In the past few weeks, gravel racing has very much come of age with the staging of a genuinely valid UCI World Championship race. And much like with just about everything else in life, that maturity comes at the potential expense of youthful exuberance and certain freedoms, and it is often laden with order and rules – but does it have to be that way?
There are so many scenarios in life where three letters carry a mix of respect, fear and inevitability. In cycling, all of those follow with the official branding of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body for cycling. However, in fairness, it would be better termed as the official IOC-recognised organisation that controls the competitive side of cycling. That side has little relevance or direct impact for the majority of non-competitive cyclists; those who do not hold a racing license or membership issued by a UCI-affiliated national cycling organisation, such as British Cycling.
Much like the early days of cross-country mountain biking, the sport essentially took off in the USA and then flourished in Europe. And when things began to take off the UCI took over in terms of governance, and, back in 1990, the first-ever official UCI Mountain Bike World Championships were held in Durango, Colorado.
Before that legendary race there had been unofficial MTB World Championships held in both the USA and Europe, and the Durango race was followed by the surprisingly early 1996 Olympic inclusion of cross-country mountain biking. The status and official recognition of the sport changed dramatically within a few years, both for the better and worse, depending on which side of the tape you were sitting on.
With the evolution of gravel bike racing to official UCI World Championship status, it could appear as a case of déjà vu, only with lessons having been learned from the past. Although apparently, they are mostly being heeded by the major gravel event organisers in the US and elsewhere. These established organisations with a strong enough repute and community to be able to thrive without the costs and uniformity that inevitably come with the UCI system, which is something that many of the early classic mountain bike races were unable to do, unfortunately.
2023-uci-gravel-world-championships-matej-mohoric-picture-thomas-maheux-swpixcom-c-swpixcom-t_0.jpeg, by Liam Mercer
Many older mountain bikers still lament those unruly and epic early days of the sport; a time when it was all about the ride, the challenge, the taking part, having fun (and about the results for some). This is understandable – after all, we all strive to hold on to that golden era of life, but sadly progress and evolution wait for no biker.
However, with the benefit of hindsight and learning there is no reason (at this stage) why many of the major gravel events should, or would, need to join the UCI system. Plus, at the end of the day, it is important to realise that the majority of the thousands of riders lining up for these races are not there aiming to score UCI points or to race for a top 10 place; much like the early mountain bikers they are there for something far bigger, and far more attainable – and for the sheer hell of being a part of something fresh.
2023 UCI World Gravel Championships Italy SWPix15.jpg, by SWpix.com
A divided future?
At this stage of the gravel evolution, there is no reason why the existing gravel classics and the evolving UCI Series and World Championships should or could not co-exist in dusty harmony, although just how long that situation will last is to be determined.
Let’s hope that the powers that be, or that choose to be, recognise that the sport (of cycling in general, not just gravel) is not just about the tiny elite end of the field – behind them are the masses, the numbers that under-peg the whole sport.
What many will hope is that there isn’t a similar uniformity applied to gravel racing that there has been with cross-country mountain bike racing and that things such as pits, outside support and race radios don’t enter the fray.
2023 UCI World Gravel Championships Italy SWPix10.jpg, by SWpix.com
The future of the dedicated gravel pro?
Looking back to the early days of mountain biking, the sport was dominated by a band of bold American racers, although an influx of serious-minded and elite European road, cyclo-cross, and newly dedicated mountain bikers soon changed the American rule of the roost, and very few of the pre-UCI legends made the new higher-level Eurocentric grade. Will we see the same with gravel racing?
The current list of dedicated gravel pros is quite the mix; from semi-retired road pros to younger riders who have grown into gravel from mountain biking and road racing to the more extreme ultra bike packing riders, and yet when it came down to the UCI title bout the races they were, unsurprisingly, dominated by WorldTour pro road racers, except for American Keegan Swenson, who finished a superb fifth in the race.
