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May 14, 2019

A conversation with former professional cyclist and current king of gravel, Ted King. We discuss gravel riding across the country, the great community, equipment choices and the inaugural Rooted Vermont event Ted and his wife have created.

Ted King Instagram 

Rooted Vermont 

Automatic Transcription. Please excuse the typos

Welcome to the show.

Craig. Thank you very much for having me.

I appreciate your time. And I usually start out the show by asking for people's background as a cyclist, but in this case, since the con, the topic has been well covered both on your own podcast, king of the ride and in other ones. I want to start off a little later. You're later in your career and just talk about kind of your last year as a pro and as you were looking forward to ending your road cycling career, what attracted you to gravel and how did you really get into it?

Oh Man. Um, so my final year racing professional was 2015 and I was at a team camp in about January of that year. Um, that was my 10th year racing professionally. And the, the idea of crept in my mind in January that man, like this isn't the be all end all and I'm having a blast. But I, I, I was 32 at the time and I wanted to step away from the sports, still loving the sport. Um, I was seeing a lot of people, my colleagues and contemporaries being, um, you know, finishing their career, not on the terms they wanted. They were injured and not getting a contract or just not racing to their potential. I'm not going to get contract. And so, um, I was happy that was a contract a year for me. I still love the sport and I just thought maybe this is the time to step away.

So shared that idea with a couple of friends and family members. Um, yeah, 32 was relatively young to step away on your own accord, but uh, the timing was right. So fast forward till May and then we're racing tour California and I made the announcement right then, um, you know, race on home turf and figured that would be receptive to, especially in American audience. Um, and, and truly at this point, I didn't know what I was going to be doing moving forward. I have a degree in economics from, you know, reputable school, uh, that, that sends a lot of it's econ majors out to Wall Street. Um, but you know, 15 years removed from the world of finance, that's not the kind of thing you dip your toe into and in your early mid thirties. So, um, I didn't really, I knew cycling would be part of my life in some capacity. I was at that point beginning to coach a few people. Um, but I didn't have the relationships and doing what I'm doing now, which we can get into. It was never a part of the plan.

Yeah, there's certainly wasn't, there certainly wasn't a roadmap for you. There wasn't a lot of ex professional road cyclist who had carved out the type of career you've made over the last few years.

Yeah, very, very true. Um, so it took, we had this idea, I mean I worked with my agents rocker and said, you know, when we announced it, companies beginning with Cannondale and then ceram came forward and said, you know, we, this is sort of the beginning of the ambassador world saying we know we like what you present this sport and, and you know, you have a good voice and presence in the sport of cycling and sure it is a little bit young to be stepping away. Do you have an interest in sticking and staying involved? Um, and we didn't really realize what that capacity could be. It was like, are we opening a bike shop or we are we representing these brands in some other capacity? Um, so long story short, I mean even at that point, gravel isn't really on my radar. Um, I think it comes to my mind early the next year I met coincidentally south by southwest with scram dealing with, uh, one of these open the road events where you introduced customers and people to um, to new lines of products.

So Strand was introduced in the one by, in hydro disc brakes. And, and you know, 2016 this is EATAPP era early tap. And, um, I met Rebecca Rush for the first time, who at that point was the queen of pain. Uh, and she says, Hey, Roddy, he made, she started this, taking this older sister, uh, put, you know, putting her elbow and my side kind of kind of relationship rowdy. You got to come over and do dirty Kansas, this crazy event. It's uh, it's pretty cool and you'll love the community. So I think that was my first formal gravel race, so to speak. Um, but I, I dip my toe in a lot of these sports. Uh, I mean a lot of these of these avenues, otherwise, like I did in your neck of the woods, the grasshoppers, which in 2016 they've been going for I think almost 20 years at that point.

These mixed terrain, super fun mass start at 800 person rides. Um, so those sort of things are the doing the 200 and a 100, which is this ridiculous 200 mile ride in the entire length of Vermont from the northern Canadian border to the southern Massachusetts border. Um, which takes place entirely on one road, uh, route 100 given hence its name. Um, and just sort of dipping my toe into the, into riding my bike off road quite a bit, which at that point still, it wasn't what it is. Now. Had you done mountain biking earlier in your life? Yeah, I got into the sport. My older brother was a, uh, collegiate national champion, um, and he got me into cycling in general. Uh, I was on the competitive side getting into it in college. Um, I've obviously not, obviously I grew up riding a bike and banging around town and riding my friends' house and stuff as a kid, but through my teenage years, he just basically didn't ride a bike. Um, so I got into competitive cycling and, and immediately it was more gravitating towards mountain biking. So, uh, yeah, I mean a race mountain bikes in college and a tiny bit after that, but at a decent level, not by any means any sort of national level.

