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For so many gravel race directors and participants, what gravel is not has been almost as much of an attraction as what gravel is. As in, gravel racing is not road racing — a standardized, rule-centric sport with an overarching structure of a national governing body, much less bike racing’s global governing body of the UCI.
And now, the UCI has announced a gravel world championships in 2022 and a Gravel World Series. The UCI’s gravel worlds will most likely be in the U.S. So what will this mean for gravel racing?
VeloNews spoke to a few racers and race directors for their thoughts on the announcement.
For starters, there already is a Gravel Worlds in the U.S. — a grassroots event in Lincoln, Nebraska that has been going since 2010. Gravel Worlds promoters selected the name as a good-natured joke.
Jason Strohbehn is director of operations at Gravel Worlds. He said the UCI has not contacted him or his team, much less explored the concept with them.
“We have and will always continue to strive to be the Gravel Worlds for the everyday rider while also celebrating the peak of human performance,” Strohbehn said. “Gravel was born in the midwest of the United States in places like Lincoln, Emporia, [Kansas] and Stillwater [Oklahoma], and we take pride in knowing we helped revolutionize an entire industry. Our focus is to keep gravel grassroots and we will celebrate that history through our event for years to come.”
U.S. national road champion and successful gravel racer Lauren Stephens likes the idea of a UCI gravel world championships.
“I see it adding a new level and taking the discipline more global,” said Stephens, who is in Belgium now to compete in the UCI road world championships on Saturday. “I hope to see the long distances and self-support aspects of gravel reflected in the event. For sure I want to line up to have chance to compete for the rainbow jersey.”
Lauren De Crescenzo, who has been on a hot streak this year with wins at Unbound Gravel, SBT GRVL, and Gravel Worlds, said that she is excited about the UCI creating new events and adding to the fast-growing sport of gravel.
“I think it’s a good move by the UCI given their new ‘Cycling for All’ initiative.” De Crescenzo said. “One thing I love about gravel events is riding and meeting people from all different backgrounds with different abilities. So more people working together to get more people on gravel bikes sounds good to me.”
“I feel like UCI involvement could put gravel on a world-wide stage; fans would be able to follow riders in the series, there would be more of a global audience and potentially more visibility to young women and men starting the sport. I’m excited about growing the sport and I think this could create new opportunities for younger riders.”
Some riders, however, were blunt in their criticism. “Wow, UCI Cycling – y’all actually suck,” tweeted Ty Magner of L39ion of Los Angeles.
Wow @UCI_cycling– y’all actually suck.
— Ty Magner (@Ty_Magner) September 22, 2021
Amanda Nauman, a two-time winner of Dirty Kanza (now Unbound Gravel) and promoter of the Mammoth Tuff gravel race, took a broader view.
“From my understanding, UCI gravel is going to be part of the ‘Cycling for All’ initiative, which helps ‘Ensure that elite cycling acts as a catalyst to inspire even greater mass participation, and get many more people using bikes as part of their everyday lives,'” Nauman said. “And honestly, I can’t be mad about it being part of that initiative. The UCI Gran Fondo world series and championships exist without hot takes, bullying, making fun of it, etc. Maybe the gravel version can exist autonomously and we can all just be happy for it and let it be what it wants to be.”
Nauman said that she is not yet sure if she wants to race a UCI gravel worlds.
“That might depend on how much of a focus they put on the mass participation, the rules, the structure, and if they stick to their guns and actually use gravel to inspire people to use bikes as part of their everyday lives,” she said. “I have faith and optimism that they will do this because they’ve done enough research to know from promoters and racers that it’s the mass participation that’s the heart of these events. But if they come out and focus only on the pros and ignore the original purpose and intent of ‘Cycling for All,’ then I’ll have a hard time supporting it.”
Ian Boswell is this year’s Unbound Gravel 200 winner, a former WorldTour racer, and a promoter of a grassroots gravel event this weekend, the Peacham Fall Fondo.
Boswell said that he hasn’t yet fully digested the news, and is not sure whether the UCI getting involved is a positive thing for gravel, nor whether he will race the UCI gravel worlds himself.
“One thing I have truly loved about gravel is that every race is so different, it has allowed new riders to enter the sport, and given us so many good stories and characters across a wide spectrum of fitness levels,” Boswell said. “I also live in a 200-plus-year-old farmhouse and have learned to not try and fix what is not yet broken.”
As to whether the UCI getting involved in gravel is a positive or negative thing for the sport, SBT GRVL owner and gravel racer Amy Charity said it depends on the perspective of the rider.
“Some will see this as an opportunity to chase the rainbow jersey. Adding this structure of qualifiers and worlds to gravel racing will appeal to this very select group of racers,” Charity said. “That said, a UCI-sanctioned gravel worlds will likely be of limited interest to the majority of gravel riders, especially in the U.S. Many or most of us came to gravel to get away from the rigid structure imposed by governing bodies. This is the case for the majority of SBT GRVL riders, who are drawn to our event for the overall experience and intentional lack of rules and regulations.”
Pete Stetina, a gravel racer, VeloNews columnist, and organizer of Stetina’s Paydirt, said he was pessimistic about the announcement, but was waiting for more details from the UCI.
“We all knew they would come, but how was the question,” Stetina said. “I fell in love with gravel for the qualities that many do, which is very different than the UCI model. I hope they understand that the racing isn’t as important as the festival and the journey. Gravel racing, while getting faster and more competitive, is still about the masses, the community and relatability, so chasing qualifying points around the world seems antithetical to me and isn’t something I’m interested in. I choose events based on what piques my inspiration and curiosity.”
Life Time is the owner of many big gravel races, including Unbound Gravel, Crusher in the Tushar, Big Sugar, and The ‘Rad. Life Time VP Kimo Seymour said that the UCI announcement did not really offers any specifics as to its plans.
“In the end, if this gets more people riding bikes, especially in the U.S., that’s a good thing,” Seymour said. “If it cannibalizes current participation, that’s a negative impact on our events and all our industry friends’ events.”
VeloNews asked Seymour what sort of rider turnout he expects for UCI gravel events.
“People will be interested, but our crystal ball isn’t any clearer than yours,” he said. “We believe people love gravel for the experiences, the community it brings together and the communities where events are currently happening. While a lot of the press covers the front end of the race, which has been fantastic to see, the life blood of gravel events are the other 99 percent of the riders who are just out for a great ride, with a good party at the end. It remains to be seen if what the UCI creates can appeal to that crowd.”