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Lauren De Crescenzo added another feather in her gravel cap Sunday with a commanding win at SBT GRVL. De Crescenzo, 31, won with help from her male Cinch teammates, who helped set the pace in the wind, and who handed her a fresh bottle when her hydration ran low.
It’s a strategy that is totally legal at SBT GRVL and at most other major gravel races, however, some riders told VeloNews on and off the record that they were frustrated with the team tactics, which changed the playing field for the other top women.
Perhaps the most notable piece was De Crescenzo taking a bottle from a Cinch teammate and continuing to ride at a point where the other women stopped.
That feed from a teammate, combined with the fact that De Crescenzo rode with a CamelBak for the first portion of the race, meant that she did not have to stop to refill bottles during the 142-mile gravel race. Her competitors, meanwhile, stopped at least a couple of times.
De Crescenzo and Cinch were not breaking any SBT GRVL rules. Accepting help from other riders is allowed. Accepting outside help is not. The six feed zones, staffed by volunteers, are the only places were riders can take on supplies.
Most women who have spoken to VeloNews about mass-start gravel racing appreciate the format, including the interplay of all types of riders throughout the day. But the conversation about what constitutes fair play in a mixed field of male and female teammates, spouses, partners, friends, and random strangers continues as gravel racing evolves — particularly when prize money enters the picture.
No one is questioning De Crescenzo’s talent and grit. This year De Crescenzo won Unbound Gravel 200, and she has previously won Crusher in the Tushar and Old Man Winter.
At road nationals, De Crescenzo attacked solo with about 30 miles to go, and held off the field nearly until the end, but Lauren Stephens countered to take the win and De Crescenzo finished eighth. After nationals, Cinch offered her a full-time job with the team. It was full circle in a way for De Crescenzo, following a long comeback from a traumatic brain injury she suffered in 2016 while racing pro.
Nonstop to the finish
At SBT GRVL, the top six women were close to each other for most of the day, often coming apart and then coming back together as various groups reformed on the road.
Racing in her national road champion skinsuit, Stephens (Tibco-SVB) was up front for most of the day that featured 9,000 feet of climbing at elevation.
“I was the only girl for quite a while after the first QOM climb and then through the doubletrack, and then after the second feed I was in a pretty good-sized group,” Stephens said. “Then Lauren [De Crescenzo] caught back up to me on Highway 40 [at about mile 75] with her teammates. And from there, it was just Lauren and me in a group for a while.”
Behind, Flavia Oliveira (Excel Sports), Crystal Anthony (Liv Racing), Whitney Allison (Bike Sports), Emily Newsom (Tibco-SVB), and Sofia Gomez Villafane (Clif) chased in a group with a few men. [To be clear, men benefit from racing with the elite women, too. I was riding in this group until stopping at the third aid to refill.]
Oliveira, Anthony, and Allison caught the group with Stephens and De Crescenzo before the fourth of six feed zones. That feed zone came at mile 95, before a 9-mile slog to the high point on the course at 8,480 feet.
“At the feed zone at the bottom of the long QOM climb, Lauren’s teammates grabbed a bottle for her while she continued to ride,” Stephens said. “I stopped and filled up there. And after that, we were separated for the rest of the day.”
The rest of the top women stopped there too.
“I had to stop there, because I was empty. I had nothing,” said Oliveira, who was racing with a CamelBak and two bottles. Oliveira had raced on the Cinch team with De Crescenzo at Unbound Gravel, but now races for Excel Sports. “This is my first year doing gravel. It’s a steep learning curve. These girls are very skilled.”
Oliveira finished third. Allison, who finished fifth behind Anthony, said she came into the race without expectations, after having put on her own FoCo Fondo just two weeks prior in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“I didn’t make it back on after the aid at mile 95, which was my demise,” said Allison, who also stopped at the second aid station but was able to chase back on then. “It was a little bit too competitive for the water coolers. I couldn’t get out of there in time.”
De Crescenzo, for her part, pointed out that she and her team were not in violation of any SBT GRVL rule.
“I went clear on the climb. I threw the hammer down and I made a gap,” De Crescenzo said. “I was wearing a CamelBak in the first 25 miles. I dropped it at the first aid station because it was a hot day out there.”
De Crescenzo said she rode with male Cinch teammates and many other riders throughout the day, trading pulls on the front of the group like you would at any race.
“I didn’t actually have to stop. I ran out of water at the end and I asked someone for a sip of water,” she said. “But I had like 3.5 liters of water and then I had a sip out of my friend’s bottle. I actually didn’t stop. I kept rolling.”
De Crescenzo said she wasn’t aware of the time splits until the final miles, when a moto pilot told her she had about a four-minute gap.
Behind, Stephens stopped again at the fifth aid station and fell in with a small group of men for the remaining miles.
“From there to the finish I had a decent group of four or five guys, and they were still pushing it pretty hard,” she said. “But Lauren was able to stay away and she had a strong ride.”
What lies ahead
At most gravel races, men and women start and race together. Race promoters have asked many of their customers and top riders what format should be used, and the mass-start remains the popular choice.
There are exceptions. Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego this year had a separate start for the pro women. And Pete Stetina is putting on an event later this year, Stetina’s Paydirt, where only the women have a cash purse — $4,400 split among the top five — and the event is saying that male domestiques are not allowed to help the women. This is the only gravel event that VeloNews is aware of with such a configuration.
Next up on the gravel calendar is Gravel Worlds, August 21 in Lincoln, Nebraska. It will be a mass start.