By Avesa Rockwell
Images by Jeremy Kershaw
Hundreds of cyclists gather at dawn in a frosty parking lot. They add warm layers to peel off later, clip cue cards onto their handlebars, check tire pressure, and then wait for the signal to roll out onto the remote unpaved route. The fastest riders form a blurry peloton. The middle pack spreads out quickly. The slow pokes chat and enjoy the scenery.
In Minnesota, the gravel cycling season spans mid-April to mid-October, so any kind of weather can be expected. Event organizers never cancel rides for rain, sleet, or snow. Wet seasons force riders off their saddles to push through miles of mud. Sometimes sharp rocks pop tubes and rough spots break frames.
With the exception of a rare checkpoint with snacks and water refills, riders are on their own. Sag vehicles and support teams are prohibited. Some stretches have zero cell coverage. However, riders can and will help each other out.
The fastest will typically finish around noon. They won't stand on a podium and receive a medal. Sometimes they'll get a homemade necklace and a growler of craft beer. The slowest riders arrive after dark to receive handshakes from the organizer and a few die-hard volunteers.
SO WHY WOULD FOLKS CHOOSE TO RATTLE THEIR BRAINS OVER WASHBOARD WHEN THERE ARE PLENTY OF SMOOTH, PAVED ROADS? WE ASKED SEVERAL LONG-TIME RIDERS. LIKE ANY QUESTION ABOUT THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, THEIR ANSWERS TEND TO DRIFT TOWARDS THE SPIRITUAL.
LEFT: John Hatcher, Duluth, MN:
When I rolled up to the starting line of the first Heck of the North in 2009, I had probably ridden 100 miles on a bike only twice. And I had never done it on the gravel roads and rugged trails I was about to travel. It's an understatement to say I had no business being there that day. I'm grateful I didn't know that. If I had, I probably never would have started.
One summer, gravel icon Chris Skogen from Rochester came to Duluth and I joined him on a ride. He told me, "Lower your speed. Lower your expectations." It was a simple enough thing to say, but it made sense. In other words, ride your own bike ride. Now at these gravel classics I line up at the back. I intentionally let the fast folks ride away. If I find some people to ride with, that's fine, but I'm also quite content to experience the Minnesota landscape solo. Lower your speed. Lower your expectations. It works on a lot of levels.
MIDDLE: Charlie Farrow, Duluth, MN:
Norris Hansell published his "Seven Essential Attachments" paper in 1967. His ideas made sense to me as a young collegian some thirty-five years ago. In fact, every one of Norris' "attachments" (things we need to be whole) rang true to me and glowed like burning coal. I continue to be comforted by his guide for living a happy life, which of course included riding a bike to clear one's mind.
RIGHT: Mary Gorski, Milwaukee, WI
For me, gravel riding is like finding a new love after enduring a long and messy break-up. For years, I loved ultrarunning. But a few injuries turned my 50-milers into five milers. I missed the long days wandering through the woods. I missed the accomplishment and camaraderie.
Four years ago, I tried my first gravel cycling classic. Under-prepared, and freezing in the sleet and rain, I dropped halfway through. But I was smitten. I realized that it would be a bumpy relationship (sometimes literally), but it was worth it. It brought me joy; the joy came from the cycling itself, but also from the people in the sport. And then there is that same rush, that same sense of "WOW I did that!" at the end of a tough gravel ride. It was the rush that finishing a tough ultra used to bring me.
LEFT: Ross Fraboni, Duluth, MN:
The gravel scene somehow split apart the roadie crowd and the mountain bike crowd, took its most interesting people, and gave them an outlet to enjoy an adventure, not hear the words "stoke, bro, wattage, agro, strava, huck, shred, KOM," and other terms I am all-too familiar with. We do not have to deal with someone's fragile ego and vehicles are few and far between.
LEFT: Andrea Cohen, Ames, IA:
Gravel has given me the chance to realize why I love cycling so much. It has helped rekindle that spark. That love. It's what I see in other people. It helps me remember why I care. Taking someone out of their comfort zone and helping them realize how much more they are capable of is what gravel is all about. It's not about being brave or finding a limit. It's about looking yourself in the face or mirror (or selfie) and telling yourself you can.
MIDDLE: Ann Sudoh, Duluth, MN:
Gravel riding takes you away from traffic, away from stoplights, oftentimes through the trees and frequently to a small town with a quaint café and amazing pie. Many love the solitude of solo adventure, but with my poor navigational skills (even with GPS) I prefer to share the adventure.
RIGHT: Marko Carlson, Babbit, MN:
I love the geography of gravel riding. It reminds me of riding my BMX bike with my childhood friends around Virginia, MN. We hardly ever stayed on the main roads, instead opting for back alleys, shortcuts, tailings pits even yards. I didn't realize it at the time, but it allowed me to know my town more intimately. It was like we carried all these secrets that our parents didn't know. Gravel cycling is no different. Stringing together forest roads, ATV trails, gravel and mining roads in NE Minnesota has not only opened up new routes I can't ride on a road bike, but also allows me to fully stitch together the place I live. I've met some really good friends through gravel racing and events. At some point the main group will be blown apart and I'll find myself suffering alone in the middle of no place. Then, inevitably, another rider and I will start to share the work. Cycling not only goes faster physically that way, it is also a huge boost to the spirit.
Rob Milburn, Duluth, MN:
Like spring training baseball games on the radio and tapping the maple trees in my yard, the beginning of the gravel season is a sure sign of the transition from winter to spring. It comes at a time when the sun actually begins to feel like a source of warmth again. With gravel comes the scent of snow melt pooling in the ditches, and soil giving up its frost. After months of riding silent winter trails, I love to hear the gurgle of water running next to the road, birds singing their songs from every tree, and the continuous crunching of gravel; a meditative hum that allows me to leave my demons behind for a while.
Rob Milburn's tips for first-time riders of gravel double as sage advice for good living:
O Travel light. If it's not helping you, let it go.
O There's always another hill. Don't dread the climb in front of you, or celebrate too vigorously when it's over.
O Ride with people, but stay focused on and centered over your own two wheels. You're less likely to crash and take out people close to you.
O Always stay present. Surrender to what is, and don't spend energy wishing things were different. The weather and life's challenges will both change soon enough if you keep moving forward.
For information about recommended rigs, gear, and this year's calendar of group rides and races, check out Riding Gravel at