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Enough with the haters: Katerina Nash on why the UCI’s gravel worlds isn’t a bad thing

The veteran MTB and 'cross legend wouldn't have had a career in cycling without the international federation.

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Whether or not there is a UCI Gravel World Championship in 2022 at this point is beside the point.

Katerina Nash thinks the gravel community should give the event and the UCI’s future involvement in gravel a chance.

“Are we just scared of change?” Nash said in a recent interview with VeloNews. “It’s just like I don’t see how 10 races around the world by the UCI, how that is going to ruin the rest of gravel. It shouldn’t.

“They’re not saying they can’t have beer at the finish. It will just add to what’s out there. While respecting how it’s already looking.”

Related: How Kateřina Nash keeps going

True, Nash is the president of the UCI Athletes’ Commission, a stipend-paid post she’s held since 2017, but she is also a 20-year veteran of professional cycling.

She competed in “20+” UCI world championship events as a cyclocross and mountain bike racer.

At 44, Nash is still racing, and the Czech star will be lining up at the UCI cyclocross world championships this weekend. And while she has more freedom to pick and choose how she competes now, she credits that flexibility to her career on the world stage.

“I truly can’t imagine my career without UCI World Cups and world championships, both the mountain bike and ‘cross sides,” she said. “I benefited greatly from that. I like to say that I can go race local races, sure, but that’s because I did race on the highest level for 15 years.

“So yes, I’d definitely want those opportunities for every male or female rider out there. If there’s an opportunity for this new generation to have a true place in cycling like these other disciplines have, I think they should have that opportunity.”

Nash’s defense of the international cycling federation’s future involvement in the fastest-growing sector of cycling stands in stark contrast to the overall sentiment about the “professionalization” of gravel.

When gravel worlds were announced last September, athletes, event promoters, and armchair pundits railed against the concept.

We already have a Gravel Worlds!

It will get ruined like mountain biking!

What’s next, rules on sock height? 

Nash points out that many of the loudest critics were riders who, like her, came to gravel after careers made possible by cycling federations.

“I don’t understand it quite completely,” she said. “I was never a road racer or on a WorldTour team, but the sense I get is that the riders that did that are very anti- that structure. They probably didn’t have as much fun as the off-road riders. I want to understand it more. Why this disapproval of the UCI stepping into gravel?

Related: California to host gravel worlds? What we know — and don’t know — about new UCI race

“I don’t care if ex-WorldTour riders never want to do UCI again,” she continued. “But please don’t be hypocritical and limit opportunities for those that never had a chance. There are so many women in their 20s that can’t jump into road racing anymore and work through that channel, but they’re amazing athletes and if gravel is their thing I think they should have the same opportunities as all the men out there.”

The threat that an anti-UCI sentiment could pose to younger riders who have nowhere else to go, especially women, is something Nash takes issue with.

Gravel’s meteoric rise in popularity and now-proven track record as pathway to a career in professional cycling is as undeniable as road cycling’s decline. In the latter discipline, the importance of the federation and its sanctioned events, while frequently criticized, is rarely questioned.

Why not let gravel have more than just Unbound to give someone a shot?

“I think about these women with full time jobs, racing 100 miles every other weekend — having an opportunity to win a big race and turn it into a career, that’s what I get excited about,” Nash said. “It’s the equal opportunity that all the other disciplines have, the structure that comes with the legacy of world championships. We had the 100-year celebration of worlds in Flanders last year.

“There’s a lot of credibility that comes with it. Everyone respects the rainbow jersey. Truly, even the people that are so anti-UCI — when they see a world champ or watch they races, they get giddy. You can’t have that kind of legacy without an international sporting federation.”

And, as much as Nash believes that gravel and the UCI would not make a bad marriage, she also points out that the very existence of so many types of gravel races out there makes the UCI/gravel union so non-threatening.

A more-the-merrier, rising tide lifts all boats approach.

“There are a lot of new events coming up all the time,” she said. “Obviously there’s no road racing. It’s exciting to have promoters shifting focus and figure out how to hold races on gravel. I just think that’s really good to see and important for the young riders who don’t have this road racing.

“This could be, by default, their future. Or maybe it’s a stepping stone to another discipline. Just having some racing, whether it’s a local series to an event in another part of the country. The more events we can have the better. It’s hard to travel these days so local stuff is amazing. But also big events can inspire the next generation.”

Nash points to Europe as an example of how the frequency and accessibility of watching World Cup and world championship racing fostered a more mainstream interest in cycling and a more inspiring environment for younger riders.

She hopes that this weekend’s ‘cross world champs in Fayetteville, Arkansas are a step in that direction in North America. If the 2022 gravel world championships does end up happening, Nash will support it, in practice and in presence. She’ll also support the other gravel races that pique her interest.

And, that’s just her. If riders are adamant they want nothing to do with a governing body, that’s fine. The point is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

“There will be a gravel race every weekend around the country,” she said. “Some are 130 miles, some are 60. Pick what you want to do. What’s your challenge? The flat 200 or the mountainous technical? I think it’s so awesome to have options instead of ‘Oh my god this is happening?’

“It’s a hot topic here right now. But I still firmly believe that there’s space for everyone. If there’s an opportunity for this new generation to have a true place in cycling like these other disciplines have, I think they should have that opportunity. 

“If I can, I’ll keep pushing for gravel worlds. I think it would give the discipline more credibility and create a lot of opportunities for more riders, whoever wants to dedicate their time to gravel.”