To paraphrase the iconic words of wisdom from the movie "Forrest Gump," the 106-mile round trip bike ride from Chino Valley to Williams is "...like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get."
On Saturday, approximately 200 intrepid cyclists will find out in the SPY Chino Grinder, the first official "gravel grinder" in Arizona. They range from Prescott's Chloe Woodruff, winner of this past Sunday's Whiskey Off-Road Pro 50 Proof race, and Nicole Duke, a former World Cup downhill and dual slalom mountain bike racer (her birthday is the day of the race), to a pair of 65-year-olds - Charlie Brown and Mike Ingram. The oldest participant, Bob Brown, 71, will take on the alternative 42-mile offering.
Described as part mountain bike race, part road race...all on backcountry roads, the grueling course challenges riders with 9,700 feet of climbing from the Old Home Manor Park on Perkinsville Road in Chino Valley to Williams - and back to Chino Valley.
The "beast" earns its nickname with 43 miles on pavement - including a 22-mile ascent from the Verde River up to Williams - and 63 gritty miles of gravel roads traversing wash crossings, corrugated stretches called "washboards," rollers (small short hills), and smooth hardpack, including a 1.5-mile climb to the halfway point - the Elk Ridge Ski Area - also referred to as the "Alp de Elk Ridge."
"It's not an extremely steep grade [average 6.5 percent]," says race director Craig Swetel, who mapped the course, "[but] it's enough to put hurt on your legs...especially after riding more than 50 miles and the fact that the elevation is approaching 8,000 feet."
Swetel should know. He's ridden the course six times.
"You have to expect the unexpected," he says. "Every time you ride it, something unique happens. It's always an adventure. That's part of the fun of it."
Swetel has been caught in a monsoon, pelted by hail, and run out of water in 98-degree conditions - all on the same trip. During a pre-ride last month, the cyclists had to dodge a bull, tumbleweeds, and a couple of girls riding horses while cradling tall cans of their favorite beverage.
Another time, Swetel's riding partner fell behind because of several pinched flats that left him without spare tire tubes. A short while later, a pickup truck blew past Swetel...with his friend and bike in the bed.
"My friend was yelling, 'Stop, stop,' to the drivers, but they just kept going," Swetel chuckles.
They go by names such as Rattlesnake Rally, Odin's Revenge, Pony Express 160, Steaming Nostril, SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, Crushar in the Tushar, and Great Gator Gravel Grinder. More than 200 gravel grinders of various lengths and difficulty take place throughout America every year. One of the oldest, the Trans Iowa, which started in 2005, crosses the entire state from west to east, covering a distance of about 340 miles.
The Trans Iowa is directed by a ubiquitous pioneer of the sport who goes by the name Guitar Ted. Swetel calls him the "godfather of gravel grinders." You can find most of the gravel grinder events on his website, Gravel Grinder News (http://gravelgrindernews.com).
"The term 'gravel grinder' derived from...road racers in the Midwest...training on gravel roads...," explains Guitar Ted, aka Mark Stevenson. "The gravel roads were considered better training conditions than riding indoors on trainers because they were not graded, [had] a higher resistance to narrow road bicycle tires, and left riders exposed to wind and elements....The road racers referred to these long, lonely training miles in the rural landscape as 'gravel grinds.'"
The best example of the explosion in the popularity of gravel grinders - the Dirty Kanza 200 - debuted in 2006 in Emporia, Kansas, with 38 participants. Now billed as "The World's Premier Gravel Grinder," complete with its own magazine, the Dirty Kanza 200 expects 1,200 riders this year.
Bicycle manufacturers have also plunged into the action by producing specialized gravel grinder bikes.
"Over the years there have been more gravel race events that seem to propose adventure and exploration more than race results," says Nate Meschk of Signal Cycles of Portland. "I think this has drawn more people into the culture of gravel riders and the requests for these bikes have risen."
Swetel has been cycling long distances on the state's backroads for quite a while. In 2001, he won the Mountain Biking Association of Arizona master's series. A decade later, he finished fourth in the master's division of the Arizona State Road Race Championship.
"We've been married almost 30 years, and we've talked about doing something like this [SPY Chino Grinder] for 20," says his wife Minnie, who oversees the race operations. "Finally, I said, 'Let's do it.'"
The SPY Chino Grinder started out as a mom-and-pop operation when Craig and Minnie made a presentation last August to assorted Chino Valley and Forest Service officials. It didn't stay that way for long.
Their daughter Catherine, a social media whiz ("She taught me how to use Facebook," Craig says.) designed a website (epicgravelrides.com) and got the word out online.
"It got bigger than we ever thought," Minnie says. "We started out expecting 50 riders. Suddenly we were up to 200 without any advertising [outside the Internet]."
Their company - Epic Gravel Rides - was born, and Mike Melley, a veteran cycling race organizer from Hub Event Productions, came on board as the event coordinator.
With Melley's help, the Swetels have maneuvered their way through the details. They had to find sponsors and volunteers, secure permits, provide insurance, purchase awards and giveaways, and take care of all the other myriad logistics.
The Chino Valley Rotary Club and Chino Valley High School mountain biking team have pitched in to help and will receive a portion of the proceeds from food and beverage sales and the $5 fee for riders who want to camp out on the Old Home Manor Park ballfields before or after the race.
"We've gained a new respect for race promoters," Minnie says.
So why are an increasing number of cyclists throughout the country punishing themselves in gravel grinders? Perhaps Guitar Ted put it best:
"...riders come for the 'challenge factor' in a personal sense, almost more so than results on a sheet at the end of the day....It isn't about 'who comes in first' or who is fastest. At least not for many. It is a much more personal, deeper reasoned motivation to do an event like a gravel road race...."
For some riders in Saturday's SPY Chino Grinder, their prize will simply be the satisfaction of being able to say, "I finished it."