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Nov 14, 2023

This week on the pod we welcome Mark O'Leary, founder of Dust Bowl 100 event in Indiana. Learn the backstory and inspiration of the Dust Bowl 100 - a mix of historic landscapes and a balance of festivity and welcoming avenue for fresh gravel riders. Participants are welcomed with a fast and dynamic race course followed by delicious food, live music, and bike aid stations. Expanding rapidly, Dust Bowl 100 aims for nationwide participation with registrations opening January 1st.

Episode Sponsor: Dynamic Cyclist (code: TheGravelRide for 15% off)

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Automated Transcription, please excuse the typos: 

[00:00:00]Craig Dalton: Hello, and welcome to the gravel ride podcast, where we go deep on the sport of gravel cycling through in-depth interviews with product designers, event organizers and athletes. Who are pioneering the sport

I'm your host, Craig Dalton, a lifelong cyclist who discovered gravel cycling back in 2016 and made all the mistakes you don't need to make. I approach each episode as a beginner down, unlock all the knowledge you need to become a great gravel cyclist.

[00:00:28]Craig Dalton (host): This week on the podcast. We welcome Marco Leary from the dust bowl. 100 in the Indiana. Got a funny story. One of my oldest cycling buddies, John Grantland. Texted me and asked me if I had ever heard of the Dustbowl 100. At event he'd done before that he had a blast at, I said, no, I hadn't heard of it.

As I started digging in, I started to understand this is a really great event in Indiana. So I was super stoked to get mark on board to talk about the event. Super nice guy looks like he creates a really fun event with, um, dynamic and fundraising. So all those great to hear about new gravel and new parts of the country. So I hope you enjoy this episode.

Before we jump in, I did want to apologize for the month long break, unexpected break that I took in publishing. It was kind of a combination of things in my life that ended up. Making the podcast difficult to schedule and produce. I got COVID. I had whatever the podcasting equivalent of writer's block is and just couldn't get off the ball and fell behind.

And it started to feel like I just couldn't handle everything. That was going in on, in my life. So rather than force it, I decided to kind of forgive myself a little bit, take a step back, take a little bit of time off, but I'm excited to get back in the swing of things. I'm not quite out of the woods in terms of scheduling, but as always, I've got a great backlog of guests that I'm trying to reach out to and find time with.

So, anyway, thanks for bearing with me. Look forward to getting back into the swing of things as always, we've got a vast back catalog. Of content you can tap into. If you ever miss my voice. I did need to thank this week. Sponsor, dynamic cyclist. This is always the time of year when I start seriously thinking about stretch. When I start seriously thinking about stretching and strengthening, I guess it's kind of natural. Given the ebb and flow of anybody's cycling season. But every year I say, this is the year I got a buckle down. And honestly it wasn't until I connected with the team at dynamic cyclist. And started doing their 15 minute or so videos on stretching that are focused on the needs of cyclists. That I kinda really crack the code and I need to recommit again this year because I do see a lot of benefit.

Certainly if you're riding hard and riding technical terrain, it's just critical to remain limber and it gives your muscles a little bit of break and ease. Something, I think we could all use. So dynamic cyclists has a vast library of content. They've got injury, specific content that you can tap into.

So if you've got a knee problem or back problem, they've got specific routines that can help support. Getting limber in those areas that are going to support say your low back, which is my consistent problem. Anyway, check them You can get 15% off a monthly or annual membership. Using the code that gravel ride or by checking the link in the show notes. They also have a free one week trial.

So now's the time to give dynamic cyclist a try. Where that business behind us. Let's jump right into my conversation with mark and the Dustbowl 100.


[00:03:53]Craig Dalton (host): welcome to the show.

[00:03:54]Mark O'Leary: You're glad to be here, Craig. It's a, it's exciting. I've been a listener to the podcast for a long time and I'm excited to be here to tonight to talk about the dust bowl.

[00:04:04]Craig Dalton (host): I love it. And as a introduction to how I discovered the dust bowl, 100, I got a, uh, I got a text message from my long term cycling friend, a guy I used to work in a bike shop with when we were both in college, and he's like, Hey Craig, are you familiar with the Dust Bowl 100?

I should probably read it to you. Have you considered interviewing Marco Leary, the founder of the Dust Bowl 100? That race has hit a tipping point where it will be one of the premier events in the country. If you're interested, I'll make the connection. And I was like, that's, that's awesome.

[00:04:36]Mark O'Leary: Let's do it.

That's really cool. Uh, he sent me a similar message and said, you know, have you heard of the gravel ride podcast? And, uh, I was like, absolutely. I listen to it every week. And he's like, well, I've got a connection there. I'll see if I can get you on. So I was, I was pretty pumped to hear that. Nice.

