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After 20 years of intense, pressure-filled World Cup racing, the pursuit of her Olympic dreams, and the heartbreak of not making the Tokyo 2020 selection, Lea Davison just wanted to have fun this season.
She wanted to race her bike without the stress of international travel and the pressure of results. She wanted to race domestically, where friends and family could visit, and to check out this hyped thing called gravel.
So, she signed up for the Life Time Grand Prix series.
“My assumption in this decision was that I love all kinds of bike racing,” she said.
But, Davison would soon find out that what she really loves is mountain bike racing. “It’s what sets my soul on fire, and it makes me feel empowered and powerful.” Gravel? Not so much.
“I think there’s an assumption right now in the cycling industry that it’s a one-way movement from any cycling discipline to gravel,” Davison said. “That pros retire from elite level racing to love gravel and get paid to race gravel. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case with everyone. I love mountain biking and mountain bike racing.
“But a contradiction and two opposites can exist at once. I can love mountain biking and still be grateful that I finished Unbound and that I got to experience the connections that can happen in a mass start gravel race … and still, it can not be my cup of tea.”
Really though, is 200 miles of gravel racing anyone’s preferred beverage? Isn’t this just Lea Davison chickening out?
With two mountain bike races and a decidedly less brutal gravel race than Unbound yet to come in the series, I had to ask: why drop out now? Especially considering Davison’s self-professed values of “never giving up and working hard towards a goal.”
It came down to three things, she said: fun, safety, and fairness — and a general lack thereof.
The fun factor
After finishing fourth at the 50-mile XC race at Sea Otter, the first race in the Grand Prix series, Davison was game to focus her training on the next race in the series — Unbound Gravel. She was up for it, but terrified.
After 20 years of training for intense 1.5 hour efforts, Davison was out of her league, and she knew it. What she didn’t know was how her body would react once she was racing.
“It took a toll on my body that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Davison said of the race effort. “I got this gnarly rash that started to spread all over my body. I had to go on a heavy dose of prednisone for two weeks for it to clear and for me to feel healthy again.”
While Davison’s gravel allergy was one unfortunate side effect of Unbound, other things happened during the race that made her re-evaluate her commitment to the Grand Prix.
One, after racing to the first feed zone at around mile 80 — “I was with Haley Smith and Sarah Sturm in the top 10 and stoked to be in some mountain biker company,” Davison said — she cracked.
She then spent the next 80 miles alone, it started raining, and things took a turn that anyone who’s done Unbound or any long gravel race is familiar with: Davison went from racing to surviving. While certainly not alone in the misery, Davison wasn’t willing to accept it as just part of the experience.
“It turns out I’m into racing,” she said. “Not so much into just surviving. I have three goals: to have fun, to be with people, to be in the mix of the race. At Unbound, I was a far way off of those three goals for the season so between that and the rash, it really caused me to re-evaluate my season.”
As did another aspect of the gravel race: the safety factor.
The safety factor
The lack of sanctioning has long been one of gravel’s defining characteristics and perhaps the lodestar of its existence. However, recently more and more riders are calling out the lack of a formal safety structure as simply careless.
Many of them are mountain bikers, who are accustomed to both rules and a ‘good vibes’ race environment co-existing.
The need for more safety measures, they say, doesn’t have to kill the spirit of gravel. Rather, it’s to ensure that no one gets killed racing gravel. As big organizers up the ante with events like the Life Time Grand Prix and the BWR Quadrupel Crown, they need to up the ante of safety on course — namely in the pro race where riders are racing for money and their livelihood.
Pro racing in an unsanctioned format is a recipe for disaster, Davison said.
“The Life Time Grand Prix prize purse at the end of the season may be the most money some make that season or a racer may be using it to cover all their expenses for the season to travel to the races in the series,” she said.
“People don’t realize that winning these races may be the difference in having a job next year or not, so the stakes are really high and when they are that high, racers take risks. One racer may attack through an intersection in front of a car, descend on the inside of a blind corner, and that’s not a risk that I’m willing to take.”
Davison wants change for her own safety but more so for the younger riders who are trying to make a career out of racing. She doesn’t think that adding course marshals, closing roads, and placing police at busy intersections will damage gravel’s grassroots vibes; she just thinks those measures could save a life or prevent serious injury.
“I’m not saying gravel has to become UCI or USA Cycling,” she said. “I’m saying that these organizations have been creating safe and fair racing at the highest level for years, so let’s borrow some things from them. Mostly, safety measures. I don’t care about sock height or logo placement.”
Another interesting point called to light during this year’s gravel season, namely by Unbound’s winner Sofia Gomez Villafañe, is how the discipline does not foster a true women’s race.
With nearly all gravel races using a mass start format, most pro women end up racing entirely with men. There is rarely a dedicated women’s race within the larger one.
“Oftentimes, I never see the women that I’m ‘racing’ against,” Davison said.
If there were a dedicated women’s race, Davison said, she would know who she was up against and the familiarity would build a sense of trust.
“Oftentimes, my competitors are taken out in a crash with a guy,” she said. “There were so many crashes in the first 20 miles of Unbound, I was in one of them. When I’m racing with the elite women, I know the women and I can trust their skill level. Gravel racing is the wild west in that regard.
“Professional cycling already has enough risk involved with crashes, mechanicals, and bad luck. When you add in the unsanctioned racing without rules and a mass start with men, it adds in so many other variables that I feel like it’s not racing at its purest and most fair form.”
Davison’s decision to withdraw from the Grand Prix series isn’t meant to be a grand treatise on gravel or its longevity. Nor is it to throw shade on Life Time or its events.
In fact, Davison said that the experience she recently had at Rooted Vermont, where she wasn’t racing but just participating, helped her “finally understand the beauty of gravel.”
When she is racing, though, which is what she signed up to do in the Grand Prix, Davison is just looking for a different — more fun, safer, and fair — experience.