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Low turnout plagues UCI Gravel World Series event in Arkansas

Highlands Gravel Classic was the first of two US-based gravel world championships qualifiers

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In the days before the Highlands Gravel Classic, Mason McNeill and a friend were texting — both seriously and jokingly — about their chances of qualifying for the UCI Gravel World Championships.

“We did the math — so if there were 35 people in our category we needed to finish top 9,” McNeill said. “Seemed feasible with a good day on the bike.”

Although McNeill, 27, didn’t go to Highlands with the sole purpose of qualifying for gravel worlds in Italy this October — “I signed up because it was local and I try to do most of local races” — with a second place finish he did punch a ticket to the inaugural event. 

And, so did many of the other riders who participated in the event held near Fayetteville, Arkansas on Saturday, June 25.

The Highlands Gravel Classic

 The Highlands Gravel Classic was the first of the 12-race UCI Gravel World Series to be held in North America, and while participants raved about the course — 95 percent gravel, hardly any of it flat — the event suffered from low turnout. 

Read also: UCI confirms 12-race Gravel World Series calendar

There were 1,100 spots allotted between the two distances on offer. The Highlands route was 70 miles, for men up to age 59 and women up to 49. The Farmers route was 52 miles, for men 60+ and women 50+. (Bruce Dunn, director of race promoter All Sports Productions told VeloNews that the age groups/race distances structure was dictated by UCI Gravel World Series.)

In the UCI Gravel World Series rulebook, worlds qualification is guaranteed to the top 25 percent of finishers in the men’s and women’s 19-34 age group and then to the top 25 percent in every age group (in five year increments) following.

Given that — and the event’s location in the bike mecca of northwestern Arkansas — one would think that registration would have filled quickly.

However, only 108 people signed up total, and according to the results page, 80 people finished the race.

Dunn, whose company also produces the Joe Martin Stage Race and the USA Triathlon off-road national championships, told VeloNews that a variety of factors played into the lack of marketing of the event, including the fact that the Gravel World Series calendar wasn’t announced until mid-March.

The UCI gravel worlds date and location was only announced two weeks ago. 

“First it was the delay on getting the UCI to approve Erwin’s [Vervecken, series coordinator] calendar. It got pushed again and again. Then I’m in the middle of Joe Martin. Two weeks later I’m promoting USA Tri gravel national champs. I had runway early, and then I had zero runway.

“So, I’m gonna throw myself under the bus a little bit, and Erwin, through a lot of circumstances, could not get it marketed the way he wanted to. We just said, ‘you know what, we’ll put our heads down and no matter what our attendance is we’re gonna knock it out of the park and have a big event for next year.'”

What the riders said

Participants noted the low attendance, especially in the women’s field. Although this made a worlds qualification more likely, it wasn’t necessarily welcome.

“I was very surprised,” said Lenny Ramsey, who won the women’s 30-35 category. “I would much rather have a larger women’s field. It became a solo ride which is fine because that’s what I do all the time anyway, but that’s the fun of gravel — to have people to ride with.”

McNeil noted that the contingent of well-known gravel pros was “conspicuously absent.” For anyone who follows the sport, it’s known that many gravel racers reacted to the news of a gravel world championship with disdain, stating outright that they would not participate.

Another factor that may have contributed to Highlands’ low turnout may have been conflicting events on the calendar.

Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Lauren De Crescenzo, two pros who have both stated a desire to go to gravel worlds were at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder and USA Pro Road Nationals, respectively. So were Pete Stetina and Alexey Vermeulen.

Nevertheless, Payson McElveen, who was not at a different race over the weekend but rather home in Colorado, was unaware of the qualifier.

“Literally had no idea,” he said.

Rane Roatta, who placed third in the men’s 19-34 race, said that he hadn’t heard about the race either until a new friend he’d met at Unbound Gravel brought it up. He traveled from Miami to Fayetteville for the event and qualified for worlds in Italy.

Roatta said that he thinks the lack of marketing was the issue, but that it shouldn’t be a problem in future years.

“It is strange, but I imagine that every race is gonna bring more attention to the other ones,” he said. “It’s a new sport in cycling. In five years, it’s gonna be unreal.”

The next UCI Gravel World Series event is Jingle GX on August 6th in Amana, Iowa.