|Credit: Cycling Tips|
A few years ago, Val, Penn, and I did the Gran Fondo Whistler. It was, I thought at the time, an expensive ticket: $225 to participate in a one-day ride. But despite being a cheap bastard by nature, I was able to justify the cost on the grounds that for my cash I was getting a unique “experience:” in addition to the usual supports (aid and snack stations) a section of the highway we rode was closed to car traffic, enabling us to ride on a road that otherwise I probably would have avoided. And when we got to Whistler, there was a party waiting for us: barbeque, live music, and an atmosphere of general festivity. We had a good time. It was worth it, and I’d recommend the “experience.”
That ride is all pavement, of course, but I mention it here because, in the world of gravel riding, big ticket events promising a special “experience”--in some cases charging the same kind of fees as a premier event like the Whistler Gran Fondo--are beginning to pop up more and more in western Canada. But when I look closely at what some of these gravel events are offering in exchange for their fees, I find myself asking some questions about what exactly constitutes a rewarding gravel-event “experience.”
One of the most expensive tickets out there is BluMoose. According to the website, this is a two-day event at Kicking Horse Mountain, near Golden, BC, consisting of a 10 km uphill grind to the ski resort on the Friday (with a gondola ride back down) and then a long gravel ride on Saturday (100/200/300 km options) on the gravel roads of the Purcells. The cost is $200.
For that fee you get access to Friday’s “BluMoose Food and Drink Station” featuring “fruit, snacks, and soft drink and water” plus, of course, the gondola ride down. And although it’s not entirely clear from the website, it sounds like the uphill mountain access might be exclusive to bikes--that there won’t be any vehicles on the climb. (I’m guessing here; it’s hard to tell from the website.)
On the Saturday you get a GPX file with the route and there are aid stations (sandwiches, fruit, snacks, soft drinks, water) every 50 km. But it’s a self-supported ride; no mechanical assistance is available. The website makes it clear that there are plenty of services along the Saturday route (stores and gas stations), making the aid stations of far less import than might be the case on many gravel rides of these distances.
BluMoose, it must be noted, is not typical in that it is a charity fundraiser, so while it doesn’t seem like you’re getting a lot for your $200, the fee is going to a charitable cause. BluMoose is not a for-profit venture.
The Badlands Gran Fondo Gravel Grinder, which runs in early August in Drumheller, applies the classic fondo model to gravel: support and swag on a route that is not closed to cars or restricted in access. It costs $150-195 (depending on when you register) for the 100 km ride. For your fee, you get a t-shirt, breakfast, lunch, mechanical and medical support, swag bag of coupons and the usual crapola, and access to six aid stations (one offering bacon sandwiches). You get a decent haul of loot--but is it worth $195? If you like the mass participation “experience” of a fondo--and bacon--then maybe.
Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI) is the gold standard for this kind of gravel event, and undoubtedly the inspiration for BluMoose and others. Rebecca Rusch’s event in and around Sun Valley, Idaho, is a four-day extravaganza of riding, eating, drinking, and general merrymaking. They call it a “festival” and it certainly sounds like it. I’ve never been, but my gravel-friend Aaron Falkenberg has, and he raves about the “experience” factor at that event. For starters, it piggybacks on the annual “Off the Wagon Days” celebration in Ketchum, Idaho, which makes for a general party atmosphere in the whole area the whole time, not just at the finish line. Rusch likes to boast about how the event is really about “showing off her backyard.”
It’ll cost you $180 USD to ride the popular Baked Potato route (100 miles), with the option to add on other day rides for extra cash. But included in your registration is access to a pretty good bike expo (featuring charming local businesses in addition to the usual bike company stuff), high-end aid stations (skillet-fried Idaho spuds, shots of Patron), a swell swag bag (t-shirt, bandana, two RPI water bottles, and a tub o’ chamois cream), a belt-buckle or bolo-tie for finishing, and access to a helluva after-party, complete with gelande quaffing. There’s even a complimentary concierge bike wash.
Okay, that’s a high bar, I know. But knowing what you get at RPI does make one question what you get for your money at other gravel events. What are you really paying for?
One answer is that you’re paying to be part of a community experience, to ride a well-curated route in a beautiful place with a bunch of new people with a shared love of gravel riding. (And in Canada, anyway, part of what you’re paying for is the hefty insurance required to bring all those people together.)
The community aspect of gravel events is definitely worth something, especially these days. The route part, though, not so much, as it’s easy to find on the internet excellent maps for well-curated routes just about anywhere. And I wonder, if the community aspect is the main part of the “experience,” does that justify a big price tag? There are unofficial grassroots gravel rides around, some organized on the Gravel Alberta Facebook page, that provide a community experience, though on a much smaller scale, and those grassroots events are usually free.
Alberta’s The Range, a newish gravel event based out of Claresholm, put together by the aptly named “Gravel Experience,” may be as close to hitting the cost-to-experience ratio sweet spot as anyone in the west. (You could put BC’s Cowichan Crusher and Kettle Mettle Dirty Fondo in this category too.) I participated in last year’s unofficial ride (technically cancelled due to COVID) and got to see at least some of the route up close. A big part of the “experience” there is getting to ride on the private Burke Ranch Road, a stellar stretch of off-road riding in the Porcupine Hills that I would otherwise not have had access to (though I did learn later that anyone can ask the Ranch for permission to access their road). The Range fee, last year anyway, was a relatively modest $100 and although it may not get you skillet-fried potatoes and a shot of tequila (or the southern Alberta equivalent: beef jerky and a Pil?), I think it’s worth it for getting to ride on that road.
In the end, of course, what a person is willing to pay for an “experience” is a subjective thing. Not everyone’s as cheap of a bastard as me. And you just never know when one person’s hard-to-justify expense is another’s genuine “experience.”