Preview: The inaugural and unique UCI Gravel World Championships

Men and women won’t race side-by-side but amateurs and pros will, plus any style bike is allowed

Strade Bianche. Mathieu van der Poel
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The dust has barely begun to gather on the Wollongong road course, and already the rainbow fever continues, this time in Italy for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships.

An unofficial Gravel Worlds has been held annually in Nebraska, USA, for the past 12 years, but last year, the UCI decided it wanted a slice of the popular gravel pie as well. At the start of 2022, the UCI debuted a 12-event UCI Gravel World Series and announced the first-ever UCI Gravel World Championships, where an ‘official’ rainbow jersey —instead of a pirate sword— will be on offer. 

In an interview with Cycling Weekly, the man tasked with UCI’s foray into gravel, Erwin Vervecken, revealed that the UCI doesn’t necessarily expect its Gravel World Championships to be an overnight success. 

“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," he said.

Still, the excitement is bubbling as many noteworthy names sign up for a chance at the first-ever gravel rainbow jersey this weekend, including the likes of Peter Sagan, Nikki Terpstra, Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Sina Frei and Sofia Villafañe Gomez. 

Here’s what to expect.

Racing across Italy's white roads

Racing across Italy's white roads

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When & Where 

For its first two editions, the UCI Gravel World Championships will be held in Venteo, Italy. 

The first edition will take place October 8 & 9, 2022. 

The second edition will take place September 30 and October 1st, 2023.

Race Day Schedules

Saturday, October 8, 2022:

12:00 p.m.  Women elites

12.15 p.m. – Men 50-54 and 55-59

12.20 p.m. – Women 19-34 

12.25 p.m. – Women 35-39

12.30 p.m. – Women 40-44

12.35 p.m. – Men 60+ combined

12.40 p.m. – Women 45+ combined

Sunday, October 9, 2022: 

11.00 a.m. – Men elites

11.10 a.m – Men 19-34

11.15 a.m – Men 35-39

11.20 a.m – Men 40-44

11.25 a.m – Men 45-49

Peter Sagan Fondo

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What: Gravel racing for pros and amateur alike

At the heart, gravel riding is about exploring new places and traversing across the (unpaved) roads less travelled. As a race discipline, it’s characterized by its mostly unpaved and often challenging terrain, long distances, self-sufficiency and soloist nature. 

The UCI, however, seems to be easing folks into this new frontier of off-road racing with shorter courses than what we’ve grown accustomed to at American races and the terrain appears to be quite untechnica as well, requiring little more than a robust winter tire. What’s more,unlike most existing gravel races, the elite men and women will be competing separately and for different distances. 

"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,” Vervecken told Cycling Weekly. 

And this perhaps what makes this UCI World Championships most unusual: the pros and amateurs will be competing side-by-side. 

Unlike the common race program of men’s and women’s juniors, U23 and elite categories, the UCI Gravel World Championships will be broken up in age categories and an ‘open’ Elite category. 

Only riders belonging to any UCI registered team and/or those who have been selected by their National federations can take part in the open category.

National cycling federations are given 20 spaces for their best men and women elite racers, while amateur racers have had the chance to qualify on their own all season long at the UCI Gravel World Series events.

Over the past year, twelve UCI Gravel World Series events have been held the world over where riders who finished inside the top 25 percent of their age group scored themselves an entry to the World Championships. Professional and elite riders don’t need to qualify and will instead be selected by their national federations.

The age groups categories may be on course at the time of the open races, but they’ll be scored separately. The UCI says that the age group categories are mainly reserved for amateurs and masters riders. 

UCI Gravel World Championships - long course

(Image credit: UCI)

The Courses:

The event will have three courses on offer: 140km, 166km and 194km. All races start in Vicenza, travel alongside the Bacchiglione river, and finish in the mediaeval walled city of Cittadella.

The majority of the courses will be spent on the typical Italian “white roads”, made famous by the Strade Bianche, and also feature some cobbles, some coarse gravel and fast asphalt.

All riders will have to contend with two hills in the first 20 kilometers but the majority of the course is relatively flat as it travels alongside the river. 

The short course:

After the initial climbing coming out of the city, the race turns pretty darn flat; there’s a total of just 700 meters of climbing spread over the 140-kilometer course. The race has 32% unpaved roads, 24% hard gravel, 1% cobbles, 10% hard surface and 31% asphalt.

All women’s categories including the elite race, as well as all men’s categories ages 50 through 69 will contest this 140-kilometer course.

The longer courses:

The men’s elite field is the only race to cover the long course, which is the same course as the 140-kilometer one but adds two additional circuits of 27 kilometers around Cittadella at the end for a total of 194 kilometers with 800 meters of climbing. The race has 36% unpaved roads, 18% hard gravel, 1% cobbles, 17% hard surface and 27% asphalt.

The 166-kilometer medium length course will be contested by the men’s age categories 19 through 49 and will consist of the same main course with a single lap around Cittadella. Their total elevation on the day will be around 750 meters.

