EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Cameron Wurf is Ineos Grenadiers’ human Swiss Army knife. He can race classics and grand tours, and even hop into an Ironman triathlon a few times a year and challenge for the win.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Wurf raced Unbound Gravel on Saturday to scout out the race — and the U.S. gravel cycling scene — for the British WorldTour squad.
Wurf had a rough day on the bike: he suffered multiple mechanical problems and eventually finished in 86th place with a time of 11:18:40. Still, he had a fun, if long, day on the bike, and came away from the race with valuable intel to take back to his WorldTour bosses
Here’s what he learned:
You can’t just show up and expect to win
Wurf praised the physical strength of the of the U.S. gravel racers. Prior to his first flat tire he rode on the front and put in a few powerful accelerations, and was impressed by how many riders made it into the front group. In Wurf’s estimation, WorldTour riders cannot expect to just jump into the race and win without specifically training for it.
“These gravel guys are really competitive, and if WorldTour racers show up they are going to have a target on their backs. You’d have to prepare for it. I don’t think guys from the WorldTour will dominate gravel, and you can’t expect to just show up and win. OK, maybe some of the phenom guys can do it, like [Tom] Pidcock or Wout [van Aert] or [Mathieu] van der Poel. But they’d better know how to fix a flat tire.”
Fixing your bike is part of the challenge
Wurf had logged few miles on his race bike before Unbound Gravel. He slashed the sidewall of a tire after 50 miles, and was also unaccustomed to using tire plugs. Other riders had to stop and help him out, he said. His day got worse when he had problems with his bicycle’s battery.
“Some [WorldTour] guys don’t know how to fix a flat tire,” he said. “I blew out the sidewall and didn’t know what to do. I’d tell the guys that you really need to know how to work on your bike, otherwise you’ll have a day out there like I had.”
Team tactics would kill the spirit
The gravel scene has long feared that WorldTour teams would bring road racing tactics to the individual nature of Unbound Gravel and other big events. WorldTour teams have sent partial squads to the race in the past, but rarely have the teams competed with the tried-and-true tactics used in road races. Wurf believes that should continue. Even if Ineos were to send riders to a gravel race, he’d want them to race as individuals.
“The team tactics stuff, this wouldn’t be the place for it,” Wurf said. “So far there’s just not the team element. You attack and get brought back, and it’s not like there’s a teammate there to attack over the top. Frankly, that’s how it should be. It should be your own race.”
The WorldTour racing schedule could limit participation
Wurf believes some WorldTour riders would truly enjoy the challenge of Unbound Gravel. Still, finding the motivation to train specifically for the event would pose a challenge, since the WorldTour calendar leaves few opportunities for preparation and racing a major event in early June. Also, riders might be scared of injuring themselves.
“We race on the road for a living, so guys are nervous about getting themselves injured doing something like this. You cannot risk a fall, because then it’s straight back to the pressure cooker of the WorldTour. That’s the biggest thing, because there are some things about this race that are out of control. A guy might dive bomb you into a gravel corner or nudge you into the police escort car. It’s definitely nervous in that bunch. It won’t ever replace what [WorldTour] guys are doing on the road, now that I’ve seen it. But it’s certainly a great experience, and there would be guys on our team who would be great at it. Pidcock or Ben Turner, he’s got a great endurance base and bike skills.”
It’s not a road race
Wurf said the physical effort of Unbound Gravel was far different from what he sees in a major classic or other one-day road race. In those events, teams whip up the pace early and then send riders attacking up the road. In gravel, by contrast, the group accelerates and slows again and again until it gradually whittles down.
“It’s start and top, whereas a road race is full gas the whole day. That means a lot more guys are able to stay in the bunch during [Unbound Gravel].