As the front group sped into the first section of singletrack that year, Anderson suffered a flat tire, and he believed that his day was over. At that moment his Hagens Berman-Axeon teammate Liam Holowesko stopped and gave Anderson his wheel.
Anderson continued on and finished second on the day after a close battle with Pete Stetina.
More than one year later, when Anderson was hunting for a pro contract, his result at the Belgian Waffle Ride caught the eye of Alpecin-Fenix, the team of Mathieu van der Poel.
“They actually reached out to me because they saw me race at BWR — if Liam hadn’t given me his wheel, there’s no way I would have been second on the day,” Anderson told VeloNews. “It shows that teams are actually taking these races seriously. These races are on their radar screens.”
Now, Anderson is the sole American on the Dutch team, and his place on the team is focused almost entirely on gravel. While he participated with the squad in a handful of pro road races this spring, Anderson’s big focus is the major U.S. gravel events. His racing schedule includes all four Belgian Waffle Ride events, plus Crusher in the Tushar, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, the Oregon Trail stage race, SBT GRVL, and the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.
All of these events, Anderson said, are of interest to his European road team.
“They wanted to move into the gravel discipline, and I couldn’t be more excited to be the guy to introduce them to gravel,” Anderson said about Alpecin-Fenix. “They pride themselves on racing multiple disciplines, with road and mountain bike, so to introduce them to other disciplines is really cool.”
Anderson is in Emporia this week to make his debut at Unbound Gravel, where he is among the dark horse favorites to contend for the win. His fitness from pro road racing should help him make the front group across the race’s opening 100 miles or so. How he fares in the last five or so hours of racing, however, is yet to be seen. Anderson has never ridden, let alone raced, his bicycle for 200 miles, and he is eager to see how his body holds up amid the wind and rough roads.
“It’s a 200-mile race so you never know what is going to happen,” Anderson said. “I’d say that someone who has done this event before has a big advantage because they know how to fuel and how to race properly. We’ll see what happens.”
Signing with Alpecin-Fenix in December marked a major career milestone for Anderson. The Virginia native came in 2020 hoping to score an eye-popping result in his final year with Axel Merckx’s development team and to follow the footsteps of other Hagens Berman-Axeon graduates into pro cycling’s WorldTour. But the COVID-19 pandemic torpedoed Anderson’s racing campaign.
He was in Nice, France training with fellow Virginian Joe Dombrowski when the pandemic hit, and he rushed back home just as the virus spread across Europe, canceling the big races.
Without a marquee result, Anderson headed into the 2020-21 offseason without a job. When VeloNews spoke to him in November he was contemplating returning to college or launching his own privateer racing program. Then, in December, the call from Alpecin-Fenix came, and Anderson found a lifeline to continue racing. And he knows that the lifeline came because of his results in gravel.
“I was definitely feeling a whirlwind of emotions, and at that point, I was like, ‘am I just running down a rabbit hole that won’t pan out to anything?’” Anderson said. “Then I emailed [Alpecin-Fenix] to tell them about what I was thinking about gravel, and we started talking. Less than a week later I had a contract.”
Anderson said his career path is a testament to his decision to branch out from the road, and also due to his actions and activity at mass-participant races. On Thursday afternoon, as more amateur riders filtered into downtown Emporia, Anderson strolled through the race expo, shaking hands and talking to amateur riders who recognized the Alpecin-Fenix logo on his hat and shirt.
So, what’s his advice for up-and-coming racers hoping to make it in gravel?
“Staying very personable at the events,” he said. “Making connections with brands when you’re chasing the individual thing, and then doing your sponsors and representing them well at events like this. Talking to other racers and amateurs at an event like this is a good way to grow cycling.”