Bike racing's newest frontier: as gravel racing defines itself, these riders are leading the charge

These early adopters are now carving out a unique professional cycling career and defining it for generations to come

Gravel Week Heroes
(Image credit: Future)

Modern gravel racing was born in the Midwest. Lonely farm roads, rolling jeep tracks, stream crossings and long ol’ days in the saddle. Early editions of these races set a precedent for new kinds of adventure-based, mass-participant free-form challenges on bikes. Gravel races are Gran Fondo's slightly funkier cousins. Gravel is often described as the “mullet style” of bike racing: business upfront, party at the back. But the truth is, gravel racing’s essence is diverse and doesn’t like being pinned down. 

There are some themes though. In gravel, riders manage the terrain, the elements, their equipment, fueling and effort over mostly unpaved surfaces, and usually, the first one back to town wins. 

Characters like Dan Hughes and Kristi Mohn helped set the framework for a sport that would become known for its welcoming, come-as-you-are atmosphere where individual accomplishment is shared in community. Modern gravel racing is less than 20 years old, its traditions and foundations are being shaped by promoters and participants alike while we watch the emerging broadcasts. 

Women, men and non-binary athletes come together on the same courses. Everyone journeys through highs and lows as they navigate a multidimensional day on the bike. Whether it’s a mid-race Coke, a tire plug or a change in mindset, riders have to find ways to overcome different challenges. Winning is mostly about avoiding major mistakes and not tapping out. 

A combination of product innovations, declining popularity in traditional road cycling and a thirst for adventure (perhaps spurred on by the pandemic), has set the genre ablaze. 

As the sport has grown, race dynamics have changed. At the finish of Unbound earlier this month, Australian Cameron Wurth of Ineos Grenadiers, said elite gravel racers are already in a league of their own.

On the men’s side, no longer is it about the 'lone rangers crossing the prairie'. An infusion of skill and horsepower has led to pack dynamics. Result sheets have mostly been dominated by former WorldTour domestiques turned gravel experts. They rely on massive endurance bases, keen handling skills and a new, distinctly non-WorldTour approach to their training and racing. And some make quite the living doing so

On the women’s side, top road racers and mountain bikers are meeting in the middle with gravel racing. Sophia Gomez Villafane is proving that mountain bikers can win even the longest gravel races. 

Pure roadies like Lauren de Crescenzo or two-time time trail world champion Amber Neben may have the biggest engines out there, but they're being challenged to keep improving their off-road handling skills if they wish to outpace Gomez-Villafane in races with adverse conditions or especially technical terrain. 

Because of the mass-start format, women and men ride together. Rules around teamwork in those situations are murky. Women tend to separate as they ride into different groups of men. Recent Belgian Waffle Ride, Asheville winner Sarah Max described her front-of-the-race riding style as competitive but classy. 

All of this is taking shape as we watch on, so let's meet the riders who are leading the charge and stamping their names all over cycling's newest frontier. 

Top Men

Ian Boswell

(Image credit: Anne-Marije Rook // Future)

 Age: 31
Hometown:
Peacham, Vermont, USA
Top gravel results:
1st Unbound Gravel, 2nd SBT GVL 2021 

Ian Boswell was quietly one of the strongest domestiques in the WorldTour peloton. After five seasons with Team Sky, the Oregon-native reached his life goal of racing the Tour de France with Katusha-Alpecin in 2018. A traumatic brain injury in 2019 cut his WorldTour career short and Boswell transitioned to gravel racing in 2021. Boswell took the overall win at Unbound and was a close second at last year’s SBT GRVL. He finished third at Unbound earlier this month and said he was more proud of his ride this year than his win in 2021. Despite Boswell’s success, he has repeatedly reiterated that he is retired from professional racing and choosing to race gravel for fun.  

Laurens ten Dam

Laurens ten Dam

(Image credit: LSRF)

Age: 41
Hometown: Bedum, The Netherlands
Top gravel results: 2nd Unbound Gravel 2021, 1st at Gravel Locos 2021, 4th Unbound 2022.

Laurens ten Dam is a former top ten finisher at the Tour de France and known for his toughness on the bike. This year at Unbound, he was off the front, then off the back. At the last checkpoint, with 36 miles of racing to go, ten Dam was three minutes behind the front pack and was able to make it all the way back to vie for the win. Despite his age, ten Dam is finding that he’s still able to produce huge power for long hours. He reportedly averaged over 300 watts on his way to a fourth place ride at Unbound this year — a 9.5 hour race! Ten Dam described the performance there as the best ride of his life.

