Top 10 must-do US gravel races in 2024

From Arizona to Oklahoma and everywhere in between, we looked high and low for the best US gravel races – here are 10 we believe you should check out

Clock16:53, Wednesday 22nd November 2023
Three images of US gravel races, from left to right: Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona, The Mid South, Gravel Locos

© BWR / Mid South / Gravel Locos

US gravel races, from left to right: Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona, The Mid South, Gravel Locos

The United States is the heartland of gravel, and has very much been the epicentre of the discipline's enormous growth in recent years. There has been an explosion of events in the US, but a select few have truly captured the imagination of gravel racers and riders alike.

To sort through the countless races that dot the country, we are starting with the top, identifying 10 of the races that have proven to be the best around.

From the Great Plains of the United States, with the rolling hills, mud and wind that create hard endurance tests, to the technical races of the Southwest that demand handling skills well beyond that of a road race, the 10 races on the list all provide a unique experience and landscape to test oneself.

While this list is not exhaustive, we have selected 10 races that you should look into, and perhaps even attend yourself, in 2024.

Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona (WRA) – March 2

Location: Scottsdale, Arizona

Distances: 122 miles (~9,000 feet of climbing), 79 miles, 39 miles

Website: BWR Arizona

Registration (for full distance): $225, spots available

While there is no official start of the gravel calendar, BWR Arizona is the first race that will see the best riders in the country begin to double down on fitness and prep. It is also the first of the four BWR races, ahead of California, Utah and North Carolina later in the season. With a brilliant course through unique terrain in Arizona, and three distances available, this is the ideal start for so many riders' seasons.

From a participatory perspective, the race is an incredible mismatch of desert surfaces and ecology that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Furthermore, outside of the race, many of the trails and jeep roads of the race are virtually inaccessible to riders since they are so remote and water is scarce. What the area lacks in accessibility, the desert makes up for in beauty, with towering mountains on the nearby horizon and countless different species of cacti.

The race is only in its second edition, but is already a fundamental part of the gravel calendar. The 2023 edition saw a drawn-out battle between Christopher Blevins, America’s best mountain biker, and Keegan Swenson, America’s best gravel racer. The two didn’t compete against each other the rest of the year, but that only upped the intrigue of a possible rematch between the two preeminent riders in the Sonoran Desert in 2024.

Tech Tip: The balance of BWR Arizona is in traction control versus rolling resistances. With a lot of flowy, non-technical trails on the course, a tire that can bite into the loose, coarse surface is crucial. While flatting here might be less likely than in other races, having enough tire volume can help with that traction as well. We would recommend a semi-slick tire or a file tread at a width of around 40-42mm.

The Mid South (TMS) – March 16

Location: Stillwater, Oklahoma

Distances: 100 miles (6,500 feet), 50 miles and 50km run 

Website: The Mid South

Registration: $150, but the race is full

While BWR Arizona might be the first big race of the season, the spiritual curtain-raiser of the calendar is the Mid South Gravel race in Stillwater, Oklahoma. What it may lack in the top talent, Mid South makes up for in the vibes category, with four days of festivities and thousands of riders rallying after cold winters to go to central Oklahoma, where spring is only just around the corner.

Headed by the effervescent race promoter Bobby Wintle, Mid South began as the Land Run 100 in 2011 and quickly gained steam in tandem with its slightly larger and certainly more corporate neighbour to the north in Emporia. While Wintle always goes out of his way to protest any idea that Mid South is anything more grandiose than a big bash with 4,000 possible new friends, it is in many riders’ books a top-tier event, with hype and excitement only rivalled by Unbound GRVL and SBT.

In terms of parcours, Mid South is either one of the fastest races, or the slowest. If it is dry, the dirt is packed like Strade Bianche, with punchy climbs and a couple of technical sections to break up the speed of the hard red clay. If it's wet, then everyone will be walking at different points, as the surface turns to a deep, sticky mud that destroys bikes, and destroys hopes of fast times.

Yet, in those slow years, the race provides participants with stories that last a lifetime, whether you're first or dead last. If you are the former, you get a champagne shower. If you are the latter, you get a ginormous bull's skull.

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Tech Tip: Bring two sets of tyres to Mid South. Since the surface is so different in the wet versus the dry, options are key. If it is dry, a smooth 40mm tyre with some tread would be the way to tackle the course that is known for its hardpacked smooth dirt roads. If it is wet, the trick is to forgo treads entirely as a mud tyre will do little more than gather enough mud to stop your wheels from spinning. We would even recommend dropping the tyre size as well and running a 35 or 38mm slick. It might sound wonky, but it is really the best course of action when the going gets soggy.

