In the cycling world, no one became more familiar with the “COVID pivot” last year than gravel pros.
The cyclists who’ve dedicated themselves to racing gravel are mostly privateers who make a living through individual sponsorship deals. When gravel racing was effectively canceled in 2020, those athletes still needed to shine the spotlight on the brands that supported them. They did so in myriad ways, from tackling fastest known times (FKT) to organizing do-it-yourself challenges to Everesting. Sometimes, a movie was made about the effort.
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With gravel racing very much still up in the air for 2021, VeloNews reached out to some of the gravel privateers to see how they’re approaching another potential season of pivoting; fortunately, this one comes with far more warning than the last.
Prepared to pivot
Last summer was the first time in 12 years that Alison Tetrick remembers being home in June.
Although it required a shift in thinking and a healthy degree of letting go, the former WorldTour pro said she wouldn’t change the summer at home for anything. What she would rather see if gravel doesn’t go in 2021?
“If I could do it differently, it would be to make decisions earlier whether or not it’s a go for that event,” she told VeloNews. “Then you could schedule something else or make time for something else that’s a priority that you’ve been putting on the back burner. That was what was difficult.”
While Tetrick isn’t alone in hoping that the cancelations come earlier, she’s also not sitting around waiting for races to disappear before making other plans. In fact, we’ve already seen one of the first marquee races of the season, The Mid South, turn virtual for 2o21. Whereas last summer’s slew of cancelations caught riders off-guard, this time they’re better prepared.
Amity Rockwell, a relative newcomer to the gravel scene who won 2019’s DK (now Unbound Gravel), was planning on putting her head down and racing through 2020. She said that part of her struggle in pivoting was that initially races weren’t canceled, just pushed later in the calendar.
“That really put a damper on creating actual solutions to anything,” she said. “Everything was just postponed, so none of us really needed to come up with any brilliant ideas or marketing angles until it was too late. I have found that setting up for this next season that brands are optimistic about racing and at the same time I’ve been asked to present not just a race calendar but ideas for projects and stuff I’m interested in, really, a well-rounded platform to talk about cycling.”
Most brands have continued to pledge allegiance to their gravel athletes despite the racing shutdown in 2020. Pete Stetina, who chronicled his 2020 (mis) adventures in VeloNews‘ Groad Trip column announced that all of his sponsors had signed back on for 2021. Stetina was one of the few pros who did attend the two biggest races of the year — The Mid South in March and BWR Cedar City in October — but it was likely everything he did in between (like setting a new FKT on the White Rim Trail) that kept them on the hook.
FKTs and DIYs
With spring racing looking more and more unlikely, there is likely to be another showdown outside of Moab, Utah in the next few months. While Stetina currently has the winner’s belt buckle for the FKT on the 100-mile White Rim Trail, pro mountain biker Keegan Swenson has said he would like it back. There is not a doubt in my mind that Lachlan Morton is interested, too.
In the absence of gravel racing (and a dearth of MTB races, too), FKTs turned into a thing in 2020. Even if events do return in 2021, many athletes say that they will still attempt to set the fastest known times on familiar routes. Rockwell, whose FKT on the White Rim was toppled just days after she set it in early October, wants another go, as does Jess Cerra, who will privateer with the Scuderia Pinarello squad in 2021.
However, personal challenges are not the only way that gravel pros are filling in the blanks around racing in 2021. While Ted King also set an FKT in 2020 (on the Arkansas High Country route), he said that he would love to see participation in his DIYgravel series continue to grow.
“I was thrilled with the support and participation from throughout the world in DIYgravel, which was a riffed schedule of events from my originally planned calendar,” he said. “More than 3,000 people signed up and the #DIYgravel hashtag has earned plenty of use online.”
Tetrick also launched a project in 2020 that she has no plans to abandon, even if racing does return this year. Under the umbrella of Saga Ventures, Tetrick sold ‘bandanas with a purpose’ last summer, and the money she raised was funneled into scholarships for Northern Californian youth to participate in cycling programs.
“I really wanted to do something with purpose and give back to this community that I love so much,” Tetrick said.” We have already secured two scholarships for a full season of racing and mentoring for young women. As we wait to see if youth sports will occur, we are also getting equipment and clothing for the riders.”
Cerra is another gravel rider who has ‘giving back’ on her list of 2021 goals. The Montana-based cyclist plans to host free, bi-monthly cycling-centric clinics for female-identifying riders in Whitefish. A chef before she turned pro cyclist, Cerra will also continue to focus on JoJé Bar, her sport nutrition company.
“It’s growing,” she said, “and it’s funny how when racing went away last year I found myself working harder than ever.”
Gravel privateers are not strangers to hard work; in fact, racing is the easy part. So, whether this turns out to be the year of Plan A or Plan B, the fans will be in for a treat.