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Commentary: Rules are good for big gravel races; ‘spirit’ is vague and unenforceable

There is a gap between gravel's written and unwritten rules, and women's racing is caught in the crossfire.

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My children have played soccer for years, and nothing annoys them more than people yelling ignorantly from the sidelines, demonstrating that they don’t, in fact, understand the rules of the game. I have been one of those people. Recently in the gravel scene, there has been a lot of yelling on social media, much of it stemming from the fact that we haven’t agreed on the rules of the game.

The latest bout of online yelling stems from the recent SBT GRVL, where Lauren De Crescenzo worked with her male Cinch teammates and won. I wrote a story on how some riders objected to De Crescenzo getting a bottle from a male teammate so she didn’t have to stop — which was not addressed by the rules at that race — and cycling’s social media had a mild eruption. Some argued that male teammates helping a female racer was against the spirit of gravel, or that a rule was in fact broken. (“Riders accepting support from a source not available to all riders will be disqualified.”) Others said teamwork is part of bike racing.

These same arguments have been had after other gravel events, whether it’s spouses or teammates involved in helping a female racer by closing gaps or pacing or disrupting chase efforts or things you see all the time in road racing.

At issue is the wide gap between the rules of gravel racing and the unwritten expectations of many riders.

Many gravel events tout their ‘no rules’ policy as part of the format’s attraction. Other events keep their rules simple: don’t be lame.

I have put on events and participated in a bunch of them, and I appreciate the drive for simplicity. I also appreciate the grassroots, decentralized nature of gravel events where promoters aren’t bound by a committee based in Aigle or Colorado Springs.

At the same time, gravel racing is now a sport. Elite athletes are showing up and racing for prize money at the big events. It would behoove us to know what the rules are for any given event. What is a sport without definition?

Women’s racing, in particular, is caught in the crossfire between the written rules — vague as they may be — and what some have called the spirit of gravel, the unwritten rules. The latter is based on the idea of self-sufficiency, as many early events had zero support and the whole concept was to get yourself from Point A to a very far-away Point B without help.

Is helping a friend, or a spouse, or a teammate lame? Framed outside of gravel, the answer of course is a resounding no. Inside of gravel, well, that depends on who you ask. And that is exactly the cause of our current tension.

I’m not suggesting that we all have to agree on how gravel works, a one-size-fits-all solution applied to all the various shapes and sizes of gravel events out there. But for the big events, I do propose that the organizers draw some basic lines about what is in bounds and what is out of bounds.

To indulge in a soccer analogy, imagine if there was no rule about touching the ball with your hands, but there was an unwritten rule that most players didn’t use their hands. How the heck would that work?

Who prescribes these unwritten rules? And why are they entitled to dictate others’ behavior?

I appreciate the good sportsmanship that riders bring to the start line, and I’m not trying to suggest that promoters need to type up things like “punching other riders in the face — not allowed.”

But when teams and husband-and-wife duos and friends are showing up and trying to win a bike race, it would be helpful to clearly lay out whether teamwork is allowed or not, just like it’s helpful to know whether aerobars are allowed or not. That way we are all playing the same game.

If a race decides to ban male/female teamwork, then how do you enforce that? Beats me. I don’t know if you can, short of having a separate women’s field. And I for one love the mixed-field, all-together formula.

But whatever the promoter decides, it would help all of us for them to put down on the record some specifics about what is okay or not okay. Otherwise, we’re going to continue yelling at each other from the sidelines without common ground.