Adam Roberge rode the entire 2021 gravel season with the same tire setup — “42s with inserts.”
Granted, those tires carried him to podium finishes at Gravel Locos and BWR Asheville and to victory at Big Sugar Gravel. Yet, this is an example of Roberge’s inexperience during his freshman year of racing gravel.
The 24-year-old Canadian made the leap to the dirt in 2021 after five years racing pro on the road for North American squads Silber Pro Cycling and Elevate-Webiplex Pro Cycling. He joined the Scuderia Pinarello squad and signed up for some of the discipline’s most prestigious events. He did very well.
Throughout the season, Roberge continued to create videos for his YouTube channel, a pastime that he picked up during the depths of the pandemic. He posts content about his training, both mental and physical, as well as racing. The most popular ones are the race recaps.
“You get a really good glance of how the front group races and I think that’s what people really like, the ‘how the race was won’ ones,” Roberge told VeloNews.
In more than one instance last year, the recaps illustrated how the race was not won, by Roberge at least. Nevertheless, the videos showcase Roberge’s analytical approach to racing gravel — an approach that finally paid off at Big Sugar Gravel in October. While this year he will have the support of the new Jukebox Cycling squad — which includes a brand new Factor gravel bike and perhaps a few different sets of tires — Roberge will also carry with him the knowledge he gained from diving deeply into the sport last year.
“I think I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “Every race I knew a little more what to do and what to expect.”
Here, Roberge discusses some of what he — and in some cases, other riders and organizers — learned at three marquee gravel races last season.
In May, Roberge was one of the dozens of pros who traveled to Texas to try their luck on an unknown race. His fitness was good; his approach to gravel needed adjustment.
“During the first half of the season I wasn’t focusing on gravel at all, I had the mindset of road racing,” he said.
Roberge learned one lesson at a feed zone with 70 kilometers remaining in the race. Equipped with a hydration pack, he declined to stop even though the others in his group did.
“It was a lack of confidence,” Roberge told VeloNews in early June. “It was like maybe I can go by myself. I’m really confident in my time trial ability — and it was not a good idea. It was too early, and my only hope was to try and get them to look at each other.”
The effort would cost him in the end: He was caught and couldn’t follow eventual winner Laurens ten Dam and second-place finisher Colin Strickland in the final push to the finish line.
Although Roberge didn’t directly respond to the brief social media outrage that erupted, claiming that he had violated the “spirit of gravel,” he did admit that the move was a bad idea given the intensity and duration of most gravel races.
He also said that such outrage seemed to have died out as the season wore on.
“I don’t think they’re gonna be frustrated with stuff like that next year,” he said. “They weren’t at the end of the year. I think it was a matter of new guys coming in, no one was trying to be mean. But there was not a question about feed zones anywhere else after that Gravel Locos thing. Not at Unbound, not at Steamboat. I don’t think those issues will be a thing anymore.”
Big Sugar Gravel
In mid-October, Roberge won Big Sugar commandingly, one of few elite riders not to puncture or get tangled in a crash.
Five minutes elapsed before Dennis van Winden rolled over the line in second, and Colin Strickland didn’t come across for 25 minutes. EF Education-Nippo pro Neilson Powless was 35 minutes back.
Yes, there was quite a bit of carnage in Bentonville that day — Ted King fractured his elbow and every top contender had at least one flat — but Roberge’s front-of-the-race analysis hypothesized a possible catalyst for it.
“I think having Powless there made for a really hectic first 70k,” he said. “The first half of the race was so crazy because he was like, ‘I’m gonna ride by myself and Pete [Stetina] and Ted [King] were helping him. I think some of the guys were on the limit especially on the climbs so they had to take risks going down. Everything happened in that first 60k. After that people didn’t flat that much. We were a big field of a lot of strong guys, so I think people were taking risks on the downhill to catch back because they were getting dropped on the uphills.”
Roberge believed that Powless’ fitness — he was just days off of competing at the world road championships – and his strategy to establish a small group as soon as possible were what led to the chaos as other riders struggled to keep up with him.
“The smaller the group the easier it is to avoid damage,” Roberge said. “If I can create a selective group of six to seven as soon as possible it’s easier not to flat.”
Roberge also admits to having one trick up his sleeve during the Arkansas race.
“If I’m honest, I also had times when I smashed my rims and I think that’s where the inserts helped. Like I said, gravel is a lot about luck. If you don’t have the preparation, you won’t be able to enjoy that luck. Winning a gravel race is prep and luck. You can’t win it just with just preparation or just with luck.”
Roberge was not a happy camper at the end of the inaugural BWR Kansas race on Halloween.
The Canadian believed that he had won the 111-mile race, while the results put him in seventh. The wires were crossed due to a last-minute course change. Organizers announced at the start line that they had marked a new section of the course with signs and arrows; Roberge followed the original GPX file of the route, which did not include the change.
In his YouTube video recapping the event, Roberge went into great detail to explain his decisions during the race. And despite his insistence that he had technically won, he presented his argument with facts and reasonable requests.
In fact, Roberge said that the end result of the SNAFU was that race organizers will institute a different method of disseminating course information in the future.
“I think it helped clarify that we need to establish the course once we’re on course,” he said. “I know it’s really hard to predict what’s gonna happen. For example, BWR is so fun because they explore places that are normally inaccessible, so that comes with risk. I think from now on, if there’s a sector they’re not sure about that could be closed by a landowner or subject to flood, I think they’re just going to release the course the evening of the race, 24 hours before so no one can pre-ride. It adds to the suspense of the race, the suspense of gravel. You have an idea of the distance, the terrain, but other than that you don’t have the GPX.”
While Roberge’s race recaps and analyses ultimately help him process his own experiences in order to move on to the next, he also hopes there is a collective benefit, as well.
“In my mind, the more honest and open I am, the better people can learn from the experience.”