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Feb 18, 2020

Tim Kremer from the Gravel Epic race series talks to us about events in Marrakesh, Slovenia, Girona and Mt. Etna. Each event capturing the local flavor and best routes designed by local gravel athletes.

Gravel Epic Website.

Automated Transcription, please excuse the typos:

Good day everyone, and welcome to the gravel ride podcast. I'm your host Craig Dalton. This week on the podcast we've got Tim Kramer from the gravel Epic series over in Europe. Big thanks to Jason over at the gravel cyclist for making this connection for me. I first read about the gravel Epic series on the Get your passports ready and start saving those dollars because when you hear about the gravel Epic series, I think you're going to be like me and want to jump on the next plane over to Europe. Tim and his team have created four events, one in Marrakesh, Morocco, the second in Slovenia, the third in Mount Etna in Italy, and the fourth in Gerona. They've worked with local athletes in all these areas to find the best terrain, most representative of the area, and they're combining that with rich cultural experiences so you can immerse yourself in the local culture. So with all that said, let's jump right in.

Tim, welcome to the shelf. Hey Greg, thanks for having me.

Ever since Jason at the gravel cycle of shared your events series with me, I've been super excited to get you on the phone and learn more about it. It sounds amazing. But before we get started as is customary on the podcast, I'd love to just learn a little bit more about your background and how you got into gravel cycling.

The background graph cycling is very easily explained. I don't remember exactly how many years ago it was, but I read an article on the dirty Kanza and the New York times. That was when I was sitting in my living room in Hong Kong on a weekend and I read this and I thought, bloody hell, that sounds like an event I'd like to do or so I, Mike, my calendar when registration is opened, I think it was sometime in January and I was lucky enough to get in. That was a few years ago, so it was a little bit easier than now. It's still a lottery. And we got in. So my friend of mine and I, and shortly afterwards we bought our first gravel bike. A simple cyclocross from focus. It was, I think back then and you know, started training, which in Hong Kong was pretty hard cause we have no gravel roads. So we basically just cycled on the road. And the first time ever on gravel was when we were hit the roads in Kansas.

That's amazing. I mean we often explore how gravel cycling differs in different parts of the country and how unique Kansas is. But I can't imagine getting on a plane from having only written around Hong Kong on your bike to the Flint Hills of Kansas and tackling that huge event.

It was a yes, very different experience. For one, eh, I had the wrong shoes. I wrote with most shoes, which was almost constant, completely wrong thing to do. So the first river crossing when I walked through my puddles couldn't clip in anymore and I still have a, the road with a stick trying to clean the pedals, I can continue cycling. But beyond, beyond that, it was an amazing experience. And we've been seeking out travel events ever since. We wrote at a year later, we did a small event in Texas and 200 miners. So it was lucky that I'm self employed and we were able to combine the business trips with revel races or other bike races.

That's great. And you know, as someone who, it sounds like shares residency between Hong Kong and Spain, were you particularly in Europe I guess were you simply just not seeing the type of events that you were falling in love with in the U S anywhere on the continent?

Well the Spain thing for us is relatively recent, so my family only relocated here a year ago. I still kind of go back and forth. We, we saw the races in the U S and thought it was something really exciting because gravel is slowly taking off in Europe and continental Europe and the UK. It's a little bit better known in that. Tons of races. But they are mostly local. Except for two or three races that are now over two or three years have grown a little bit more. I wouldn't say international, but more national. And when we thought about this, we thought this would be something really, that we enjoy, that our friends enjoy going to interesting places and, and taking them off the road. Not the typical grand Fondo but on the, you know, was me, we call it the sort of the, the gravitates to where the roads end, so to beautiful places. And that's what we try to do and look for locations. And first four locations we found in Marrakesh and Slovenia bled in UNG Alona and which is, you know, it was only about an hour away from, we are now in Barcelona and Mount Edna are completely different in their environment and completely different in the kind of rioting on gravel that our participants will experience.

