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Monuments of Gravel

Commentary: Inside gravel cycling’s ‘wait or race’ debate

Feed zones and mid-race stops present an ethical conundrum, as top riders look to establish unwritten rules of etiquette.

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We’re all familiar with pro road cycling’s wait-or-race debate, right?

It’s that fun argument that erupts whenever a GC star is slowed by a crash or mechanical, and his rivals push on ahead.

As it turns out, gravel cycling has it’s own version of the wait-or-race debate, and there’s a good chance that we may see it play out at this weekend’s Unbound Gravel.

Here’s the ethical conundrum in gravel: What happens when the front group or riders agree to stop together at a feed zone, but one rider skips the stop to gain an advantage? The gravel cycling world saw this scenario play out at the May 22 Gravel Locos race in Hico, Texas.

Here’s what happened:

As the front group of eight men hit the final feed zone, riders agreed to stop and fill their bottles before the big battle across the final 30 miles. One rider, Canadian Under-23 time trial champion Adam Roberge, pushed on ahead after briefly stopping, in an effort to get a head start.

“I was like ‘I’m probably going to get dropped by these guys so why not take my chance?'” Roberge told VeloNews. 

Roberge attacked solo, pushing his advantage for the next 10 miles, as behind, the group chased hard to bring him back, dropping some riders during the pursuit. Eventually, the diminished front group caught Roberge, and the Canadian paid for his effort — he was unable to follow eventual winner Laurens ten Dam and second-place finisher Colin Strickland in the final push to the line.

“It was not a good idea,” Roberge said about his attack. “It was too early to go off the front and they caught me.”

The move ruffled feathers in the chase group, and it also made waves in the wider gravel world. Canadian vet Geoff Kabush chided feed zone attacks on Twitter the day after the event, and even winner Laurens ten Dam said he was upset by the move. Ten Dam, another first-time gravel racer, said that the riders in the front group had verbally agreed to stop. So, watching one rider break the truce and attack up the road left him feeling puzzled and angry.

“The eight of us agree to stop the last time and then it’s a race to the finish, but then the one Canadian guy rolled through with his aero bars, and at first I thought he was waiting for us, but then he went fast,” ten Dam said. “Then I got pissed, to be honest, and I started to chase and yell to the other guys ‘We need to catch him!’ And we lost two guys in the chase. I thought that was not nice.”

Was Roberge at fault? Were the other riders naive to stop and refuel?

As with pro road cycling, gravel cycling is quickly developing its own unwritten rulebook to govern the spirit of competition at the front end of the race. Races cannot legislate whether or not riders stop at feed zones or use aerodynamic equipment or draft off of others without taking a pull. Instead, the elite riders at the front of the races are rapidly creating their own orders of etiquette to decide what actions are OK and what actions are not.

Pro road cycling has more unwritten rules than I could list in this column. For instance, when the yellow jersey calls a pee break, everyone had better stop. Is it an official rule? No, but by and large the peloton listens.

Look no further than Colin Strickland’s recent column as an example of gravel cycling working to establish proper decorum.

Veteran racer Ted King, who was one of the two riders dropped in the chase to catch Roberge, likened Roberge’s move to when riders attack through a feed zone in a WorldTour road race. It’s not illegal, but it’s also frowned upon.

“You probably aren’t going to win or lose a race right there, but you are going to annoy the heck out of a lot of people,” King said. “We are writing the unwritten rules of gravel right now, and there are certain ladies’ and gentlemens’ agreements around certain aspects of racing.”

And there are plenty of examples of top riders in the front group actually adhering to these truces, King said. King pointed to the finale of the 2019 SBT GRVL race as such a moment when the front group played it nice.

“There were four of us — myself, Colin [Strickland], Payson [McElveen], and Jacob Rathe, and the four of us knew we were going in together and leaving together,” King said. “We were all thirsty. There was a quick word amongst the group. ‘Let’s stop, OK cool, now let’s race to the end.'”

Maintaining a spirit of camaraderie and competition is something that gravel veterans often mention. But with the format’s surging popularity, more athletes like Roberge and ten Dam and others are flocking to gravel. And as more athletes from road, mountain biking, and other formats fill the ranks, and the races become more competitive, gravel’s attitude and unwritten rules could change.

Each new person brings his or her own perspective on etiquette.

And Roberge’s perspective around the unwritten rules is not without its own logic. Roberge said he skipped the final feed zone because he chose to race with a hydration pack. Many of the other riders chose to just carry water bottles. Those riders needed water, while Roberge had plenty of water in his pack.

So, why surrender the advantage created by his equipment choice simply to fall in line with rules of etiquette?

“People were telling me to stop but I have two more liters of water than you guys — why should I waste my advantage?” Roberge said. “You are carrying two liters of water less than me. Fine, you are having the advantage of carrying less water, so then maybe I’m not going to stop. If we all have the same equipment, then maybe it’s easier to convince everyone to stop.”

We are bound to see scenarios like this play out during Unbound Gravel, where there are two feed zone checkpoints in the 200-mile race. Gravel riders must have a support person in the feed zones to supply them with water, and it’s not unusual to see riders in the front group have multiple helpers to refill bottles, lube chains, and perform mechanical maintenance.

In 2018 I sat for hours in one of these zones. I saw some riders blast in and out of these checkpoints, with stops that would make a NASCAR crew beam with joy. I saw other top riders step off their bikes, gulp water, and even sit down. One guy took out a plastic massage stick and rubbed his legs for what seemed like an eternity before jumping back into the event.

There’s a lot on the line this weekend at Unbound Gravel, and Roberge said he’s skeptical that riders who want to win will agree to wait for each other in the feed zones.

“People want to win and they are establishing a strategy to be in and out of the feed zones as fast as possible,” Roberge said. “Where is the line? Are we waiting for the guy who is not in order and doesn’t have his bottles ready? How long do we wait? 10 minutes? I think it’s a race, and if you convince everyone to stop and there is a guy who wants to go by themselves, then they do what they do.”

Perhaps the proverbial line can be drawn at the port-o-potty stop, or at a stop for a tuna fish sandwich or a full body massage. One of my favorite memories from that 2018 race was watching Jens Voigt sit down in the feed zone and gulp a coke while someone rubbed his legs. Voigt cracked jokes about how exhausted he was and lamented the fact that he still had 100 more miles to race.

I doubt anyone was waiting for him.