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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Gravel racing is booming and the UCI is taking notice.
The international governing body is taking its first hard look at the fast-growing off-road discipline, and officials suggested Wednesday that a sanctioned gravel racing world championships could soon be in the cards.
“I think so, I think so,” UCI president David Lappartient said when asked about a gravel worlds. “This is something that is under discussion and that is possible in the future.”
Lappartient’s hints about a gravel rainbow jersey reveal just how much interest the international cycling governing body is taking in the burgeoning gravel scene.
Long on the fringes of the sport, gravel racing had been growing at such a fast clip that the UCI is starting to lean in.
“We had a meeting last week at the UCI, to discuss about this,” Lappartient said. “You can see that it is very popular worldwide and it’s a huge potential.”
Those comments confirm that gravel is very much on the UCI radar.
Yet as gravel racing continues to expand, especially in North America, the stage could be set for a tussle between the UCI and the grassroots organizers that right now largely operate beyond the reach of the international governing body.
In Europe, due to a host of laws and insurance issues, it’s all but impossible to organize a major bike race or mass-participation event without involving international and national governing bodies.
That’s not the case in North America, where the gravel sector is expanding rapidly largely beyond the reach of USA Cycling or the UCI.
Lappartient, who met with journalists including VeloNews on Wednesday evening during a swing through Australia, tried to downplay any possible tension between grassroots organizers of gravel events and the UCI.
“The goal today is not to fight against anyone, but to bring everyone together,” Lappartient said. “I think by joining all together, we are stronger.”
Lappartient’s comments come as the UCI recently started to move some pieces behind the scenes.
Earlier this month, Lappartient met with the promoter of the Eroica gran fondo mass-participation project in Italy to discuss that burgeoning niche. He also confirmed the UCI held an in-house meeting to talk about a range of issues surrounding gravel racing.
“[Gravel] can bring a lot innovation in our sport,” Lappartient said. “We had a meeting with Eroica last week to see what kind of potential there is to work together. We also had a meeting more globally about gravel, [to discuss] what is our strategy.”
Right now, Lappartient is mum on firm details. But those meetings and other behind-the-scenes movement reveal that the UCI is watching the booming gravel sector with interest.
Over the past several years, events such as Dirty Kanza have grown from grass-root, locally run races into major events drawing thousands of participants. Races and mass-participation events are selling out thousands of entry slots within a few hours. Several top racing pros, including Peter Stetina and Ian Boswell, have decided to race gravel and off-road endurance races full-time.
For 2020, there could be as many as 700 gravel events on the calendar, and most of them are unsanctioned. All of the growth has occurred outside of the umbrella of influence of USA Cycling, the sport’s national governing body, or the UCI.
While Lappartient confirmed UCI interest in gravel racing, he also recognized that the U.S. market is unique to how things are organized in Europe.
“We know that in some countries the rules are not the same. If you are U.S., the rules are not the same in other countries that you cannot organize a race without the federation,” Lappartient said. “It’s always better to be under the umbrella.”
Some gravel promoters, however, are wary of the piqued interest of the governing bodies. A few weeks ago, USA Cycling held a symposium in Bentonville, Arkansas, to begin a dialogue with event promoters and the U.S. governing body.
Yet as the niche expands and the top-end competition becomes more professional, questions about prize money, anti-doping controls, the application of rules and enforcement, and the organization of a sanctioned series could lead to growing pains.
Right now, many of those issues are dealt with by each event and there are little or no anti-doping controls. There is no recognized international series or championships or formalized structure, and that’s where Lappartient says the UCI could help out.
The UCI, which has expanded its reach into every other cycling discipline, is studying its options for gravel. Under Lappartient, the UCI is also expanding into e-sports, and will host an e-sports world championships in 2020.
It’s unlikely gravel racing would ever become an Olympic sport, but if the sport does involve into a sanctioned international series with a recognized world championships, that would inevitably lead to UCI involvement.
“You can see the fans of cycling love this,” Lappartient said. “We believe there is a potential opportunity for UCI, so I will not say too much today, but we are working on this at the UCI level because we believe there is a big future of this.”