To Grind or Not to Grind: Gravel Riding & Racing in Saskatchewan.

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Master men’s lead group coming out of a tight corner.

A number of people have asked me over the last couple of years why I don’t participate in gravel riding and racing. My standard answer is that I do not own a gravel bike and already have too many bikes in the stable. If an individual presses me a little harder, I will tell them that the agricultural dust and chemicals carried by the perpetually blowing winds in Southern Saskatchewan are some of my asthma triggers, especially during aerobic exercise. Both of the aforementioned are honest answers, the latter being one of the primary reasons why I chose not to grain farm with my dad on a permanent basis so many years ago.

The need to breathe is a primal instinct for survival 🙂

As some of you may know from earlier posts, I had been away from Club cycling for some time before I decided to sign up with Regina Cycling Club (RCC), historically a road racing club in Regina, Saskatchewan. The club was founded by individuals I consider to be friends, although they are closer to my dad’s age than mine. I have met, and continue to meet awesome people through RCC and other cycling clubs locally and elsewhere.

Times have changed, and now gravel riding and racing is a significant part of the club and racing schedule. What I did not realize, until this year, is that there appears to be a bit of tension between traditional road riders and gravel riders in terms of agenda, events, and “air time” within the public discourse on FaceBook (FB).

As for me, I do not want to see the club (RCC) drift too far from its original purpose of being a traditional road racing club with well-organized road races, criteriums, and time trials. Please don’t get all up-in-arms over my personal preference(s) – I am just being honest here. Some of the older riders inside the club have mentioned to me that they do not like the direction we are heading with the heavy emphasis on gravel racing, cyclocross, fat biking, and just about everything else besides road racing. I tend to agree with them and have spoken freely in public forums about it. Nevertheless, a new generation and a few old-timers love gravel riding and racing and are quite vocal about it on the FB public forum also.

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Elite men’s criterium chase group.

To each his/her own. Live and let live? I am getting too old (or too wise) to get involved in the internal squabbles and small-time politics of non-profit clubs, let alone the provincial cycling association.

I must say, though, that I was disappointed in the small turnout to both the Provincial 15km and 40km TT’s and the Criteriums, especially the Elite men’s criterium this year – 4 riders showed up to the starting line. There were no women who entered the criterium races. The Master-aged riders put on a good show though! Sign of the times? I do not know.

Is road racing (in all its disciplines) dying a slow and painful death in Saskatchewan?

Based on a recent conversation with a provincial cycling official, and personal observation, I am beginning to believe that the very principle of volunteerism is dying in our cycling clubs. In other words, it is getting increasingly difficult to secure volunteers for events.

The old guard is still doing the lion’s share of the work and complain of having no one to pass the baton too.

I get that…I really do. I am still being nagged from time to time to volunteer and be involved in the local church that I attend. That church I am referring to is composed of predominantly the Gen-X and Millennial generations. My response is always the same. I have volunteered in various capacities in the church, service clubs, school groups, and sport clubs for over four decades…

…It is time for a younger generation to take the baton and run with it.

Today it seems that local cyclists are more interested in the social aspects and group dynamics of women-specific or age-group clubs and novel venues such as gravel riding/racing than the highly structured sport of road racing (i.e., officials, clearly defined rules and governance). Are the specific disciplines within road racing too hard? Do individuals loath being humiliated and dropped by a raging peloton cruising at 45km+ per hour? My experiences earlier this year was certainly a mixed bag, but I honestly loved every minute of it, whether being out front desperately trying to stay ahead of the scratch group or being dropped unceremoniously from the pack and having to ride solo all the way home.

God knows I want to be back racing with all my heart, but my body, so far, is refusing to cooperate. Patience young Jedi…

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Spring training before the ice is melted on the lake. Photographed in Wascana Park, Regina, Saskatchewan © Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

A hundred kilometres of gravel racing in 30C+ heat is no walk in the park either, yet events like this tend to draw a larger crowd and more female participants. This reminds me of the early days of mountain bike riding/racing, of which my generation essentially invented and participated heavily in. Eventually, the wild off-road antics of mountain biking became organized and regulated, partly due to opposition from equestrian riders, hikers, and environmentalists, and partly because of the process of natural evolution, i.e., evolving from a fringe sport to being recognized as a viable Olympic sport.

Only time will tell if gravel riding/racing, which is predominantly a North American phenomenon, will develop and evolve into something more universal like mountain biking did. According to a recent conversation with an employee of a local bike shop, the sale of mountain bikes and city bikes are still the bread and butter of their existence alongside repair services.

Recently, an individual asked a question on FB as to whether there were any paved roads to ride on anymore? I was not sure if his inquiry was tongue-in-cheek or was sincere. No one responded, but I did take the time to write out a response (which I decided NOT to post on FB) that I will share with you here:

I will try to answer your question straight up. There are still lots of rideable paved road routes in and around Regina. The Regina Bypass Project has created a lot of obstacles for road riders to get out of the city somewhat safely. As you probably know, a significantly increased population has led to increased traffic on our major highways, but most of the shoulders are wide and doable. I use ear plugs in high traffic areas on the highway, i.e. one can still hear traffic adequately but much of the high frequency noise and the wind is drowned out. Bright clothing and a powerful rear flashing taillight help out with visibility to traffic.

Others here have mentioned that some of the traditional road routes have been wrecked by chip seal paving and the removal of paved road shoulders completely. It kind of reminds me of riding in some of the rural areas of Scandinavia, Great Britain and Europe now, as we no longer have the privilege of adequate paved shoulders on some of our historical road riding routes.

Although I personally no longer ride gravel or off-road (since the late 1990’s), I can appreciate why others do. Yes, I know it is hard to believe that some of us road gravel back then 🙂 I do know that others in our club (RCC) enjoy the opportunity of discovering new routes, landscapes, and the challenging hills of gravel riding, not to mention less traffic and a much quieter environment. As with road riding, there are pluses and minuses to gravel riding/racing also. Relentless heat, dust, bugs, washboard or freshly graded and loose road surfaces, flying stones from trucks and other farm machinery, no place to restock on water and food, vicious dogs, and shotgun wielding property owners 😉

In the final analysis, cycling is cycling, and I trust that each person involved in our club or the many other cycling clubs in Regina are enjoying the challenges and the sense of community that comes from participating in sport with others of like mind. Cheers!

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Gravel Grinders: An Aerial Perspective

An excellent video produced by a young university student and avid cyclist. I am not completely certain, but I think the video was shot from a DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter in and around the Qu’Appelle valley. Although I have lived and cycled for many years in the area (and still do), it certainly looks a little different from the air. In the summer, the entire valley is a lush green oasis for cyclists, runners, hikers, canoeists and kayakers, etc.

Most of the gravel riders in the video are either from the Regina Cycling Club (RCC) and/or the Off-Road Syndicate (ORS) based out of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Traditional road racing on paved roads is rapidly being supplanted by gravel racing. A predominantly new generation of talented cyclists pursuing a relatively new form of training and racing away from the ever increasing traffic congested highways near my home.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.