Riding Dirty: The Rise of Gravel Cycling in Vermont
The persistent zipping of tires on dirt and the panting of riders fills the late-summer air as bikers lean into their mounts—and their suffering—to make the climb up a long steep dirt road in the Green Mountain Forest in Lincoln. Roads undulate, surfaces change, and the riders cruise in various pack sizes under picture-perfect blue skies. Aid stations and volunteers dot the course, locals offering riders everything from encouragement to Untapped Maple gels to grilled Twinkies to directions.
These aren’t your average road warriors though. They’re participants in Rooted, a lengthy and grueling race that starts at Cochran Ski Area in Richmond, winds through the Green Mountain National Forest in Ripton and Lincoln, and drops back down to the ski area on a combination of paved, dirt, and muddy rock- and puddle-strewn class 4 logging roads. And they’re amongst a growing group of non-traditional bike riders who have started frequenting Vermont in recent years.
“The ride was unbelievable. Everything is just so big here,” said Heidi Bech Kjogaard, who traveled to Rooted with her partner, Frank Hoj, a former Danish professional cyclist and Olympian, to experience gravel riding in the United States. “We were told to come to Vermont, that it is the mecca for gravel. They were right.”
Kjogaard and Hoj joined almost 500 other riders hailing from around the country and they’re all here in a race to get rooted in gravel, or dirty-road riding, a growing subculture that holds Vermont as one of its cherished destinations. Rooted, the race itself, was the brainchild of Ted and Laura King, two Vermont residents and lifelong bikers.
The Kings moved to Vermont from California last year both to establish permanent roots in a small, close-knit community and to be closer to a maple syrup–based sports nutrition company Ted had cofounded.
Ted had earned a degree from Middlebury College and a passion for cycling that would take him around the world over the course of more than a decade. Soon after arriving in Vermont, the Kings began biking the miles of dirt roads that crisscross the state and sharing their rides on social media. Their considerable social media following oohed and aahed over Vermont’s verdant landscape, winding dirt roads, and idyllic barns, and soon they were doggedly asking the Kings a single question.
“ ‘When are you going to start your own (organized) ride?’ ” said Laura, repeating the mantra over a Hill Farmstead beer at Hatchet Tap and Table in Richmond. The couple had purchased a home nearby, down the road from the Cochran Ski Area, where Ted had founded UnTapped Maple with members of the Cochran family and a college friend from Ted’s days at Middlebury.
The call to host their own organized ride in Vermont made sense, and the Kings readily acknowledge it had been part of their long-term plan. Ted had recently made the transition from racing professionally on the UCI road cycling World Tour — the biking equivalent of the playing in the NBA or NFL — to competing solo around the United States in gravel-racing events. He was recruited to compete as a brand ambassador by his longtime bicycle sponsor, Cannondale, shortly after announcing his retirement from the highest ranks of cycling in 2015. Laura, a competitive cyclist herself, had worked in marketing in the cycling industry. After transitioning to dirt, the two quickly built on their considerable social media followings.
“Honestly, I thought my career as a professional cyclist was over,” said Ted, sipping a beer beside Laura. “[But] Gravel has taken me places I never thought I’d go and introduced me to a whole other side of cycling that I am grateful for.” Over the last three years, the Kings have zipped across the United States and around the globe to race, ride, and promote gravel cycling. Their travels often take them to remote far-flung places like Emporia, Kansas, a small rural community that hosts the Dirty Kanza, largely considered the toughest gravel event in the world, and to the Rift, a 140-mile race-and-ride across the lava fields of Iceland.
The Kings decided to dive headlong into hosting their own event last winter when Laura stepped away from her job leading marketing at a cycling apparel company. They would have less than six months to plan the route work with local towns, organize sponsors, and gather volunteers. “It was really crazy but at every turn, people were there for us in the local community and beyond,” said Laura.
In planning the event, the Kings relied heavily on the advice of other gravel event promoters in Vermont who happily pitched in to help. They dubbed the ride Rooted after their decision to move to Vermont and lay down roots.
The Birth of Gravel
Over the last decade, a once robust competitive amateur road-racing scene in the United States has given way to organized gravel and alternative cycling events. The events typically send riders on a combination of paved, dirt (gravel), and in some cases sections of unmaintained logging or farm roads that are often more akin to mountain biking trails. Distances range from 40 to 140 miles and often push riders to their limits.
Vermont is particularly suited for gravel events, having more unpaved roads than paved. Directions in Vermont often contain the phrase “when the pavement ends.” The first organized gravel rides began appearing in Vermont in the early 2000s. This year, there were well over two dozen events from April through October, attracting thousands of riders to Vermont to race, ride, and revel in small towns like East Burke, Peacham, South Reading, Lincoln, and Braintree.