2023 UCI world champs crowd, by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
There was a lot of angst at the World Championship start gridding, where top road pros were given the front slots ahead of many of the dedicated gravel pros, many of whom had earned their points for those slots. We have also seen such issues in other cycling disciplines in the recent past, too, and in shorter course races where that flying start is crucial.
This was a tad less important and less impactful in the long-distance gravel title race (even if the opening kilometres were hectic); it was perhaps more of a respect issue for those who had earned the right to be at the front of the grid.
On the race track itself it was and will still be tough for a dedicated gravel pro to match a WorldTour road pro when it comes to sheer engine power. These riders, both male and female, are at the physical pinnacle of endurance cycling, and they have gotten there through years of intense training topped with very high-end and heavy racing schedules, which raise their performance capability to the point that a rider racing mostly gravel only would struggle to attain; they simply do not have the classics and grand tours in their legs, and that makes a huge difference when the going gets tough.
For the gravel pros, there is still plenty to go at – especially if the major gravel races remain independent, which will mean that fewer major pro road teams and riders are likely to target them, as they would not carry the all-important UCI points they need to thrive.
In recent years many pro road teams have woken, or rather been awoken to the benefits of taking on riders who can cross the various cycling disciplines, and gravel gains prominence which is something which will no doubt increase.
It is known that major pro road teams have courted gravel specialists in the past (such as Colin Strickland) but the riders have thus far elected to stick with the independent and dreamy nomadic lifestyle of the US gravel racing scene, and few could blame them for choosing this over the strict and harsh rigours of life as a pro road racer in Europe.
Over the next couple of years, it would not be at all surprising if we see some of the younger gravel pros signing for the major road teams, with some kind of pre-nuptial agreement that will allow them to focus a certain amount on gravel, and we could also see some young road pros deciding that they would also like a slice of the gravel pie hedged into their contracts. This mix is something that would make perfect sense to the more open-minded management systems within road cycling, and even more so to team sponsors.
Overall things are looking quite rosy for the near future of gravel racing, both in terms of the major existing events remaining independent and staying true to their ideals, and for the future of the elite and UCI World Championship and series.
That said, as it stands it’s hard to see many of the dedicated gravel racers breaking the road pro stronghold on the top World Championship slots without joining their ranks, or at least in part – which we will most likely see happening sooner rather than later.
A gravel convert’s view – Laurens ten Dam
From long-time grand tour contender to born-again gravel adventurer, the lanky and likeable Dutchman, Laurens ten Dam, has seen the gore and glory of both road and gravel racing at the highest level, and for the past years has been focusing on the major US gravel races, and he was also on the start line for the recent UCI World Championships, so who better to give an overall view than the man himself.
What are your feelings and thoughts about the UCI gravel worlds compared to the big US and other gravel events?
It is different to what I am used to in the USA, but hey, when everyone has fun on the bike why bother? I loved to see that gravel is booming like that in Europe.
What did you think about the gridding system and putting the road pros at the front in the race?
To me, that was not a big problem. After all, they’re also boys who like to race bikes. When you’re strong you will be there in the final.
Do you see the WorldTour teams and riders starting to take gravel more seriously?
Yes, I think so. I was on the road with Florian Vermeersch for two weeks, and he seemed to enjoy it. So I think people will follow him in the coming years
Do you think the dedicated gravel pros will ever be able to compete against WorldTour pros in the UCI Championships?
I would say yes. The WorldTour pros had an advantage with the snappy racing, which they are used to every week. I wasn’t (laughs). But, maybe it will be on a long course somewhere in the future (which will even the odds out).
The future of gravel – do you think the big events will and should keep themselves away from the UCI, and will we ever see the big road guys racing non-UCI races (apart from those who have already)?
The events in the USA are big enough to stand on their own. Still, it would be nice if one of the longer events is one of the World Cup or World Championships events. But then the UCI has to step back from the format and run that one race as the “American Special” or something.
[Words by Steve Thomas]
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