[00:04:54]Craig Dalton (host): Let's start off as we always do.

Mark, where'd you grow up and how did you discover cycling as a child? And then later, how did you discover it as a sport to participate in? Yeah.

[00:05:05]Mark O'Leary: Okay. Um, I'm a lifelong Hoosier, born and raised in Indiana, um, grew up in Terre Haute, so the west side of the state, um, probably best known as a place where Larry Bird, um, went to college at Indiana State.

Um, growing up, um, I've got three brothers, we were all into the, the stick and ball sports, so basketball and football were the big ones to play, um, and I was lucky enough to play basketball, uh, all the way through college. So, um, you know, the bike, um, growing up was, was, you know, something I did for fun. Um, I'd like to ride to my friend's house.

Um, I love the exploration aspect of riding the bike, um, just going to find, um, you know, trails in the parks next to our, our neighborhood or, uh, you know, when I got to middle school, riding downtown to get a haircut in high school over the summer, I'd ride my bike into basketball practice, uh, here and there, but the bike was, was never really, uh, cycling was never really a sport that I would consider at that point.

It was just more a means to get around and, uh, and, and just, you know, have some fun with friends basically. Um, and then as I said, I played basketball through college, um, with the Hanover college down in Southern Indiana, um, a little division three school on the, on the Ohio river. Um, and at that point, you know, the bike was, I could get to class, um, get across campus a little quicker by hopping on the bike.

And, and that was the extent of my riding a bike, uh, in, in college. Yeah,

[00:06:34]Craig Dalton (host): I can't imagine as being someone in indiana showing promise in the sport of basketball that anybody was encouraging you to do anything but basketball,

[00:06:42]Mark O'Leary: right? That's, that is very true. I mean, indiana is basketball is the sport of indiana.

So, um, that was the focus of, you know, I put all my focus into that and yeah, I didn't have, you know, I played football a little bit growing up. And by the time I got to high school, it was fully focused on basketball. So not much time for any other sports or activities. Nice.

[00:07:02]Craig Dalton (host): So you, you played, continued playing basketball at the college level.

Once you graduated, were you thinking about continuing to play basketball or was it, uh, you know, sort of the end of your career of basketball?

[00:07:13]Mark O'Leary: As far as a, you know, competitive being on part of a team, that was the end of my career. Um, But, you know, I played in some men's leagues, some rec leagues after college, um, just try to keep the competitive juices flowing.

Um, but, you know, after a year or two, the knees started to hurt a little bit more than they, um, than they had before. Uh, you know, I couldn't jump as high, I couldn't shoot as well as I, as I did in college. It's kind of one of those things like, well, I need to find something else to do. I, you know, I'm still really competitive, but my competitive.

Uh, it wasn't getting scratched with how, how my transition of the basketball game was going. So I needed to look for something else. I tried doing some running, but again, the knees didn't enjoy that. So I'm really kind of just fell into the, um, fell into the bike. Um, are you in Indianapolis at that point?

Yeah. Yep. So I, after college moved up to the Indianapolis area, I live in Plainfield, so it's a, it's on the west side. It's a west side suburb of Indianapolis, um, right by the airport. And we have a fantastic trail network, uh, rails to trails network here in town. Every single neighborhood is connected by a trail.

We have tons of parks that are all connected with the trails and, um, really just got a bike at Walmart to go ride the trails and kind of explore town since, since we were newer to town at that point. And uh, did that for, you know, a month and it was like, you know what, I want to go venture out and get out on some of the county roads around here and see what else is out there.

Things I don't see in a car on a day to day basis. You know, I think my first, what I call a long ride was probably 10 miles. I got, you know, five miles at a time and I thought I'd, you know, done a century ride. And I was, I was like, this is awesome. I can't believe all these things I'm seeing that I don't see on a day to day basis.

And really from there, uh, I got bit by the bug quick and, um, you know, jumped right into, found some group rides and jumped into, you know, trying to ride faster than doing some training to keep up with the past group. And then jumped into the, you know, racing with, with crits and, um, and some cyclocross, you know, a year or two into writing.


[00:09:20]Craig Dalton (host): Gotcha. Yeah. I was going to ask you in the Indianapolis scene as, as you got interested in writing. What was the easiest genre of cycling to get into? Was there a big road scene, a crit scene? What kind of was the easiest thing to kind of get that performance side of the sport? Uh, getting excited about it.

