The History of Gravel Riding: From Rural Roads to Global Phenomenon

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cycling was a popular mode of transportation and leisure activity. However, the roads of the time were often unpaved and rough, making for a challenging ride. Despite this, many cyclists enjoyed the thrill of exploring new terrain and pushing the limits of their bikes. As technology advanced and paved roads became more common, cycling shifted away from gravel and dirt paths and towards smooth pavement.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that gravel riding began to make a comeback. With the rise of endurance events like the Dirty Kanza and the Grinduro, cyclists once again began to seek out the challenge and adventure of riding on unpaved roads. Today, gravel riding has become a popular discipline in its own right, with dedicated bikes, events, and communities.

The Origins of Gravel Riding


Gravel riding has its roots in cyclocross, a sport that originated in Europe in the early 1900s. Cyclocross races were typically held in the fall and winter months and involved riding on a mix of paved and unpaved surfaces, including grass, mud, and sand. Racers would have to dismount their bikes and carry them over obstacles such as barriers and steep hills.

Cyclocross remained a niche sport until the 1970s when it began to gain popularity in the United States. American racers adapted the sport to include longer races on rougher terrain, including gravel roads. This was the beginning of gravel riding as we know it today.

The Emergence of Gravel

Gravel riding really took off in the early 2000s when a group of cyclists in Kansas organized the first Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile race on gravel roads. The event attracted a small but dedicated group of riders who were drawn to the challenge of riding long distances on rough terrain.

Since then, gravel riding has exploded in popularity, with races and events popping up all over the world. In addition to organized events, many cyclists have taken to exploring gravel roads on their own, seeking out new routes and adventures.

Gravel riding has also gained attention from professional cyclists, with races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France including sections of cobbles and gravel roads. This has helped to bring gravel riding into the mainstream and has inspired more cyclists to give it a try.

Overall, the history of gravel riding is closely tied to the world of cycling and the evolution of cyclocross. As the sport continues to grow and evolve, it will be interesting to see what new challenges and adventures await gravel riders around the world.

Evolution of Gravel Riding

Gravel cycling has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it emerged as a distinct cycling discipline. Gravel riding combines the speed and efficiency of road cycling with the freedom and adventure of mountain biking. It is a perfect fit for those who want to explore unpaved roads and enjoy the scenery without sacrificing speed.

The evolution of gravel riding can be traced back to bikepacking, a form of endurance cycling that involves carrying all your gear on your bike and riding long distances on unpaved roads. Bikepacking became popular in the 1990s, and it inspired many cyclists to explore the backcountry and push their limits.

Gravel racing also played a significant role in the evolution of gravel riding. Gravel races are long-distance events that take place on unpaved roads and attract riders from all over the world. These races are often more challenging than road races because of the rough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The popularity of gravel riding has also been driven by advancements in bike technology. Gravel bikes are designed to handle both paved and unpaved roads, and they feature wider tires, a more upright position, and drop bars that provide a comfortable and efficient riding position.

Today, gravel riding is a thriving cycling discipline that attracts riders of all ages and abilities. It offers a unique blend of speed, endurance, and adventure that appeals to a wide range of cyclists. Whether you’re a road cyclist looking for a new challenge or a mountain biker seeking a faster ride, gravel riding has something to offer.

Popularity and Growth

Gravel riding has become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more riders seeking adventure and a break from the monotony of road riding. The sport has grown from a niche activity to a mainstream phenomenon, with events and races popping up all over the world.

One of the reasons for the growth of gravel riding is its inclusive and accessible nature. Unlike road cycling, which can be intimidating to beginners, gravel riding is open to riders of all skill levels. The sport also has a strong community aspect, with riders coming together to share their experiences and support each other.

Another factor in the popularity of gravel riding is the sense of adventure it provides. Gravel roads take riders through scenic and remote areas that are often inaccessible by road. This creates a unique experience that is not found in traditional road cycling.

Gravel events and races have also played a significant role in the growth of the sport. These events offer riders a chance to test themselves against others in a fun and supportive environment. They also provide an opportunity for riders to connect with like-minded individuals and share their love of the sport.

As gravel riding continues to grow in popularity, it is important to maintain the culture and values that have made it so appealing to riders. This means promoting inclusivity, accessibility, and good times for all. By doing so, we can ensure that gravel riding remains a vibrant and exciting sport for years to come.

Major Gravel Riding Events

Gravel riding has become increasingly popular in recent years, and with its rise has come a plethora of gravel riding events. Here are some of the most notable:

Unbound Gravel and Dirty Kanza

Unbound Gravel, formerly known as Dirty Kanza, is one of the most famous gravel events in the world. Held annually in Emporia, Kansas, the race covers 200 miles of gravel roads through the Flint Hills. The first Dirty Kanza was held in 2006, and the event has since grown to become one of the most prestigious gravel races in the world. In 2021, the event was rebranded as Unbound Gravel, reflecting its status as a global event.

Gravel Worlds and Grinduro

Gravel Worlds is a 150-mile race that takes place in Lincoln, Nebraska. The event features a mix of gravel and paved roads, with riders facing challenging terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. Grinduro, on the other hand, is a unique event that combines gravel riding with enduro-style racing. Held in various locations around the world, Grinduro features timed segments on both uphill and downhill sections, as well as a party atmosphere.

