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Gravel

‘I feel the pressure to make the right decision.’ Pro gravel racers discuss whether or not to race in 2021

Gravel racers and event promoters have their doubts about springtime events going forward, but are optimistic about events later in the year.

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There is no riders union for elite gravel racers. In fact, gravel has no governing body and very few professional teams. Still, that hasn’t stopped athletes and race promoters from organizing ad hoc conference calls to discuss how to handle specific situations, much like a traditional union might do in other sports.

And, with gravel virtually wiped from the calendar last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the eve of the 2021 season is as apropos as any for a conversation.

VeloNews spoke with some of the athletes who participated in recent conference calls to discuss — among other topics — whether or not they plan to race in 2021.

“The intent of it was to have a judgment-free discussion on how we all felt about mass-participation events going forward,” said two-time DK (now known as Unbound Gravel) winner Amanda Nauman.

By the end of 2020, most professional cyclists had seen some semblance of racing return. That was not the case in gravel racing, where most events are driven by mass participation and not interest in pro riders. At the time of this story’s publishing, some of the country’s biggest mass-participant gravel races were still deciding whether or not to proceed with their published start dates for 2021.

Nevertheless, while the 2021 gravel season is far from guaranteed, veterans like Alison Tetrick, who participated in the conference calls, say that most people in the discipline are putting their best feet forward.

“The calls were super informative, everyone was extremely positive and had great feedback and owned feelings and concerns,” Tetrick said. “Of course there were different motivations, coming from people running events, sponsoring, racing them. It was a broad scope of individuals which is what made it interesting. In this situation, there can’t be one blanket right or wrong answer.”

Hopes for a return to normalcy

Racer and event promoter Amanda Nauman says she “feels added pressure to make the right decision” about how to proceed in 2021. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

It’s training as usual right now for many of these gravel pros although “as usual” now comes with a healthy dose of flexibility.

“I guess I’m training for a vague hope that at some point I will get to race against people,” said Amity Rockwell, winner of the 2019 Unbound Gravel. “Assuming that it’s sometime in the next year is enough to get me motivated.”

Rockwell is based in California, as are Tetrick and Nauman. All three agree that the likelihood of events in the spring is low; however, they are hopeful for a more normal summer season, as well as a robust fall.

“Back in September 2020 I was optimistic about possibly doing Rock Cobbler in February 2021, but I had no way of predicting how bad the number of cases would skyrocket in the Southern California area over the winter,” Nauman said. “California’s current stay-at-home order makes me uneasy about traveling for any major event until late spring. Unbound XL is the first event of the year I can say ‘maybe, and hopefully’ to. Overall, I envision a conflicted late winter and spring season, a more acceptable summer of events, and a strong fall to wrap up the year.”

Given the ongoing surge of COVID-19 in the U.S., mid-March’s Mid South is again being put in a pressure-filled position. The likelihood of a gathering of 3,000 people in Stillwater, Oklahoma is low, from both an organizational and participatory standpoint. Therefore, some riders have late May penciled in as the official start to their season.

Nevertheless, Ted King was loath to admit that waiting until the fifth month of the year to race doesn’t make matters easier.

“It’s such a hard question, to a degree I don’t want my name down to names on a calendar,” he said.

Both King and Tetrick (and Groad Trip’s Pete Stetina) have their names down for the Gravel Locos 150 on May 22, in Texas. The race is two week’s before Unbound Gravel, “good timing to test out some top-end stuff,” King said.

Perhaps the most anticipated race of 2021 for various reasons, Unbound Gravel remains high on the list for many gravel fans, professional and recreational alike. However, with vaccine rollout moving slower than anticipated and the ongoing surge in cases, hesitation sits squarely alongside hope.

Hesitations against returning too soon

Ted King is organizing his own event, Rooted Vermont, which is scheduled for August 1. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

For Nauman and King, it’s not just their own personal race calendars subject to change this year. Both have added event promoter to their palmares, and both canceled their races last summer. King’s Rooted Vermont is currently sold out for 2021, and Nauman hopes that the September date of her event — the Mammoth Tuff — helps buy some time.

Nevertheless, the pressure doubles when you’re in charge.

“I absolutely feel the added pressure to make ‘the right decision,'” Nauman said. “I don’t want the pursuit of a racing schedule to contribute to the worsening of the pandemic. And, I don’t want to set a bad example of traveling to mass gatherings for my hobby.”

Both Nauman and King have cancelation policies and COVID-mitigation baked into the events. They cite the CDC, state, and local mandates when explaining how decisions will be made to proceed with the event or not.

“It does allow it to be black and white,” King said.

What will likely not be black and white, as it wasn’t in the latter part of last year either, is how people make decisions to attend events or not.

After the muddy and contentious Mid South last year, riders like Nauman, Stetina, and more were subject to criticism for going amid rising concerns about the pandemic. Stetina endured more of the same after going to October’s Belgian Waffle Ride Cedar City (full disclosure: VeloNews had reporters at both events). Ted King was even questioned about his decision to ride 1,200 miles of rural Arkansas gravel in the Arkansaw High Country bikepacking race.

Tetrick says that the vibe she sensed from the call with other gravel folks was a willingness to be less judgmental and more compassionate.

“Events vary in location,” she said. “You fly, you drive, you are with people in a bubble — it’s extremely grey and difficult to navigate. I think it’s important for me to set a good example for what is safe and the right thing to do in my opinion, which offers no judgment on other people’s decisions.”

While an informal consensus not to rip each other’s legs off on social media seems to be one of the takeaways from the gravel pros, so is the agreement that they all can’t wait to do it in person.