That's amazing. So let's step back for a minute. I mentioned it in the opening, but you got a gravel. Epic is listed as the first gravel series in Europe, in North Africa. What an incredibly audacious goal to put on four amazing events. What was the vision behind what you were creating and why did you look to do the four events rather than starting with just one?

I'm audacious. Yes. And we're finding out my, the workload that really it is a lot more than we expected. We're not from the event or, or a sports event business. We come from very different backgrounds, but we thought that the amount of marketing needed it's much better to have it amortized over four events and also to keep us across the year and you know, more involved in not to some one event decided to start with four. We're lucky that we of course don't organize everything by ourselves. We have local partners who are based there. We'll know the region. We could not find the same gravel roads and that the people that do so in that regards were happy that we don't have to do everything. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Yeah, I can only imagine and that makes a lot of sense. Economically speaking, I know I talked to a number of race organizers. It's one thing to create a small event in your local community and keep it manageable, but the moment it becomes successful, you realize that the infrastructure and skillset of the team members required is often difficult, difficult to cobble together when you're only talking about focusing that energy on a single event each year.

Yeah, and I mean we intentionally, you know, really want to get a very international group to our races. And from what we've seen now in Marrakech where registrations haven't been open for that long, we already have people from 10 or 11 nationalities coming. You know, we have from as far as Los Angeles, I'm a cyclist and then from Hong Kong, from the other side of the world we get inquiries from India. We are always surprised to where people come and how they find us because it's not really an area where we advertise.

Yeah. I'm sure that's only going to grow as the registration period opens longer and longer. Certainly, you know, seeing the types of events and locations, particularly for North American writers and writers, you know, in Asia, it's a heavy decision to make a decision to attend one of these events in Europe. And obviously it takes a lot of planning to get there.

Yes, it does. You know, and it's, that's what we try to combine them with a lot of touristy activities and we also offer you know, for people from the U S and want to come over for more than a week, not just the race, but you can take a three, five or eight day gravel tour in the area and then finish with a race or start after the race.

That's the super exciting plan. I love that. I also like to hear that you enlisted the help of local riders who know the community and trails better to kind of craft the race courses. How did you identify the four locations in the first place?

If I could only remember exactly all the discussion that went in. I mean, we looked obviously at the map at something that was interesting for us where we would want it to go. Myra cash was right on top of our list because a, it's very easily reachable and it's completely different from by where we are in terms of cultural experience and the writing as well. So that was a fairly easy choice. We originally also had looked at places in Germany and Holland. But decided then that wasn't so exciting and pick Slovenia because of the mountain bike scene that was there. A friend of ours has been riding there and highly recommended it. So we went over there for a long weekend and came back very, very impressed by the area and the three glove national park by the Julian Alps. And we're lucky enough to find a good partner.

And when we went back, they already had stitched a probably 60, 70% of what now is the race cost together for us to explore. Mon Aetna, the same thing. We were looking for something that is again different in terms of writing cause we wanted to give people who want to enjoy the forum experience something very different. Every single event and riding on an active volcano is again very different than the surface is different cause it's lava rock. And the amazing part in Aetna is you can ride the beautiful forest and suddenly the forest is cut open by where the lava poured and cut down the forest and you have 500 meters or a kilometer writing to laugh Robin rocks and suddenly the forest closes again and you're, you're again in a very confined space. It's a very unique experience.

Amazing. So let's go through a little bit more specifically the events and the locations and maybe gives the listener a little bit of an understanding as to the type of gravel riding experience they'll have. You touched a little bit on it just now about Mount Etna and you also mentioned how in your opinion different each experience was going to be, let's take them in order and make sure that each one gets the lip service it deserves because they all are clearly amazing locations.

