If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Bellingham Grind Corps’ take on the “gravel grind”

Bellingham Grind Corps members on a gravel road on the east side of Mt. Baker. Matt Curtis photo.

By Oliver Lazenby

Bellingham cyclist Kerri Love went on her first Bellingham Grind Corps ride after seeing the group’s logo – a white-on-black road bike silhouette contorted into a pentagram. While the logo was intimidating, the community was not. She met up with about 20 or so riders at Fairhaven Park in Bellingham for a “gravel grind” – bike industry speak for riding on unpaved roads – to a viewpoint in the Chuckanuts.

In the middle of the ride, they stopped for a Southern brunch complete with champagne. Hooked on the community and the way the ride linked together sections of road and trail she’d ridden before, Kerri rode every Grind Corps ride that season.

“I pitch it to everyone I meet,” she said. “You’ll love it or hate it, but most people love it.”

Riding bikes on gravel and other mixed terrain has exploded in popularity in the last 10 years. With it, races and events have popped up worldwide. Locally, there’s Cascadia Super Gravel outside Olympia, Ride for Water in the Chilliwack Valley, Golden Ears Gravel Fondo that starts in Port Coquitlam and dozens more.

In Whatcom County, Bellingham Grind Corps organizes group rides throughout the summer. It starts with the Burnout Brunch, a warm-up for the series, with less than 30 miles of riding on mostly gravel. The menu of rides ramps up from there and the dessert is RAMBOD (Ride Around Mt. Baker in One Day), a roughly 125-mile invite-only ride with an 11-mile hike in the middle. It requires participation in at least one ride in the summer series and a shakedown ride.

The 2019 series includes five rides and most are somewhere between the brunch and RAMBOD in terms of difficulty. The rides aren’t races – “It will never be a race,” founder and director Kip Zwolinski said. They’re not timed and they accommodate a wide variety of riders. Some race against their own time, while others are happy to chat and wait for friends.

“We call it the great equalizer. Bikes are something we all have in common and even if we don’t all ride at the same level, it’s a shared experience,” Kerri said.

Regarding the satanic looking logo and the play on the grindcore genre of heavy metal: “I always have to explain to people that Grind Corps is a genre of post-hardcore music and that it’s a joke. Except for the fact that I wear all black and I listen to a ton of the music,” Kip said.

You’ll love it or hate it, but most people love it.

Organizing and promoting Bellingham Grind Corps rides is a collaborative process. Kip, who also directs the Cascade Cross cyclocross race series, started Grind Corps in 2016, but he’s hesitant to take credit.

“I don’t see myself as a leader, I see myself as the glue connecting it all,” he said. “That’s what I like to do and I think for a lot of folks that’s the annoying part of pulling things off. Who wants to figure out insurance for rides? But it’s like a puzzle for me.”

Kerri screen-prints shirts and other Grind Corps merchandise and others help produce flyers and register riders.

Though most bicycle companies now sell “gravel bikes,” riding on gravel doesn’t require a special bike.

“I’ve seen people do it on mountain bikes or touring bikes they scrapped together with fatter tires,” Kerri said. All it really takes is relatively fat tires, at least by road bike standards, and low gears; gravel rides in this part of the world are known for climbing, and Grind Corps is no exception. The Whatcom Grind later in the series has 6,600 feet of climbing over 30 gravel miles and 25 miles on pavement.

Grind Corps rides aren’t supported and they’re not for beginners. Riders must be self-sufficient and carry a spare tube and tools and know how to use them. But it’s more fun than many hill-averse cyclists would think, Kerri said.

“People need to give it a try and not be intimidated. It will open up new doors,” she said. “You can always turn around and go home. We can tell people where a safe turnaround spot is if they need to bail.”

For more information on Bellingham Grind Corps rides, which start on Sunday, March 24, visit bellinghamgrindcorps.com.

A snowy “Burnout Brunch” in the Chuckanuts. Josh Parrish photo.[/caption]