Rebecca convinces you to go to this crazy race called dirty Kanza. Yeah. Um, I, I think dk at that point lived in this world that was not centric with mine. It's this a massive ride in the middle of America that it's a sort of flyover state that that mysteriously is attracting thousands upon thousands of people, whatever. I'm not terribly interested. However, given Rebecca's nudging and, and uh, I had heard of a few other former pros who are doing it and Neil surely was doing it. Um, I said, yeah, they gotta check this thing out immediately. Fell in love immediately. Got It. And understood it and, and saw this vibe that that is being alluded on. The, uh, my background, the road racing side, um, I think there's something about the math starts. There's something incredibly cool about people finishing off throughout the day. Um, so that, you know, if you're a little bit on the faster side, you can come back, finish, grab a beer and then hang out downtown commercial street and watch people in this festival atmosphere cheering and going nuts all throughout the rest of the afternoons.

Um, so from there it's spawned a whole bunch of other events. I mean, I call them 30 cans, it's like the granddaddy of of gravel, but it's, it's so cool to see how many other events are coming up. Um, you know, steamboat, gravel, SBT, G RVL. Um, and probably even in 2016, there was the early subconscious part of my mind spinning that maybe this is something I want to create. Like I love the sense of community. So fast forward to the present. Um, my wife and I have our creating our first gravel event this summer called rooted Vermont.

That's amazing. You know, stepping back for a second, I think, you know, at that time in which you are entering the sport, which coincides roughly with, with my, my own entering into the gravel scene, you start to dig in and you discover things like dirty cancer. And you're like, holy crap, these things have been around for quite some time. And I think a number of them, like, like the grasshopper, I had Miguel the organizer on and to celebrate his 20th year. Yeah. And uh, you know, they've been proving it all along that you can ride what at the time when they started were straight up road bikes off road and just have that joy of exploration that I think many people in the cycling world are now discovering as you just described.

Yeah, exactly. It's awesome. The, the reception of the industry to it. You mean for the early years? Yeah. You take your road bike and you go off road and then you're sort of tinkering and creating these frank and bikes that are exactly designed to be the right tool for the job, but you get them to work for the, for the road or path you're working on. But then fast forward to the president and the entire industry is behind that and the bigger clearances and the gear ratios that are advantageous to go up. Ridiculous. Lee Steep hills or disc brakes, um, all of these things just make it so much more receptive, which is think is also another reason why it's booming so big.

Yeah. I think for the average cyclist who's not going to get any technical support, it's the sport has evolved so much that the equipment can withstand the type of abuse that you're, you're putting onto it. Whereas, whereas before, you know, you were just running through equipment because it just wasn't suited for the terrain.

Right, exactly.

Yeah. And I imagine it was also really interesting and it sounds like he expressed this, that however awarding it is to be part of, you know, a thousand person ride that you actually care to see the last people finish.

Yeah. I understand where my reception initially was. Uh, they were like, oh, here's this, you know, who's a roadie? Like, welcome to the pro tour of gravel. Uh, I never, I never received that, which is, is honestly heartwarming from the gravel community. Um, I mean, I think they, the, the receptionist that strong and people are always interested in talking before, during, and after. Like, what equipment am I running or how am I treating the training for this? Or how do I treat any particular event given a 10 year history in the sport and, and you know, the level of professionalism that I can bring to it. Truly, when I retired from bike racing, I mean 2015 like I stopped screaming. I still love riding my bike and I love doing coffee shop rise and doing basically taking advantage of all the things that I was missing as a, as a professional roadie. So I mean even down to group rides, sure. Group rides there are valuable to get some, some quick fitness, but I would largely skip them because my training was so rote and monotonous and, and interval heavy is that it wasn't able to dig into the social side of the sport. So yeah, it's been, it has been that community that, um, that has been so heartwarming throughout my time now in this, in this growing burgeoning, blooming world and gravel.