Well starting in Marrakesh, which is the first race in our theories and March next year, which is we start in the desert, so it's fairly flat. The gravel is very hard packed. It doesn't rain much there. There's only a few eliminated rain in the winter months. And lucky from when we start the race, it should have just finished. So we can see still the snow capped mountains and the Atlas in the background and it, we still have tons of green around. But the desert itself, eh, not much green, but you will see a lot of green as you ride along the course. But the, the gravel is very, very hard packed. It's not quite as sharp as young people know. And we talk about dirty Kansas our size. So we have never, none of us had a flat ball riding there, but it's quite a hard pack road.

The climbs are very long. Not short times. The main climb out of the Agatha desert into the Atlas mountains. I forgot how many kilometers or miles, but it's, I think it's somewhere around six to 10, six miles, 10 kilometers long. And then you ride along the Ridge and you descend into valleys where again, it gets green, you see plantations right to bourbon villages. It's a very, very unique different experience as you ride along because the scenery constantly change us. And then finally you ride back through the RFA desert too. They can probably start and for many it'll be a race against the sunset trying to make it before the sunsets. If we then go to the next races and Aetna, which a completely different environment. For one it's Italy, which the food, the ambiance, the noise in the street, everything is quite different experience when we get to the race course, which starts just outside of the national park.

And a small town called Milo. The initial, no, I don't have the data and dragged in front of me, but I think the first 20 kilometers we climb close to 2000 meters or 30 kilometers. So it's a constant up, up, up until you reach sort of the plateau level. And when you start riding around the area, we're not riding fully around Aetna, that's much, much too long, but our course kind of goes up to it and then goes down again, goes back up again. And it's a nice combination of off-road and on-road. The riding is a bit more technical because the rocks, the lava can be quite sharp. Eh, or in later in the season or if there wasn't a lot rain, a lot of rain. The lava is very soft. So it's definitely a course that requires much more technical skills than any of the other three courses that we have.

But the amazing thing there is really to ride and you can see Monadnock in the back, which is always covered with some clouds. It always looks like it's smoking. And sometimes, and sometimes you can even hear it rumble. So it's a very nice experience. And course we have, I find very interesting because it goes through forest, which the road is much smoother. And sun, you had that lava patch where again, you really have to go on your chores and make sure you don't crash. And then after that we go to Slovenia with the race starts in blood, which is very, very well known for the church in the middle of the Lake and the cost that overlooks the leg. Very, very small town, roughly only 8,000 people. And there, the course is longer and more climate and everything else, all the other courses that we have, but the roads are Forrest routes.

So it's, it's really not technical. We expect people to be much, much faster which is why the causes longer. And we have over 4,000 meters of climates. That's over 12,000 meters of climbing, over 180 kilometers, I think it was. So bring your climbing legs for that course. But again, it's not technical. The descends are not too difficult. You know that the tire choices there are very definitely, what do you need an Edna after your ride? Possibly widest tie. You can fit on your bike. With knobby tires, with Slovenia, you probably put a 35 on, I wouldn't say slicks, but really you don't need much in terms of treads. And then we finished the race. He was in Geovanna, which people know is very well known for cycling. There's tons of pro cyclists, ex pros living there. There is a ton also already off slaw, smaller. I'm grabbing races in the area. I'm always, it's longer than that. The local races, we're going up to 180 kilometers. The course is at times technical. But most of the time, you know, the climbing is nice and long and gradual and it's a beautiful area. And part of the [inaudible] North Catalonia,

My gosh, the hardest thing is just deciding which one sounds the best out of those.

Yeah, it's a difficult choice. You know, for me, Marrakesh was always the first choice simply because it's more exotic and it's an area that I'm really not familiar with. But I'm equally blown away by bled and by that, because again, it's completely different to the writing that I have here in Barcelona. So it's very hard to say what people expect and where they come from, what their preference is.

Yeah. And I noted each of the courses, the expected medium finish median finish time is 10 hours. So it sounds like that's the goal. Yeah. Common theme across the events.

