When Brendan Quirk looks into his figurative crystal ball, he sees a fork in the road when it comes to gravel.
And, he doesn’t think the diverging paths are a bad thing.
“One track will be the people motivated to be there for the experience and community and challenging themselves,” the CEO of USA Cycling (USAC) told VeloNews. “That will be the bulk of the people out there and should be celebrated.
“The other side is hardcore racing. These athletes that want to win and are going to be doing everything possible to win. They’re not there for the afterparty, they’re there to win the bike race. Ultimately, that’s how I see this bifurcation.”
Quirk, who’s just shy of his one-year anniversary at the helm of USAC, recently revealed some of the governing body’s plans for gravel, which is arguably the most popular cycling discipline in the United States.
While USAC has largely played a peripheral role in gravel, mostly in the form of insuring events but rarely sanctioning them, the federation is ready to move into a more active role.
It plans to do so in two ways, along the lines of the two pathways Quirk envisions; one, by embracing the so-called spirit that already exists and supporting established events, and two, by helping to cultivate and support aspiring young competitive athletes.
USAC Gravel Nationals
USAC’s most immediate agenda item is to organize a gravel national championship in 2023.
Quirk said that the organization is in “the final mile” in choosing a date and host venue and that details will be revealed before the end of the year.
The abundance of gravel events on the calendar has made choosing a date extremely challenging, Quirk said.
“I had never looked at a calendar that closely, it’s nuts. Out of respect for the current gravel calendar, our aim is for the race to be in late spring. But due to logistical and host city considerations, it may be later in the year. It’s hard to choose, there are more events than there are available weekends.”
With gravel, a discipline that has rocketed to success without interference from the governing body, Quirk said that USAC is on a perennial quest to be “self-aware” and not step on the toes of already-established events.
He also has to consider other national championship events that will likely be slotted into their normal timeframes — like road nats in June and MTB nats in July, for example.
So, while the quest for a ‘perfect’ date might prove elusive, the federation is focusing on things it can control — namely, that it makes information about the competition readily available to athletes as soon as possible.
A dearth of information about the details of October’s UCI Gravel World Championships was one of the primary criticisms of the inaugural event, one that many riders said dissuaded them from exhibiting any enthusiasm for it.
Gravel worlds’ date was announced four months ahead of the event, while the route wasn’t revealed until less than a month before.
Then, the route itself served as further fodder for skeptics.
Quirk said that USAC is keeping all of this in mind when making decisions on how to best promote the new national championships. Designing routes that accurately represent the gravel most Americans are familiar with is tantamount.
“In terms of terrain it will be similar to American gravel, not Italian gravel,” he said. “Although, from a length standpoint, this won’t be a 200-mile death march. That’s a unique concept for the races that lead with that. I expect this to be in the 100ish-mile range, more like a Big Sugar.”
Regarding particulars of the event, Quirk said that it would resemble USAC’s other national championships, with junior, collegiate, age-group, and elite races. Distances will vary depending on the category.
He wasn’t yet sure on details about whether elite men and women would race the same distances but said that he was aware of the criticism around that issue at gravel worlds and thought it was well-founded.
“This is a sport that’s defined by parity. Philosophically it’s men, women, all the same,” Quirk said.
Junior and collegiate gravel series
Another focus for USAC is the development of junior and collegiate gravel cyclists. The federation plans to organize both a junior and collegiate gravel series in 2024, working with already-established event promoters.
Quirk said that the organization hopes to “find a select number of recognized races and do standalone junior and collegiate events to create energy and attention.”
He likened the vision to USAC’s partnership with crit organizers during the launch of this year’s American Criterium Cup, which unified 10 already-established races across the country.
He also acknowledged how important it was to have buy-in from the gravel community and race organizers.
“We’re not trying to create this as a standalone model. But if we create a series, there’s a more interesting narrative,” he said.
While the number of professional athletes coming to gravel has been steadily rising in the past few years, there’s no doubt that series like the Life Time Grand Prix and the Belgian Waffle Ride Quadrupel Crown have increased the visibility of the migration.
However, the market for fostering a space for junior and collegiate riders in gravel has remained mostly untapped.
Last year, SBT GRVL and The Mid South co-marketed an offer for discounted race entries for juniors but neither offered a dedicated race for the young riders. The Grasshopper Adventure Series also has a junior category for each of its individual races and the overall series, but juniors race the same courses as everyone else.
Quirk believes that a standalone series for juniors and collegiate riders would create a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ type of situation — for both gravel race promoters and for USAC itself.
For the race organizers, USAC could provide series support, through logistics and insurance, “the things we do that provide tangible value to events,” he said. However, race organizers would still retain autonomy over aspects of the race like courses, distance, and terrain.
“These are still their events, so it’s almost like a series within the events.”
For the federation, Quirk sees multiple benefits from encouraging young athletes to take up gravel. Namely, that it will foster a cross-directional flow of riders across disciplines.
And, he’s not concerned with which direction they choose.
“This could solidify a pathway from mountain biking into gravel or junior road racing into gravel. There’s not a logical pathway from NICA into gravel, so let’s come together as a gravel community and build it,” he said.
“And, cyclists are notoriously promiscuous across disciplines. A newcomer who comes to cycling through gravel might see the Tour de France or mountain bike XC worlds on TV and think, ‘I want to try that.'”
Quirk said that all disciplines of cycling need the success of the others for continued growth. That what is good for road is good for gravel and vice versa.
It’s for this reason that he continues to affirm USAC’s desire to work with the gravel community rather than against or in spite of it. He believes that the introduction of a gravel national championships that resembles ‘traditional’ gravel and junior and collegiate gravel series that operates within the existing race scene should only bolster gravel’s positive impact on American bike racing.
“We all want the same thing,” Quirk said. “We all want to grow the sport. We’re a nonprofit that wants to grow the sport of bike racing. When gravel race promoters are successful, we’re successful.”