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Gravel

Meet Ian Lopez de San Roman, the teenager at the pointy end of gravel

The 19-year-old from California had an offer from a Spanish development team but chose Mazda Lauf Factory gravel for 2023

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A few months ago, which was a few months after his high school graduation, Ian Lopez de San Roman was offered an opportunity that many aspiring pro cyclists would jump at — to move to Europe to train and race on the road with a Spanish development squad.

Until very recently, he was “90 percent committed.”

“I had gotten a solid offer, I was super in, and super excited,” Lopez de San Roman said. “My dad’s from Spain, so I thought it would be a really good idea, a good scene.”

Still, 10 percent hesitation remained — “I also talked to a lot of people and was hearing that scene was super brutal, with dopers, and people would kick you to the curb, even your own team,” he said. 

Into that small shadow of doubt crept one notable week of racing gravel.

At the end of October, Lopez de San Roman spent about 1o days guest riding for Mazda Lauf Factory Racing, one of gravel’s few official teams. He raced BWR Kansas (11th, in a sprint with teammate Chase Wark) and Big Sugar Gravel (56th of 62 pro men — “I got six flats,” he said). He spent the intervening week hanging and traveling with the other riders.

While the results were nothing to write home about, Lopez de San Roman already had plenty of those to back him up. More importantly, he’d gotten a real taste of a different kind of opportunity.

When Jon Harp, the founder and director of Mazda Lauf, offered him a spot on the team, it wasn’t that hard to change his mind about Spain.

“I had an amazing connection with the team,” Lopez de San Ramon said. “I went in pretty close-minded — ‘I’m gonna go to Spain next year, I’m gonna be in the deep end on the road in Spain.’ To me that was good.

“But, it was like, ‘hey, I could be an actual professional next year whereas in Spain it’d be many years of racing for a shot at a Pro Conti contract or the WorldTour. I think there still is that possibility and I’m still interested. But for now, there’s a lot of opportunities in gravel. So I made the decision to stay.”

‘Behind the curve,’ but having fun

Lopez de San Roman is 19. He grew up in the sweeping hills of rural northern California, between the two small Sonoma towns of Sebastopol and Occidental. His parents were both athletes — his dad a professional tennis player and his mom a ballerina — but not cyclists. His aunt, however, is Mary McConneloug, a two-time mountain bike Olympian and a four-time national champion. His younger sister Vida is currently in the Netherlands, racing World Cups and attending the EuroCross Academy.

Lopez de San Roman grew up with all the underpinnings of a traditional pathway to pro cycling, but it didn’t exactly go that way. His first memory of racing is at age “12 or 13,” with his buddy Travis, at the Bike Peddler’s Wednesday night Dirt Crit series, a summer staple in Santa Rosa.

Then, when he was still in middle school, he started racing with the high school mountain bike team. The Norcal Interscholastic League is known for its prolific reach across northern California, producing both champions and well-rounded student-athletes alike.

But Lopez de San Roman said that his experience with the league was inconsistent, if anything.

“In sixth grade I started riding with the high school team,” he said. “I was with the front group, having a good time. Once I was a freshman, I wasn’t very good at all. I was having a good time but I wasn’t training right. I didn’t have a great relationship with my coach. Junior year, I said, ‘I’m switching this up and got a new coach.’ I’ve always been dedicated, but it just wasn’t working.”

Lopez de San Ramon leading the charge at the Huffmaster Hopper in February (Photo: Brian Tucker)

Lopez de San Roman’s own assessment of his junior racing days — “I didn’t have amazing results, and I was kinda always delayed by a year,” he said — are corroborated by some of the adults in his life. 

Miguel Crawford, the founder of the Grasshopper Adventure Series, has known Lopez de San Roman since he was a kid; Crawford’s son raced with him in high school. Crawford thinks that Lopez de San Roman’s bold decision — to stay in the US and race gravel instead of moving to Europe — makes total sense.

“Ian’s been 100 percent into bikes since he was super little,” Crawford said. “His sister Vida is racing cross in Europe, having tons of success, winning national champs, and getting accolades. Ian has always been a little behind the curve, but always had so much fun on the bike.

“Knowing him and knowing his family, he’s definitely a lifestyle athlete. He wants to be a pro, but he wants it to be fun. It’s cool to have a platform in the sport that isn’t just going into the deep waters in Europe. That is there, and hopefully he does get to do that because it’s part of the game, but he can do this first.”

Crawford is also inadvertently to blame — or to thank, really — for Lopez de San Ramon’s about face from the world of short and fast XC and ‘cross-style racing to the longer distances and endurance of gravel.

According to Crawford, Lopez de San Roman started to up his volume during Covid, and this year, while he was finishing up high school, the 19-year-old starting going to every ‘Hopper race he could.

His results — among the likes of accomplished riders like Luke Lamperti, Pete Stetina, Alex Wild, and Brennan Wertz — were so good that he won the overall Grasshopper Adventure Series.

Lopez de San Ramon said that it felt good, after having struggled to find his place in the sport, to discover what he was really good at.

“I was always a year behind in the development,” he said. “It was like, kids got picked for the road, then the mountain bike stuff. I was just on the edge. I think that’s why I was like, ‘well, what else could I be good at?’

“I realized longer distance stuff, mountain bike and gravel, I’m suited better, more talented. It was kinda hard, my sister travels to all those short UCI races, so I was going along with that, but it was like, ‘break free from this, do your own thing.'”