Ashton Lambie's Lauf Steigla

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

The Equipment

For this inaugural event, the UCI will allow “any style of bike,” as long as it doesn’t contain a motor of any kind —e-bikes are not permitted!— or any aerobar extensions.

Outside of the predetermined feed and help zones, no mechanical assistance is provided to the riders, who will therefore carry their own spares and flat repair essentials. Well help may be received, no bike changes will be allowed. The rider must finish on the frame he or she used at the start.

Initial reports from sources on site tell us that the course is more of a “mixed road” terrain rather than the rocky gravel courses we’ve come to expect from races like Unbound and SBT Gravel in the U.S., or even The Rift in Iceland and FNLD GRVL in Finland

Riders are coming from all disciplines of racing and toggling between riding gravel-specific and cyclocross bikes as tire isn’t much of a concern here. Riders tell us that 32mm tires, which are narrower even than a cyclocross race tire, will do the job just fine. 

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Contenders:

Top pros across disciplines are converging on Veneto, including WorldTour roadies, gravel privateers, cyclocrossers and xc mountain bikers. 

You can read the full start lists here, and be sure to keep an eye out for these race favorites:

Mathieu van der Poel, will make his first race appearance since the debacle in Australia. The 27-year-old, cross-discipline superstar will be making his gravel racing debut with fun at the center of his ambitions. 

"We are writing a bit of history on Sunday," Van der Poel said in a press statement. "For me my very first gravel race in my career. Although it is not completely new. I trained on the gravel bike for the first time today and it feels like something between road racing and cyclo-cross…It's mainly fun to be there. And if the feeling is okay on Sunday, we will obviously do our best to get the best possible result."

Three-time former world champion Peter Sagan is no stranger to gravel however. He competed at the 100-mile Unbound race in June, and made it look easy. The Slovakian told Cycling Weekly that he plans to compete in Italy in order to “give back to the people” that have supported him throughout his illustrious career including some of his sponsors Specialized, Sportful and 100% sunglasses. 

Sagan’s teammate and a racer with perhaps more serious grave ambitions, Nikki Terpstra, will be lining up after having contested several of the Gravel World Series events. The former Paris-Roubaix winner recently announced his retirement from road racing but his cycling aspirations, especially in the gravel disciplines, remain. 

Former Tour of Britain-winner turned gravel pro, Nathan Haas, will also be joining the stacked field. The Australian has been chasing gravel races across the globe, and showcasing beautiful custom Colnago bikes along the way

Rumor has it that former three-time cyclocross world champion Zdenek Stybar will be joining in on the fun as well. An expert off-road cyclist, Stybar started his road career in 2011 and notched some noticeable results including wins at Omloop het Nieuwsblad, three stages in the Tour de France, Strade Bianche, and two second places at Paris-Roubiax. In one of those races, he’d lost to Greg van Avermeat who, incidentally, is also rumored to contest the elite men’s race on Sunday. 

EF Education EasyPost’s Alex Howes will be leading the American contingent alongside women’s race favorite Lauren de Crescenzo —already the current unofficial Gravel World champion

Known as a strong soloist, Lauren de Crescenzo was second at this year’s US National Road Championships as well as the 200-mile Unbound, and she won the incredibly tough Gila Stage Race. In 2021 she won Unbound, SBT GRVL, Gravel Worlds and Rad Dirt Fest all in one season. She’ll surely be one to watch come Saturday. 

But fierce competition will come from the likes of superstar Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. The French woman will be chase her fourth rainbow jersey of the season (!) after already  becoming world champion in short track, cross country and marathon mountain biking. And the Italians have brought an entire six-rider team, spearheaded by Paris Roubaix and former Strade Bianche winner, Elisa Longo Borghini.

And then there are Unbound winner and current Life Time Grand Prix leader, Sofia Villafañe Gomez (Argentina), Swiss pro mountain biker Sina Frei, gravel-loving Australian World Tour pro Tiffany Cromwell, and Americans Sarah Sturm and Lauren Stephens. The latter will be competing in her third back-to-back world championships after the road and marathon mountain bike world championships this past month. 

How to Watch

FloBikes will have live coverage of the event. The broadcast will stream both days live and will be available for replay as well. The exact time of the live broadcast has yet to be announced.

GCN+ and Eurobike will also be live streaming the elite women's race on Saturday and the elite men's race on Sunday.

Anne-Marije Rook
North American Editor

Cycling Weekly's North American Editor, Anne-Marije Rook is old school. She holds a degree in journalism and started out as a newspaper reporter — in print! She can even be seen bringing a pen and notepad to the press conference.

Originally from The Netherlands, she grew up a bike commuter and didn't find bike racing until her early twenties when living in Seattle, Washington. Strengthened by the many miles spent darting around Seattle's hilly streets on a steel single speed, Rook's progression in the sport was a quick one. As she competed at the elite level, her journalism career followed, and soon she became a full-time cycling journalist. She's now been a cycling journalist for 11 years.