Podcast: Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race of South Carolina: The Original Gravel Stage Race

hellhole gravel grind gravel race podcast

Our partner in podcasting, The Gravel Ride Podcast, talks with Geoff Duncan and Chris Moore of the Hellhole Gravel Grind stage race in South Carolina. The team has an innovative format making for a fun weekend away!

hellhole gravel grind gravel race podcast

Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race Website – Hellhole Gravel Grind Facebook Page

Automatic Transcription by The Gravel Ride (please excuse all errors)

Jeff and Chris, welcome to the show.

Hey Craig, thanks for having us. Thanks for having us.

Yeah, I’m super stoked to learn more about South Carolina gravel and some of the events you guys are putting on over the years. And let’s start by talking a little bit about your history as riders and when you both discovered gravel riding, and then also what made you jump into event, organization and promotion?

You want to, you want to start Chris? Yeah, sure. Say wow, let’s go back all the way to college days. Back in the early nineties I raised I was, I wrote kind of ride bikes whenever I was in high school. And then in college, this is the early nineties. The mountain bike scene started getting gone and got a mountain bike and started doing some races here in South Carolina. And then continue that until I got out of college. And then from there, you know, the work and trying to find a career and everything kind of took over. And then I got back into it in the mid to mid early, mid two thousands. And just progressed from there. Raced road, raced mountain bikes dabbled as a triathlon a little bit started as a USA cycling official, worked up through that.

And then we just started putting on a race about 10 years ago, a mountain bike race. Interestingly enough, the mountain bike race, one of the, one of the, one of the favorite mountain bike races I did whenever I was in college, it was called the killer three mile bike series up in Sumpter of near Sumter, South Carolina. And that went away in the mid nineties. And then so our first race that we started promoting Jeff and I was the return to killer three and it was just a single mountain bike race at the same place where we used to we’re where the series used to be back in the nineties. And we started doing that in what 2009, somewhere around there 2009 was with that event. And then that grew into the the not mountain bike race, which is now, which was part of the Southern classic series. And now part of the King King Creek cup. Nice and windows.

When did you start riding drop bar bikes off road?

So that started in, in the what, probably 2010 or so. The cyclocross scene was kind of getting, going here in the Southeast and w we really didn’t have a lot of places to train. So we would go out in the Francis Marion forest and ride the gravel roads and the bike, the, the, the hiking trails out there. And that was like I said, probably 2010, 2000, and then that morphed into this would be a great place to put on a gravel race. And this was, you know, in the beginning, kind of the beginning stages of the gravel and 2013, we decided to come up with the, the hell hole, gravel grind, stage race, and that’s where it all started from there.

Nice. And Jeff, how about you? Yeah, so I think I have a little bit abbreviated time on the bike compared to Chris. I didn’t start riding a bike until around like 2006. And unit road was always my interest. I don’t know that I ever was very good at it. But you know started out just riding a bike and then entering and doing some crits and whatnot. Think I met Chris around like 2009. I met him and his wife on a couple of group rides, or maybe, maybe it was a crit, a local crit. And we just started talking and I think we wanted something different from the team that we are on. So we just kinda created our own thing. And, you know, like Chris said at the, at the time it was a requirement.

If you want to, if you want to be on a sanction team, you had to put on your own race you know, through USA cycling. So that’s how the, the knock came about. And that killer three is what it was called, but we’ve been doing that for 10 years. And, you know, during the course of those 10 years, we’ve, we’ve done state time trials, cyclocross, state championships circuit races. And then I think, like Chris said about 2010 ish, we have a, we had a mutual friend named Patrick and he, he was training hardcore for things like trans Iowa. And, and it was still probably, you know, in the earlier days of dirty Kansas. And you know, we, we kind of took an interest in like, Hey, what, what is this all about and why, why do I always see Patrick riding in this forest it’s right in our backyard?

It’s like Chris said, we, we hopped on cross bikes and went out there. In retrospect, that was just brutal what it does to your body on a cross bike for that distance. But yeah. And then, and then I think we always you know, we’re always thinking of new and innovative ideas for events to put on. And for some reason we wanted to do a road race out there and called the tour de Frances Marion by road race scene is kinda, you know, it was kind of fallen off. So you know, we’re like, Hey, let’s do this gravel. And we started with hell hole gravel grind and 2013. And it was interesting to see just who showed up to that and, and just what that actually became. And it took off for us. I mean, I think the, I think when we, we launched the page within hours, it had over hundred likes and

I remember texting Chris and I’m like, what, what did we just get ourselves into here? So that was pretty, it was pretty cool. Yeah. I imagine back in 2013, the spectrum of bicycles that showed up were, you know, anywhere from a mountain bike to a cross bike potentially to even a road bike. What were you guys seeing back then?