And basically what we've done is we write the course. If I, it takes me about 11 hours, I think that the normal cycle should take about 10 cause we, I mean we, you know, we stopped for P, we stopped a bit more and we look at it and says, yeah, roughly 10 hours. And we expect the fast people. I'm always depending on conditions to come in at seven and a half to eight hours. And the cutoff depending on the cause where we are and what we can do with low closures will be 14, 15 hours or everybody should be able to finish the course.

Yeah. And as people group up, obviously in the event the pace gets a little bit hotter and the course can get covered a little faster.

Correct. Correct. For a Marrakesh we already have a couple of very, very good cyclists signed up. So we'll definitely see some action up the front, I think.

Interesting. And then also a common theme, a pretty healthy chunk of climbing looks like between, you know, minimum 3,300 meters of climbing to over 4,000 in one of the [inaudible].

Yes. Yes. I think that's just driven by the destinations that we picked. The all mountain is areas. We like to be in somewhere more remote areas, which often that also leads to be in more mountainous areas. And you know, I personally like climbing. I think it makes a writing interesting if it's just on the flats and it's not for me.

Yeah. Well, some of the descriptions you were providing on the courses are only possible to get this type of views and changes in terrain and changes in the ambiance of where you're riding through by having those large elevation gains.

Yes, that's correct. And again, Marrakesh, you know, it's the end of winter so that the lower regions that'll be quite nice and warm. But when you get up to close to 2000, it'll be fresh. People will have to pack extra clothes.

Interesting. So it'd be a real adventure.

Yes. It'd be different experience from the, from the desert up into the mountains in, in terms of temperature. In terms of views and writing, it'll be completely different.

And it looks like for each event correct me if I'm wrong, you've got two distances.

Correct? We have what we call the exploration course. Not that it's easy by any means. But for those who are new to long distance gravel riding we wanted to offer something more manageable. We make it very easy if people feel that the training went well, they can easily change to the larger course. But of course, a hundred miles on gravel is something very different than a hundred miles on the road.

And how are you thinking about the race in terms of it being a race versus a ride?


I think just based on the distance for 80% of the people, it'll be a ride, which is the challenging itself. We made it a race so that people more have a record of how long it took them, but not in the sense that we expect people to go out and really race one another. It's more a race against yourself, I think. And against the clock or whatever goal you've set yourself. And maybe a rate is against a friend, but I don't expect this to be a race like you would find on their own and on a road race or so. No.

But do you imagine that over time, you know, writers will start to think of thinking of the events as they do a dirty cancer and SBT gravel where the professional athletes have it on their calendar because it's, it's notable to, to win.

Yeah. Yeah, that'd be nice. It'd be interesting. I mean, as I said before, we have a couple of writers that, you know, when I signed up with like, okay, so they're clearly the more modern than say professional, but very, very, very good amateurs and no one did the scene who don't does, right. They, they, they will go and race this thing. But for most of us it'll be a challenging ride. That allows you to set goals. We also have a time section on every race that we call our coms. It's one long climb, but people can, if they don't want to race the whole race, but put it in over the next you know, 10 K on one climb or so and see how they fare against the best riders. So there's a little bit for everyone.

Yeah, that's neat. I always appreciate this time segments just because it's, it's novel. It gives you a little bit of something to focus on during a long event.


Yeah. And especially in the climbs are hard enough. But if you know that you can see yourself, see how you did ever against everybody, I think it makes a bit of take that at least I need when I'm attempting one of these long clients.

Yeah, it's interesting with all these events something is inevitably going to go wrong during your day. That's just sort of the nature of gravel and adventure riding. They're having those times segments. It's just a reminder of like, Oh, I can come back and try to tackle that the overall time as well as the segment time again in the future.

Yeah, correct. I mean, you know, gravel, rough roads. The bikes are good, but things do go wrong.

Yeah, absolutely. I do.

I had, I had one carbon when go bust on me and Aetna, I think I must have had a rock really badly. And you know, that was the end of my ride. So that has happened.

