The Inaugural USECF Gravel Grinder Nationals:
The first of, hopefully many more to come.
I was excited and a bit surprised when earlier this year the, newly-formed, United States Endurance Cycling Federation (USECF) announced the inaugural Gravel Grinder national championship race to be held in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas! Call me biased, but northeast Kansas does have some of the very best gravel roads around and the gravel cycling community in this part of the country is second to none. “Gravel racing” and “Kansas” used in the same sentence will always conjure images of the “Dirty Kanza”, the now iconic granddaddy of all gravel races.
Launched 13 years ago, the DK200 has grown from a small band of local riders setting off on an epic 200-mile race across the rugged gravel roads of the Flint Hills of Kansas, to an internationally recognized event now synonymous with challenging and unforgiving conditions and organizational excellence on every front. Its popularity is, in part, responsible for spawning numerous self-supported gravel endurance races across the Midwest and the entire country for that matter. Launching the inaugural Gravel Grinder Nationals (GGN) in Dirty Kanza country thus immediately thrust the USECF in the position of having to live up to some sky-high expectations from some world class riders in the epicenter of U.S. gravel racing!
From the very start, the GGN materials posted on the USCF website were thorough and professional and only heightening my level of anticipation and excitement for the event. As with all self-supported gravel endurance races it “gets real” when the course is revealed and you begin pouring over the path and terrain in an attempt to get a preview of what to expect. Being familiar with the gravel roads around Lawrence, Kansas, I was initially surprised that the GGN would leave Clinton State Park and eventually head south, thus bypassing some of the very best and most challenging gravel roads around, namely those to the north and east in Jefferson and Leavenworth Counties. However, once the race was underway, and throughout the entire day, the course proved to be challenging, fast, and covering great gravel roads, some that were even new to me! In addition, running the course in and out of Lone Start Lake for two slightly overlapping loops was brilliant planning since it allowed a convenient single location for the two oasis stops at 40 and 75 miles. Plus, Lone Star Lake is one of the truly beautiful and well-ridden cycling spots in Douglas County, Kansas.
Though mentioned in the race promotional materials, the 12-15 miles of paved roads breaking up the much longer gravel segments, was an interesting feature to this race that is atypical to most gravel events I have participated in. I’m sure this routing was borne more out of convenience rather than intention, but I found that it gave the race a fresh character that was both unique and exciting from the perspective of race tactics.
And speaking of racing, being over 60 years old, I truly appreciated there being a 60+ category in the GGN. It’s tough at 64 to compete with the 50 year olds! Some of those dudes are really fast! Case in point, John Harp of Monument, Colorado, the 50-54 age group winner, finished the 112-mile course in 6:06:48 tying for the 5th best overall time! That’s flying on gravel! Racing in my own age group allowed me to challenge my best effort while legitimately racing for a spot on the podium.
From about the 35-mile mark to the finish line, I was in constant contact with two other racers in the 60+ category. Fully aware that besting these two other riders could be a ticket to podium my day was about keeping their wheel when slower and pushing distance when possible; though I ended up missing the podium by a fraction of a second in a sprint to the finish, it was an exciting day of racing! What’s not to love about that?
Did the USECF Gravel Grinder Nationals step up the challenge? From this rider’s perspective, the USECF GGN was an amazing success! The race was extremely well-organized and flawlessly-executed and given only minimal local organizational support (it’s tough doing these things long-distance for the first time), the race came off exceptionally well. Moreover, the after-race food and “party” atmosphere was much appreciated after 112 miles of gravel racing! Much credit goes to the organizers, sponsors and the many volunteers of this event who really pulled off a fun, family-oriented, day of racing. I sincerely hope the USECF plans on returning to Lawrence, Kansas for the 2018 race! I’m sure it will be even bigger and better.