Have you seen your sort of personal choice of equipment evolve over the last few years? I think I remember you starting out with a a Cannondale slate at one point, which is a suspended front suspension bike.

Yeah, I mean it's cool to see these, these cycles and macro cycles within the sport. I mean that that bike in 2016 that was sort of early six 50 B. Um, we also conference, um, the, the inch of travel was a huge advantage in that first year of dk. I noticed it was myself and Brian Jensen who's a, he's a former pro from jelly belly, crazy strong guy. He, the two of us are duking it out at dk and I noticed that every descent that's a little bit gnarly that front suspension is like soaking up a few seconds of time. So I'm rolling away from every descent and you don't want to ride away from a guy so far from the finish. But that technology was really helpful. Um, I've segway to to 700 seat, just being a six foot two individual and figuring that bigger are going to be an advantage over the long haul.

But already in this mini cycle that I'm talking about, you see six 50 be making a big resurgence and with the ever wider tires. Um, I mean bikes that can fit two inch wide tires are more that are quote unquote gravel bikes. I think you're going to see at a large number of bikes going at six, six 50 be a direction. Um, tires have been a huge, huge change. I mean, even, you know, three years ago, 2016, the, the number of options for four tires was limited. The tubeless technology wasn't Stephens a fracture where it is today. So that disc brakes, I mean, all of these things are, are so, uh, welcoming as a, as a consumer. I mean just, it just, it makes the writing so that much more fun. Or You spicing up your tire selection based on the course these days. Um, spicing it up.

I'm working with a company called Renee hearse, um, formerly called compass and there they have yon. Hyde is the, uh, founder of the company and chief engineer. And he comes from the, uh, he's up in the Pacific northwest where they have, he does the huge random nay type of events. So you know, many, many, many, many hour events. Um, and he is really introduced the wider tire concept to me. So you know, I'm writing a often a 40 or 44 c with tire and he and his community are used to writing 50 or more, 50 more see width. And with that you can run lower pressures. You don't need as Nabi attire or any knob it off or for a huge amount of terrain. And so he is totally introduced this concept to me of running a slick, a wide slick. It really low pressure. Um, I did that at land run with, with huge success.

I mean the rolling resistance is so low. Um, and then they also do have an absolutely killer tired with, uh, with tire called this delicate Steilacoom, um, which looks, it looks very old school nature. Um, it's just these sort of big knobs, uh, pretty symmetrically throughout the tire, but it's genius is its simplicity and that again, it has really low rolling resistance until you need to really jam and like grabbing to to the terrain below you and it has awesome grip. So I mean the, what I love about tires, how is, is I have as many whips slick as I want or this one really fast rolling grippy knobby tire. And from there you can basically ride anything. Yeah, I think that's interesting cause it's totally counter intuitive that you can take, which is effectively a wide slick and ride it almost anywhere off road.

I've been on that journey myself and it's nice and been fascinated that you can do it and then it just makes mixed terrain riding all the faster. Sure. And you're, you're in mill valley, correct Morin. So we'd write I'm a dry day and tan or even, you know, super wet day. I realize that you're coming off a very damp winter. Like Tam is designed for these tires, uh, sharp rocks. But, but you know, the stuff that you do want to soak up a bit of a, the Chunder I'm underneath you. So yeah, run runner like fat 44 47 50 and you're like riding the couch down the road.

It actually is a perfect segway into, one of the things that as always most interested in me about gravel is that it changes so dramatically depending on what part of the country you're in. And I think you are personally uniquely qualified to help me explore this because you've lived in Mill Valley and you've done a lot of the iconic events across the country. So if we look across the country and maybe we start in, start with, uh, I think in Vermont there's raspy pizza. We look at that. We look at land run 100. We look at dirty Kanza, we look at riding at in steamboat gravel, and then we look at coastal trail and Diaz urge in mill valley. If you're coming to go flat out on those particular races or rides, are you changing your equipment as you cross the country?

