The spirit of gravel or just the spirit of Gravista?
By the numbers alone, I had no business riding Gravista and zero chance of enjoying it. It’s a 67 mile gravel race in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains with 9,000 feet of climbing — all in five or six climbs of three to eight miles in length, depending on how you count them. I don’t typically seek out climbs, and my size puts me at a disadvantage on them. But the numbers don’t tell the full story of any race and Gravista is no exception.
I had some history with the area where it starts, Buena Vista, Va. I went to college about 15 minutes away and spent a lot of time on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But of its 67 miles, only a mile or so of Gravista is actually on the parkway. The rest is on dirt roads that criss-cross the ridges and provide access to campsites and hiking trails. It’s safe to say I’d never been on any of these dirt roads. Somehow it was all both new and familiar at the same time.
And then there’s the spirit of gravel. As gravel has grown in popularity, the chatter is that the spirit that has attracted so many to it may be fraying around the edges, at least at the larger events.
Not at Gravista. This is a smallish, grass-roots event (in only its second year) that is a race/party if you’re at the front and a party/race at the back. And it has that “let’s get through this together” ethos that I feel less of at big gran fondos, the closest ride I could compare it to.
I was about 20 miles into Gravista on a descent and the mount holding my computer and GoPro snapped, leaving both dangling by the Garmin’s leash tethering it to my bars. I stopped at the first aid station, less than a mile down the road, to look for a zip tie or something to secure it. No luck. One rider said he thought he had one but couldn’t find it. So my computer dangled or I held it against my bars as best I could.
And then 10 miles later, where a long climb up Coffeytown Road pauses briefly, a rider passed me holding something out in his left hand: a black plastic strap. “I found it,” he said. “I don’t need it back.” I stopped and strapped my computer to the stem. The GoPro had to go in my pocket, so I had all the video I was going to get, but at least now I could see my metrics and where to turn.
Maybe that generosity would happen at one of the big centuries; I don’t know. What I do know is that what I felt at Gravista — whether it’s the spirit of gravel, or maybe it’s just the spirit of Gravista — was different. Nobody was racing for prize money (there wasn’t any), although everyone who made it onto the wide-angle podium got a cool Gravista wide-brimmed straw hat.
The organizer, Cynthia Frazier, who won the 350-mile Unbound XL gravel race this year, is a one-woman show with a lot of friends and Velocio // Exploro teammates pitching in. But it’s probably the best organized race I’ve ever done. Part of that has to do with the size: it’s a couple hundred riders, not a couple thousand. But the difference is more than just its scale.
The numbers are daunting and it’s a long day in the saddle for those of us who aren’t natural climbers. But you’ll never find numbers on a computer screen measuring community, camaraderie, and that draft beer and wood-fired pizza at the end. And really, those are the only things that matter to most of us.
I learned after posting this that the guy who gave me the strap was Baron Von FancyPants. That’s actually how he’s registered and listed in the results. And maybe eight miles after handing me the strap, he had a mechanical problem but was able to borrow a bike at the next aid station so he could finish. Call it Gravista karma.