I think, I think that first year, I think on the podium, I think we had all three. I think we had a road bike, a cross bike, and a mountain bike on the podium that first year.

And I’ll do you one better, Craig, we had a guy show up on a, a 36 inch diameter unicycle. It was, was pretty amazing. He did, he did 75 miles on that, you know, cycle. So, so when I come to ride with you guys in South Carolina, we’re going to see a lot of unicycles around. No, it’s, it has just, you know, just like the industry. You know, we see, we seem to still see some newbies showing up, which is great. And we encourage, you know, show up on whatever bike you feel comfortable riding out there, but you definitely can tell, you know, everybody is starting to get or ask about, you know, what kind of bike should I get? What kind of gravel bike you know, they’re asking about things like tire tire, width, and, and wheels and brakes and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s get into it. I know you guys do three gravel events each year, but I’m super excited to talk about that the hell hole gravel grind, because it looks like, you know, at this point you’ve got a stage race and some really kind of unique elements to that weekend. Can you talk through what the weekend looks like and when it starts? Yeah. so,

You know, kind of, kind of the whole, one of the reasons that we decided to get with the whole stage race idea was because here in the coastal area of South Carolina and it’s flat and, and very flat, we, we will go out for a, I think, I think what the 75 mile one day portion of the hell hole is about 400 feet, about 400 feet of climbing.

That’s so incredible to me, I think about going out for a lunch ride today. And like, there’s no route I can pick out of my, my house that is going to net less than a thousand feet of climbing. Oh yeah, yeah,

Yeah. Sometimes our road rides on Saturday. I mean, we can go, we can go 40 and 50 miles and do you know, less than a hundred feet. So, the idea was to say, okay, well, how can we, how can we take this to the next level? And do something different to try to get people, you know out here. So we, that’s where the whole stage race idea came from.

Basically, the Friday night before the race it’s it’s on Saturday is stage one, Sunday is stage two. And, and on Friday night, what we have is we have a six mile prologue just to get your, of, of what the gravel is like in, in in the Francis Marion forest time, trial style, little lollipop course that surprisingly a lot of people, I would say last year, what we had about 60 people come out for it.

Yeah. The front, the Friday night time trial portion is optional. Because we know people can’t always make it in Friday evening for the, for the whole weekend. So we make that optional and offer, you know, the participants they get, they get a time bonus compared to everybody that does not participate in that. But yeah, we, we have a good turnout people generally like it because they, they are going full gas for the, you know, the 10 K like Chris said, and it’s kind of a dusk and Twilight. So you have to be despite the fact that the terrain is flat, you do have to be somewhat careful out there when you’re, when you’re going at speed you know, cross side, because you’re going full gas. Right.

So, so then, then on Saturday, it starts out with a stage one and in conjunction with stage one, we, we have the, the, the stage raise portion. We have a one day 75 mile, and then we have a one day 40, usually between 35 and 40 mile route for, you know, for, so that people can slowly progress up. And then on Sunday, it is strictly just the stage two, which would be another 75 miles. So the stage racers are looking at 150 miles over two days. The, the S the one days we’re looking at 75 miles and between 30 and 40 miles,

And are the two 75 mile courses, are they different routes? Well, so for the, for the first iterations of hellhole, the answer is yes. So we, we had a stage one and two completely different. And I think we did that for the first three years. But, you know, it’s, it’s largely just Chris and I, that are out there Mark in the course. And, and we do have a group of stalwart volunteers that come out and help us. But you know, the, the forest is 400 square miles and it’s, it is remote. There’s not real good cell phone reception out there. And so it does provide some logistical challenges. So after the third time, the third year, we decided that we were going to stick with the same core stage one to reverse it. And then we keep people guessing we do make a few course alterations, and those are usually around like the more technical sections you know, there’s, there’s bits of single track that we can tie in to connect different, different portions.

So, you know, where we lack elevation and things like that to, to provide a challenge, we, we do other, we, we throw in other means to, to keep people on their feet. That sounds like fun. So on those, do you find that groups are able to stay together on parts of the course and then, then are broken up by the single track sections? Oh, for sure. Yeah. So the other reason we try to keep, keep the single track sections in there is we, we wanted to kind of keep it from being a strictly a road race. You know, we had some, some, you know, some pretty fast roadies come down and just, you know, try to try to blow apart the field. So we’d like to keep, keep the technical sections in there as well. And, you know, one of the things about all of our events you mentioned, you know, our groups able to, to, to form up and work together out there.

