On a cold and windy morning in early February, nearly 275 cyclers and runners from five countries took off from Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s powwow grounds for the 2023 Oklahoma Gravel Growler, testing their endurance on unpaved roads through Pottawatomie and Seminole counties.
The Growler began in 2016 when a group of local cycling enthusiasts chose to put on a race to give back to the community. spOKeLAHOMA bike shop owners Craig MacIntyre and Fran Topping took over planning in 2018 and have raised several thousand dollars for numerous community causes, including Community Renewal, CPN’s House of Hope and the Anderson Fire Department.
“Several hundred dollars were raised just because when they registered, they added (an extra donation). And then we had a scavenger hunt. … For $10, you buy a card, and then they all came back and went into a raffle for a set of handmade wheels made here in the shop,” Topping said.
This year, the Gravel Growler raised $2,804.12 for the Tecumseh Public Schools Early Childhood Center’s music education program for pre-K and kindergarten-aged students.
“Nothing short of perhaps second language and obvious normal care for toddlers produces greater outcomes in life than early music education. And yet in schools, the first thing that gets cut when budgets are cut is the arts and music, especially at young levels,” MacIntyre said.
The money from the Gravel Growler was the first ever donation to the Early Childhood Center.
“I think sometimes people think more towards secondary, toward clubs. They think, ‘I’ll donate to the sports or football or band.’ I think sometimes maybe they don’t think in terms of an elementary or early childhood organization like that. So, it’s super exciting,” said ECC Principal Tammy Giaudrone.
They program will use the funds to purchase instruments such as glockenspiels, triangles and mini bongo drums or perhaps risers. The staff plans for students to work on their rhythm as an introduction to playing music and learn how to place themselves and stand for a performance.
“We know the value of music in our classrooms. We see that every day,” said TPS Superintendent Robert Kinsey. “As a (former) principal at the middle school, it is a huge connection, (watching) our sixth graders when they got to join band and to see them grow and mature. It was a great way for them to get connected and motivated, even in their academics and connected to mathematics and so forth. And I think being able to offer it at ages 4 and 5 … is important.”
Cyclists chose to ride either 16, 37 or a lengthy 85-mile course, while runners picked from a 16-mile or 37-mile ultra-marathon. The event welcomed 273 participants — 261 cyclists and 12 runners — from 12 states as well as Canada, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands and South Africa.
“The reality is, if it was just me, there would be like six of us out there riding bikes and goofing off,” MacIntyre said. “(The Gravel Growler) exists because of all the people that did all the work and volunteered all their time. I just kind of tried to make sure, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this because I think this will make the experience good for people.’”
Citizen Potawatomi Nation employee George Wright is an avid cyclist and helped organize the event, acting as a point of contact with the Nation. FireLake Discount Foods donated essentials for the athletes, including bottled water and snacks for stops along the route. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Police Department also served as safety escorts as runners and cyclists started their journey near the powwow grounds and moved farther out from the city.
“As far as gravel roads, truly, (Oklahoma) is one of the places where people come from all over the world to ride,” Wright said. “So, it’s kind of a hidden talent that we have on the reservation. And that’s one of my long-term goals is that we can keep this thing going and make it a reason for people who would know nothing even about Oklahoma, much less about CPN, to come see how great our jurisdiction area is.”
The Grand Casino Hotel & Resort was the official race hotel, and the Gravel Growler used the North and South Reunion Halls near the CPN powwow grounds as a community space to meet, hold informational sessions before the race and spend time together.
“The reunion halls were just wonderful. It wasn’t as cold as it might have been by Saturday afternoon. It was very windy. And if you’ve been riding 35, 85 miles, you’re pretty sweaty and drained. And so having the reunion hall right there, let people come in and take their food inside. I mean, most of the time, they’re used to sitting on the ground and eating,” Topping said, noting the participants gave the space and track amenities “rave reviews.”
The race attracted a couple of pro racers, Gosse Vandermeer from the Netherlands and Ismael Acosta from the Dominican Republic, who finished the longest course in the fastest time. Scott Johnson, a local rider, also received the Shackleton Award for his perseverance and endurance. He was the last rider to reach the finish line within the allotted time.
Wright completed the 37-mile course. He believes he and the other riders find satisfaction in races with gravel paths, such as the Gravel Growler, not only for their difficulty and unique obstacles but also the comradery.
“When you’re a little kid and you’re on your bike, and you can go around the puddle, but you want to go through the puddle, right? And that’s what gravel is like. … It’s also a much more communitarian and inclusive kind of vibe. Sometimes bike races can get a little bit macho and hierarchical, and gravel is much more like, ‘Hey, we’re all hanging out, and let’s go for a ride together,’” Wright said.
He sees the Gravel Growler turning into an annual event that people add to their calendars as well as becoming an “economic boon” for CPN.
“The Nation’s already made such a big investment in the (Family Reunion) Festival grounds over the years, not for this purpose, but it’s there. A lot of times it kind of stands idle. For just the, ‘Yes, you can use this,’ you bring in people that are going to spend their dollars right here. It was great,” he said.
Find more information about the Gravel Growler and visit spOKeLAHOMA online at spokelahoma.com.