Barely ridden bikes and gravel debuts: macro efforts replace marginal gains at the British Gravel Champs
Danni Shrosbree and Jacob Vaughan crowned British Gravel Champions - we caught up with the victors of the King’s Cup Gravel
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It was a packed weekend at the King’s Cup Gravel in Suffolk: gran fondos, live music, great food, coffee and beers - both craft and alcohol-free - but let’s not forget the main event, the crowning of 2022’s British Gravel Champions, Danni Shrosbree and Jacob Vaughan.
We caught up with the victors to sound out their racing strategies plus any training hacks and tips. We also got close up with the bikes - so head over to the race-winning bikes of the British Gravel Championships here for all the techy details.
Otherwise, read on to find out exactly what it took to win the British Gravel Championships...
Winner of the women's King's Cup Gravel race - Tiffany Keep
First up we’ve got a double hitter: although Danni Shrosbree clinched the women’s title of British Gravel Champ, it was South African Tiffany Keep who crossed the line first on the day. We caught up with both after their five laps racing round the 76km / 47mi course.
For those who might be unaware, there is a reason why the region of East Anglia is so conspicuously absent from Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Cycling of Great Britain - its highest elevation is just 105m. To put that in perspective, famously flat Denmark appears almost craggy in comparison, with its peak of Møllehøj rising to a ‘towering’ 171m.
So no long, sweeping descents - but with speed-sapping sandy sections, 90-degree bends and unrelenting impacts over the deceptively rough grassy areas, there was still plenty to add some spice into the race.
With those technical aspects - and the potential for bottlenecks where fire roads funnelled into singletrack - it was a course that favoured those unwilling to hide in the bunch.
“We got into a small break early on in the race and worked really well together”, Keep reflected, “up until the final lap, when people started playing a little bit of cat and mouse.
“Everyone was watching each other and didn’t really know what to do. So at around 3km, coming round a sandy corner, I decided: ‘I’m going to take a chance and just go for it!’
“I come from a mountain biking background, so I just railed the outside and attacked. I had to dig really deep after that, but managed to stay away” - almost, at least. Danni Shrosbree (the soon-to-be British Gravel Champ) pressed on, initially keeping Keep on a short leash.
But it wasn’t to last for Shrosbree: “During the very last descent I put in quite another big effort and managed to get a gap on her”, Keep recounted, “I came onto the field [just before the finish], looked behind me, and no one was there. Super stoked for that.”
It was a resounding victory - what preparation does a rider do for this? A packed gravel calendar of the biggest off-road events? It seems not…
“This was my first ever gravel race”, Keep admitted, “I only got to ride this bike for the first time on Monday and decided: ‘why not give it a go?’ seems like a really cool event.
“I’m from South Africa and this was my last race in the UK before going home, so I decided to do something fun after a season of racing on the road.
“This was actually my first year focusing more on the road, and so it’s been a bit weird not riding my mountain bike while I’ve been over here!”
But although Keep’s entry wasn’t a carefully cultivated culmination of an expressly targeted training plan, the shift of focus from mountain biking to road created something of a venn diagram - into which gravel slots right in.
“When I was racing cross-country I did a lot of high intensity, under/overs type cycling training. But since coming over to the road, I’ve been adding in more sustained and endurance efforts - although still keeping some of those sharp and intense sessions in the mix, as they’re really good for sprint finishes and town centre crits.”
What’s next? “Maybe the gravel Worlds next year - I dunno, we’ll see…”
Winner of the women's British Gravel Championships - Danni Shrosbree
Part of the duo that broke away from that select leading group, Danni Shrosbree went on to claim the title of British Gravel Champion, although ultimately coming second to the South African Tiffany Keep.
“It’s funny, where I planned to go, she went,” Shrosbree laughed ruefully. “It was really techy all through those woods, but when we came into that really sandy corner Tiff attacked and I was just like: ‘oh no, here we go…’”
“It followed into a pretty will-sapping drag, but we just hammered it up and that was it - we knew we were going to lose the others.”
“Coming towards the finish, Tiff took the inside on a corner and got in front of me going into the final sandy section and I knew then it would be difficult to make it back past her - but it was a really good race,” Shrosbree affirmed.