The 2022 summer of gravel

Doing his own thing meant that Lopez de San Ramon was trying to race as much as he could. After a few ‘Hoppers, he wound up at Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego in late April, where he finished a respectable 17th in the Waffle. The next day, racing the Wafer, he had a very unfortunate crash.

Lopez de San Ramon and two other riders were chasing Rob Britton, who was off the front. The 19-year-old was feeling great, until he hit a pothole going 35 mph. “Everyone saw it, and no one pointed it out,” he said. His handlebars were broken, he was covered in road rash, and his race was over.

BWR founder Michael Marckx happened to be on course to see it happen and picked Lopez de San Roman up. For the rest of the race, Marckx, two BWR staff, and Lopez de San Roman rode around, tending to the race leaders, checking on aid stations, and doing traffic control.

Marckx said that what impressed him most about Lopez de San Ramon wasn’t that he was chasing down the race leader but how he behaved the rest of the day.

“There he was, butt hanging out of his bib shorts, jersey torn, blood everywhere, and every time we stopped the car, he jumped out with me and did whatever I was doing while two guys with me getting paid sat around and chatted.” Marckx said.

“At one point, some signage was wrong. We had to move a few big signs. The other two guys looked at it and said, ‘oh that’s too big to move,’ and Ian says, ‘you and I could do it.’ So the bloody kid helps me move this huge sign and cones. And he did that the rest of the day, never complained. He never said, ‘I would have done so well if this hadn’t happened.’ He has a humility unlike other kids his age.”

The 2022 Belgian Waffle Ride Quadrupel Crown podium (Photo: Dan Hughes)

After that weekend, Marckx helped Lopez de San Roman get to other BWR races that summer, where he performed incredibly well against some of gravel’s biggest stars. He ended up fifth in the Quadrupel Crown, BWR’s four-race series.

Yet, that wasn’t even the result Lopez de San Ramon was most proud of this year. That would be Leadville.

Like nearly every gravel pro this summer, Lopez de San Ramon has a Covid story. His started three weeks before the storied 100-mile MTB race. He had planned to race US mountain bike nationals in Colorado two weeks before Leadville but got Covid a week before. He “sweet talked” his doctor into prescribing the anti-viral, which had immediate but not lasting results. After a week of feeling good, Lopez de San Roman came down with a rebound case of the virus. He was now two weeks out from Leadville and had to take another week off.

He was faced with a tough decision.

“Should I defer my entry? For 500 bucks am I just gonna go blow up in 20 minutes? It was like, ‘well, I just trust in the work I put in,'” he said. “So I had one week of OK training before Leadville. I showed up, and I was super nervous, even though I don’t get nervous for races anymore. But it was like, ‘you haven’t worked in the past 2.5 months and you’ve invested a ton of money — you gotta put something together.”

And, he did. Lopez de San Ramon finished 15th, ahead of notable names too numerous to list (and including Niki Terpstra, former marathon champ Stephan Davoust, and Jeremiah Bishop).

He also had the insight to realize what a victory it was.

“15th felt like a win for me,” he said. “I finished the race, I did it, I put something on table. I proved that I have more to give, especially with having Covid and I live at sea level. That’s the result I’m the most proud of this year.”

After Leadville, however, there was more to come. Lopez de San Roman traveled to Panama to guest ride at the seven-day Tour of Panama. It would be his first stage race, really his first road race, and he ended up the U23 champ and fourth in GC.

That was the result that landed him an agent, which is how he ended up with the Spanish contract.

Lopez de San Ramon’s ‘cross skills paying off (Photo: BWR photo pool)

However, someone had also been looking out for Lopez de San Ramon back home. Paul Whitfield, a marketing and athlete relations manager at Sportful, had been supporting the young rider with a modest sponsorship. Sportful also sponsors the Mazda Lauf team and has worked with Jon Harp, the team’s director, for years.

According to Harp, Whitfield called six months ago, asking him to put Lopez de San Roman on his radar.

“Paul said, ‘I want you to consider signing this kid, he’s truly a phenom,'” Harp said. “But I didn’t have a space for him. I dragged my feet. Paul said, ‘just do me a favor — have a conversation with him, keep an eye on him.”

After Leadville, Lopez de San Roman drove to Steamboat Springs where Harp and the team were racing SBT GRVL. They had a conversation which ended with Harp offering him the opportunity to guest ride with the squad in October.

Harp said that after the week at BWR Kansas and Big Sugar, it was clear that Lopez de San Ramon would be a great fit for the team.

“We just had an incredible time with him,” he said. “You can just tell how much joy he has riding his bike. He’s either doing a wheelie, riding through a ditch, or throwin a whipper. He’s like four humans wrapped into one when riding a bike. He’s just having fun. And, he’s one of the few that has the talent to ride in the front group of gravel racing, and there’s only a handful who can do that.” 

Lopez de San Ramon believes he’ll have more opportunities racing with Mazda Lauf than he would have had going to Europe. He still plans to race on the road in the U.S., and he’ll attempt the big off-road series — the Quadrupel Crown and the Life Time Grand Prix — among other gravel and MTB events.

He also believes that this road — the gravel one — could ultimately lead to racing in Europe in the near future. Until then, however, he’s going to enjoy going fast and having fun right here at home.