Collegiate Cycling's First-Ever Gravel Racing Team

March 12, 2021

“Pavement Ends.” The blacktop underneath disappears, and my tires crunch as they roll onto the hard-packed rock. Although the unpaved road ahead is connected to the asphalt behind, I have passed a threshold that creates an altogether different feel to the journey now. The woods press in closer, and it is quiet, aside from the music of rocks tick-tacking beneath me.

Such is the zeal for gravel riding. A relatively new sport that combines the thrilling speed that road cycling has to offer with the adventurous nature of mountain biking, gravel riding is winning more and more cyclists’ hearts. As it did mine, and it is here to stay.

My name is Nina: a young woman with an affinity for the outdoors, especially when it involves bikes. I am a mountain biker to the core; I started racing cross-country when I was 11, and since then have gravitated towards the 100k and 100-mile formats that encompass my love for hours of riding backcountry trails and the endurance training process.

Coming from a family of cyclists, it’s not hard to see that our basement has always resembled that of a bike shop. Gear and parts scattered around, tools are hanging on whichever nail in the wall they happen to find themselves on. And, of course, bikes. Lots of bikes. Hardtails, full-suspensions, singlespeeds, that old clunker my dad used to ride in college, even a few BMX bikes that my brother and I would commute with back and forth from school and leave unlocked out in the rain. But somehow, the one bike that ceased to find a home among them all was a drop bar bike of any sort. I did everything on my mountain bike: winter road rides when trails were all snowed-out, intervals up and down my block, base miles on the rail trail. My Pivot Mach 429 SL was the jack of all trades, the be-all do-all. That is until I met Vinnie.

Nina riding her bike on gravel roads near her college
Getting in some training near Brevard College.

The end of my senior year of high school was approaching. I had big plans to pursue a higher education somewhere warmer, more mountainous, and overall better for riding year-round. My options were all over the map. Southern California? Colorado? Arizona? I started to narrow down my choices to schools that had cycling teams. That’s when my finger landed on a small liberal arts school in western North Carolina by the name of Brevard College. I contacted the team’s coach, Bradford Perley, who was eager to have me come visit and meet the team. During my stay, I had the opportunity to cheer them on at a local cyclocross race, where I truly saw what it meant to be a part of a team. Everyone went to race and support each other, regardless of their primary cycling discipline or ability level. I had only raced cyclocross once in the past (on my hardtail mountain bike!), and since then, I had no further interest in racing it again. However, after seeing the team come together for a fun weekend spent slipping and sliding on a muddy track, there was no doubt I wanted to be a part of it. Before I knew it, I signed to join this family that is the Brevard College Cycling Team.

Getting a gravel bike upon deciding to come to Brevard was a no-brainer for me. It was love at first sight; when I saw my Pivot Vault with its shiny azure frame and strawberry-red accents, I had to name him Vinnie!

It is no coincidence that I opted for a gravel-specific bike over the traditional cyclocross build. Just a year ago, Brevard College launched collegiate cycling’s first-ever Gravel Racing Team for its student-athletes. Our Coach, Brad Perley, describes how it came together.

“Over the past five or six years, we have seen the industry and community interest in gravel riding surge. Our student-athletes have always trained on gravel roads, but new race opportunities really began to bring this side of the sport into the light. This past year we were thrilled that our institution was willing to officially add gravel as an individually recognized discipline within the cycling program. This translated into new sponsorship opportunities, targeted recruiting for this discipline, and created a gravel-specific race calendar. We now have the perfect space within our program for students wanting to focus solely on this style of riding and racing.”

“This past year we were thrilled that our institution was willing to officially add gravel as an individually recognized discipline within the cycling program. This translated into new sponsorship opportunities, targeted recruiting for this discipline, and created a gravel-specific race calendar.”

Head Coach Brad Perley

It is no surprise that Brevard College took the reins in collegiate gravel riding. “Two words: Pisgah and Dupont.” Brevard College graduate and highly accomplished ultra-endurance gravel racer Dylan Johnson explains. He notes why Brevard is such an ideal location for gravel riding. It is nestled between two forests that offer premier training on hundreds of miles of gravel, dirt, singletrack, and maintenance roads. “The gravel riding here is also a bit more challenging than what you might typically find both in technicality and elevation gain. Just like Pisgah’s trails, the gravel here can be unforgiving,” Dylan adds.

