Neil Shirley has planted himself as a staple in the growing #Gravel community. From racing around the world professionally on the road to transitioning into the industry he still has his love for riding which has paralleled the rise of the #Gravel movement. We sat down with him to get his thoughts on the recent growing trend.
What first sparked your interest to start getting into more Gravel?
I would say that when I quit racing I started getting more into doing the Gran Fondo’s because it still gave me the experience where I could be out there around other cyclists but in a much more relaxed atmosphere. I really liked that and I wanted to still be out riding my bike and the fondo’s really filled that void for me and after a couple years of doing those I wanted a bit more and I went out to the first Crusher in the Tusher in 2012 and that was still very early but it’s when I would say my interest first sparked with Gravel. Going out there we did a really cool gravel bike through Calfee because there weren’t really any options for Gravel bikes. Doing that really got me into the scene and I had such a great time. The scene was super killer and a completely new experience for me. You have the racing in it and also the adventure side and the overall atmosphere is different then the atmosphere at the road races which was a big appeal to me.
You were one of the first early adopters in the Southern California scene to attach yourself as a Gravel rider, how much have you seen it grow in the years since then?
We’ve seen a number of new events since then such as Rock Cobbler, Belgian Waffle Ride, SPNDX Stampede events and Grinduro as well. There are a lot of new events here in California but there are so many new riders around as well. When I first started to really get into it 4 years ago I was the only one around my area with a Gravel bike but now there are groups of riders who have full Gravel bikes up here and we can go do a big ride with everyone who has a proper Gravel bike.
You just returned from Dirty Kanza 200, what are the big differences you’ve seen in that event from the first year you participated up till the most recent?
Well they’ve opened up registration to a larger amount of people now and I think the first year I did it maybe 1,500 riders did it and now it’s grown to 2,200 riders. At the same time though the vibe of the event is still the same, it still feels like a small event as you see the promoter walking around talking with people. That intimate feel is still there. Outside of it though you can see the impact it has had on riders and events because everyone now knows what Dirty Kanza is even if they’ve never done a gravel event. Everybody knows of DK200.
Where do you see Gravel going in the coming years?
I think your going to see more mixed surface events where its not just straight up gravel. Events such as The Belgian Waffle ride where it’s really much like a road race style but on a really challenging course with big miles and the addition of dirt. I think that will continue attracting more of the road crowd over to this new category. But also the pure Gravel events will keep growing where it’s more of an adventure of getting out on those dirt/gravel roads and really testing your handling skills and bike equipment.
You did the first SPNDX Stampede Gravel event last year, what stood out to you from that event among other Gravel events which you have done?
It was exactly what people are looking for in terms of a mix of different type of terrain. I had never ridden any of the dirt roads out in the Temecula wine country area and some of the dirt roads out there were outstanding. It was a good mix with a challenging course but not over the top with a long distance. The riders were able to hang out after with having food and drinking and they weren’t really to iced out. In contrast to something like DK200 where once your done with the ride your pretty wiped out from being out on the bike all day. The venue was surprisingly nice as well and a bit different from other event venues I’ve been to.
Whats your ideal Gravel ride?
I would say anything where I’m mapping out the ride the night before and getting super excited about trying to connect one road with another via a road I’m not sure about. I like the sense of not knowing what I’m getting myself into. That to me is the appeal of just knowing that there is a bit of the unknown factor and knowing my skills and equipment I have can take what I throw at it. At this point that’s really the appeal for me with my cycling.
Your very involved with the industry, what are your thoughts on how it has adapted to this recent Gravel movement?
I think the industry has done a great job in where they have seen the growth in this segment and have adapted to it. Five years ago the equipment that riders needed with 32mm wide tires weren’t there that much and now we have disc brake equipped road bikes, larger tires, and different gearing options. The equipment is there now where it allows people to get out and do what they need to do and have a bike that can handle whats out there. I think that just opens the door for more people to come in this space. For riders such as myself I can do events on 25mm tires but for the weekend warrior it’s a much better experience to do it on 32mm tires and that allows more people to be excited about it and go out and ride these events now with the equipment being available.
You can follow Neil on social via his IG here: NeilsInsta
Photos: Ian Matteson #RideENVE
Registration for SPNDX Gravel vol. 1