[00:09:40]Mark O'Leary: So I started around 2011 is when I got into cycling. Um, so at that point. Um, there were still a lot of criteriums and a couple of road races in the Indianapolis area. Um, I tell my friends now, like, you know, they met, they, if they started writing recently, like they missed out on a great crit scene back then.

Um, you could, you could raise a crit almost every weekend from April through, um, July or August within, you know, an hour, maybe two hours of Indianapolis. And great. So I, that, that helped me get into the sport again, but that competitive itch, um, And so that was great at that time. We also had a time trial series, um, that took place, um, just one town over from where I live.

And, um, that was a five, I think, a five race series on Sunday mornings, um, throughout the summer. So that was another way just to get a quick, easy race in and get that competitive juice flowing. And, um, so I'd say time trials and criteriums were what, you know, initially got me into the competitive side of the sport.

[00:10:39]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. There's something to be said for both of those being like an hour long or less events because you can kind of leave your family, go race a race and be home before they're even done with brunch versus, you know, these gravel events we love now you've got to commit to an entire day or you've got to travel.

It's a lot more of a production than a crit or a time trial

[00:11:02]Mark O'Leary: would be. Yeah, that's exactly right. I love the time trial because it was a Sunday morning at like 7am so I could go there, race, come home, shower, get to church with the family, you know, by 9. 30 in the morning and it was, it was great. So, um, there is something to be said for those short and local races for sure.

[00:11:21]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah, so, um, again, just naivete around Indianapolis and the riding around there. When did you start to discover gravel cycling and, and, and the off road riding possible around Indianapolis?

[00:11:35]Mark O'Leary: Yeah. Um, I would say probably 2014, 2015, I was pretty early into riding gravel, kind of the riding gravel scene around here.

Um, you know, at that point, um, I guess. I've always been interested in the outdoors and getting outside, seeing nature and kind of exploring, which I mentioned before. And so finding gravel was my way to kind of do that on the bike. And we've got a couple, uh, rails to trails in the neighboring county, Putnam County, which the Dust Bowl takes place in.

Um, there's a rail trail system that's crushed limestone. And so that was my first kind of foray into getting into gravel and just rode that trail a couple of times and got out in the country. Um, over, over the course of time, um, kind of veered off, it would cross some gravel roads. I'd turn down that gravel road and see where it took me.

And, um, at that time, you know, there wasn't a big gravel riding or racing scene in Indiana or really anywhere. Um, but there was a bike shop, um, on the Northwest side of Indianapolis that put on a, a week or a monthly gravel ride. They, they call it the most, most inconvenient. Um, weeknight or weeknight ride because it was, you know, 30 or 40 minutes outside of town.

Um, it was at a park, but it was my, it was my first group ride gravel experience. And that was, uh, again, a monthly ride that they put on. Um, so that, that was kind of my first step into writing gravel as a group. And then there were a couple of events, a couple of events, um, that gravel events that, uh, you know, were taking place then.

Um, I think the, the longest gravel. Longest running gravel event in Indiana, um, is called the Gravel Grovel, and it takes place the weekend after, uh, Thanksgiving every year. So, um, I think that's been going on since 2011, maybe. Um, so, I think 2016, 2017, I participated in that my first time, um, and that takes place in the Hoosier National Forest.

So you're out in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods and the hills, um, and then there was a race on the north side of Indianapolis called the Harvest 50, and I believe that started in 2015, it's still going today, um, and that was kind of the first, uh, or the other gravel race that, that, you know, was happening around here.

Um, I've participated in every Harvest 50 since it started. Um, and I've been, you know, participating in the Gravel Grovel almost every year as well. So those, those are the two events that got me into it.

[00:14:05]Craig Dalton (host): And yet had you traveled out of state to participate in any events?

[00:14:10]Mark O'Leary: Uh, no, with, with the young family, um, typically try to do all of my events in the state.

Um, that said, you know, recently. Um, I, I went out to Unbound this year, um, participated, did the 200 mile race there. Um, went to Barrier Bay in Michigan this year. Um, went out to Mid South last year, have done some races in, in Illinois, but. Um, outside of those, most of my writing and racing is in Indiana, just, just to keep it close for the family and, you know, not have to spend too much time on the road.

[00:14:40]Craig Dalton (host): So, yeah, with a couple of those great Indiana events already being on the calendar, what inspired you to create your own?

[00:14:49]Mark O'Leary: Um, I, I think a couple of things is one is just, I was appreciative of those promoters and those events that they'd put on and felt like. You know, putting on my own event was another way to get back to that cycling community and do something that those events have been doing for a while and just give people another option to, um, you know, participate and get that, get out there and explore, see new roads that they wouldn't typically see.