I come from the small suburb of Verona in Northern New Jersey. It’s a place that can snow up to six months a year and where unpaved roads are almost non-existent. To move to what is known as “The Cycling Capital of the South,” my love for gravel riding since being here has only deepened. I could finally ride for hours on end, uninterrupted, virtually free from cars and all pedestrians for that matter. Apart from the occasional snowfall and frigid mornings, riding in Brevard can be done all year. Naturally, I began spending more time than ever in the saddle, and my health- both physically and mentally- has improved dramatically.

Brevard has earned quite a reputation, attracting world-class cyclists from around the globe. New and upcoming talent from all over the United States, Canada, and now Spain pursue an education at Brevard College for this reason. My teammate and roommate, Carmen Chirino Hulsund, a Spanish cross-country cyclist from the Canary Islands, is an example of the area’s draw.

“Coming to Brevard College was my opportunity to try something different from the things that I already do!” Carmen explained. Her home in the Canaries, with quiet roads, breathtaking views, and year-round summer temperatures, are attributes for a top-choice training destination for many elite athletes from around the globe. But Carmen points out that “although, yes, the Canary Islands have the best roads for athletes to train, they don’t really have good programs for student-athletes as in the United States.”

Like me, upon coming to Brevard, Carmen got her first gravel bike from Sycamore Cycles, a local bike shop and a major supporter of the team. She and I participated in our first gravel race, The Dirt Diggler, last September. She remembers how the race felt, exclaiming, “It was one of the most wonderful experiences…turns out that I love gravel!”

I particularly enjoyed the gravel race format as well. It reminded me very much of one of my beloved endurance mountain bike races but with an even more competitive edge. The speed was fast, and our drop bars were dangerously close, and it gave an altogether more thrilling feel to the race. After nearly 45-miles of forest roads with one last 25% grade climb, we crested the peak and descended down the final stretch, a mile of singletrack trail. Navigating the rocks and roots with skinny tires and no suspension was an exhilarating test of our limits. Still, we shot out of the woods in one piece and crossed the finish line through the barn, holding our hands together up in the air!

Wes Dickson, the owner of Sycamore Cycles, says that our newfound interest in gravel riding and racing is not an uncommon occurrence. “It is amazing to see all the folks that want to get out on gravel bikes,” he said. Recently, Sycamore Cycles has seen an increase in cyclists looking for a bike they can take out on western North Carolina’s gravel roads. “We sell a good number of drop bar gravel rigs, and some riders enjoy a nice mountain bike hardtail as a gravel bike option for the gearing and stability.”

“A gravel bike is much more versatile,” adds teammate Dylan Johnson. “You can throw road tires on it, and it’s essentially a road bike, or with burly gravel tires, you could hit some rugged gravel or even light singletrack. When I prescribe intervals to a mountain biker, I’ll often tell them to do it on gravel so that the effort is more consistent.”

The Brevard College cycling team holds many Division 1 titles, including 10 Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championship titles, four Collegiate Cyclocross titles, and 36 individual national titles. Additionally, multiple students have represented their home nations at world championships.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, collegiate racing has been put on hold. However, these past few months have meant more team bonding activities for the Brevard College cycling team, on-campus short track, and dual slalom races. “The hill over by Ross Hall was perfect for making a race track,” says first-year enduro and downhill racer Cameron Mader. “Me and the guys spent a good amount of time digging up there, and we’re still adding. It’s sick!”

Coach Perley is working hard to keep the focus on the student experience. “Our goal is to provide an environment where students have the opportunity to both give and receive from the program.” With student-athletes from all levels on the cycling team participating in such a wide variety of disciplines, everyone has different goals and objectives. “For some, this may be trying their first race, setting a PR, or being able to ride a new route. For others, it may be to take the next step towards a professional career as a bike racer or in the cycling industry,” Coach Perley says.

As for the future of the Brevard Cycling team, he adds, “We will continue to focus on the fun side of the sport but also keep pushing hard for growth and success on the racecourse. The program will always have a place for bike riders of any experience level while continuing to shoot for a fiercely competitive elite race team.”

So whatever kind of riding you want to do, and wherever you want to go, there’s a place for you at Brevard. Turn down a random dirt road, see where it leads. Ride free from cars, worries, or disruptions. Gravel riding opens up endless possibilities.

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