Coming off the back of a long road-racing season that started back in February out in Valencia, Shrosbree has been mixing gravel into her training for a couple of seasons now: “I started during lockdown, actually because I got bored riding on the roads. So I borrowed my dad’s gravel bike and got a bit hooked. Now it’s my go to in winter training if the weather’s bad.”
Even so, taking the leap to racing off-road has been new territory for Shrosbree: “I never raced mountain bikes and I’ve still not done many gravel races. But I think us roadies can adapt - in bunch racing you’re forever twitching and having to avoid stuff, so you do get quite good at handling your bike.”
Fast reactions, delicate line choices and just general spatial awareness cross over quite directly - but there have still been a handful of new tricks to learn: “When you hit the sandy stuff it is completely different. You have to kind of surf it and not fight it when the wheel goes in the other direction. It helps having speed.”
But more than anything else, after such a long season, it was turning up with enough freshness that presented the biggest challenge. “The UCI World’s qualifying gravel race I did last week was 160km and really full on, so I’ve mostly been catching up on sleep and really focusing on recovery. The way I see it is that you’ve got all your fitness from the season - now it’s just about not digging yourself into a hole.”
The maximum recovery approach clearly did the trick: “I prefer being on the front because you get to choose your own line and, honestly, I just wanted to make it hard. So I just drilled it for about a lap at the start because I knew it would split it to hell.”
“I’m actually doing the Gravel Worlds [in Veneto, Italy] in a couple of weeks now. Then I’ll be putting my feet up for a couple of weeks before the winter grind again.”
Winner of the men's British Gravel Championships - Jacob Vaughan
Although Jacob Vaughan of the British UCI Continental cycling team, Saint Piran, finished the race with a commanding sprint, seeing off the competition with multiple bike lengths between him and second place James Phillips, that result was far from secured in the opening kilometres.
Mikey Mottram piled on the pressure from the start, putting in a stinging attack and opening a gap on the pack: “I don’t know how he stayed out there so long on his own, incredible ride from him,” applauded Vaughan.
“He’s a guy that you really don’t want to get out of your sight”, Vaughan continued, “I think all of us in the chasing group knew that - from experience. We managed to keep him at bay, between 20 and 10 seconds, but we did have to ride hard to bring him back.
“And once we did manage to bring him back, he just kept attacking. Luckily there were a couple that were just straight on him because you don’t want to give that man a gap.
“I got quite lucky in the finish - I managed to come off the sandy section into the left hander, and get onto second wheel. So perfect position for that, and yeah there’s a bit of shoulder barging, everyone getting into position.”
“I got dropped off into that left hander and managed to open up. Possibly coming from the track I had a slightly better sprint than some of the other guys - I had a perfect lead out so, yeah, I was lucky.”
Lucky? Perhaps - but although the opportunities that present themselves might not be under our direct control, whether or not the capacity is there to seize them certainly is.
Ahead of the King’s Cup Gravel, Vaughan adjusted his training to the specific demands of the course. “I’ve been trying to build my threshold - there’s been a lot of sweetspot training and a lot of Zone 3 work. It’s about being able to ride that bit above your comfort zone and keep with the pace.”
“I’ve also been trying to build up my VO2 max and that very top end sprint - there are a lot of snaps out of the corners and those accelerations make it more punchy than your standard road race.”
Still, with his background staunchly heavy in road and track, Vaughan remains a relatively new entrant to the world for gravel: “I only bought a gravel bike early this year, a Specialized Diverge second-hand - just thought I’d try something a little different.
“To be honest, I don’t do much training on it - it feels a little weird compared to a road bike! I made a load of changes to the bike yesterday, tweaking the saddle position and so on. Really, I didn’t give enough time adapting to the bike.”
“But it felt good out on the course and it helps that in our group we had a lot of experienced riders and experienced mountain bikers - we had a cross-country marathon champ in there - so it’s just nice being able to trust the wheel in front.”
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After winning the 2019 National Single-Speed Cross-Country Mountain Biking Championships and claiming the plushie unicorn (true story), Stefan swapped the flat-bars for drop-bars and has never looked back.
Since then, he’s earnt his 2ⁿᵈ cat racing licence in his first season racing as a third, completed the South Downs Double in under 20 hours and Everested in under 12.
But his favourite rides are multiday bikepacking trips, with all the huge amount of cycling tech and long days spent exploring new roads and trails - as well as histories and cultures. Most recently, he’s spent two weeks riding from Budapest into the mountains of Slovakia.
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