I wasn’t looking for a new cycling love but that’s usually when it finds you, right?
! Not sure if it was the vastness of the tall grass prairie that stretched as far as the eye could see, the punchy little green hills that rolled off into the horizon or the chunks of menacing flint that littered the roads, but it was love at first ride when I first set tires on it. I’m talking about Kansas gravel, endless miles of it, and I fell head over wheels for it ever since that fateful day back in 2013 when I did my first Unbound 200, considered by many to be the toughest gravel race in the world.
The gravel phenomena has been sweeping across the United States, and other parts of the world, for the past decade or so, and my passion for flint was further flamed when I won the 2015 Unbound — one marked by the worst conditions in the race’s history and came down to a two-up sprint. A sprint between me and a kid 20 years my junior named Michael Sencenbaugh.
These days though, with the influx of a younger, faster crowd of racers, many of whom had prior careers as WorldTour riders, the fact that I now could carry an AARP card (UK explanation: be part of a retirement association) means that I’m less relevant at the front end of things, but that hasn’t diminished my excitement for gravel riding, racing and the sports overall wellbeing.
Speaking of growth, and in case you hadn’t heard cycling’s governing body, the UCI — the proverbial “Red Coats/British”— are coming for gravel. In an historical sense I guess I’m a bit like Paul Revere, who came blazing through villages on his steed, warning that the British soldiers were approaching to take their lands. Instead of British soldiers, it’s the UCI, who has its sights set firmly on entering the USA gravel scene, in an attempt, as seen by some, to throw their weight around a little bit.
This year we saw the debut of the UCI Gravel World Series, a season-long series of mass-participation races which will culminate in the first-ever UCI Gravel World Championships. I’m all for getting more butts on bikes, I just don’t believe the UCI and their elite level series is the vehicle to do it.
My intent is not to be divisive and I’m well aware that my thoughts on this topic could be polarizing, but I’m going to say them anyway. I’ve done two cycling “world championship” events over the past 20 years, neither of which was sanctioned by USA Cycling or the UCI.
If you’ve ever been to a Single Speed Mountain Bike World Championship, you know that the event is more of a costume contest than a bike race, not to say that there haven’t been some really fast pros over the years who have ended up winning the coveted tattoo. If the UCI came in and announced a sanctioned single speed world championship, I know that it wouldn’t motivate me to attend since my participation is based more on the whole experience, not just the race experience. Unless of course they had a separate costume category — though I’d doubt that.
And in case you haven’t been paying attention, Gravel Worlds already exists and has been quite successful without the “help” of any governing body, although the UCI did make them change their logo. I attended Gravel Worlds in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2015, where my day on the bike was highly competitive yet still rooted in the family vibe and spirit of the whole event. While it is a competition, for 99% of the participants at gravel events, it’s more about the camaraderie and the completion, which are two of the driving factors that still motivate me to attend gravel events all over the world.
I’m aware that my age and the transitional phase I’m going through as a professional bike racer are heavily skewing my thoughts here, but at the end of the day I don’t think chasing rainbow stripes will motivate that many folks in the gravel scene. Based on my near-decade long love affair with gravel, the UCI’s entry into the gravel space does not alarm me as much as Paul Revere was of the British soldiers' advance. As four-time Unbound winner Dan Hughes put it, ”I don’t think the UCI understands what gravel is about. There are like 10 people in the world that will care who the UCI Gravel World Champ is. Everyone else wants to toe the line, challenge themselves, and live to tell the tale over beer. That’s the real spirit of gravel.”
The last thing I want to do here is step on anyone's gravel spirit, so by all means, if rainbow stripes motivate you, go for it. If the UCI’s new series helps grow the gravel base and doesn’t only focus on the elite side of things, I do think their entry could be really positive; however, they have no proven track record of supporting cyclists of all levels. One of the best developments in gravel currently is the hard push towards equity and parity rather than a focus on elite competition. Events like SBT GRVL, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Mid-South, Unbound, Rooted, and Gravel Worlds (apologies to all the events I’ve forgotten) have all invested heavily in being more inclusive, creating more race categories, and creating a space for all bodies.
There are three things that concern me most about the UCI’s entry into the gravel space:
1) The possibility that marquee pros, who often draw participants to events, will choose to chase the stripes, or that their sponsors will ask them to attend these events and therefore opt out of existing events;
2) Sponsorship dollars, which are already stretched thin, being pulled in other directions, possibly putting more grassroots gravel events at a financial disadvantage;
3) An already crowded race calendar gets even more packed, forcing riders to make some hard choices when there are date conflicts.
It will be interesting to see what happens to gravel, and its continued growth, in the next few years. I, for one, think it has a very bright future. But the UCI doesn’t have anything to offer the gravel community that It doesn’t already have (except subpar insurance and a points system that is irrelevant to a majority of gravel race participants).
The spirit of gravel has its foundation solidly built on events like Trans Iowa, Unbound, Mid-South, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Gravel Worlds
, and a host of other dynamic events that keep popping up all over the United States that are more about community, camaraderie , and personal challenge than they are about the actual competition.
This means that I don’t need to sound the alarm too loudly and hop on my steed like Paul Revere to warn you of the UCI’s approach because, at the end of the day, we already have a healthy calendar of grassroots, unsanctioned events that are thriving due to their focus on inclusivity.
Hey UCI, I wish you well, but we’re going to keep on keepin’ on over here.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1