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Wrapping my head around a gravel world championship that doesn’t really resemble gravel at all

But I don't think we need to blame the UCI — entirely. Let's first embody the true spirit of gravel and holler like hell for our friends who are racing

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One of my favorite interviews this year was with a tropical fruit farmer from Miami named Rane Roatta.

I found Roatta because he landed on the podium at the Highlands Gravel Classic in Bentonville, Arkansas, a qualifier race for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships. I wanted to hear about the race — namely, the fact that no pros had showed up, actually hardly anyone had, and whether or not Roatta wanted to go to Italy to race for the rainbow stripes.

All of that ended up being the least interesting part of our conversation.

Roatta crossing the very empty finish line at the Highlands Gravel Classic, a UCI Gravel World Series qualifier

Instead, I learned that Roatta started riding a bike 10 years earlier when he was working on a farm and didn’t have a car. He built an aluminum bike trailer so he could move fruit from the farm to the farmers market.

“I could move about 500 pounds of fruit,” he told me. “I would bike like a 60-mile loop to the farm, harvest fruit, then bike to the market and sell the fruit off my bike. I didn’t have any money. I lived in a trailer in my mom’s backyard.”

Fast forward to now, and Roatta, who is 29, runs Miami Fruit, a successful company that grows and delivers dozens of varieties of tropical fruit from its South Florida farms around the country. He also plants experimental varieties and works with local farmers who are looking to diversify their crops.

Stay with me here — Roatta also loves riding and racing gravel.

“I live on my farm, I work constantly, I pretty much ride by myself,” said. “I leave my house and in two miles I have unlimited gravel in the Everglades with iguanas, alligators, panthers. I don’t pay much attention to what goes on, I just like riding my bike hard.”

By “don’t pay much attention to what goes on,” he was referring to my earlier question about the drama surrounding gravel worlds — I asked him if he knew that the US gravel pros were all but staging an unofficial boycott.

No, on the contrary Roatta was stoked — he was Italian and had never been to Italy!

By the end of our call, I was stoked on his behalf. Here was a fruit farmer who raced gravel on the side, didn’t give a shit about the drama, and was now going to the world championships of the sport.

Gravel interview = tropical fruit delivered to my doorstep

The next day, a box showed up on my porch, whimsical illustrations of smiling fruit dancing across the cardboard. Sandwiched neatly inside were mangos, dragonfruit, a huge cacao, some tiny caviar limes.

This is gravel, right?

Where two things can be true at once

That deep foray into the weeds (farming pun definitely intended) is I guess my way of trying to soften the blows that are coming fast and furious at this weekend’s inaugural gravel world championships. I want more stories like Roatta’s out there, if anything, to highlight the fact that the UCI race isn’t just for pros.

Like many of you, or ‘us’ I should say because I definitely identify with the collective gravel scene we have here, I’m not that stoked about how this thing has turned out. Namely that it’s being promoted as a who’s who of … European road racing? With a few MTB and ‘cross pros sprinkled in?

I get that big names draw attention — that’s part of cycling news reporting —  but I don’t think it’s that cute that MvdP or Gianni Vermeersch have never ridden gravel bikes until this week.

On the contrary, Lauren De Crescenzo and Sofia Gomez Villafañe have been targeting this race all year.

Like Roatta, we should be rooting for these riders, regardless of what we think of the UCI holding a gravel world championship. These women have won Unbound Gravel, the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, and yes, Gravel Worlds. The sport is their livelihood.

lauren de crescenzo
Lauren de Crescenzo wins the 2022 Mid South. (Photo: Brad Kaminski)

I mean, wouldn’t it be amazing if both the men’s and women’s elite fields at UCI gravel worlds were disproportionately stacked with the names we’ve come to dub ‘gravel pros’ instead of roadie guys I’ve never heard of? Wouldn’t that make sense considering that gravel racing was born in the United States?

And yet, I understand why they’re not.

When the UCI announced that it wanted to dip its fingers into the gravel honey pot way back in January of 2020, “but we already have a Gravel Worlds” became the soundbite of the season. Our fiercely protective little gravel scene said, thanks but no thanks, take your sock height rules and go somewhere else.

Gravel race organizers basically said the same thing to USA Cycling that year when the governing body hosted a get-together to discuss if there was a way the renegade organizers and the vilified federation could get along.

I get it. Gravel is really special, and governing bodies have a reputation of screwing things up.

So, as someone does my best to cover gravel in all of its goodness, from the pointy end to the party in the back, I can tell you that it’s a bit challenging to apply the same enthusiasm to covering a world championship when hardly anyone from the community is showing up.

Despite the notable absence of US gravel talent at worlds this weekend (not to mention the fact that it’s not being held on American soil), I also think it’s worth pausing for a minute to consider what our own role in how things are — and aren’t —going down in Italy this weekend.

What I mean is, if we effectively chose not to participate in gravel worlds by refusing to help craft the event, host it, or even make it socially acceptable to want to race it, wasn’t it inevitable that someone else would write the script — and probably get it wrong?

Sure, who knows if the UCI would have listened if we said that men and women race the same distance or that courses should be technical and dynamic and include some random singletrack and water crossings. They may not have liked the course that Katerina Nash was helping design out in California. But on the other hand, maybe they would have listened. No one denies that gravel racing has flourished in the United States.

So now we’re standing on the sidelines, paying just enough attention to talk shit. I don’t think it’s the most thoughtful approach.

otgg
Sarah Sturm leads out a group of elite women at the 2022 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder (Photo: Wil Matthews)

Instead of blaming and shaming, we should take a deep breath. As much as I wish this race looked more like Unbound or BWR or Grinduro, it just doesn’t. In fact, the UCI borrowed the script for gravel worlds from Gran Fondo. As disappointing as that may be, we don’t need to feel threatened or defensive — Big Sugar Gravel will be here in no time, with its shakeout rides and brewery aid station and pros racing very fast at the front (remember— we already have our own problems).

Hey, we might even learn something from UCI worlds if we’re willing — I know I’m not the only one who’s excited to see women racing together — and maybe the event will evolve to be more representative of gravel ‘as we know it’ in the future.

More than that, I just suggest that we broaden our way of thinking. To be willing to consider UCI gravel worlds and Gravel Worlds with a ‘two things can be true at once’ approach. Especially if the world champs becomes an actual gravel race, with actual gravel pros racing on actual gravel courses. Wouldn’t that be neat for some people? If a gravel world championship could be yet another way to inspire young riders to get on bikes and pursue professional cycling?

After all, that’s what LdC, Sturmy, Lauren, Emily, and Holly are doing. So, let’s holler like hell for them this weekend. And for our gravel buds representing other countries, like Lachlan Morton and Sofia.

And definitely for the Rane Roattas.

Because my suspicion is that if someone comes home with a new jersey next week, cheers will ring out over social media. Better yet, I hope we’ll roll out the rainbow striped carpet for him or her at all of our own gravel races, even if — especially if — the UCI tries to tell us that we can’t.