Cyclocross

Rough riders: The popularity of gravel cycling races grows across Maine – Press Herald

Hank Pfeifle rides past a barn on Leighton Road in Pownal along part of the course for the Mainely Gravel cycling race, which will debut at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester on Aug. 13. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

NEW GLOUCESTER — If you own a mountain bike, road bike or cyclocross bike – heck, even if all you own is that hybrid bike you pedal to the grocery store – you can get in on the newest cycling craze spreading across Maine.

Gravel races put cyclists on dirt roads and trails and, ideally, only a small percentage of roadways. Gravel bikes look like cyclocross bikes or road bikes – but beefier. Any kind of bicycle can be used in a gravel race, as long as it uses tires generally around 32 millimeters thick to better cover dirt roads and gravel surfaces.

“That’s the beauty of it. All skill sets are doing it,” said Hank Pfeifle of Brunswick, founder and race director of Mainely Gravel, the state’s newest gravel race and the first one scheduled for greater Portland. “It turns everyone into a kid again. You hit the dirt and go crazy. The pavement gives you a break from the dirt.”

For 20 years, gravel races have been growing across the United States, Canada and Europe, with many drawing thousands of riders to a single contest.

In recent years, more gravel races have been offered around Maine, and the state now boasts one in Millinocket, where the second-annual Maine Woods Rambler will be on Sept. 25; in Camden, where an entire gravel series is held through the summer; in Aroostook County, where the St. John Valley plays host to a gravel ride through farm fields; and at the state’s first and longest running gravel race in Rangeley, which started seven years ago. 

“It brings a lot of energy to the region,” said Chris Riley, the director of Rangeley’s Northwoods Gravel Grind.

“It attracts a huge diversity of riders – the hard-core road riders to the mountain bikers. You can ride it on a cruiser bike. You don’t have to have a specific gravel bike, although a lot of people do now. When we started, it was something cool and different and there was a niche there to be filled.”

When the inaugural Mainely Gravel race is held on Aug. 13 at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, it will push the number of gravel-bike races offered in Maine to about 10. Cyclists will compete in a 55-mile race that splits its course between dirt roads and pavement.

Hank Pfeifle rides his bicycle on Lawrence Road in Pownal along part of the course for a gravel bicycle race that will be held on Aug. 13. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gravel races are believed to have started in New York. But they have taken off in Vermont, which rules the gravel-bike scene in the Northeast. 

“It’s huge in Vermont. There are three races every weekend. It’s a huge tourist attraction,” said Pfeifle, 71, a Maine Running Hall of Fame inductee who also used to race road bikes before switching to gravel.

Riley, the Rangeley race director, hopes the spread of gravel races around Maine helps to grow the sport here. The Rangeley race, held on the second Saturday in September, covers 70 miles, with roughly 63 on dirt. The race serves as a fundraiser for a local land trust. It’s capped at 200 riders and always fills up.

“Vermont has a network of public gravel roads that far supersedes Maine. Maine has a lot of private dirt roads. Also, Vermont did a really good job early on cultivating tourism based on a bike economy,” Riley said. “But I think (the new races) are awesome. It offers more things for people to do outside and on bikes. It’s going to create more of a bike culture in the state. People want an experience. This contributes something cool.”

Rider Greg Dolbec lives in South Burlington, Vermont, but grew up in York County’s West Newfield, where he stages a gravel race on his parent’s farm. Dolbec said Vermont has seemingly unending dirt roads for gravel riding, but Maine bursts with gravel potential.

“Yeah, it’s really good in Vermont, but I’ve ridden all over Maine and New Hampshire and it’s also really good,” Dolbec said. “People travel from all over New England to ride these. Having more races in Maine is good. It will bring some awareness and show how awesome the gravel is here.” 

Dolbec runs the gravel races on Sept. 18 at Applegate Deer Farm in West Newfield and, like many gravel rides, uses it as a fundraiser to help grow cycling in Maine. Last year, it raised money for youth outdoor programs in Biddeford through rides of 30 and 60 miles. 

This year’s event has three distances – 35, 55 and 90 miles. The 90-mile course boasts nearly 10,000 feet of climbing. Last year, 125 signed up for the event, and Dolbec thinks that number will keep growing.

The Mainely Gravel race at Pineland Farms costs $60 to enter and is capped at 175 riders. Race director Hank Pfeifle, above, thinks it will fill up. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“The difference is Vermont is more open, there are open fields. Here, there’s more cover, you’re riding in the trees, it has a more earthy feel. But the gravel around here is amazing,” Dolbec said.

So far, Maine races are more reasonable priced than other races around the country, which can run upward of $200, even $400. Maine races generally cost less than $100.

The Mainely Gravel race at Pineland Farms, a fundraiser for the Downeast Racing club and its charity, costs $60 and is capped at 175 riders. And despite being just 30 minutes from Portland, half of the 55-mile course runs over dirt roads. It offers more than 4,700 feet of climbing. 

On a tour of the course a few weeks ago, Pfeifle showed how roughly 5 miles of the Pineland course rotated between dirt-road sections and steep, paved downhills. There were plenty of short, steep climbs on the course, which pass hay fields, working farms, wooded sections and residential streets.

Color coding on his GPS system showed the grade Pfeifle was riding: green for less than 6 percent grade, yellow for between 6 and 10 percent, and orange, red and purple for steeper grades. 

“Nobody wants to see purple,” he joked.

Hank Pfeifle, founder of Mainely Gravel, rides his bicycle on a wood road at Pineland Farms near where the start and end of a gravel bike race will be held on August 13. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Pfeifle hopes the New Gloucester race inspires many converts around southern Maine, whether from road racing or mountain biking.

Dolbec thinks it will.

“We’re trying to spread the message that if you want to go hard and push yourself with someone next to you, then you have that opportunity. But if you want to chill out and talk to people and make some friends who you’ll ride with again at another event, you can do that, too,” Dolbec said.


Use the form below to reset your password. When you’ve submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.