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Gravel

UCI gravel worlds, a threat or an opportunity? American racers headed to Italy chime in

'It’s kinda revealed itself to not only not be a threat but to be something entirely different,' Alex Howes says

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Back in early 2020 when the UCI hinted that it was interested in gravel, the socially acceptable response — at least on this side of the pond — was: hey, that’s not cool!

Jokes about sock height and cries that governing bodies had ruined mountain biking rang out across the internet, and gravel race organizers pledged their allegiance to staying unsanctioned.

Then, the pandemic happened, and the UCI didn’t really pipe up with its intentions again until September of 2021, some 20 months later.

After that, it took the governing body nearly a year to announce a date and location for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships.

While the UCI’s lack of a cohesive game plan for the inaugural race could have been reason enough for most gravel racers to pooh-pooh the event, most of them had already drawn a line in the sand: gravel is grassroots, gravel is the wild west, we don’t want (or need) the UCI in gravel.

As with most hot button issues however, the din about gravel worlds eventually went from a rolling boil to a simmer. Legacy races like BWR and Unbound and Crusher and Gravel Worlds (note the capital letters) saw thousands participate, while countless other events cropped up on the calendar, many enjoying immediate success.

Nevertheless, now the UCI event is on the horizon, and some of the very riders who initially fell in the ‘hell no’ camp have said yes.

What gives?

It felt like a threat

“I think the main reason why personally I was like, ‘no, no thanks,’ is it seemed like a pretty big threat to American gravel racing,” said Alex Howes, who was named to Team USA on Friday. “But I think at this point it’s kinda revealed itself to not only not be a threat but to be something entirely different.”

Howes was one of four men who applied via USA Cycling’s discretionary petition process to compete in the pro/open category at gravel worlds. He said that he was inspired to do so for a variety of reasons — one, he’s retiring from European road racing and a last hurrah in Italy sounded fun, and two, some of his EF Education-EasyPost team sponsors thought it was a no brainer to send the Coloradan to race gravel in Italy.

“A number of sponsors were like ‘hey, why don’t we have our best gravel guys going to worlds?’,” Howes said. “We had to explain — ‘yeah, it’s our politics and RPI is way cooler.’ And they’re like, ‘what? It’s just a bike race. It’s barely a world championship. It’s gonna be fun. Go! We want you to go.’

“And,” Howes added, “I didn’t have a good rebuttal.”

The 34-year-old said that once it became clear that the UCI, or USA Cycling for that matter, was not going to infiltrate the start lines at Unbound or BWR, he felt comfortable with the decision.

“My first instinct and desire is to protect American cycling at all costs,” he said. “Now that it’s sorta looking like it’s not gonna be an issue, I’m a lot more inclined to throw my hat the ring.”

Like Howes, Sarah Sturm was encouraged by Specialized, one of her major sponsors, to petition for a worlds spot. Without financial support from USA Cycling for the event, the cost of going over to Italy may have been yet another deterrent for potential worlds applicants.

However, Sturm isn’t going to gravel worlds simply because her sponsors are paying for it. In fact, she has an eyes-wide-open attitude toward the event — and, the former competitive ‘cross racer knows she has a chance at the podium.

“I have never really been in a position where I feel like I could be competitive at a worlds event,” Sturm said. “With ‘cross you have to play the game — at the beginning of the season you have to decide, ‘am I gonna choose my races based on what I wanna go to or where I could get points and qualify?’

“It’s [gravel worlds] honestly one race I’ve been really excited for because it’s really different. It’s gonna be a road race which will be a really cool experience. After watching the women’s Tour, it got me jazzed on that. It’s a really cool opportunity to go race in Europe and on a different level.”

‘A cool opportunity’

For both Sturm and Howes, that aspect of UCI gravel worlds, the fact that it’s on a “different level,” is key to their going.

They’re not expecting commiseration over finish line beers; there will likely not be a ‘party in the back.’

Yet rather than focusing on the lack of those things — the feel-good tenets of American gravel racing — Sturm sees different opportunity.

“What about some 13-year-old girl who is hellbent on being the best gravel cyclist in the world and wants a rainbow jersey? She’ll follow Lauren De Crescenzo on social media and follow that path,” Sturm said. “And what if there’s some weirdo art kid that sees me and is like ‘I can race, even if I’m more socially motivated than competitive, there’s racing for me, too.'” 

Katerina Nash is not attending gravel worlds this year, but the legendary ‘cross and mountain bike racer has been outspoken on the topic of opportunity that UCI-sanctioned racing brings, especially for women.

“I truly can’t imagine my career without UCI World Cups and world champs, both on the mountain bike and ‘cross sides,” Nash said in an interview earlier this year. “I benefitted greatly from that. 

“I think about these women with full time jobs, racing 100 miles every other weekend — having an opportunity to win a big race and turn it into a career. That’s what I get excited about — the equal opportunity that all the other disciplines have, the structure that comes with the legacy of world champs.”

Given its first-year status and the myriad snafus that have tied up progress along the way, the success of UCI gravel worlds is still very much to be determined. However, the presence of a few stalwart American racers may send a few messages both to the international gravel community and to the folks back home.

One, US-based gravel racing, with its mass starts and lack of sanctioning, is still our favorite. And two, it’s OK to try something different. The third may be more of a question whose answer is still unknown — does a rising tide lift all boats?

Sturm is tacking toward the positive.

“It’s OK to want to do both. You don’t have to always put yourself in a box. Do I think the UCI gravel series is going to take away from these really rad events at home? No. Hopefully it inspires more promoters across the world to do this. Everyone is gonna choose what they want to do, and that’s a good thing because really you’re just giving more people more opportunities.”