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Commentary: Think EF riders will dominate gravel, MTB, and fixie races? Think again

Since EF announced its partnership with Rapha, we've all been wondering how WorldTour pros will fare in "alternative" races.

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You probably read the recent #disruptive bike news.

WorldTour squad EF Education First plans to send riders to participate in gravel races, fixed-gear criteriums, and “mixed terrain” races in 2019, as part of the team’s Rapha sponsorship.

From the Rapha press release:

“Together, we share a desire to disrupt the status quo of the sport we love … The team will flip the script on the calendar, with riders not just competing in the WorldTour but also fixed gear criteriums, ultra-endurance races, and mixed-terrain events.”

Having covered my share of these races, I applaud EF for its nontraditional approach. Since the team’s announcement, one question has bounced around in my brain: Can EF actually win these races? WorldTour roadies undoubtedly have strong legs and lungs. Can that overcome whatever shortcomings they may have with technique and specific racing experience?

Of course, there are several unknown variables that factor into an answer. EF has yet to announce which races it will target, and which riders will participate in each event. The answer to these two questions may determine what level of success the team enjoys during its foray into cycling’s nontraditional racing formats.

Still, we have a few educated guesses on the events. The Red Hook Criterium, Dirty Kanza 200, Crusher in the Tushar, and Leadville 100 are all near the top of our list.

So can EF win? To get a more informed take, I reached out to some experts for informed takes. My experts believe that these nontraditional racing communities will welcome EF’s riders. But an EF victory party at these races is hardly guaranteed.

Gravel Races (Dirty Kanza 200, Crusher in the Tushar)


No two gravel events are created equal, of course. Dirty Kanza’s rolling and windswept 200-mile course is a completely different beast from the rocks and singletrack at Grinduro, or the soaring climbs at Crusher in the Tushar.

That said, a WorldTour-level road racer should have a sizable advantage on gravel due to the sustained nature of the racing efforts, and because WorldTour road racers have enormous aerobic capacities. So long as the WorldTour rider can repair the inevitable flat tire or mechanical calamity that pops up, he should be fine.

Top road riders already dominate these races. Ted King has won Dirty Kanza twice; retired road rider Robbie Squire won Crusher in the Tushar from 2015-17.

Mat Stephens, the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 winner, said the selective nature of top gravel races favors those riders who are strong and also patient.

“These guys do huge mileage so they’ll definitely have the endurance. They know how to pace themselves for seven-hour races,” Stephens said. “The pacing and style at these [gravel] races is something that takes a little time to grasp. Someone who is super aggressive may struggle. If they are patient they should be fine.”

Mat Stephens (L) and Geoff Kabush (R) had a moment on the Salsa Cycles chaise lounge at Dirty Kanza 200. Photo: Scott Haraldson/Salsa Cycles/

The question, however, is how the gravel scene will react if EF sends an entire team to the events. Regional teams often try to deploy team tactics at these events, however no gravel team would be able to compete with riders from the WorldTour.

“If they brought a huge team of five or six guys that might be seen as overkill,” said Colin Strickland, winner of the 2017 and 2018 gravel world championships. “More publicity is always good but some people might see that as bullying.”

Marathon mountain bike races (Leadville 100, Epic Rides)


The answer here is very dependent on the specific mountain bike races and riders. Lance and Levi won the Leadville 100 a decade ago, and Joe Dombrowski finished second there in 2016. Could EF win the high-altitude 100-mile race with its long, soaring climbs? Perhaps, so long as World Cup honcho Howard Grotts, the two-time defending champ, stays at home.

What about other long-distance mountain bike events, such as the Epic Rides mountain bike races? Canadian cross-country great Geoff Kabush thinks WorldTour riders will struggle.

“People underestimate the specific fitness required for these disciplines,” Kabush said. “There’s a subtlety of the technique and comfort on the bike that requires you to spend a lot of time on your mountain bike. You can’t just ride it in the off-season.”

Peter Sagan raced the 2016 Olympics cross-country mountain bike race. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Every few years the cycling world finds a multi-disciplined rider who can excel both on and off road. Usually, this rider has a blend of raw power and mind-boggling technical skills. Mathieu van der Poel and Peter Sagan are the latest riders made from this mold. No disrespect to EF’s roster. Alas, the team does not have a rider with van der Poel’s off-road skills.

Plus, backcountry mountain bike races require raw power to speed up steep, punchy climbs. They also require the technical skills to survive rock drops and punishing rocky descents. Kabush does not see EF riders winning any Epic Rides races. I agree.

“I think they’re going to be surprised by the fitness level in these mountain bike races,” Kabush said. “World-class cyclists don’t just exist on the road.”

Fixed-gear criteriums (Red Hook Crit)

Verdict: NO WAY

Fixed gear criterium events present the steepest challenge for EF’s WorldTour riders. Pedaling a fixed-gear bicycle on a twisting road course in a tight pack presents a terrifying challenge for the uninitiated. There are frequent crashes. The rider who wins usually has the best combination of strength and skill on a fixed-gear bicycle.

And these days, the discipline supports a healthy population of riders who focus primarily on these races. These days the Red Hook Criterium is dominated by pro road riders who have dedicated themselves to the fixed-gear criterium format, such as former Quick-Step rider Davide Vigano and this year’s champ, Filippo Fortin.

“There is no way they’ll win,” says Strickland, who owns four Red Hook titles.  “There are racers in Europe who are so strong and are racing fixed-gear events every weekend. It’s a full-fledged discipline over there.”

Strickland knows what it takes to win a Red Hook Crit. Photo credit: Chris Riekert.

Sure, riders must avoid pedal strikes as they zoom through corners, and they must accelerate and decelerate without brakes. Oftentimes, the tight corners allow for only a single-file line of riders to pass through. But that’s not the only challenge, Strickland says. Riders must develop the muscles and technique to lock up the rear wheel and skid through corners and around crashes, which are frequent.

“Your reverse pedaling muscles need to be strong, and you can really only develop those by reverse pedaling a lot,” he says. “Otherwise you’re just jarring your tendons and that saps your leg strength after a while.”

David Trimble, Red Hook’s founder, says the EF riders can expect no special treatment at Red Hook. Hundreds of riders sign up to race each Red Hook race, and they participate in qualifying rounds in order to make the final. EF’s riders will need to qualify, just like everyone else, and that means surviving the early rounds, where they will race against riders with a wide variety of experience. In 2018 former Canadian national road champion Bruno Langlois failed to even qualify for the finals.

Could an EF rider overcome the challenges? Sure. In 2017 Bahrain-Merida’s Ivan Cortina Garcia won the Red Hook race in Milan. But Trimble said Cortina Garcia participated in several smaller regional fixed-gear criteriums in the months leading up to his victory.

“The main thing is when a rider wins, they don’t just jump into it. They spend time preparing,” Trimble said. “It’s a mental thing. You have to really want to win it and accept the risks and what you’re getting yourself into.”