Yesterday’s comments from UCI president David Lappartient that the governing body now has its eye on gravel has elicited a range of responses from those within the gravel cycling world. There have been eye rolls and outrage — some riders have simply been bewildered.
“It’s funny because I don’t even know how you put gravel in a box, even define it,” said Geoff Kabush, the former World Cup mountain biker-turned-gravel racer.
With the North American gravel race calendar populated by events that run the gamut from the road-oriented Belgian Waffle Ride to the timed mountain-bike stages of Grinduro, gravel has thrived by defying categorization. It’s also grown up without the oversight of a sanctioning body, which has allowed directors and promoters to put their own flourish on every event.
“It’s like Burke [Swindlehurst of the Crusher in the Tushar] said—all of us are painters, and we all have these different canvases and paint our own things, and we don’t want them to be uniform,” said Kristi Mohn, co-director of the Dirty Kanza. “There’s immense value in that. If the UCI feels like they have to have a place in this spectrum that’s their prerogative. It’s our prerogative to choose whether or not we go to this event.”
Lappartient’s comments came at the Santos Tour Down Under, where he met with a group of journalists to discuss the upcoming season. Journalists asked him about the budding gravel scene in the United States, and the UCI head said that he was cognizant of the discipline’s growth. While he didn’t outline an official plan for gravel, he did hint that the UCI might hold its own gravel world championships someday.
Some promoters replied that the UCI had already missed the boat on such a race.
“We already have a Gravel Worlds,” Mohn said, referencing the Gravel Worlds race in Lincoln, Nebraska. “That was my initial reaction.”
The Nebraska gravel event, which attracts over 500 participants, will celebrate its 11th year in 2020 and is a favorite of rider Alison Tetrick. The event is challenging, scenic, philanthropic, and fun, and was actually on the radar of the UCI a few years ago. According to the organizer, the UCI reached out to the event several years with a request about the race’s winner jersey, which had rainbow stripes, in addition to a skull and crossbones.
“It was our fault for that oversight,” said co-promoter Corey Godfrey. “We apologized and redesigned the jerseys. We ran the current jersey design by them to ensure we’re not overstepping. The UCI was very gracious and accepted our apology and then wished us luck with the event.”
As we’ve seen with recent conversations between USA Cycling and the gravel community, both promoters and riders are extremely protective of the grassroots culture of gravel events, and any efforts to change this can be perceived as threats.
“Along with the UCI comes UCI rules and standards, and can you really standardize the spirit of gravel?” said professional mountain bike racer and gravel rider Kaysee Armstrong. “The reason so many of us pros love gravel races is because it lets us retreat back to just pedaling and having fun. It gives us an escape from UCI races and chasing points.”
Tetrick, who still holds a UCI license after competing in the World Tour, wasn’t surprised by the UCI’s announcement, nor did she feel like gravel was under attack.
“I’m not worried per se because I think that the ethos and culture of sport is about inclusivity,” she said. “There will probably be an increased amount of sanctioned events, but I hope that the culture stays the same. Ultimately, it’s not about who wins but celebrating bikes and adventure.”
With the success of events like the Mid-South and SBT GRVL, where aid stations are sometimes stocked with whisky and popsicles, and participants party at the finish line, there’s another question surrounding the possibility of regulated gravel events: who would attend them?
“Sure, everyone’s gonna wanna be a world champ.” said Kabush, “but a lot of people are still going to be very protective.”
Part of the allure of gravel for professional cyclists is that they become one of hundreds toeing the start line in the mass participation events. Stricter rules and regulations could cut down the number of participants dramatically. For Armstrong, that would be a huge loss.
“I’m sure I would end up racing these UCI gravel events along with the other pros, but I would miss the atmosphere and other non-UCI license racers,” she said. “I feel that it would only entice the current UCI license holders therefore limiting the participation.”
With nothing set in stone for the future, Mohn says that everyone should just take a deep breath.
“It goes back to people saying gravel’s going to get ruined,” she said. “No, it’s not. Would something like this impact our event? I have no idea. But DK is still going to do what it does, to provide an experience for the athlete, the rider, the adventurer.”
Given it’s seemingly limitless parameters, it seems that gravel will continue to grow organically and originally. While Lappartient’s pronouncement that “there is a potential opportunity for UCI” in gravel may have raised the hackles of some, most people took the news in stride.
“If there’s an event, people will go,” said Tetrick. “But the Big Sugar will still probably sell out faster.”