Could 2018 be the year of gravel cycling's big breakthrough in Alberta?
The lack of a thriving gravel-cycling scene in this province—and the prairie provinces, in general—has long been a puzzler to me. South of the border, in the equivalent landscape known as the Midwest or Great Plains, cycling on the thousands of miles of gravel backroads has been a thing for years.
It’s difficult to find data on the actual number of gravel riders, but just consider, as an indicator, the number of gravel-cycling events in the midwestern and western United States: competitive races (such as the Dirty Kanza and Gravel Worlds); more recreational rides and fondos (such as the Cino Heroica and Rebecca’s Private Idaho); and any number of informal, unsanctioned, no-fee rides. Throughout Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas you’ll find some kind of gravel-grinder event happening almost every weekend in the summer months. Check out the event listings on Gravel Cyclist to get a sense of the burgeoning American scene.
But here in Alberta, and elsewhere on the prairies, where we have essentially the same abundance of gloriously traffic-free, unpaved roads, a gravel-event scene has only recently begun to emerge. In the past few years, several gravel events have popped onto the Alberta map and calendar.
In the category of one-day events, there’s Deadgoat Racing’s The Ghosts of Gravel, going into its fourth year, which calls itself both a race and a fondo. It takes place in mid-June in the Water Valley and rolling foothills, northwest of Calgary on a 118-km course, with a ton of elevation (6800 feet—gasp!). It’s a full-on Alberta Bicycle Association race, with registration, sponsors, and prizes, though it’s open to both licensed and non-licensed riders. And as of last year, there’s also a Friendly Ghost version, of 76 km, which sounds like more of a recreational ride than a race.
In the Edmonton area, the gravel-event scene leans more toward the grassroots, unsanctioned end of the spectrum. Also going into its fourth year is our very own Dusty 100 Gravel Challenge, held on and around the Victoria Trail, near Smoky Lake, in early June. What this event may lack in prize money it more than makes up for in mediocre bugling.
Two other unsanctioned events have recently been announced for 2018, brainchildren of Edmonton gravel gurus Greg Nicholson and Tim Bulger: The Wizard Battle Gravel Grinder, near Pigeon Lake in May and the Dirty Alta 200 in July in the Neutral Hills near Coronation. (Greg also convenes the Facebook group, Alberta Gravel Cycling, which is becoming an essential resource for the gravel community.)
Plus I recently heard that Drumheller’s Badlands Gran Fondo is offering a gravel grinder option for the first time in 2018.
But one-day events are only part of the story. Alberta is also home to some multi-day endurance gravel events. In fact, the most famous of these, the Tour Divide, runs partly through our province, from Banff down to the US border (it crosses into BC first), though it feels like a stretch to call it an Alberta event, since most of the route and the organizers are in the US. Interestingly, the Adventure Cycling Association recently announced a project to extend the Alberta portion of the route, linking it up to Jasper, though it’s not clear whether that leg will become part of the official race route.
I know of two other Tour Divide-style (that is, self-supported, bikepacking) gravel events: the Alberta-Rockies 700, which follows the forestry trunk-road route from Coleman to Hinton through remote wilderness and former coal towns. Meanwhile the Hurt’n Albert’n 550 appears to be a little more grassrootsy. The route connects the Badlands near Drumheller with the foothills of the Rockies, and is put together by ridelongsleepoutside.com In both cases, about 25 riders lined up at the start in 2017 (about half finished), so these are cool-sounding but relatively small-scale events.
So is a breakthrough imminent? I’m not going to get too excited--yet. True, gravel bikes are now a staple in every bike store; online forums devoted to the cult of gravel are growing; and events, as we’ve seen, are emerging. But the fact remains that I’ve never, in 5 years of gravel riding in Alberta, encountered another gravel rider while out on a ride. Until that starts to happen, I will have my doubts.
In my limited experience mainly around Edmonton, I would say that most gravel riders are cyclo-cross racers who are embracing the crossover possibilities of gravel. But where the Alberta scene is lacking compared to the American one, it seems to me, is on the non-racing side. Cyclists like me, who don’t race but love to ride; occasional century riders who are maybe a little bored with the road-riding scene and are up for a new challenge; and weekend warriors who are tired of the hassles and dangers of traffic—we need more of these riders, along with the cyclo-crossers, to get on board Alberta’s gravelution.