our enthusiasms together, to be in company of kindred spirits. This weighed heavy on my heart.
I wasn’t around when gravel started, but in this year, unlike any other, I would get the chance to know what grassroots gravel felt like.
Grassroots is defined as “ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organizations membership”
At the beginning of August I had a conversation with Bob Cummings who is the Team Captain for Panaracer and race organizer for The Gravelking Hondo out of Augusta KS. We chatted about many things: his introduction and rise into gravel cycling after a hard left out of the world of racing karts, what the sport means to him and what is great about these small grassroots races.
At the beginning of our conversation I asked Bob how finding cycling came about for him, he told me “I had a bad weekend kart racing and came home frustrated, aggravated and there was a spring race in Lawrence so I decided to try and see what this bike racing was and gave it a shot. Did my first bike race and my kart never moved off the stand since”.
Bob noted that was several years back, but I see so many parallels of what it is to be a cyclist in the time of COVID. We are frustrated. We might have been using cycling to lose the dreaded quarantine weight. We may have needed to connect to something bigger than ourselves. We might need time to not have to think about the stress of the world as it is. We may need a break from the Covid-19 induced slow-down of life, forcing us to evaluate hard truths, having the time to see things more clearly.
Every new cancellation decree shatters me. ‘X Y Z Race Postponed’ , ‘Race cancelled’ , ‘Race deferred to 2021’. The blows don’t stop.
Then we saw a rise in Virtual Races, which in all honesty sounded so cheesy to me. But once we were given a clear guideline on how to ride safely in groups or within our own pods, it seems like we all slipped effortlessly into the mystical grassroots movement we’ve heard about from our gravel ancestors.
Just going out and riding. Maybe together. Maybe alone. But on the gravel.
But, deep down, we can’t shake the addicting draw of a race. Bob originally had to cancel his race after Dirty Kanza rescheduled on top of his date, which was a race he was committed to riding for Panaracer. He felt it was best to cancel and did, but then decided to ask for a little help from Bobby Smith (of Elrod’s Cirque out of Winfield Kansas) and decided to kick it back up knowing Bobby helped years prior as a volunteer and ran a successful race of his own.
However, putting together a race in the times of COVID is not an easy task and so many risks have to be deliberately weighed. Bob elaborated a bit on what it takes to have a safe race, and said that at this year’s Gravelking Hondo on September 12th, there will be required masks when not racing even at the start and during neutral wave roll out and riders are to only remove masks once distanced on gravel at the riders discretion. They will be temperature checking each rider in the morning and unlike many other, races they will continue to have chase vehicles behind the last rider to make sure every single person is accounted for. Rage Against the Chainring series, ran by Mark Moerner at Apostle Bike Works out of Wichita KS, has followed similar guidelines including temping and encouraging masks as well as social distancing.
It may sound complicated, but these are all simple requirements to continue do this safely. The most common thing I’ve seen work in the advantage of races is the naturally smaller pool size for these smaller events. Bob has had this race for six years and he said this year they are ahead of what they normally are on registered riders. The success of these smaller community and virtual races might not be considered booming, but it’s giving little pieces of ourselves back, maybe a little better off than we started. It is letting us flex those newly found abilities we have unearthed we have discovered out on our own the last several months. Or better yet, it’s reminding us what we had before.
The theme for these rides are all different, but Bob was inspired by the roads that The Gravelking Hondo course provided and marveled at the thought that at some point in the plains the course follows were hunted and inhabited by Native Americans at a time in history. In years past The Hondo has had Native American tones, but he mentioned they are scaling that back this year to be cognizant of the enlightenment of appropriation of other cultures. Which as so many of us know, has also been quite the movement as well in gravel this year.
The importance of supporting these smaller races that are taking the time and awareness to do it right is important. Their willingness to weather the storm of COVID, move forward with inclusivity, change without qualms, and give us ALL something to do safely, is what is directing our attention back to what really matters. Our small little pods, ourselves on our own. This isn’t about big swag bags or chutes full of cowbells, it’s stripping it back down to its most original state, right in our own communities and that’s not so bad.
There’s a common trend in these organizers, they want to give us back a taste of our roads, to give us our community back in the safest way possible during the most complicated year. During the Orange Mud Just Ride 100 our own pod, we have been with since the start, was able to ride roads we’ve never ridden. By ourselves, soaking in a cool down river along the way, supporting each other as our own volunteers, it wasn’t cheesy at all. It filled our cups, it surprised us and it got us back out there.
I felt motivated to reach out to Bob because of monologue in my head wanting to share this: Support your little, local races that keeping it small and safe. They are out there trying just like we are, knowing better and doing better each step of the way. But at the end of the day just be out there, these roads have never felt more like home.