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Gravel

UCI Gravel World Championships: 10 riders to watch in the women’s race

Will it be a roadie, an actual gravel pro like Lauren De Crescenzo, or Pauline Ferrand Prévot? The elite women's race promises show-stopping excitement.

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The inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships kicks off this weekend in Veneto, Italy, and 48 women are on the start list for Saturday’s elite women’s race. Team USA sends a strong squad of five riders.

The elite women race at 12:00 p.m. local time on Saturday. Eurosport and GCN + will be broadcasting some of the race live.

The women’s course is 140 kilometers long with 700 meters of climbing on 69 percent gravel roads. The action is predicted to be fast and dynamic, with an uphill gravel start and 20km of rolling terrain before the course turns flat for the duration. The finishing stretches include a kilometer of gravel followed by 200m of asphalt into the city center of Cittadella.

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Here are 10 riders to watch, and here is the complete start list.

Lauren De Crescenzo (USA)

The bio on De Crescenzo’s Instagram account says “a roadie heart full of gravel,” which may be the best way to describe the two-time winner of both SBT GRVL and Gravel Worlds. De Crescenzo began her career on the road but retired in 2016 after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a crash at the San Dimas Stage Race. She made it back in the cycling headlines in 2020, when she set an Everesting record during the height of the COVID pandemic.

In 2021, a win at Unbound Gravel launched her back into a career in professional cycling. Yet, De Crescenzo’s “roadie heart” beats fiercely. This year, she was second at U.S. Pro Nationals and won the overall at the Tour of the Gila. She had hoped to qualify for road worlds and gravel worlds in 2022 but didn’t get selected for Wollongong. Nevertheless, De Crescenzo is a a master time trialer and is known for launching late solo attacks during long gravel races. She’ll be joined in Italy by her Cinch teammate, Holly Matthews, and she will no doubt put it all out there in the fight for the rainbow stripes.

Sofia Gomez Villafañe (Argentina)

Gomez Villafañe has been one of the breakout stars in the U.S. gravel scene this year. After dabbling in gravel in 2021, the former World Cup mountain biker switched her focus to off-road endurance, and it’s safe to say she found her niche. She won Unbound Gravel in early June in a commanding performance of power and skill. She followed it with an overall win at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder stage race.

Gomez Villafañe currently sits in third position in the six-race Life Time Grand Prix series. The 28-year-old dual American-Argentinian citizen is one of hardest-working riders in the gravel peloton, and UCI gravel worlds has been on her list of target races since the season began. She’ll be racing for Argentina on Saturday, and it’s guaranteed that her blue and white jersey will be at the front end of the race.

Pauline Ferrand Prévot (France)

At this point if Ferrand Prévot entered the BMX world championships, we’d have to call her a contender. The Frenchwoman is one of the best athletes of a generation. As evidenced by commanding wins of the XCO, XCC, and XCM mountain bike world titles in short succession just over a month ago, the 30-year-old is in flying form.

Furthermore, the former road world champion will not be far out of her league on the spring classics-esque gravel worlds course in Italy. Despite committing almost exclusively to mountain biking over the past five years, Ferrand Prévot has a handful of top 10 finishes in Women’s WorldTour races. Last year, she was fifth in the French national time trial race. PFP is certainly the most exciting non-gravel racer, male or female, to be racing gravel worlds.

Sarah Sturm (USA)

Another exciting racer is American Sarah Sturm. Like PFP, Sturm is a decorated multi-discipline racer who has competed in both XC MTB and ‘cross. Unlike PFP, however, Sturm has found a groove in gravel, where her endurance and bike handling skills put her at the front of nearly ever race she enters. Sturm has been racing consistently through the Life Time Grand Prix series (seventh Unbound, third Crusher in the Tushar, and fourth at Leadville) and is currently sitting in second place in the series. While Sturm hasn’t spent much time racing on the road, her experience navigating the bunch in fast and dynamic gravel races should be more than adequate for a solid result in Saturday’s race.

Lauren Stephens (USA)

Stephens was really the first WorldTour pro, male or female, to race gravel regularly. The Texan has long touted gravel races as excellent training for the WorldTour, and her EF Education-TIBCO-SVB has always supported her ambitions on the dirt. While she doesn’t love the ultra endurance distances like Unbound’s 200-mile race, she regularly wins events that average around 75 miles, like the Unbound 100 and Lil Sugar Gravel. Saturday’s 87-mile course should suit the former US national champ very well, and she has some solid training efforts in the bag — gravel worlds will be her third rainbow race in a month after marathon MTB worlds in Denmark and road worlds in Australia. 

Emily Newsom (USA)

Newsom has some very impressive gravel results on her palmares, notably two third-place finished at Unbound Gravel, second at Big Sugar, and first at Gravel Locos Hico. The latter two results are from 2021; this year has been more of a balancing act for Newsom, who has been frequently called to the road by her EF Education-TIBCO-SVB squad. Nevertheless, the 39-year-old has managed her road and gravel campaign extraordinarily well, from her impressive breakaway during stage 5 of the Tour de France Femmes to her seventh place overall in the Life Time Grand Prix series. If the racing is steady and smooth on Saturday, Newsom will be, too. 

Tiffany Cromwell (Australia) 

Along with Stephens and Newsom, Cromwell is one of the most experienced gravel racers in the women’s WorldTour. The Canyon-SRAM pro broadened her scope last season to include gravel racing in her program and enjoyed it so much she’s been back again this year. At this point, she’s raced in many marquee events, including SBT GRVL, various Belgian Waffle Rides, and Grinduro. That experience, coupled with a decade and a half of professional cycling, give Cromwell a very good foundation for a top result at this race.

Sina Frei (Switzerland)

Frei is one of the best cross-country mountain bike pros in the world, and if the Life Time Grand Prix series has shown us anything, it’s that XC mountain bikers’ endurance and skills make for very good gravel racers. Nor is Frei a stranger to the road. The Tokyo silver medalist recently lined up at the Tour of Scandinavia with Team SD Worx and has raced on a national team at the Tour de Suisse for the past two years. She finished an impressive 15th at road worlds in Flanders last year.

Riejanne Markus (Netherlands)

Would it really be a “riders to watch” list without a rider from the Netherlands? Although Markus, who has been racing in the WorldTour for nearly a decade, may not have any particular experience racing gravel, the 28-year-old is a contender by virtue of her road palmares. She was 12th at the Tour de France Femmes this year and nearly became a double Dutch champion, winning the road race and finishing second in the time trial.

Svenja Betz (Germany)

German rider Svenja Betz competed in four of the 11 UCI Gravel World Series races this season, scoring two first place wins at both Gravel Grit n’ Grind in Sweden and La Monsterrato in Italy. The 27-year-old races for Irish pro conti team IBCT and competes mainly in Belgium.