I bought my ticket this morning to go to the first-ever, so-named (as well as I can tell) gravel bike triathlon. The Ugly Dog Triathlon will take place on August 25th, outside of Ann Arbor. I’m going; so is Ian Murray, my partner in Slowtwitch Coaching and my lead instructor in our F.I.S.T. Bike Fit Workshops.
Ian raced in (and won) Wilderman last year, which is a full distance race featuring, basically, a gravel bike leg. I raced a much shorter version of an “offroad” triathlon this year when I (and a lot of others) brought our gravel bikes to Wildflower’s offroad triathlon. Participants are already hijacking variable terrain triathlons and making them into gravel triathlons.
My idea was to just come out with it. Expose it. Name it. Confess it. So, earlier this year I soft-launched the concept of a series of these races called RoadOptional. The idea is not gravel, per se, and if you want to call it Road Plus or All-Road, fine. The thesis is: Here’s the start, there’s the end, here’s what’s in between, choose your weapon. Race organizer Eva Solomon was game and the Ugly Dog was born, making her race the first of its kind.
To me, gravel, as I describe it above, is saturated with the multisport spirit. It’s always been about getting from A to B using the skills and tech that the user can bring to bear.
To that end, this isn’t my first gravel rodeo. Here’s a bike I made 25 years ago:
This was the Panamint. My idea, back then, was a go-anywhere, do-anything multi-purpose, multi-surface, high-speed bike. About the only thing I got right about that bike was the tire width. The 38mm slick did most of what I wanted. I got the wheelsize wrong (MTB 26”) the handlebars wrong, but through the prism of my thinking at that time this is what made sense.
In truth, that bike really did work. It was fast on the pavement, it was made for the aero position, and it was reasonably capable offroad. If I showed you places I went, and the routes I traversed, with that bike you’d say, yeah, that tool obviously fit the job. Still, below is what I’m riding now and I have some ideas on how to better equip this "tool" for the places I want to visit with it.
Anyway, about the Panamint, life intervened, any forestalled any further development on that project. But the bike was made because the need was there, even back then, 25 years ago, just as it is today.
This brings us to current, and as has been the case for a good part of my adult life I’m returning the important ideas pushed to the side, at the time, by exigencies.
My plan was for there to be two RoadOptional events this year, the Ugly Dog Triathlon and the Dog Valley Grind, a gravel tri in the neighborhood of Truckee, just west of Reno, in concert with Interbike MarketWeek. I reluctantly postponed the latter as I could not get the thing planned in time. I’m finding that, for the events I produce – as opposed to events with which I have a partner – I’m going to need to rebuild race production teams, something I haven’t done since I produced a nationwide series of events back in the late 1990s. My gaze exceeded my grasp. I don’t have that staff. So I'm building it.
I’m committed to RoadOptional because these are the races that I want to do. You might think that selfish or foolhardy, but I've got an advantage. As regards triathlon, I've been around since the beginning, so I remember the success formula, which is: Don't rely on a success formula. Back then – and this includes my very first race I produced, in 1981 – the only races that ever did well are the races produced from the pure motive.
And what is that pure motive? It’s got to be the race you produce because it needs to be produced. It needs to be shared. The reason triathlon declined every year from 2012 to 2017 is that too many race producers thought only about money and financial security. They produced races based on "the formula". They sat on their islands while the sea rose around them. They fought among themselves for the shrinking real estate, unwilling to construct a ship to sail somewhere new.
If I'm to write transparently to my readers, my challenge right now is to find other race directors who have that same spirit we all had back in the early 80s, and I'm still looking for them. Here is what is undeniably true: Gravel racers don’t swim and run; triathletes don’t have gravel bikes. Nevertheless, when I put on my first triathlon in 1981, there were no triathletes in my town. Period. My mailing list consisted of... what mailing list?
I’m pursuing two courses in Southern California, and I'm still plunking along with the event in Truckee. If I can get my permits (I have an odd, self-imposed, requirement of needing the permits in hand before I open registration) I will produce my events with only secondary regard for how many people register. (I know it sounds counterintuitive, but today's triathlon monuments were all originally produced unguided by financial imperatives and benchmarks.)
In the meantime, if Ian and I see you at the Ugly Dog, please walk up and shake our hands, and celebrate with us a piece of history.