His you know, we, we, it is a stage race and we do have the one day, the one day rides that are available for people, but our, our whole philosophy has always been that those that are out there to race are going to race and it’s going to be hard for them. And those that are out there to ride are gonna go out there and ride, and it’s going to be, you know, equally as hard for them relatively speaking. So it’s hard for, it’s hard for everyone and everyone’s going to, you know, leaves feeling very challenged that, but also, you know, very rewarded. Yeah, for sure. I love that mindset of yours to kind of use the terrain to kind of break things up. And I think it’s one of those things that’s gonna continue to be discussed in relation to events, because as we get more roadies coming into the market, the last thing most of us want to see is massive. Palatines riding 90% of the race together. And then it coming down to a group sprint, I’m a big fan of throwing people into single track and technical terrain. I love when you sort of start to question your bike choice because you chose one thing that was great on the, you know, more fire roadie type stuff, but it, it really is failing you on the single track. Cause you should have to make those choices and think about your equipment when you come into these events.

Yeah, for sure. And, you know, the, the, the, the courses, some of the roads out there, you know, it’s, it’s, there, there are the main roads, and then they’re like the A’s and B’s and C roads that the force designates. So, you know, like after the events, it’s always interesting to hear people talk that, Oh, I was with this guy up until hell hole B. And then, you know, he just took off and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t, you know, get through that section and stay with that group. It’s, it’s always interesting to hear those stories, cause there’s certain roads that stand out and that we try to fit in the courses just because we know that that’s a, that’s a road that some people Excel at, but yet some people do not Excel at. And you know, that’s, that’s what, the little challenges we like to throw in there. Nice.

You guys mentioned that you get the question

That, that every promoter gets, which is like, what tire width with tire size should I be running? What are you usually recommending for people? And what do you, what would you ride yourself?

Yeah, so we generally speaking, I’ll, I’ll talk for Chris here on this, but you know, if I’m just out there riding, riding by myself, my normal route, I’ll, I’ll throw on a 40 millimeter tire. And, and we are, we are sponsored by Schwabie and we liked that. And so Schwabie G ones. They they’re very low profile in terms of traction. There’s not a lot of technical sections out here until you hit some of the single track, but the 40 millimeter gives you some protection against the, the bumps and the ruts that you’re gonna face, but enough you know, enough with good rolling, you know, minimal rolling resistance that you can build up some speed. But we have seen, we have seen people come out and against our better judgment, you know, they’ll ride a 28 millimeter road tire out here. And so you know, it varies and in some of our other events, we’ve even had people come out on fat bikes and do relatively well. So it really just, it really just, it’s a question of how, how much how much do you want to feel like you are about to get beat up? If, if you will, you know, the, the wider, you go a little bit more plush of a ride you’re going to have.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s kind of funny to think about. And I’ve had this conversation with a number of people, just the idea that you do have to consider not only pure speed in gravel, but also comfort. And if you’re, you know, if the front of the packs finishing the race in three hours, but you’re a six hour person, you’re probably going to need a little bit more compliance in your equipment, then the guy or girl who’s upfront you know, doing it in half the time.

Yeah. Right. And there’s been some very good discussions recently about, you know, tire selection and tire pressure. And, and generally what I’m hearing is that, you know, narrower and higher pressures, aren’t, aren’t generally better. And, you know, that even might even translate onto the road. So we, we tend to go fairly, fairly low pressures, but fairly wide, they give you that, that Kush for the longer distances, it’s your body will. Thank you.

Yeah. And I’ve also been really impressed when riding, you know, like I upset my slick or, you know, just very, very small knobby tire when you increase the volume, it’s actually pretty amazing. The off-road terrain you can ride comfortably and safely. I’ve definitely found that I, you know, I lose a little bit in high speed cornering, and certainly if I’m breaking the backend has a greater tendency to slide out. But generally speaking, like, I feel like I can get over a lot of stuff on a semi select tire when I started the sport, I would not have thought that was possible. Yeah. Yeah.

So, so lately in the gravel cycling press and cycling press in general, there’s been a conversation about USA cycling, getting involved in gravel, and they recently did a gravel summit in in Bentonville Arkansas to get a few of the bigger events together. I’m curious because you guys have a long history in promotion of off-road events and you, your, your mountain bike events are held under USA cycling. I’d love for you to give the listener a little bit of a sense for, you know, what’s it like working with USA, cycling on the mountain bike events, and then not having to work with them at all. And the gravel events

I guess I’ll feel down first, but it, yeah, I guess there’s two different aspects. Kind of like what you said is, is, is it working with them or is it just what comes along with working with USA cycling? So I will at least say with our mountain bike event and I mentioned this earlier is, is if we didn’t have to use them, I don’t know that I would, however, you know, working with them whenever I need something from them. Our, our local association is pretty good at being responsive with regard to that. Now, you know, that being said, I, I don’t think we would. And I’m skin gonna speak for Chris on this too, but I don’t know that we’d ever go to USA cycling for a gravel event. We don’t have, I don’t think we have any desire to sanction our event.

