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The UCI hasn’t forgotten about gravel racing

Recent comments from the governing body indicate that even the global pandemic hasn't swayed its intentions to align itself with the popular discipline.

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Although the thriving gravel racing scene largely went dormant in 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown, the discipline has not left the radar of the sport’s governing body.

This week the UCI confirmed to VeloNews that it is working toward officially recognizing gravel racing as a stand-alone category in what would be a key first step in creating a gravel racing world championships.

“The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is currently working towards the official recognition of gravel as an off-road specialty,” a UCI spokesperson told VeloNews. “Gravel is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world, especially in the United States, and the UCI is very keen to embrace this activity to provide better support to event organizers and National Federations.”

What, exactly, does that mean? It’s likely we will find out in 2021.

Nearly one year ago, the governing body hinted that it wanted to get in on gravel. At a press conference at the Santos Tour Down Under in January, UCI president David Lappartient responded to questions from journalists about the burgeoning gravel scene, alluding to the governing body’s interest in the discipline.

“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.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has apparently not swayed its intentions.

Although the representative from the UCI did not share a timeline about when gravel would be officially recognized as a sanctioned discipline, its statement is the latest signal that the UCI indeed intends to move into the gravel space.

“Our aim is to provide an outline of specific regulations to work within, and to enable organizers to apply for their events to be included on their national calendars or on the UCI International Calendar,” the UCI representative said.

The UCI already has a structure for sanctioning mass-participant events under its Cycling For All umbrella. Launched in 2011, the UCI Gran Fondo World Series encompasses mass-participant road events across the globe, and participants can earn a berth in the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. The top 20 percent of finishers in each age group at each event qualify to ride the UCI Gran Fondo worlds, and age group winners at that event receive a rainbow jersey.

For 2021 there will be 25 total events in the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, occurring across 21 countries and on four continents. The UCI world gran fondo championships are slated to take place from September 1-5 in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovnia. That event is comprised of a 22km time trial, a team relay, and a 155km gran fondo race.

Could such a structure be applied to gravel? Only time will tell. The gravel race scene in the United States has grown and thrived absent any involvement of the sport’s governing body. In fact, much of the discipline’s popularity owes to its grassroots ethos and lack of the constraints of sanctioning.

When Lappartient made his comments in January, VeloNews took a temperature check of race organizers and participants, and the result was lukewarm. Concerns about the UCI getting involved ranged from fears of the discipline becoming too exclusive to killing its festive atmosphere to saddling organizers with cumbersome rules and regulations.

“I don’t even know how you define gravel,” MTB pro Geoff Kabush told VeloNews.