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With spring snowstorms thundering across the American west this month, early-season gravel racers have been getting a bit wet. On Friday, the True Grit Gravel Epic in St. George, Utah lived up to its name. But for Team Twenty24’s Shayna Powless, it was also a monumental day on the bike.
“It was probably my longest race in the craziest conditions,” the 26-year old said. “With all those elements, the weather, the distance, the time on the bike, it was an extreme challenge.”
Powless won the 84-mile race with a time of just over six hours, finishing 55 minutes after men’s winner Ryan Standish (Orange Seal/Kenda/Ventum). Former pro MTB’er Tinker Juarez DNF’ed.
Powless’ trip to Utah to race gravel in horrible conditions may seem like a fools errand to some, but for Twenty24’s manager Nicola Cranmer, it was exactly the kind of experience she’s seeking for her pro and devo teams in 2021, and perhaps beyond. As opportunities to race on the road in North America have continued on a steady decline in recent years, Cranmer has turned to non-traditional ways of preparing young women to be pros — in particular, eSports and gravel.
“Someone like Shayna who, even though she’s been racing with us for a couple years — she’s still in a sort-of development phase,” Cranmer told VeloNews. “So, this win was actually a massive confidence builder for her. When she’s on a road team, she’s a domestique. When you’re riding for someone like Chloe [Dygert] or Jen [Valente], you’re helping. In a gravel race, it gives her an opportunity to rise.”
Gravel makes everyone happy
So, was Powless, who currently lives and trains in flatland Florida, as psyched as Cranmer was about testing her racing legs on 9,000 feet of dirt-road climbing in the desert of the West? Cranmer says that the team of 10 riders has embraced gravel with aplomb.
“Being a relatively individual sport, it’s a huge opportunity,” Cranmer said. “In the weird year of last year with everything being canceled, it’s what they wanted to do. There are so many gravel events on the calendar, and it’s like, ‘Oh I’ve never been to that state, let’s go do that one!’ It’s not about getting UCI points or the whole politics or positioning. it’s like, ‘Oh this feels really fun and kickass.'”
Cranmer, whose own pro career began with mountain biking in the 80s, says that the vibe of gravel events reminds her of those races — “participation and inclusivity.”
Does this mean Cranmer is preparing her riders for pro gravel careers instead of the peloton?
“We will do some road races toward the end of the season, but we’re trying to do what feels right and makes us happy — and what makes me happy after 17 years!” Cranmer said. “It’s really been an infusion of fun again.”
Furthermore, Cranmer has found that the pivot isn’t a bad business decision, either. As 2020 showed, the pandemic was good to bike brands, and those brands learned that the athletes and teams they sponsor were incredibly nimble when it came to figuring out ways to keep the content rolling even when racing was canceled.
“Our sponsors aren’t saying, ‘Hey why don’t you have a road calendar, why don’t you go somewhere else and find road races?'” Cranmer said. “Typically, when it comes to gravel it’s not necessarily about the podium, it’s about the experience. I just feel like we’re all in the same boat. Everyone’s feeling like ‘let’s get back to something.’ And, the lifestyle aspect of it is interesting to people.”
Skills off the bike
Twenty24’s focus on gravel is also opening doors to other unconventional ways to build well-rounded cyclists. Because so many gravel events are both long and self-supported, Cranmer says that the women on the team are getting an extensive education in taking care of themselves, and their bikes, for extended periods of time.
On Friday, a handful of Twenty24 riders will set out on a ride on the ‘Dirty Mt. Lemmon’ route, which turns the famous paved climb to the top of Tucson’s Mt. Lemmon into a rougher, 100-mile affair; the women will ascend Mt. Lemmon via the 4×4 Redington Road before descending the serpentine pavement road back into town.
“They’ll go out unsupported and will have their own gear,” Cranmer said. “They’re learning how to fix and replace chains, plug tires, [and] be completely self-sufficient. If they don’t know how to do something, they’re not supposed to have their teammate do it.”
Then, on Tuesday, the team will ride the Spirit World 100 course outside of Patagonia, AZ. It’s a chance to recon the course ahead of the November race date, as well as more time in the field to deal with potential punctures, snapped derailleurs, and the discomfort of rattling over washboard roads for hours on end.
The team has tentatively signed up for a dozen or so gravel races this year, and Cranmer wants the women to be prepared. Most gravel races do not allow outside support, and most of them are long, through oftentimes unforgiving terrain. That is to say: the 200-mile Unbound Gravel course in early June will be a chance for Team Twenty24 to test itself physically, mentally, and mechanically.
But Cranmer says that, for the most part, the team is down for the challenge. While Twenty24 has a few American road races like Tour of the Gila, Redlands, and the Joe Martin Stage Race penciled into its calendar, it’s gravel that has everyone most excited.
“Joe Martin conflicts with Transrockies [Gravel Royale stage race], but we wanna do Transrockies,” she said. “One of the girls was like, ‘Well, we already have entries, we want to go to the race.’ It’s not like we’re trying to be ‘that team‘ but it’s like, Shayna’s background is mountain biking. It’s dirt. It just fits well, so it’s what we’re gonna do this year.”