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The Quirky History of Gravel Bike Racing

The Quirky History of Gravel Bike Racing

Bridging the gap between road and mountain biking, gravel bike racing offers a thrill that’s quite unlike any other. 

Gravel Bike riding pairs the invigorating freedom of riding over rough, weathered terrain with the increased efficiency and speed of road cycling… in a way that makes first-timers think: “why have I never done a gravel bike route before?”

Speaking of first-timers, there’s no better bike race to try on for size than a gravel bike race.  Why?  They don’t tend to be categorised by ability, so there’s a greater emphasis on the social side and the pure-and-simple fun of participating. 

Yes, of course, there are competitive elements – it wouldn’t be a race otherwise! – but unlike cross-country or road racing, in a gravel bike race, you’re more likely to start in a group altogether rather than sectioned off according to your gender, age, or class of bike. 

This, coupled with the fact that you’ll be less focused on maintaining a set pace throughout, gives way to a sense of camaraderie that can be hard to replicate on road or mountain bike races. 

There’s also a huge variety of lengths and formats of gravel bike races to choose from, from the quick and relatively smooth to long, ragged enduro courses, meaning there’s a gravel bike race out there for everyone.

But how did it all begin?

Gravel Bike

In the beginning: through the cobbled streets of Northern France

Just as the etymology of “gravel” transports us to ancient France (“grevele” means “sand” in Old French), gravel bike racing has its roots along the cobbled and gravel roads of the country itself.

The rough-hewn surfaces of Northern France were where many cyclists got their first taste of racing on coarse terrain, and they craved more and more of it.

The inspirational Paris-Roubaix, also known as the “Hell of the North” due to its famously rough 280km route consisting of mud, gravel, and cobbles, was first held in 1896.  These days its mixed terrain is so uniquely challenging that bike manufacturers create hybrid models and components, especially for the event.

But it’s the iconic, 21-stage Tour de France that is often cited as the world’s first ‘gravel bike race’ as we would know it today, beginning in 1903. 

 

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship and the “Hell of the North Cotswolds”

This may shock you, but off-road cycling wasn’t always the height of cool.

On Sunday 29th May 1955, “forty members who, in pursuit of their pastime, traverse the rougher and less beaten ways” came together in Leominster to form the Rough-Stuff Fellowship.  This is thought to be the oldest dedicated off-road riding organisation… and back then, most people thought they were mad.

The Fellowship’s first chairman, Charlie Chadwick, was an eccentric writer who recorded each of his bike rides in journal and poetry form.  The bearded, baggy short-wearing club members also completed their many cycling escapades on basic touring bikes, as the mountain bike had yet to be invented.

Yet as this entertaining article mentions, decades later, the Rough-Stuff Fellowship have come to be “considered icons and role models to many new gravel aficionados.”

If we’re talking British gravel icons, we must also reference one of the very first: the Liverpudlian off-road cycling pioneer Walter MacGregor Robinson – aka ‘The Wayfarer’.  In between the two World Wars, he encouraged British cyclists to explore mountain tracks and routes way off the beaten path… again, of course, on simple bikes with no gears. 

(There’s a rough and ready route over the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales, named ‘The Wayfarer’ in Robinson’s honour, with a memorial to him at the summit.  Robinson pioneered this trail in 1919, and if you decide to give it a go yourself, you may wonder just how he managed it… particularly as it was also snowing at the time!)

Despite these home-grown role models, we had to wait until the early 1980s for the UK’s first official gravel bike race.  This was the “Hell of the North Cotswolds”, a selection of local off-road routes chosen by the Winchcombe Cycling Club as a tribute to the Paris-Roubaix.  This event still takes place each year on the same day as its French counterpart.

More races gradually followed, including the Dirty Reiver.  One of the UK’s premier gravel events, this is a 200k challenge that takes place in Hexham each year.

 

The global rise of gravel bike racing

The Paris-Roubaix also inspired Canada’s first gravel bike race, the Paris to Ancaster, back in 1994.  The race has since expanded to include a 100k distance to partner with the original 70k and 45k, and over 2,200 people completed the three routes in 2022.

Meanwhile, gravel cycling was starting to take a firm hold in the US.  Its rise in popularity was thought to have evolved both from the country’s bike-camping culture of the 1980s and cold mid-Western winters that meant mountain bikers were forced to find alternatives to freezing single tracks.

Such popularity gave rise to the Dirty Kanza, now known as Unbound Gravel.  Held annually in Emporia, Kansas, the event is well-known as one of the world’s premier gravel bike races – though just 34 riders participated in 2006, its inaugural year. 

Fast-forwarding to 2019, when 2,750 lottery-picked riders crossed the Unbound starting point, is a fine example of how gravel bike racing has grown over the years.  While the event started as a 200-mile race, additional lengths were added over the years, from Unbound Gravel XL, a 350-mile race, to a 25-mile version aimed at teenagers.

Held in Barry County, Michigan from 2009, the Barry-Roubaix (can you guess the name of the race that inspired it?) is another classic US event known as ‘The World’s Largest Gravel Road’, with an eye-watering 2,200 feet of climbing. 

Proving that you don’t necessarily need a fancy bike to complete a gravel race, in 2018, Jeff Jacobi completed the 36-mile Barry-Roubaix Thriller race on a vintage Penny Farthing, raising over $10,000 for charity in the process!

 

How to choose a gravel bike race in the UK

These days, there’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to gravel bike races, as this directory shows.

Look for a single-stage gravel bike race if you’re a complete beginner and an enduro or multi-stage event if you’re more advanced (or you just feel like a challenge!)

We at Marauder are excited to announce that our first gravel bike event, the Goldrush Midi Gravel, will be held on the 17th of September in the rugged, scenic North York Moors.  You can sign up here and follow us on social media for more information.