For many, gravel riding represents a move away from the stereotypes of performance cycling, with events like Grinduro promoting inclusivity and camaraderie above results. BikeBiz editor Alex Ballinger travelled to west Wales to sample this new era of cycling events
This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
What is Grinduro?
The aptly named event, founded in California in 2015, is a unique hybrid of a gravel sportive combined with the timed elements of a mountain bike enduro race, all enclosed in a weekend camping, festival-style vibe.
Having heard plenty about the event, I thought I’d dive into this new type of cycling event and see what it represents to the industry, and sample the “perfect party-to-race-ratio.”
“It’s a special mix of a social/adventure ride and a bike race,” said Dain Zaffke, director of marketing for apparel and helmet brand Giro, one of the headline sponsors of Grinduro. “This ‘Maxin’ and Relaxin’ attitude sets it apart from other events, then you add in a super inclusive atmosphere that merges the best of mountain biking with traditional gravel events and enduro racing and you have an event that appeals to a wide range of people.”
Grinduro’s format will be familiar to anyone versed in enduro mountain biking. Riders pedal at a leisurely pace to the start of the timed sections. After racing full gas through these timed sections, riders make their way back to the start village, where their times are tallied up from each stage, prizes are handed out, and participants are treated to drinks, food, live music, DJs, cycling chat, and displays from some choice industry brands.
After starting in California initially, Grinduro has since expanded around the world, first to Scotland in 2017, and now in Germany, and Australia. Grinduro 2022, which I and my photographer Lewis took part in, marked the first time the UK edition was held in Wales rather than Scotland, shifting to mountain biking hotbed Machynlleth.
This year’s event took place over three days, starting on a Friday with a special 12km SRAM prologue event, featuring one timed section. Saturday was the main event, featuring a 40km morning and a 27km-long afternoon session, each with two timed sections.
While the distances were nothing to write home about, the terrain through the gravel of the Welsh hills (and the inevitable mid-July downpours) made completing the event feel like an achievement in itself.
After the riding was done, it was time for the festival vibes, with live music, DJs, and a bar to round out the evening, then followed by Sunday’s optional hangover ride sponsored by Komoot and a panel discussion on inclusivity in cycling.
Gravel vs performance
The rise of gravel cycling has split opinion among the cycling industry, as many view it as simply a marketing tool to sell a new kind of bike, while for others it represents a new way of viewing performance cycling.
As roads have got busier, performance bikes have got more expensive, and cycling disciplines have become a minefield to navigate, many riders have relished the simplicity of taking the bike off road and exploring the varied terrain in their local area.
Zaffke said: “A lot of it comes down to how performance cycling can be specialised and niche. Think about race bikes and equipment from any category, and you’ll think of equipment designed for all out performance in super-specific conditions. First off, that world can be prohibitively expensive. Not to mention, it’s highly intimidating to outsiders.
“At Grinduro, we see all sorts of bikes from modern gravel bikes to old cyclocross bikes, to hardtails from the 1990s, to modern full suspension bikes, to singlespeeds, even tall bikes and fixed gears. The only rule we have (at least for now) is no e-bikes.”
Ben Hillsdon, the global communications manager for German bike brand Canyon, was taking part in the event. “Personally speaking, I fell in love with riding in Wales again,” he said. “I switched my performance brain off (in truth it switched itself off many years ago) and focused on having fun, talking to other riders and enjoying the surroundings, rather than racing. The climbs were steep and challenging and the descents were similar, with a healthy dose of fun thrown in.
“Aside from the challenging nature of the terrain, the friendly atmosphere was excellent. The sponsors brought ways to engage with visitors – from bike demos to cocktail and coffee bars – and so many riders embraced the spirit of the event out on course or at the event village. Plenty of people stayed on for the evening rave in the rain or the morning talks and the hangover ride. It felt like more of a festival rather than a typical sportive – it’s not your usual turn up, race, and go home kind of deal.”
Grinduro clearly has appeal to riders, but it also seems to fit in with the direction many cycling brands want to push. Backed by a selection of brands, from direct-to-consumer Canyon, to brands in the ZyroFisher portfolio Giro, SRAM and Evoc, Grinduro’s mix of tough physical challenge and social event offers a gateway to a new kind of cycling consumer.
Stu Bowers, SRAM partnership marketing specialist for Northern Europe, said: “Being at events (generally) is a really high priority for SRAM. It’s where we can be on the ground, face to face with consumers, which is the most valuable interaction we can possibly have. It’s where you get to share not just the knowledge about the products, but also the passion we all (SRAM employees) have for bikes.
“The second part is we support Grinduro as a global partner predominantly because of that balance. We get to communicate, on a global scale, with a really broad audience. Because of the event format being so relaxed there is ample time for those interactions to take place too.”
I’ve been to a pretty wide spectrum of bike events, both as spectator and rider, from time trials held in dual carriageway laybys to UCI stage races in the UK and abroad, but I’ve still never experienced anything quite like Grinduro’s atmosphere.
There was a chilled out vibe from start to finish, plenty of opportunity to chat bikes, and a well-stocked bar open late into the night. From the stunning views at the top of the Welsh hills, to sharing drinks with professional riders, Grinduro was full of unforgettable moments, and it may just be the blueprint for the future of cycling events.