The inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships are taking place in Veneto, Italy, this weekend, and for the past month, the internet at large has been criticising and scoffing at the UCI’s entry —or mingling in— gravel racing.
Among the star-studded cast of racers, however, the fight for first-time honors are a serious business.
“The top women's racers in the world are here. And it's the same on the men's side,” reports American Lauren Stephens (EF Education TIBCO- SVB).
By competing on Saturday, Stephens, a former U.S. national road race champion and Unbound 100 winner, is tackling her third back-to-back world championships following the road and marathon mountain bike world championships this past month.
“There's definitely some serious competition and I think every rider that signed up for this is taking it seriously; I mean, it's a rainbow jersey. And I'm going to be fighting for it till the finish.”
Room to grow
The UCI’s first foray into gravel events has been a two-pronged approach consisting of a 12-event UCI Gravel World Series and the inaugural World Championships, contested by both professional bike racers and amateurs at the same time.
The UCI doesn’t expect overnight success but the interest of well-known racers has certainly been encouraging.
“It's a first time event, so I think people don't know what to make of it. But that's what makes it exciting also,” Stephens says.
“There is a group of gravel riders that don’t want the UCI involved [in gravel] and to have all these rules. But in my opinion, this isn’t going to change the established, independent events. They’re going to continue on and this is just another way to bring attention to the sport.
“I make my profession in cycling so anything that brings more attention to the sport is exciting and I want to be a part of it. I definitely think it's gonna take some time, but I do think [UCI gravel racing] will continue to grow.”
The UCI Treatment
The UCI’s approach to the World Championship weekend is quite different from what we’ve come to characterize gravel racing by. Unlike mass starts on the same course, this weekend we’ll see the men’s and women’s elite field race on seperate days and on courses of different distances.
What’s more, unlike the common UCI World Championships race program of men’s and women’s juniors, U23 and elite categories, the UCI Gravel World Championships will be broken up into amateur age categories and an ‘open’ Elite category.
While different, Stephens is not put off by this approach.
“I used to only like the mass starts and I really enjoy racing with the men. But I'm starting to see the benefit of having a women’s only start.I think it's important when there's prize money, a rainbow jersey or something to gain out of it, to separate [men and women’s elite fields]. You’re starting to see enough women competing that it's worth having a women’s start,” she says.
And when asked about the combining of amateur and professionals at one championships, Stephens thinks that riding with the age groupers is actually a plus, not a concern.
“I think it’s cool that the fans are getting to participate in the age group. In our race, the next group starts 10 minutes behind us and so I don't think the front group is going to have any 50+ men mingling in the top end of the race.
“But having them there also means that if it's not my day out there or something happens, there's all these people behind me I can ride with and just have a good day out on the bike. And that's what makes gravel exciting too.”
The Course, the Competition and Tactics
Stephens isn’t the only woman heading into her third world championships of the season. French superstar Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is lining up in search of her fourth rainbow jersey of the season (!) after already becoming world champion in short track, cross country and marathon mountain biking.
Stephens has got the Frenchwoman signled out as the top favorite though she’ll be keeping a close eye on the wheels of Paris Roubaix and former Strade Bianche winner, Elisa Longo Borghini, and Australian gravel-loving Australian World Tour pro, Tiffany Cromwell, as well.
Borghini is spearheading the Italians, which have come out in force in search of home country glory.
“I anticipate the Italians to ride as a unit; they’re here with six riders. They’re staying together, they’re getting support so I could see them using some team tactics,” Stephens predicts.
For those not relying on team tactics, it’s going to take patience and alertness to win the 140-kilometer race, Stephen says.
“It’s about patience and really being focused in the first 30K to make sure you are in that front group, because if you're not in it, I don't think you'll ever see it again.”
Stephens says that terrain wise, the elevation and technical sectors all come in the first 30k of the race. After that, it’s a battle for positioning as the course winds up and over bike paths, country fields and double track.
“It’s like a Classic race without the big roads. I think people are going to ride hard into a section that is singletrack and where no one can pass. There’s going to be splits because of the intensity through those sections. There will be that yoyo effect and eventually that is just going to snap,” Stephens says.
When asked to compare it to anything she’s previously raced in the U.S., Stephens said it’s most similar to the Belgian Waffle Ride events — beside the elevation. Her tires of choice will be the low-profile, semi-slick Vittoria Terreno Zeros in 38mm. Her teammate Emily Newson meanwhile is running the 38mm Vittoria Terreno Dry tires which feature a more aggressive, knobbier tread. Both tire choices are much wider than the initially reported 32’s.
“Before coming out here, we were hearing a lot of comparisons to Strade Bianche. But there’s actually not much of the Strade Bianchi type gravel; it’s more like fields and double track stuff,” Stephens says. “Also, in Strade Bianche, the percentage of gravel to tarmac is like 20% to 80%, where this really doesn’t have much asphalt at all. They say it’s 30% but those (paved) sections are really short and most of those are bike paths.”
It sounds like we might get a proper gravel race after all. If nothing else, it’ll be hotly contested!
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