Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Controversy in gravel racing is making headlines, and women’s racing is the central storyline. Is the integrity of the professional women’s race threatened by the presence of male teammates? And should gravel race promoters have a separate start for the elite women’s field?
Some events, like BWR San Diego and Crusher in the Tushar, do separate male and female fields. However, many other gravel events, including Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL, follow tradition with a mass-participant start.
We interviewed multiple elite female gravel racers to dig into the discussion, to debate the pros and cons of having separate fields at the start of races.
No consensus has been reached, but all agree on one thing: decisions about women’s racing should ultimately be made by women.
We are family – keep the fields together
Amity Rockwell: Don’t separate us. It’s absolutely a crucial part of the gravel racing experience that we’re all in it together. Women racing alongside men is doing more good for women’s cycling than anything else has in forever. I think every man I ride alongside, I think that’s one more changed opinion of what a woman can do on a bike, and I think it’s really important.
I think it’s really important that gravel is a human experience, not a gender-divisive one. If we combine men’s and women’s races, we’re implicitly including everybody.
Yes, it does favor women who have pack riding skills, but I think in that sense it favors women who’ve done a lot of gravel races before, and that’s what we want. At my first DK, I was terrified of that start and wasted a ton of energy trying to get back. But Ali [Tetrick] and the people who’ve shown up at this race year after year and put in the work benefitted. By my third race, I really enjoyed the start. It’s a benefit of doing the work and putting in the hours.
Sarah Sturm: First of all, it’s a simple ‘yes’ to mass starts. Mass starts make it accessible and fun because you aren’t doing over 100 miles alone out there. Which, in all honesty, is what would happen if you started all of the categories separately — people would just ride alone all day. There aren’t deep enough fields to separate it out.
Obviously, the downside is that it oftentimes feels unfair and unregulated. And to be honest, as someone who has been on both sides of that coin — I’ve won races because I’ve timed a paved section well and happen to be with a dude or a group that worked well together and I’ve also been alone and in a headwind for hours and hours and end up losing the race or being passed or caught because of it – that’s what makes it challenging and exciting.
Laura King: Separate starts would be a return to road racing in my opinion. A decade ago I tried road racing and found the vibe to be intimidating, catty, and just all-around unwelcoming. It turned me off. Soon after that, I lined up for a Grasshopper Adventure race. I’d often say ‘if road racing was like the Hopper races, I’d be all about it.’ Lining up together with all my friends, long, hard, challenging yet fun courses, working with men and women on the course and celebrating together at the finish. Little did we know that was the start of what gravel would become.
Here I am, stuck in the middle — undecided
Whitney Allison: I am entirely indifferent. I like having the opportunity to start with the men, especially as women’s cycling continues to grow. The women’s fields just aren’t as deep as the men’s yet, so I do value that. I also understand why a lot of women like to have the separate starts. I’m supportive of either. If there was a group consensus, and that’s what was decided, I’d be totally on board. It’s a moving target, things are changing, and it’s not a bad thing.
Amanda Nauman: I prefer a mass start event, but I’m not opposed to a separate women’s start on a course with the right conditions and intentions. I didn’t sign up for these events with the sole purpose of racing women. It was always for a collective adventure, giving 100 percent to an effort with a bunch of other like-minded cyclists. If a separate start still allows for mingling with the masses and meshing with the whole field in an organic fashion (like at Crusher in the Tushar or BWR), then it’s still part of that shared experience.
Tiffany Cromwell: I’m of two minds. If it’s a women’s start, I’d want a shorter race, but then that takes away the equality piece. I enjoy a shorter, fast race versus the bit of having the boys being naturally faster, and then we’re just hanging on. So I guess it depends if you want tactics involved and a proper race, or if you’re happy seeing who’s strong enough to hang on.
Let us shine — separate the fields
Sofia Gomez Villafañe: We don’t really get to shine and show what we’re capable of when we’re starting with men and doing mass starts. We don’t get to dictate the way that the women’s race is played out.
Regarding a women’s start, I think it really depends on the depth of the field. At Steamboat, we had over 300 women we could have easily done our own start. Here [at BWR Asheville], no. But I also think these races are really long. The men have so many guys that can go strong for two, three, four, five hours, and then they crack and the top of the field gets to shine in the last two. My ideal racing scenario would be that men race for four, four and a half hours, and women race for five and a half. That way each gender and each category could have their own race. I think that people who really want the adventure could take that longer course. The race becomes more dynamic when it’s a bit shorter.
Lauren de Crescenzo: I remember talking this on a panel at Unbound Gravel earlier this year, everyone had a different response. Some are very much like ‘no, the spirit of gravel is that we have to start together.’ I think I was the only one that said I wanted my own start. I have no desire to start in a field of thousands of people given the history of my brain injury. It scares me to be surrounded by so many aggressive guys. I think the women’s peloton is much more civilized.
Maude Farrell: I much prefer women’s starts/wave starts, but I think it’s because it suits my style of riding much better than mass starts. I am often extremely stressed and overwhelmed by mass starts for a number of reasons. I know I’m fast, but the aggression it requires to elbow your way to the front is not what I want to have to put on at 5:45 a.m. And, it’s absolutely nerve-rattling to be standing next to a bike handler from the pro peloton who can comfortably handle his bike pedaling 32mph on open roads, and Joe Shmoe who just wants a free ride for as long as possible.
Competition-wise, I love to be able to read the group of women I am racing with. I like to know where people are, how they are pedaling, and evaluate the dynamics of each rider altogether. I think having women’s neutral or separate starts enables women’s pack to define and set their own race without the influence of agro dudes pinching someone out, or pushing the pace too early.
Kaysee Armstrong: I personally love the mass starts, and I understand where everyone is coming from as far as ‘let’s keep mass starts as the origin of gravel.’ But for me and other pro racers, our livelihoods are kind-of dependent on it now. I hate to say it but results do matter.
At BWR, they did the pro men, and five minutes later the pro women, and it just made for such a different dynamic because you know where you are in the group. You just know where you’re at, which is cool. The scary thing about mass starts is they are so dangerous.
Even if you start five minutes later, you’re still going to be out there with a mass of people. You’re still going to see them. It just cuts down on the chaos and let’s be honest, I’m already feeling so chaotic at the start line.
Maybe that would be a little change in gravel that would actually be really fun.