By Bill Plock
June 2, 2023—Mad Gravel is Mad Fun. It’s also Madly Inspiring, Madly beautiful, and Madly on the verge of being the next big cycling event in Colorado. The McNeil Boy Scout Ranch and its 3,300 acres provide endless possibilities for three days of bike racing and gathering like-minded cyclists to camp, hang out, play games, watch movies, make s’mores, and on and on.
The moment you lay eyes on Peaceful Valley just south of Elbert (about 20 miles southeast of Castle Rock) you feel tranquility and a sense of destination. You are embraced immediately by hilly ranches and the equine lifestyle at an altitude of 7,000 feet with occasional sweeping views of Pikes Peak. Riding bikes on smooth gravel roads, twisty, sometimes gnarly single track, and wagon wheeled trails cutting through the prairie and large Ponderosa adds to a sense of adventure only an hour from Denver. And on Memorial Day Weekend, heading East instead of fighting mountain traffic was a big added bonus.
For the Scouts, this is the last weekend before they open up to battalions of scouts from across the country who arrive weekly to earn merit badges, learn outdoor activities, and take advantage of all the first-class amenities. Mad Gravel utilized a gargantuan “dining hall” for its headquarters.
Said ride director Dave Muscianisi, “The Scout Ranch is perfect for an event like this. Since we have multiple events over the weekend, it allows us to get creative with unique course designs while still keeping the start/finish in the same area. The deck overlooking the whole area suits Mad Gravel perfectly for spectating, announcing, a vendor expo, music/band, food, and awards. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to partner with the Scouts and the Greater Colorado Council for this project. With unlimited potential in terms of parking, camping, facilities, and family activities all set in a serene area, we hope this is just the start of an event that will draw folks nationally and internationally in the future.”
This year, Mad Gravel partnered with The Hemi, a gravel race previously held in Wichita, Kansas. Hemi was the nickname of Craig Henwood, who tragically lost his life during a gravel race, The Rage Against the Chainring. Race organizers held a memorial race in honor of The Hemi. But Craig’s mom, Kristine Johnson, and her husband Steve Johnson wanted a race that could help take the sadness out of the story. Bringing it home, where Craig cut his teeth on the epic mountain climbs made sense. They wanted an event that celebrated the power and happiness they have felt in their own careers as champion cyclists, and for Steve, the former CEO of USA Cycling, the unity of cycling and a sense of community is paramount. They wanted to give back to the sport that they love and feel privileged to be part of.
Said Kris, “I knew this partnership with Dave and Mad Gravel was meant to be. We met at my grandson’s first-ever mountain bike race, we shared our vision, and the next thing you know we were partners and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Our vision of a prestigious race perfectly matched. We want it to be a celebration for everyone and encourage athletes to find their own “Hemi”, inside. We want riders to aspire to win “The Hemi”, more than any other race because of its deep meaning, and to prove that they are a badass gravel racer if they win! Our dream is 2,000 PLUS riders, and we have the team to make that happen.”
Mad Gravel, in its fourth year, had (obviously) a gravel race component previously. Dave, who owns Rattler Racing which puts on mountain bike races also has had mountain bike races at Mad Gravel. “What I like most about Hemi specifically is roughly 20% of the course is within the 3800 acre Scout ranch. We consistently hear comments that the terrain is a nice break from the sometimes monotonous gravel roads. Inside the ranch, we have the ability to use wide open single track, double track, and gravel roads weaving in and out of the property,” said Dave.
There are three distances of the Hemi; 30, 50, and 100 miles.
When I started this article on Monday morning, before my first-ever mountain bike race which scared the daylights out of me, I was reflecting on Kris’s speech after The Hemi the day before, sitting in the exact place looking over the ranch. Dave had talked me into trying a mountain bike race last second. I only brought my trusty 15-year-old Yeti 575 with flat pedals to tool around and take photos. I was so nervous to know I would be lapped by all the fast guys and I have very limited skills. I had walked the course and knew there were some hairy spots!
But I thought of “The Hemi” and what Kris spoke about the previous night and the celebration of riding bikes and having fun. In the background, the Tom Petty song, Learning to Fly, played in the empty space. It filled the room and my thoughts:
So I started out. For God knows where. I guess I’ll know. When I get there
I’m learning to fly. Around the clouds. But what goes up. Must come down
It sort of all hit me. This event means so much to so many people, and even for me, it gave me a chance to try something for the first time and fall in love with a place really feel connected to everyone racing. I wouldn’t have done it without Dave’s positive, “have fun” attitude or Kris and Steve’s inspiration. I had been there three days now, soaking it all in.
I later asked Kris what she loved most about the weekend, and she said, “I am so thrilled to have this partnership and to be part of the Madgravel team. I knew the course was fantastic, for me, after I raced the Hemi Five-O, I walked onto the awards deck, and seeing all the smiling faces, hugging DNA teammates, and watching our family busy volunteering, the joy was abundant. I saw the prized handmade mugs that the artist, Daniel Gegen, created and drove from Kansas himself. My ears were filled with the great music brought to us by Manitou Strings, and led by Steve McCauley who works for USA Cycling. Steve is our family too, and over the years has shared many miles of riding with us and he knew Craig well! Everywhere I looked, I saw FAMILY. Our awesome and generous sponsors have become family! This was a big move for us to bring the race here and change the direction. The emotional rush to see everyone together and all the happiness brought me to tears because I knew how much our Craig, The Hemi, would have loved this.”
Tom Petty was asked what that song was about, he said, “Everyone has tragedy in their life,” Petty told ABC News in 1991. He was inspired by a pilot, who said the hardest part about flying a plane was coming down from the air. “You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it, and I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to say in that song.”
Funny coincidence how it wrapped it all up for me.