The Castell Grind; Castell, TX
The slogan for this 50-, 72-, or 100K gravel grinder should be “choose wisely”—it’s unsupported, unmarked, and traverses largely uninhabited country roads in the middle-of-nowheresville Texas Hill Country. Bring a GPS, brush up on your map-reading skills and get ready to buck cattle guards: This one is the real Wild West.
Vermont Overland Maple Adventure Ride; Reading, VT
Most races save the prizes for the end; VOMAR distributes them liberally throughout. Timed to coincide with maple-sugaring season in Vermont, this 27-mile gravel ride features a stop at Newhall Farm, where riders can get in on the “maple water” trend — also known as partially boiled sap dipped straight from a sugar house at full boil. Since sugaring season also means mud season, come prepared to battle the frost heaves and icy patches, which may be partially obscured by wheel-sucking mud — if you’re lucky.
Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race; East Burke, VT
Rasputitsa is Russian for “mud season”—which gives you a pretty accurate preview of this 45-mile race for bragging rights in northern Vermont. In keeping with the Russian theme, the highlight of the course is “Cyberia,” a Class IV road that a former race participant described as “a scary backwoods where at any time a Yeti or Bengal tiger may jump out of the woods, bludgeon you with a blunt object, and either leave you for dead or drag you back into the woods for a nice little Saturday brunch.” Need more recommendations? “Total sufferfest,” pronounces Olympian Lea Davison, who pre-rode the course in February as a fundraiser for Little Bellas, the nonprofit she co-runs with her sister Sabra. Make it through the race, though, and you’ll be privy to poutine, maple-syrup shots, Vermont beers, and live music.
The HellKaat Hundie; Hudsonville, MI
The “prize” for winning this 100-mile gravel grinder is a pair of tighty-whities emblazoned with “The HellKaat Hundie” across the rear, so we think it’s safe to say that most riders are in it for the fun—and to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The same could be said for the race’s founder, Catherine Tahy, who got hooked on racing at the Barry Roubaix in 2009 and has ridden a century a month for the past 81 months (and counting). “I love getting people out and raising money for a great cause,” Tahy says. “Plus, who wouldn’t want to win the coveted ‘Hundie Undies?!’”
The Wild Horse Gran Fondo; Delle, Utah
Among the fine print for this dirt-only, 76-mile fondo across the Cedar Mountain Wilderness in western Utah is this rule: All participants are to be at least 100 feet from any wild horse, and for any group containing foals, that gap must be at least 300 feet. Wild horses, antelope, cattle, and jackrabbits are all listed as potential course hazards; ride at your own risk as you climb 5,000 feet, up over two summits, and across the Hastings Cutoff, where many pioneers in the Donner-Reed party in 1846 met their demise. Expect epic vistas, zero pavement, and yes—wild horses. Close to 600 of ’em.
Ozark Gravel Road Epic; Lake Ozark, MO
Food trucks, homemade ice cream, a bonfire, and banjo-picking, fiddle-shredding music await you if you make it to the end of the 80-mile Troll or 150-mile Ogre gravel race held in the heart of the Ozarks. The course traverses a mix of hardpack, fresh-grade, and gravel (plus a few streambeds), and you can expect mostly empty roads and plenty of switchbacks. A headlamp and taillight are required gear to get you back safely to the finish line at the Lake of the Ozarks campground—but if you get lost, just listen for the banjo music. The band starts pickin’ strings at 6 p.m.
Belgian Waffle Ride; San Marcos, CA
Race organizer Michael Marckx is Belgian, so he pays homage to his home country’s cycling legacy in the best way he knows how: with cobblestones, dirt, and lots of undulating hills. Make that lots and lots of hills—you won’t find many huge mountains on this course, but somehow the course climbs 11,000 feet of vertical over 144 miles through San Diego’s backcountry. But if Marckx stacks you up against the likes of Merckx on the course, he rewards you equally royally: There are Belgian waffles before the race, and Belgian ale at Lost Abbey Brewery after. Is it worth it? You tell us.