Yeah. Yeah. I do imagine, you know, as the sport continues to grow from a, from a retail perspective over in Europe, that the bike brands are gonna want their brand ambassadors to be traveling to these locations and sort of putting a flag in the ground that their equipment was a, you know, on the ground in Sylvania or, or AmeriCash.

Yeah, it would be very nice. We haven't really signed up any sponsors because we're so new. We don't really have any history. But hopefully in a year from now we can approach the bike brands and they'll be interesting in working with us. I know just because it's, it's a category that is very, very interesting now in Europe, as I said, it's growing. You can see everybody, we are releasing components about it. We have even seen special Graebel shoes. Not, I am not, I haven't been able to figure out what they are, but all kinds of special Graebel equipment is coming to the market now.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean that's obviously something we explore pretty extensively here on the podcast. And there's, I think just little tweaks that are starting to arrive over time where people are saying, to your point, like, you know, what is a gravel shoe? It's not, it's maybe not as soft as a mountain bike shoe, but maybe it's not as stiff as a road racing shoe and there's just sort of a blend in the middle there that that meets the kind of day you're going to have out of the bike as a gravel cyclist.

Correct. I mean, you know, we're, luckily we don't push as often as maybe some more difficult mountain bike races or so or, or some bike packing events where you have to carry all that luggage up the Hill. But you know, some sexual, I mean, I know that some people will have to walk on certain seconds on all of course because it's difficult in a technically or too steep.

Yeah. So you mentioned the UK being a little bit of a hotbed. Are there other pockets in Europe that you've identified where you feel there are a lot of gravel cyclists emerging?

And while we can see by the Facebook groups that there are very large groups in Italy and France for example, there's a Facebook group in France that has 9,000 writers now, are they all pure gravel cyclists? Probably not. A lot of them own a gravel bike and they use it for commuting. But you know, that's what grabs the writing is if not just grab a beer in Europe is often all road riding. It's a bike that allows you to go everywhere. Some people use it for their commute instead of the normal city bike maybe that they had before instead of a cyclocross bike.

Yup, absolutely.

But it's certainly that big. It's coming. And he, in Spain, in our circle of friends within the last 12 months, I think 30% of our cycling group bought a gravel bike. And even also of Barcelona, we still have tons and tons of good roads that allow us to go out there. And it's very nice to explore an area that we've written through many, many times and starting to be able to turn off the road and ride 20, 30 kilometers on gravel in an area that we've not seen before. Even though we've written that area for many times,

I think that's exactly it and exactly why this massive light bulb goes off the moment you get one of these bikes, it's easy to sort of sit on the sideline when you live in a place where there's amazing road riding like you and I both do. But the ability to take that left turn and hit a section of gravel just opens up this world of possibility. And all of a sudden, I know speaking from my own experience, I find myself writing just the best sections of road that I'm familiar with and then getting off road or amazing sections that'll connect pieces of, of tarmac that are otherwise and connectable in a reasonable amount of time.

I fully agree. I mean, we were on a ride here in an area, a park wash, which we've written in many times on the road bike. And for the first time somebody put a rotor that was 90% gravel and I think for six hours all of us were smiling because it was such a new and great experience that we didn't expect.

Yeah. I think particularly for people in the area. Yeah, and I think particularly for athletes that are coming from the road side, which is my suspicion is we're drawing a lot of athletes from that side of the sport versus the mountain bike side. As a mountain biker, we've all written those sections where you just sort of, something happens, you skid out but you survive and you get to the bottom of it and you, you want to high five, your friends did that. You don't often get that on the road, but you, you, you often and frequently get that in gravel and particularly in events that are, that are long or Epic in the terrain, you know, you're going to have mishaps and that's part of the fun. And when we all get to the finish line, it's part of the reason why the gravel community can be so tight from the first place finisher to the last place finisher because we're all going to have those experiences throughout the day.

