Steve Hed told me about L’Eroica 15 or so years ago. I’m usually considered the idea guy in triathlon, but Steve – my late good friend – was always ahead of me in recognizing the zeitgeist. L’Eroica was one half of “gravel” I think, and it led Steve eventually there. Twenty-five percent of gravel was MTB and the final quarter was CX.
Mix them all in a blender and you get the word that nobody wants to us: Gravel. Gerard Vroomen, who makes the most exclusive gravel brand going, Open Cycles, hates it. Allroad is his reluctant choice. Gerard also has a better olfactory sense for zeitgeist than I do and it’s no coincidence that he and Steve Hed were also fast friends.
In a couple of days I’m interviewing my ex-employee who made good, Michael Marckx. Michael has a whale of a brain and he was razor spot on with his signature event, North San Diego's Belgian Waffle Ride. If you want really good roadies like Tom Anhalt and Chris Lyman to stop lurking and start posting to our Reader Forum, start a thread on BWR. This event animates roadies.
When I did the BWR last year – the short version – it was a revelation. Not because the route was spectacular, but because of what it was: either 30 or 70 percent pavement, or somewhere in between depending on the year, so, enter the thing and then choose your weapon. Rather than grooming a route for the tech (CX, MTB, whatever) you groom the tech for the route.
The BWR is not only a thinking man’s tech exercise – and all of allroad is these days – it’s a hilarious run what ya brung with road, MTB, uprights, bikes with baskets, every conception of what a bike is showing up at that race (and all “gravel” races).
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but gravel, or allroad, is kind of a triathlon thing. Just look at the front page of our Forum right now. Maybe 3 threads on it, right now, on gravel, the bikes, the races. Gravel is really where road and tri meet. Multisport gravitates to it because we like tech – a lot – and we like moving from one endurance paradigm to another.
L’Eroica was the first entre into gravel, if you consider gravel a road bike expedition and not a morphing of MTB (and it isn’t; gravel is strictly a road endeavor). Then Steve started telling me about Almanzo, an event in the Twin Cities where he lived, put on by a guy who refused to charge an entry fee. That alone spoke to me. Steve was about to take Almanzo on financially, the year Steve died, in order to keep that race afloat.
So, finally, I asked Steve, tell me what I need to know about gravel. He said, “I can tell you but I’m not the best guy. What you need to do is call up Guitar Ted.” And that was it. I was hooked. Whatever gravel was or wasn’t, I was all in if I had to learn about it from a guy named Guitar Ted.
I never actually did talk to Guitar Ted I don’t think, but I dove in, did my research, and then told my friends at American Bicycle Group that I wanted them to build me a Litespeed Gravel Bike. Which they didn’t want to do, and it took me 9 months of convincing before they agreed. While I have a Cannondale Slate, which I love, my everyday rider is still that Litespeed.
And I got more and more into it because, truth be told, I just dig the freedom of going wherever I want, and doing so with speed and style. It so resonates with the multisporter in me. And that led me to this: RoadOptional.
This is my soft launch. The website is not done. Yes, it’s roadoptional.com but there’s nothing there yet. I launched this with Pat Hus, CEO of Interbike, over the weekend at the TBI Conference because our first race is an official part of Interbike MarketWeek. My intention is to have this first RoadOptional event – an allroad triathlon – at Boca Reservoir, near Truckee, California, on September 16th. It’s 15 miles away from Northstar Resort, between Tahoe and Truckee. (I put on a triathlon at Boca Reservoir in 1982.)
I’m in the middle of hunting permits right now, so, registration is not open because I just have this thing about not opening registration until I have permits in hand. I’m funny that way.
I’ve got about 15 race directors who’ve inquired about partnering with me on RoadOptional events around the U.S., and we’re moving through that process though I’ve only found one other event that we might, maybe, be able to pull off this Fall. Otherwise, the first full season would be in 2019. What are the hallmarks of a RoadOptional event?
- The course is determined by the geography. Not the road surface. Not the distance. The road surface is what it is, because Mother Nature told us this is where the bike ride needs to go and the road surface is a detail, not a driver. Yes, we’ll tell you what the surface is, what percentage of pavement, of gravel, of clay, and so forth, but we won’t alter the course to conform to any standardization.
- The distances are what they are, based on the geography. We might have 2 hour races or 5 hour races, depending on the course. It’s whatever Mother Nature serves us.
- The ratios will not be standard. We might have a 17 mile bike and a 7 mile run. Or a 46 mile bike and a 3 mile run. The swim? Probably a half-mile to a mile, but if we find something interesting, as in, swim around that island, then it’s whatever it is to get around the island. I would say that, in general, the bike will be emphasized more than the run, and we’ll have a number of short runs to appeal to those who just… don’t… run (or can’t any longer run). It’s highly unlikely you’ll see pavement runs from us.
- The series is RoadOptional, but the races will have their own individual names, which will not have tri or gravel or “man” in the name. So, Rage in the Sage, Scene of the Climb, these are races already, either car races or duathlons or something, but they’re names I admire (and won’t use for our races because they’re already in use). I love The Texas Chain Ring Massacre. It’s a gravel race. I want to do it, just because of the name. The hardest and funnest job we’ll have is naming all our races.
- We’re going to have a liberal refund or entry deferral policy. This may sink us. But I don’t think so. This is my grand experiment in treating customers well. Does that pay off in the end? We’ll see.
- This will be a grass roots series, with grass roots expenses, i.e., low costs, to keep the entry fees low. My imperatives for partner race organizations are light, financially. I only want partner RDs who are willing to allow their races to find their audiences, and that might take time. A first year race might have 600 registrants, or 40. I don’t care, as long as it’s well produced.
- I’m not interested in tailoring the events to match the “market”, whatever that is. Wildflower (which I’m doing this year) is a pain in the ass to get to. BWR is a pain in the ass to do. Ironman is, well, it certainly was never tailored to fit into an existing market paradigm. Do I hope you’ll find RoadOptional events interesting? Yes. Am I willing to change one meter of a course to conform to the results of a focus group?
So that’s it. Draft if you want. Bring whatever bike you want. I will sanction with USA Triathlon if there’s any way I possibly can, but this would require certain rules abatements and we’ll have to discuss whether it’s possible for a first-time triathlete to absorb a $15 one-day membership on a $95 entry fee (and I think it’s highly likely we’ll have entry fees that low for a number of our races). One problem identified by race directors at the most recent TBI Conference was “pedantic rules” and we’re going to err on the side of fewer rather than more rules. But, here’s one ironclad rule: Run with what ya brung. No bike changes, unless your bike breaks.
Sometime in Feb I expect to have a website to point you to. I’m breaking a cardinal rule here. You should never announce anything until you’re ready to absorb the initial influx of customers who want to respond to your call to action. But I’m Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption: "I find I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head."
[NOTE: The photos here are from Dan Patitucci. I searched all over, and his pics of gravel are what I liked the most.]