Gravel riding, also known as gravel grinding or adventure riding, is an increasingly popular form of cycling that combines elements of road and mountain biking, but involves riding over dirt roads. Stowe, Vermont is particularly well suited for gravel rides, events, and races, as the surrounding rolling hills and idyllic countryside boast more unpaved roads than paved! The first organized gravel rides began appearing in Stowe and then statewide in the early 2000s, and this year there are multiple events slated to run from April through October, attracting thousands of riders to the area to ride, race and roister with like-minded gravel enthusiasts. Climbing up a long, steep dirt route in the Green Mountain Forest as the road undulates and surfaces change–all under picture-perfect blue skies–is an unforgettable experience that only non-traditional bike riders will ever get to appreciate.
Considered by most to be the Greg LeMond of the gravel world as the two-time winner of the Dirty Kanza and a podium finisher at a host of other gravel races, is Stowe’s own Ted King, better known as “The Gravel King”. As a Middlebury College graduate, King has ridden Vermont’s dirt roads for decades, and when not racing professionally in Europe is an ambassador for the general sport of cycling. His lobbying in support of putting more seats in saddles takes the form of encouraging gravel riding, coaching and hosting a pair of events: Rooted Vermont & King Challenge. In addition, King also sits on the board of Mountain Bike Afghanistan and nourishes the love of cycling with his company, Untapped, which highlights a single, pure ingredient: maple syrup, Vermont’s own incredibly wholesome, nutritious sweetness that can fuel rides, leaving behind the world of traditional sports gels.
King leads a rigorous Saturday morning group ride from late spring through early fall entitled the “Stowe Gravel Worlds” loop that features mostly buff gravel roads for which Vermont is well known, but still a few, brief Class 4 sections (non-maintained tracks or roads with deep layers of sharp gravel) with plenty of detours, derivations, and hills to set it apart from the standard paved route. As a local, “The Gravel King” suggests an after-ride dip in any number of the West Branch Little River’s swimming holes, refueling with a strong brew and pastry at PK Coffee, grabbing a cold-filtered beverage from the Alchemist brewery, and visiting Ranch Camp for all your gravel bikes needs, whether that be apparel, parts, sales, or service. At 47.79 kilometers, an elevation difference of 1,168 feet and an average grade of +0.1%, Ted’s après-ride suggestions are a post-ride requirement!
For those with an inflated competitive nature, organized gravel events are now cropping up across the rugged Green Mountain State at a rate never seen before as riding and racing is becoming more inclusive with huge growth in all segments. Sending riders on a combination of dirt, gravel, farm roads, logging trails, and the odd paved section, distances range from 25 to 85 miles, testing the limits of riders of all levels and ages, with most riders competing with themselves just to finish. And participants throw their leg over all types of iron steeds, including road bikes with skinny rims all the way to fully dedicated gravel bikes with wider, knobby tires, although a traditional MTB or a tandem bicycle might nose the line on occasion. While some events are fully supported with food, aid stations and clearly marked directions, others require the rider to be fully self-sufficient and carry all their own supplies.
So, what’s the pay-off? Unlike traditional road racing events, upon completion of a gravel ride participants gather to share in microbrews, local foods and live music with other competitors and family members. What could be better than riding one’s bike, sipping craft beers, sampling local cheeses while pouring over the latest cycling equipment to a nationally acclaimed band? As Ted King stated, “Everyone is pushing themselves to their limits and celebrating afterward with an IPA—how cool is that?” As difficult as the riding may be, the environment and the chance to ride keeps participants coming back, while new informal and organized gatherings emerge, and existing events increase their ridership. Gravel grinders are approachable for everyone with hopes of getting a little dirt under their tires, but enjoys the atmosphere associated with exploring new paths and their own boundaries.