I fully agree and you know, we try to have at the end of our events, always a big party and not the normal finish a party. We're trying to put something together where people really sit together and share the stories of what happened to them during the day and then how they enjoy the ride or what they didn't enjoy. And you know, we're, we'll hopefully get lot of tons of feedback how to make it better the following year. But we really would like to people to connect to these events. And that's why said it's, it's a race, but we really, for most of us, I think it's more of a timed event and I think it's fantastic if people sit together later on and make friends.

Yeah. The other thing I think that's fantastic about what you've laid out here is, you know, obviously all of these destinations are, are tourist worthy. And you know, it's not like writers should plan on popping in and out just for race day or 48 hours around the event. I know you're thinking about that and thinking about how to make a trip out of it, particularly for athletes from North America. We're not going to come over, you know, for less than a week to do something like this. So are you laying out other events around the actual race day to help riders who are coming in early explore the terrain and make the most out of their trips?

Yeah, absolutely. We have for example, in Marrakesh we have a six day gravel tour, which can be easily made into three or if people want even more because there's so many relatives, we can connect them all different ways so that people can come over and explore the area before the event, if that one for three, four days or not a part of Morocco, because we have a tour that starts close to Marrakesh and you can ride just at the tip of the Sahara desert. In I'd say, you know, we, we say six days, I think people who have a little bit more stronger legs can easily do it in five days, maybe even four, if you want to push yourself. So there's tons of stuff to do around in terms of probably writing, but obviously also for the family.

A Morocco, Marrakesh is a tourist destination for the a trip, no matter whether you bring the bike or not, it's especially for North Americans, such a different world to walk through the souks in Marrakesh. It's fantastic. I really enjoyed it. For me. Two days is enough, but my wife was very happy to hang around longer and buy more stuff. But it's, it's more the a trip and you can get on the car or a motorcycle and take a trip into the Berber villages and explore the life of the villages they have, which again is very different from what you see in the city.

And these additional add on gravel events. Are they events that you're, you're paying to participate in? Are you, are you arranging these?

Yes. I mean that paid events. I mean for some we can just, if somebody does once a day trip, we can happy to give them a GPS data around the village. But the other things, because they need to be organized. You need to have a van, we need to book the hotels. The transfer when the right finishes, cause it's not a loop. Back to Marrakesh or Casa Blanca or wherever the people want to go at the end of the ride. So yes, they are, they're paid trips.

Okay. So you'll actually arrange sort of a little journey for us around the country.

Yes, we are very flexible. We want people to have a good time. We know it's a long way to go and to make it worthwhile. We happy, you know, we work with local partners who then help us to put these things from simple things like a one hour camel ride around the desert to a six day bike trip on gravel bike or for some, you know, if the partner comes along when they are e-bikes as well.

Amazing. Well I have to say, you know, you cannot visit [inaudible] gravel, and not be inspired and excited by the imagery that you guys have put forth in the videos around the various locations. I definitely encourage all the listeners to go check the event out. It's very inspirational to kind of look at these locations and I'm excited to have had this conversation with you, Tim, and learn more about what your goals are for the event and I wish you the best of luck.

Thank you very much for having me. Hopefully can work in many of the listeners at one of our events. You know, if you have any questions, always shoot us an email. We hope to give you all the answers you need.

Awesome. Thanks Tim. All right. Thanks so much Greg.

Wow, big thanks to Tim. I feel like I've already packed my bag and signed up for a couple of those events. I've always wanted to ride in Morocco and heard amazing things about the terrain over there, so that one's definitely on my bucket list in this week's can't let it go. I've been thinking about dropper posts. We've talked about it a bunch of times on the podcast, but I always have fun slamming my post. It's one of those subtle things and maybe not necessarily the most obvious thing to get on a gravel bike, but give one a try. I think you'll like it. And if you're orientating your spec around fun, I can't recommend dropper posts enough. Thanks for spending a little time with us this week. As always, a welcome your feedback via social media channels or If you have a moment, please share this episode with some of your friends. We'd love to get more listeners and ratings and reviews are always deeply appreciated. So until next time, here's to finding some dirt under your wheel.