Peter Stetina

Two-time winner Peter Stetina lines up at the Belgian Waffle Ride

(Image credit: Freddie Jimenez // Canyon Bicycles )

Age: 34
Hometown: Santa Rosa, California
Top gravel results: Two-time winner of the Belgian Waffle Ride

Scrappy, opportunistic, survivalist. Peter Stetina’s spirit animal is the raccoon and jokes that he races like one. The Californian is yet another WorldTour rider gone gravel privateer, and is fresh off a victory at Belgian Waffle Ride, Asheville. Stetina’s first big win in the alt-surface genre was in 2019 at Belgian Waffle Ride, San Diego, while he was still racing for his WorldTour team, Trek-Segafredo. Stetina has consistently ridden himself onto podiums with a notable second and third place at Unbound Gravel in 2019 and 2021. Stetina was also third last year at SBT GRVL. He criss-crosses the country in a custom wrapped van complete with his now signature raccoon paw prints. 

Ivar Slik

Dutchman Ivar Slik wins Unbound

(Image credit: Life Time)

Age: 29
Hometown: Utrecht, The Netherlands
Top gravel results: 1st at Unbound Gravel 2022, 2nd Gravel Locos 2022 

Silk is new to gravel but he's taking the genre by storm. In Unbound in June, Silk out-sprinted an elite group of five to take the overall win in the 200-mile race, becoming the first non-American to win the prestigious event. Previously I May, the Dutchman also powered to a second place finish at Gravel Loco’s in Hilco, Texas, as part of a so-called 'American Campaign'. 

Inspired by Laurens ten Dam, Slik told Cycling Weekly that he choose the gravel route because it suits him, a former mountain biker, better than road racing. He's part of a group of Dutch pros now being called the 'Dutch Mafia' for infiltrating the pro gravel scene In America. 

Slik tackled his America tour with the use of 3D-printed aerobars from his sponsor, Wilier. Aerobars have  become a hot topic amongst many of the sport’s top racers. While they have roots in gravel racings beginnings, many pro riders now argue that emerging pack dynamics make riding with them unsafe. Race promoters in the U.S. have yet to put restrictions on the use of aerobars though the UCI did confirm that they won’t be allowing them in their new UCI World Series of Gravel nor the UCI Gravel World Championships.  

Ted King

Ted King in action during Stage 4 of the 2015 Tour de San Luis

(Image credit: Watson)

Age: 39
Hometown: Richmond, Vermont
Top gravel results: 1st SBT GVL 2019, 1st Unbound Gravel 2016, 2018 

Ted King showed his fellow WorldTour riders a viable off-ramp from WorldTour road racing when he retired from Cannondale-Garmin in 2015 and went on to win DK200 (now Unbound Gravel) the following year. King won the race again in 2018 and took the inaugural victory at SBT GRVL in 2019. After a racing hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, King proved he was still one of fastest gravel racers in the scene with a gritty fourth place performance at Unbound in 2021. King fractured his collarbone the previous month and was still able to make the final selection along with eventual winner Ian Boswell, Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina and Colin Strickland. Despite being ready to compete, King didn’t make the start line at Unbound Gravel this year due to the birth of his second child. 

Dan Hughes

Dan Hughes and his son Charles

(Image credit: Life Time)

Age: 53
Hometown: Lawrence, Kansas
Top gravel result: 1st Unbound Gravel 2006-2009

Dan Hughes has helped shape the sport of modern gravel racing more than just about anyone. An inductee into the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame, Hughes set a standard for gravel racing after he won the first four editions of DK200 (now Unbound Gravel). Hughes is still the winningest rider in Unbound’s history. He runs a bike shop in his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, called Sunflower Outdoors. More than a shop, it’s a museum of Midwest gravel racing memorabilia, sort of like the Flanders museum in Oudenaarde, BE. 

Honorable mentions

- Chris Skogen. Creator of The Almanzo 100 gravel race, a free gravel race that has been run since 2005. Skogen was inducted into the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame in 2022 for being an innovator in gravel event promotion.

- Bobby Wintle. Avid finish line hugger and promoter of Mid-South Gravel. Also an inductee in the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. 

- Keegan Swenson. Mountain biker, cyclo-cross racer and gravel pro who finished second at Unbound Gravel and is a real contender for the Life Time Grand Prix title.

- Alexey Vermeulen. Former WorldTour neo-pro turned six figure gravel privateer. Vermeulen had devised a diverse multi-discipline calendar and career as a media athlete to great success. He's among the young American defining what it means to be a professional gravel racer. 

Top women

Rebecca "the Queen of Pain" Rusch

(Image credit: Rebecca Rusch)

Age: 53
Hometown:
Ketchum, Idaho
Top gravel results: 1st Unbound Gravel 2012-2014

Rebecca Rusch is the ultimate endurance athlete and icon of the sport. She has first ascents on El Capitan, she’s a seven-time World Champion across endurance disciplines such as Nordic skiing, 24 mountain biking and of course, gravel. Rusch has three Unbound Gravel 200 titles as well as one Unbound XL win in 2018. She's also the author of a book and an award-winning film maker

Earlier this month Rusch was inducted into the inaugural class of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. Rusch hosts a gravel stage race that celebrates the public lands of Idaho called Rebecca’s Private Idaho

Lael Wilcox

(Image credit: North Creative)

Age: 35
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Top gravel result: Unbound XL 2021

Lael Wilcox is the most notable ultra endurance cyclist in the world these days — across genders. Wilcox has a list of accomplishments that simply baffles. The Alaskan set the fastest known time on the Arizona Trail earlier this year, to add to her laundry list of records at basically all of the world's biggest endurance races including Tour Divide, Baja Divide, Trans-Am, and Navad 1,000 just to name a few. Wilcox also won the 350-mile Unbound XL in 2021 and even rode her bike some 600 miles to the start line. 