Today gravel rides come in a variety of flavors with some being fully supported with food and aid stations and visible roadside directions. Others require the riders to be self-sufficient carry all their own supplies — spare tubes, bike repair kits, and, most importantly, nutrition. All are on “open courses,” where cyclists and cars travel on the same roads.
“Riding gravel is typically safer than paved roads — much less car traffic to contend with,” said Peter Vollers, a gravel-event promoter and former professional cyclist from Woodstock who runs the popular Overland in South Reading, Vermont.
Participants utilize everything from road bikes with skinny tires to full-on dedicated gravel bikes with wider knobby tires to mountain bikes and everything in between, including tandem bicycles.
Professional cyclists like the Kings start alongside amateur riders of all levels, ages, and genders, making the events egalitarian from the start. “Gravel is so welcoming to everyone. If you’re not up front competing for the win, you quickly find your tribe in the race,” said Ted, noting that unlike in traditional road races, riders in gravel events are often competing against themselves just to finish.
Typical rides last anywhere between two and eight hours, depending on the rider. Unlike traditional road racing events where after the race, riders quickly decamp home, at gravel everyone gathers afterward to share in local food and craft beer, whether professional or amateur rider. “Everyone is pushing themselves to their limits whatever that might be and celebrating afterward together with an IPA — how cool is that?” said Ted.
The Standard Bearer
Last spring, Rasputitsa, Vermont’s best-known event, drew some 1,500 riders and their family and friends from 30 states and six countries to East Burke in frigid, muddy April to ride the gravel back roads of the Northeast Kingdom.
“When we started, we really had no idea what it would become. We just wanted to throw a bike race with friends,” said Heidi Myers, cofounder of Rasputitsa, noting that she and her cofounder had never thrown more than a backyard barbeque prior to starting what would become one of the most influential gravel events in the United States.
The first incarnation of Rasputitsa drew 350 riders to the Northeast Kingdom. “It seemed like a miracle,” said Myers, speaking in her office at Louis Garneau in Newport, Vermont, where she leads marketing efforts in the US for the international cycling-apparel brand.
Rasputitsa soon became a sensation in the cycling community for its demanding course, often-frigid conditions, and communal feel with post-ride beers shared around a fire. Each successive Rasputitsa has grown significantly, bringing several thousand people to the Northeast Kingdom for a weekend on what would normally be the shoulder season between skiing and mountain biking.
“It is truly unique,” said Doug Breismeister of Brooklyn, New York, who’s competed in two Rasputitsas. “After the first one, I said I wasn’t ever coming back it was so hard. But the vibe, the people, and the chance to ride with friends draws you back.”
In addition to the ride, Rasputitsa has both pre and post events in which the riders, their families, and friends gather to sample local cheeses, share meals, sip craft beers, and geek out over the latest cycling equipment. Each year is themed by a musical act. Last year was Prince. 2020 is AC/DC.
Myers and Moccia are committed to making gravel events more inclusive. “The biggest area of growth potential in cycling is women’s participation,” says Myers. To that end, they have created a second event during the weekend for female riders, dubbed Bittersweet. “We want to be a part of fueling that growth. That is why we make sure we are super approachable and appeal to people on all levels.”
The Cycling Industry Turns Its Eye to Vermont and Gravel
The cycling industry is paying attention to the growth of gravel and the evolving scene in Vermont. “Four of five years ago, gravel was an interesting niche segment that not everyone understood,” said Jonathan Geran, marketing director for Cannondale. Today, “it is a growth engine for us and the entire (bicycle) industry.”
Geran is not surprised by the rise of gravel and the dozens of gravel events that dot the landscape in Vermont and around the country. “What has surprised me is how long it took to really take off across the United States, and certainly Vermont has been a bit ahead of the curve.”
“Just the atmosphere around these events, whether it is Dirty Kanza to Rooted to the Vermont Overland. These small towns have embraced the cyclists. The riders are there exploring the roads and the towns themselves and often going places (and spending money) that they typically would never go to.”
One doesn’t have to look much further than Rasputitsa’s economic impact. A survey of last year’s rider revealed that 70 percent of the participants and their friends and family stayed in local lodging, with more than 50 percent staying two days. “[They] in turn spent money on food, gas, and shopping in the area — the impact is real,” said Myers. “It is one of the big reasons we started Rasputitsa, to have an impact in our surrounding community.”
Vollers, one of the early advocates of gravel riding in Vermont, concurs on the impact the events are providing for small communities in Vermont. “I don’t have particular numbers but I do know that the Overland books literally every hotel and Airbnb from Ludlow to Rutland through Woodstock, White River Junction, and down to Springfield for the whole weekend,” said Vollers. “We also fill local biker-friendly restaurants like Worthy Kitchen in Woodstock and Trail Break Taps & Tacos in White River Junction. It’s just a massive influx for our local businesses that support cycling.”
