How about cyclocross? This sport has been huge in Europe. Many professionals race cross. Even the famous Greg Lemond used to race cyclocross in the off season when he was living in Europe. Ellensburg has a decent contingent of riders who travel every weekend to race cyclocross.
But, what is cyclocross (or cross, or CX)? It's typically run in the fall and winter and consists of lap races on a course that encompass pavement, gravel, grass, mud (when it rains), obstacles, trails and steep hills. It really could be considered a combination of mountain biking, criteriums and cross-country cycling. It can be very demanding especially when navigating the obstacles often requiring a dismount of the bicycles. Personally I've never raced cross - I don't like being wet, muddy or both - despite how much fun it looks.
The bikes can be a little heavier and are fitted with wider knobbier tires for extra grip on the off road sections of the course. This is one of the fastest growing cycling sports in the world so you definitely want to check it out.
There's another area of cycling that is getting quite popular with the masses. Called a Gran Fondo race in Italy, or a Cyclosportive in France, they are timed road cycling events, often with the fastest riders treating it truly as a race and a cut off time limit that you need to finish by.Many cycling superstars from the past sponsor their own versions of these races which encompass a variety of distances.
The origin for these races seems to be Italy but also some credit could come from the randonee events in France. La Marmotte in France is one of the most popular and was also the first of these events -beginning in 1982 with the route starting in Bourg d'Oisans and taking in the Col de la Crois de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lautarer before climbing to finish at the top of one the most famous Tour de France climbs at at Alpe d'Huez. Course often will include paved and gravel roads and in Europe even some of the famed cobbles that are raced each year by the pro peloton.
Some local Fondo rides include:
Hood River, OR
Finally, there are the rides patterned after the famous L'Eroica ride in Italy each year. According to Velo News, "L’Eroica is a unique bike event that celebrates the glorious days of the pioneers of cycling. It is a vintage sportive where riders have to ride bikes built pre-1989 following three strictly enforced rules: NO clipless pedals, NO internal cables and ONLY downtube shifters.
The event is the brainchild of Gaiole in Chianti native, Giancarlo Brocci. In 1997, with his passion for the history of cycling and his region, he started the event. Brocci explains “This is not a race, but a ride. It celebrates the pioneers of modern cycling and also my beautiful region. I wanted to save the historic Strade Bianche from being paved.”
The strade bianche or “white roads” are Chianti’s version of Flandrian cobbles. Made out of white gravel, they are a central feature of L’Eroica.
If you look back to the old photos of cycling, strade bianche is the surface that many of the races took place on."
The event would be a blast to do in person in Europe to experience all that you can of cyclings past. It's no surprise that I love vintage bikes and to be able to ride these roads on one would be fantastic.
Here's a great video of the ride:
For 6 years now there's been a ride in Montana in honor of the L'Eroica run the second weekend of September called Cino Heroica. An acquaintance on Bikeforums.net has done this twice and has convinced me to do it next year. The wool jersey alone would be a prized possession in my book.