Um, I think also with the go the gracious support of the industry, it allows the sport to be much more accessible to the average consumer or entry level consumer or experienced consumers. So it's a pain in the butt to change tubeless tires. It's a pain in the butt to work on, uh, you know, to, to get rid of road or rub on disc brakes. Um, you don't like to change cassettes and drive trains. So here's another comparison, you, you through these events out. I came out to California in January and rode the coast ride within Gumbo. We ride from San Francisco basically down highway one all the way to la. So we extended the day, throw in an extra hundred miles. It's basically four days, 500 miles. I wrote that entire thing on these stellar Coombs, so 44 slick tires, no problems. Fast Rolling, a little bit of gravel, but you know, 99% payments.

And then I wrote the exact same bike. Sorry. My point is I want to Cannondale super x. So it's a cross bike that's so freaking efficient, yet compliant and accepting of huge tires that it can handle this, this massive fast road group pride as much as it can handle. The next week I did the first grass off for the year. Um, that one was quite a bit Chenery. Uh, it was a pretty gnarly course. There's a brand new one called low gap that Miguel put together. And so all I did was switch the wheels. Um, I had different tires on this different set of wheels, but it was the same set of zip through or threes if you're the stellar curves, it has those knobs because we had, you know, some damp, super steep, gnarly climbs to do and a sense. So I think all of the, basically it's the width, the width of attire that you can take an a bikes these days even on a road bike. Um, my, my road bike, I can fit a slightly navi 30 to see tire. You can go off road with that. Like it's, it's absurd, but it's so cool that you can pull your bike in any direction.

Yes, I totally agree with your point. I guess what I'm trying to explore, just like you know, if you bought your bike in mill valley, what would you have set it up with versus if you bought your bike in Kansas?

Zilch. No different. Um, maybe a slightly different gear ratio, but even that is, is sort of a moot point. I mean if you're in mill valley, you've got some long climbs but he got plenty of short steep ones in Kansas. You don't have extended climbs but they certainly have short, punchy ones. So that's a small to negligible difference. Um, tire selection. I mean I think people are looking for the optimally size tire and, and I have largely been trying to convince people that simply go wider. Um, I mean we were coming from traditional road racing where a decade plus ago, well over a decade ago it was 23 see tires and 25 seat tires and 28 seat hires and then 30 see tires. Um, cyclocross had such a big influence too. Were you also talking to comply with UCI rules? Where I think you can only have like a 33 it's ridiculous. Like my road tire is wider than what's permitted in the cyclocross race and I get you don't want to ride a motorcycle with a, you know, 60 [inaudible] with tire where you can just burn every corner in a UCI cross race. But let's make the sport fund accessible. And I think with this is a huge aspect to that fun side of cycling.

Absolutely. You're preaching to the choir here. I tell everybody that the bigger, the better. The on the width as far as I'm concerned. I just haven't really, I haven't really experienced the downside to having a wider tire.

Zilch. I think people, they have the hesitation that that wider is more rubber is slower and I just, I can't, I can't get behind that. I mean, uh, you know, the, the 44 c slick that are on the coaster ride, 500 miles pour days, fast moving group, it slowed me down to zero, so yup, go wide, go big.

I think that's awesome. That's good information. I appreciate you dispelling some rumors for me. Right on pleasure. Well, let's talk about some of the events that you really love. I mean, the other thing, you know, I love having course designers, which now you are a course designer for the event you and your wife were putting on. What are the elements that you're trying to achieve in the course there in Vermont, and what is the, the vibe and the experience you want people to walk away with?

Yeah, so we've been, you know, Laura and I are very lucky to have experienced so many events, um, and really hit, I guess, you know, there's virtually none that I come away from thinking like, oh, that was not good. So we're taking an already elevated playing field of like exceptional events and then trying to draw on each one of these. Um, and one thing that we are really trying to hit home is purely that this is going to be a Vermont Summer Party. Um, we're calling it mile mullet protocol. So, you know, business up front and party in the rear, um, meaning it will be competitive. It's going to be hard. Um, I think there are, there's a misconception in Vermont that yeah, we have some craggy hills and it's the northern Appalachian mountains, but it's nothing like, you know, folks who were coming from Mill Valley for example, where you have tam or Hamilton or Diablo or the Rockies.

