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At Strade Bianche Donne, Emily Newsom (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB) was one of the first riders to break away, just 10 kilometers into the 136-kilometer race.
She rode solo for a while, “really hard, too hard for sure,” she said, but she was happy with her performance at her first foray onto the Tuscan white gravel.
Could the 38-year-old’s breakaway in Tuscany last Saturday be a harbinger of things to come this weekend? Is racing on white gravel the same as racing on red clay dirt?
Newsom, along with nearly 2,500 others, is traveling to Stillwater, Oklahoma for The Mid South on Saturday. While current and former men’s WorldTour riders have become regulars at domestic gravel races, Newsom is one of very few women racing gravel while also competing at the highest level of professional road racing.
Does it give her an outsized advantage?
“I guess I could see that people might think that, but as the level of gravel is going up that is less and less true,” Newsom told VeloNews. “You have women who are focusing just on gravel so they’re focusing on those really long endurance efforts. They have their nutrition nailed. The WorldTour level is so high that you’ll probably do OK in gravel if you pop on over, but it still takes a specific focus and specific training.”
Gravel: “definitely not less important, just different”
The Mid South will be Newsom’s second gravel race of 2022 (she finished second to teammate Lauren Stephens at the Texas Chainring Massacre in January) during what is shaping up to be a very gravel-heavy season.
Newsom is slated to lead EF Education-TIBCO-SVB’s alternative calendar this year. Before the North American squad took on EF Education as a title sponsor, team owner Linda Jackson was already supportive of riders competing in off-road races, similar to what Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes had been doing over at EF Education-EasyPost.
Newsom and her teammate Lauren Stephens were frequently on the start line of gravel events last year.
Newsom says there are myriad reasons she loves riding — and racing — gravel.
“I really love being out in nature,” she said. “In the woods or the fields. I really love that and find it extremely enjoyable. I like the technique, just the sound of gravel. Your mind is always focused, you’re always anticipating what’s coming up.
“It requires, in some ways, more technique than road. It’s always changing, I really like that. I also enjoy that it’s a bit more of an individual effort. I find that simplicity nice and a nice change and it reminds me of when I first started riding.”
Newsom’s 2022 calendar, while subject to change, has been built around a heavy lift of gravel races — she’s racing the Life Time Grand Prix series — as well as a few blocks of European racing. Is training for one the same as the other?
“I think the difference would be with road I’d focus more on the high end leading into a road block,” she said. “With gravel, I’d focus more on long sustained power. Nutrition is a bigger factor in gravel, too. I like to really make sure I know the course, know who’s gonna be there, and whether it’s a mass start or not.”
The other question that piques curiosity in regards to WorldTour pros racing gravel is how much the race — performance, results, et cetera — matters. Are these just fun rides? Training rides? Sponsor-appeasing rides?
Newsom says that gravel races are no less significant to her career than road races. She does, however, approach each with a different mindset.
“Definitely not less important, just different,” she said. “I find I just categorize them in my head very differently. Road racing, I’m thinking about the team goal and who we’re riding for — the team plan and execution to the best of my ability. Gravel, I’m still thinking of the team but it’s more of an individual focus that would look good for the team.”
And finally, what happens when a non-WorldTour pro beats a WorldTour pro? (other than it happening all the time.) Does it hit Newsom a different way? As an example, I ask her about Mo Wilson, who beat her at last year’s Big Sugar Gravel race in Bentonville, Arkansas. Does Newsom beat herself up when she’s second — or third or fourth — to someone who focuses exclusively on gravel?
“I don’t let it get me down,” she said. “For one thing, in gravel, it’s such a long race. So many things have to go right. So many things can’t have gone wrong. Before I knew who Mo was, she did Unbound. She had so many punctures and issues that she finished a bit back. Then she ends up on the podium in so many other races and then wins Big Sugar. I don’t think you can really judge yourself based on where you end up on the podium. I look at is at — ‘did I go as hard as I could, as deep as I could? Did I race courageously?'”
Furthermore, Newsom says, she’s certain some of her gravel compatriots could swap over to the pro road circuit if they wanted to.
“To win a race is really hard,” she said. “I have so much respect for the women doing gravel. They’re really, really strong. Their strength is where they could compete at WorldTour level. I don’t know about skills, but power-wise for sure.”