Um, and then going back to, you know, I mentioned earlier that there was a great print scene back in 2012, 2013, but over the years it has died out and there's very few events now on the roadside. Yeah, in Indiana. So, um, I also wanted to do something else to get another event on the calendar that, you know, everybody in Indiana can focus on and participate in and kind of create a big, um, you know, at least regional, if not national level of it, um, here in the state of Indiana.

So that was. Kind of the the other reason behind

[00:15:50]Craig Dalton (host): it and when you when you jumped into planning the first event Had you had any experience planning events like this or exposure to some of the other race? Organizers to understand what you were getting into. Yeah,

[00:16:02]Mark O'Leary: just yes. Yes, and no so in college I hope Organize a 5k run for the first time on Hanover's campus.

So I had some event, you know, management experience there. My first job out of college, um, was working for an event management company or event, um, merchandise company. Where we would go to events and set up pro shops that, you know, racing events, NFL stadiums, those types of things. So. Um, kind of had the, the event background from, from that career as well.

Um, and then, uh, I've been the president of my cycling club here in, in, in Plainfield for a number of years. And as part of that, I would always just put on, you know, grassroots, um, fun weekend events where we'd go, you know, go out for some Strava segments, um, here and there, or we'd go do a race around a park or different things and just kind of had a little bit of experience with that.

Um, and then I'd also. You know, as I got into thinking about doing an event, uh, an actual, you know, full scale event, um, I volunteered with a couple of organizations. Um, that put on like charity rides, uh, in the, in the area as well. Just got on there, you know, planning committee. So I can see how those events ran, how those, how, how they did, um, how they did those events and what went into it.

So that gave me a good idea of getting into it. Like here's a checklist of things I need to do. To make it a successful event,

[00:17:26]Craig Dalton (host): so yeah, interesting, you know, you answered my question, which was, you know, a lot of times event organizers will kind of create a group ride and then it will expand, then it will expand and then it will become an event, but you had done that.

It sounds like in a lot of different capacities and taking the time to learn from other organizers. So it sounds like, and don't let me put words in your mouth, but when you decided to go for the Dust Bowl 100. It was going to be a thing, you know, you were going to have to invest capital in it. You were going to have to get sponsors.

You were going to have to do a lot more. How did you approach kind of getting the capital together to put a race of this size

[00:18:01]Mark O'Leary: together? So um, I think the, maybe the first thing is take a step back is I decided I think it's February of 2020. Um, to put on the dust bowl, I was out riding that day, um, out on some of the roads that we use on the course.

And I was like, you know what, I need to just take the step and put on an event and show, you know, everybody these roads, they're worth showing off. Um, and then obviously, you know, a month later COVID hit and, um, that plan to have an event in July of, of, uh, 2020 that year didn't, didn't transpire. Um, but that said.

When July of 2020 rolled around, we still had, uh, our restrictions have been lifted a little bit here. Um, so I basically did a, uh, a test run of the Dust Bowl that year with about 30, I think we had 34 participants, mainly teammates and friends, um, put a, a small event out on Facebook and, and had a few other people from the area join, actually had a couple of people from Illinois come over and participate.

Um, but that was a real blessing in disguise because Um, I was able to do a test run of the event, get great feedback from the participants is, you know, is the course, how do, how do you like the course, what could be done better, um, just get a feel for how to manage an event. And, uh, and to do that with 34 people was really helpful.

Um, and then that gave me, you know, 18 months to, to plan actually for the first event in 2021, the first official event. Okay. And so, you know, going back to the capital question, um, it was, I guess, just a risk. It was, you know, Spending a few thousand dollars of my own money to, you know, set up an LLC to run the event under get the initial permits and, you know, just crossing my fingers that I could get a hundred people to sign up to cover those, you know, to get those fees, uh, those fees back.

Right. And, uh, it was able to do that. And then as the time went on, you brought some sponsors on board and all of that.

[00:20:03]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. Were you, were you able to get sponsors in that first year?

[00:20:07]Mark O'Leary: Yeah. Um, I did, I did have a handful of sponsors. I with go contracting. Um, it's a, uh. Concrete company here in Indiana, but they're, they're nationwide.

Um, they have a cycling team and I knew their, their president really well. Um, I was, I was blessed to have them come on board as a title sponsor for the, those first two years and provide some capital that we really needed to get the event going and to grow it and to do some of the things that I wanted to do, but couldn't do with just participant entry fees.

Um, and then had a few other sponsors come on as well as, um, you know, a few monetary sponsors and then just product sponsors or giveaways or different things. Like,

[00:20:46]Craig Dalton (host): yeah, that was one of the cool things in visiting the dustbowl 100. com website, scrolling down to the sponsors. It's not just simply cycling industry sponsors.