We do use them for insurance purposes. But the, the, the rigmarole that goes along with USA cycling people just want to ride their bikes. And, and like I mentioned, you know, we have people that come out just to ride and they wanna see what gravel’s all about. We have people that come out and want to race but there’s nothing tied to it. There’s no, there’s no cat up points. There’s no you know, no advance, you know, you’re out there just to prove something to yourself and I don’t need additional paperwork or additional fees. We try to keep our, our fees relatively low barrier to entry because we want people out there at our events and, and the less, we less red tape we have. I think that’s the better for us.

Are you, were you saying you’re able to use USA cycling’s insurance on the gravel events?

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And just so you know, they have a

For there for, they call them grand fondos. So they allow you to, you know, there’s no license required. There’s no anything required, but you can submit for their insurance. And I think it’s like $4 and I think it went up this year, $4 and 75 cents

A a rider per day. So w you know, what we’ve is

Currently at the, at the levels that we have in it, it’s still the most economical. And without having to do any type of you know, additional licenses or anything like that, it does it

Yeah.

For the level that we’re at right now. It is, it is the better choice.

Gotcha. And then if you look at the mountain bike race compared to the gravel race, how much more expensive does it end up, you know, having a fully sanctioned race versus a, you know, just go on your own route on the gravel.

I would say considerably you know, you, you know, each, each rider as they walk up to pay for their, for their race, you know, if they don’t have a an annual license, they have to buy a one day license. You know, so you know, that right there is, you know, X number of dollars more that they may not be anticipating.

I would say, I would say for, for our mountain bike event, you know, you can, you can bank on, if you don’t have a USA cycling license, you’re going to pay at a minimum 25% more just to register. And, and if you want to get an annual license, then the annual license itself is more than it costs to do our event. You know, so as an example, you know, we could have new people to the sport show up and you’re like, Hey, do you have a license? Cause you have to check and they show you their driver’s license. And they have no idea that no USA cycling requires you to pay this fee to have a one day license. And it does partially cover the insurance. But again, it’s a, it’s a barrier to entry. These people just want to experience the event and determine if that’s something that they want to get into. And, and I find that any kind of barrier to entry like that it’s to, it’s going to turn some people off and people, some people just won’t show up because of that. There’s a flux, you know, on the flip side, some people come out just because of that. But I don’t, I don’t feel like at all, that, that, that is that there’s any, I have not, I’ve not wanted any of our gravel events. Anyone has approached and said, when are you going to make this a sanctioned event? Yeah.

And, and the thing is, is, you know, even with the insurance, through USA cycling, you know, this year from between last year and this year, I think it’s went up 50 cents per rider per day, which, you know, I think it went from four 25. Now it’s four 75. So, you know, it, it, it is, it is increasingly getting to the point where you know, it probably in the future, we’ll start looking at other forms of insurance.

Yeah, I mean, it is a nice benefit. It is a nice benefit that USA cycling is there and can provide that insurance piece. But I agree. I mean, a lot of gravel athletes may just sign up for one event a year. And even in that, even if they’re signing up for a multiple, most could care less about points and upgrades and, and all that. I think that kind of motivation tends to change the racing, just given people’s competitive nature, et cetera. So it’s certainly an open-ended question that USA cycling is grappling with to try to see how they can add value to the community. When you know, a lot of people from the outsider thinking they’re not adding any value whatsoever. Cool.

Well, I appreciate the time you guys, I appreciate the events you guys are putting on. I have to say that going to Charleston and racing hellhole, it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s, you know, at the end of September, it’s, it’s usually warm. And unfortunately in the patent a few years, we’ve had to battle some close calls with hurricanes. We actually had to postpone it a what, two years ago, because of a hurricane. But yeah, it’s a great place. A lot of people will usually come down and make a whole weekend of it, bring the wife and the kids and they go do the downtown Charleston thing and they hang out out in the forest and race their bike right on. Well, I’ll make sure to put some information in the show notes about how to find you on the web.

And I can’t wait to hear about all the racing this year from you guys.

Great. Thanks. We appreciate it, Craig.

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