Could Niki Terpstra be the first Gravel World Champion?

A look into the UCI's first foray into gravel racing with 2022 UCI Gravel World Series and UCI Gravel World Championships, and who's racing them.

Niki Terpstra racing in Wevelgem, belgium on gravel
(Image credit: Getty images)

If we build it, they will come. That’s the hope of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Gran Fondo manager, Erwin Vervecken, in the creation of the UCI Gravel World Series and the UCI Gravel World Championships.

The three-time former world cyclocross champion has been keeping a close eye on the world-wide popularity of gravel events, and made the case for UCI’s involvement back in 2019 at their end of the season debriefing. 

The new Gravel World Series is based on the UCI Gran Fondo World Series, which has been successfully held since 2011. But unlike Gran Fondos, the Gravel World Series is open to current professional riders.

Two weeks ago, TotalEnergies rider Nikki Terpstra won his first foray into gravel racing at the UCI Gravel World Series race held in Millau, France. Vervecken said it’s riders like Terpstra who are likely to be the most interested in UCI gravel racing. 

“Nikki is 38 years old and has had a good career on the road. But maybe he doesn’t have the punch anymore for races like the Tour of Flanders. He does a lot of training on gravel and was invited by his team to do the first qualifier and he really loved it,” Vervecken said in an interview with Cycling Weekly. 

Terpstra isn’t the only rider from TotalEnergies experimenting with gravel, Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss recently rode the 100-mile distance at Unbound Gravel in the U.S. earlier in June.

The UCI is betting that some of the biggest names in road racing will want to compete for a rainbow jersey in gravel. “Hopefully we can attract racers like Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar. It will probably take a few years, but the Gravel World Championships will be at the end of the road season so for them, it’s a fun event at the end of a busy season,” said Vervecken. 

There are 12 qualifying races that make up the Gravel World Series calendar and a World Championship at the end of the season. Of the qualifying races, seven are in Europe, two in America, one in the Philippines and two in Australia. 

Only amateur riders will need to qualify for the World Championships. They’ll need to finish inside the top 25 percent of their age group at a qualifying race for a chance to compete for a rainbow jersey. Professional and elite riders don’t need to qualify and will instead be selected by their national federations which are given 20 spaces for men and women each. Vervecken emphasized that the number of spots will be reviewed in future years. 

The 2022 and 2023 UCI Gravel World Championships will both take place in Italy. The premiere UCI Gravel World Championships are slated for October 8 and 9, 2022 in the northeastern region of Veneto.

The date for the 2023 edition will be held on 30 September and 1st October 2023, but the location remains unconfirmed.

Peter Sagan is the latest WorldTour rider to dabble in gravel racing as he rode the 100-mile event at Unbound Gravel

Peter Sagan is the latest WorldTour rider to dabble in gravel racing as he rode the 100-mile event at Unbound Gravel.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Vervecken said that he doesn’t expect the World Championships to be an overnight success and pointed to the single day classic, Strade Bianche, as an example.

“It’s a new concept, we still have to prove ourselves, it will take a few years, probably three to five. It just takes time. It was the same way with Stade Bianche as a Classic. The first few years there was not a lot of interest, and then [Fabian] Cancellera participated and because of the special course, the epic circumstances, it was an instant Classic.”

America already has a de facto gravel calendar of endurance races that are often more than 200 kilometers. UCI events, by contrast, are significantly shorter races, in the range of 100-130 kilometers. This will mean much higher intensity racing.

“The difference between the big [gravel] classics in the States and the UCI Gravel World Series is that our races are shorter. We don’t want to do 200 miles, that’s too long. It should be more or less four or five hours. I wouldn’t say short, but not extreme like the U.S. races because you filter out a lot of leisure riders which we want to have as part of the Series,” said Vervecken. The first qualifying race in France was 130km and the next race in Poland is only 110km. 

When asked if he thought races like Unbound or SBT GRVL could become part of the series, Vervecken was skeptical. 

“Established events already have their participant base, most of them are sold out. So do they need us? Probably not. It’s only a matter of prestige if they want to be a part of the Gravel World Series. We’re open to talk to them but I don’t expect them to get in touch with us soon, maybe in a few years.” 

The goal of the UCI series is for it to be accessible, and to that end, any type of bike is allowed, except for those equipped with aerobars, which has become a bit of a controversial topic in U.S. gravel races as well. 

“Aerobars are forbidden in UCI road events, gravel events are actually more like road races on gravel surfaces than being related to mountain bike or cyclocross. A lot of them will be ridden in large groups so for sure, aerobars are forbidden,” said Verwecken.

Vervecken expects UCI gravel races to evolve towards road races, but admits that his experience in gravel is limited. 

“The more professional gravel becomes, the more tactics and teamwork happens. But it’s new to me. It seems like the bigger events in the U.S. are like road races on unpaved surfaces,” said Vervecken. 

Vervecken also expects the Gravel World Series will be good for the bike industry. “Many riders have a mountain bike, a road bike, maybe a cyclocross bike, this new gravel thing also requires a special bike,” said Vervecken. 

For amateur racers the first age category spans 15 years (19-34) and then separates in five-year increments after that, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49 and so on.

The 2022 Trek UCI Gravel World Series calendar is as follows: 

  • 3 Apr 2022: UCI Gravel Philippines, Bongabon, Nueva Ecija (PHI)
  • 15 May 2022: Seven, Nannup (AUS)
  • 5 Jun 2022: Wish One Gravel Race, Millau (FRA)
  • 18 Jun 2022: Gravel Adventure, Swieradow-Zdroj (POL)
  • 25 Jun 2022: Highlands Gravel Classic, Fayetteville (USA)
  • 6 Aug 2022: Jingle GX Gravel Race, Amana (USA)
  • 20 Aug 2022: Gravel Grit n Grind, Halmstad (SWE)
  • 27 Aug 2022: Houffa Gravel, Houffalize (BEL)
  • 3 Sep 2022: La Monsterrato-Strade Bianche Monferrato, Quattordio (ITA)
  • 4 Sep 2022: Gravelista, Beechworth (AUS)
  • 17 Sep 2022: Gravel One Fifty, Veenhuizen (NED)
  • 18 Sep 2022: Ranxo, Ponts (ESP)

The Gravel World Championships, while yet unannounced, should follow in late September or October.

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