Belgian Waffle Ride California (WRC) – April 28

Location: San Marcos, California

Distances: 128 miles (10,500 feet), 79 miles, 43 miles

Website: BWR California

Registration: $225, spots available

BWR California is one of the original off-road events to make it big in the US and retains its crown as the biggest off-road event on the West Coast. The event predominantly consists of pavement, with interspersed sections of gnarled trail, double track and other obstacles. In fact, there is virtually no true gravel on the course.

Organisers and participants prefer to call it an 'unroad race'. Nevertheless, it has profited on the back of the expansion of gravel bikes and remains one of the big contests in gravel cycling.

BWR California is also interesting for the level of support it allows in its races. Compared to Mid South and Unbound, which have clearly defined aid stations where outside support is allowed, BWR has more porous rules and much more neutral support, particularly for the elite men and women. This is, in part, why the events have grown popular for riders looking to get into gravel racing.

Tech Tip: Try underbiking. Underbiking is a term used for using a bike that is conventionally 'wrong' for a task, i.e. mountain biking on a gravel bike or gravel biking on a road bike. With 60% of the course on pavement, underbiking has some efficiency benefits on a course like BWR California and has been successful at the event in recent years. What's more, there is now an official category for underbikers at the 2024 race, requiring riders to run a 2x setup, 28mm tyres and drop bars.

Rule of Three (RO3) – May 18

Location: Bentonville, Arkansas

Distances: 100 miles (~8,500 feet), 50 miles

Website: Rule of Three

Registration: $85, opens on February 5, 2024

These days in the US, the gravel calendar revolves around Unbound Gravel. It is the table setter, the main draw of European racers, or – to use classic US sports parlance – the Grand Daddy of them all. Thus, the timeframe before the race is prime real estate for other races and it is not surprising that two fantastic races both stake a claim to the weekend a fortnight out: Rule of Three and Gravel Locos.

What is surprising is that those two races couldn’t be less similar.

Rule of Three, to start, is a self-styled alternative to other big races. The entry fee is magnitudes smaller than races like BWR, Unbound and SBT, and it almost goes out of its way to retain a small, music-festival-type ethos around the race. The party starts the day before the race at the Meteor Cafe in Bentonville and continues throughout race day at the farm which hosts the race, with music, good food, a river for a post-race swim and lots of beer to keep people hanging around well after the race.

In terms of the race itself, the course might just be the most engaging in all of gravel. The general idea is to have equal parts single track, gravel and pavement on the course each year: ~33 miles of single track, ~33 miles of gravel and ~33 miles of tarmac. At 100 miles in length, with equal parts sinuous rocky single track, chunky gravel and smooth roads, this creates a deceptively arduous race that lacks a “right” choice for a rider's tech.

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Tech Tip: With those challenging surfaces to contend with, we would recommend a 45-50mm treaded tire, or even a 650b mountain bike tread for those with less-than-perfect bike handling skills. Anything less than a 45mm tyre would be a gamble, especially since a large portion of a single track will come towards the end of the race when a rider might be feeling a bit worse for wear. One other element to consider is chainring size. Even though there are few extended climbs, the amount of trail riding on the course mandates a smaller ring up front. We would recommend sizing down on chainring size by two or even four teeth. Your knees will thank you by the end.

Gravel Locos (GLC) – May 18

Location: Hico, Texas

Distances: 150 miles (6,700 feet), 100 miles, 60 miles, 30 miles

Website: Gravel Locos

Registration: $185, spots available

Gravel Locos, on the other hand, is the gravel race in the US that might have the biggest emphasis on the professional side of things. It is, unapologetically, the pre-Unbound test for many riders. In turn, Gravel Locos reflects the race in a number of ways.

First off, its long course is a full 150 miles and, like Kansas, those miles are often done in hot, humid conditions. Secondly, it doesn't have long climbs, only small, but repetitive punches that each rider must weather. Third, and especially for the elites, the field has all the same favourites that will travel to Kansas over the next couple of weeks. What is missing, however, is the independence of Unbound, with support allowances resembling the BWR races, and a much more forgiving surface.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to make the trip to Hico for the everyday rider as well. Beyond rubbing shoulders with and testing yourself against the fastest gravel racers in the world, the race has a philanthropic centre.

When it was founded in 2021, it was built and billed primarily as a fundraising event for the local fire department of Hico. With the mission to enliven the small Texan town, it brought in the biggest names in gravel right off the bat in that first edition to give the race gravitas and meaning as the gravel discipline pointed upwards. In 2024, that mission to give back to the small community continues.