We don't have these extended climbs. No. But collectively over the, over the 45 or 85 mile routes, like it is, uh, a nonstop relenting unrelenting day in the saddle. Um, I went out with two friends yesterday. I'm pre-rolled a good portion of the course. Um, it is, it's absolutely spectacular when we want to showcase this state. I have a strange barn fetish wear. I just love the nostalgia of barns of all types and styles. New Barns are beautiful, old barns are beautiful. Um, so we go by dozens and dozens of bars throughout the day. Um, but then one thing that I, again, that party atmosphere, like I want people to be racing for the finish in order to hang out, in order to have the community in order to have, uh, you know, the absolutely exquisite Vermont Ipa is too great barbecue and fresh corn on the cob and just showcase what, what Vermont in the summer is all about.

Are we talking about mainly sort of dirt fire roads or are you on some narrow or terrain as well?

MMM, so Vermont is cool because it has literally more gravel roads than it does paved by mileage. Um, it's um, sort of making up this number now it's pro 70 or 80% or more, probably 80% gravel come August 4th. Um, it's the, it's super, well, we have a huge variety, but there are really fast rolling buffed, basically highway of gravel. Um, where, you know, a flat tire is something that's never going to happen. Um, high speeds are very easy to attain, very undulating, up and down basically nonstop. You're doing a thousand feet every 10 miles or tiny bit more. Um, and then we do go into what Vermont calls class for roads, uh, which are definitely, you know, enters a, uh, a little bit, much more. It taps into your bike dexterity. Um, it's not pure single track. It's not like you're taking your bike off and he'd just gnarly schools the jumps. But yeah, it'll, it'll challenge you in some short stints. So, um, yeah, we got, it's got the full Monte over here.

How much climbing, how many vertical feet? We'll the 85 mile ride take riders over.

Uh, it's looking like that thousand for every 10 miles, so 8,500 feet. Okay. Um, and then I think the longest time is 15, 20 minute range. Um, prewriting yesterday was a little bit deceptive because as the snow melts, right now we're in, in the spring mud season that Vermont is renowned for. Um, so certainly will not be the case come August, but the road is sort of this soppy soggy mud. So you're moving at a fraction of the speed that you'll be moving them in dry, buffed, out gravel.

Right, right. Well that sounds awesome. I mean it's, I mean, I was excited when I heard you announced it because I assumed you were going to take everything you've learned along the, you know, dozens of events you've participated in and try to make it, uh, set the bar that high and for you and Lord, I kind of crossed over that.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean we, we, we've just seen so much great community at these events. Uh, so maple syrup will be a theme. We'll have plenty of fun and surprises out on course. Yeah. We're, we're here to show people a good time.

What other events are you excited about this year and your season?

Um, we touched a little bit on land run 100. That was a mid March, March 16th. Uh, so that was my first time going out to race in Oklahoma and Bobby went to on his crew were put on a, an amazing event there. Um, it's, it's relatively young Bobby school because he has a connection to Kansas. He has a connection to the original 30 cans of folks. So with this greater community that is gravel cycling, the folks at Dk were very helpful and to Bobby and creating his event. So you know, there are only a handful of years in and then bringing in almost 2000 people to Stillwater, Oklahoma. I mean that's, that's incredible. Um, so I had a blast there. I'm excited to go out to one called the epic one 50, which is in Missouri and late, uh, late April, first time racing the Ozarks.

So that's going to be a hoot. Um, then probably or definitely go out to Belgian waffle ride in early May, which is probably the last big set up for dirty Kanza come June one. Um, so looking to defend the title at dirty Kanza, which is going to be the most competitive year by a landslide, given the pure number of current professionals and Prorodeo teams that are showing up. So that's going to be kind of fascinating. Um, SB TGR Vl steamboat gravels on this calendar. I'm really excited about that one in steamboat Colorado. Uh, they're doing a sort of a similar thing and that, you know, it's relatively distance, 140 miles, absolutely spectacular terrain. Uh, they're on the Rockies, like steamboat in the summer is heavenly. So really looking forward to that. Um, and the first time going to international and headed to race called the rift over in Iceland in, uh, late July. Nice. So no shortage. And then, yeah, definitely very excited about rooted Vermont. I'd be remiss if I didn't say rooted That is August. The event is August 4th. Uh, but we're doing a whole Friday, Saturday, Sunday, you know, festival prewrite group rides. So August two through four is the full Monte.