You've clearly like tapped into the local community and different other types of sponsors, which I just think is cool to see because you, you don't always see that in events.

[00:21:08]Mark O'Leary: That's one of those things where I think, you know, a lot of people rely on, and the first instinct is to go to a bike shop or go to somebody in the industry to sponsor the event.

But I think if you can draw on some of those outside supporters as well, um, not only does that, you know, benefit the event, but, um, it gets that sponsor's name out there. And then it also just, you know, when, when a spot, when a, when a non endemic sponsor is involved in the event that just, you know, grows the, uh, The interest and the awareness of the event with, you know, the employees of that company, others in the community and stuff as well.

So really try to, you know, approach it both ways and make the connections in the bike industry, but also, you know, support the local businesses as well. Yeah.

[00:21:55]Craig Dalton (host): Can you paint a picture of what the course of the Dust Bowl 100 or courses looks like? What type of riding is there? You know, it sounds like at this point you've experienced a number of the kind of marquee events around the Midwest and experienced a bunch of different types of gravel.

So maybe just give perspective on what are the key features of the ride? How much elevation are we talking? The distances and how would one sort of prepare themselves and their equipment? To come to the dust bowl.

[00:22:24]Mark O'Leary: Yeah. So Indiana, um, our gravel here, it's crushed limestone. Indiana is one of the limestone capitals of the country.

Um, our limestone, you know, goes, goes into a lot of the monuments in Washington, DC. And, um, so a lot of our roads, they're, they're that crushed limestone, white limestone. Um, our event is aptly named the dust bowl 100, because there is a dust cloud that follows the riders and vehicles on course, um, with that white, that white powder from the, from the gravel.

Um, You know, Indiana, uh, most people are going to think it's completely pancake flat, um, in, in cornfields and bean fields and that's it. Um, but I think you'll discover on the Dust Bowl route, we do, we have a good variety of what you will see in Indiana. So there, there are a lot of cornfields and bean fields.

It is fairly flat. So we've got three routes, um, 100 miles, 80 miles and 44 miles. And for the a hundred mile route, you'll hit, um, you'll get about 3, 500 feet of climbing, so, um, not much over the course of that, but, but the running joke is, is that we stack all 3, 500 feet in the last like 20 miles of the event, so, um, There's not much there are some flat stretches, but the event it's kind of all rolling There's I mean nothing more than you know, a hundred foot climb, maybe a 200 foot climb But it rolls enough by the end of the day All those little punchy times are going to add up and get to you.

So But yeah, the course goes through, you know wide open farm fields that you would expect to see in Indiana But then we go down to some creek valleys Um, that are heavily wooded. We go through some nature preserves that are, um, you know, it gets pretty dark in there in the middle of summer with the tree cover.

Um, we've got some climbs coming up out of the creek beds. Um, you know, the route, the hundred mile routes about 60 percent gravel. So, um, you've got that white limestone, um, for that part of it. And then the rest of the roads are primarily chip and seal. So, um, you know, those come at welcome times in the course though.

Um, you know. A few people say, you know, I wish you had a little bit more gravel, but there's most people are saying, you know, the intermix chip and sealer pavement. Uh, is a really welcome relief from the, that white limestone that you're getting, getting pressed on all the rest of the race. So it's, it's nice to get, you know, a mile stretch where you're, you can stretch the legs, sit up a little bit and, uh, and then hit the gravel again shortly after that.


[00:24:49]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. One other thing I love about the descriptions on, on the website is you, you say the number of historic bridges you're going to cross in each length

[00:24:59]Mark O'Leary: course. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. I think the exploration and just the history of everything is, again, something that really appeals to me. And I think the bridges do set the event apart, though.

We've got, um, the 100 mile course, it's two covered bridges, um, which are, uh, you know, kind of a focal point of historic Indiana is the covered bridges. Um, and those are always a key thing that the participants like. And then, Um, and then we've got, uh, a number of iron bridges, old metal bridges, um, that we cross as well.

Um, and those, those are kind of, kind of cool just to see that, you know, the, the wooden slats that go across them and then the, the rusted out beams go across. And, uh, we've had some, some bridges in the past, um, that are closed down to traffic that we've, um, Been able to go across and, uh, and those are really cool too.

Cause it's, again, it's not something you could drive in a car every day, um, to get to go across these bridges. So I don't know, the, the bridges are something that, that I enjoy, you know, finding on, on a route, we actually incorporated it into our car logo. It's one of the. You know, the beams from the, uh, uh, from the bridges.