While having these two top-flight races on the same weekend does force some people to choose, it is a choice of two very different races that offer riders a ton of optionality that gravel is known for. Ask a friend, take a look at the race pages, and you will probably find that one is better for you.

Tech tip: Even though the surface might be more forgiving, we would not recommend a tyre smaller than a 40. With a loose top surface, having the volume to contend with the inconsistency is always a good thing. If you are concerned with speed, the factor to play with would certainly be the tread pattern, with more experienced or skilled riders able to cut back on the tyre profile.

Unbound Gravel (UBD) – June 1

Location: Emporia, Kansas

Distances: 200 miles (~12,000 feet), 350 miles, 100 miles, 50 miles

Website: Unbound Gravel

Registration: $300, lottery on January 5

Unbound Gravel is widely seen as the largest gravel event in the world, with thousands of participants taking part in one of the four different races that provide riders of all levels the chance to take on the crown jewel of gravel. For the last two years, in particular, the race saw its status elevated to a truly international level.

Nevertheless, with a race that stretches back much further than the last two editions, there is still so much about Unbound that is unknown to most. In 2023, for the first time since the race entered the mainstream consciousness, the world saw just how hard Unbound could be. With the previous edition running fast, with minimal obstacles, it was time for the race to rear its uglier side.

Even though the mud might have turned some gravel racers off from the race, it will be sure to enliven others. And while the race is certainly going to continue to grow and morph to the needs of what gravel has become, that difficulty is not going away, especially as the 2024 edition turns its course North to the terrain that has proved to be more difficult by most measures.

A north loop, compared to the southern direction of the last two years, will have a greater risk of flatting, crashing and other mechanical issues, with sharper rocks spread throughout the whole course. While the particular B-road that destroyed the field won't be included in 2024, other shorter and possibly hillier sections could be in store. Lastly, a north course will certainly have more climbing. The last course to head that direction had nearly 1,000 metres more climbing, with large punchy rollers spread throughout the 324 kilometres of brutality.

While 2023 may have been a shock to some, for the majority of riders 2024 will be a tougher day in the saddle. For some, this might be a reason to avoid the race, but for others, the increased challenge of a northerly Unbound might be a good reason to check out the race, regardless of the distance you select.

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Tech tip: Unbound’s tech is pretty well-trodden turf, but 42mm tyres and 1x chainrings that can churn a big enough gear to pedal through the flat stretches and a small enough gear to get up the steep pitches are the keys. If anything, the switch to the Northerly course might make the chainrings a bit smaller and the tyre treads a bit wider. 44mm might cost a bit of time but it could also save you from suffering a puncture or two.

Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder (OTG) – June 26-30

Location: Sisters, Oregon

Distances: 350 miles (30,000 feet) over five days 

Website: Oregon Trail

Registration: $1,200, spots available

Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder will be in its fifth edition in 2024, but its first as a stop in the Gravel Earth Series. With this added emphasis, expect some big names to come to the premiere American gravel stage race.

Consisting of five point-to-point stages, with a travelling campsite provided for every rider, the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder is a gravel summer camp. Every tough day of racing is followed by a leisurely evening of lounging by creeks and campfires, eating freshly cooked dinners while making fast friends with your fellow travellers.

Since it is a stage race, the distances are much more manageable, with days ranging from 40 miles to the 90-mile queen stage. However, what it lacks in daily distance it makes up for in beauty and difficulty. The race circum-navigates the Cascade mountains of central Oregon, offering every rider the chance to test themselves on hour-long climbs, high-desert sand and lush temperate forest descents.

While the five days of racing, meals and logistical support come with a decent price tag, it is a unique race that meets a niche in the American gravel calendar.

Tech tip: Let's talk about the camping. At the race, everyone gets one bin and the option to get a tent provided for you by the organisation. If you have your own tent, you are welcome to use it, but then it has to fit in your bin, along with a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, nutrition and spare kit. There is also the option to bring a spare set of wheels, with each day offering a distinct terrain challenge.

SBT GRVL (SBT)– August 18

Location: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Distances: 125 miles (10,000 feet), 100 miles, 56 miles, 20 miles

Website: SBT GRVL

Registration: $275, registration lottery opens on November 29

Three years ago it would be strange to think that Unbound could have a rival for the crown of the biggest gravel race in the United States. Now, that claim is a bit less outlandish as SBT GRVL has made a huge imprint in the discipline.

