For Stephens, who’s raced with pro continental squad Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank since 2013 and who won Joe Martin in 2015, the decision is simple.
“I’d rather do Wasatch in Utah,” Stephens told VeloNews. “That’s the uniqueness of gravel. It’s new, it’s different, and it’s fun.”
Stephens is one of a handful of pro roadies who have taken to gravel. However, she sees the discipline through a different lens than other current (Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes) and former (Alison Tetrick, Ted King, Peter Stetina) World Tour pros.
In addition to being new, different, and fun, Stephens said, racing gravel is excellent training for the road.
“Gravel, especially the races where we start with the guys, is as close as to that intensity that we have when we ride European races,” she said. “With the mass start it’s basically race simulation of our European racing — having those strong guys in there and having to fight for wheels and hang on.”
Stephens discovered the utility of gravel a few years ago and has raced in many of the country’s marquee events in between stints of racing in Europe.
In 2019, Team Tibco was in Colorado to compete in the Colorado Classic road race. Stephens and her then-teammate Brodie Chapman ended up going 1-2 (with the Aussie finishing first) at the inaugural SBT GRVL race in Steamboat Springs a few days before the kickoff of the road race.
In 2020, Stephens and teammate Kristen Faulkner beelined it from Belgium to Stillwater, Oklahoma for The Mid South, a race that barely squeaked in ahead of the complete shutdown due to the pandemic. Faulkner took third and Stephens fourth in what Faulkner later described as “the hardest race I’ve ever done.”
Currently, Team Tibco has six riders from the United States, and all of them have, or will, raced gravel. In April, cyclocross national champ Clara Honsinger finished second (to ‘cross rival Rebecca Fahringer) at the Gorge Gravel Grinder in Oregon. Since she returned home from Europe after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Kristen Faulkner has been grinding Northern California gravel, including an effort at an informal Grasshopper Adventure Series event.
Last weekend, both Stephens and teammate Emily Newsom raced at Gravel Locos in Texas, where Newsom was the first woman to finish. Maddy Ward rode in the Grasshopper Adventure Series‘ Huffmaster Hopper near Mendocino.
And, team management is supportive, too. Tibco is North America’s longest-running professional cycling squad and with a dearth of road racing opportunities in North America, directors have encouraged the women to race off the road when possible. Recently, Tibco appointed Stephens’ husband Mat as its de facto gravel director.
“We’re an American team with American sponsors,” Lauren Stephens said. “Gravel’s also really important to Cannondale. Racing in America is important, and gravel is the opportunity to do American racing.”
Team Tibco isn’t abandoning European road racing for gravel, of course. The team had a stellar campaign at the Flemish classics, with Stephens and Faulkner both in the top-ten at Gent-Wevelgem, and Faulkner in 10th at Flanders. As for Stephens, after the U.S. road nationals, the Texan will head overseas for La Course, the Giro Rosa, and perhaps Tokyo.
After that, though, it’s back on for gravel. Every weekend August is packed, from Rooted Vermont to SBT to Gravel Worlds to the Wasatch race.
“I’m just at that point in my career where I’m like, ‘which race will be the most fun?'” Stephens said.
“It is really hard training and you get really good quality from it, but it also has that fun laid-back side whereas in Europe it is all business all the time. It kind-of is the best of both worlds.”