[00:26:07]Craig Dalton (host): So nice. And then the other thing you mentioned are the off road adventure sections. What's, what's the translation of

[00:26:14]Mark O'Leary: that? Yeah. So, uh, we have two, two sections that we call the off road adventure section. So one of them, um, is about a mile long section. It goes through some private property. Um, it's an old county road that the county no longer maintains.

So it kind of got reverted back to, uh, to the landowners there. And, um, you know, when you get onto, onto the road, you're going, you're, you go onto the road, it's, it's, uh, some broken pavement and then it just gets into some gravel and then you get to the end of it and it looks like it's a dead end, um, it turns to grass, there's some trees overhanging, you can't really see any, you can't see down the trail any, uh, but then the, the science is, you know, go straight here.

And you go around a little corner and it opens up into a dirt trail through the woods. Um, kind of a washed out roaded G2 track section. Um, again, not really long, but it's, it's kind of something completely different from the rest of the course that, um, everybody seems to enjoy. It adds a little technicality to it.

Um, it'd be fun to add more sections of that, but we just, there's really none that we have the ability to add. Um, and then the, the second adventure section. Um, is, is that the finish? So, um, the only way to get, so the event takes place, um, at eminent schools, um, a high school in the town of eminence. And the only way to get to the school property is, uh, is off of a, uh, is off of a highway or a county highway.

And so we don't want to route people back through there, um, at the finish when, you know, they're, they're either exhausted and, or they're racing to the finish and we don't want to blow a stop sign, you know, with the traffic coming through there and stuff. So. Um, the local fire department owns, um, a big area that butts up to the school off one of the county roads.

Um, and they have a tractor pull track. Um, they have a large grass area. There's a bridge that crosses a creek that connects to the school. So we basically build a cyclocross course, um, in the last half mile of the event where we wind around on some gravel. We go down the dirt tractor pull track, um, go through the grass, cross a bridge, go around the cross country course of the school, and then finish.

They're at the school. So, um, it's just that it's a different finish that I don't think you see at a lot of events. That's a lot

[00:28:33]Craig Dalton (host): of fun. When, um, do you describe the event to riders as a ride or a race? What's, what's sort of the tenor, what are you going for?

[00:28:45]Mark O'Leary: That's something I always try to balance because yes, I want it to be a race with high caliber racers, um, a fast race.

But at the same time, I also want to be completely welcoming to somebody that's brand new to gravel and never, you know, either never participated in a gravel event, never participated in an event at all. Um, so kind of try to balance that and try to share equal parts of, you know, this is a ride. It's also a race.

Um, and, uh, I think we've done a pretty good job of that. I think we get a lot of feedback that our course is really welcoming to anybody. You can race it as fast as you want to race it. Um, the winning time this year was four hours and 28 minutes. So, you know, 23 miles an hour fast. Those guys were, were, you know, smashed at the end and they put all they could into it.

Um, but it's also welcoming enough that anybody can go out as a first gravel ride, as a first event and feel comfortable in knowing that they can finish that event. Um, our 44 mile course is really popular with, um, with new riders. Um, it's a great way to get into gravel riding or racing and, um, at a. At a distance that, you know, really most people can, can, uh, it's a pretty, uh, friendly course for that.

[00:30:01]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. In some ways I'm jealous in, in where I live in Marin County. So difficult to invite new riders into the fold simply because we're always going up and down. You know, we have to do an hour long loop around here. You're probably climbing a thousand feet or 800 feet and that's just not appealing. I think to a lot of new athletes.

So the idea of just being able to invite a newer athlete to, to go on an undulating ride Over 44 miles just sounds ideal to bring new people into the sport.

[00:30:35]Mark O'Leary: Yeah, it's a, um, you know, one thing that we focused on this year is to increase our women and junior participants, um, kind of with that same idea, you know, make it a welcoming event for people who are in the sport.

In 2022 we had 100 women sign up. So we made a goal this year to get 200 women. Um, we got to 195 So we were really close close. Um, and we we more than doubled our junior participants as well So I think it's it's the same thing, you know, kind of the word of mouth and then just promoting that You know, it's it's a it's an event that Um, the course could be as challenging as you want to make it.

Yeah. Anybody can complete it. Um, and you can just ride faster if you want to make it harder. So, uh, we are, we are lucky with that. I think it's what's helped the event grow, uh, pretty quickly is, is that reason as well.

[00:31:21]Craig Dalton (host): When you think about the men and women who are at the pointy end of the race, the, the Does the terrain sort of suggest that it, it sticks together in kind of a group until those adventure sections start to break it up a little

[00:31:33]Mark O'Leary: bit?

