Culture

Groad Trip: Let’s have a gravel world championships

As someone who has raced road worlds and now races gravel, I believe there should be a gravel worlds. Here's why and here's how it could happen.

The recent UCI Road World Championships for me reignited the questions of whether or not there should be a gravel world championships and whether or not the UCI has a place in gravel. I feel I have a unique angle on this subject, having raced numerous road worlds, and also having gotten to know most of the major players in the gravel boom.

Gravel should absolutely have its own world championships, but — like the discipline itself — it should be done in its own special way.

More legitimacy, mass relatability

What would having a gravel world championships bring to the discipline? Gravel has taken off largely because it is a participatory sport. There is passion around the community and the inclusion of the events. Yet, there is no denying that there is interest in the final podium of gravel events now. Professional gravel racers are a thing; it’s what I’ve staked the rest of my career on!

Having a world championships would bring a form of legitimacy to our discipline, and help put gravel on par with road, cyclocross, and mountain biking. Imagine events where the world champ was lining up in a rainbow jersey alongside hundreds or thousands of participants; the stoke would be high. Newcomers can easily relate to the accolade and prestige it presents.

The race formerly known as the DK200 could be a gravel worlds course… but not permanently. Photo: Wil Matthews

The UCI’s place in gravel

The UCI announced early this season that they are planning to enter gravel. To be blunt, I don’t think they should be invited to the party. The UCI is a for-profit entity that charges a premium to organizers for a certificate of status. Gravel organizers don’t need that, they’re doing just fine without it.

The UCI stands to use their weight to profit off the creation and hard work of others. Currently, they don’t view gravel as an official discipline and therefore I am, in their eyes, not a professional and instead am “retired.”

What constitutes being a pro? In my mind, it’s being paid to race. To the UCI, it is a license classification: No license, no pro status. No matter, I’m doing just fine being an unsanctioned pro in these unsanctioned races, with no obligation to pay for their piece of paper.

The UCI doesn’t have the best track record to indicate that they keep athletes’ and organizers’ interests at heart. Remember this is a corporation that still doesn’t even view the riders, the stars of the show, as a major stakeholder in the sport. As I write this, road pros are pushing back (have been for years) and are making very little headway to have a voice. The UCI should fix some existing internal issues before expanding their footprint.

Lastly, the UCI’s real power lies in the fact they are recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the governing body of cycling. Gravel isn’t an Olympic discipline (yet) so therefore the UCI doesn’t really have a foothold to leverage.

Gravel’s current Monuments and “unofficial” worlds

The gravel community already has its own hallowed and famous races. VeloNews created the  “Monuments of Gravel” list earlier this year. While some complained about that, I saw it for what it was: A fun and novel way to help the newly interested masses (who have the road template to relate to) understand the booming gravel scene. It was simply a list of the biggest and most prestigious races currently happening. Just like in road cycling, there are tons of other races that aren’t technically a “monument” but are prestigious as hell.

Winning Belgian Waffle Ride is just like winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, right? Photo: Wil Matthews

Think about how gravel’s Monuments do relate to those of the road. The soon-to-be-renamed DK200 is like Paris-Roubaix, with its flatter terrain, its prestige as the oldest and most exciting excitement one-day event. The Belgian Waffle Ride would be like Liège-Bastogne-Liège; with its hills, it suits a different type of rider but is equally as brutal. SBT GRVL would be like Milano-Sanremo: flashy, tactical, and can favor any type of rider. The Mid South would surely be Flanders; sometimes known as the little brother of DK, it exudes just as much if not more passion from participants. Lastly, RPI and Crusher in the Tushar are like Lombardia, later in the season, and for the mountain goats.

As gravel continues to boom and the talent pool gets deeper, different rider types will excel at different courses. We may even see gravel racers starting to specialize. In a few years, I may have to become a pure climber again and only focus on BWR and RPI!

Racers at Rebecca’s Private Idaho. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

How to build a world championships

What makes a race a world championship? Simply put, it’s a one-day race with a title on the line so all the hitters bring their A-game. Many have said gravel already has its own worlds and it is the race formerly known as DK200 Also, there is a race called Gravel Worlds. It is in Nebraska, it was named tongue in cheek, and while not on VeloNews’ Monument list it is definitely on my bucket list.

Without an official worlds, DK200, being the biggest, naturally serves as the de facto championships. In that same logic one could consider Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell our reigning world champs, and I 100 percent think they’re worthy of the title both in talent and as ambassadors of our discipline.

But the thing about road worlds is, the course changes every year, as do the champions. If DK200 were to crown the two champions every year, you may see the same type of rider winning. Just read above; the spectrum of gravel is vast, and it would be nice to see a different event crown a champion every year.

Most of the gravel organizers are already friends and communicate regularly. I would love to see them band together, in their own independent union so to speak, and democratically decide who gets the “Officially Unofficial World Championships” venue accolade. Maybe 2021 is DK, and 2022 it’s Crusher in the Tushar. I’d like to see the power stay in the hands of those who created this discipline and think this can be done without the UCI.

Bombing the Col d’ Crush at the 2018 Crusher in the Tushar. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

There can even be a rainbow jersey, done in gravelesque fashion.

And here is where I get hypocritical: The temptation of the rainbow bands is hard to resist. I come from the road WorldTour, where the lure of the rainbow stripes is a dream for any rider from a young age. So, if the UCI were to host a gravel world championships, would I want to be there? Definitely. I’ve unapologetically made known I plan to race gravel, and I value performance and fun in equal measure. For myself and my sponsors, the allure of the rainbow jersey may be enticing enough to set politics aside.

Whoever may be up for the task, here’s to hoping it happens with the right intentions!