The events themselves have spawned further economic benefits with “gravel camps” popping up around the state. The smaller events see riders paying to travel to Vermont, experience Vermont’s miles of dirt roads, drink craft beers, and eat local food. This summer, Laura King hosted a women’s gravel skills clinic in Richmond for some three dozen women. Rasputitsa recently teamed up with Orvis to host an event for women that offered participants a weekend of topnotch Vermont bike riding and fly fishing. “I heard so many times (during her camp) how lucky we are to live here,” said Laura, noting the common refrain was “how can I make it in Vermont?”
This summer, Cannondale launched a whole new suite of gravel bikes during a three-day event in Stowe largely because of Vermont’s unique infrastructure. “Vermont offers a variety of terrain from A to Z that is just unmatched by anywhere in the world,” said Geran, who brought over 30 cycling journalists to Vermont for several days to ride, eat, and drink. “The ability to transport someone from their normal day-to-day life to Vermont and share what the state had to offer was just an exceptional experience for us and the participants.”
Rooted has tapped into the growing gravel scene both within the state and nationally to further establish Vermont as a destination for cyclists looking to explore new paths and their own boundaries, while at the same time gathering as a tribe.
Rooted was a weekend-long event. The Kings hosted a welcome party at Hatchet sponsored by Roka, a pre-ride on Saturday for riders traveling from afar, a rider expo filled with demo bikes from Cannondale, cycling clothing, and accessories from Velocio, and Sunday’s “big show” was sold out weeks in advance.
Myers and Moccia from Rasputitsa and Vollers and his crew at the Overland volunteered at the event, manning aid stations and providing vehicle support to ensure the riders finished the event safely.
Rooted followed what the Kings dubbed the “mullet protocol.” Up front, all business with riders competing for the opportunity to win their very own wooden axe trophy crafted by local woodworker Ian Compton. More casual riders in the back of the “race” sported mullet wigs, denim shorts, and flannel shirts, and the rider exhibiting the greatest “spirit of gravel” was awarded a Cannondale bike. “It is important to us that we not only celebrate the racers but the spirit of gravel itself,” said Ted.
While riders streamed into the finish over the course of several hours, the Kings milled by the finishing line high-fiving and hugging finishers. The fastest finished in four hours and the last in nine hours for the 85-mile event. In the expo area, riders ate local foods and drank Lawson Liquids Sip of Sunshine and Shacksbury cider. Participants, their families, and friends lounged in the grass and picnic areas while a local band played.
“The great thing about events like this is not only do I get to have a reunion with my cycling friends, you always meet so many new people,” said Laura Wilson, an Ontario resident.
Jeff and Jackie Brandhurst from Missouri sat across from Matt O’Keefe and Susan Ecker from Massachusetts, sharing food and conversation. Both had completed Rooted on tandem gravel bikes. The Brandhursts do about a dozen gravel events around the Midwest annually. This was their first year doing Rooted. “The scenery was to die for, and the hills to die on,” joked Jeff. “Vermont and Rooted exceeded our expectations. We are definitely coming back and bringing friends.”
Ecker agreed. “We love being in Vermont, and every time we come to ride here, we are always left asking, ‘Why don’t we live here?’ ” The couple travels to Vermont each year from the Boston area for several cycling events.
Californian Terrell Anderson gushed about Rooted as well. He and his college roommate skipped their college reunion to travel to Vermont and do Rooted. “This is where you come to do gravel riding, and when we saw Rooted, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” said Andersen.
Anderson and his cycling partner extended their stay to hit the groad (gravel + road) the next morning, riding up to Greensboro. “Our goal is to hit as many breweries along the way and touch as little pavement as possible along the way. I have a feeling that is not going to be a problem.”
For the Kings, and their dozens of local volunteers, the event was an overwhelming success. Something they had not completely envisioned just a few months back when they had decided to pull the event together. “Year one exceeded our expectations in every way,” said Laura. “To have everything fall into place in year one is a blessing, and we also have so much gratitude to the people who contributed to the day.”
Whether gravel events like Rooted and Rasputitsa (and cycling in general) ever grow to rival skiing in Vermont as an economic engine remains to be seen. But it’s clear that their impact on the local economy is growing in a very Vermont way — organically. “It really has been a bit of a sea shift in cycling,” said Gene, owner of Belgen Cycles in Richmond. “I can’t recall the last time I sold a road bike. Everything is either a gravel or mountain bike, people wanting to get dirt under their tires. And in my mind, it doesn’t get any more Vermont than that.”
Photography by Meg McMahon