Monuments of Gravel: The Mid South – VeloNews

Oklahoma’s The Mid South is fast and tactical when dry and a muddy slog when wet. And every finisher gets a hug from Bobby Wintle.

At 100 miles in distance, Oklahoma’s The Mid South gravel race is comparatively short by gravel standards. And on paper, the route across the state’s center lacks the elevation gain and grueling punishment dished out by the other events on our Monuments of Gravel list. Yet, again and again elite riders voted The Mid South onto our list, referencing the event’s other attributes that elevate its prestige.

The Mid South (formerly called Land Run 100) is held in early March, making it the unofficial season opener. The shorter distance leads to tactical racing and a furious pace at the front of the field. The region’s iconic red clay roads shimmer against the green rolling hills; photos of the event are distinct and iconic.

And then, there’s the mud.

“The crest of every hill is dry and the trough is filled with sticky mud,” says Mat Stephens, the 2018 champion. “The mud changes with every undulation of the road.”

Yes, it was a dry year in 2019, but there were still a few muddy spots on course. Photo: 241 Photography

During rainy years—and many years are rainy—The Mid South’s clay roads are transformed into a sticky quagmire. The soil sticks to spinning tires and quickly jams a bike’s drivetrain after just a few pedal strokes, transforming a bike into a heavy weight that must be pushed for miles. To combat the muck the race distributes wooden paint stir sticks in the registration goodie bag to use as mud-scraping tools.

When such conditions arise, simply finishing The Mid South earns a rider an unofficial badge of courage. Such was the case in 2017 when a freezing rain storm hit on race day; of the 1,000 registrants, fewer than 200 crossed the finish line. A year later, clear skies and dry conditions made for a different scenario altogether—nearly 800 riders completed the distance.

Whether rainy or clear, a win at The Mid South sends a powerful message to the rest of the riders in the field.

At the end, everyone gets a hug from Bobby. Photo: 241 Photography

“Showing up in March to the Midwest and winning this is like a big, ‘hey, I put in work this winter’ message,” says Amity Rockwell. “It’s long and often messy and most people aren’t ready, so a victory means you’ve come into the season guns blazing.”

The Mid South is a direct disciple from Dirty Kanza 200, and its founder, Bobby Wintle, lived in Emporia and was a spectator at early editions of the race. Wintle was inspired to launch his own event, and relocated to Stillwater, Oklahoma to open his own bike shop with his wife Crystal. The Wintles opened the shop, District Bicycles, in 2011 and two years later they launched the race.

Originally called the Land Run 100, the event attracted just over 100 participants in its first year. As riders pedaled across the finish line, Wintle stood and hugged every single one of them, creating a tradition that he continues to this day. Wintle’s race quickly gained a reputation for its red clay roads, scenic surroundings, and post-race hugs and participation grew steadily; 350 registrants in year two; 500 in year three; 1,000 by year five.

The course was fast and mostly dry in 2019, encouraging groups to form. Photo: 241 Photography

Similar to Dirty Kanza, Wintle alters his course every other year, adding and subtracting sections based on road availability and his own desire. The route has varied from 100 to 115 miles in length, and taken in hills and flats throughout the region.

So, why is it such a prestigious race to win? Sure, there’s the challenging route, the sizable field, and the mud. Really, however, it’s the strength of the field that sets The Mid South apart. In those early years Wintle’s outsized personality and professional event organization attracted a smattering of elite and age-group riders. Media then flocked to the event, drawn in by the challenging route and grassroots momentum.

And as the race’s reputation grew, more elite riders showed up, culminating in the 2019 edition, when elite riders from the world of road cycling, cyclocross, and mountain biking showed up to race for the win. And race they did. The Mid South, with its 100-mile course, is unquestionably a race.

“You don’t feel like you need medical attention like at the end of Dirty Kanza,” said Payson McElveen, the 2019 champion. “It’s a good distance. It feels like a really hard, long, bike race.”

Austin Morris (15 years old!) and Monica Ward

Bob Cummings and Monica Ward

Bryce Hylton and Desiree White

Austin Morris and Katherine Stemke

Rob Bell and Karen Pritchard

Mat Stephens and Amanda Nauman

Payson McElveen and Nina Laughlin