Trans Iowa and the rise of gravel grinders

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #157, published July 2011. Dirt Rag is our sister magazine focused on mountain biking. Check it out. You might like it.

Words by Guitar Ted. Photos by Steve Fuller and Jeremy Kershaw.

Not beholden to any sanctioning body, having devised their own rules, and in a lot of cases with no entry fees, these events are carving out a sub-culture of cycling across the nation. Oh yeah, did I mention that they don’t occur on dirt? Well, there is some dirt! These events take place on the back roads of America. Little-traveled rural by-ways covered mostly in crushed limestone, flint and glacial till. Events most often called “gravel grinders.”

Events are happening on these remote gravel roads that range from fun, “no rider left behind” type rides to all-out, ultra-endurance type events like Trans Iowa, which just completed its seventh running in late April [2011].


Birth of a New Discipline

Trans Iowa is a nutty event, concocted one November day in 2004 by current Topeak-Ergon rider Jeff Kerkove and myself. At the time we worked together in a bicycle shop where, back in the early 1980s, a group of road riders tried to ride across Iowa on pavement in less than a day. That amounted to about 320 miles in less than 24 hours. They actually pulled it off too. We thought, “What if you tried this on gravel roads? What if it was a self-supported ride, similar to the Great Divide Race?” (A monstrous challenge that takes riders down the spine of the Great Divide from Canada to Mexico). We thought we could pull something similar off in Iowa. That was the inspiration for the first Trans Iowa, which took place in April 2005.

Events need rules and ways of doing things. We borrowed heavily from the 24-hour race ethos and from the way events like the Great Divide Race were run. Mike Curiak, the endurance race icon that helped form the “GDR” was tapped for much of the framework for Trans Iowa.

Our rules were pretty simple: Riders had one checkpoint to make at 127 miles where they were allowed support, much like a 24-hour race pit crew, and then they would have to slog out the rest of the cross-state route alone. Re-supplies of water and food could be had by stopping at convenience stores along the route, but hand-ups, aid stations or other roadside support? Nah, not so much! Oh yeah, there were time cut-offs which, if not met, meant you were done. One more thing: If you didn’t make a time cut-off, or were pulling out for any reason, you were on your own. Trans Iowa wasn’t going to bail you out. All navigation was by cue sheet on a route kept secret until the day of the event.

The first event was slated to cover approximately 310 miles and had a time limit of 32 hours. Subsequent Trans Iowa races were even longer. How hard was it? “I knew we had a hard event on our hands when I saw a top Wisconsin cyclist sitting quietly in a convenience store staring with eyes glazed over onto a slice of pizza covered in Cheetos. He didn’t move. He didn’t say a word. He just sat there and stared,” says Jeff Kerkove.


The self-supported, maverick ethos of Trans Iowa is the backbone of many of these and other gravel grinders today. Consider the Almanzo 100, a century-length event in southern Minnesota that had around 400 participants in 2010, and over 700 participants this past May. The Barry-Roubaix in Michigan pulled in 900 riders last March. The Dirty Kanza 200 (featured in Dirt Rag Issue #151) started in 2006 with a handful of riders—this June upwards of 300 riders took part in the grueling 200-mile event in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

The events that follow this style have often simply “cut and pasted” Trans Iowa’s rules right into their own, while others have modified them slightly. One rule that seems to remain constant with all of these events: “You Are Responsible For Yourself.”

With rules set in place, you can have an event with somewhat of a fair playing field, or so you might think. More times than not, weather throws a wrench in the works at Trans Iowa, and windy, wet and wild weather has stopped the event short three times in seven years. Heavy spring rains often turn the dirt roads into sticky, unrideable quagmires. As Kerkove said, “Water usually signifies life. In Trans-Iowa it means things are going to be miserable. Extremely miserable.” Riders seem to take it all in stride, amazingly enough.

“If it’s not rain, it’s wind. If it’s not wind, it’s a batch of crazy farm dogs. If it’s not the dogs … then it’s their owners in their busted-ass pick-up truck. Trans-Iowa might be one of the most unpredictable cycling events on the planet,” says Kerkove.

Lucky Number 7

The seventh running of Trans Iowa was on Easter weekend. Fortunately it didn’t rain, but the previous days of wet weather did make things a bit gooey to start out with. That didn’t deter the record number of Trans Iowa starters from taking to the gravel. At 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, upon the call blown through a Dirt Drop handlebar, the 76 riders set out into the darkness of rural Iowa. Soon enough they would become splattered with grit and mud.

Drivetrains groaned and popped in the extreme conditions. Some actually detonated, a few riders were forced to make their way back to the start only a couple of hours into the event. One such rider, Corey “Cornbread” Godfrey, had his derailleur explode. He managed to limp back to Grinnell, find the local bike shop, get his bike converted to a single speed, and rejoined the race. He was out of contention for an official finish, but he wanted to see the course. So onward he went on his single gear.

