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Tiffany Cromwell has been racing road bikes for more half of her life, and this year she’s taking a small detour into the dirt.
On Sunday, the Canyon-SRAM rider will make her 2021 gravel debut at SBT GRVL in Colorado, kicking off a short season of racing in the discipline, as well as a new approach to her lifelong career of racing bikes.
“It’s a bit of a testing year this year,” Cromwell told VeloNews. “We thought it would be great to have someone on the team representing on gravel and also great for me to renew my motivation. It could also help get me stronger, with gravel it’s a lot of pedaling and power on the pedals.”
For someone who has been racing since her teens, it’s easy to see how Cromwell could be suffering from a waning sense of motivation. At 33, the Australian is one of the veteran racers in the women’s peloton. She has been riding bikes competitively since she was identified by the South Australian sports institute talent identification program at age 14. Then, she joined her first European-based team in 2010 with the Lotto Ladies Team. Cromwell has competed in the Giro d’Italia Donne (formerly Giro Rosa) 14 times, and she just returned from Tokyo after her first Olympic Games.
Suffice it to say: Cromwell knows her way around the peloton.
Yet, when she sat down with Canyon-SRAM’s manager before this year’s contract negotiation period began, they both agreed that something needed to change.
“Ronnie [Lauke] took the time to decide if he wanted to keep me on the team,” Cromwell said. “He thought about other ideas. I’d gone through a bit of ups and downs, not performing at level. I needed something, some excitement. I’ve always been excited about other disciplines.”
The team has always been supportive of riders who pursue more than one type of cycling; for years Pauline Ferrand Prévot raced across road, MTB, and ‘cross. Recent acquisition Chloé Dygert will continue her track career. Cromwell said that when her gravel campaign was announced, there was interest throughout the squad.
“When the rest of my teammates found out I was doing it, it was like, ‘hey I want to do that,'” she said.
Although the WorldTour is still the priority for the Germany-based team, Cromwell said that management is aware of the value of gravel, especially as it pertains to the squad’s major sponsors, Canyon, SRAM, Giro, and Rapha. Depending on how her campaign goes, 2022 could see more Canyon-SRAM riders on dirt. It’s a move that Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank has embraced wholeheartedly this year with U.S. national champ Lauren Stephens and teammates lining up at — and winning — gravel races all over the U.S. when the European road season allows for it.
Cromwell’s gravel calendar was supposed to start with June’s Unbound, but when she was unexpectedly selected to compete in the Olympic Games, she had to cancel those plans due to the complications of traveling during the COVID pandemic. Her late season calendar is packed, however. After SBT GRVL, she heads to North Carolina for the Belgian Waffle Ride. Then, she returns to Europe to prepare for world championships and Paris-Roubaix. In October, she will race the Marrakesh GravelEpic before returning to the U.S. for Barry Roubaix and Big Sugar.
So what is Cromwell looking forward to about her new lease on cycling?
“I want to go and be competitive,” she said. “It’s not just to go and have a good time. Of course that’s part of it but it’s also to try and win. It’s also exciting for me because in my road career these days I’m a domestique. With gravel it’s my opportunity to get back on the podium and get back winning. So I can utilize it as major road preparation, too.”
Cromwell has no illusions that she’ll jump in the deep end and immediately learn how to swim. Her longest ride to date is 230k, a distance not that extraordinary in the gravel world. During the 2019 SBT GRVL — her first and only gravel race thus far – Cromwell said that she felt a world apart from her road racing roots.
“In terms of fueling, I had no plans,” she said. “That was a learning curve. Even with the handlebar bags and such, how do you have enough water? Even with support stations, how much time do you have to stop there? I have a lot to learn. And, I’ve heard other races are quite harsh and more gnarly.”
Cromwell is also intrigued by the tactical elements of racing gravel.
“You have the ability if you can to hold the wheels of the men and then you can go quite far,” she said. “They’re different types of tactics instead of waiting and making a move. It’s about endurance and a strong head vs fast attacks.”
Like other road cyclists who have moved to or who bounce between gravel and the tarmac, Cromwell has also been struck by the strong sense of inclusivity and camaraderie she’s witnessed at gravel events. In fact, her biggest takeaway from SBT GRVL two years ago was how pros at the pointy end and those who simply aspired to finish the race all swapped stories at the end of the event.
“I love that equality,” she said. “You all start together. Same distances, same prize money, all these things leading from that point of view which I think is really cool. With road, we’ve always had to push for and talk about those things. With this being a new discipline, they’ve been able to start with a clean slate.”
After nearly 20 years of racing, gravel might also be Cromwell’s clean slate.