The 'champagne gravel', as it is called in homage to Steamboat Springs skiing traditions and the 'champagne powder' found on the slopes, is a full-gas race through the rolling terrain around the northern Colorado mountain outpost. Despite the altitude, SBT is the smoothest and fastest of all the events on this list. Even if there are portions of the race that take on more challenging terrain, with climbs that pack a punch, no event matches the pack dynamics and competitive intensity of the race.

Regardless of your competitive level, SBT will most likely have you riding in a group at a relatively fast pace. Not even Unbound, which is a race much less tied to pack dynamics, drafting and aerodynamics, lives up to the racing fury of SBT.

Beyond the racing, SBT boasts one of the most spectacular locations in the United States. In the winter, Steamboat Springs really comes into its own as a top ski resort in the US. Yet the town is no slouch in the summer, with a number of good restaurants, lots of lodging options, and a fantastic collection of hiking and riding trails on the mountains around the town. It is a top-notch destination outside of the race, so with the event and the bustling expo on the days prior, it is an unmissable weekend.

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Tech Tip: Other events necessitate a smaller chainring if one were to make any change at all, but SBT requires a larger chainring than most to get everything out of the event, regardless of whether you are a pro or someone going for a PR. That could be switching from a 40t to a 44t, or from a 46t to a 50t if your frame will allow it. There is substantial climbing, but none of it is very steep. On the other hand, there are plenty of pedal-heavy stretches.

Gravel Worlds, USA (GWS) – August 24

Location: Lincoln, Nebraska

Distances: 150 miles (12,000 feet), 300 miles, 75 miles, 50km run

Website: Gravel Worlds

Registration: $155, spots available

The original Gravel Worlds runs at the end of August in Nebraska and stands as one of the institutions on the gravel calendar. With its 15th edition running next summer, the race is one of only four races on this list – Mid South, BWR California and Unbound being the others – that is in its second decade.

Beyond its years on the gravel calendar, Gravel Worlds is also one of the most challenging races on the American scene.

With a course that runs over 150 miles of relatively tame Midwest gravel roads, it is always manageable on a map. But with twice the climbing of Gravel Locos, a race with a similar surface and the same distance, it has double the climbing. Add a bit of rain, as we saw in 2023, and it becomes a death march.

Consider the 2023 winner, John Borstlemann. The Nebraska native finished the course in a time of 7:57:55. Over those eight hours, Borstelmann had a normalized power of 322 watts, an effort that would stack up to any race around. While the race might now have more confusion with the UCI’s entrance into the discipline, Gravel Worlds certainly still holds a seat at the table of the best gravel races in the United States.

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Tech Tip: Gravel Worlds poses lots of problems, but flat tyres are typically not one of them. The gravel is probably best described as pea-like, which does create uneasy cornering but will be unlikely to cause punctures. Therefore, Gravel Worlds is a race where you can be fairly aggressive on tyre choices. Not road bike level aggressive – 32mm or less of width would probably be too narrow – but a slick 38mm or slight treads on a 35mm tyre could make for a fast set-up.

Big Sugar Classic (BSC) – October 19

Location: Bentonville, Arkansas

Distances: 104 miles (7,000 feet), 50 miles

Website: Big Sugar

Registration: $180, registration date to be confirmed

Last but not least, the race that has claimed the title of the last big appointment of the gravel season: Big Sugar.

Weeks after the UCI Gravel World Championships, the finale of the seven Life Time Grand Prix events, and a race that is built to be a race that could suit a number of different racers, Big Sugar is a worthy race to hold that crown. It has some of the same punchy climbs as Rule of Three since it starts and finishes in the same town, has some of the pack elements of SBT and arguably more rough gravel than Unbound, all in a digestible 100-mile distance.

For the non-elite rider, the race might lack the absolute challenge that you would find in other races. However, that can be a good thing, as Big Sugar is a great race to try out if you come from another discipline. Even if the race is billed as a major touchpoint for the elite racers, Big Sugar is the race that has a little bit of everything for everyone, for better and for worse.

Tech Tip: Big Sugar tech discussions revolve around how big the tyres can go, with the sharp gravel and ensuing flats providing one of the central challenges of the race. On the professional side of the race, mountain bike tyres have started to appear on the startline, with Dylan Johnson and Tobin Ortenbladt both running mountain bike treads. A rigid drop bar bike is still the best option, however, so squeezing on some 650b 2.0 wheels and tires onto your setup for Big Sugar might be the best way forward. If not, a 47-50mm tyre on a 700c rim is suitable, just don't forget tyre plugs and a tube.

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