As race directors, our job was to drive ahead of the pack to make sure the over 300 miles of roads hadn’t been closed in spots, or that there were no unforeseen dangers. Once, three years ago, we were out ahead of the riders, hacking down fallen trees on the course, re-routing around flash-flooded roads, and eventually had to cut the event short due to a washed-out road a hundred miles from the planned finish. We have our own endurance test. Part rally car drivers, part course checkers, and part rolling race reporters, our job lasts as long as the event.


Attrition Racing

Wet, seldom maintained “B” roads forced riders to walk mile-long sections. Gusting winds and the never ending parade of steep hills knocked out 34 riders that couldn’t reach the first checkpoint at mile 53 by 9:15 a.m. The remaining riders settled into small groups to work together to navigate by cue sheets to a remote checkpoint at mile 173. The route is essentially a “big assed loop,” as former race director Kerkove put it. Staring in Grinnell, Iowa, we went around clockwise and meandered around until the course eventually went back to Grinnell again. At Checkpoint #2, the riders would be 150 miles away from the start.

As the day wore on, there were more crazy B roads, steep, unrelenting hills and, of course, miles and miles of crushed limestone and chert. Riders either carried their own provisions or stopped at convenience stores to resupply in the occasional small town. Some riders would make navigational errors, causing them to have to retrace their steps back to a known point to get back on course. Even as race directors, my partner, David Pals, and I would often have to stop to try to understand the cues through our own sleep deprivation and confusing county road markers.

By the time Checkpoint #2 had closed at 10 p.m. Saturday evening, 22 riders were still in contention for a finish sometime on Sunday. Darkness wasn’t just falling on the Iowan landscape, but also within each remaining rider’s mind. An internal battle raged within, calling them to quit the madness. Sleep deprivation set in, which only caused more confusion with navigation. Still, on through the night of more hills, B roads and gravel, riders pounded out a rhythm while the stars shone above. A leading pair of riders were chased by a few others still hoping to win, trying to will their minds to stay on task and their bodies to fight through the immense suffering. Other riders were merely looking to finish. Just reaching the end would be counted as a victory.


The main protagonist of the race, a former Trans Iowa winner named John Gorrilla, set an incessant pace. For 190 miles, the chasers tried in vain to track him down, but late in the event John started suffering flat tires. The chasers caught John, and eventually a fifth flat ended his hopes of winning another Trans Iowa. The eventual winner, Dennis Grelk, saw his chance, put in a huge effort and finished an hour ahead of second and third place finishers Tim Ek and Troy Krause.

Slowly over the course of Sunday morning and early afternoon, 15 more riders would overcome the 322.8 mile challenge to finish back where they had started. This included Trans Iowa’s first ever female finisher, Janna Vavra, who came into the finish with just 10 minutes to spare before the final cutoff of 2 p.m.—a full 34 hours since she and fellow racers set out on their rocky, dusty quest.

What about Cornbread? Well, he came rolling in too. Just happy to see what he described as an “awesome course.” He bagged over 310 miles of gravel, and the awe of his fellow Trans Iowa riders.

“It’s like a train wreck in many ways. You can see the imminent disaster coming from a long ways off, the witnesses can’t look away and the participants can’t seem to escape it,” says Grelk.

So, why would anyone want to do something like Trans Iowa? Heck, I don’t know the answer to that. As the organizer of this event, I keep expecting to get punched by a rider, but they keep asking me to put it on again the next year. Even the riders that get knocked out of the event want to keep coming back. It is more than a race, it is an event where folks find a common thread, a bond words cannot describe, forged by suffering and dust. It is said by some that have come to Trans Iowa that it is “Very hard, very special and very beautiful.” Some people I know that don’t do things like Trans Iowa say it is goofy—or worse! The truth is probably found somewhere in between, somewhere off the grid of everyday life, on a lonely gravel road.

For more information on Trans Iowa

Gravel Grinder Gear

The bike: While anything and everything is fair game as far as a bicycle goes, (I’ve seen everything from road racing bikes shod with 23 mm tires to Surly Pugsleys), the savvy gravel grinder can usually be found on a cyclocross bike, or a “monster-cross” set-up that accommodates fatter rubber. That said, your mountain bike would do just fine.

Set-up: Typically gravel grinder rigs use cyclocross gearing (46/36), or compact road bike gearing (50/34), but singlespeed is definitely an advantage in less than ideal conditions. Tires don’t need to be huge. Anything from 30 mm to 50 mm covers most rides well. Go skinnier and you’re asking for pinch flats. Drop bars, alt bars like Jones H-bars, and flat bars with aero bar attachments are commonplace. Suspension, while OK, is mostly unnecessary.

Bag it: Gravel grinder folks have taken cues from ultra-endurance racers and bikepacking enthusiasts. Frame bags, top tube bags and oversized seat bags usually allow for any bike to carry as little, or as much, gear as you’ll need. Pro tip: Put your hydration pack bladder in a frame bag to get the weight off your back for the ultra-long rides.

Miscellaneous: Don’t discount riding gravel at night. It’s a blast, and you can do it with a bright commuter light, or makeshift set-up made from LED flashlights on the cheap. Bring rain gear, sunscreen, eyewear, a camera and a good back road atlas. Get out on some gravel and grind!

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