That's awesome. It sounds you've got a great season ahead of you. Yeah, it's busy. That's for darn sure. Yeah. It's going to be interesting as you've kind of trail blazed this path for professional road athletes to see who kind of comes out of the Peloton thinking, you know, maybe I will end my career a few years earlier and go actually have some fun rather than keep plugging away.

Yeah, no, it's goofy. I mean, Ian Boswell is a friend and neighbor here in Vermont. Um, you know, he's crushing it. He's, he's one of America's best racers, the races for Katyusha and he was chatting in there tonight on text and he's like, hey man, you're like, Gary Fisher here likes the original revolutionary putting your, your flag in this field that is gravel, which I got a complete nutter kickout of. Um, Gary Fisher is on a totally different playing field that is far supersedes where I am as I dabble in gravel. But it was a very flattering comments nonetheless.

Yeah, yeah. Well, you deserve it. I think you've done a lot of great work for the sport.

Very, very kind. Thank you.

It'll be fun at the end of dirty Kanza to see some of your former colleagues in the pro Peloton, you know, potentially a completed an hour after you that because of having the disasters that are inevitable in your first dk. Yeah. And to kind of see how they feel because they're going to come across the line and it's not, they're going to be, I think, rewarded for having participated. Just like everybody is the first guy and the first woman to the last guy in the last woman, they're going to come and they're going to have a beer and they're going to have some barbecue or whatever waiting for them at the end of dirty Kanza. And I suspect a lot of them might realize that their reward for completing that race may surpass, you know, coming in 100th in a one day classic over in Europe.

Yeah, it's a, it's a huge dichotomy. I mean, it's a tough balance because in order to achieve your best, then you, you do go long stints of certain things like oh 100% sobriety and maybe you're not drinking at all in the first place through the season. So, you know, it's hard to finish a race and say, oh, I'm going to have this massive plate of barbecue and a beer on top of that. Like road tactics are drilled into their minds. So there's certain things that they're accustomed to. One, certainly being a car behind you, which yes, they're aware that there's not going to be a car. Were you guys enough? But you know, I hope, my sincere hope is that they don't play by road tactic rules. I hope they don't have a road captain, whether it's, you know, my former colleagues are the guys who are racing on the domestic proceeds.

That gravel is a leveling playing field. So everybody's dealt a certain level of block over the course of the day. If you're going to do well, you know, you have to have luck on your side. What will bother me is if luck is thrown out the window, somebody has three flat tires, but he has a teammate next to him every single time and you can go boom, boom, boom. Here's a new wheel, here's new, we'll have new wheel. So we, this, like I said, 2019 is, is the year of teams that entering gravel. Uh, there was a little bit of team tactics at play it at, uh, Atlanta, Ron. So I can't predict the future. I'm just very optimistic that gravel continues to have the, the, the friendly, wild nature that, that it always happens.

Yeah. And I think that, you know, there's an opportunity in course design to always kind of affect the ability for team tactics to really play a role. You obviously can't eliminate it entirely, especially in the long stretches of road in those Midwest events. But I was like, when race organizers throw you on a little single track, or if you really push the limits of both your technical handling skills and your equipment in such a way that that kind of creates this natural breakup of any, any packer Peloton that starts to emerge.

Yes. Yeah, 100%. That's my, my optimism echoing that.

So I guess we'll see. I'm sure everybody is a fan of the sport will be keenly looking at dirty Kanza and just seeing how it feels. You know, I'm, I'm with you. I'm supportive of everybody in anybody entering the sport, whether they're a former professional road athlete or not, uh, because the more the merrier. But, uh, I'm also with you that I love the independence and the camaraderie and I hope that never changes despite the sport and the events becoming more professionalized.

Yup, exactly.

Well, ted, I really appreciate the insight. It was great to hear from you. I, like I said, I really was excited because I feel like you have the perspective of both living in, riding out of, out of my home town and having raced across the country and across the world. So it was really great to get your insights.

Pleasure. Yeah, it is a small cycling world, so, you know, I'm, I'm hopping all over the place and hope that we can cross paths out on the bike sometime soon.

Yeah, absolutely. If not in Mill Valley, I'm, I'll be out in steamboat, so I'll make sure to peddle it together there.

Oh, nice. Perfect. That sounds great.