Gallery: The spirit of gravel, revisited

VeloNews (November 21, 2022) by Betsy Welch

A chance encounter with an old story I wrote about the Spirit World 100 reminds me that gravel is just the medium — the spirit is how we ride it

In a tiny corner of the Patagonia Lumber Co. where people congregate over mugs of wine or coffee, a framed copy of a story I wrote three years ago hangs on a white, stucco’ed wall.

At least once, during every trip I make down to Patagonia, Arizona, a small town of less than 1,000 just north of Sonora, Mexico, I look at the story in the corner. For both personal and pandemic reasons, 2019 feels like a lifetime ago.

That November, I wasn’t working for VeloNews. I was still working as a registered nurse in community health, but I had written a few pieces for VN that had given me just enough confidence to pitch my editor on a story about a tiny new event called the Spirit World 100.

To my surprise, he said yes, he’d cover the gas and some expenses. I was thrilled. On the way, I stopped over in Santa Fe, trying to sleep in the back of my truck in a rest area. I was too jacked up on excitement and chocolate-covered espresso beans to fall asleep.

When I arrived, the dusty streets of Patagonia charmed me instantly. Yellow butterflies flitted about — in November! — while dogs barked and birds sang. Banged up trailers abutted adorable mid-century bungalows. Behind the trumpet vine and juniper trees lived all kinds of people, and nowhere was this on better display than at the Saturday karaoke at the Wagon Wheel Saloon.

And then there was the bike event.

I didn’t know the Spirit World 100’s co-founders Heidi and Zander Ault well back then, but their new event had all the trappings of what I really buzz off of — a strong sense of place, meaningful food, physical and mental movement, and then as the ultimate icing on the cake, a whole group of people who are curious about things like that.

Since the first Spirit World 100 in 2019, I’ve been to dozens of gravel races and written about even more that I have yet to see in person. They range in scope from thousands of riders and industry-sized expos to events staged in grass parking lots where the ‘director’ collects entry fees and waivers at a fold-up card table.

Every year the bigger events seem to get bigger, and a legion of smaller events rise with the tide. My inbox overflows with invites and pitches, and if I had superhuman abilities (and a private plane), I’d try to attend every one. This little niche has given me a full-time job.

When I looked at my old story at the bar in Patagonia a few weeks ago, the headline stopped me in my tracks: “The Spirit of Gravel.” O.M.G. I thought. Did I really do that?

For the unaware, the expression ‘the spirit of gravel’ has been lately used to make a mockery of the sport, or at least its unsavory aspects. There are complaints from 30,000 feet — it’s too corporate, too costly, too pro, too exclusive — in addition to schoolyard rows within the race: he didn’t stop and I did! He’s not taking his turn at the front! She cheated!

In my opinion, that crap is the spirit of being human, our little egos as fragile as early winter ice. But traveling to a new place? Making new friends and hanging out with the old? Eating beautiful food, drinking and dancing, spending all day outside on our bikes?

Gravel is just the medium — the spirit is how we ride it.


To read the rest of the article and view the photo gallery, click here.