Barry-Roubaix and Trans-Iowa

Barry-Roubaix is a popular gravel race held in Hastings, Michigan. The event features three different distances, ranging from 22 to 100 miles, and attracts riders from across the country. Trans-Iowa, on the other hand, is a self-supported race that covers over 300 miles of gravel roads in Iowa. The event has a reputation for being one of the toughest gravel races in the world, with riders facing challenging terrain and unpredictable weather conditions.

In conclusion, these are just a few of the major gravel riding events that take place around the world. Each event offers a unique experience for riders, with challenging terrain, unpredictable weather conditions, and a sense of camaraderie among the participants. Whether you’re a seasoned gravel rider or a newcomer to the sport, there’s an event out there that’s sure to challenge and inspire you.

The Modern Gravel Bike

The modern gravel bike is a versatile machine that has taken the cycling world by storm. It is designed to handle a variety of terrain, from smooth roads to rough gravel paths and everything in between. With its endurance-oriented geometry, wider tires, and disc brakes, the gravel bike is built for long distances and challenging conditions.

Gravel bikes are purpose-built for gravel riding, and they have several features that set them apart from other types of bikes. One of the most notable features is tire clearance. Gravel bikes have wider tire clearance than road bikes, which allows riders to use larger tires for better traction and stability on rough terrain.

Another important feature of the modern gravel bike is its suspension. While many gravel bikes do not have full suspension systems like mountain bikes, they often have some form of suspension built into the frame or fork. This helps to absorb shock and vibration, making for a more comfortable ride on rough roads.

In terms of performance, the modern gravel bike is a jack-of-all-trades. It is not as fast as a road bike on smooth pavement, nor is it as capable as a mountain bike on technical terrain. However, it is a great all-around bike that can handle a wide variety of conditions with ease.

Innovation has been a driving force in the development of the modern gravel bike. Manufacturers have been experimenting with different handlebar shapes, stem lengths, and groupsets to find the perfect combination for gravel riding. Some gravel bikes have flat bars for a more upright riding position, while others have flared drop bars for better control on technical descents.

When it comes to equipment, the modern gravel bike is often outfitted with clipless pedals and shoes for efficient power transfer. However, some riders prefer flat pedals for better control on technical terrain. Disc brakes are also standard on most gravel bikes, providing reliable stopping power in all conditions.

Overall, the modern gravel bike is a versatile and capable machine that has opened up new possibilities for cycling adventures. Whether you’re looking to tackle long distances on rough roads or explore new trails, the gravel bike is a great choice for any adventure.

Influential Riders and Personalities

Alex Howes

Alex Howes is an American professional cyclist who has been a significant influence in the gravel riding world. He has been a part of the EF Education-Nippo team since 2012 and has competed in a variety of races, including the Dirty Kanza. Howes is known for his technical skills and his ability to handle challenging terrain.

One of the most significant moments in Howes’ gravel riding career was his win at the 2019 Dirty Kanza, where he beat out some of the top names in the sport. Howes has also been vocal about the importance of inclusivity in cycling and has advocated for more opportunities for women and underrepresented groups.

Peter Sagan

Peter Sagan is a Slovakian cyclist who has had a significant impact on the gravel riding world. Sagan is known for his versatility and has won races in a variety of disciplines, including road racing, mountain biking, and cyclocross. He has also competed in several gravel events, including the Dirty Kanza.

Sagan’s success in gravel racing has helped to bring more attention to the sport and has inspired other professional cyclists to try their hand at gravel riding. Sagan has also been involved in the development of new gravel events, such as the Sagan Fondo, which takes place in California.

Overall, both Alex Howes and Peter Sagan have been influential figures in the gravel riding world. Their success in the sport and their advocacy for inclusivity and diversity have helped to make gravel riding more accessible and welcoming to a wider range of cyclists.

Gravel Riding in the USA

Emporia and the Flint Hills

Emporia, Kansas, is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern gravel racing. In 2006, the Dirty Kanza 200 was founded in Emporia, and it quickly became one of the most popular gravel races in the world. The race takes place in the Flint Hills, a region known for its rugged terrain and scenic beauty.

The Flint Hills are a unique landscape that features undulating hills, rocky outcroppings, and tallgrass prairie. Gravel riders who take on the Dirty Kanza 200 must navigate steep climbs, technical descents, and exposed gravel roads. The race has become so popular that it now attracts riders from all over the world.

Michigan’s Barry County

Michigan’s Barry County is another popular destination for gravel riders. The area is home to many scenic and challenging gravel roads that wind through rural spaces. The Barry Roubaix is a popular gravel race that takes place in the county. The race offers riders a choice of three different distances, ranging from 22 to 62 miles.

San Diego

San Diego is another great destination for gravel riders. The area offers a variety of terrain, from rolling hills to steep climbs. The Dirty Devil is a popular gravel race that takes place in the area. The race features a challenging course that includes steep climbs, technical descents, and rocky terrain.

Gravel riding is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and it’s easy to see why. With its mix of challenging terrain and scenic beauty, gravel riding offers a unique and rewarding experience for riders of all skill levels. Whether you’re looking for a challenging race or a scenic ride, there’s no shortage of great gravel destinations to explore in the USA.