According to Strava’s Trend Report, gravel riding was the fastest-growing sport on the app last year, experiencing a whopping 55% increase. As someone who has been exploring dirt trails for years, I can’t say I’m surprised. However, only in the past four years did I muster the courage to venture onto gravel roads and participate in gravel races. The relaxed atmosphere was a refreshing change of pace from busy city streets, and instantly won me over. It’s so much fun. I’ve even converted several female friends to embrace gravel.
I struck up a conversation with one of The Cycling House team members while registering for their first women’s mixed terrain camp in Tucson, Arizona. As we delved into my cycling background, he mentioned that his wife, Bri Lui, had founded a women’s gravel race in Missoula, Montana. As an advocate for getting more women on bikes, I contacted Bri for an interview. While I long for more options like The Dusty Bandita closer to my home in Chicago, I’m grateful for local races such as the Rough Road 100, which offered free entry this year to 125 women. Although it may not be the same as a women-only race, it undeniably contributes to getting more women involved in gravel riding and racing ― I’m one of them.
The Dusty Bandita is on my radar for 2025 and The Cycling House is offering the race as part of their Montana women’s gravel camp. Come on, ladies, who’s with me?
Read about Bri’s journey and The Dirty Bandita.
Sheri: Can you share your journey and how you became the founder and race director of a women-only gravel race?
Bri: The journey itself started with Intimidation. The lack of confidence and fear of not knowing what I was doing, whether it be my first, 3rd or 10th race, while being surrounded by men who definitely looked like they knew what they were doing. The insecurity of not being super competitive, and wondering why I am here with all these guys who seem to be certainly competitive. There were some women, but so few. It felt a bit lonely and I eventually became curious to see if I could at least try and change that.
I was on the board for an all women’s cycling club in Missoula, MT, MT Alpha Cycling, and even though we were (and they continue to be) actively getting more women on bikes, women still weren’t getting to the starting line. I ultimately came to the conclusion that to get more women to the starting line was to put on a women’s race, specifically gravel. All the different cycling disciplines bring about a different feel at races, at least in my opinion. With gravel, there’s a bit more of a relaxed, fun vibe going on; it can be racey and competitive, but at the same time, adventure and party-like. The people around you seem to have that energy about them, too; we’re all out here, and we all support one another.
And so, in 2022, The Dusty Bandita women’s gravel race was born. The intention of the race is to provide a supportive, relaxed, fun race atmosphere with courses that are challenging but fully rideable with some training (it is a race, after all). The ultimate goal is to have our racers finish smiling and get excited to sign up for other races throughout the state, country and world.
Sheri: Do you have any stats on the percentage of women participating in gravel races/events? Co-ed races and invitationals still tend to be predominately male.
Bri: I do not.
Sheri: Women-only events provide a “safe space” for first-time or novice riders to “dip their wheels” in the world of gravel riding. What factors do you think contribute to the intimidation women may feel?
Bri: I’m not going to pretend to know what other women feel, but I can tell you that there are a variety of factors that have contributed to my own feelings of intimidation – the fear, lack of confidence, lack of support, and insecurities as I had mentioned above. But I think a lot of it also has to do with just being surrounded by others who are like me; there’s an unsaid feeling of camaraderie.
Though races and other events are slowly showing more of the women’s fields, if you look out onto the field, through race pictures, or while watching a race on TV/other media, competitive male racers are typically the highlight of what you see and hear. It’s hard to think that you, as a woman, could also race in that same race, especially as a beginner. It’s intimidating.
No matter your gender, It takes bravery to try something you’ve never done before and to learn new skills. I think for many, if you see someone who is more like you, be it gender, race, age, or skillset for instance, you’re more apt to try whatever it may be. For women, and I think this is true for anyone really, if we see someone like us lining up at the start line and racing, there will be others who will follow, thinking “I think I can do that too.” Soon enough they find themselves lining up at another opportunity while embracing that unsaid, but knowing, camaraderie.
Sheri: In its inaugural year, The Dusty Bandita limited registration to 100 women. As you enter your third year in 2024, how has the event grown, and how many riders are you expecting?
Bri: Our racer numbers are limited by Forest Service permitting. We started with 100 as the cap, then were able to increase to 200 in 2023. Both sold out. This year, 2024, we’re able to increase to a cap of 300. Now, just about 3 weeks into registration opening, we’re already at about 220 racers and expect it to sell out again soon.
Sheri: What can riders anticipate in terms of the course? For example, the ratio of paved vs. gravel sections, the type of gravel, encounters with wildlife like bears, elevation changes, and weather conditions.
Bri: The race is almost 100% gravel. The only paved section on the tentative course is crossing Highway 200 on the way back to the finish. The gravel itself is on well traveled town roads and fire roads; the 80 miles gains about 5500’ in elevation and the 45 mile gains about 2500’ of elevation. It is mainly hard packed, but there are sections of looser gravel and steeper descents. The routes are very remote – there is no cell service – and are located in grizzly bear country. There are many grizzlies in the area and we require all racers to carry bear spray on them. This year, we require racers to have the course map downloaded onto their cellphone or bike computer or have a paper map with them; in addition, they are required to carry their cellphones in case of emergency and the need for SOS. In terms of weather – this is spring in Montana, expect any and all weather!
Sheri: Your website features a scholarship application. Is this open to all women or specifically for those with financial needs?
Bri: It is open to women with financial needs to enter the race. We are accepting 5 athletes this year; the application closes on 2/23/24
Sheri: You’re donating 20% of the proceeds from the 2024 race to MT Alpha Cycling. What motivated you to choose this particular non-profit organization as your partner?
Bri: MT Alpha Cycling is a non-profit women’s cycling club based out of Missoula, Montana. Their mission closely aligns with The Dusty Bandita. MT Alpha is an organization dedicated to getting more women and youth on bikes and are big part of the Missoula community – they first started with about 12 adult members in 2012, and now have well over 100 members (juniors and adults). Being a partner with MT Alpha is a way to extend a racing handover as a welcome to those wanting to try racing. For those that don’t can volunteer at the race, it hopefully peaks their interest in stepping to the starting line the following year.
Sheri: You have collaborated with another women-led gravel race in Montana to offer the Last Best Bandita Challenge. Could you provide more details about this partnership and how the Challenge works?
Bri: The Last Best Ride, based out of Whitefish, Montana, is co-founded by professional cyclist, Jess Cerra, and it’s so fun to watch that race grow. We’re lucky to have these 2 women-led gravel races in western Montana. Since my goal with The Dusty Bandita is to get more women racing throughout the state and country, I thought it would be fun to team up with The Last Best Ride to do a challenge – The Last Best Bandita. If a racer signs up for (and finishes) the same distance in both races, they are eligible for The Last Best Bandita podium as well as a special raffle prize. The podium and prizes will be announced at The Last Best Ride (7/28/2024). The hope is that it will get women to hop into both races, especially if they were thinking of doing just one of them – that is to say, the hope is to get more women to the starting line!
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women’s cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri’s full bio or visit her web site sunflowersandpedals.com.