The 2018 gravel season kicks off in Michigan on March 17 with the Waterloo Grit & Gravel.
While the event promises the coming of spring, the 2017 edition was really anything but a March frolic along the hilly and winding roads of Waterloo. Instead, riders toed the line under heavy layers, snow, and peanut butter mud, all of which led to one of the most demanding and exciting rages of the entire season.
With three distances to choose from, racers of all abilities can find the challenge that suits them, from the 100km event, a 50km option, and a 10-mile pedal that offers the ideal distance for a beginner looking to try out gravel racing.
That 100k race should see many of the fastest men and women in Michigan on the start line, most of whom will be hoping to pick up some valuable points to kick off the 2018 Michigan Gravel Race Series. The first of two races in March, Waterloo sits in the backyard of many Southeast Michigan teams and clubs, and the sinuous, hilly roads will be familiar to some of the top contenders. It’s their best chance to win on home turf, as well as an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the season.
That ‘home turf’ is 60 miles of tough gravel roads that wind through Waterloo State Recreation Area over two circuits of the 29-mile lap. Each lap offers just over 700 feet of climbing, but it’s not the total elevation that provides the challenge. The short ascents are taken at high speed, taxing the legs and lungs each time up and over, with no room to recover coming over the top. Take the Green Road Grind, for example. At less than a half a mile in length, it brings riders up 144 feet at an average grade of 6%, with pitches nearing 20% at two points. Even at speed, it’s like riding smack in the face of a wall.
The conditions also present a challenge all their own, and last year’s snowy, icy, muddy struggle put many an experienced rider to the sword. Wet, damp roads make three to four-hour races feel like an eternity, and it takes a special sort of rider to survive them.
Luckily, that’s a recipe for success for 3T Q+M riders like reigning champion Scotty Albaugh and the runner-up, Danny Sultan. Last year, the team went 1-2 on an unforgettable day in the snow, getting ahead early and slogging solo for the rest of the race. Behind, Jay Ellis and Al McWilliams marked moves and tried to stay upright in the slush.
Equipment can make the difference on any day, and gravel racing puts those tire and gear selections under the microscope. Most racers opt for cyclocross or gravel tires in 33-40c widths for more traction and floatation. There’s always a few riders willing to risk punctures and a slip-out in the corner with road tires, but the gamble can pay off. In fact, Scotty won last year’s race on 28c road tires! Unless there is a big change in conditions in the next ten days, we’d advise 35c tires and a gravel or cyclocross as the very best option, although the best bike is always the one you’ve spent the most time on this spring.
Registration for the 2018 Waterloo Grit & Gravel presented by Q+M is open. Make sure you check out Michigan Gravel Race Series to see all of the events on the calendar this year, and sign-up for the Series and make a run at the points title!