Yep. Yeah, that's exactly right. The, so the adventure sections and the um, uh, a couple of the creek climbs after the cover bridges. So, um, typically the front pack will stay together until about mile 50. So right about the mid midway point, um, there's a pretty good sized group, and then they hit a downhill section.

Into the first covered bridge and then it's a steep climb out of that for about a half a mile And that's where the the winning break has gone every single year so far at least the winning selection where You know, it's either two to two to six riders get away at that point and stay away for the rest of time.

So um, you know, I I thought Would like to find a way to split that front group up earlier in the event. Um, make it not quite as as big Um, but there's really limited options and how you can do that with not many significant hills around and yeah, um, and not many other other ways to do that. But, um, I think it makes for a fun and fast event of being able to have a pretty good group.

Um, all the way through that first half of the event and then it becomes, you know, uh, a war of attrition at that point.

[00:32:40]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. I think there's something interesting about perennial events that sort of have that, that unique moment that the break always goes in this one spot. So like as an aspiring. Athlete, you can, you can kind of prepare for it and you can test your metal and you know where it's going down and may the strongest man or woman


[00:33:00]Mark O'Leary: Yep. That's exactly right. Um, yeah, I think, I think all of that front group knows that when they get to that, that bridge, they better be towards the front to cross it and be ready to sprint up it as fast as they can. And, um, you'll see some guys that. Know that and then overcook the turn at the bottom going into the bridge because they're, you know, trying to you know just go all out and Misjudge it a little bit I

[00:33:23]Craig Dalton (host): was I was watching a couple of your videos and I saw a few people drift off to the side and either have to Kick a leg out or saw one guy kind of in the woods over there So I get it the corners looked a little slick with the limestone

[00:33:36]Mark O'Leary: gravel Yeah, we warned them multiple times, the event communications and, you know, right before the race.

Hey, you're going to hit a downhill at mile 50 and mile 52, just be careful. But, you know, you get in the, the, um. The nature of just racing and there's going to be people that are going to overcook it no matter what.

[00:33:54]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah, you bet. Hey, and then at the, at the end of the event, what kind of experience should riders have in their mind?

[00:34:01]Mark O'Leary: Yeah. So that's, that's something we've, we've tried to grow and improve upon each year since we started. Um, so, uh, we've always offered a full meal afterwards. We have a catered barbecue. Um, so you get a barbecue sandwich, a sides and chips, a drink. Um, we also have some, some vegan and vegetarian options, um, and then, you know, the, the barbecues, you get an option of pork or, uh, or chicken, so, uh, quite a few meal options afterwards.

Um, and then one of our, the favorites of everybody, um, you know, with the event taking place in Indiana in July, it's always, you know, warm, um, 80 to 80 to 90 degrees. And we have a, uh, a snow cone truck that shows up. And, uh, all the participants get a free snow cone, uh, or shave ice after the race. Um, so that, that's always a hit.

Um, the last couple of years we've introduced live music afterwards, just trying to, you know, liven up the mood and get people to stick around and watch other people finish. So we've had. Um, a lot of local bands come and play that, uh, that, that play some great music. Um, we've got a, so we've got a stage with them set up, um, went with a pretty big stage this year and did our awards from that as well.

Um, and then, you know, one thing we're continually continually trying to grow is like our vendor expo area. So, um, whether it's sponsors or other, uh, businesses that want to come out and set up, uh, you know, a tent and give participants an area to come. Kind of walk around mingle with the vendors after they get done racing as well.

Again, trying to just have have that post race atmosphere There and encourage people to stick around and cheer for their friends We do a bike wash. Silica sponsored a bike wash station this year. It's free to all the participants Um, the school offers, uh, showers in their locker rooms for 5. And those, those funds go right back to the school, to their athletic department.

So, um, those are really popular, popular as well, just to get cleaned up after that, get that dust off you after the race. Um, so lots of different things, do some giveaways throughout the day. Um, And just really try to make it a fun atmosphere. There's a, there's a playground right there in the vicinity. So it's, it's fun to see, um, you know, families come out as their, as their, you know, spouses or, um, siblings finish the event.

You've got some families congregating their kids. My kids love to come out and just run around during the day. Um, it's a, it's a pretty fun atmosphere.

[00:36:27]Craig Dalton (host): Nice. And, and let's just talk finally just about the size of the event, how has it grown in participation and are you seeking to continue to grow it? Or do you have caps on how many athletes you can reasonably support?