Next up for Wilcox is the Migration Gravel race in Kenya followed by the Westfjord Way Challenge in Iceland later in the month.  

Sofia Gomez Villafañe

(Image credit: Life Time)

Age: 28
Hometown: Esquel, Argentina
Top gravel result:
Unbound 200 in 2022 

Originally from Argentina, Gomez Villafañe now splits time between Tucson, Arizona and Heber, Utah. Gomez Villafane is one of the biggest names in women’s off-road racing winning Unbound Gravel in a dominant fashion. In fact, she's having quite the breakout season. In March, she and Haley Batten took the win Cape Epic, a grueling eight-day, "hors catégorie" endurance mountain bike stage race. She followed that up with a second place at the Life Time Grand Prix opener, the Sea Otter Fuego 80km mountain bike race in April. The 2020 Tokyo Olympian is on pace to take the overall win at the LifeTime Grand Prix series with two mountain bike races and two gravel races left to go, there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop her. 

Lauren de Crescenzo 

Lauren De Crescenzo comes across the finish line of the 200-mile Unbound race in 2021

(Image credit: Life Time )

Age: 32
Hometown: Broomfield, Colorado
Top gravel results: 1st Unbound 200 in 2021, 1st SBT GRVL in 2021 

Lauren de Crescenzo is one of the fastest female bike racers in the country. After winning both Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL in 2021, De Crescenzo left her full time job at the Center for Disease Control to pursue racing full time. She won Mid-South Gravel in March and took the GC win at the Tour of the Gila (road) in April. The self described “roadie” struggled in the mud at this year’s Unbound Gravel, yet she still managed a second place finish. 

In 2016 De Crescenzo survived a severe traumatic brain injury that left her with a 50/50 chance at living. The incident brought a perspective to her racing where she now see’s pain on the bike as a gift. 

Whitney Allison

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Age: 34
Hometown:
Fort Collins, Colorado
Top gravel results:
4th Unbound Gravel 2022, 1st at Belgian Waffle Ride Utah

A former pro roadie known for her solo breakaway prowess, Whitney Allison consistently finishes In the Top 5 at the country's biggest gravel races. With her large engine, the transition from professional road racing to gravel was instantly successful with back-to-back fourth place finishes at Unbound and fifth at SBT GRVL, and wins at Belgian Waffle Ride and Co2Ut.  
Allison and her husband Alex run Bike Sports, a gravel race team, adventure camp and bike fit operation based in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

Honorable mentions


- Moriah "Mo" Wilson. Tragically, one of the sport's brightest stars, Moriah "Mo" Wilson was killed in May. The 25-year-old was among the most talented and winningest up-and-coming off-road racers in America, and had quit her Specialized job just months prior to pursue bike racing full time. Wilson kicked off the season with two big wins — the Life Time Grand Prix opener and Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego — and was favored to win Gravel Locos and Unbound. There is no telling how far her success may have grown, but at just 25  years old, her star was shining bright. 

- Alison Tetrick. Former WorldTour roadie turned 'Gravel Queen,' Tetrick is one of gravel racing’s most identifiable faces. When she won Unbound at her first appearance in 2017, she was among the first female road racers to become a gravel privateer and carved a pathway for other women racers to follow. 

- Kristi Mohn. As Co-director of Unbound Gravel, few have defined what garvel racing is as Mohn. An inductee of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fames, Mohn is credited for bringing traditionally underrepresented groups into the sport and incresing female riderships. 

- Amy Charity. Charity retired from professional road racing in 2015 and has since embarked on a highly successful path as an event creator. She's the co-founder of SBT GRVL, which in just a few short years has become one of the most successful gravel events in the U.S. Held in the picturesque mountain town of Steamboat, Colorado, SBT GRVL sells out at 3,000 riders and features live race broadcasting and a prize purse of $22,000 USD. Earlier this month it was announced that she's partnering with Formula 1 race car driver Valterri Bottas to produce a gravel event in Finland, titled FNLD GRVL.

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Marshall Opel
Marshall Opel

Marshall is a freelance writer from Missoula, Montana. He road raced throughout the U.S. and Europe with the US U23 National Team. Marshall has worked as a bike tour guide, brand marketer, and promoter of two wheeled stoke. In 2019 he traveled the U.S. racing, riding, and reporting on the sport of gravel. Marshall's aim is to help grow the sport of cycling by telling stories that hold the door open for people to become riders. 

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