By Vicki Hillhouse
Walla Walla’s rolling rural roadways and stunning views have long made the community a bicycling haven. But have you ever dropped your wheels in 10 inches of “moon dust” or “rocky peanut butter mud?”
Gravel riding thrill-seekers on two wheels can never be quite certain what conditions they’ll face each September at Walla Walla Grit. But then that’s part of the fun, say organizers Kathryn and Michael Austin, the owners of Allegro Cyclery.
The annual off-road race combines the beauty and terrain of Walla Walla with the unpredictable adventure of the growing gravel cycling movement. There’s loose dirt, silt, loose rocks, big rocks and whatever conditions are provided with the weather. This year’s Grit takes place Sunday, Sept. 10.
In a visit at Allegro Cyclery, where bikes are sold, maintained and rented, Kathryn explained more about the event and emphasized there’s no shame in walking a bike.
What is Walla Walla Grit and when did it start?
The Grit is a true gravel, off-road bike experience. It’s not a sanctioned race, but we do track times and post them and give awards.
The gravel scene has become wildly popular for the last seven years or so. Within the last five years gravel events have really kicked up. Some are races with a nice gravel route. Other events are a little more challenging. Walla Walla Grit is one of those.
Matt Faunt, who used to work at Allegro before moving out of the area, wanted to put a gravel event to complement the Tour of Walla Walla road race. He designed the route with Michael. 2018 was the first year — it was a phenomenal year. In 2019, it poured like we were in the tropics. But that’s part of the process. If you’re going to do an outdoor sport, you’ve got to make friends with Mother Nature. Each year brings a new set of incredible challenges.
People either do it to race or just to have the experience. Some people do it as training, adjunct to something else. And some people just want to see if they can do it.
What are the routes like?
We have three routes. They all start at the same place, Quirk Brewery. One is 45 miles, one is 65 miles and the other is 90 miles. All three go to the Cottonwood Creek climb.
(The Walla Walla Grit website describes it this way: Chunky, dusty and loose, the road is less of a gravel road and more of a rock garden at plus-10% gradients.)
The 90-mile route goes to South Fork Road, then comes back on another long hill, climbs Lincton Mountain Road, then Tollgate and down to Tiger Canyon.
Last year it had the triple challenge that included moon dust. A lack of moisture causes the moon dust. In the years that we’ve done it, it was surprising that last year was the first year we experienced it.
You’d be trying to ride through that, and your pedal hits it with every stroke. Some people had the right tires, and some people didn’t. That was all the chatter. It took a few people out.
What does it take to put on a race like this?
We have 20 volunteers and aid stations for all the routes. (Aid stations are stocked with food, water, bike pumps and a limited supply of tools.) It’s not very hard to find volunteers for this. We consider them part of our extended family of the Walla Walla Grit.
Marketing is a big part of it. Now that we have our own website for it — wallawallagrit.com — we’ll be able to make recommendations on where to stay and what to do. It’s not just an extension of Allegro Cyclery. It’s a good visual description of the event.
How has the event changed in the years since it started?
We were hoping for bigger numbers quicker. COVID sucked the wind out of it. We had to cancel [in 2020] for COVID-19. I think the fact that we’re shop owners can limit our ability to really get out there and push it. It’s a full-time job if you really want to develop an event.
How do you see it changing in the future?
It just needs to grow. The feedback we get for it every year is phenomenal.
I don’t think gravel is going to go away. I don’t think the interest will wane because there’s always something new. People love that gritty, challenging experience. In Walla Walla, you’re going to have a gritty experience all the way around.
What makes Walla Walla a special place for an event like this?
The interest in gravel here is big, and so both bike shops (including Bicycle Barn) lead gravel rides. We don’t lead as many these days because we have good followings on our other rides. We put on a five-day bikepacking trip every year.
Our Valley has prime demographics for gravel biking. The Blue Mountains are largely unexplored when it comes to biking. There’s so much private land. But the roads that aren’t private have so much area to explore, and it’s stunning.
What advice would you give to someone considering gravel biking?
There are so many different options for gravel bikes. Test ride. Really look at what you think you want your experience on a bike to be without limiting yourself, and then come in and learn from the experts — people who have ridden them and own bike shops. Invent your potential — that’s my definition of a gravel bike.