[00:36:40]Mark O'Leary: Yeah. So, um, like I mentioned, the, the first test run year zero that we call it, um, we had 34 participants, um, 2021, we set a cap initially at 250 participants. That was just because of COVID restrictions. Um, and. Uh, was really surprised when we hit that 250 participant, uh, limit just about a month in after registration.

So, uh, honestly, we lucked out at that point, you know, there had been no events for a year, year and a half. Everybody was looking for something to do. And we just happened to open registration at a time when there were very few events on the calendar. So I think we got people to, to sign up because of that.

Um, the county let us in. Ended up letting us have 400 participants in 2021. So, uh, year, year one was 400 participants, um, went to 600 in 2022 and then went to 800 in 2023. Um, and I've sold out every year. Um, a couple, you know, You may ask, you know, why don't you just open up registration completely? Uh, and there's kind of two reasons for that is, is one is my goal is to make it the best participant experience that I can.

And I don't want to just, you know, bring in a thousand or 2000 people and, and, you know, let them loose and not know how it's going to work. So I think. Capping registration, increasing it by 200 or so participants each year has allowed us to grow, manage to grow, make sure we're providing that experience, um, and make improvements each year to be able to bring more people on.

Um, and then the, the second thing is, is again, the event takes place in Eminence, Indiana. Um, it's a town of, uh, less than a hundred people. There, there is not a stoplight in town. There's one stop sign in town. Uh, there's a gas station, two churches, a fire department. Um, in a bank, and that's what the town is, is basically made up of along with a few houses.

So it is, it is a small town. We love the town. Um, they're fully supportive of it, but you know, even after the first year where you're basically maxing out all of the, uh, the paid parking spots in town, um, the, the, again, the organization has been awesome allowing us to use all their, all their space that we can.

Um, the fire department has let us use their grounds and we, we have a lot of grass parking there. So. Uh, it's kind of one of those things too, though. We just want to make sure that we don't, that we can fit in the town each year by, by, you know, increasing registration incrementally. So 2024, uh, the goal is a thousand riders.

Um, it'd be pretty cool to hit that a thousand participant mark and, um, you know, the town, we, we, we were able to fit 800 in the town pretty easily this year. So I think a thousand is a manageable number. Um, past that, we'll see, we'll see how next year goes and maybe a thousand is what we stick at, or maybe we continue to grow it.

So. That's great.

[00:39:27]Craig Dalton (host): Is there a time, a month of the year that you typically open up registration for the event?

[00:39:32]Mark O'Leary: Yep. So we've, we've always done a registration on January 1st, the 1st of the year. So, um, I know a lot of events do that and it's, it can be hard on participants knowing there's, there's multiple events that they got to sign up for the 1st of the year.

Um, that's what we've done. We plan to do that this year, but we may end up moving that at some point, um, just to get off that 1st date. But yes, for 2024, the plan is, uh, January 1st, that registration will open. Um, and we sold, we sold all 800 spots in 10 days last year. So, um, if anybody's interested in participating, I would say, you know, get on that registration pretty quick, um, to make sure you get into the event.

[00:40:10]Craig Dalton (host): Yeah. Well, we'll make sure they have those links and, you know, going back to John's original text message to me, it's clear that the event will continue to grow from everything you've told me. You've got all the elements of a great event. You're putting the riders first. Sounds like a super fun course and a super fun after party.

Amazing kudos for the town high school offering showers. I love that idea. I love the snow cones. So I think you're really onto something, Mark, and I appreciate you coming on and sharing the story with

[00:40:38]Mark O'Leary: us. Thanks. Yeah, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to do. And, um, you know, we've had, we've had, uh, riders represented from 31 different states so far.

So. Um, I guess I'm going to throw it out there if you're, if you're from the West coast, besides California, if you're from the West coast anywhere, um, if you're from the Dakotas all the way across to Idaho, or if you're from the New England area, um, look us up. We'd love to have you out. We'll guarantee you a spot.

If you, if you're from one of those 19 States that hasn't, uh, you know, hasn't been to the event yet. So we'd love to have representation from all 50 States at some point.

[00:41:14]Craig Dalton (host): I love it. I think that's a great goal. Thanks

[00:41:16]Mark O'Leary: again, Mark. Yes. Thanks, Craig. Appreciate it.

[00:41:19]Craig Dalton (host): That's going to do it for this week's edition of the gravel ride podcast. Big, thanks to mark for telling us the story of the dust bowl. 100 and a big shout out to my friend jumping, John Grantlyn. for sending mark my way. If you're interested in supporting the show, please visit buy me a gravel ride or ratings and reviews are hugely appreciated.

You'd be surprised at how much it helps others find this content. If you're able to share hopefully a five star review.

And as always here's to finding some dirt onto your wheels