The Grind: Scoring and ranking the best gravel racers
Who are the best gravel racers in America? Even if you have an answer at the ready, what criteria are you using to make your decision? And what counts as a gravel race, anyway?
Unlike road, mountain, track and cyclocross, gravel exists almost entirely outside of USA Cycling, and the various series, hierarchies, rankings, and national championships that the governing body provides.
Part of the beauty of gravel racing is its feral nature. Organizers are making it up as they go, with only the constraints of government permits, their own resources, and rider appetite limiting the scale and scope of their races.
This makes for exciting racing and an addictive sense of exploration from one event to the next. It also makes it tough to create a hierarchy of gravel racers.
Enter Pure Gravel’s Power Rankings, which scores the top 15 finishers from the 15 gravel races in the U.S. that had at least 500 riders. Using a system taken from the Tour de France, Pure Gravel awards points by finishing order, then multiplies them based on the size of the field. So, for example, Amity Rockwell and Colin Strickland both won the Dirty Kanza 200, but finished second overall in the Power Rankings behind Kae Takeshita and Ted King, who placed higher across more total events throughout the season.
You can see Pure Gravel’s full rankings here.
Who is Pure Gravel?
Pure Gravel is a project created by Kris Hull and Steve Driscoll of LiFT Creatives Studios, a marketing firm that works with brands like IRC, Easton, and Felt, plus events like Belgian Waffle Ride and SPNDX Stampede.
Hull said the Power Rankings came about for personal and business reasons.
“One, there was our own curiosity. What is the biggest event? Is it DK? Is it Land Run? Or are there races we don’t know about that are bigger?” Hull said. “Two, we have clients who want to get into gravel with sponsorship and they need data. We needed to know empirically, not just go on a gut feeling. Once we got into it, we realized, man, this is really interesting. And we thought it would be valuable and interesting to other people.”
Hull and Driscoll acknowledge that they didn’t come up with the idea, as gravel racer Amanda Nauman and Cyclocross Magazine editor Zachary Schuster tackled power rankings on their Groadio podcast. Nauman, in turn, noted that Bill Schieken of CXHairs fame had started the power ranking concept, carrying it from mountain bike into video form for cyclocross and podcast form for gravel. Hull said Pure Gravel set out to build on their idea with a numbers-based system.
How do you define gravel?
Any time someone puts a list together, someone else will disagree with it. And Pure Gravel’s list is no different. The 15 events on Power Ranking’s radar include the usual suspects like Dirty Kanza 200 and Land Run 100 along with some more curious choices, like Boulder Roubaix.
I love Boulder Roubaix, and fondly remember racing the mostly-dirt event all the way back to my collegiate days 20+ years ago when I crashed myself in the final corner. But I would call it a dirt road race, not gravel. Is that splitting hairs?
‘Faux-baix’ events like Boulder Roubaix or the massively well-attended Berry Roubaix are part of a long U.S. tradition of emulating European cobblestone road races with the closest thing we have here: dirt. I guess my two qualms with Boulder Roubaix being dubbed a gravel race are that, one, everyone races it on road bikes (usually with 25-28mm tires), and, two, that it is a USA Cycling-sanctioned road race, with separate events and start times for all the various categories.
Another faux-Euro event, the Belgian Waffle Ride, takes heat from some as not being pure gravel, as the majority of the long course is paved, and the fastest tool for the job is a road bike (with 28s). Here I would argue that BWR is gravel, in part because some folks choose a gravel bike but mostly because of the mass start format, a signature of gravel racing.
For me, the debate just underscores the fun we’re having with competitive cycling right now. For Olympic sports — where it’s all about rewarding the world’s best athletes inside clearly delineated parameters — agreeing on race format is vital. But for gravel — which, yes, has world-class athletes but also lots and lots of us normal folks showing up and paying to play — variety is fun.
So stay weird, gravel. And kudos to Kae, Ted, Amity, Colin and all the other top athletes who keep toeing the line alongside the rest of us to demonstrate how it’s done.